Saturday, July 18, 2015

Fulfilling or Destroying

A couple of days ago I posted some thoughts on the place of the Law of Moses in the life of the Christian.

Most Christians who have read Romans or Galatians understand that we are not under law but under grace. However, because the teaching of the Lord Jesus is traditionally bundled with our New Testament, some believers have difficulty recognizing that things like the Sermon on the Mount are really addressed to people living under and seeking to obey the rules of the Old Covenant.

Confusion on this subject leads to inconsistent interpretation and maybe even inconsistent living. It’s worth a careful and prayerful look.

To give a voice to those who think the Christian is still obligated to the Law of Moses in any form, I’m linking to a post by Mike Hanisko of the Church of God, who says pretty much the opposite of what I’m saying, and says it rather strongly.

For any on the fence about the Law of Moses and its applicability to us, let me try to answer the seven rhetorical questions Mr. Hanisko poses to himself. I think you’ll find he and I see things quite differently and can assess for yourself which perspective on the subject treats scripture more consistently.

Does the Sermon on the Mount say we don’t need to keep the law because Jesus fulfilled the law for us — that the law really doesn’t apply to us after all?

Hanisko answers this question with a resounding “no”, and in this case I tend to agree with him. The “sermon” itself (Matthew 5-7) says nothing about Christians at all. The teaching about whether or not the Law of Moses applies to Christians is found in Romans and Galatians.

All the Lord says in the Sermon on the Mount is that he came to fulfill the law, not destroy it

Mr. Hanisko’s real argument is with another portion of scripture entirely.

Did Jesus Keep the 10 Commandments for Us?

Hanisko then takes aim at a straw man, maintaining that:
“The reasoning is that believers don’t need to keep the law because Jesus allegedly kept it for us.”
That could mean several things, and I wouldn’t want to “straw man” Mr. Hanisko right back. Fortunately, his next two paragraphs make it clear that he what he is opposed to is any notion that Jesus’ spotless track record as a human being frees me from the obligation to keep the law. He says, “The common explanation is that Christ’s obedience is credited to all who accept Him as their Savior”.

It may or may not be the common explanation, but it is not the explanation of the apostle Paul, and that’s the one I’m going with.

Paul never claims the perfect obedience of the Lord Jesus frees me from the law. He claims we are freed from obligation to the law by his death, not by his earthly life. When the Lord Jesus died, Paul tells me that by faith I died with him:
“… you also have died to the law through the body of Christ.”
Thus I am dead to the law. It can make no further claim on me. I am neither under its curse nor am I under its power.

It was his death that did that for us, not his life. The only thing the Lord’s sinless, holy life accomplished for me was that it impeccably qualified him to die as my substitute.

Did Jesus Destroy the Law?

Since the Lord himself said he did not come to destroy the law, this is a fairly easy question to answer. But Mr. Hanisko takes this further than Matthew does, when he adds:
“Nor did He come to set men free from their obligation to the law, according to this statement.”
and he goes on to quote the Lord’s own words:
“Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle [the tiniest marks in the Hebrew script] will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.”
Again, I completely agree with his first statement: the law is not “destroyed” by anything the Lord Jesus did when he came. In fact, we are told in the last 9-1/2 chapters of Ezekiel what a restored Jewish nation will look like under the law, and therefore the law cannot have been destroyed. Jews in the coming millennial kingdom will, in fact, be obligated to the law.

It’s in his second assertion that he misinterprets the Lord’s words, because he takes it for granted that the fulfillment of the law requires its application to every human being in history. But the answer of the New Testament with respect to the Christian is that it does not require any such thing. It is fulfilled in the death of Christ, as we have seen. The statement that the Lord did not come to set men free from their obligation to the law is therefore untrue.

About two millennia worth of Christians so far have been freed from exactly that.

What Did Jesus Mean When He Spoke of Fulfilling the Law?

Here Hanisko breaks out the Greek New Testament to demonstrate that while that word pleroo usually means “complete” or “accomplish”, it can also be translated “fill to the full”. He takes this phrase to refer once again to the uniquely holy life on earth of the Son of God rather than to anything accomplished at the cross.

Thus he interprets “fulfilling the law” like so:
“The intent of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:17 is, ‘I did not come to do away with the Law or the Prophets, but I came to uphold them in everything that I say and do.’ ”
He goes on to add that Jesus being a model son did not free the rest of God’s children from our responsibilities to our heavenly Father, with which I agree.

But his word study is not so much wrong as it is irrelevant. We already know that Christ upheld the law while on earth. But again, it is the death of Christ and not his earthly life that frees us from our responsibility to keep the law. The fact that he was a model son had nothing to do with it. It does, however, make me wonder exactly how Mr. Hanisko views the Lord Jesus, since he compares him to nothing more significant than an “older brother” to Christians.

It is important to recognize that most expositors do not understand the fulfillment of the law as merely a reference to the Lord Jesus keeping it perfectly during his lifetime. William Macdonald says:
“It was for this reason that Jesus came into the world: to pay the penalty by His death. He died as a Substitute for guilty lawbreakers, even though He Himself was sinless. He did not wave the law aside; rather He met the full demands of the law by fulfilling its strict requirements in His life and in His death.”
It is both unsatisfactory and unscriptural to imagine that a perfect life, in and of itself, met the obligations imposed by the law. It did not. If it had, the Lord Jesus could have bypassed the cross.

But in dying as a substitutionary sacrifice, the Lord Jesus not only met the righteous standard of the law but completely satisfied its requirements for all time.

That is what it means to have fulfilled the law. I cannot add one thing to the sacrifice of Christ by my obedient Christian behavior. My obedience, though both logical and beneficial to me and others, is not a factor in my salvation.

Jesus Magnified the Law

Here Hanisko quotes Isaiah to demonstrate that Messiah would “exalt the law and make it honorable”. No argument there.

Big HOWEVER though. He goes on to add this:
“Jesus Christ did magnify and exalt the law by showing its spiritual intent, or the spirit of the law, demonstrating its true significance and value in the life of a Christian.”
The “spiritual intent” of the law was not to justify but to condemn those under it. Paul says this:
“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
If the Lord made much of the law (and he did), it was only because the law is the foremost evidence mankind desperately needed a Saviour. The law only shows us that: (1) we cannot keep it, and (2) the Lord Jesus could. So the law pointed directly to him as the only solution to the problem of sin it illuminated.

Its spiritual intent was to bring men and women to the place where they recognized that. If the law has any utility in the life of the Christian, it is only as a reminder of these truths. Keeping it brings us no closer to God. Violating certain aspects of it in good conscience today takes us no further away. As Paul said, “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better if we do”.

“Till All is Fulfilled”

Here Hanisko goes well beyond scripture in insisting that Matthew 5:18 means:
“… as long as there are still fleshly human beings, the physical codification of God’s law in Scripture is necessary and is as certain to endure as the continued existence of the universe.”
It is actually not obvious from the immediate context what the Lord was referring to when he used the phrase “until all is accomplished”. But since the law will be observed during the millennial reign of Christ, we have no doubt it will be dutifully followed, at least on the holy mountain, right up until heaven and earth pass away (which they will).

But this tells us nothing about the status of the Christian and his or her relationship to the law.

The 10 Commandments for Christians Today

Here Hanisko says:
“Jesus was clearly talking about God’s spiritual law, the 10 Commandments.”
The problem here is that the Lord speaks of “law”. Nowhere does he limit himself to observations merely about the Decalogue. Divorce, for instance, is not covered explicitly in the Ten Commandments, but the Lord certainly spoke about it in the Sermon.

In fact, the Law of Moses comprises 613 commandments, or so the Rabbis tell us, and I have no reason to argue with them. If Mr. Hanisko wants law as an essential component of the Christian experience, he’s going to have to deal with a whole lot more of it than just what Moses brought down the mountain engraved in tablets of stone. On what basis do we pick and choose which laws Christians are to obey? In fact, Hanisko himself disparages such picking and choosing in the same post:
“Another line of reasoning is that Jesus fulfilled any obligation to keep the first four commandments, but that Christians must still abide by the ‘social’ commandments, the last six. Yet Christ made no such distinction in His clear statement.”

That said, I do understand what Hanisko is trying to get to here. Let me suggest an approach more in keeping with the New Covenant. Rather than putting the Christian under the entire Mosaic law to get him to behave, all we have to do is observe that nine of the ten commandments in the Decalogue are reiterated to Christians explicitly or implicitly in the epistles (everything but the keeping of the Sabbath).

Further, the Christian is not obligated to practice the Law of Moses, as the book of Acts plainly demonstrates. In Acts 15, the question of putting the Gentiles under law was settled in Jerusalem, and it was not settled with a new set of Christian laws, but with some wise and solid advice:
“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.”
From 613 laws by which “if a person does them, he shall live”, down to four basic instructions passed on to all the churches of the day which they would “do well” to observe.

Viva la Difference!

See the difference? You don’t have to threaten a man or woman with the law written in their hearts. This is why putting a Christian back under law is a very poor substitute for a living relationship (not to mention the problem that if righteousness is through the law, “Christ died to no purpose”). 

Now, as it turns out, the behavior of a serious Christian may be in some ways indistinguishable from that of a faithful Jew in the Old Testament. But this is because the character of God is consistent, not because both are keeping laws. The Holy Spirit indwelling the believer will unerringly point him or her toward thoughts, words and actions that please God.

Is it really a stretch that this ends up putting the Christian in very familiar moral territory?

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