Transformation of Israel into the Church


How did the nation of Israel transform into the Church of Jesus Christ?


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Transformation of the Law



The realm within which Christ's transformation of Israel is most readily apparent in Matthew is that of the Law. When examining this aspect of Jesus' transformative work, it might be helpful to observe what Bouyer demonstrates: that the very structure of the Gospel begs comparison with the Jewish Torah (cf. Bouyer 92). Specifically, chapters 3-7 - which include Christ's forty days in the desert and the Sermon on the Mount - are modeled on the Exodus and the giving of the Law. The template for giving the Law can be found in Exodus 19:20, in which "the LORD came down upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain; and the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. And the LORD said to Moses..." Here, God is the giver of the Law, and Moses is the recipient. In Matthew 5:1-2, however, Matthew states that Jesus "went up on the mountain... he opened his mouth and taught them." The difference is striking: Jesus does not receive the Law from God like Moses did, but instead he gives it. He has an authority that even the great prophet Moses did not have. Thus, it is clear that Jesus has not come simply to re-establish the old Law as it was given to Moses, but instead will be bringing something totally unique to God's people. As Kittel states, "Jesus does not merely affirm that He will maintain [the law and the prophets]...He has come in order that God's Word may be completely fulfilled, in order that the full measure appointed by God Himself may be reached in Him" (Kittel VI 294).

Yet this change will be built upon the foundation of the Old Law: Jesus himself declares that his presence in Israel is not to abolish the old order, but to fulfill it: "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil[l] them" (Matt. 5:17). "Fulfillment" is the key term that must be understood to see how Jesus transforms the Law; Matthew reiterates this mission of fulfillment by asserting on twelve separate occasions that Jesus "fulfilled" the Scriptures (Matt. 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:54; 27:9) (cf. Orchard 853). So what does it mean that Jesus "fulfills" the old law? In verse 5:17, Jesus clearly contrasts this action of fulfillment with "abolish," so a simple removal of the Old Law is not intended. On some level, the commands of the Old Law are still in force. But Jesus is now elevating them with a new meaning, a new level of understanding. As McKenzie states, "This word cannot refer to simple literal observance...'Fulfill' means to bring the Law to perfection, to give it that finality the Pharisees believed it possessed. Jesus affirms indirectly that the Law is imperfect, unfinished; he will perfect and finish it" (McKenzie 71).

Jesus' elevation of the Law to new meaning is symbolically represented by Matthew. In the giving of the Old Law on Mt. Sinai to which Matthew is linking the Sermon on the Mount, Moses descends the mountain to give it to the people. Matthew, however, notes that Jesus' "disciples came to him" (Matt. 5:1) on the mountain. God is no longer condescending to man's weakness; instead, He is raising man up to the divine level. This is also clear from the common refrain of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: "You have heard...but I say to you..." (Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44). In each case, Jesus does not abrogate the old law, but instead raises it to a new level of obedience: one is not only forbidden to kill, but also forbidden to be angry; adultery is not only prohibited, but also looking lustfully at a woman; no exception is given for divorce, and so forth. As Bouyer writes, "This fulfillment is so complete that it discards, like an outgrown shell, what had prepared for it" (Bouyer 95), yet its metamorphisized essence remains.

This elevation of the Law is vividly summarized in his command: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). Parts of the old Law are seen as a divine condescension due to Israel's "hardness of heart" (cf. Matt. 19:8), but now, with the presence of Jesus, each member of the new Israel is to be perfected in the image of the Father. As can be seen in this command to be perfect, all of the new law is directed towards the Father, in imitation of Him. This divine paternal focus is paramount in Christ's Sermon on the Mount. When Christ addresses the three great Jewish piestic practices - alms-giving, prayer, and fasting (Matt. 6:1-18) - he re-bases each one of them on the following principle: do them in secret, because your Father in heaven sees what is in secret (Matt. 6:4; 6:6; 6:18). In the Old Israel, much of the Law was directed towards creating a just society (cf. Exod. 21-22). Each person was expected to follow the Law in order that all might be treated fairly. Furthermore, over time the emphasis became focused on external observations and appearance. Jesus, on the other hand, is calling on members of the new Israel to internalize the Law and follow it simply to please and honor the Father. This trust in the Father will be rewarded, as the Father will give his children good things when they ask him: "what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matt. 7:9-11).

Christ's elevation of the Law to imitation of the Father is made possible by his own presence. He states, "All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him" (Matt. 11:27). Only Christ knows the Father, thus it is only through Christ that imitation of the Father becomes possible. Before his advent, Israel's highest knowledge of God was the Law; for the new Israel, it is the person of Jesus. By imitating Christ's obedience to the Father, members of the transformed Israel are able to strive to "be perfect."

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