Moral Standards (Matthew 5.17-48)
Matthew reminds the readers that a higher standard will be required in the Kingdom. The citizens must be pure in word and deed as well as in heart and mind too. The requirement to be perfect is important as the heavenly Father is perfect.
I have not come to abolish them [the Law and Prophets] but to fulfil them.
For various reasons Christians and the Church have often misunderstood what Jesus and Paul (in particular) meant by the Law. Jesus here refers to “the Law (Heb. Torah) and the Prophets”, by which he meant the first five books of the Old Testament (called the Books of Moses) and all the Old Testament prophets (Isaiah to Malachi) plus the books of Joshua, Judges, Kings and Samuel.
He is, therefore, referring to far more than the specific laws and commandments, which make up only a small part of the scriptures. He is talking about the God-breathed revelation in scripture of God’s salvation plan, from creation and the first Adam through to the second Adam, Jesus himself.
Between these beginning and end points are the Fall and the rest of the primeval history (Gen 1—11), and the unfolding of God’s plan through his chosen people Israel. Israel as a nation does not live up to her calling, nevertheless it is through Abraham’s seed – Jesus, the true Israel - that salvation comes.
It is in this light that the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets can rightly be understood. It is precisely in fulfilling the Law as a whole that Jesus in fact made certain individual parts of it redundant (NB. Not by doing away with them, but by completing their purpose in himself).
For example, because Jesus is the great High Priest, and the one full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, specific laws about animal sacrifice, priests and the temple no longer pertain (see Heb 10.1-18; 1 Jn 2.2; Jn 2.19-22; 4.19-26).
Their purpose has been fulfilled in Jesus, in whom all things are made clean. Likewise, Jesus as the Messiah – and King David’s greater Son - has founded a new kingdom, including people from every nation.
Citizenship is by faith and baptism, not by birth and circumcision. Jesus is ruler and judge. Consequently the specific laws regulating society which God gave to Moses are superseded, as are the punishments prescribed (e.g. stoning). See Hebrews 8.13.
Whereas Jesus’ fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets meant many of the specific cultic and civil commandments became redundant, in the case of the moral laws they were raised to a new level of righteousness.
It is noteworthy that all six examples of his reinterpretation of the commandments relate to Israel’s moral code. He makes it clear that the forgiveness his atoning death will bring, and his high love ethic, in no way should be used to relax the moral code God gave to Moses.
On the contrary, a higher standard will be required in his kingdom. Not only must its citizens be pure in word and deed, but in heart and mind too. In fact they must be perfect, as their heavenly Father is perfect.
Which of Jesus’ moral standards do you struggle with most? How and why?
Heavenly Father, I thank you that your Son Jesus has cleansed me from sin and you have poured your Spirit into my heart. I pray that all my thoughts, feelings, words and deeds will be directed by your Holy Spirit as I daily surrender my desires and will to you. In the name of your perfect Son I pray. Amen.
Michael Hewat is currently serving as the Senior Minister at West Hamilton Community Church, New Zealand
Photo by James Day on Unsplash