Matthew, Jesus, and Law

I had a professor friend who used to say (maybe he still does) that every controversy of the first couple centuries of the church’s life was over the (dis)continuity of the Old Testament and the life/faith of the church.

We see on the pages of the New Testament that questions about circumcision, food laws, and law-keeping in general were pressing pastoral questions. Later the question arose as to whether this world that we live in, which seems like it’s a disaster, could have possibly been created by the good God whom we worship through the work of Jesus.

The point of this post isn’t to argue that historical claim, but there’s sufficient grain of truth in it to suggest that any time we get into questions of (dis)continuity between Jesus and what came before that we are on ground that has been well traversed but often with little consensus.

In other words, three quarters of you who read what follows will probably disagree, but here it goes, anyway.

The Law in particular, and the whole Old Testament in general was of crucial importance for the writer of Matthew. “Don’t think I’ve come to abolish the law, I haven’t come to abolish but to fulfill… Not one jot or tittle will fall away from the law until all things have come to be.”

Moreover, there’s that marvelous little parable in which Jesus says that every scribe trained in the kingdom is like a householder bringing out of his storehouse treasures old and new.

Scribe: expert in the writings.

So obviously law-keeping as such is important to Jesus, as Matthew presents him. Right?

Not so fast.

The law that Matthew’s Jesus upholds as the standard of righteousness is not the Moses-given Torah, but the law and instruction and refracted through the life and teaching of Jesus.

Immediately after saying that he doesn’t come to abolish but to fulfill, Matthew’s Jesus holds up various commandments and says, “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…”

Even if you translate this “and I say to you,” the point is largely the same: if you want to “fulfill what is written” it is not enough to keep Torah, you have to keep the words of Jesus. Knowing what you are to do is not to be had from Torah alone, but through Jesus’ teaching.

The end of the Sermon on the Mount reinforces this idea.

In 7:21-23 we get the warning that not everyone who says to Jesus, “Lord, Lord” will get into the Kingdom; those who do “get in” are those who obey God’s will, which is the same set of people whom Jesus knows.

What is perhaps oblique in this paragraph of Matthew is made explicit in the next one: Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like a person who builds his house on a rock.

Jesus’ words are what must be obeyed, not Torah itself.

The crowd’s reaction bears this out. They were amazed at Jesus’ teaching because he was teaching like one having authority. This doesn’t mean he was a compelling speaker. It means that he was speaking by standing on his own calling to speak for God, not as one passing on a tradition whose authority is vested elsewhere (such as the giving of the law itself or the line of teachers).

Finally, when Jesus sends out the eleven after his resurrection, he commands them to make disciples by teaching them to obey everything that he himself has taught.

For Matthew, discipleship is a matter of following this teacher. The Law and the Prophets are essential, but they are essential inasmuch as they have been given a Christological refraction and fulfillment.

There is a paradox entailed here: for Matthew, Law is more important than it seems to be for the other Gospel writers; but, in weaving the Law so prominently through the story, I believe he creates a Jesus who is less acceptable to a non-Christian Judaism, to a people defined by keeping Torah.

Matthew brings the law in closer, but in so doing brings it into such contact with Jesus that it no longer stands as such. The defining activities of the people of God are no longer found in the Law, but in the teachings of this particular teacher of the way of righteousness.

10 thoughts on “Matthew, Jesus, and Law”

  1. Daniel, I’ve appreciated your thought as I’ve read over the past few months, but I’m troubled by your direction when it comes to this broader issue. It’s not simply a matter of Torah vs. Jesus; as soon as that dichotomy is set up, we’ve got a problem, because Torah was itself an act of grace, and the God of Torah is the God of Jesus (defined in multiple ways). Rather, Jesus gets to the heart of what Torah was always about: the kingdom of God come to earth. I think people like Gerhard Lohfink are very helpful here. By Jesus’ day, of course, Torah had been artificially expanded and perverted such that one part of Israel used it to rule over the rest – clearly antithetical to Torah’s intent as a social order. Jesus takes that head on, fulfills Torah in its original intent, and opens the kingdom up to all peoples based on his fulfillment, and subsequent suffering (the culmination, of course, being cross and resurrection). So “law-keeping” is, in fact, important to Jesus, if Torah is properly understood, which is what Jesus goes about clarifying there on out. I’m afraid these types of dichotomies simply don’t give enough credit to what Yahweh was doing through Torah in the first place; the shape of the people he was bringing about is crucial to our understanding of what it means to be church.

  2. Daniel, I concur with you looking to Matthew 22:40 as Jesus trying to instill a reformation of love. The culture of a nation who had made the Law a record-keeping kind of game needed to see a more radical heart and now taking that radical heart into both a Jewish understanding and non-Jewish as well.

  3. Well, here’s what I think. Christ is the end of the law. We do not have to be concerned with keeping Torah, not even the Decalogue. Jesus kept all that for us. He calls us to himself, not to THE LAW.
    And if Christ if formed in us by the grace of God, then we don’t have to worry about Law or laws.
    Christ is our righteousness and only Christ. Every word that Christ speaks to us comes from his ultimate allegiance to do the will of God. Like the first Adam, Jesus was invited into a relationship with the Father and he held on to that relationship in the eternal trinity and in the flesh. And now we are invited into Christ, abiding with him and bearing fruit from that relationship, that community.
    A friend of mine recently sent me this wonderful quote from Bonhoeffer

    “The restoration of the church will surely come from a new kind of monasticism, which will have nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising adherence to the Sermon on the Mount in imitation of Christ. I believe the time has come to rally people together for this.” – Bonhoeffer

    good conversation

  4. Hey Daniel,
    In the second, third, and fourth centuries, it was a common Roman criticism to accuse Christianity of merely being apostate from Judaism (e.g., Galen, Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian). Julian went so far as to attempt to rebuild the Temple in order to demonstrate that Judaism was still alive and well. Unfortunately, we can only read reconstructions of their writings through the apologists because their books were burned post-Constantine (e.g., Contra Celsus).


  5. Add to this the point that Matthew’s gospel seems to be structured as a new Torah, with five major teachings of Jesus. Seem to me the writer is trying to make the point that Jesus is a personified Torah who takes preeminence over the written version.

  6. Daniel,

    Why does Matthew necessarily play following Jesus’ teaching (about the Law) off of the Law itself? Sure, some writers present the way Jesus relates to/embodies/fulfills/etc. the law in a law marginalizing way. But someone like Matthew could present Jesus as a teacher of the Law in a way that’s ultimately meant to retain the centrality of law observance — in the way the author of Matthew thinks the Law is best interpreted in relation to Jesus.

    Does this distinction make sense? It’s really not uncommon among Jewish writers of the Hellenistic and Roman periods to present competing interpretations of the law, presenting their own as the true meaning of the law, and so on.

    Why does the fact that in Matthew “the law and instruction [are] refracted through the life and teaching of Jesus” mean that in Matthew lawkeeping isn’t still a key concern? For Matthew, emphasizing the climactic significance of Jesus as an eschatological interpreter of the Law may not imply a de-centering or un-ultimacy of the Law.

    1. Sure. The words of the Torah and the words of Christ are not mutually exclusive as Dr. Kirk would have us believe. We know this first because the canonical text displays a unity between Christ’s words and what we find in the Old Testament in terms of the depth, scope, and intent of the law and secondly–theologically–the One who ultimately authored the Torah is the same God incarnate and on the mount giving the sermon. The simplest explanation for the dissonance is that there is a difference between the full intent of the Torah as received and how it was often practiced in first century Israel. Exceeding the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, then, becomes a matter of obeying the law to the extent that Christ himself made clear in the Sermon.

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