The Expository Files


 Jesus, the Law, and the Gospel of the Kingdom

 Matthew 5:17-42

I have noticed, especially in the context of some discussions regarding issues of marriage, divorce, and remarriage (MDR), a recent tendency to see Jesus only through the prism of the Law of Moses. Some are teaching that Jesus and Moses taught the same thing regarding marriage matters, along with all other things.

This is not a perspective that one would gain from the account given in Matthew 19:1-9, wherein Jesus first appeals to "the beginning" and then declares that Moses gave the law regarding divorce because of the hardness of the heart of Israel, but that "from the beginning it has not been so" (Matthew 19:8).

This perspective comes more from a particular interpretation of Matthew 5:17-18, and assumptions that underlie that interpretation:

"Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished" (Matthew 5:17-18).

Many reason from this statement that since Jesus is not going to adapt the Law in any way, everything which He will say will be in accordance with that Law.

Such an interpretation may make sense on the surface, but when one begins to investigate what Jesus continues to teach His disciples and the crowds around Him, many inconsistencies become glaring.

"Ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, 'Thou shalt not kill;' and 'whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment': but I say unto you, that every one who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment; and whosoever shall say to his brother, 'Raca,' shall be in danger of the council; and whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the hell of fire. If therefore thou art offering thy gift at the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee, leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift" (Matthew 5:21-24).

Jesus quotes the Law of Moses from Exodus 20:3 and Leviticus 24:21/Numbers 35:16. The sense of the guidelines is clear enough: one should not kill one's fellow man, and to do so is to be liable for death yourself. But Jesus does not stop there-- He indicates that "I say unto you," speaking on His own authority, that they ought not even be angry with or insult their brethren.

Many came for generations speaking in the name of the LORD, either prophesying by inspiration, or by interpreting the text in an understandable way. Jesus here does no such thing-He indicates what the Law says, and then speaks on His own authority in a different direction, despite the fact that the Law taught that if any added to it, they were false prophets (Deuteronomy 4:2, 18:20). How can it be, then, that Moses and Jesus are saying the same thing? If they are saying the same thing, why would Jesus not say as much?

"Ye have heard that it was said, 'Thou shalt not commit adultery': but I say unto you, that every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart" (Matthew 5:27-28).

Jesus again quotes from the Ten Commandments, this time in Exodus 20:14. Jesus again, on His own authority, expands the realm of adultery to include not just the action but the mental desire for the action-- another matter not specified in the Law.

"It was said also, 'Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement': but I say unto you, that every one that putteth away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, maketh her an adulteress: and whosoever shall marry her when she is put away committeth adultery" (Matthew 5:31-32).

Here we come to one of the contentious passages-- Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 24:1, and yet on His own authority would seem to go further. Considering the previous examples and the examples to come, how can it be that Jesus and Moses are saying the same thing? Jesus is making deliberate contrasts between what is written in the Law and what He Himself is saying.

"Again, ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, 'Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths': but I say unto you, swear not at all; neither by the heaven, for it is the throne of God; nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, for thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your speech be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: and whatsoever is more than these is of the evil one" (Matthew 5:33-37).

The contrast here is stark. The Law allows for oaths to be made, as long as one does not swear falsely and does what is sworn (Leviticus 19:12, Deuteronomy 23:23). Jesus goes plenty further: do not swear at all. Let your yes be yes and your no, no, and move on.

"Ye have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth': but I say unto you, resist not him that is evil: but whosoever smiteth thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man would go to law with thee, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away" (Matthew 5:38-42).

Here Jesus addresses the lex talionis, or the concept of "an eye for an eye," established in the Law in Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21. This commandment is not to be interpreted as a mandate for action; it is universally agreed upon that the law is given not to enforce punishment as much as limit vengeance and retribution so that it fits the loss. One has no justification to take an arm for an eye, a leg for a foot, or so on. Punishment for loss should be equal to the loss.

Regardless, Jesus undermines the entire concept by teaching that no vengeance should be taken at all, and that further aid should be given freely. There is no basis for this imposition in the Law.

We can see quite clearly, therefore, that marked contrasts are being made between what was said "of old," all either explicitly or ultimately deriving from Moses' legislation, with what Jesus Himself is saying. These things were astonishing to the people, "for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes" (Matthew 7:29).

Is Jesus here changing the Law? Far from it! One could live by every precept Jesus enjoins in Matthew 5 and never violate the Law of Moses. On the other hand, to bind these precepts as part of the Law of Moses would be just as bad as loosing some of the Law, as Deuteronomy 4:2 indicates:

Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.

For Jesus to bind what He says as part of the Law of Moses would make Him no different in kind from the Pharisees who bound plenty of traditions to "build a fence" around the Torah; if this were the case, then He has no ground to argue against the Pharisees as He does in Matthew 12:1-8, for what the Pharisees would do to the Sabbath Jesus would be doing for oaths, divorce, and punishment.

We need to reconsider what Jesus says in Matthew 5:17-18, and include also verses 19-20.

"Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven."

Jesus here is not commenting on Himself as much as condemning the Pharisees. He indicates, quite subtly, how He is not attempting to adapt or change the Law in any way, but that the Pharisees do this very thing by their traditions. He is not teaching people to break Moses' Law.

But yet what He presents in Matthew 5 itself does not correlate to Moses' teaching. How can this be?

The difficulty rests in the presupposition that whatever Jesus teaches must be part of the old covenant since He lives under the old covenant. Christians in past ages are rightly chastised for diminishing Jesus' Jewishness-- perhaps many today have tipped the balance too far the other way, and make Jesus nothing but a Jew. Neither perspective can withstand the witness of the New Testament.

Consider what Matthew says about Jesus just before the "Sermon on the Mount" in Matthew 5-7:

From that time began Jesus to preach, and to say, "Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand"...And Jesus went about in all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of disease and all manner of sickness among the people (Matthew 4:17, 23).

Jesus was preaching the good news of the Kingdom-- the covenant that was coming, and present in the form of the King Himself.

In reality, we universally confess that the Sermon on the Mount represents part of this good news of the Kingdom by our use of Matthew 6:33:

"But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you."

"His Kingdom?" Where is this understood in terms of the Law of Moses and the old covenant? How often is this verse used to speak about how Christians ought to conduct themselves in their lives?

The application of this verse to the new covenant is not in error. Far too often it is forgotten that while the events described in the Gospels transpired under the old covenant, they were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John under the new. They wrote so that people could believe in Jesus or have certainty regarding the things they were taught of Him (John 20:30-31, Luke 1:3). Two of them (Matthew and John) were explicitly promised the Helper, the Holy Spirit, who was going to bring to their remembrance all things Jesus said (John 14:26). Doubtless this is true also of the other two witnesses, of themselves or of Peter and Paul with whom they worked. The Gospels, therefore, are not mere antiquities talking about a Jew living a thoroughly Jewish life teaching only Jewish matters-- the Gospels present the good news of the Kingdom and its king Jesus Christ, who did live and die according to the Law of Moses, but who taught the Gospel of the Kingdom while He was still on earth.

It is true that much of the substance of the message of the Law and the Kingdom are the same-- hence it is possible for Jesus to affirm that one who understood how all the Law was summed up in the need to love God and neighbor was "not far from the Kingdom of God" (Mark 12:28-34). Nevertheless, we should not assume that the Kingdom and the Law are in complete harmony, nor that Jesus was speaking novelties: in many instances He returns to the original intentions of God.

Such is clear in Matthew 19:3-12:

And there came unto him Pharisees, trying him, and saying, "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?"
And he answered and said, "Have ye not read, that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said,
'For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh?'
So that they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder."
They say unto him, "Why then did Moses command to give a bill of divorcement, and to put her away?"
He saith unto them, "Moses for your hardness of heart suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it hath not been so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and he that marrieth her when she is put away committeth adultery."
The disciples say unto him, "If the case of the man is so with his wife, it is not expedient to marry."
But he said unto them, "Not all men can receive this saying, but they to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs, that were so born from their mother's womb: and there are eunuchs, that were made eunuchs by men: and there are eunuchs, that made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it" (Matthew 19:3-12).

Notice some important concepts at work here:

1. Jesus bases His statements on "the beginning," returning to God's intentions for mankind as exemplified in Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:24).

2. When the Pharisees press Him about what Moses says, Jesus indicates that the law from Moses was not based in God's desire but the hardness of Israel's heart (Matthew 19:8). Jesus does not say, "traditions of Moses," but "Moses" himself.

3. The disciples certainly do not understand Jesus' teaching as exactly what Moses taught-- they could not see why any would marry if divorce were only for porneia!

4. Jesus' statement of endurance explicitly mentions the Kingdom of Heaven-- quite odd if He's just talking about Jews and the Law. He is likely speaking regarding His own celibacy and perhaps the celibacy of others with Him for the purposes of establishing God's will on earth.

It's hard to see how Matthew 19:3-12 demonstrates that Moses and Jesus taught the same things. There is no room for David and Solomon's polygamy or the freedom to divorce that marked the Jews in Jesus' interpretation. Jesus does not say, "well, this is what Moses intended". He clearly shows that the Pharisees have accurately interpreted what Moses said by the concession of verse 8 (Moses did allow for divorce, but only because you have hard hearts). He then applies God's intentions as will be manifest in His Kingdom-- one man one woman for life.

Another relevant example is found in Mark 7:14-23:

And he called to him the multitude again, and said unto them, "Hear me all of you, and understand: there is nothing from without the man, that going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are those that defile the man. If any man hath ears to hear, let him hear."
And when he was entered into the house from the multitude, his disciples asked of him the parable.
And he saith unto them, "Are ye so without understanding also? Perceive ye not, that whatsoever from without goeth into the man, it cannot defile him; because it goeth not into his heart, but into his belly, and goeth out into the draught?"
This he said, making all meats clean.
And he said, "That which proceedeth out of the man, that defileth the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, evil thoughts proceed, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetings, wickednesses, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, railing, pride, foolishness: all these evil things proceed from within, and defile the man" (Mark 7:14-23).

Let us first understand the situation and then Mark's interpretation. Jesus is being critiqued by the Pharisees since His disciples did not wash their hands (Mark 7:1-5). Jesus takes the opportunity to teach the truth present in the Gospel of the Kingdom: defilement is not something you obtain from foods that pass through the body and are excreted, for defilement comes from the evil intentions of the heart.

This is as far as Jesus pressed the issue. Yet Mark, writing his Gospel under the new covenant, makes his inspired commentary in verse 19:

This he said, making all meats clean.

Mark is drawing out for us the inescapable conclusion from what Jesus says: if defilement does not really come from food, but from what people think and do, then all those meats called unclean in Leviticus 11 are not inherently unclean, just considered so for God's purposes for Israel. Mark provides the same conclusion for us that Paul provides in Romans 14: nothing is unclean of itself. But notice that Mark does not say that such is just his later interpretation of what Jesus said-- he indicates that He established all meats were clean. While Mark writes the commentary, he is being guided by Jesus in an attempt to understand what Jesus was revealing.

What do we say to all of this? In Matthew 5:17-18, Jesus is telling His Jewish audience that He has no intention of adapting the Law itself-- after all, it is not adaptable, per Deuteronomy 4:2. Instead, He is preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, a message that can resonate with Jews but fully and finally establishes God's intentions for mankind. This Gospel is highlighted throughout Jesus' ministry, and used as the basis of teaching Christians in the new covenant how to conduct themselves in life. What Jesus says in Matthew 5, Matthew 19, and Mark 7 find their parallels in Romans 12, Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 7, 1 Corinthians 8, and James 5:12, and not in anything espoused by the Law.

It is therefore a false assumption that since Jesus lived according to the Law that everything He promoted was according to the Law. He did live according to the Law and thus fulfilled it, as Matthew 5:17-18 establishes, but He taught the Gospel of the Kingdom for those who would hear. Let us be those who are willing to hear Jesus and do what He says!

By Ethan R. Longhenry
From Expository Files 15.8; August 2008