Jan 31 - The Law And The Prophets

The Law And The Prophets

January 31, 2016

Matthew 5:17-20



Matthew 5:17-20

January 31st, 2016


The world high jump record is 2.45 meters (that’s just over 8 feet). In fact, Javier Sotomayor from Cuba is the only person that has cleared 8 ft, nearly 23 years ago, in 1993.  Longest standing high jump record of all time.


No one has been able to jump that high since then.  But every high jumper would like to beat the world record, and whatever height they are able to clear is measured against it.  So, for example, the highest a Canadian jumper (Derek Drouin) ever jumped, was 2.4 meters, 5 cm’s short, back in 2014.  In the same year, one man (Mutaz Essa Barshim) made it within 2 cm of the world record, 2.43 cm, but he is the only one to get that close … ever.  Close … but no cigar.


From the high-jump we get the idiomatic expression about “raising the bar”, the length of wood that rests between two points and over which high jumpers fault themselves.

The Pharisees in Jesus’ day were almost universally respected for their meticulous attention to the Law of Moses as found in the first five books of the OT.

Pharisees identified 613 rules in the OT Scriptures: 248 commands to do something; and 365 prohibitions.
All of these they aspired to keep flawlessly. If anyone would be considered really, really good, you’d have to figure it would be them.

They were, in a sense, “world record holders at law keeping.” Their fastidious observance of the law was the standard by which everyone else was measured and judged.


And they were lay people, that is, they were not part of the clergy, the Levitical priesthood.  They weren’t getting paid to be good.  They did this voluntarily.


Not all of them could read or write, but those who could, and who studied the OT extensively, were the Scribes in our passages.  They were also called “Rabbis” and “Teachers of the Law.”  Teaching the Law and its application in daily life was their primary task. 


Scribes would gather pupils or disciples and would teach them.  They would repeat themselves over and over again, in order for their disciples to commit their teaching to memory.  The teaching was to be “fixed” in the minds of their pupils.  In rabbinic circles the words, "to repeat" mean exactly the same as "to teach."  They demanded from their students absolute reverence, even more than they owed their own fathers. 


The Scribes were also called “lawyers,” or “experts on the Law”, or “legal experts,” because they were called upon to make judgment calls on whether or not a person was guilty of having transgressed the Law, even inadvertently.  They were called upon to decide when it was legal for a man to divorce his wife, for example. 


All religious instruction of the day was in their hands.  They taught in schools, in the synagogues, in the outer courts (colonnades) of the temple in Jerusalem, and even in the streets.  They would sit on an elevated platform and their pupils would sit around them in a semicircle - being literally trained at their feet (see Acts 22:3 – Paul was taught at the feet of Gamaliel).

At the time of Jesus, their influence with the general populace in Israel was exceedingly great.  That influence was mainly due to the fact that they appeared to be so learned, they were expounders of the law, some of them sat on the highest Jewish court, and they occupied a leading place in the worship of the synagogue (Matt 23:5).  

So it would have come quite as a shock when Jesus told his own disciples that they had to be better than the Pharisees to enter heaven (Matt 5:20). 


One would think that holding the world record in keeping the Mosaic Law would be good enough for God.  That God would be pleased as punch that the Pharisees were so dedicated to keeping his will as recorded in the Law.   


But Jesus still raises the bar.  He calls his followers to best the world record.  And they would immediately think, “How in the world, is this possible?”  “How in the world could we improve on the record of the Pharisees?  How could we possibly jump higher, do better, be better law-keepers than them?”  It seems like an impossibility.


Jesus was really telling his disciples that what, by all appearances, is a flawless record, a world record, has all kinds of holes in it.  So what looks like perfection, like a world record, is actually repugnant to God.  It is not sufficient.


So what did the Pharisees do that was repugnant to God?



They flaunted their piety (peacock)


The Pharisees do all of their deeds to be seen by others.  They make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.                                                                  Matthew 23:5


Phylacteries (known as tefillin) were little leather boxes bound above the forehead or on the arm which contain a piece of vellum on which Scripture verses were written. 


Fringes, known as tzitzit were to be placed on the four corners of the outer garment (see Num 15:38; Deut 22:12), and in Jesus’ day, like the tefillin, were considered signs of piety. 


The larger the tefillin and the longer the tzitzit, the greater the attention that they would draw – like walking around with a family Bible – hard to miss. 


When you give to the needy, do not have a trumpeter blow his horn before you, like the hypocrites do, in order that others will praise them…. Do not be like the hypocrites.  They love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.                                               Matthew 6:2,5


The Pharisees paraded their goodness and made great show of it.  This passage is where we get the expression, “blowing one’s own horn” comes from.


Today the same would be making a big public show of ones own philanthropy: like a $ 75 million gift to a hospital or a $ 100 million gift to a business school at a University.  Or perhaps, on a scale we would understand, talking up all of the charities that we contribute to.


Being a secret Santa is a real failure, in my estimation, when it becomes a news story each time (Bill Gates).


The same was not true of Jesus and wasn’t to be true of his own disciples:


Be careful not to do your good deeds before others, to be seen by them.  If you do, you will lose your reward from your heavenly Father.                        Matthew 6:1


They wanted preferential treatment and reverence for their piety


The Pharisees liked the special treatment that came with having the kind of status they enjoyed.


They love the place of honour at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, being greeted politely in the marketplace, and being called Rabbi by others.

                                                                        Matthew 23:6-7


They liked being the rock-stars of piety, the VIP’s of spiritual wisdom, the posse of Law-enforcement.


3. They manipulated the Law to serve themselves


Jesus, speaking to the Pharisees and scribes:


You teach as doctrines the commandments of men. You leave the commandment of God and hold to the traditions of men.                                         Mark 7:7-8


This is in reference to the oral law, the Rabbinic Law, as found in the Mishnah and Talmud.  Huge volumes on Rabbinic application of the Mosaic Law to everyday life.  They elevated this tradition to equal footing, in fact even higher footing, than the Mosaic Law.


But the Rabbis used this tradition to bypass the Mosaic Law when it suited them.


Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold in the temple, he is bound by his oath.”                                                                                                       Matthew 23:16


And you say, “If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift on the altar, he is bound by his oath.”                                                       Matthew 23:18


The Pharisees did the same thing with swearing by heaven and swearing by the throne of God in heaven (Matt 23:22).


You say, “if a man says to his (aging) parents, whatever you would have gained from me is “Corban,” that is, given to God, then you no longer allow him to do anything for his father and mother, therefore voiding the Law with your tradition.                                 Mark 7:9-13


4. They focused on the details and lost the things of real importance


You tithe mint, dill, and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the Law: justice, mercy and faithfulness.                                                    Matthew 23:23


For example, the Pharisees missed God’s will by not extending grace to those they considered to be “sinners,” that is, those they considered beyond God’s redemptive purposes, because of their lifestyle choices.


As Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples.  When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, "Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?" But when Jesus heard this, he said, "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Matthew 9:10-12


The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look at him! He’s a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”              Luke 7:34


In their own minds, that’s probably the worst they could call him.


So you get the idea.  The Pharisees got caught up in a harsh, legalistic, interpretation of the Law, to the point that they lost sight of the fact that God extends his love and mercy to those who have messed up their lives.  


They were so consumed with themselves and their own importance, they lost compassion for others. 


The Pharisees did not see themselves as sinners, and as such, in need of humility before God or others.  (Luke 15 follows up with the parable of the lost sheep)


5. They passed on their “piety” to others


Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.  For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.                                                  Matthew 23:13


Now I didn’t list everything that Jesus found objectionable about the kind of piety that the Pharisees possessed … they were fond of telling people what they couldn’t do, often making their lives extremely burdensome because of it, while they themselves didn’t live accordingly (Matt 23:4). 


But this wasn’t just a one-way street.  There were enough things about Jesus that the Pharisees found highly questionable.  They accused him of setting aside the Law.  And it is this background that we have to keep in mind, this clash of ideas about what it means to obey the Law perfectly, as we look at what Jesus teaches his disciples about the Mosaic Law.


So Jesus begins by answering his critics:


Matthew 5:17


Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets.  I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.



Jesus used the expression “the Law and the Prophets” to refer to the whole of the OT.  The full expression, “the Law (Torah), the Prophets (Neviim) and the Writings (Ketuvim)”, indicating the three major sections the OT was divided into, was used by Jesus as well (cf. Luke 24:44, “the law, prophets, and psalms”). 


So Jesus was accused of doing just that – of abolishing the OT with his own teaching and with his own actions.  In what ways was he accused of doing so?


1. Jesus “worked” on the Sabbath


Again Jesus entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand.  And the Pharisees watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him (of working on the Sabbath).  



And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.”  And he asked the Pharisees, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent.  And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.  The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against Jesus, how to kill him.                                 Mark 3:1-6


There is actually nothing in the Mosaic Law that forbids doing good on the Sabbath.  At one point, Jesus points out that even the Pharisees “work” on the Sabbath:


The Lord answered him, "You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water?       Luke 13:15


And Jesus said to them, "Which one of you will have a son or an ox fall into a well, and will not immediately pull him out on a Sabbath day?" And they had no reply to this.                                                                   Luke 14:5-6


Not even you would be so heartless to let an animal or a child suffer or die because you won’t do anything on the Sabbath. 


2. Jesus did not keep the purity laws


The Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered around Jesus when they had come from Jerusalem, and they saw that some of Jesus’ disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. 


And there are many other traditions that they observes, such as washing of cups, pots, copper vessels, and dining couches).  And the Pharisees and scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”            Mark 7:1-5


The Pharisees imposed ritualistic washing of hands, but only before a meal that included bread.  This washing had nothing to do with hygiene.  Even if the hands were physically clean, they were still required to be ritualistically washed. 


This was not something found in the Mosaic Law, although it did list some purification rites using a ritualistic immersion in water. 


The procedure was to pour water from a cup first twice over the right hand and then twice over the left hand. The hands are then dried with a towel while a benediction is recited.   


There were also all kinds of rules with regard to cooking with and washing dishes as well so that they would not be considered defiled or impure … in essence not kosher.  For example, you had to have two set of dishes, one for dairy and one for meat, and each had to be washed and stored separately. 


Some of the most important commandments in the Mosaic Law with regard to purity and defilement have to do with what could and couldn’t be eaten.  Jesus challenged even that, at least with his teaching, if not in practice.


There is nothing outside of a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.                 Mark 7:15


Whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled.  But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a person.                                Matthew 15:17-20


In Mark, the author actually comments that Jesus in essence was declaring all foods clean (Mark 7:19), quite a bold statement given that the early Christians in Jerusalem held strongly to the validity of the food laws for Jewish Christians.


3. Jesus focused on the “bigger picture”


One of the Pharisees, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”  And he replied to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”                                                            Matthew 22:35-40


Now it is unlikely that the Pharisees would have necessarily disagreed with Jesus on this statement (Mark 12:32-33).  But Jesus narrowed the major intent of the Mosaic Law down even further.


In everything, treat others as you would wish to be treated by them, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.                                                  Matthew 7:12


It is actually many years later, decades later, that the apostle Paul would explain the reason why Jesus held this belief.


Do not owe anything to anyone - except to love one another; for the one who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the Law.  For commandments such as, "YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, YOU SHALL NOT STEAL, YOU SHALL NOT COVET," and any other like them, are summed up in this saying, "YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOUR AS YOURSELF."  Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law.               Romans 13:8-10


So the whole purpose of the Law and the Prophets was to get people to stop taking advantage of, ignoring, lambasting, attacking, denigrating, slandering, and mistreating each other … to be able to empathize with others to the point that one’s actions are in the best interest, not of oneself, but the other person’s.


Imagine for a moment that this is how spouses would treat each other?  Marriage truly would be heavenly.  Alas, we often fail at even this one simply commandment.


In any case, Jesus saw the big picture, and related this back to what it means to keep God’s will with our daily decisions.


No better did Jesus illustrated his point than with the Parable of the Samaritan – where priest and Levite, the religious of the day, bypassed a man, stripped, beaten, bloody and unconscious, likely because they were more concerned with ritual purity than doing anything about the plight.  


There were other ways in which Jesus was considered someone who flaunted the Mosaic Law and the Pharisaic or Rabbinic traditions that had been built around it.


As you can see, Jesus’ piety clashed with that of the Pharisees and scribes.  He was someone who challenged their definition of what it meant to be “godly”, what it meant to be “good”, and what it meant to do the will of God. 


So Jesus came, not to abolish, but to fulfill the OT, the Law and the Prophets.  How did he do this?  In essence we have just covered it.  He fulfilled the OT in his ability to act on the principles underlying it.  The author of the gospel of John put it this way:


For the Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.                                       John 1:17


Jesus put a human, compassionate, gracious, hopeful, forgiving, yet still holy angle on God’s will for his creatures. 


Jesus’ willingness to sacrifice himself, is what brought this message home to his disciples and followers even more so than his teaching. 


So Jesus denies that he is breaking the Law of Moses … even though he obeyed it on a completely different basis from the way the Pharisees did.  He then goes on:


Matthew 5:18


For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota, not one stroke, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.



So one of the two items that Jesus is referring to here is the smallest letter in the Hebrew Alphabet, called the “Yodh”. 


As you can see, it is but a small hook.  The second item that Jesus is referring to here is what is called the “tittle” or “stroke.” 


There are small strokes on a number of the Hebrew letters that distinguish them from other letters that looks very similar.  So for example, the “Beth” on the left, would look exactly like the “Kaph” on the right, were it not for that small extension at the bottom right.  The same is true of the “Resh” and “Daleth” and other letters similar to one another.


Jesus comments that the OT, in particular the “Law”, will remain in every detail, until “all is accomplished.”


What Jesus was referring to, is not conclusive.  He could be referring to his death, where he himself exclaims before he dies, “it is finished” (John 19:30).  Everything has been accomplish for the salvation of the world. 


Of course, he could also have meant that only the judgment day will bring about the full accomplishment of human history. 


Whatever he did mean, he did speak of a time when yodh and stroke could in fact pass away, whatever that may look like.


The apostle Paul in fact applied this time, when the particular stipulations of the Mosaic Law are no longer valid, to his own day.  He no longer considered the individual commandments of the Mosaic Law to be binding on Christians.


We are released from the Law, having died to it, the very thing that held us captive, so that we now serve in a new way – according to the Spirit, and not in the old way – according to the letter.                                         Romans 7:6


Put another way, Christians have been released from the code of the Mosaic Law.  However, they have become obedient to something else, which the apostle Paul calls “the Law of Christ” (Gal 6:2), which he considers to be Jesus’ focus on loving, that is, doing what’s in the best interest, of others, as well as moral and ethical behaviour (which not only respects others, but also honours God). 


Jesus goes on:


Matthew 5:19


Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commandments will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.



It would be absolutely nonsensical for Jesus now to all of a sudden agree with the Pharisees and focus on the minutia of the Mosaic Law.[1] 


His problem with the Pharisees was exactly this … they strained out a gnat and swallowed a camel (Matt 23:24).  He wasn’t going to do the same, and didn’t want his own followers to do so either. 


So the question is, what are the least of these commandments?  Were these the purity laws he himself challenged?  Were these the kind of Sabbath observance he himself failed to keep?  Is Jesus condemning others who would do the same thing as he himself did?


Or did Jesus have something else in mind?  Perhaps, it was an attempt to obey all of the 613 commandments in the Mosaic Law, not through the legalistic, Pharisaic, lens, but through a gentler, kinder, more compassionate lens, that extends the possibility of repentance, a turning back to God.[2]


If that were not so, Jesus would indeed have thrown the first stone at the woman caught in adultery, because that would be the “harsh” application of the Mosaic Law (Deut 22:22; Lev 20:10).  Instead, he extended forgiveness to her as well as challenging (commanding) her to live a moral life from then on forward (John 7:53-8:11).[3]


Whoever wants to be great in God’s kingdom, will seek to reflect in his or her lifestyle, choices, and actions, God’s will in the best way possible.  And, given the principle of the Golden Rule, this should be possible, even if a person does not have a copy of the OT. 


And so we come full circle:


Matthew 5:20


For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.



I think the one thing error that we can fall into when it comes to the Mosaic Law, is the thought, if we are no longer under its burden and curse, if forgiveness with God is absolutely granted to matter what we do and how we live and how we treat other people, then we can take license in our lives and live without regard to God’s will.  Rules are made to be broken.  The more I sin, the more God is able to forgive me. 

God forbid, the apostle Paul would say (cf. Rom 6:1-2,15 KJV).  Are we shutting the door to the kingdom of God for others because of our unconcern for God’s will?


On the other hand, when it comes to following God’s will, we can become so interested in keeping the rules, and in the process forget that the biggest rule is to love others and treat them as we would want to be treated – to always act in their best interest, not necessarily our own.  Are we shutting the door to the kingdom of God for others because of our lack of compassion and grace?


According to some researchers, the highly religious are less motivated to help others because of compassion toward people in need than the non-religious.[4]  I’m not at all sure this claim is true, but if it is, then something has gone wrong (a duty, rather than a desire). 


Treat others the way that you would want them to treat you, if you were in their shoes.  Empathy is a non-negotiable.






[1] Although, Jesus told his disciples that they should keep the rules of the Pharisees, but not to do what they do, given that they do not practice what they preach (Matt 23:3).

[2] However, logically that would necessitate the rejection of certain commandments as “too harsh,” such as the death penalty for man who strikes his parents or curses them (Ex 21:15,17), or the rules on beating a slave (Ex 21:20-21), or being killed for picking up fire wood on the Sabbath (Num 15:32-36), or selling ones daughter into slavery (Ex 21:7)?

[3] Not found in the earliest manuscripts of John.

[4] 2012 article: The study, which will published in the July issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science, found that people who were less religious were driven to be more generous when they saw people suffering. Robb Willer, a UC Berkeley social psychologist and co-author of the study, said that people who are more religious "ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns."