“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20, NASB.)
Christians seem to have many different opinions about the relationship between followers of Jesus and the Old Testament law.
Many live and talk as though we are still bound by a series of rules and regulations. Even though they may believe that some of the rules no longer apply to us (e.g., eating pork, observing the Sabbath), they find new rules which they believe all Christians should follow (for example, thou shalt not listen to rock music or anything that sounds like it; thou shalt not dance; thou shalt not drink even the tiniest sip of alcohol). When someone violates one of those rules, these people may assume that this person does not know Jesus.
Then there are those people who believe that since we are no longer under law, but under grace (Romans 6:14–15), we can just ignore the entire Old Covenant. In fact, we can even ignore those passages in the New Testament that sound like commands straight from the mouth of God.
Clearly, neither is correct. Paul’s teaching in his letters, as well as much of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels, proves that rules and regulations do not save us. But, when Jesus says that those who annul even the smallest stroke of the pen are least in the kingdom of heaven, it is clear that we cannot simply live as we like.
How do we answer this paradox? I will suggest a few basic principles that we can learn from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:17–20, which will help us balance our relationship with Jesus and our obligation to rules and regulations in Scripture.
First, remember that Jesus has fulfilled the law. The central message of the Gospel is that God so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16). Jesus died for you! You are forgiven! That forgiveness is a gift, freely received by faith! You do not earn it by trying harder, or by paying God back. Stop beating yourself up if you fail: All of your sins, whether by failure to resist temptation or by open rebellion against God, are forgiven when you confess Jesus as Lord of your life.
Second, the entire law is summed up in loving God and loving your neighbor. In Matthew 22:37–40, Jesus defined the greatest law of Scripture by saying:
And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”
The love Jesus speaks of is not just a warm feeling. It can hurt. Remember John 3:16—God so loved the world that He did something drastic and sacrificial for us. In the Gospel of Luke, after Jesus sums up the two great laws, He taught the parable about the Good Samaritan: In that story, a man went out of his way to take care of a crime victim who probably hated him, surrendering his own time, money, and energy to care for somebody in need.
Because of this, in some ways the New Covenant calls us to a higher standard. We can no longer face ethical dilemmas or personal decisions based purely on the questions, “Is there a rule against this? Am I allowed to do this?” Instead we must ask ourselves deeper questions:
- Since Jesus dwells in me and I am part of His body, how would He act?
- What would He do about this?
- How can I show love for this person in this situation?
- Not only is it allowable, but also, is it profitable? Is this the best way to seek the best for other people?
These are challenging questions to ask ourselves as we face the daily challenges of life.
This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.