An age old debate between progressives and traditionalists wages onward centuries after the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. People of Judeo-Christian tradition asked this question before his birth, during his life, and still today we ask ourselves, our neighbors, and our leaders, “Is there a place for writings from thousands of years ago?” And if there is, “What is the place for these writings?”
Much discussion centers around Jesus’ thoughts on this subject from the Sermon on the Mount…
“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 tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
Obviously, Jesus believes that there IS merit to the ancient texts, but in order to understand it, three big questions need to be answered for me.
- What “Law” is Jesus talking about?
- What does he mean by “fulfill”?
- When is everything “accomplished”?
I intend to use this space to examine those questions more fully. If you’d like to join me in seeing what I find, you are more than welcome to come along.
What “Law” is Jesus talking about?
Let’s cut to the chase; when we hear or read the word “Law” in religious circles we conceptualize it how we have grown up understanding it… as rules and regulations for right living. As Westernized Christians our concept of “Law” is governed (pun intended) by our adoption of a constitution and use of a police force and judicial system. Laws help to keep our society organized and safe.
The difference is in how a first century Jew, like Jesus, would have understood the term “Law” (big ‘L’).
The “Law,” to Jesus, most likely referred to the Torah (first 5 books of the Old Testament) as a whole; in addition to rabbinical practices and traditions. The individual laws (small ‘L’), which refer to actual human action or inaction, would have been called commandments or mitzvah/mitzvot.
A quick aside about Biblical covenants: They are three parts (1. What God will do, 2. What Humans will do, 3. A physical sign to remember). God’s first covenant is with Noah. God promises not to wipe out humankind again, Noah promises to fill the earth, and rainbows seal the deal. God’s second covenant is with Abraham. God will give Abraham children, Abraham and his children will trust in God, and the men in Abraham’s family will be circumcised so they remember (now THAT’S a painful reminder).
I feel confident in making the assertion that Jesus is speaking about God’s covenants with humanity and not just the commandments because of his inclusion of “the Prophets.” Most of the writing of the Prophets was to remind Jews about their covenants with God, to encourage them to live in accordance with the covenants, and to prophesy about a coming Messiah (a fulfillment of the covenants).
Some people believe that Jesus was speaking about the 613 mitzvot when he said, “…not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law…” and that makes the commandments absolute. However, it is important to note that not even Jesus himself followed the mitzvot completely. He healed on the Sabbath, his disciples didn’t fast, and he even condemns the pharisees for abiding by the Sabbath laws so strictly.
Suffice it to say that there is certainly more behind Jesus’ use of the word “Law” than rules and regulations. There is something much deeper than simple commandments. The “Law” that Jesus has come to fulfill, holds much more weight than our cultural bias can comprehend.