Chapter 14: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law…”
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CHAPTER 14

 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law.”
{Matthew 5:17 NIV}

 

Yes, once again I’m out of step with much of mainstream Christianity. But as you’ll soon see, I’m not out of step with the great Christian leaders of the past. More importantly, as you’ll also soon see, neither am I out of step with the great apostle Paul, the one most often cited by those who I’m out of step with. And most importantly, neither am I out of step with Jesus.

Before we go any further, as with the previous chapter, I want to share with you our title passage in its entirety. I hope you’ll take your time as you read it and give each sentence the consideration it deserves. To me, when read in its entirety, Christ’s message is unmistakably clear:

“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. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”  {Matthew 5:17-19 NIV, KJV}

Lest there be any doubt as to what “law” Jesus was referring to, He then immediately quotes the sixth and seventh commandments (“Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not commit adultery” vs. 21 & 27), giving them a deeper meaning than the Jews usually gave them by applying them to the thoughts and to the heart and not just to the outward actions; which leads us to the first of our Christian leaders who believed and taught that the law hasn’t been done away with—Charles Spurgeon, and his comments on this passage:

“Jesus did not come to change the law, but He came to explain it, and that very fact shows that it remains; for there is no need to explain that which is abrogated… By thus explaining the law He confirmed it; He could not have meant to abolish it, or He would not have needed to expound it.”  {Charles Spurgeon, ‘Perpetuity of the Law of God, pgs. 4-7}

Next, a contemporary of Spurgeon, the man who many believe was the greatest evangelist of the 19th  century, D.L. Moody:

“Now men may cavil as much as they like about the other parts of the Bible, but I have never met an honest man that found fault with the Ten Commandments… The people must be made to understand that the Ten Commandments are still binding, and that there is a penalty attached to their violation… The commandments of God given to Moses in the mount at Horeb are as binding today as ever.”  {D.L. Moody, Weighed and Wanting, pgs. 11-16}

Now, three of the leading men of that greatest of all religious movements since Pentecost—the Protestant Reformation:

“We must not imagine that the coming of Christ has freed us from the authority of the law; for it is the eternal rule of a devout and holy life, and must, therefore, be as unchangeable as the justice of God.”  {John Calvin commenting of Matthew 5:17 in his ‘Commentary on a Harmony of the Gospels,’ Vol. 1, pg. 277}

“The moral law contained in the Ten Commandments, and enforced by the prophets, He did not take away. It was not the design of His coming to revoke any part of this… Every part of the law must remain in force upon all mankind, and in all ages.”  {John Wesley, “On the Sermon on the Mount,” Discourse 6, pgs. 75, 76}

“I wonder exceedingly how it came to be imputed to me that I should reject the law of Ten Commandments.”  {Martin Luther, “Luther’s Works,” vol. 50, pgs. 470, 471}

I finished with that quote from Martin Luther for a reason: because Luther was the great champion of righteousness by faith, not by works. (Maybe that’s why they “imputed to him that he rejected the law.”) And do you know where he discovered that great truth? Of course, in the Bible; but more specifically, he discovered it in the book of Romans. And nowhere is the great truth of righteousness by faith taught with more unmistakable clarity and force than in chapter three:

“No one can ever be made right in God’s sight by doing what his law commands… We are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law… There is only one way of being accepted by him. He makes people right with Himself only by faith.”  {Romans 3:20, 28, 30 NLT}

It’s right in the midst of this setting, and because of this setting, that we now come to what is possibly the most important passage in all the Bible on this much misunderstood question of the place of the law in the life of the true Bible believing Christian. (To me, our title passage is a pretty important one too.) Unfortunately, this is another one of those all-important passages that far too many Christians seem to be unfamiliar with. And let me say one more thing before I share it with you: I really don’t know how much Paul knew in regard to what errors would creep into Christianity after he died, but God certainly knew. And I believe as you read this next passage it will be clear that God saw what was going to happen and met it in this verse. (Because this is so important, and because they all say it so clearly and emphatically, yet in different words, I’m going to share this verse from numerous translations.) And keep in mind: this verse immediately follows all those verses we just read telling us that “God makes people right with Himself through faith, and not by obeying the law.”

“Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.”  {Romans 3:31 KJV}

“Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.”  {Romans 3:31 NASB}

“So do we destroy the law by following the way of faith? No! Faith causes us to be what the law truly wants.”  {Romans 3:31 NCV}

“Well then, if we emphasize faith, does this mean that we can forget about the law? Of Course not! In fact, only when we have faith do we truly fulfill the law.”  {Romans 3:31 NLT}

As I said, I don’t see how Paul could have been any clearer or more emphatic. And I’ll repeat what I said up above: Why isn’t this passage one of those in which almost all Christians are familiar with?

Now I want to turn to another passage, but before I do I want to ask all of you that are regular church goers a question: Have you ever heard it taught that God’s people today are no longer under the “old covenant,” that now we’re under the “new covenant?” And that’s true. Now I have a few more questions: Since Christians are now under the new covenant, do you think it’s important that they know what the new covenant is? Would it surprise you and cause you to do some thinking if I were to make the assertion that possibly as few as one in ten Christians could correctly tell you what the new covenant is? Would you find it even more surprising, and would it cause you to do even more thinking, if you were to discover that in a great number of cases the answer you would receive would be pretty much the opposite of what the correct answer is? And because this is so important, would you be willing to find out if my assertions are correct or not?

Having said all that, let me show you what the new covenant is. (Unless you’re using the New Living Translation you’ll most likely only find it in one place—the book of Hebrews, in chapters 8 & 10. And because this is so important, I’m going to use the New Living and share it with you from that second location also.)

“He cancels the first covenant in order to establish the second… This is the new covenant I will make with my people on that day, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds so they will understand them, and I will write them on their hearts so they will obey them.”  {Hebrews 10:9 & 16; also 8:7-10 NLT}

“The old covenant, which has been set aside… the new covenant, which remains forever… It is carved not on stone, but on human hearts.”  {2 Corinthians 3:11, 3 NLT}

Just to make sure it isn’t missed: there can only be one thing that Paul is referring to when he says, “It is carved not on stone, but on human hearts.” He’s referring to the Ten Commandments, the only thing of note in the Bible that was carved on stone; which of course coincides perfectly with what our Hebrew passage tells us, “I will write my laws on their hearts.”

Now, to show you just how closely our first set of passages is related to that last set of passages, to try to emphasize this great truth that we’re examining, and to show you how consistent the Bible truly is, I want to combine one of the verses we had from our Romans 3 passage with a verse from that 2 Corinthians passage:

“We are made right with God through faith.”  {Romans 3:28 NLT}
“How much more glorious is the new covenant, which makes us right with God.”  {2 Corinthians 3:9 NLT}

The new covenant “makes us right with God.” Faith “makes us right with God.” The new covenant writes God’s law on our hearts. Here’s how those last two translations of Romans 3:31 read:

“Faith causes us to be what the law truly wants.”  {NCV}
“Only when we have faith do we truly fulfill the law.”  {NLT}

So, we have the words of Christ in our title passage telling us the law hasn’t been abolished; we have Paul in the book of Romans telling us the law hasn’t been abolished; we have Paul also telling us, in two places, that the new covenant consists of God writing His law in our hearts; and we have all those great Christian leaders of past ages also telling us the law hasn’t been abolished. The obvious question that then presents itself is: Why is it that so many Christians today believe that the law has been abolished?

Before I begin to specifically answer that question let me just say that, as with some of the things we’ve looked at in earlier chapters, there are usually underlying factors at play that cause people to be inclined to go in a certain direction, with that direction usually being the “broad way” rather than the “narrow way.” Abolishing God’s law is certainly a step in that direction.

Now to get into the specifics of this case: Just as we’ve seen on other subjects that there are oftentimes passages in the Bible that on the surface are contradictory, so it is in this case. And as with one of our earlier subjects, there’s one particular phrase in the New Testament that appears to contradict everything we’ve been looking at so far in this chapter; and it’s presented to Christians over and over and over. Here’s the phrase, and once again, many of you will be very familiar with it: “we are not under the law,” or “you are not under the law.”

Do you know what Bible writer it is who uses that phrase? That’s right, the same Paul who says that we don’t nullify the law through faith, but that we establish it. And do you know where it is in Paul’s writings that he makes that statement, “we are not under the law?” That’s right, in that very same book of Romans. (He uses it in the book of Galatians also; and in passing in 1 Corinthians.) And… do you know what chapter it is in the book of Romans that Paul first talks about Christians not being under the law? You guessed it, that same chapter three where he finishes the chapter by saying:

“Well then, if we emphasize faith, does this mean that we can forget about the law? Of Course not! In fact, only when we have faith do we truly fulfill the law.”  {Romans 3:31 NLT}

Surely you must see that something’s not quite adding up! And what about our title passage, where Jesus Himself not only said that He had not come to abolish the law, but that whoever broke the law, or taught men to break it, would be called least (or worst) in the kingdom of heaven; and that whoever kept the law, and taught men to keep it, would be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Can anyone possibly think for one second that the great apostle Paul pursued a course that would cause him to be called the least in the sight of heaven, and not the course that would cause him to be called great in the sight of heaven? That’s unthinkable! Even if there was no other evidence, this alone ought to be enough to cause us to realize that something just has to be wrong somewhere.

So, where’s the misunderstanding? Actually, there are two mistakes being made. We’ll look at the simpler of the two first: When Paul says that we’re not “under the law” we need to realize that there’s more than one “law” that Paul could be referring to. Let me turn back to those great leaders of the reformation to begin showing that to you.

“23. How many kinds of laws did God give in the Old Testament? Three kinds: The ceremonial church law; The civil law; The moral law. 24. Which of these laws is still in force? The moral law, which is contained in the Ten Commandments.”  {Explanation of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, pgs. 6, 7}

“The moral law contained in the Ten Commandments, and enforced by the prophets, He [Christ] did not take away… The moral law stands on an entirely different foundation from the ceremonial or ritual law.”  {John Wesley, “On the Sermon of the Mount,” Discourse 6, pgs. 75, 76}

Both of those great men of God not only believed and taught that there’s more than one kind of law—the moral law and the ceremonial law (I won’t consider the civil law here)—but that one of them, “the moral law, which is contained in the Ten Commandments,” is still in force, while the ceremonial law isn’t. Were they right? Are there two kinds of laws in the Bible? Well, let me share with you two sets of passages and you see what you think:

Set #1
“I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, “Thou shalt not covet.”  {Romans 7:7 NLT}

“He that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.”  {James 2:11 KJV}

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law… Thou shalt not kill… Thou shalt not commit adultery.”  {Matthew 5:17, 21, 27 NIV}

Set #2
The law appoints men as high priests.”  {Hebrews 7:28 NASB}
“There are priests that offer gifts according to the law.”  {Hebrews 8:4 KJV}
“Sacrifice and offerings…which are offered by the law.”  {Hebrews 10:8 KJV}

So far, would you agree with Luther and Wesley that there are two kinds of laws in the Bible?

Now let me show you that the law referred to in set #2 is no longer in effect:

“Sacrifice and offerings…which are offered by the law.”  {Hebrews10:8 KJV}
“He (the “Messiah” or the “Anointed One”) will put an end to sacrifices and offerings.”  {Daniel 9:27 NLT}

Hopefully you agree that whenever it was that “He put an end to sacrifices and offerings,” it put an end to “the law” that required them. And do you know when it was that the Messiah “put an end to sacrifices?” Why of course, when He offered Himself as the ultimate sacrifice:

“And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom.”  {Matthew 27:50, 51 NIV}

Obviously it was no human hand that tore that curtain “from the top to the bottom” at the very moment of Christ’s death. And obviously, it symbolized that God had “put an end” to that symbolic and ceremonial system of “sacrifices and offerings.”

Now, do you know why it was that the Messiah “put an end to sacrifices?” That should also be obvious: Because all of those sacrifices were nothing more than ceremonies (i.e. “ceremonial law”) that were designed by God to point the minds of His people forward to the one and only sacrifice that could take away their sins:

“Under the old covenant, the priest stands before the altar day after day, offering sacrifices that can never take away sins… Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins.”  {Hebrews 10:11; 9:14 NLT}

 So, I think it’s abundantly clear, and I think for the most part all parties agree on this: that the “law” which had to do with “sacrifices and offerings,” and everything connected with it, such as “making men high priests,” has been abolished.

Now let me point out to you what is no insignificant fact: Much of the evidence that we just looked at showing that the law of sacrifices and offerings has been abolished was from the book of Hebrews, chapters eight through ten, which if you remember, were the very same chapters in which we saw that in the new covenant God writes His law in our heart. Surely the law which God in the new covenant wants to write in our heart can’t be the one that’s been abolished. And surely the law which God in the new covenant wants to write in our heart can’t be the law that required us to make “sacrifices and offerings,” or that “made men high priests.” So what law does that leave us with? The one we read about in 2 Corinthians, which “is not carved on stone, but on human hearts,” the one that Jesus said He had not come to abolish, and the one that Paul in chapter three of Romans tells us wasn’t nullified—the moral law contained in the Ten Commandments.

I was going to save this next point for a later chapter, but I think it would be more beneficial to share it now, especially since the bulk of it’s found in the book of Galatians, which is the other of Paul’s epistles where he tells us that Christians are no longer under the law.

First, two passages from Galatians on the subject of circumcision:

“For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.”  {Galatians 5:3 KJV}
“It makes no difference to God whether we are circumcised or not circumcised.”  {Galatians 5:6 NLT}

In the first of those two passages we’re informed that circumcision is a part of “the law.” Since it certainly wasn’t a part of the moral law of Ten Commandments, it had to have been a part of the ceremonial law, which it was. And in keeping with what we just looked at concerning the ceremonial law being abolished, we saw in that second Galatians passage that circumcision has also been abolished. Now, with those last two passages and what I said about them fresh in your mind, let me show you what Paul tells us in the only other of his epistles that speaks about Christians no longer being under the law:

“It makes no difference whether or not a man has been circumcised. The important thing is to keep God’s commandments.”  {1 Corinthians 7:19 NLT}

Let me just say one more thing before we move on to the next aspect of this subject, something I’m sure you’ll agree with and that I hope sticks in your mind: Paul was certainly no mixed up guy who taught one thing in one place and something entirely the opposite somewhere else.

Now to the other way that phrase, “we are no longer under the law,” is being misunderstood; and I hope to keep this as short and as simple as possible.

As I said up above, there are basically two places where Paul talks about Christians not being under the law—Romans and Galatians. Let me quickly show you how closely the two books parallel each other:

“Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.”  {Romans 4:3 KJV}
“Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”  {Galatians 3:6 KJV}

“[Abraham] is the father of all who believe.”  {Romans 4:11 NIV}
“Those who believe are children of Abraham.”  {Galatians 3:7 NIV}

“No one can ever be made right in God’s sight by doing what his law commands.” {Romans 3:20 NLT}
“No one can ever be made right with God by trying to keep the law.”  {Galatians 3:11 NLT}

Clearly, Paul is writing about the same subject to both churches; and clearly, he’s teaching the same thing to both of them. (What else would we expect?) And hopefully you agree: he can’t be teaching the Roman believers that the law hasn’t been abolished and the Galatian believers that it has been. So we have to dig a little deeper for an answer.

First off, I believe we’re given a glimpse of the answer (along with the problem) in that last set of passages:

“No one can ever be made right with God by trying to keep the law.”

Paul wrote those words because that’s precisely what was happening: the Jews of his day were trying to “be made right with God,” or be made righteous, by their own efforts:

“For they [the Jewish people] being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness.”  {Romans 10:3 KJV}

The Jews had gotten it backwards: we don’t keep God’s law so that we can be right with Him; God makes us right with him so that we can keep His law.

Now let me try to show you this via a different avenue: the question of how one receives the Holy Spirit, and what part the law plays in it. And I’ll do so from these same books of Galatians and Romans:

“Oh, foolish Galatians! What magician has cast an evil spell on you? …Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by keeping the law? Of course not, for the Holy Spirit came upon you only after you believed.”  {Galatians 3:1, 2 NLT}

Those Galatians Christians had been led astray through the influence of some of those same Jews we just read about up above, only in this case instead of telling them that they had to keep the law to be made right with God, they told them they had to keep the law in order to receive the Holy Spirit. (They’re basically the same thing.) And just as Paul did in the book of Romans with being made right with God, he makes it clear in that passage that the only way to receive the Holy Spirit is by faith, not by keeping the law.

Now let me show you, from that same book of Romans, that just as faith doesn’t nullify the law but establishes it (or enables us to keep it), so likewise with receiving the Holy Spirit. (Allow me to point out to you the first few words of the passage, “the life-giving Spirit has freed you.”)

“The life-giving Spirit has freed you through Christ Jesus from the power of sin… God destroyed sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the requirements of the law would be fully accomplished by us.”  {Romans 8:2-4 NLT}

Once again Paul is clear, and this is one of the greatest truths in all the Christian religion: God gives us His Holy Spirit to “free us from the power of sin,” and to “destroy sin’s control over us,” “so that the requirements of the law can be fully accomplished by us,” or as most translations put it, “in us.” And if you read that passage in its entirety you’ll see that Paul tells us, just as he does about God making us righteous, that God does this for us because He knows that we can never do it for ourselves.

Let me say something here before I try to bring all of this to a close. I think the Bible is in many ways like a big puzzle: when all the pieces are properly put together it all fits together perfectly and we have a beautiful, harmonious whole. But when we don’t put the pieces together correctly there are always extra pieces left over that don’t fit right. Only what people usually do with physical puzzles is to realize that something’s wrong and try to find out where the problem is and fix it, while with these Biblical puzzles what we all too often do is just sweep the pieces that don’t fit under the rug and pretend that they don’t exist, which isn’t really a very good idea. And one more thing: as with everything else in Christianity, we’ll never correctly put these pieces of the puzzle together without God’s help:

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will lead you into all truth.”  {John 16:13 NLT}

Let me sum this section up this way: Paul in another place tells us, “We know that the law is good if a man uses it properly.” (1 Timothy 1:8 NIV) It’s not using the law properly to use it as the means of making ourselves righteous, or as the means of getting the Holy Spirit, or as the means of being born again. It is using it properly to see it as a revelation from God of all that is right and good and pleasing to him, and as the standard by which He desires His children to live; a standard which God has given His own Son to enable us to reach:

“God destroyed sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the requirements of the law would be fully accomplished by us.”  {Romans 8:1-4 NLT}

Now I want to finish with a few more passages about the law. First, a wonderful verse from the book of Isaiah:

“The LORD has magnified his law and made it truly glorious. Through it he had planned to show the world that he is righteous.”  {Isaiah 42:21 NLT}

Next, a few verses by David; along with one about David:

“Your law is more valuable to me than millions in gold and silver… Oh, how I love your law! I think about it all day long… Oh LORD, I have longed for your salvation, and your law is my delight.”  {Psalms 119:72, 97, 174 NLT}

“God said, ‘David is a man after my own heart.’”  {Acts 13:22 NLT}

Do you think that just maybe there could be a connection between David’s attitude toward God’s law and God’s attitude toward David?

Last, but certainly not least, a couple more passages by Jesus Himself. And since the first one parallels our title passage I’m going to place the two of them side-by-side so that you can consider them together. And let me just point out one thing before sharing them: our title passage was spoken near the beginning of Christ’s ministry, the other one was spoken near the end of it.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets… 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.”  {Matthew 5:18 NIV}

“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. But now the Good News of the Kingdom of God is preached, and eager multitudes are forcing their way in. But that doesn’t mean that the law has lost its force in even the smallest point. It is stronger and more permanent than heaven and earth.”  {Luke 16:16, 17 NIV, NLT}

Now for our final passage; one in which Jesus was asked the most important question that can ever be asked: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He answered: “What is written in the Law?”  {Luke 10:25, 26 NIV}

(I must tell you: there’s more to Christ’s answer than meets the eye, but I’ll save that for the next chapter.)

But before we go there, I’d like to ask you a few questions about that last passage:

#1: Do you think Jesus gave that man anything less than the perfect answer?

#2: Do you think Jesus realized that His answer was going to be immortalized in the Bible for all to read till the close of time?

#3: Do you think this passage is important enough that it should be included in that group of passages that almost all Christians are familiar with?

#4: If you were to ask a hundred regular church goers that question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life,” how many of them would give the same answer Jesus did?