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Our Lord's Understanding of the Law of God

The Rev. J. I. Packer, M.A., D.Phil.

The Campbell Morgan Memorial Bible Lectureship. No. 14
Westminster Chapel, Buckingham Gate, London, S.W.1
[Reproduced by permission]

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On June 10th 1953, Professor R. V. G. Tasker delivered an admirable Campbell Morgan Bible Lecture on the subject of 'Our Lord's Use of the Old Testament'. In his introduction he described his subject as 'one which we may be very sure would have appealed to him whose memory this lectureship was founded to perpetuate'. I hope that the same can be said of my own subject. What I have to put before you is, from one standpoint, a supplement to Professor Tasker's lecture, exploring further some of the lines of thought which he opened up on that occasion and confirming some of his conclusions. My aim is to examine our Lord's view of the authority and meaning of the law of God which is set forth in the Old Testament. And I think that such a study may be of value to us in two special ways.

First, it may contribute to the maintaining of evangelical faith.

The foundation of the historic evangelical faith is the doctrine of the inspiration, clarity, sufficiency, and authority of the Holy Scriptures. The first mark of an evangelical is that he believes that version of the Christian message which he finds in the Bible, and no other. Also, he thinks himself bound to believe everything that he finds taught in the Bible, and to order his life in accordance with it. Why is this? Because he regards the Bible, as a whole and in all its parts, as the true and trustworthy Word of God, given to be an authoritative rule of faith and practice for the Church. This is the historic evangelical position.

But, as we know, many Protestants today, both liberals of the older type and spokesmen for the current Barthian and 'biblical theology' movements, reject the evangelical view of Scripture, and maintain against it that there are in the Bible both records of fact and statements of doctrine which, though purporting to be true, are in reality false. In face of this, evangelicals are accustomed to insist that their faith in the truth and authority of all Scripture rests upon the explicit testimony of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself to the inspiration and authority of the Old Testament. This was the thrust of Professor Tasker's own lecture, and it is a point on which many have laid stress in recent years. Sometimes, however, it is met with the following reply: that whatever our Lord may have said about the Old Testament in general terms, and whatever use He may have made of it when arguing ad hominem with his Jewish opponents, He clearly did not regard it as entirely authoritative, since He publicly criticised it and parted company with it on such matters

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as divorce, oath taking, revenge, the treatment of one's enemies, and the food laws. On all these matters (it is said) our Lord consciously and deliberately went against the Mosaic enactments. So we cannot justifiably invoke any of Christ's statements as grounds for holding that the Bible is always right and to be followed, because the Christ who made these statements sometimes insisted that the Old Testament was in fact wrong, and to be disregarded.

It is clearly important for evangelicals to determine whether there is substance in this contention or not. Did Christ really set aside the Old Testament in the manner alleged? Was He really a proto-liberal in His handling of the sacred text? Clearly, we need to look again at the relevant evidence in the four gospels to see if this is the right construction to put on it. That is one of the things that we are going to do now. And if it appears, as I think it will, that in reality our Lord never set the law aside at all, then we shall at once have in our hands the answer to this argument for discounting the significance of our Lord's testimony to Holy Scripture.

Then, secondly, this study may also contribute to the strengthening of evangelical life.

It is often said that standards of conduct and integrity among evangelical Christians today are not as high as they were in days gone by. Few, I think, would feel able to dispute the justice of this accusation. But why should it be so? Some might point to the way in which standards of honesty, purity, and general decency have fallen in society around us, and find in this the cause of our own moral decline. And there would no doubt be an element of truth in such a diagnosis: certainly, when the ideals and values of our callous and immodest culture are constantly being shouted at us by newspapers, novels, radio, television, and public advertisements, it is impossible for us to avoid feeling their impact, however much we might wish to. Yet the root of our trouble must surely lie deeper than this. After all, what the Bible calls 'the world' and 'the spirit of the world' is not essentially different today from what it always has been. And it is just a fact of history that in the days when Puritan laymen and the early Evangelicals became a byword, as they did, for sheer goodness and integrity, the general standards of public morality were no higher than they are now, and in some cases even lower. What was it, then, we ask, that made the difference between their lives and ours? Why were they so outstanding for righteousness while we are so feeble at this point? Even a cursory study of their life and thought will show us that what made the difference was this: not that the pull of the world on them was any less strong or insidious than it is on us, but rather that their minds and hearts were more deeply exercised in the law of God than ours are.

The root of our trouble, putting it quite plainly, seems to be that we

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neither know nor care much about the law of our God. On the one hand, we do not give ourselves to studying and applying the law in the way that our evangelical forefathers did. Our neglect of the Old Testament, in particular, bears witness to this. On the other hand, our thinking, unlike theirs, has a lawless tinge. There is an antinomian streak running through it. We act as if our freedom from the law has made it a matter of comparative unimportance whether we keep the law in daily life or not. We appear to care more for right faith than we do for right living. We show a greater concern to be orthodox than to be upright. We seem to be more anxious to know the truth than we are to adorn it by our behaviour; we are, it appears, more interested in feeding our own souls than in doing good to our neighbours. We lap up the doctrinal chapters of the Epistles, but we skate over the ethical ones. Our Lord accused the Pharisees of antinomianism, telling them that they had 'overlooked the weightier demands of the Law, justice, mercy, and good faith' (Mt. xxiii, 23, N.E.B.); would he not have reason to bring a similar accusation against us? Here, then, is the root cause of our present moral flabbiness: we have neglected God's law.

What we need, therefore, is a quickening of conscience with regard to the moral demands of the New Testament. One means to this would be a deepened understanding of the Old Testament moral teaching in which those demands are rooted. It is my hope that this present study of our Lord's understanding of the Mosaic law, however sketchy and selective, may, under God, contribute a little at both these points.

The exposition will proceed in three stages. In the first section, we shall lay down some general principles about the place of Christ's ethical teaching in His total ministry. In the second section, we shall examine in some detail Christ's view of the authority of the Old Testament law. In the third section, we shall pass in brief review His own positive exposition of that law.


I. THE PLACE OF CHRIST'S ETHICAL TEACHING IN HIS MINISTRY AS A WHOLE

A view which has been widely current during the past eighty years is that the real Jesus of Nazareth was never more than a moral instructor: all that He sought to do was to teach, and all that He sought to teach was ethics. This idea originally formed part of the larger theory that there is a fundamental cleavage between the historical Jesus, whom we meet in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and the Jesus of New Testament theology, the Jesus whom we meet in the Epistles and the gospel of John. Those who held this theory usually blamed Paul for turning the Rabbi of Galilee into a divine Saviour, and they often described the

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cleavage which they postulated as being between 'the Jesus of history' and 'the Christ of Paul'. Naturally, they sought to separate the ethical teaching of Jesus from the supposedly unauthentic theology about His person and work in which the New Testament writers had embedded it. And this was the conclusion that they reached; that Jesus' teaching boils down simply to the universal duty of loving our neighbour, on the basis of a belief in God's universal fatherhood. In other words, we are to regard every man, irrespective of class, colour, or creed, as God's child and therefore our own brother, and treat him accordingly. This, they held, was to Jesus' mind the whole duty of man. Thus, Jesus' teaching finds its full and complete expression in the 'golden rule' of Mt, vii. 12, 'do as you would be done by', and its perfect illustration in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

(One supposes that it is because the Sermon on the Mount contains the 'golden rule', together with a passage on loving one's enemies, Mt. v. 43-7, that it was claimed so often by the advocates of this theory as the classic summary of Jesus' teaching. From their point of view, however, the claim was somewhat inept, since the other 101 of the Sermon's 107 verses are demonstrably about matters which their own theory ignored - salvation from sin, and the life of faith: as the minister of this chapel showed in detail between the years 1950 and 1952.[1]).

It will be seen that the theory which we have outlined involves the assumption that the moral teaching of Jesus stands, as it were, on its own feet, not depending for its interpretation or validity on any knowledge at all about the teacher who gave it. It would have made no difference to its meaning, or its claim upon us, if it had been given by Mohammed or Confucius. The theory that the Jesus of history was not the Christ of Paul is now generally abandoned, but this assumption, that our Lord's ethical teaching can be understood without reference to the rest of His ministry, still lingers on in many places. Our first step, therefore, must be to challenge it. For in fact the moral teaching of Jesus does not, and never did, stand alone, and if we isolate it from the larger context to which it belongs we are certain to misunderstand it. What is that larger context? It is precisely the same context as that to which the ethical teaching of the Epistles belongs - the context, namely, of redemption. Christ's ethics, like those of the apostolic writers, are corollaries of the gospel which sets Him forth as the divine Saviour.

Since this point is fundamental to my whole argument, I propose to spend a little time explaining and confirming it. To this end, I shall lay down two propositions. The first has to do with the relation of Christ's spoken ministry, as such, to the rest of His work on earth: the second has to do with the relation of His ethical teaching to His preaching of the

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gospel. The first proposition is that all Christ's preaching and teaching presupposed His atonement. The second is that all Christ's ethical teaching presupposed His preaching of the gospel.

The first proposition affirms that Christ's work of redemption, appointed from eternity, foreshadowed and guaranteed at His baptism, and finally accomplished at Calvary, was the basis upon which His entire spoken ministry rested. The gospels make this very clear. They tell us that Christ's preaching ministry began with the announcement: 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel' (Mk. i. 15). The 'gospel' referred to was the good news of the nearness of the kingdom: for the kingdom of God was the state of affairs, foretold by the prophets, in which God's people would enjoy peace, safety, and happiness in the fullest measure under the rule of the Messiah. How was it, we ask, that Jesus could announce that this kingdom was at hand? Why, because He Himself was at hand, the divine-human King of Old Testament prophecy. For He was not just a Galilean Rabbi; He was God the Son made flesh; and He had come to reign. The reason, therefore, why He could announce the presence of God's promised salvation was that He, the promised King, was now present in person to bestow that salvation on all who submitted to His rule. Thus His preaching of the kingdom was based directly upon the fact of His own kingship. But kingship was not the whole of Messiah-ship. The gospels indicate that Christ's kingly rule was itself based on something more fundamental, namely, the ministry of atonement. That which the gospels show to have been really primary in Jesus' Messianic vocation was the action which He performed at the end of His earthly ministry - the offering of Himself as a sacrifice for sin, according to the prophecy of Isaiah liii; for it was His atoning death that actually secured for sinners the blessings of the new relationship with God into which as King He had been leading them throughout His public ministry. The reason why He had been able during those three years to forgive men's sins and make them God's sons was because He was already pledged to die for them on Calvary's cross; He could not have done it otherwise. This was what lay behind His quotation from Isaiah liii in the upper room: 'this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors' (Lk. xxii. 37). The new covenant, which He had for three years been ministering, must now be sealed by His blood (vs. 30). Earlier, He had told His disciples that the basic reason why He was in the world was to die for sinners: 'The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many' (Mk. x. 45). We see, then, that Christ came, not only as a prophet, to announce salvation; not only as king, to bestow the salvation He announced; but first and foremost as priest and sacrifice,

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to lay the foundation of the salvation He bestowed by bearing away men's sins. All His ministry of directing and leading sinners into a knowledge of the grace of the kingdom - a knowledge, that is, of forgiveness of sin and adoption into the family of God - presupposed His forthcoming atonement as its basis, and apart from that basis it could not have been performed at all. So if we fail to interpret His preaching and teaching about the kingdom in the light of the atonement, we are bound to misconstrue it. And since all His public preaching and teaching had to do, in one way or another, with the kingdom, we can go so far as to say that nothing He ever taught can be properly understood without reference to His redemptive death. So much for the first proposition.

The second proposition is that all Christ's ethical instruction presupposed His preaching of what Mark calls 'the gospel of the kingdom of God' (Mk. i. 14) - preaching, that is, by which He summoned sinners to enter into this new relationship of peace and fellowship with God through faith in Himself. This amounts simply to saying that all the teaching He gave on how to live was meant for people who had already received 'the gospel of the kingdom', who had already trusted Him as their Saviour and Lord, and who thus had already been forgiven, and born again, and adopted into God's family. The gospels give proof of this proposition by telling us specifically that all our Lord's set discourses on ethical themes - principally, the Sermon on the Mount, the Sermon on the Plain, and the sermons in Luke xii and Matthew xviii - were directed, not to the listening crowds, but to His own disciples (see Mt. v. 1, xviii. 1, Lk. vi. 20, xii. 1, 22), whom He addresses as already children of God and heirs of the kingdom (cf. Mt. v. 45, 48, Lk. xii. 32). (It would seem that the disciples did in fact enter the kingdom when first they gave Jesus unreserved allegiance as Messiah (cf. Jn. i. 40 ff.) even though it was not till much later that they understood either the meaning of His Messiahship or the nature and blessings of the kingdom into which they had come). Jesus' moral teaching, then, was meant for believers; hence it follows that it presupposed His preaching of the gospel of the kingdom, through which men become believers.

Once we see this, the nature of Christ's ethical teaching becomes clear. Jesus legislated, not for men as such, nor for men in the state of sin, but for Christians, for men in the state of grace, for those who had given their hearts to Him and so had come to know themselves as forgiven sinners, sons and heirs of God. Jesus' ethics are not the ethics of the Garden of Eden, nor the ethics of Egypt and Babylon, but the ethics of the kingdom of God. Again, Jesus legislated, not for society, but for the individual Christian. As entry into the kingdom by faith is a personal and individual matter, so living in the kingdom by grace under the King's royal law is a personal and individual matter; and so our Lord treats it. His ethics

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are therefore not a code for a statute-book, but an ideal for the individual citizen of God's kingdom. Christ's ethics are Christian in the fundamental sense of being ethics for Christians, and for Christians only. In other words, Christ's ethics are a corollary of Christ's gospel, and cannot be understood except in terms of it. What Paul calls 'the law of Christ' (Gal. vi. 2) is specifically and concretely a law for the redeemed. By saying this, we do not, of course, mean to deny that in one sense the law of Christ binds all men, as embodying a definitive expression of God's unchanging demands upon mankind. But we do mean to assert that Christ's exposition of God's eternal law is given in terms of the particular situation of the believer, and of nobody else. It is a statement of God's law as it applies to the citizen of God's kingdom. The only man to whose condition it speaks directly is the born-again Christian.

From this we can see what was new about the law of Christ, as compared with the law of the old covenant. Christ's law was new in the same sense in which Christ's gospel of the kingdom was new. As the kingdom was not a new departure, but a fulfilment of prophecy, according to the redemptive pattern established at the Exodus, so the law of Christ was not a new departure, but a filling-out of the law which Moses gave to God's redeemed people in the wilderness, and a re-stating of its demands in terms of the new situation which the coming of the kingdom had created.

What new factors, then, appear in Christ's re-statement of the law? Chiefly, two. First, we find a new depth of exposition. This follows directly from the enlarged and deepened revelation of God's grace to the individual sinner which the gospel of the kingdom contains.

A basic principle of all biblical ethics is the principle of the family likeness - the principle, that is, that those who are God's by right of creation and redemption must strive to imitate Him, so that their character will reflect His. This principle was announced to Israel in the wilderness, after their deliverance from Egypt: 'Ye shall be holy: for I the LORD your God am holy' (Lev. xix. 2). The principle was re-stated by Christ, in slightly different terms, to His own disciples, the children of the kingdom: 'Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect' (Mt. v. 48). In form, these two commands correspond; but in meaning the second, in its gospel context, goes further than the first. For Christians, through their personal knowledge of forgiveness, new birth, and God's fatherhood, know more of the riches of God's free love to sinners than individual Israelites knew, or could know, in Old Testament days. The words 'your Father which is in heaven' in our Lord's statement of the principle point to the difference. Israel knew God as the Father of the nation, it is true (cf. Ex. iv. 22, Ho. xi. 1), but nowhere in the Old Testament did God reveal Himself as the Father of the

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individual believer, in the way that the gospel of the kingdom reveals Him. The Christian knows much more of the height, and depth, and length, and breadth, of God's free love to him personally than the Old Testament saint knew. Therefore the imitating of God will require of him correspondingly more in the way of generous and spontaneous love to others than was demanded of Israel.

Hence we find in the law of Christ emphases relating to the love of others which go beyond anything that the Old Testament law contained. For instance, the Christian must love his enemies. Again, the Christian must be infinitely forgiving, because of the infinite debt of sin that has been forgiven him (Mt. xviii. 21 ff.). Again, the Christian must keep a 'new' commandment - he must love his fellow-Christians as Christ loved Him (Jn. xiii. 34). What is new about this is not the demand for love to one's brother, on which the Old Testament has a good deal to say, but the standard of love that Christ sets; the commandment is 'new' simply because the love of Christ dying to redeem the ungodly creates an entirely new ideal of what mutual care and service among Christians ought to mean. These three examples are typical illustrations of how the subject-matter of the gospel imparted a new depth and richness to our Lord's exposition of the law.

The second fresh feature in Christ's re-statement of the law is a new stress in application. This was due to the change of circumstances under which the law was then being set forth.

The Mosaic law as a whole is stated in a predominantly negative form. It contains a mass of prohibitions and what the Puritans would have called 'dehortations', and even the Decalogue is cast into the mould of 'thou-shalt-not'. Also, the whole exposition of the law from Exodus to Deuteronomy is punctuated with most tremendous threats and warnings about the consequences of disobedience. The law was given to Israel in this way for three main reasons.

First, it was intended to function as a code regulating the national life of the Old Testament church; and it is natural when expounding a law-code to centre attention upon the defining of crime and of penalties for crime.

Second, the law was intended, as Paul tells us in Gal. iii. 19-24, to prepare the Jews for the coming of Christ. This it did, says Paul, by acting as gaoler and tutor. As gaoler, it kept men 'shut up' in custody, under bondage, forced to shoulder a burden of observances which, as Peter said, 'neither our fathers nor we were able to bear' (Acts xv. 10; Gal. iii. 23). As tutor, it made them ready for Christ by convincing them that they were sinners needing a Saviour (vs. 24). It was natural that, in order that the law might serve this purpose, stress should have been laid in the giving of it upon the forbidding of ritual omissions and

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the detecting of moral lapses, and the detailing of God's judgments upon both.

And then, third, the law was meant to act as a 'wall of partition' (Eph. ii. 14) between Jew and Gentile, keeping the Jews from the pagan ways of surrounding nations and isolating them for the moral and spiritual training that God planned to give them. Naturally, therefore, emphasis was laid on prohibiting the evils in which Israel's neighbours indulged and laying down penal sanctions against them.

These three factors explain why prohibitions and threats should have dominated the Old Testament law in the way that they did. When the kingdom of God came, however, these factors ceased to apply; and when Christ re-stated the law, His sole purpose was to teach the sons of God how life in the kingdom ought to be lived. The result was a complete shift of emphasis. To start with, the law as Christ taught it is predominantly positive; He lays the stress directly upon love to God and man. Also, the law of Christ concerns itself with character, and underlines the importance of a right attitude and motive in one's heart. Christ calls repeatedly for humility (Mt. v. 3, xviii. 1 ff., xviii. 9 ff.), a single eye to God and the things of God (Mt. vi. 22 ff.), uncalculating generosity (Mt. v. 42, Lk. xiv. 12 ff.), unconquerable meekness (Mt. v. 5, 38 ff.), heavenly-mindedness (Mt. vi. 19 ff.), and unselfconsciousness in welldoing (Mt. vi. 3, xxv. 37 ff.); and He reserves His fiercest denunciations for pride (Lk. xiv. 11), hypocrisy (Mt. vi. 1-18, vii. 1 ff., xxiii. 13 ff., Lk. xii. 1), and covetousness, the service of mammon (Mt. vi. 24, Lk. xii. 15 ff.). These things are not stressed in the Old Testament as our Lord stresses them. We see, then, that when Christ re-stated the law in the light of the coming of the kingdom, He shifted the whole centre of interest and emphasis away from the externals of correct or conventional conduct to the heart and character of the child of God. In all His teaching on the Christian life, it is with this that He was supremely concerned. And we who call ourselves His disciples can hardly excuse ourselves if we do not share His concern.


II. CHRIST'S VIEW OF THE AUTHORITY OF THE OLD TESTAMENT LAW

From what has been said thus far, we might expect to find that our Lord brushed aside the Old Testament legislation as no longer having any relevance for Christian people. It is striking, therefore, to observe that in fact He did exactly the opposite, and asserted in categorical terms its abiding validity. 'It is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle (tiny letter) of the law to fail' (Lk. xvi. 17). 'Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all

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be fulfilled' (Mt. v. 18). The law, He added, retains its binding force specifically over those who have entered the kingdom. 'Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven (i.e., of God); but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven' (vs. 19). He scathingly dismisses the oral law, 'the tradition of the elders', by which the Pharisees set such store, as unauthoritative 'commandments of men' (Mk. vii. 7), but by contrast He insists that the written Mosaic injunctions are 'the commandment of God', 'the word of God' (Mk. vii. 8 f., 13), and must therefore be obeyed.

He tells us further that we should radically misunderstand His own ministry if we thought that the new order which He was bringing in involved any annulment, relaxing, or cancellation of the Old Testament law. 'Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets; I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil' (Mt. v. 17). From this statement it would appear that, just as in His life and death He was consciously fulfilling the pattern of the Messianic ministry which He found laid down in the Old Testament prophets, so in His moral teaching He was consciously reaffirming, in its new and final application, what He discerned to be the substance of the Old Testament law. It is significant that He should have made the statement at all; clearly, He thought it important to guard against misunderstanding at this point, and to make it clear that, though He had come to change much in the life of God's people, He had not come to set aside the Scriptures. In Jn. x. 35, arguing from the statement 'ye are gods' in Ps. lxxxii. 6, He lays it down as a premise common to Himself and His Jewish critics that 'the Scripture cannot be broken' (that is, refuted, confuted, or overthrown). That this was His genuine conviction, and that, like other Jews of His day, He held that the written Scriptures of the Old Testament were verbally inspired, would seem to be the natural conclusion to draw from this statement, and from the other texts which we have quoted in the preceding paragraph.

But it is just here, as we said earlier, that a problem arises. There appear at first sight to be five points at which Christ brushes aside, on His own personal authority, the teaching of the Old Testament law. The first is His denial of the legitimacy of divorce for any cause but adultery (if, indeed, that), despite the existence of a Mosaic procedural regulation for divorce in Dt. xxiv. 1 ff. (see Mt. v. 32, xix. 3 ff., Mk. x. 2 f., Lk. xvi. 18). The second, third, and fourth are the sections in the Sermon on the Mount where He appears to criticise the Mosaic regulations about swearing, revenge, and benevolence ('ye have heard that it was said ... but I say unto you, Swear not at all ... resist not evil ... love your enemies'). The fifth is the passage in which He lays it down that man is defiled, not by the food that goes into him, but by the evil that

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comes out of him; a statement which seems to deny the assumption that underlay Moses' list of unclean meats in Leviticus xi. Mark, reporting the episode, comments on the significance of Christ's words in this connection - 'Thus he declared all foods clean' (Mk. vii. 19, N.E.B.). In these five cases, Christ's attitude to Old Testament teaching appears inconsistent with that which He seems to profess elsewhere. And this creates a problem.

But what exactly is the problem? It might be either one of two quite different problems. On the one hand, if in the passages cited Christ really rejects Old Testament teaching because He disapproves of it, then the problem is to explain what He meant when He asserted in general terms the law's unqualified authority. On the other hand, if we accept these general assertions at their face value, then the problem is to explain what He meant in the five cases quoted. Which of these two ways of formulating the problem is the right one?

Let us for a moment explore the first view of the problem. Those who take it would presumably wish to hold that Christ's real attitude to the Old Testament all along was one of critical independence. Christ, on their view, was a proto-liberal: He set Himself above Scripture as judge of its teaching, accepting what He approved and rejecting what He did not. As the late C. J. Cadoux put it, Christ always followed 'his own direct awareness of what was true and good'; hence He 'took the liberty of freely setting aside one injunction of Scripture in favour of another, and even of appealing from the Mosaic law itself to ultimate principles grasped intuitively. This independent attitude to the law did not prevent him quoting as divine and authoritative those parts of it which he felt to be eternally valid' - but it did stop Him from endorsing those parts with which He disagreed.[2] As we have said, the problem on this view is to explain the presence in the gospels of such statements as 'the Scripture cannot be broken', and our Lord's twice-repeated insistence that not the smallest detail of the law shall pass away (i.e., lose its force) as long as time lasts (Lk. xvi. 17, Mt. v. 18). If these statements did not express our Lord's mind, what are they doing in the text?

Only two answers to this question are really possible. The first is to say that the statements are not genuine. But there is no evidence to warrant such a verdict. The second answer is to say, as Cadoux did, that when our Lord made these statements He did not really mean what He said: not that He sought deliberately to deceive His hearers as to His own views (that idea is surely quite incredible), but rather that He did not fully know His own mind. Either His view of the authority of Scripture altered, or oscillated, during the course of His ministry, or else He simply failed to see that His treatment of particular texts was

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inconsistent with His own professed principles. Cadoux allowed for both possibilities. But our Lord Himself would seem to rule them both out when He assures us that 'my doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me' (Jn. vii. 16); 'as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things' (Jn. viii. 28); 'I have not spoken of myself; but the Father ... gave me a commandment, what I should say' (Jn. xii. 49); and therefore 'heaven and earth shall pass away; but my words shall not pass away' (Mk. xiii. 31). If we accept our Lord's testimony that all His teaching was divinely given and abidingly true, we can hardly be content with Cadoux's theory that this part of it, at any rate, was the product of an unstable or muddled mind.

Moreover, if it were really the case that Christ parted company with Moses in the five cases under discussion, why did not His enemies make this a ground of accusation against Him? When He threw out His challenge, Which of you convinceth me of sin?' (Jn. viii. 46), why did not somebody cite the fact that at certain points He would not accept the authority of the Mosaic law? Why was it that at His trial the Jews had to invoke the aid of false witnesses in order to trump up any sort of charge against Him? Clearly, not even His bitterest foes thought that He had at any point denied the authority of the Mosaic law, much as they would have liked to think it. And it is certain that Matthew, Mark, and Luke did not think so. For they report Christ as preceding His teaching on the five points in question by the most emphatic vindications of the authority of the law. Thus, in Matthew v Christ's teaching about divorce, oaths, revenge, and loving one's enemies follows straight upon verses 17-19, in which, as we saw, Christ affirms that the entire law stands for ever as a rule of life, even in the kingdom of God. In Luke xvi, Christ's denial of the lawfulness of divorce and remarriage (vs. 18: 'whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery') directly follows the statement that 'it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail' (vs. 17). And in Mark vii, the words in which Christ 'declared all foods clean' come straight after a slashing attack on the Pharisees for setting aside the law of Moses, and the fifth commandment in particular, in order that they might keep their own unauthoritative tradition (vss. 6 ff.). These juxtapositions, in which Matthew, Mark, and Luke clearly saw no inconsistency, are in reality most significant: for they make it virtually incredible that in the five matters under discussion our Lord was really, as we should say, 'writing off' the Mosaic law. The idea that on each of these occasions Christ should have gone straight from vindicating the law as the authoritative word of God to criticising and repudiating something it prescribed is surely fantastic.

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The only possible conclusion seems to be that in His treatment of these five points our Lord was in fact doing something quite consistent with His assertions that the law continues in force. Can we see what this was? I think so. It appears that in each case He was seeking to bring out the true meaning of the law against the negative, legalistic, external interpretation put upon it by the Pharisees. If we look at the passages in question, we shall see this clearly.

Look first at Mt. v. 21-48, a famous passage from the Sermon on the Mount in which four of our five problem cases are dealt with. The passage is a unit consisting of six sections, each of which is introduced by a version of the formula 'ye have heard that it was said ... but I say unto you'. Since each of our Lord's statements of what was 'said' starts with words from the Mosaic law, some have thought that it was the law of Moses, as such, that He was criticising. But two considerations make it clear that it was not.

First: this whole passage is introduced, and the key to its interpretation is given, by vss. 17-20, on which we have commented already. In these verses, as we saw, Christ says (a) that He has come, not to destroy the law, but to fulfil it; (b) that any disciple of His who disregards 'one of these least commandments' will suffer loss in the kingdom as a result; (c) that unless His professed disciples go beyond the righteousness of the Pharisees, they will never enter the kingdom. These verses lead us to expect that Christ's motive throughout the coming discussion will be to vindicate the law by showing the full range of its demands, and to show the incompleteness of the Pharisaic exposition of it. They are quite inconsistent with the idea that He is going to show that the law itself is in error.

Second: the introductory formula to each section is not 'ye have read that it was written - as we would expect if our Lord's intention had been to discuss the Mosaic law as such - but 'ye have heard (from your scribal instructors) that it was said'. This also indicates that Christ is contrasting what others have said that the law of Moses means and what 'I say unto you' that it means. He is challenging, not the law, but misinterpretations of the law. A final proof of this is the wording of verse 43, where our Lord says, 'Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.' The words 'and hate thine enemy' expressed part of the Pharisaic understanding of the law, no doubt, but they are not in the Old Testament at all! This shows conclusively that what Christ is criticising is the Pharisaic exposition of the law, not the law itself.

Each of the sections into which the passage falls, when studied, bears this out. Let us glance at them.

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The first two sections (vss. 21-30) deal with the sixth and seventh commandments. Christ does not find fault with either, but simply points out that they cover much more than outward acts of murder and adultery. This is evidently a hit at the externalism and lack of concern about motives that marked the Pharisaic exposition of these commandments.

The third section (vss. 31 f.) deals with divorce. Here Christ simply points out that if a man divorces his partner for any cause other than adultery and she remarries, her new husband commits adultery with her and her old husband must take the blame. He cites the Mosaic procedure for divorce ('Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement', Dt. xxiv. 1), but He does not find fault with Moses for enacting it. He had no cause to: for the enactment of itself did not confer the right to divorce upon anyone. In Mt. xix. 8 our Lord tells us how He understood Moses' action. Moses, He said, 'suffered' (allowed) you to put away your wives 'because of the hardness of your heart'. In a situation in which unfaithfulness to the marriage bond was already rampant, and wives were being irresponsibly abandoned, Moses instituted a set procedure to regulate divorce. His aim, presumably, was to keep this evil under control, and to safeguard the status of the woman by ensuring that she should have proper legal evidence that she had been put away, so that her former husband could make no further claims upon her. But Moses did not condone this evil by his endeavours to control it. Divorce was not made any the less undesirable by the introduction of a legal procedure for effecting it. And what our Lord is condemning in Mt. v. 31 ff. and xix. 3-9 is not the law which fixed this procedure, but the idea (common, we know, among the rabbis) that divorce for other causes than adultery is permissible on the basis of this Mosaic regulation. Christ counters this idea by insisting that the existence of the regulation in no way implies God's approval of the practice. As Gn. ii. 24 (quoted in Mt. xix. 5) makes clear, God's order is lifelong monogamy, and any breach of this order, however procedurally correct, is simply the highroad to adultery.

The fourth section (vss. 33-37) deals with oaths. The law on which the Pharisees laid stress (Lev. xix. 12, cf. Dt. xxiii. 21) demanded that oaths taken in God's name should be kept. Christ finds no fault with this principle. The point He is concerned to make is simply that His disciples ought to be the kind of persons whose plain word, unadorned by oaths, will stand sufficiently firm. Also, He wants to warn them against getting entangled in the Pharisaic casuistry of swearing. The Pharisees held that oaths not taken in God's name need not be kept (a dishonest subterfuge which Christ attacks directly in Mt. xxiii. 16 ff.). Here, Christ seeks to undercut this principle by showing that every oath is an

[p. 17]

implicit invocation of God. Again, however, our Lord is not in this criticising the law, but its expositors.

The fifth section (vss. 38-42) is a dissuasive from living by the principle of tit for tat. The law says that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is a right penal proportion, and Christ does not dispute this. What He does dispute, rather, is the rightness of invoking this principle (originally laid down, no doubt, to restrain disproportionate private revenges) as an incentive for trying to extract the eye and the tooth on every possible occasion. It is the vindictive spirit, the spirit that always demands reparation, that Christ is criticising. Instead of being vindictive and standing on your rights, He says, cultivate the spirit of unconquerable meekness so that you may overcome evil with good.

In the final section (vss. 43-47), on loving one's neighbour, the words 'and hate thine enemy', with which Christ finds fault, are not biblical at all, as we observed earlier; so that there is no ground whatever for supposing that Christ is here criticising anything other than Pharisaic misinterpretation of the law.

From our brief survey, we conclude that any suggestion that in this passage Christ rejects certain Mosaic laws as unauthoritative is quite groundless. What He is doing is simply exhibiting the true meaning of the law as a rule for life in the kingdom of God.

Nor can we fairly treat the words by which (according to Mark's later interpretative comment) Christ 'declared all food clean' as implying that He rejected the Old Testament food-law as uninspired and unauthoritative. The subject about which He was speaking was not, after all, food, but defilement; and what He was saying about defilement was that the thing that makes a man unclean in God's sight is not what he eats, but what comes out of his heart. This only shows that our Lord saw that the uncleanness with which the food-laws dealt was merely ceremonial, not moral or spiritual. It typified the real defilement of sin, but was not to be equated with it. That it was God who had instituted the food-law, presumably to be a constant reminder to His people of the reality of spiritual defilement, Christ was not denying in the least. The effect of His statement was thus to interpret the food-law, and throw light on its real significance, but not in any way to impugn its divine origin, or its binding authority over Himself and His fellow-Israelites.

It seems, then, that all the problem passages in which Christ appears to cast doubt on the inspiration and authority of parts of the Mosaic legislation can be explained, and, indeed, demand to be explained, in a way that is entirely consistent with Christ's assertion that no jot or tittle should ever pass from the law. Christ knew, of course, that the civil and ritual part of the law, which had been given specifically for the ordering of Israel's national life in Palestine until Christ should come,

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would soon cease to apply, when the Israelite state passed away. But when He spoke of the perpetuity of the law, what He had in mind was the moral law, which in different ways both the civil and ritual law had subserved. This, He maintained, was an abidingly authoritative word from the Lord, which, in the final form and application which He Himself had given it, would stand for ever as the law of God for His own people.


III. OUR LORD'S EXPOSITION OF THE LAW

What was the essential content of this law, as our Lord understood it? Very briefly, as we close, we will try to sketch out the answer to this question.

The heart of the law, in Christ's estimation, was the two great commandments. When the lawyer asked Him which was 'the great commandment in the law'? (a perennial topic of rabbinic debate), Christ replied by giving, not merely one, but a pair: 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself (Mt. xxii. 37 ff.). What it meant to love God with all one's powers Christ showed throughout His ministry by a mass of teaching on self-denial, the single eye, loyalty to God, prayer, trust, joy, and Christian contentment. What it meant to love one's neighbour as oneself He explained parabolically on the occasion when, in answer to the question: 'Who is my neighbour?', He told the story of the Good Samaritan. That there was a necessary link between loving God and loving one's neighbour He showed on two occasions by quoting against the Pharisees God's word in Hos. vi. 6: 'I will have mercy, and not sacrifice' (Mt. ix. 13, xii. 17). Active compassion for one's needy fellow-men, Christ means, is more acceptable in God's sight than any number of pious acts without compassion can ever be.

On the two great commandments, said our Lord, 'hang all the law and the prophets' (Mt. xxii. 40) - in other words, the rest of the Old Testament moral teaching merely expounds and applies what these two commandments say. It is here, therefore, that the Decalogue comes in, as the central core of this exposition. Our Lord Himself discussed the meaning of some of the commandments, and it is notable how in each case He penetrate to the positive requirement which underlies their negative, prohibitionary form. Thus, in dealing with the fourth commandment, to keep holy the sabbath day, Christ treated the Pharisaic approach, based as it was simply upon a casuistry of abstinence, as altogether wrong, and argued, on biblical grounds, that the Sabbath was made for man's good, and that not only works of personal necessity,

[p. 19]

but also acts of love and kindness to others, might be performed on the Sabbath with the greatest propriety (cf. Mt. xii. 1 ff., Jn. vii. 23 f., Lk. xiii. 10 ff.). Again, in commenting on the sixth commandment, as we have seen, Christ's concern was to prohibit the spirit of hate, which rules out love; indeed, at the end of Matthew v He shows that what He really wanted to do was to bring His disciples to a frame of mind in which the spirit of love, even to their enemies, would rule them in everything, so that there would be no room in their hearts for hatred at all. Again, in dealing with the seventh commandment, He finds underlying the prohibition of adultery and lustful thoughts a positive demand for purity and singleness of heart towards God, which it is worth any amount of effort and self-denial to enter into, because of the vastness of the issues that hang on it. 'If your right eye leads you astray, tear it out and fling it away; it is better for you to lose one part of your body than for the whole of it to be thrown into hell...' (Mt. v. 29, N.E.B.). At all costs, the disciple must become a whole-hearted, single-eyed, utterly devoted lover of God and of men.

Such are the lines on which our Lord's exposition of God's law proceeds. It is, as we have said already, an ethic for the redeemed, those who love God because He has forgiven and adopted them, and they have known His saving grace. It is, as Christ Himself implies, an ethic for the regenerate: the good fruit of a life according to this pattern can only grow on a good tree, a tree that has been made good by the new birth. And it is, above all, an ethic for disciples; for the ideal which it sets forth was incarnate in the Master Himself, and if we want to know what obedience to the two great commandments really means the most effective way to find out is to turn our eyes upon Him and watch how He walked. He Himself, in life and conduct, in the love and humility with which He served God by dying for men, was the clearest exposition of His own understanding of God's law, and it is most of all by observing Him that we shall learn of Him to walk in the way of righteousness.


References

[1] See D. M. Lloyd-Jones, The Sermon on the Mount.

[2] C. J. Cadoux, The Historic Mission of Jesus, p. 138.


Prepared for the web by Michael Farmery & Robert I. Bradshaw in February 2005. Reproduced by kind permission of Westminster Chapel, London.


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