Jesus says something in [youversion]Matthew 5:17[/youversion] that I have always pondered.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”
Jesus is in the middle of his famous Sermon on the Mount when he says these words. His audience is also Jewish, and this is important to remember. Jesus is about to begin saying things that are going to be shocking to the people listening to him. For some, what he has already said up to this point is shocking. Jesus said “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” [youversion]Matthew 5:11-12[/youversion] That sounds a bit backwards or upside down, so some of his listeners are pondering His words, and some may be struggling with His words.
[youversion]Matthew 5:13-16[/youversion] Jesus then tells his audience that they are salt and light to the world. He is telling the Jewish people what their purpose is and has been. That they are the world’s preservative (salt). And he leaves them a question on this point, hinting that they may have lost their saltiness which makes them essentially good for nothing. Jesus then tells them that they are the ‘light of the world’, that they are to shine their light so that others will give glory to the Father in heaven.
He is essentially telling his Jewish audience that they have failed at showing the world (the gentiles) the one true God. So at this point, it is likely that some people in the audience are a bit perturbed. It is at this point that we have [youversion]Matthew 17-20[/youversion]. Jesus makes it clear that He himself has come to fullfil all that is in the law & the prophets. This phrasing essentially refers to the whole of what we call the Old Testament. A very bold statement. He is claiming to fullfil all of the prophecies as well as to not abolish the laws themselves. This last part is very important because he is getting ready to go into a discussion about anger, lust, divorce, lust, oaths, retaliation, and love that go beyond any law written. His audience knows the law, and they know it well. So, what Jesus is about to say is going to sound extreme.
[youversion]Matthew 5:21-26[/youversion] Jesus claims that even being angry with another person is the same as murder.
[youversion]Matthew 5:27-30[/youversion] Jesus says that lust is the same as adultery.
[youversion]Matthew 5:31-32[/youversion] Jesus says that divorcing for any reason other than sexual immorality causes your ex-spouse to commit adultery when they re-marry, and for their new spouse to also commit adultery.
[youversion]Matthew 5:33-37[/youversion] Jesus says that you should simply say yes or no, rather than pledging oaths on something or on someone. It was common to enhance your ‘yes’ by claiming it in Jerusalem’s name.
[youversion]Matthew 5:38-42[/youversion] Jesus mentioned the concept of an eye for an eye, but says to turn the other cheeck and walk the extra mile rather than retaliating against your enemy.
[youversion]Matthew 5:43-48[/youversion] Jesus tell them to love their enemies!
So, Jesus is turning things upside down. He is challenging his Jewish audience to dig deeper, to look for what we may call the ‘spirit of the law’. Essentially what the law is intending to teach. God’s chosen people had become content with trying to follow the letter of the law rather than following the spirit of the law. Jesus is waking them up! He is letting them know that the law is so much more than the literal words on parchment or the literal words from the religious teacher that is reciting the scriptures. That God has a purpose for the law, and that Jesus himself is going to fulfill that purpose. For those in the audience that grasped what Jesus was getting at this must have been an amazing moment. Some likely questioned Jesus, is he crazy? But, whatever they may have thought Jesus certainly got his audience thinking outside of the box.
So, lets get back to [youversion]Matthew 5:17[/youversion]. I have seen two camps of believers when this verse is interpreted. One is that at the moment that Jesus said these words we were still under the Old Covenant. That after Jesus death and resurrection all of humanity entered into a new age. The age of the New Covenant, which fulfilled all of the Old Testament law. Essentially doing away with the old laws.
Another camp leans towards this verse telling all Christians, Jew & Gentile that they must follow all of the laws found in the Old Testament.
I don’t think either idea is correct. Jesus clearly says that he did not come to abolish the law & the prophets. He even makes it even clearer in [youversion]Matthew 5:18[/youversion] “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Since the heavens nor the earth have passed away the old laws are still valid. So, does this mean that I should go out and start slaughtering goats? Begin honoring the festivals? Stop eating shellfish? It might, if I am Jewish. Jesus audience was Jewish. The laws in the Old Testament were given to the Jewish people and have not been abolished. These laws and traditions were not given to the gentiles.
So, does this mean that gentiles can murder, steal, or commit any other sin you can think of since they were never given ‘the law’ of the Old Testament? Certainly not. Paul goes into a good amount of detail in his letters discussing issues that were happening between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. The Jewish believers were continuing to follow the laws from the Old Testament and many Jewish believers thought the Gentiles should do the same. Some examples Paul mentions are circumcision, foods that could be eaten, and festival celebrations. None of the issue items were moral laws, they were cultural laws. In Acts the early Christians struggled with this issue and in [youversion]Acts 15[/youversion] the Council of Jerusalem came to the conclusion through the Holy Spirit that these cultural laws were not be added as a burden to Gentile believers.
As believers regardless of whether we are Jewish or Gentile we are to follow what the laws were intended for. That is why Jesus takes things beyond what is written in the law. And at the same time, Gentile believers are not to be burdened with the Jewish cultural aspects of the law given to them. The laws in the Old testament are God’s laws given to His chosen people, Israel. Jew & Gentile believers alike would be wise to meditate on the law and learn from it, because it has not been abolished and it will not pass away until this world is gone.