SERMON ON THE MOUNT: PART ELEVEN
PRESENTED ON 06-14-08
Jesus began His Sermon on the Mount by providing instruction as to how we are to behave as participates in the Kingdom of heaven. This instruction has come to be called the Beatitudes. He then instructed as to how this behavior is to be expressed and shared with the world by using the analogies of salt and light. Having said these things, Jesus makes a seemingly abrupt shift in His focus and makes a rather startling statement.
Matthew 5:17-18: 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. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
Jesus said “Do not think.” Jesus apparently felt that because of the instruction He had just given in the Beatitudes that some may have come to think He came to abolish the Law and the Prophets. Why might they think this? Jesus had just shown in the Beatitudes what kind of behavior was expected of participants in the Kingdom. It was obvious that this behavior contrasted significantly with the behavior the people saw in their religious leaders. While their religious leaders were strong adherents of the Law and the Prophets, they were anything but meek, merciful and pure in heart. Jesus went on to say as recorded in verse 20:
Verse 20: For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus was teaching a righteousness that surpassed the righteousness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Jesus was teaching a righteousness that was characterized by the second of the two great Commandments which was to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus was teaching a righteousness exemplified by doing unto others what you would have them do unto you. Jesus was teaching a righteousness that was personified in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Some may have thought that this somehow was to replace the law and the prophets. In the vocabulary of Israel, the law and the prophets referred to the entire Mosaic Covenant and all that the prophets had written. In other words, the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus made it clear that what He was saying did not in any way do away with the law and the prophets. He did not come to destroy the law and the prophets but to fulfill. The Greek translated “destroy” has the broad meaning of dissolving and disuniting that which has been joined together. It also means to demolish and throw down. It is the same word Jesus used in Matthew 24:2 in referring to the total destruction of the temple.
Jesus said he did not come to demolish or throw down the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. The Greek word translated “fulfill” means to make full, to fill, to fill up, to fill to the full and to render complete. This word appears 90 times in the NT narrative and by context can be seen over and over again to show a filling up to the brim, a completion of something.
We see in the Old Covenant (OC) law three major areas of legislation. First of all the OC incorporated the moral law which had been extant since the Garden of Eden. Secondly, it included the judicial law that governed the Theocracy that was Israel. And thirdly, it contained the ceremonial law which governed the worship and sacrificial requirements of the people. In addition to the law there were the prophets who uttered numerous warnings of judgement to the Nation of Israel for their failure to keep the law along with many typologies of a coming ruler through whom God would provide salvation.
These typologies were often reflective of events that happened during the lifetime of the prophets but are seen in the NT narrative as being filled to the full and being rendered complete in Jesus Christ. Matthew in particular speaks often of the fulfillment of OT events in the life of Christ. For example in writing of the virgin birth of Jesus we see Matthew saying:
Matthew 1:22-23: All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" --which means, "God with us."
The prophet Matthew is referring to is Isaiah. In Isaiah chapter seven, the prophet shows Ahaz was king of Judah. King Rezin of Aram and Pekah, king of Israel, were in alliance and came up to fight against Ahaz and Judah. The Lord, through Isaiah, told Ahaz that this alliance would not succeed against Ahaz and Judah. It’s recorded that the Lord then gave a sign to Ahaz to show him that the alliance would not succeed. The sign is that a virgin shall conceive, bear a son and call his name Immanuel which means in the Hebrew “God is with us” or “God with us.” The scriptures show that Isaiah did bear a son through a prophetess and the son was called Immanuel. God was with Ahaz and Judah was not defeated by the alliance.
Matthew shows this event during the time of Isaiah having prophetic application to the future event of the birth of Jesus when there would be complete fulfillment of the event that took place in type during Isaiah’s day. So when Jesus says he came to fulfill the prophets He is saying He came to fill to the fullest the events and prophetic utterances that pertained to Him throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. He brought to completion the many references in the Hebrew Scriptures of a coming descendant of David who would be King over Israel but would also die for the sins of the people. If fulfilling the prophets is seen as bringing to completion OT references to His coming, what did Jesus mean when He said He came to fulfill the law?
Jesus clearly said He did not come to destroy but to fulfill the law. We saw how the Greek word for fulfill means to fill to the fullest and to render complete. We see in the Sermon on the Mount and throughout His ministry Jesus expand the moral law. We saw in the Beatitudes how Jesus gave instruction as to how we are to conduct ourselves and express righteous behavior as the salt of the earth and as a light to the world. Jesus did not do away with moral law. He came to expand it and show its application far beyond its literal intent. It is in this manner that Jesus fulfilled this aspect of the law. He brought to completion the intent of the moral law.
While the moral law would come to an end in its codified form under the OC, it was not abrogated by the Christ event. It would continue in stronger form than ever as the foundation of Kingdom living. It would become foundational to the New Covenant (NC) which Jesus was in the process of introducing to the world and would become institutionalized as the Law of Christ which is the law of love.
But what about the judicial law, ceremonial and sacrificial law of the OC? The judicial law was inaugurated to facilitate penalties for failure to keep the moral, worship and ceremonial laws of Israel. Apostle Paul told the Galatian church the law was added because of transgressions. Paul was referring to the judicial, ceremonial and sacrificial system of law which was inaugurated to keep Israel in constant awareness of the moral law and facilitate a means of maintaining a relationship with God despite their sin. This very complex system of judicial, ceremonial and sacrificial law proved to be much more than Israel could bear, a fact which Apostle Peter readily admitted to in Acts, chapter 15 where he speaks of not adding this burden of law to the Gentiles who were turning to Christ. Peter is not speaking of moral law but of the vast array of separatist law that had separated Israelites and Gentiles and that had been abolished at the cross.
It was at the cross that Jesus brought to fulfillment the intent of the ceremonial and sacrificial law. Unlike the moral law which Jesus expanded upon and made the foundation of the NC, the sacrificial and ceremonial laws had utility for Israel only. They only pertained to the commonwealth of Israel and were implemented to maintain the special relationship Israel had with God. They also, however, were the schoolmaster that brought Israel to the Christ event and once the Christ event happened it rendered these laws obsolete. Christ brought these laws to their completion. He filled them to the full which is what the Greek word for fulfill means.
The Christ event filled to the full the elements of the OC system. In the case of the moral law these elements were expanded upon and included in the NC. In the case of the sacrificial and ceremonial laws, Christ’s fulfillment brought them to an end. Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossian Christians that such observances as the Sabbath, holy days, new moons and dietary restrictions were all shadows pointing to the Christ event.
The book of Hebrews is all about the Covenantal transition that took place in the first century. This book clearly shows how Christ fulfilled and brought to an end the sacrificial system and the accompanying system of laws associated with the priesthood and the ceremonial regulations of the OC. What is interesting, however, is that the writer of this book does not see the OC system as yet abolished. He instead speaks of it as aging and soon to disappear.
Hebrews 8:13: By calling this covenant "new," he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.
This statement was made years after the ministry, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. What had been accomplished at the cross had been accomplished. Jesus had become the one and only viable sacrifice for sin. This negated the sacrificial system. Jesus had fulfilled the types associated with the sacrificial system the ceremonial law and the priestly law. The veil in the temple had been ripped from top to bottom signifying the end of the temple system. Yet the temple was still standing. The Jewish community was still adhering to the OC. Many, if not most,Jewish converts to Christianity were still adhering to the OC regulations. The Jewish converts to Christianity had simply added Christ to the OC system. Most of the conflict in the developing Christian church was over the matter of OC law. Was there still something that had to happen to bring complete fulfillment and subsequent abolishment of the OC system? This brings us to verse 18 of our scriptural focus for today.
Verse 18: I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
The Greek word translated “accomplished” in the NIV means “to come to pass, to happen, to be made, done or finished.” The KJV translates it as fulfilled and several other translations I checked translate it "accomplished" as does the NIV. What was yet to be accomplished in order for any part of the law to disappear? And what did Jesus mean by saying until heaven and earth disappear no part of the law will disappear? This was said by Jesus nearly 2000 years ago. The heaven and earth are still standing. Yet we know that Jesus fulfilled the sacrificial, ceremonial and priestly laws connected with the OC. We know that He introduced an expanded moral law that became a law of the Spirit to replace the OC letter of the law approach. We know the OC law has disappeared and been replaced by the NC. So what does Jesus mean in saying, “Until heaven and earth pass away no part of the law will disappear until all be fulfilled?” How can heaven and earth still be standing if the law has disappeared.
I consulted a number of Bible commentaries about this passage and found that the scholars and theologians have little to say about this statement made by Christ. What is said is often superficial and doesn’t really address the issue. One commenter said that by referring to the heaven and the earth Jesus was using the stability of the heavens and the earth to show the unchangeableness of the law. We know, however, that the law did change and the physical heaven and earth are still here.
The issue is simply this! How can the heaven and earth still be standing if the law has been abolished when Christ said heaven and earth would disappear before the law would disappear? Since conventional scriptural resource material has little explanation for this passage, I am going to share with you a perspective that I came across some years ago in the writings of theologians who are proficient in what is sometimes referred to as Covenant Eschatology. Eschatology is the study of last things and Covenant Eschatology is the study of the Biblical covenants as they relate to last things.
We are all familiar with the physical heavens and earth. The scriptures speak of God as the creator of the physical heavens and earth and in many scriptures God is directly quoted as saying it is He who made the heavens and the earth and by context it is obvious He is referring to the physical heavens and earth. In some scriptures, however, the use of heaven and earth appears to take on a different meaning. For example, in Isaiah 51:16 God is speaking to Israel through the prophet Isaiah about a number of things and appears to use the expression heaven and earth as referring to Israel.
Isaiah 51:16: And I have put my words in thy mouth, and I have covered thee in the shadow of mine hand, that I may plant the heavens, and lay the foundations of the earth, and say unto Zion, Thou art my people (KJV and most other translations).
Here God appears to be saying to Israel that by putting His word in their months and covering them in the shadow of His hand, He is planting heavens and earth. We know that God had created the physical heavens and earth thousands of years before. Yet here he appears to be using a planting of heavens and earth as a means of describing the establishment of His chosen people. In Hebrews, chapter 12, there is admonition by the writer to live lives that are pleasing to God. Then the writer recites the episode at Mount Sinai where God spoke the law to Moses and the mountain was on fire and the mountain shook and the voice of God scared the daylights out of the people to the point where they begged that no further word be spoken to them. In contrast to what the Israelites experienced at Mount Sinai, the writer ways this:
Hebrews 12:22-24: But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant….,
Here we see the writer contrasting what was established with Israel at Mount Sinai with what was now being established with Israel through the Christ event. We know the Old Covenant was established at Sinai and now a new covenant was being established that is being described in spiritual terminology. A Mount Zion in a heavenly Jerusalem, as opposed to a physical mountain on planet earth. The presence of thousands of angels, names written in heaven and being in the presence of God and the spirits of perfected men. Then the writer returns to describing what happened at Mount Sinai and contrasts it with what was happening now.
Hebrews 12:26-28: At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, "Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens." The words "once more" indicate the removing of what can be shaken--that is, created things--so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.
The letter to the Hebrew Christians is all about covenantal transition. It is all about the superiority of the New Covenant over the Old Covenant. It is all about the superiority of the spiritual over the physical. It is all about the superiority of the Christ event over the Sinai event. While the Sinai event was awesome and is characterized by a shaking of the earth, what it represented was only a precursor to the real thing. It was only of temporary significance. It was meant to last only until that would come along that could not be shaken, something that would last forever. That unshakeable thing was the everlasting kingdom of God which is what the New Covenant epitomizes.
What could be shaken was being removed by what could not be shaken. The old order of things was about to come crashing down and be replaced by a new order of things. The old order of things is seen as associated with the shaking of the earth at Mount Sinai where the people shook at the mighty presence of God. Hebrews 12:21 records, “The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, "I am trembling with fear." Needless to say there was a whole lot of shaking going on.
As awesome as the Sinai experience was, it could not begin to compare with the shaking of not only the earth but the heaven as well in the establishment of the New Covenant which is synonymous with the Kingdom. The Kingdom is seen as something that cannot be shaken in so much that it will never be destroyed. Remember what the angel Gabriel said to Mary regarding the Christ child:
Luke 1:32-33: He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."
It is believed that when the writer to the Hebrew Christians speaks of things that can be shaken as opposed to things that cannot be shaken in the context of establishment of the everlasting Kingdom, it is covenantal transition that is being addressed. It is the removal of the Old Covenant system and its replacement with the New Covenant System that is the focus in this passage as it is throughout much of the Book of Hebrews. It is believed the writer is using apocalyptic language in expressing the covenantal transition that was in the process of taking place. You notice I said process. Remember, this same author wrote earlier in chapter 8:
Hebrews 8:13: By calling this covenant "new," he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.
The Christ event had made the Old Covenant obsolete. But as is so true of most change from one thing to another, that which has been made obsolete continues for a time until it is simply no longer available and the new completely takes over causing the old to disappear. Look at the world of fashion. A new clothing fashion comes along and initially competes with the old fashion until the old fashion, which is no longer available, simply disappears and the new fashion is the only choice.
This is essentially what happened in the first century. The Christ event established the New Covenant. The Old Covenant, however, with all it regulations, continued to be observed by the Jewish community and much of the Jewish Christian community. The priesthood continued to do its thing. Sacrifices continued at the temple. The ceremonial law continued to be implemented. This all continued until A.D. 70 when the temple was destroyed, the priesthood was killed and the means to carry out the Old Covenant system disappeared. There has been no temple, sacrificial system or priesthood since A.D. 70.
In view of this, it is believed that when Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished," he was saying that until the Old Covenant system disappears the law will not disappear until everything is accomplished. What had to be accomplished was that Christ would have to die, be resurrected, ascend to the Father and facilitate judgement upon Israel to bring to a final end to the old system and consummate a process that had begun with his birth in the town of Bethlehem.
Jesus made it clear in the Olivet Discourse, as recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21, that the temple was going to be destroyed. In this Discourse Jesus described the events that would precede the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem. Having done this he made the following statement to His disciples in response to their inquiry as to when the temple would be destroyed.
Matthew 24: 33-35: Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth; this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
The destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem and all they represented relative to the Old Covenant system was a momentous event. It was a virtual shaking of heaven and earth. It is believed that because the context of Jesus’ declarations is the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem, that when he speaks of heaven and earth passing away he is not speaking about some end to the physical heavens and earth but is speaking of the Old Covenant System passing away. He is using the same apocalyptic language that was commonly used by the prophets when they spoke of various heavenly signs in association with judgement upon Egypt, Babylon, Assyria and Israel. After His resurrection from the dead, Jesus met with His disciples and told them the following:
Luke 24: 44-47: He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms." Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
It has been historically documented that the gospel was preached throughout the Roman Empire, the British Isles and Europe before the fall of Jerusalem. Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Colossians indicated that the gospel had spread around the world. Historians such as Neuton, Eusebius and Theodoret wrote that the Apostles preached the Gospel to the entire known world of the time.
In the Olivet Discourse Jesus said the Gospel would be preached in all the world and then the end would come. It is believed by those who teach covenant eschatology that the end spoken of was not the end of the physical world but the end of the Old Covenant age. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that no part of the law would disappear until everything is accomplished. In Luke 24, as already seen, what had to be accomplished was His death, resurrection and the preaching of the Gospel to the nations. Once this was accomplished the means to facilitate OC regulations came to an abrupt end in the A.D. 70 calamity.
In view of the covenantal transition that is seen throughout the NT narrative, this seems like a reasonable explanation of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:18 about heaven and earth and the law. Many additional scriptures could be referenced in support of this position on Matthew 5:18 but time will not allow for that.
Next time we get together we will examine what Jesus meant by commandments in verse 19 and 20.