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Second Quarter 2014 (April–June)
COMMENTARY ON CHRIST AND HIS LAW
Week 4: April 19–25
COMMENTARY ON CHRIST AND THE LAW IN THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT
Following is a combined commentary on the material included in the Bible Study Guide with references as necessary to the supplemental passages included in the E. G. White Notes for the Sabbath School Lessons. [All Quotations of Scripture are Made According to the ESV.]
In this Sabbath School Quarterly (SSQ) Lesson 4, we are greeted with a uniquely Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) depiction of the relationship of the Lord Jesus Christ to the Ten Commandments: Jesus, who is himself the radiance of God’s glory and the Word of God incarnate, is dwarfed by the imposing figure of the ten words of the Mosaic Covenant which, according to the Holy Spirit, has lapsed into obsolescence (Hebrews 8:13).
The focus of this week’s lesson is the law as Jesus interacts with it in his great Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 5 – 7. In particular, we encounter one of the favorite proof-texts used by SDA teachers to assert that the law (which they equate with the Ten Commandments) is still binding on Christians today:
“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.” – Matthew 5:17-18
The SSQ seems to take the position that Jesus’ central objective of the Sermon is to stress proper obedience to God, which is to whole-heartedly obey the law (i.e., the Ten Commandments). In actuality, the content of the Sermon on the Mount is much more nuanced and wide-ranging than to simply describe proper law-keeping. After highlighting what is considered “blessed” (another appropriate word would be “approved”), Jesus spends time contrasting hypocritical obedience and worship to true righteousness and true worship of God. He ends his discourse with several statements that point to the importance of entering into the eternal life offered by Jesus on his terms, and his terms alone.
Given the errors and oversight committed by the SSQ which influence the overall direction of these lessons, we will first consider the meaning of this section of Scripture, focusing primarily on the first four verses, and return to make particular observations on the SDA Church’s teaching.
Matthew 5:17-18 – Fulfilling the Law and Prophets
The SSQ teaches that because Jesus’ purpose in this part of the Sermon on the Mount is to reveal the “inner essence” of the law, despite his opponents’ claims of antinomianism, we must necessarily take Jesus’ assertion that none of the law will pass away (Matthew 5:18) as Jesus’ confirming that the Ten Commandments (which they claim is the moral portion of the law) is binding on the lives of believers.
In actuality, this is a multi-faceted case of eisigesis—reading one’s own beliefs into the text. In order to be faithful students of the Word, we must set aside our own preconceptions, and let Jesus speak for himself. I will suggest the correct reading of this very important section, and will return later with observations on why and how the SSQ takes a different position.
The term “Law and Prophets” is a reference to the entire body of Old Testament writings. There are many New Testament references to the “Law and Prophets,” “Law, Prophets, and Writings,” “the Law,” “the Scriptures,” which, when read in their context, are reasonably seen to refer to all of the sacred writings that 1st Century Jews would have considered inspired by God. When Jesus declares that he has come to fulfill them, this is fulfillment in the sense of prophetic fulfillment or accomplishment. A quick search of the Greek word translated as “fulfill” will show that, in all but one case, this is how Matthew uses this word (the other case is describing the literal filling of a net by fish). Later in Matthew 11:13, and also in John 1:45, we see a similar formula used, that the Law and Prophets both anticipated Jesus.
How did Jesus fulfill the Law and the Prophets? It is very clear how he fulfilled the Prophets—he was Emmanuel, the Suffering Servant, the long-expected Messiah who came to save his people by offering himself as a once-for-all sacrifice for their sins! But, how did he fulfill the Law? The Law (the first five books of the Old Testament, or Torah), has within it multiple prophecies anticipating Jesus. Even at the beginning, humanity is given the promise of a descendent of Eve who will come in conflict with the Serpent (Genesis 3:16). Additionally, the Jewish sacrificial and ceremonial systems instituted by God all were “types” of Jesus. That is, they had aspects about them which Jesus fulfilled in a greater and more permanent way. The Book of Hebrews is full of descriptions of these types, and contrasts them with their anti-type, Christ. The most prominent type was the sacrificial system. In the Old Testament, sacrifices needed to be repeated and the Day of Atonement was observed every year; surely millions of animals were slain. But with Christ’s sacrifice, atonement was accomplished once and for all (Hebrews 10:1-14). Though the mystery of Christ was veiled to the writers of the Old Testament in these types and prophecies, today we have the privilege of seeing the long shadow that the singular figure of Jesus Christ casts over the Old Testament writings that spoke of him (John 5:39-40).
Matthew 5:19-20 – Exceeding the Righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees
Jesus declares that he is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, but also that his fulfilling does not abrogate even the littlest part of any letter of the law. In fact, he asserts that anyone who minimizes any of the Old Testament is to be shamed. Jesus contrasts this amazingly weighty standard with his contemporaries, the scribes and Pharisees, in his closing admonition:
“[U]nless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:20
This would have been a shocking statement in the ears of Jesus’ disciples—the Pharisees were greatly esteemed as being righteous and “in the know” on spiritual matters. However, as Jesus proclaims in vivid detail in Matthew 23:1-36, the scribes and Pharisees were truly characterized by superficial righteousness and self-serving casuistry applied to the law. In order to satiate their sinful desires, they bent the law, added to it, and ignored God’s prophetic warnings. In one sense, the Pharisees followed the law very well, but in another, much more meaningful sense, they despised God and his word, used it to promote themselves, and taught others to do the same!
Matthew 5:21-47 – Six Antitheses
After raising the bar for true righteousness, Jesus then gives six examples of what he considered to be true righteousness contrasted with false righteousness. Jesus exhorts his disciples to consider specific examples of true righteousness in light of inadequate understandings that would have been common in their day. Jesus presses his disciples to consider the importance of engaging the whole person—body, mind, heart, and soul—rather than outward behavior. These examples are fairly self-explanatory, so we will encourage the reader to weigh the words of Jesus himself, rather than discuss them in-depth here. This commentary will return to consider these six examples when the SSQ teaching is examined in greater depth.
Matthew 5:48 – Perfection Commanded
Summarizing his teaching in this verse, Jesus echoes the Old Testament command which would have been familiar to his disciples:
“And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.’” – Leviticus 19:1-2
Though the spiritual elites of Jesus’ day embodied mere lip-service to God and taught others to do the same, Jesus was not offering up a new teaching. Whole-hearted obedience to God would not have been a new concept for serious students of the Old Testament. Consider the witnesses from the Old Testament:
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” – Deuteronomy 6:5
“[T]he LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16:7
“I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.” – Jeremiah 17:10
“God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” – Ecclesiastes 12:14
With this closing statement, Jesus showed the terrific scope of the law. This holistic, penetrating view is a clear reflection of the character of God who is declared by the angels and creatures around his throne to be completely holy (Isaiah 6:3, Revelation 4:8), radically reserved unto his own purposes, and taking counsel from no other (Romans 11:33-36).
In the face of such a holy standard, a sinful disciple of Jesus must certainly have realized his spiritual bankruptcy, and been crushed by the weight of obligation. Though these words were not yet written at the time of the Sermon on the Mount, they were no less true:
“[T]he word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” – Hebrews 4:12-13
This is the purpose of the law: to reveal our spiritual poverty, and moreover, our spiritual death (Ephesians 2:1-3). But Jesus, with rich mercy, began his Sermon on the Mount with the amazing statement:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:3
Jesus did not come to save those who would consider themselves righteous, or “rich in spirit,” but rather sinners who realized their true condition (Luke 18:9-14). Later in his ministry, Jesus offers these words of comfort to those who were laden down with the burden of the law:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30
Though we only briefly mention the Christ-focus of the law here, it is a subject which is discussed in much greater detail in the upcoming lesson “Christ, the End of the Law.”
Commentary on SDA Church Teaching
At this point, let’s return to the SSQ’s lesson on this short passage. The SSQ is quite confusing in his discussion of Jesus “fulfilling” the law. He admits that one legitimate understanding of the Greek word for “fulfill” could mean accomplishment, prophetic fulfillment, or completion. The SSQ then points out that one other valid meaning of the Greek word is to also “fill up”. Presumably the SSQ takes the second view, because he says that Jesus’ overall purpose was to reveal the inner essence of Scripture, so Jesus preached a sermon that:
“…fill[s] in the blanks that a mere ‘you shall not kill’ or a simple ‘you shall not commit adultery’ left open.” (Teachers Comments, Page 50 of Teacher’s Version)
So, it seems like the SSQ is suggesting that the “filling” is somehow the “filling up” or “filling in” of the “thou shalt not”’s of the Ten Commandments with additional spiritual insight. This translation has several difficulties:
I conclude that the acrobatics in the section are unconvincing, and miss the plain meaning of Jesus’ statement: the Law and the Prophets had always anticipated the person and work of Jesus Christ, and he had finally appeared to fulfill what they said about him! It was very important for his ministry to be accepted that he emphasize everything he taught and did was both in sync with, and anticipated by, the Scriptures that 1st century Jews would have had. The SSQ unfortunately misses this dimension—and many of the comments and questions reveal an inadequate grasp of gospel truth. By taking an unmerited interpretation of “fulfill” in Matthew 5:17, the SSQ is able to move away from a gospel focus (note that this is within the context of the Gospel of Matthew) and merely talk about how Jesus wanted to teach his disciples about how to be better law-keepers.
The SSQ also argues that Jesus confirms the perpetuity of the law in the Sermon on the Mount. This language is not a problem in and of itself. After the apostle Paul proves that the law rightfully condemns all men (Romans 1:18-3:20), and declares that the righteousness of God has graciously been made available through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21-3:26), he bluntly asserts that the law must be upheld (Romans 3:31)! Indeed, Paul considers the law very useful, but only if it is used “lawfully,” that is, to expose sin for what it is (1 Timothy 1:8-11, Romans 7:7-12).
The problem arises when one realizes that the SDA Church teaches that the Ten Commandments are “binding upon all people in every age.” (Fundamental Belief #19). The motivation for the SDA Church to teach that Jesus is establishing the perpetual binding of the Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount is to require believers to keep the Sabbath.
The biblical way to look at the relationship of Christians to the Old Testament law is to look at it on God’s terms—the covenants which He made. All 613 of the Old Testament laws were given as requirements for the ancient Israelites under the Mosaic, or Old, Covenant. In particular, the seventh-day Sabbath was the covenantal sign, and held prominence among the other days and festivals. Because Christians participate in the New Covenant, enacted by Christ (and, interestingly enough is identified with Christ in one of the Servant Songs, Isaiah 42:6), the Old Covenant and its requirements are no longer binding on believers. So, Christians do not need to obey the Ten Commandments, insofar as they are Covenantal requirements under the Old Covenant (along with the other 613 – 10 = 603 laws). However, Jesus and his apostles affirmed much of the behavior codified in the Old Covenant’s system of laws as being truly righteous in and of itself. In fact, all of the Ten Commandments except the fourth commandment are affirmed explicitly and repeatedly in the New Testament writings. This affirmation is always done without appealing to the Ten Commandments, but appealing to the virtue of the behavior or attitude in view. This topic of the Old and New Covenants will be gone into in greater detail in the future lesson, “Christ, the Law and the Covenants”.
On a side note, SDA teaching frequently accuses mainstream evangelical Christianity of a form of antinomianism, because it teaches that the Ten Commandments are no longer binding. That is simply misrepresenting the evangelical position, which generally states that the Ten Commandments (along with the rest of the Old Testament laws) are no longer binding in a covenantal sense. One would be hard pressed to find an evangelical layman who would tell you with a clean conscience that Jesus thinks it’s OK to for him to cheat on his wife, murder his neighbor, or worship another God.
We can point out two big doctrinal problems that result from the SDA Church’s position that the Ten Commandments are binding on believers:
Within the context of the Sermon on the Mount, it is certainly true that Jesus is setting forth a very high standard for true righteousness, but he is not merely interested in giving a deeper lesson on law-keeping. Consider the following sample of language used in by the SSQ:
“…the importance of obedience to what God calls us to do” (Page 30)
“Jesus counsels…” (Page 33)
“Jesus encourages…” (Page 33)
“Jesus knows human nature and cautions against…” (Page 34)
“Jesus was showing them a better way to live…” (Page 35)
All of these phrases paint a picture of a docile Messiah kindly begging and pleading with us to follow him. The truth is that the hearers of these passages would have been terrified, and left completely humbled upon realizing the true nature of their sin. The only way for the SDA Church to ensure that the New Testament scriptures teach a continuance of the Ten Commandments, the SDA Church first (correctly) recognizes that the lofty standard of God’s law reveals our need for a Savior (i.e., Christ is the end of the law), but then presents us with a Savior who then points us back to the law.
Next, we will consider a few more errors and issues in some the individual lessons:
Murder (Matthew 5:21-26, Page 32)
The SSQ is largely correct in its apprehension of Jesus’ message here. It is not adequate to refrain from murdering someone with whom I am angry—the murderous anger that engages my imagination is enough to condemn me! However, the question at the end of the lesson reveals an inadequate understanding of a Christian’s justification by faith. “What does such a high standard tell you about the need to be covered by Christ’s righteousness at all times?” This question seems to carry the assumption that, somehow, we may be less covered by Christ’s righteousness at some times than other times. However, once a Christian is born again and sealed with the Holy Spirit, we are adopted as sons (Ephesians 1:5), and nothing can snatch us away from our Savior (John 10:27-29). There is no need for a believer to ever fear the loss of Christ’s imputed righteousness.
“[A]ll the promises of God find their Yes in [Christ]. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for His glory. And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.” – 2 Corinthians 1:20-22
Adultery (Matthew 5:27-32, Page 33)
The first half of this section is fine. However, after the first batch of questions, the SSQ states:
“Here, too, Jesus provides an instant remedy for those sins that have been exposed. The solution is not to follow through with the sin but to have a conversion of the heart. With strong metaphors, Jesus counsels the one who has the problem to do what is necessary if he or she wishes to enter the kingdom.”
This “remedy” seems to focus more on our actions than on faith and trust in Christ. It instills fear by implying that one may lose his salvation when it says, “Jesus counsels the one who has the problem to do what is necessary if he or she wishes to enter the kingdom.” Rather, Jesus is making the point that we should be ruthless in our struggles against our sin nature. This concept of killing sin is a regular theme in Paul’s letter, but it is never made a condition of our standing before God, but rather couched in the work God has already done.
“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above….Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” – Col 3:1, 5
Promises, Promises… and Lex Talionis (Matthew 5:38-48, Pages 34-35)
While these sections supply some good, practical advice on living well, they seem to be missing the real motivation for Jesus’ teachings. He is not trying to show people “a better way to live” (Page 35).He is exposing the misuse of the law by the scribes and Pharisees. The Pharisees dreamt up all sorts of schemes to relieve themselves of their promised obligations (Matthew 23:16-22).
At the end of page 35, the question is asked “…in what way can you apply this teaching in your own life with someone who has done you wrong?” This would be a great point to bring in the beautiful and transformative truth of the gospel, which is the greatest demonstration of God’s perfect love and forgiveness:
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” – Romans 5:6-10
Further Study (Page 36)
In this section we are left with an Ellen G. White quote from her own discussion on this teaching, as well with a summary statement that “Love is the binding principle in God’s law.” “Love keeps…,” “Love challenges…,” “Love allows,” “Love empowers…,” but there is no real discussion of where this love comes from, or how the Holy Spirit works in the life of the believer to produce this fruit of love (Galatians 5:22-24). There is no in-depth discussion of the gospel, talk of how Jesus fulfilled the law by taking its curse for our own sin (Galatians 3:13, 2 Corinthians 5:21); how the requirement of the law is “fulfilled” in us by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (Romans 8:3-4); or even how we are saved from the condemnation of the law because Christ is the propitiation for our sins. The end result of this is that the SSQ’s lesson, if taken to heart, will do nothing but lead a person to the type of legalism that Jesus is trying to discourage.
The discussion of “fulfill” in Matthew 5:17 on Page 50 has already been taken up by this commentary. On Page 51, the SSQ commits an egregious error regarding the nature of our relationship to God and Jesus’ relationship to the Father. Consider the two quotes:
“Ellen G. White’s statement, ‘as God is perfect in His sphere, so we are to be perfect in ours’ clearly alludes to these two different levels of perfection….Biblical perfection, then, has two levels, God’s perfect Oneness within the Godhead and humanity’s perfect oneness with Christ.”
Also, the SSQ cites the following from Robert J. Ross:
“Jesus’ perfect oneness with the Father through His obedience here on earth becomes the robe of (His) righteousness imputed to us for all of eternity. The righteousness that He wants to impart to us is the perfect oneness we can have through His Spirit’s leading. Obedience motivated by genuine love allows Him daily to grind and polish us until we are absolutely bonded as one in Him that we will be nearly impossible to separate.”
One error in this section is the assumption that Jesus’ unity with the Father is somehow conditioned on, or worked out by, his obedience. It is quite correct to say that, in his earthly ministry, Jesus was completely obedient to and reliant on the Father, even to the point of death on a cross (Philippians 2:8), and he learned and proved himself to be obedient at a great cost (Hebrews 5:7-8). The obedient submission of Jesus does not in any way imply that he somehow could have been disobedient, rather he was completely without sin (Hebrews 4:15). Moreover, he was always totally united with the Father before, during, and after his humiliation (John 10:38, John 14:10-11, John 17:21). If there is some doubt that, perhaps Jesus incarnate lacked something of God-ness, consider Paul’s bold statement:
“[I]n him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.” – Colossians 2:9-10
This verse brings us to second error committed in this section: that of two “levels” of perfection and oneness for the believer, conditioned on our behavior. Our unity and merit with God are in no way conditioned on our behavior. Rather, they are conditioned on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and are characterized as adoption by God:
“[S]ince we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” – Romans 5:1
“[W]hen the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba! Father!’” – Galatians 4:5-6
God is our Father, by adoption. It is very true to say that, in a sense, there are two levels of perfection for the Christian, but that does not affect our unity with God. Our justification does not remove the indwelling sin in our body—that will only go away when God finally redeems and glorifies our bodies (1 Corinthians 15:51-57). The author of Hebrews calls attention to the “already" and “not yet” of the believer’s already-accomplished justification and ongoing sanctification:
“[B]y a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” – Hebrews 10:14
Once God adopts his children, he does not disown them—he disciplines them for their good and his glory. Rather than having to press forward to be made more united to God through Spirit-led obedience, the Christian can take great comfort knowing that—if he sins, God shows that we are true sons who belong to him by his discipline of us. Consider the logic of the author of Hebrews:
“It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.” – Hebrews 12:7-8
If our oneness with God was somehow conditioned on our obedience, the believer would live a life full of fear and no assurance. However:
“[Y]ou did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” – Romans 8:15
Though Jesus called attention to the penetrating scope of the righteousness God wants, we have great promises of transformation, but this is always couched in the once-for-all justification through the death of Jesus. We will end this commentary with one of the great New Testament doxologies:
“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” – Jude 24-25