The first paragraph in our doctrinal statement at Enjoying God Ministries affirms our belief in the inspiration and authority of the 66 books of the Bible. How could it be otherwise? For apart from a belief in the authority of Scripture, we would have no way of knowing with any certainty whether any of the remaining doctrinal affirmations are true or false. If the Bible is not the sole, sufficient revelation of God himself, how could we possibly know that God is a Trinity of co-equal persons or that the second person of that Trinity became a man in Jesus of Nazareth and died for sinners and was raised on the third day? Simply put, the inspiration and authority of the Bible is the bedrock upon which our faith is built. Without it, we are doomed to uncertainty, doubt, and a hopeless groping in the darkness of human speculation.
But do we have good reason to believe that this book, the Bible, is different from Plato’s Republic or Shakespeare’s Hamlet or any other human composition? Why do we believe that the 66 books of the Bible are divine revelation and authoritative for belief and life? There are any number of reasons, drawn from historical, archaeological, theological, and experiential resources and arguments. But we must also take into consideration that Jesus himself clearly believed in the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Being a disciple of Jesus entails not only doing what Jesus did but also believing what Jesus believed. It is impossible to accept the authority of Christ without also accepting the authority of Scripture. To believe and receive Jesus as Lord and Savior is to believe and receive what He taught about Scripture.
In Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus affirms the pre-eminence of Scripture (v. 17), the perfection and permanence of Scripture (v. 18), the priority of Scripture (v. 19), and the purpose of Scripture (v. 20). A more exalted view of the OT Scriptures could hardly be imagined! J. I. Packer put it best when he said:
“The fact we have to face is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate, who claimed divine authority for all that he did and taught, both confirmed the absolute authority of the Old Testament for others and submitted to it unreservedly himself.”
Clearly, then, the question: “What think ye of the Bible?” reduces to the question: “What think ye of Christ?” To deny the authority of Scripture is to deny the person of Jesus.
Consider the people and events of the OT, for example, whom/which Jesus frequently mentioned. He refers to Abel, Noah and the great flood, Abraham, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot, Isaac and Jacob, the manna from heaven, the serpent in the desert, David eating the consecrated bread and his authorship of the Psalms, Solomon, Elijah, Elisha,, and Zechariah, etc. In each case he treats the OT narratives as straightforward records of historical fact.
But perhaps, say the critics, perhaps Jesus was simply accommodating himself to the mistaken beliefs of his contemporaries. That is to say, Jesus simply met his contemporaries on their own ground without necessarily committing himself to the correctness of their views. He chose graciously not to upset them by questioning the veracity of their belief in the truth and authority of the Bible. However,
· Jesus was not at all sensitive about undermining mistaken, though long-cherished, beliefs among the people of his day. He loudly and often denounced the traditions of the Pharisees and took on their distortion of the OT law in the Sermon on the Mount.
· Jesus challenged nationalistic conceptions of the kingdom of God and the coming of the Messiah. He was even willing to face death on a cross for the truth of what he declared.
· In referring to the OT, Jesus declared that “the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). Again, “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the law” (Luke 16:17). See also Mark 7:6-13; Luke 16:29-31. He rebuked the Sadducees saying, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Mt. 22:29).
· When faced by Satan’s temptations, it was to the truth and authority of the OT that he appealed (Mt. 4:4ff.). Note especially his words: “It has been [stands] written.”
· Jesus didn’t hesitate to deliberately offend the religious sensibilities of his contemporaries when he chose to eat and socialize with both publicans and prostitutes.
A. The Pre-eminence of God’s Word – v. 17
The preeminence of Scripture is clearly affirmed by Jesus when he says that his purpose is not to abolish or dismantle or disregard the OT but to fulfill it. But what does Jesus mean by the word “fulfill”? Here is a survey of the relevant interpretations.
1. One view is popularly known as Theonomy (see especially Greg Bahnsen’s book, Theonomy in Christian Ethics). According to Bahnsen, to fulfill means to ratify, confirm, or establish as perpetually binding. The entirety of the Mosaic code is binding upon Christians today (in a way that is appropriate, of course, to the existence of the church subsequent to Christ’ death). The OT as a whole constitutes an abiding and eternal standard of divine regulations to which the Christian must respond in obedience. The civil authorities are obligated to enforce the precepts and penalties of the OT. Capital punishment, for example, should be inflicted on incorrigible juvenile delinquents, homosexuals, blasphemers, idolaters, and sabbath-breakers, just to mention a few.
2. A more modified version of Theonomy divides the OT law into three categories: moral, civil, ceremonial. The civil or case law of the OT has passed away because God’s people no longer exist as a theocratic, socio-political nation. The ceremonial law has passed away because Christ has fulfilled it by dying on the cross, the antitype of all OT sacrificial types. But the moral law, by which is meant primarily the 10 commandments, has not passed away. Special emphasis is placed on the binding force of the fourth commandment regarding the Sabbath day. Several problems: (1) Mt. 5:18 sounds more inclusive than just “moral” law, especially in view of the reference to the “jot” and “tittle”. (2) What exactly does “moral” mean? If it means a standard of what is right and wrong, what God forbids and what he commands, then all the OT is moral. (3) This tripartite distinction is arbitrary. While one may legitimately differentiate between aspects of the OT law, this is nowhere said to be a biblical basis for determining the relationships between the testaments or determining what is and what is not temporary or permanent.
3. Another view insists that by “fulfill” Jesus simply meant “obey.” Jesus thus fulfilled the OT law and prophets by keeping them perfectly (cf. Mt. 3:15). But this would be a highly unusual sense for the verb “fulfill”.
4. Others argue that the word “fulfill” has a dual sense corresponding to the Law and the Prophets. He fulfills the prophets in a predictive way: what the prophets predicted came to pass in the person and work of Jesus. He fulfills the law (a) by obeying its stipulations; (b) by suffering its penal sanctions and thus satisfying the law’s demands against those for whom he dies; and (c) by revealing the true, deeper meaning of the law; i.e., he revealed the spirit and inner reality of the law as over against the Pharisaical externalizing of its precepts.
5. In order to make sense of the word “fulfill” we must first take note of the word “abolish” in v. 17. What does it mean? It does not mean to trespass or personally violate, as if Jesus were saying that he had not come to break the law by disobeying it. The word means to tear down, to undo, to set aside as of no value, to overthrow either in word or deed. Of course, Jesus did indeed “do away” with the sacrificial system (Heb. 10:1-18) and the dietary laws (Acts 10), etc. So how can he terminate the relevance of those laws without abolishing them? How can Jesus, on the one hand, not abolish the Law and the Prophets and yet, on the other hand, release the believer from a moral obligation to live by them? The answer must be found in the meaning of the word “fulfill”.
Jesus fulfilled the Law in the same way he fulfilled the Prophets. In Matthew 11:13 Jesus said that “all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John.” The point is that the entire OT, even the law, has a prophetic function. All of it prophesied or pointed to the coming of Christ. For example,
in simple prediction (the place of his birth in Micah 5:2)
in types (people such as Jonah and David; institutions such as the tabernacle; historical events such as the exodus)
in the sacrificial system of Leviticus (cf. Hebrews; John 5:39; Lk. 24:25-27).
Jesus does not conceive of his life and ministry in terms of opposition to the OT but in terms of bringing to fruition and fulfillment everything toward which the OT pointed. We are not obligated to live under certain Mosaic stipulations because much of the OT was by God’s design provisional and temporary. It had a built-in obsolescence. Its purpose was to prepare for and point to the Messiah. If there is much in the OT which is not binding on us today, it is not because the law has lost its validity or lacks authority or perhaps is no longer inspired. Rather, it is because in Jesus that law has been fulfilled; it has reached the consummation of its divinely ordained purpose. As Carson notes, “the detailed prescriptions of the OT may well be superceded, because whatever is prophetic must be in some sense provisional. But whatever is prophetic likewise discovers its legitimate continuity in the happy arrival of that toward which it has pointed” (37). Thus, in fulfilling the law and the prophets Jesus sets aside as no longer binding much of the OT canon, but that is not the same as abolishing or annulling it. Indeed, the Mosaic code is fulfilled precisely in that it is set aside. Its purpose was to point to and prepare for Christ, to be realized and reach its pinnacle in him: his life, death, resurrection.
We must also remember that law is always tied to covenant. The old covenant of Moses has been abrogated. We live under the binding authority of the new covenant instituted by Jesus through his death on the cross (Heb. 8:6-7,13). Furthermore, the Law of Moses was designed for an ethnic, religious state (Israel) which was localized in a distinct geographical setting. But the church is an international spiritual body comprised of believers, both Jew and Gentile, from every tribe, tongue, and nation, that knows no geo-political boundaries. See also Gal. 3:23-26.
Craig Blomberg summarizes with this insightful comment:
“This claim [of Jesus in v. 18] has massive hermeneutical implications and challenges both classic Reformed and Dispensationalist perspectives. It is inadequate to say either that none of the Old Testament applies unless it is explicitly reaffirmed in the New or that all of the Old Testament applies unless it is explicitly revoked in the New. Rather, all of the Old Testament remains normative and relevant for Jesus’ followers (2 Tim 3:16), but none of it can rightly be interpreted until one understands how it has been fulfilled in Christ. Every Old Testament text must be viewed in light of Jesus' person and ministry and the changes introduced by the new covenant he inaugurated” (103-04).
B. The Perfection and Permanence of God’s Word – v. 18
1. Its perfection – The word translated “smallest letter” is literally iota, the tiniest letter in the Greek alphabet. We use it in such statements as: “It doesn’t make an iota of difference to me!” The point of Jesus is that not a “t” will remain uncrossed nor an “i” undotted! Not the slightest part of God’s Word is insignificant. Not the slightest or smallest part will prove untrue or fail of its purpose. See also John 10:35; Mt. 24:35.
2. Its permanence – “Until heaven and earth pass away . . .” i.e., until the end of time (i.e., until the parousia); as long as the present world order exists. He means that the entire divine purpose prophesied in Scripture, both OT and NT, must take place. All will be accomplished. [The second “until” phrase in v. 18, by the way, is best taken as synonymous with the first, an emphatic way of asserting yet again that “the law remains in place until the consummation of the age” (Hagner, 107).] Even as Jesus was speaking much of the OT had already been fulfilled or accomplished (the incarnation, for example). Other parts would soon be fulfilled in his earthly ministry, his teaching, his death and resurrection, etc. Still later at his ascension and at Pentecost and in the life of the church, more Scripture will come to pass even as God ordained it. And when he returns at the close of history, Scripture will even then come to pass and be “fulfilled.”
C. The Priority of God’s Word – v. 19
How important is Scripture to you and me? How crucial is our attitude toward the Bible? Does it matter how precise we are in teaching it to others? Here in v. 19 we are told that our rank in the kingdom is determined by our obedience to his commands and our communication of those commands to others! Position and privilege in the kingdom of God are determined by our faithfulness to Holy Scripture (see also Mt. 20:20-28; Lk. 12:47-48). “That Jesus does not refer to loss of salvation is clear from the fact that, though offenders will ‘be called least,’ they will still be ‘in the kingdom of heaven.’ But blessing, reward, fruitfulness, joy, and usefulness will all be sacrificed to the extent that we are disobedient” (MacArthur, 271).
What are the “least” of these commandments? Some argue this is a reference to the Mosaic Law (on distinctions, hierarchy, or ranking in the law, see 22:36; 23:23), or perhaps a reference to the “jot” and “tittle” of v. 18.
D. The Purpose of God’s Word – v. 20
The purpose of Scripture is to lead us, by God’s grace, into God’s righteousness. Not all “righteousness,” however, is pleasing to God. The “righteousness” of the Pharisees, that consisted primarily of external conformity, falls short. Jesus says that our “righteousness” must exceed or “surpass” theirs. But how?
The Pharisees had calculated that there were 248 positive commandments and 365 negative prohibitions in the law. Does Jesus mean we are to do more than they? Certainly not, for that would be an endorsement of a soteriology radically at odds with what is taught by Jesus elsewhere, not to mention the rest of the NT. It is not quantity of works but quality of works that he has in mind, as seen in the antitheses that follow. This sort of righteousness is made a prerequisite for entrance into the kingdom, not because good works merit saving grace but because saving grace produces good works.
The specific ways in which the righteousness that Jesus has in mind “surpasses” that of the Pharisees will be seen in what he says beginning with Mt. 5:21 and extending through the end of the Sermon on the Mount. In other words, “what Jesus demanded is the righteousness to which the law truly points, exemplified in the antitheses that follow (vv. 21-48)” (Carson, 147).