Jesus' Relation to the Law of Moses

Matthew 5:17-20

by Bobby Graham

When Jesus was teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, was he merely explaining the Law to bring the Jews into closer alignment with God’s will, or was he setting forth principles that would operate in the coming kingdom?  It is understood that there was already a kingdom operating, from the meaning of the word (reign, rule) and from various passages indicating its presence under the Mosaic arrangement. It must also be understood that the kingdom of Christ was still future, on the basis of various Old Testament prophecies and from Jesus’ own predictions.   

A Preliminary Consideration

Jesus’ promise of the Spirit’s coming to his apostles to remind them of his teachings and to guide them into all truth (John 14:26; 16:13) is crucial to a proper understanding of this matter.  The Spirit’s work would enable the apostles to teach the word of Christ; if Jesus taught only to clarify the Law of Moses and the prophets, then he needed not to remind the apostles, who would teach people living in the time of the new covenant of Jesus’ teaching and work. The Holy Spirit, however, saw fit to reveal such matters for the benefit of all who would live after Pentecost, and I have to conclude there was something of value, something pertinent or relevant to our welfare under the new arrangement of the new covenant of Jesus Christ. Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote their inspired records after the church began, so they could not have written for the benefit of the people still under the Law.  In fact, none after the beginning of the church needed such information from the life of Jesus, if its sole purpose was to point the Jews to a proper keeping of the Law until the cross of Jesus.   

It is sometimes replied that what Jesus said while on earth must be repeated in the Law that went forth beginning on Pentecost at the church’s beginning, in order for it to be part of the new covenant. Such a contention is sometimes based on the need for such matters to be “confirmed … by them that heard him” (Hebrews 2:3). Misunderstanding the meaning of “confirmed” is the problem here. It does not mean that earlier teaching must be repeated by the apostles after Pentecost, but that what Jesus did and taught was made firm, established, or guaranteed by the Holy Spirit’s work in the apostles of Christ through their signs, wonders, and miracles (Hebrews 2:4).  Jesus spoke of this “great salvation” while on earth; in fact he began the speaking of it, arranging for others later to confirm it. A crucial question is then raised:   If Jesus merely clarified and explained the Law of Moses, where was there room for him to speak of the “great salvation” which he had brought to the world? Another crucial question must also arise: If Jesus’ teaching related only to the Law, then why did the Spirit after Pentecost need to remind the apostles of his earlier teaching, for them to proclaim and record such for all to know?

The Role of the Law

What role did the Law of Moses play, and what was Jesus’ relation to it? The answer to these questions is also crucial in understanding these matters.  We can know that Jesus did not come to earth to destroy the law or the prophets, but to fulfill or complete (Matthew 5:17-18). We can learn that he did not abrogate the law before its time appointed by God at the cross (Colossians 2:14; Ephesians 2:14); nor did he disregard its instructions or implications for him, as evidenced by his obedience and his attitude described in our text and seen during the totality of his ministry. He constantly observed its instructions, participated in its ceremonies, and enjoined its obligations on others in far too many instances to need to cite here. He lived and died under the operation of Moses’ Law (Galatians 4:4; 3:19-25). Only when Jesus had lived, died, arisen, and ascended could the gospel system, new covenant, or law of Christ go forth from Jerusalem as the prophets had predicted (Isaiah 2:4; Luke 24:46-47).   

In view of his proper regard for the law and the prophets, why did he insert such a section at this point in his Sermon on the Mount?   Against the backdrop of our teaching of the end of the Law and the beginning of his way from Pentecost onward, Jesus must have been thwarting any misunderstanding of his view of the Law and his relation to it. He did not want any to think that he encouraged disregard for God’s law by statement or example, because his focus was to prepare material for the coming kingdom. Just as King David gathered materials in preparation for the temple that Solomon would build, so Jesus and John before him prepared the spiritual material for the church by the teaching which they did. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus set forth primary principles to guide the thinking and conduct of kingdom citizens, though the kingdom was still future. While it is true that the basic moral principles that he taught were not appreciably different from those of the Law and prophets (Matthew 7:12; 22:40), it is also correct to say that he extended them and applied them in ways that they had never been understood before. In the series of contrasts found in Matthew 5:21-48, he certainly dealt with their misunderstanding of the Law and, possibly, with Pharisaic teaching (as in Matthew 5:43).  It is highly unlikely that he was here placing himself in opposition to the Law itself, immediately after upholding the Law and the prophets. It is also significant that the Son of God, the soon-to-be king of the new kingdom, asserted his own authority in his repeated pronouncements (“but I say unto you”). Little wonder that the people saw a profound difference between his authoritative teaching and that of the scribes. He took the foundation laid for such matters in the Law and then built on that foundation kingdom law; what began as an early bud under the Law later blossomed under Christ’s gospel. It also should be remembered that Jesus’ teaching about love, begun here in this sermon, he later summarized and applied to his disciples’ love for each other, calling his teaching “a new commandment” (John 13:34).   

It was new (kainos) in quality, form, or nature, not in time. Let there never arise any doubt that Jesus prepared people for the coming kingdom in his own ministry, even while he obeyed the Law of Moses and urged them to do the same. He was seeking a holy people, even as Israel could have been such under the Law. The purpose of his ministry was preparatory, while he personally also looked backward to the Law under which he lived. To be faithful to God, who had sent him to prepare for the future, he could not do otherwise.   

Other Preparations for the Kingdom

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus prepared people for the kingdom. To exclude this element of his ministry is to strip him of any reason for coming to earth in the flesh. The prophets had explained the Law, clarified its spiritual impact on the lives of Israelites, and urged their obedience thereto from the heart.    Jesus was not just another in the long line of Old Testament prophets, though he was a divine prophet (Hebrews 1:1-4). He was God’s final prophet who must be heard. Even during his life, God spoke from heaven to certify him as the one to be heard, in contrast to Moses and Elijah, whose time was either past or passing (Matthew 17:5). He had to be heard even then, for he had something to say that the Law and the prophets did not fully say. At a time when the Jews little understood the spiritual nature of the coming kingdom, his teaching provided a needed element as he staked out the very spiritual boundaries for all to know.    Though he did not give all details concerning the church, he did clarify its spiritual nature and character.

Jesus also gave some specific teaching that would operate in the new kingdom/church, in addition to that found in the Sermon on the Mount. He taught how to solve the problem of personal offenses in Matthew 18:15-17. He also gave to his apostles their places of authority in his teaching in Matthew 16:18-19; 18:18-20; 19:28.    Jesus taught concerning true worshippers and their worship for the time of the church in John 4:22-24. He instituted the Lord’s supper in Matthew 26 and parallel accounts and indicated its “new” (form of kainos, earlier defined) place when “the kingdom of God shall come” (Luke 22:18). Jesus gave the account of the woman anointing him at Simon’s house in Bethany a deserved place in the preaching of the gospel in Matthew 26:6-13. Jesus also gave the apostles their marching orders for their post-Pentecost work and, in doing so, also laid down the path into the new kingdom (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:46-47). In reality he had already dealt with the fundamental principles of obedience or submission to him in the Sermon on the Mount, defining them as the way to enter the kingdom (Matthew 5:20; 7:13-27).   

He had also taught about the new birth in John 3 as a means of entering the kingdom, just as he did conversion in Matthew 18:3.   He had something to say about the significance of his blood before it was shed in John 6:55. The many kingdom parables taught by Jesus say much concerning the coming kingdom, not the kingdom of Old Testament Israel; we believe such to true because Jesus would not have tried to conceal the mysteries of that kingdom at such a late time, when its very survival was in jeopardy, especially in view of his effort to “clarify the law of Moses, as some claim he was doing (clarifying and concealing do not fit together). To deny that Jesus could teach concerning the church during his personal ministry is to assert something without Biblical proof. The proof shows that he did so; to assert otherwise is to state a theory requiring more proof than has been given.

A Similar Situation

Did not Moses reveal to Israel in Egypt the Passover observance, at least in its elementary stage, and yet later actually reveal its fullness in the Law for continuing observance? Do we not have a similar situation in his revealing the Sabbath regulation as a test of their willingness to obey God in Exodus 16, though it was not revealed for their perpetual observance until Mount Sinai (Nehemiah 9:13-14)? It ought to be obvious that while one arrangement (the Patriarchal) was in force, God set forth something that was coming under the next arrangement (Mosaic Covenant). If such could happen then, why could it not also happen during Jesus’ ministry, as he kept the Law and urged others to do likewise, that he made preparation for the next economy (His own) by preparing spiritual material in the people willing to listen? To concede that such happened earlier in Bible history, as we have pointed out, is to admit the possibility of such taking place again when Jesus was present on earth. It was no more impossible then than it had been earlier! If one wishes to call this kind of situation a merging of two covenants, as if such could never happen, he may do so; but he has misnamed it, for the one who planned all covenants or economies has the right to provide such previews or prophecies as he deems best. Who is man to counsel God? He has the right to test man’s faith in whatever way he chooses, or to preview his coming economy as he sees fit.