Christ and the Law

“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. 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. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:17-20

Such a controversial passage. What does Christ mean that He fulfills the law? For two thousand years, theologians have never ceased to dispute Christ’s meaning here. When we speak of Christ “fulfilling” anything in the Old Testament, ultimately, we see that He was speaking of the fact that He was anticipated by the Old Testament writings: the prophets anticipated the one they saw from afar; the histories of Israel anticipated the Son of Judah Who would ascend the throne; and the law anticipated the One Who would keep it perfectly. And so Christ did; He fulfilled the law perfectly and did not relax one iota. Though the Pharisees time and again tried to prove that He did, He would continue to show them that they had twisted the law of God by tradition.

Yet does He say, “I have kept it perfectly, therefore, you are free of it?” Certainly not. He makes clear that those “counted least” in the kingdom of heaven are those who relax the law, and those who teach others to do the same. The law Jesus is referring to, of course, is the law delivered by Moses in the Old Testament. Theologians since the Reformation (and before) have spoken of these laws in Moses under three types: civil, ceremonial, and moral. The moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, or even further in the Greatest Command (to love God, and love neighbor), is the substance of the law. The civil is when that law is applied to a people; that is, how ought a people, in seeking to act morally before the Lord, govern, punish, have a legal system, etc. The ceremonial are the rites and ceremonies of a people that point them toward their God, ordering their lives around Him and the worship of Him. The moral law experiences no change; it could not very well be called moral if it changed. The ceremonial law changed drastically from Old to New, yet this does not contradict Christ’s words here. Paul spoke continually of the abrogation of circumcision, and Hebrews goes further, speaking of the sacrificial system of the Israelites. The ceremonial law now finds its expression in much simpler laws: go to church, spread the gospel, preach the Word, etc. The ceremonial law of the New Testament is much simpler than it was in the Old, for Christ has come, and the need for elaborate ceremonies has passed; the Word of God shows us plainly the Savior of the World.

The civil law in the Old Testament does experience a change, but it is just that, a change. Today, most are apt to say it is done away with. Yet to say this, they give up all credibility in the range of politics. If the Bible does not speak to the realm of politics at all, numerous problems abound for the ways in which Christians relate to the society around them. The Westminster Confession uses the phrase “general equity,” an old term merely meaning general principles, to describe the ways in which the Old Testament laws influence modern states. Christians would agree that there are right and wrong ways to govern: it would be right to punish murderers, and it would be wrong to fine someone a hundred dollars for murder. It would be right to have taxes to support governments, but it would be wrong for the government to demand all the money of upstanding citizens, pushing them and their families to poverty. Yet, for Christians to make such statements, it must be relented that the Bible speaks on such subjects.

The Scriptures make clear that wisdom is required. Even the laws of Israel required great wisdom, as they gave general cases that judges then had to apply to their specific circumstances. Alfred the Great, king of the Saxons in the 9th Century, made an attempt to draw up a similar system for his people, basing it on the Old Law. His Dombok, or Doom-Book, is the result and has stood as the foundation for what we call English Common Law. Naturally, English Common Law stands as the foundation for American Law. So when Christians attempt to engage in the political realm, they must also do so with great wisdom, studying the Scriptures, specifically those places where wisdom is given, like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, or James. They must act prayerfully, and judge rightly when they are called to judge. Yet Christians cannot claim that the Word gives us a blank slate to apply wisdom to; for a Christian to say that it may be right for murder to be illegal in their homeland, but perhaps not, and mere wisdom is needed, would be stretching biblical “wisdom” beyond its limits. It is not merely wise to outlaw murder, it is just; it is righteous. While many Christians are happy to relent to the last statement, some professing Christians in this land will back up when a particular kind of murder, abortion, is spoken of. And sadly unjust, not merely unwise, laws exist protecting such murder in this land.

So when we consider Christ’s statement to us here, let us consider the full meaning. Let us not be antinomian, that is, against the law. Let us strive to follow the law in our lives and strive after it seriously. Let us strive to live holy lives. Let us also strive to engage in the matters of religion well; let us read the Scripture, pray, attend worship service, sit under the preaching of the Word, and rest on the Lord’s Day. And let us strive after a society that follows such law, to not do so is to neglect our neighbors, those whom we are command to love. Let us strive for just laws, to have just, godly leaders, and to be wise in the ways in which we organize the law. For as Psalm 144 says: “Blessed are the people whose God is Yahweh!”