Relevant Verses: Matthew 5-7; 19:8; 22:37-40
Leading Question: What does Jesus tell us about “the law”?
“Law” is an enormous topic to cover in just one lesson. Indeed last quarter all 13 lessons focused on law. But here we want to focus in particular on what Jesus teaches on law, and we will limit our attention to just one Gospel, the Gospel of Matthew
To set the stage, however, we should note three OT passages and one from the last book of the Bible. These can provide a framework within which we can look at what Jesus says.
- Law as Gospel: Deut. 4:5-8. In the NT the burdensome nature of law lies close to the surface. In Acts 15:10, for example, Peter refers to God-given laws as “a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear.” By contrast, Moses tells Israel that even their neighbors will be impressed with their wonderful God-given laws. He quotes them as saying, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” (vs. 6). In short, in the Old Testament, law is gospel, good news.
- Clear distinction between decalogue and the other laws: Deut. 4:13-14. In vs. 13, Moses lays down the enduring nature of the decalogue: God speaks to all the people, he refers to the law as covenant and as 10 commandments and he writes the law on two stone contrast. But in vs. 14, he speaks only to Moses, not to all the people, and he changes the vocabulary, speaking of statutes and ordinances instead of covenant and ten commandments. In Deut. 31:26 he directs that this “book” of the law be placed beside the ark, not in the ark with the decalogue, a clear indication that the decalogue stands in a category all its own.
- Ultimate goal: Law written on the heart: Jer. 31:31-34. In Jeremiah 31 the new covenant is said to be written on the heart. Furthermore, no one will tell anyone what to do because obedience will have become natural and automatic. Note that the new covenant is a promise to OT people and would be better translated as “renewed” covenant. In other words, the traditional comparison of OT as old covenant and NT as new covenant is not biblical!
- Commandments of God and Faith of Jesus: Rev. 14:12. In the last book of the Bible, the commandments of God and faith of Jesus are affirmed in one breath. In short, God’s law is something enduring.
Given that framework, let us now turn to the Gospel of Matthew and look at Jesus’ teaching about the law:
- Broadening the spirit of the Law: Matthew 5. All six of Jesus’ famous antitheses move from the external to the internal. Two of these refer specifically to laws in the decalogue: murder vs. murderous anger (vss. 21-22) and adultery vs. the lustful heart (vss. 27-28). Do such comparisons lessen the power of law, or increase it? In what sense do these comparisons “fulfill” the law, to borrow Jesus’ words in 5:17?
- The whole law focuses on how we treat people. Matthew 7:12. When Jesus gives his most succinct summary of law, he focuses on the second great command, not the first. And his formula is indeed concise: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
- Some laws are more important than others: Matthew 22:37-40. In response to a question from Jewish leaders, Jesus clearly speaks of a first command and a second one. He also says that all the law and the prophets “hang” on these two commands. In short, some laws are indeed more important than others.
- Some laws are adaptations to imperfect situations: Matthew 19:8. Scripture gives us only one explicit statement of the “accommodation” of law to human need: the law of divorce. “Originally it was not so,” Jesus declared.
- Sell all and give to the poor: Matthew 19:16-22. In contrast with God’s plan for Zacchaeus who only had to give a fraction of his goods to the poor, the “rich, young ruler” was asked to give all. Keeping the commandments simply was not enough. What might this suggest for the internalization of all law?
The idea of law as an accommodation to human need is suggested in a series of Ellen White quotations. She makes it clear that law is not simply an instrument of condemnation, but was and is intended to be a blessing to humankind.
Ellen White’s Commentary on the Nature of Law
From Inspiration (RH 1991), 135-136
Adaptation and Restoration of the Ideal Law of Love
BEFORE SIN IN HEAVEN, THE ANGELS WERE VIRTUALLY UNAWARE OF LAW. “But in heaven, service is not rendered in the spirit of legality. When Satan rebelled against the law of Jehovah, the thought that there was a law came to the angels almost as an awakening to something unthought of. In their ministry the angels are not as servants, but as sons. There is perfect unity between them and their Creator. Obedience is to them no drudgery. Love for God makes their service a joy” (TMB 109).
BEFORE SIN ON EARTH, THE LAW WAS WRITTEN ON HUMAN HEARTS. “Adam and Eve, at their creation, had a knowledge of the law of God; they were acquainted with its claims upon them; its precepts were written upon their hearts. When man fell by transgression, the law was not changed, but a remedial system was established to bring him back to obedience” (PP 363).
AS HUMANKIND FELL AWAY FROM GOD, THE LAW WAS ADAPTED TO NEED: “If man had kept the law of God, as given to Adam after his fall, preserved by Noah, and observed by Abraham, there would have been no necessity for the ordinance of circumcision. And if the descendants of Abraham had kept the covenant, of which circumcision was a sign, they would never have been seduced into idolatry, nor would it have been necessary for them to suffer a life of bondage in Egypt; they would have kept God’s law in mind, and there would have been no necessity for it to be proclaimed from Sinai, or engraved upon the tables of stone. And had the people practiced the principles of the Ten Commandments, there would have been no need of the additional directions given to Moses” (PP 364).
THE DECALOGUE APPLIED THE PRINCIPLES OF LOVE: “The precepts of the Decalogue are adapted to all mankind and they were given for the instruction and government of all. Ten precepts, brief, comprehensive, and authoritative, cover the duty of man to God and to his fellowman; and all based upon the great fundamental principle of love. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy strength and with all thy mind and thy neighbor as thyself” (Luke 10:27). In the ten commandments, these principles are carried out in detail and made applicable to the condition and circumstances of man” (PP 305).
ADDITIONAL LAWS ILLUMINED THE PRINCIPLES OF THE DECALOGUE: “The minds of the people, blinded and debased by slavery and heathenism, were not prepared to appreciate fully the far-reaching principles of God’s ten precepts. That the obligations of the Decalogue might be more fuly understood and enforced, additional precepts were given, illustrating and applying the principles of the Ten Commandments” (PP 310).
ALL THE LAWS WERE FOR THE GOOD OF THE PEOPLE: “The object of all these regulations was stated: they proceeded from no exercise of arbitrary sovereignty; all were given for the good of Israel” (PP 311).
THE LAW IS AGAIN INTERNALIZED: “The same law that was engraved upon the tables of stone, is written by the Holy Spirit upon the tables of the heart” (PP 372).