The Sermon On The Mount
Christ and the Law
"Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, hut to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled."
Matthew 5:1, 18
The manifestation of Christ in Israel's midst was sudden and startling. The first thirty years of His life on earth had been lived in private, and outside His own immediate circle He seems to have attracted little attention. But as soon as He appeared on the stage of public action this was altered: the eyes of all were fixed upon Him and the leaders of the nation were compelled to take notice of Him. His meekness and lowliness at once distinguished Him from those who sought the praise of men. His miracles of healing soon became heralded far and wide. His call to repentance and proclamation of the Gospel (Mark 1:15) made people wonder what was the real character and design of His mission. Was He a revolutionary? Was it His purpose to overthrow the existing order of things? What was His attitude towards the Scriptures, and particularly to the Law of Moses? Did He disavow their Divine authority? These were questions agitating the minds of men, and calling for clear answers.
Christ's preaching was so entirely different from that of the Pharisees and Sadducees (which was supposed to be based on the Old Testament), that the people were inclined to imagine His intention was to subvert the authority of God's Word and substitute His own in its place. Because Christ despised "the traditions of the elders," the religious leaders supposed Him to be a deceiver, going about to destroy the very foundations of piety. Because He threw far more emphasis upon great moral principles than upon ceremonial institutions, many were ready to imagine that He repudiated the entire Levitical system. Because He was the Proclaimer of grace and the Dispenser of mercy, the "Friend of publicans and sinners," the idea became current that He was opposed to the Law. The balance of Truth had been lost, and because the Lord Jesus did not echo the prevailing theology of the day, He was regarded as a heretic. Christ had refused to identify Himself with any of the sects of His time, and because He was outside them all, people wondered what was His real attitude to the Law and the prophets.
For a long time past the view had more or less obtained that when the Messiah appeared He would introduce radical changes and entirely overthrow the ancient order of religion. Therefore did Christ here assure the people that so far from being antagonistic to the Old Testament Scriptures, He had come to fulfil them. He strongly disavowed any hostile design in regard to the Word of God, and proceeded to confirm its authority. The verses we are now to ponder begin the third and longest section of the Sermon on the Mount: from verse 17 to the end of chapter 5, Christ treats of the most important subject of the moral Law, showing its true meaning, which had been much corrupted by the Jewish teachers. First our Lord refuted the erroneous ideas which the people had formed of Him by three emphatic declarations, the force of which we shall now endeavour to bring out.
"Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets" (v. 17). The Old Testament Scriptures were comprehensively summarized under the title, "the law and the prophets" (Matthew 7:12; Luke 16:16): thus the first and widest meaning of our Lord's words is, Suppose not that My mission is to repudiate the authority of Holy Writ; rather is it to establish and enforce the same. This will be the more evident when we examine the verses which immediately follow. The entire record of His ministry furnished clear proof of what He asserted on this occasion. Christ venerated the sacred Scriptures, was regulated by them in all His actions, and definitely set His imprimatur upon their Divine inspiration. No fouler calumny could be laid to His charge than to accuse Him of any antagonism to or disrespect for the Divine oracles.
We must next duly note that Christ did not here speak of "the law and the prophets," but "the law, or the prophets," a distinction we are required to weigh and understand, for it presents quite a different concept. The Law and the prophets are not here associated in such a way as to comprise a unity, or as indicating the spirit of the Law by another word. No, the two terms are here put together by the disjunctive particle "or," and therefore each of them must represent a distinct idea familiar to the Jews. Christ was here referring to the prophets not so much as the commentators upon the Law, but as those who had fore-announced His person, mission, and kingdom. His obvious design, then, was to intimate that the Old Testament in all its parts and elements-ethical or predicative-referred to Himself and was accomplished in Himself.
It is also to be observed that no further reference is made to the prophets throughout this Sermon (let those who have such a penchant for prophecy take due note!), and that from verse 18 onwards it is the Law which Christ treats of. Before proceeding farther we must next inquire, Exactly what did Christ here signify by "the law"? We answer, unhesitatingly, The whole Jewish Law, which was threefold: ceremonial, judicial, and moral. The ceremonial described rules and ordinances to be observed in the worship of God; the judicial described ordinances for the government of the Jewish commonwealth and the punishment of offenders: the former was for the Jews only; the latter primarily for them, yet concerned all people in all times so far as it tended to establish the moral Law. The moral Law is contained in the Ten Commandments.
While the entire Jewish Law was comprehended by our Lord's expression "the law," yet it is clear that He alluded principally to the moral Law, for the subsequent parts of the Sermon refer directly and mainly to it. But we must add that this term here also included the types, the law of sacrifice, and especially the sin-offering; for the question might well be asked, If there had been no real accomplishment of the sacrificial emblems, what then became of all the references in Moses to the propitiatory offerings and to the entire typical system? If Christ had not accomplished them by presenting to God the substance which they shadowed forth, then they would have been an unfulfilled prophecy or pledge, for they manifestly pointed to Him. Christ, then, came to present the reality of which they were the pledge.
"I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil" (v. 17). We must now carefully inquire what our Lord here meant by "fulfil." We understand Him to signify that so far from its being His purpose to annul the moral Law, He had come with the express design of meeting its holy demands, to offer unto God what it justly required-to magnify it by rendering to it a perfect obedience in thought and word and deed; and that so far from despising the prophets His mission was to make good their predictions concerning Himself by performing the very work they had announced He should do. In a word, we regard this statement of Christ's as a definite declaration that He had entered this world with the object of bringing in a perfect righteousness, which should be imputed to all His believing people. But this vital and glorious truth is now blankly repudiated by some who pose as being orthodox, and therefore they viciously wrest this passage.
Unwilling to admit that Christ rendered to the Law any vicarious obedience on behalf of His people, Socinians contend that the word "fulfil" in this passage simply means to "fill out" or "fill full." They imagine that in the remainder of the chapter Christ partly cancels and partly adds to the moral Law. Even Mr. Grant, in his Numerical Bible, rendered it "complete," and in his notes says, "What would the Old Testament be without the New? Very much like a finger pointing into vacuity." As quite a number of our readers have more or less come under the influence of this error, we deem it necessary to expose such a sophistry and establish the true meaning of Christ's declaration. In essaying this we cannot do better than summarize the arguments used by George Smeaton.
First, that "usage of language is opposed to such an interpretation which here adopts the rendering 'to fill out' in preference to fulfil. No example of such a usage can be adduced when the verb is applied to a law or to an express demand contained in the spirit of the law; in which case it uniformly means 'to fulfil.' Thus it is said, 'He that loveth another hath fulfilled the law' (Rom. 8:8). The inflexible usage of language rules the sense in such a phrase, to the effect that Christ must be understood to say that He came not to fill out or to supplement the Law by additional elements, but to fulfil it, by obeying it or by being made under it."
Second, "fill out" is inadmissible as applied to the second term or object of the verb: Christ did not come to fill out or expound the prophets, but simply to fulfil their predictions. Whenever the word here used is applied to anything prophetical, it is always found in such a connection that it can only mean "to fulfil," and hence we must not deviate from its uniform signification. Third, verse 18 must be regarded as giving a reason for the statement made in verse 17. But what sort of reason would be given if we were to render the connected verses thus: "I came to fill out or to supplement the Law, for verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, not one jot or tittle shall in any wise pass from the Law till all be fulfilled"?
To these arguments we would add this forcible and (to us) conclusive consideration: the term "fulfil" was here placed by Christ in direct antithesis from "destroy," which surely fixes its scope and meaning. Now to "destroy" the Law is not to empty it of meaning, but is to rescind, dissolve or abrogate it. But to "fill out" or complete the Law obviously presents no proper contrast with "destroy" or render void. "To fulfil," then, is to be taken in its prime and natural sense, as meaning to perform what they (the Law and the prophets) required, to substantiate them, to make good what they demanded and announced. Merely to rescue the Law from the corrupt glosses of the Jews and to explain its higher meaning was business which could have been done by the apostles, but to bring in an "everlasting righteousness" no mere creature was capable of doing. Law can only be "fulfilled" by perfect obedience.
If we take "fulfil" here in its widest scope, then we gladly avail ourselves of the compound definition of W. Perkins. First, Christ fulfilled the Law by His doctrine: both by restoring to it its proper meaning and true use, and by revealing the right way in which the Law may be fulfilled. Second, in His person: both by performing perfect and perpetual obedience unto its precepts, and by suffering its penalty, enduring death upon the Cross for His people. Third, in men: in the elect by imparting faith to their hearts, so that they lay hold of Christ who fulfilled it for them, and by giving them His own Spirit which imparts to them a love for the Law and sets them on endeavoring to obey it; in the reprobate when He executes the curse of the Law upon them.
Taking our verses as a whole, we may perceive how that though the Law and the Gospel vary in some respects very widely, yet there is a perfect consonance and agreement between them. Many now suppose that the one is the avowed enemy of the other. Not so. There is a sweet consent between the Law and Gospel, for Christ came to fulfil the former and is the substance of the latter, and therefore are we informed through His chief apostle that "by faith we establish the law" (Rom. 3:21), and that when Moses had given the Law unto the people of Israel he offered sacrifices and sprinkled the blood thereof upon the book and the people (Heb. 9:19, 20)-type of the shedding of Christ's blood and which thus did notify the perfect harmony of the Law and the Gospel.
What that blessed consonance is between the Law and the Gospel no regenerate soul should have any difficulty in perceiving. Let us briefly present it thus. The Law required perfect obedience and pronounced death on the least breach thereof, and does not propose any way of fulfilling the same in our own persons. But the Gospel directs us to Christ, who, as the believer's Surety, fulfilled the Law for him, for which reason Christ is called "The end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth" (Rom. 10:4). And through Christ it is that "the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit" (Rom. 8:4).
"For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled" (v. 18). In these words our Lord advances a conclusive argument for clearing Himself from the false imputation that He had come to destroy the Law, as the opening "For" (following His statement in v. 17) clearly indicates. His argument is drawn from the very nature of the Law, which is immutable. Since the Law is unchangeable, it must needs be fulfilled-that its Author be vindicated and glorified; and since fallen man was incapable of rendering perfect obedience to it, it was essential that Christ Himself should perform and bring in that everlasting righteousness which God required. Christ's argument, then, may be stated thus: If the Law be inviolable and for observance eternal, then I could not have come to destroy it. Because the Law is immutable and eternal it necessarily follows that He came not to annul but to accomplish it.
"Verily I say unto you" was a form of speech employed by the Saviour when He would solemnly avouch any weighty truth, propounding it in His own name. Herein He evidences Himself to be the grand "Amen," the "faithful and true Witness," the antitypical Prophet, the Divine Teacher of His Church, to whom we must hearken in all things, for He cannot lie. In saying "till heaven and earth pass away"-the most stable of all created objects-Christ affirmed the unchangeableness of the Law, and that this might be rendered the more emphatic He made reference to the minutiae of the Hebrew alphabet, that not so much as its smallest part shall pass from the Law-the "jot" being the tiniest letter, and the "tittle" the smallest curve of a letter.
The ceremonial law has not been destroyed by Christ, but the substance now fills the place of its shadows. Nor has the judicial law been destroyed: though it has been abrogated unto us so far as it was peculiar to the Jews, yet, as it agrees with the requirements of civic justice and mercy, and as it serves to establish the precepts of the moral law, it is perpetual-herein we may see the blasphemous impiety of the popes of Rome, who in the canons have dared to dispense with some of the laws of consanguinity in Leviticus 18. While the moral law remains for ever as a rule of obedience to every child of God, as we have shown so often in these pages.
Let us learn from Christ's declaration of the immutability of the Law that, first, the Scriptures are the very Word of God, and therefore a sure resting place for our hearts. A Christian is subject to many doubts of the truth of God's promises in times of trial and temptation, but this should ever be remembered: not one jot or tittle can pass till all be accomplished. Second, that no part of the inspired Scriptures, still less any whole book of it, can be lost: neither man nor devil can destroy one jot of it. Third, this immutability of the Law shall stand against them for ever. Fourth, Christ's setting His seal upon the inviolable authority of the Law intimates its perfections: every part of it is needed by us, every sentence evidences its Divine authorship, every precept calls for our loving obedience.