The Most Ignored NT Verses: Matt 5.17-18

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.

These words seem to go largely ignored by almost everyone.  Jesus is quite clear; the statutes of the Hebrew Bible are still in effect until heaven and earth pass away–which means they will never be irrelevant (since heaven is eternal, even if the earth is not).  Yet it seems many Christians have adopted heretical viewpoints about this text.  Indeed, it is as if Marcion had risen instead of Jesus for many denominational Christians who have completely forgotten about this verse.

A friend of mine had told me her priest had recently said, during a prayer group, that Jesus had done away with the laws of the Hebrew Bible and that had been a radical perspective for his day.  But I wonder where the priest is pulling this information from, as Jesus states–directly, in fact–the complete opposite of what this priest is saying.  Marcion, of course, would approve of such a maneuver, since he felt that the laws of the Hebrew Bible were derived from a false God and that such laws were inconsequential to Christians who followed the new laws of Christ Jesus.  Indeed, Tertullian even made note of the fact that Marcion had expunged the verse from his versions of Matthew:

It is, however, well that Marcion’s god does claim to be the enlightener of the nations, that so he might have the better reason for coming down from heaven; only, if it must needs be, he should rather have made Pontus his place of descent than Galilee. But since both the place and the work of illumination according to the prophecy are compatible with Christ, we begin to discern that He is the subject of the prophecy, which shows that at the very outset of His ministry, He came not to destroy the law and the prophets, but rather to fulfil them; for Marcion has erased the passage as an interpolation. (Against Marcion 4.7)

And in case anyone argues Jesus changed the laws or abuse the Sabbath, Tertullian states:

Thus Christ did not at all rescind the Sabbath: He kept the law thereof, and both in the former case did a work which was beneficial to the life of His disciples, for He indulged them with the relief of food when they were hungry, and in the present instance cured the withered hand; in each case intimating by facts, I came not to destroy, the law, but to fulfil it,  although Marcion has gagged His mouth by this word. For even in the case before us He fulfilled the law, while interpreting its condition; moreover, He exhibits in a clear light the different kinds of work, while doing what the law excepts from the sacredness of the Sabbath and while imparting to the Sabbath day itself, which from the beginning had been consecrated by the benediction of the Father, an additional sanctity by His own beneficent action. For He furnished to this day divine safeguards, — a course which His adversary would have pursued for some other days, to avoid honouring the Creator’s Sabbath, and restoring to the Sabbath the works which were proper for it. Since, in like manner, the prophet Elisha on this day restored to life the dead son of the Shunammite woman, you see, O Pharisee, and you too, O Marcion, how that it was proper employment for the Creator’s Sabbaths of old to do good, to save life, not to destroy it; how that Christ introduced nothing new, which was not after the example, the gentleness, the mercy, and the prediction also of the Creator. (Against Marcion 4.12)

So why is this passage ignored?  Why has modern Christianity done away with the hundreds of statutes in the Hebrew Bible which even Jesus followed and commanded his followers to hold in esteem?  It seems as though very half-cocked theological eisegesis is done in order to account for the gagging of these words, as Tertullian might say.  Some argue that since Jesus did fulfill the law, by being crucified and resurrected, that this verse becomes fulfilled and no longer matters.  But one cannot make such an argument since this verse seems to have been very important during the authorship of the Gospels–decades later than when Jesus had lived.  Clearly it was a statement to not only the readers of Matthew’s Gospel as late as the second century CE, but also in Tertullian’s day some generations later!   To say that these words are no longer relevant actually places ones soul in jeopardy (Matt 5:19a):

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…

This is quite the pronouncement!  So the question one must ask is why do Christians ignore this directive from Jesus?  Who do some state that he has abolished the value of the Hebrew Bible and the laws therein?  Why do some claim that the Hebrew Bible should be ignored as a source for ones lifestyle?

4 Responses

  1. You ignore Tertullian himself and his more subtle views on the subject: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.iv.ix.iv.html. For more on his particular view on the Sabbath: http://www.auss.info/auss_publication_file.php?pub_id=476&journal=1&type=pdf
    His arguments could be understood, as other Fathers argue, that the Sabbath had been transferred to Sunday – the eighth day – by the divine decree of Christ (His Resurrection and appearances on that day).

    As for the passage itself, the Church Fathers as a whole read that passage in Matthew in various ways, but were united in the apostolic teaching – namely, Acts 15:19-21 – where the apostles decree that the ceremonial observances of the Old Law are no longer binding. Thus, the view that ceremonial observances were not necessary (most especially circumcision) was primitive to Christianity rather than an innovation. The Fathers often understood the giving of the Holy Spirit to be the fulfillment of the Law and so did not require the keeping of the exterior observances; the Law’s essence was kept by love. For a fuller overview of patristic viewpoints, you can scroll down to verses 17-19 in: http://www.catecheticsonline.com/CatenaAurea-Matthew5.php.

  2. The Book of Acts seems to be trying to compensate for the disagreements in the church at the time. Matthew clearly felt that the laws were to be followed, not discarded. And I don’t believe you’re correct in your interpretation of the church fathers–and I’m not sure what your first point is all about since I’m not attempting to disagree with him in this post but highlight his point on Marcion vs. the interpretation of the passage. Even Tertullian says that Jesus only partially fulfilled the verse thus meaning that the Hebrew Bible is still to be followed. Acts, being a book written to counter Marcionism in the second century, seems to be addressing this function of the verse by drawing in Marcionite philosophy and those of Pauline theology. This scholarship is not new, e.g., von Harnack and more recently Richard Pervo (2006) and Joe Tyson (2006, etc…). But even other church fathers accepted the dismissal of the Old Laws, it wouldn’t change the fact that they would be wrong. Jesus claims that the old laws do not go away until heaven and earth pass away. Are you suggesting that Heaven has passed on?

  3. My first point was that you seem to paint Tertullian as clearly in favor of Jewish proscriptions – which doesn’t seem an accurate reading of Tertullian’s position. Tertullian reads the Law as still in effect, just not in the sense of ceremonial observances (and this depends on the place you read him and at what time). So, in his Against the Jews he clearly distinguishes between a temporal dispensation and the “eternally significant” part of the Law.

    The passage in question clearly says that the Law needs to be followed – the significant point of dispute is what, in particular, is the content of “the Law” as meant in that passage. In the very next section, v. 20-48, Christ goes through and modifies the Law in its juridical precepts. Brice (1983) details this as an “escatological” reading of the prescription, as does Viviano (1990), as the juridical precepts are modified by Jesus in that following section. Thus, it seems improbable to me that Jesus meant that the Law was not to be modified at all if He goes on to it immediately afterward (even the editor should have gotten that one). Similarly, even if the Law was intended to be binding upon Jewish Christians (Matthew’s audience), there is no evidence that this passage was intended to apply to the Gentiles.

    As for the book of Acts, Tyson and Pervo’s theory for the late dating of Acts is not novel, but it is speculative, with good arguments for an intermediate or early dating as well. Conceding, however, that it was true that Acts was written to counter Marcionism (which goes beyond a late dating of Acts), that doesn’t support your position – Marcionism was anti-Judaizing. If Acts was written to negate Marcion, this passage from Acts 15 is either supporting Jewish practice (which could be true, given that it is the “law of Noah and the gentiles” that is prescribed for the Hellenists) or the Marcionite context is irrelevant to its interpretation.

    Lastly, my only point in using the Church Fathers was to show that their perspective made possible an alternate reading of this passage that did not require, as you said, “heaven passing on.” It is also a view that is heavily apostolic, at least derived – as you would have to admit – from the ancient sources you claim were being used or were created for polemical purposes against Marcion (even if they were created to serve this purpose, it is likely the composer believed in the apostolic origin of these views and wished to justify them).

  4. St Paul’s comment in Galatians that those who return to trusting in the law are under a curse. Would be nice to return to the Torah, if we didn’t trust in it for our salvation. The law came in as a schoolmaster that the trespass might abound so that we could be seen as lawbreakers. The law exposes our true nature and God gave it to us so that we can see that we cannot of ourselves do anything to please God. The law was given to us in the full knowledge that we would break it.

    In Romans 7, we see how God delivered us from the power of the law to curse us. The relation between sin and the sinner is that of master and slave. The relation between the law and the sinner is that of husband to wife. Unless the first husband (the law) dies, the woman cannot be married to the second husband (Christ.) The law is an exacting husband, but Christ fulfills in us the very demands of the laws that he makes. The law is going to continue til all eternity. How can we marry a second husband when the first husband refuses to die? God delivers us from the law by having the woman “die” to the law (the first husband.) In that way she is free. Once the woman is dead, the law cannot affect her. Once the woman is dead, sin has no power over her. The law cannot die but when we are dead in Christ, we are no longer bound to the first husband. The woman is dead and nos is discharged from the demands of her first husband which was the law. We were made dead to the law through the body of Christ, free from the law and free from sin. Death has dissolved the demands of the former husband upon the woman…the woman (God’s people) is now free from the demands of that husband. Being united to Christ in death and in resurrection, she brings forth fruit unto God. God’s holiness within her is perfected. The law is not annulled anymore but the Risen God in her does the works of the perfect law of God.

    The old man who wants to do the works of the law by himself is now dead. The second man, Christ — the Last Adam– has brought us freedom and is in us doing the works of the law in our recreated minds. We are new Creatures now. We are no longer children of the old Adam who chose the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil and who wanted to do works of goodness…but we are children of the tree of life and God is working in us.

    Sin came in with the law (which is the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil.) With the law came punishment if that law was not fulfilled. Jesus freed us by the law by being perfect under the law. Because we died with him in baptism, we are free from the accusations of the Adversary (Satan is a legalist.) We’re free from the punishment dictated by the law: sickness, death, demonic attacks. We have power to renounce generational curses.

    In Christ, our nature is changed. Now that we are no longer children of the first Adam or the first Man and are a new entirely different creation (children of the last Adam and the second man) we have passed from human life to death to being like God, who is beyond the human law and the human idea of good and evil.

    In heaven, there is no good or evil. All is good. But more so, heaven is kind of a-moral. Note I do not say “amoral” as we would say it. But in heaven the power of the law has no effect on those redeemed by Christ. Because we are free from the law and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and by legal standards of righteousness, we have no consciousness of sin. Whether people sin or not will not matter because Sin same when Adam accepted the law (Tree of knowledge of good and evil) and the tree of knowledge will have no power in the New Jerusalem. Not one jot of the law will be passed away, but even so it has no power against those in Christ because we are no longer under the power of the law, but translated out of its power into the kingdom of God’s dear son. It is Jesus’ righteousness that has fulfilled the law for us. It is His life which we now live.

    True, we are no longer under the law because of Christ’s sacrifice, and Galatians warns against legalism and Romans warns against the law. YET we must not sin. The Bible says the relation between law and the sinner is that of master and slave or husband to wife. When we’re in Christ, we leave our first husband (the law) and are married to the true bridegroom, the Second Adam, the Last Man (Christ..) Nevertheless, the law continues til all eternity. But we cannot spit on Jesus’ blood.

    Like the iron which was made to float in the water (the book of kings) our very nature is changed, and the law has no power over us. In the same way, Paul says we are NOW seated with Christ. So the Church is out of the world’s ways, laws, etc. Why? Because we are in Christ.

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