Visions from the Vincents

February 27, 2008

Poythress on Jesus and the Law

Filed under: Books,The Law,Uncategorized — Joshua @ 2:10 pm
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“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. I tell you the truth, 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. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:17-20).”

In what sense does Jesus fulfill the Law and Prophets and in what sense does he abolish them? This is a difficult question that Vern Poythress explores in his new online book “The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses.” Here are some helpful excerpts from this book on the relationship between Jesus and the Law.

“Some interpreters have argued that the word “fulfill” here means “confirm” or “establish.”4 According to this view Jesus reasserts the true meaning of the law over against Pharisaic distortions, and thereby confirms its validity”

“This view, I believe, in nearly correct. Jesus’ teaching in 5:21-48 does vindicate the law against distortions and does harmonize with its true intention. But I would argue that in verse 17 Jesus claims something more. The coming of the kingdom of heaven means a fundamental advance in the working out of God’s purposes. God’s promises of his reign and his salvation, as given in the Old Testament, are being accomplished. What the law foreshadowed and embodied in symbols and shadows is now coming into realization. What was earthly and preliminary in the function of the law is now fulfilled in heavenly realities. Jesus’ teaching represents not simply the reiteration of the law but a step forward, bringing the purposes of the law into realization. The law is to be written on the hearts of his disciples (see Jer. 31:31-34). Jesus does not assert merely a static continuation of the force of the law, but rather a dynamic advance–in fact, the definitive fulfillment.

John Murray says,

Hence what Jesus means is that he came to realize the full measure of the intent and purpose of the law and the prophets. He came to complete, to consummate, to bring to full fruition and perfect fulfilment the law and the prophets. Jesus refers to the function of validating and confirming the law and the prophets and includes much more than the fulfilment of the predictions of the Old Testament regarding himself. He means that the whole process of revelation deposited in the Old Testament finds in him its completion, its fulfilment, its confirmation, its validation. Still more, it finds in him its embodiment. To use John’s terms, “grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). 6

The words “confirm” and “validate” by themselves might assert only static maintenance of the law, but Murray introduces terms like “complete” and “consummate” to indicate an advance.

Don A. Carson gives a more precise formulation as follows:

Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets in that they point to him, and he is their fulfillment. . . . Therefore we give plJ-ejroJ-oj (“fulfill”) exactly the same meaning as in the formula quotations, which in the prologue (Matt 1-2) have already laid great stress on the prophetic nature of the OT and the way it points to Jesus. . . . just as Jesus fulfilled OT prophecies by his person and actions, so he fulfilled OT law by his teaching. In no case does this “abolish” the OT as canon, any more than the obsolescence of the Levitical sacrificial system abolishes tabernacle ritual as canon. Instead, the OT’s real and abiding authority must be understood through the person and teaching of him to whom it points and who so richly fulfills it. . . . Jesus is not primarily engaged there [in Matt. 5:21-48] in extending, annulling, or intensifying OT law, but in showing the direction in which it points, on the basis of his own authority (to which, again, the OT points). This may work out in any particular case to have the same practical effect as “intensifying” the law or “annulling” some element; but the reasons for that conclusion are quite different.7

Carson’s idea of fulfillment clearly agrees with all that we have seen up to this point in studying Matthew and his theology of the kingdom, as well as what we have derived from our study of the Mosaic law itself. Carson preserves the normal force of “fulfill” within the context of Matthew, and explains how Jesus can confirm the law and make advances as he gives the rest of the Sermon on the Mount.

[HT Justin Taylor]

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