Jesus’ relationship to the Law and the state of the Human Heart

Jesus said:

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfil. 18 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. 19 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.

20 “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

At the time of Christ, the world was in movement and flux, and we know that there were many thriving religious communities thinking about the end times.  The Dead Sea Scrolls have shown us this to be the case.  There are many verses in the Bible especially the Pauline epistles that on the surface look like they are anti-law. Jesus was certainly not against the law but rather he was the fulfilment of the law.

We need to remember that there are various aspects of Jewish Law.  There is the ceremonial and the moral.  The 10 commandment and the moral law will never change but the other laws became obsolete.   I am not doing very well in explaining this, but Herman Bavinck certainly looked at this detail.  It is important for us to look at the nature of the law as this will influence how we look at Jesus our Lords interpretation of the law.

From this point I want to cover an earlier blog because it has direct importance for our understanding of how Jesus perceived the law.

We cannot always see everything; The legal people of Jesus time completely missed the point; We also need to humble ourselves

When we look at the content of the law Bavinck mentions the three branches:

1.       Ceremonial

2.       Judicial

3.       Moral

He hits the nail on the head when he says that the law has not been abolished but fulfilled.  Bavinck ebbs the Bible when he says:

 “The shadows vanish when the body is present. What was merely a type in the Old Testament is now exactly what is completely spiritualized and realized. The form has changed; the essence is the same. All sacrifices and priests culminate and find their full realization in the one sacrifice and in the one high priest, in the same way that all the prophets and Davidic kings find their purpose realized in Christ.” (From Reformed Ethics; Herman Bavinck; edited by John Bolt; page 222)

Digression

I’ve just completed writing my commentary on Hebrews 7 and 8 and I can see Scripture from their imbibed in Bavinck here. From https://weaver1hasonline.international/

The reality of the law is here through Christ.  Heaven has broken into this earthly shadowy world.  The earthly tabernacle, the Levitical high priesthood and the sacrifice are only shadows of the reality.  If you read Hebrews chapters 7, 8 and 9 you will see this to be the case.   The prophets and the Davidic kings are correct as well.  In the book of Hebrews there is a shift of accent who the messiah is in light of the Prophets and the Psalms (Royal, Messianic Psalms).    We find this pattern in the quotations of the Old Testament in the argument of Hebrews.  (My own opinion is that Apollos wrote Hebrews) So, the whole Law in the Old Testament including the ceremonial, judicial and moral law finds its realization and fulfilment in Christ. (Page 222).

God and the Moral Law

Having said this when Bavinck talks about law from this moment it will be about the ‘moral law’.   This should not surprise us as he is writing his Reformed Ethics.  Focusing on the moral law Bavinck finds three types of interpreters in scholarship:

1.       “According to some this law is based solely on God’s will: something is good only because God says it is good.

2.       For others the law is based entirely on God’s being.

3.       And for a third group the moral law is based partly on God’s nature—such as the first table of the Decalogue—and partly on God’s free will, as is the case with needing to celebrate the Sabbath on the seventh day, the prohibitions of polygamy and theft, and so on.”  (Taken from page 223 of Reformed Ethics)

So, then we will find out whether or not the law is based on:

1.       God’s will.

2.       God’s being and or not

3.       God’s nature.

Sometimes what looks like a dispensation such as Hosea marrying a prostitute or Moses killing an Egyptian.  I think this covers aspects of ‘God’s will; What God allows.  They are only examples.  Herman is just giving us an outline he is not giving reasons why these things happened. (From Page 223). ’These and more are interesting facts, but Bavinck does not go into detail as he is moves on to the relationship of Law to God’s being (nature).

What Bavinck says about Gods Nature and Gods Law page 223

The law is unchangeable because God in his nature is unchangeable.  Bavinck explains the law is spiritual and he gives us some references as well.  He starts from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and also quotes St Paul and Psalms.  As well as these we can take into account (which Bavinck he also quotes):

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matt 22.37)

Both Jesus and the faithful followers of Christ see the law as spiritual.   Matthew chapter 5 is cited, and this is correct as Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it (verse 17 for example.  This reference is mine and is not found on page 223).

Bavinck then give us some examples of what this content of the law actually means, and he summarizes this:

“Nothing, then, can be added to it (the law) or taken away from it (the law), because the law orders us to love God and our neighbour, which is everything and includes everything.” (Page 223)

So, then we are to be perfect just like our Heavenly Father.  So how does the law work?

In Bavinck’s own words concerning the law:

“(a) all prohibitions include their opposite as a commandment, and vice versa—divorce is prohibited, so chastity is commanded.

(b) under the heading of a Virtue or vice all corresponding items are included—for example, the commandment to honour one’s parents encompasses love and obedience, including those toward other authorities.

 (c) with an external sin, its source and cause are also condemned—for example, the prohibition against murder includes anger (cf. Matt. 5:22; 1 John 3:15) and even the pretence of anger (cf. 1 Thess. 5 :22).” (Reformed Ethics; Herman Bavinck; edited by John Bolt; page 223)

So, who can keep the whole law without sinning?  The answer is no one.  Bavinck understands the nature of the law that it includes aspects also that are ‘unwritten’.  This is a very important point.   With the interpretation he gives all have failed to reach the perfection of the law.  The Master theologian shows that here isn’t a single man on earth except Christ could fulfil this law.

Old Reflection

On content of the law Bavinck has managed to capture the essence of what the law of God actually means but I wonder why he didn’t tackle the question of how we can approach God’s presence under such heavy circumstances.  I think he will probably do this in section of his book in ‘Converted Humanity’ which he will, but I think the beatitudes’ are seriously important for the believer.  Especially the fist one of Jesus’ sayings:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3 NASB

If you actually go through all the sayings of Jesus in Matthew 5, 6 and 7 one comes to a realization that no ordinary person will ever reach these standards.  When we come to God, we need to realize that we are spiritually dead (running on empty).   Jesus gives the oracles of God and according to the Law we are all locked up in sin.  Our best is never good enough.  This was a seriously bitter pill for the pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes to swallow.  However, we should not point the finger just at them this includes all of us whoever we are.  This was difficult for the Pharisees and Sadducees because as far as they could see, they kept all the written laws.  I actually think they did but then a bombshell hit; This also includes all the laws that were unwritten!

We have all sinned and for Christians there is only one way, Jesus Christ.  In Jesus God became a man, lived among us and died on a cross. On the third day by God’s Authority, he conquered death.  We can only approach God if we first realize we have done wrong and ask God in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit for forgiveness.   Jesus is at the door of your heart.  Making Jesus Lord in your life means taking on a new way of living.

Mini reflection

So, from my point of view essentially for Jesus the essential interpretation of the law ought to be spiritual rather than ceremonial.  When we look at the beatitudes, we see a staircase into the Divine Presence.  We need to realize in our selves there is essentially nothing that is good enough to allow us into God’s presence.  The prophets emphasised humility before a Holy God on the other hand those who practised the law and the ceremonies got puffed up with self-importance.  Jesus pointed out the pharisees and the Sadducees because they were the (spiritual) religious leaders of the day.  For me giving a 21st century twist on the pharisees and the Sadducees; we see them in every walk of life trampling on those who are needy and giving bad advice on how to best serve God and relating to their neighbours.

Jesus our Lord was purifying the essentials when it came to the law:

  1. Love towards God
  2. Love towards the neighbour

As I read somewhere else in Herman Bavinck that Faith is the root and good works flows from this by grace. 

We are now ready to go back to Jesus’ sayings:

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfil. 18 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. Matthew 5:17-18

As I said earlier Jesus interpreted the law as spiritual.  What does Calvin have to say about this?

[The Following has been copied from The Ages Library]

<400517>Matthew 5:17. Think not. With regard to the perfection of his life,

Christ might justly have maintained that he came to fulfill the law: but here

he treats of doctrine, not of life. As he afterwards exclaimed, that “the

kingdom of God is come,” (<401228>Matthew 12:28,) and raised the minds

of men with unusual expectation, and even admitted disciples by baptism,

it is probable, that the minds of many were in a state of suspense and

doubt, and were eagerly inquiring, what was the design of that novelty.

Christ, therefore, now declares, that his doctrine is so far from being at

variance with the law, that it agrees perfectly with the law and the

prophets, and not only so, but brings the complete fulfillment of them.

There appear to have been chiefly two reasons, which induced him to

declare this agreement between the law and the Gospel. As soon as any

new method of teaching makes its appearance, the body of the people

immediately look upon it, as if everything were to be overturned. Now the

preaching of the Gospel, as I mentioned a little ago, tended to raise the

expectation, that the Church would assume a totally different form from

what had previously belonged to it. They thought that the ancient and

accustomed government was to be abolished. This opinion, in many

respects, was very dangerous. Devout worshippers of God would never

have embraced the Gospel, if it had been a revolt from the law; while light

and turbulent spirits would eagerly have seized on an occasion offered to

them for entirely overthrowing the state of religion: for we know in what

insolent freaks rash people are ready to indulge when there is any thing

new.

Besides, Christ saw that the greater part of the Jews, though they

professed to believe the Law, were profane and degenerate. The condition

of the people was so decayed, every thing was filled with so many

corruptions, and the negligence or malice of the priests had so completely

extinguished the pure light of doctrine, that there no longer remained any

reverence for the Law. But if a new kind of doctrine had been introduced,

which would destroy the authority of the Law and the Prophets, religion

would have sustained a dreadful injury. This appears to be the first reason,

236

why Christ declared that he had not come to destroy the Law. Indeed, the

context makes this abundantly clear: for he immediately adds, by way of

confirmation, that it is impossible for even one point of the Law to fail,—

and pronounces a curse on those teachers who do not faithfully labor to

maintain its authority.

The second reason was, to refute the wicked slander which, he knew was

brought against him by the ignorant and unlearned. This charge, it is

evident, had been fastened on his doctrine by the scribes: for he proceeds

immediately to direct his discourse against them. We must keep in mind

the object which Christ had in view. While he invites and exhorts the Jews

to receive the Gospel, he still retains them in obedience to the Law; and, on

the other hand, he boldly refutes the base reproaches and slanders, by

which his enemies labored to make his preaching infamous or suspected.

If we intend to reform affairs which are in a state of disorder, we must

always exercise such prudence and moderation, as will convince the

people, that we do not oppose the eternal Word of God, or introduce any

novelty that is contrary to Scripture. We must take care, that no suspicion

of such contrariety shall injure the faith of the godly, and that rash men

shall not be emboldened by a pretense of novelty. In short, we must

endeavor to oppose a profane contempt of the Word of God, and to

prevent religion from being despised by the ignorant. The defense which

Christ makes, to free his doctrine from slanders, ought to encourage us, if

we are now exposed to the same calumnies. That crime was charged against

Paul, that he was an apostate from the law of God, (<442121>Acts 21:21)

and we need not, therefore, wonder, if the Papists endeavor, in the same

manner, to render us odious. Following the example of Christ, we ought to

clear ourselves from false accusations, and, at the same time, to profess the

truth freely, though it may expose us to unjust reproaches.

I am not come to destroy. God had, indeed, promised a new covenant at the

coming of Christ; but had, at the same time, showed, that it would not be

different from the first, but that, on the contrary, its design was, to give a

perpetual sanction to the covenant, which he had made from the beginning,

with his own people.

“I will write my law, (says he,) in their hearts, and I will remember

their iniquities no more,” (<243133>Jeremiah 31:33, 34.) f370

237

By these words he is so far from departing from the former covenant, that,

on the contrary, he declares, that it will be confirmed and ratified, when it

shall be succeeded by the new. This is also the meaning of Christ’s words,

when he says, that he came to fulfill the law: for he actually fulfilled it, by

quickening, with his Spirit, the dead letter, and then exhibiting, in reality,

what had hitherto appeared only in figures.

With respect to doctrine, we must not imagine that the coming of Christ

has freed us from the authority of the law: for it is the eternal rule of a

devout and holy life, and must, therefore, be as unchangeable, as the justice

of God, which it embraced, is constant and uniform. With respect to

ceremonies, there is some appearance of a change having taken place; but it

was only the use of them that was abolished, for their meaning was more

fully confirmed. The coming of Christ has taken nothing away even from

ceremonies, but, on the contrary, confirms them by exhibiting the truth of

shadows: for, when we see their full effect, we acknowledge that they are

not vain or useless. Let us therefore learn to maintain inviolable this sacred

tie between the law and the Gospel, which many improperly attempt to

break. For it contributes not a little to confirm the authority of the Gospel,

when we learn, that it is nothing else than a fulfillment of the law; so that

both, with one consent, declare God to be their Author.

So then I also found it interesting that there is a quotation from Jeremiah:

“I will write my law, (says he,) in their hearts, and I will remember

their iniquities no more,” (Jeremiah 31:33, 34.)

Reflection

As far as Jesus’ teachings are concerned Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and by faith, we have had God’s law ‘written on our hearts’ by the Holy Spirit.  There is nothing here external about the law as it has been written onto the tablet of our hearts.  The truth is we were dead twigs and the Holy Spirit brought us back to life that we can once again worship a Holy God.  The Sermon on the mount drills down into the intentions and attitudes of the human being and shows the filth of fake worship towards God.  Jesus also gives us the remedy that by believing in Him and obeying him, through the beatitudes by the Holy Spirit we can once again worship in Spirit and truth.

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