An Everlasting Covenant
This statement by Jesus is made in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), and really should be understood within that context. Throughout this sermon, Jesus describes what we ought to be and contrasts that with what we are. Unfortunately, this statement about the law is taken out of context and used to justify one of two arguments. Some say that Jesus fulfilled the law and prophets and thus the law is put away, not to be followed by us. In order to do this, we have to mangle the words of Jesus and read between the lines to get that out of it. Others say that this statement of Jesus indicates we still have to keep the law and the prophets even though Jesus fulfills the law. There are serious problems with this idea as well. How can we keep the law when there is no Temple or Levitical order available to us? So they have to try and split the law into ceremonial, judicial, moral or some other such division in order to get around the problem they created. I can find no justification in what Jesus said for this division and thus have to reject this position too. After all, didn't Jesus say, "one jot or tittle shall in no wise pass from the law"? One side of the argument discards the whole law, while the other side of the argument only discards part of it. Both arguments resort to the excuse that Jesus fulfilled what they want to discard and thus they don't have to keep it. In short, these two positions just squabble over the details while arguing the same basic idea. There is truth in both statements, but both are also misleading.
I always start with the premise that all of God's word is true. If there is an apparent contradiction, then it must arise from my own limited understanding. By expanding my understanding, the contradiction is eliminated. Part of the problem is that we have a limited understanding of what law is. The term law can have a variety of meanings. We generally think of law as a set of rules, or obligations, that we are bound to obey. But, law can also mean a covenant. (It is sometimes said that all law is a contract.) The scriptural authority for treating God's law as a covenant is found throughout the Old Testament, but especially in Exodus 34:28: So he (Moses) was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread or drink water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments. The word law can also be used in a general sense to mean a scheme or ordering of things. When I look at this passage in terms of all three of these meanings of law, I find I get a much deeper insight into God's word.
Before looking at law and what it means, I think it is helpful to grasp the meaning of some of the other words used in this passage. First, to destroy (katalusai) means to utterly dissolve. To destroy contains the connotation of to discard, make void, annul, or repeal. So, we see that Jesus makes it clear that His statements before and after this are not to be interpreted as discarding even the smallest part of God's law. Second, the word for fulfil (pleroo) has the literal meaning of to fill up a vessel. Figuratively, it means to bring to completion. Thus Jesus clearly makes the distinction that His words and deeds are not in conflict with the law and the prophets but are a completion of it.
Man considers law to be a set of rules of conduct and believes that so long as his conduct is in conformity to that set of rules he has kept the law. Jesus statements in the succeeding verses demonstrate the lack of understanding of law that most people have. He states repeatedly, "you have heard it said " and then proceeds to add to it, "but I say to you." What He has done then is to complete the law. He has filled up the understanding of law by showing that it is not just the outward acts that have to be in conformity, but that also the desires of the heart must match as well. We may say that "I am not a murderer" but if we take the words of Jesus seriously, then anyone who has ever had hate in his heart is a murderer whether or not he ever commits the act. There is an ancient maxim of law that states "the intent of the law is the force of the law." In other words, keeping the letter of the law is not enough. You must also match the intent.
Then answered Peter and said unto him, Declare unto us this parable. And Jesus said, Are ye also yet without understanding? Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man. (Matt. 15:15-20)
Jesus has shown here that a purpose of the law is to judge the heart of man not just man's actions. If we examine our heart, I think any honest person would have to admit they are guilty of failing in each and every one of these laws. Yet if we fail in even one of these laws, the penalty is death. Thus, each and every one of us has a death sentence hanging over our head. To say only that I must keep the law is to hand me nothing but a death sentence. Since Jesus said that anyone who breaks these commandments is the least in the kingdom of heaven, I'm in real trouble unless I can find a way to reconcile this!
We can also treat law as a covenant. The words that Jesus uses can easily be understood in the context of contract law. A contract is a set of mutual obligations and rights that bind the parties to the agreement. If you meet all the obligations then you can claim the rights. If you don't meet the obligations, then you must pay any penalties required by the contract. In our system of civil law a contract can change at any time. For example, if the parties to the agreement decide that they missed something in the original agreement, they can amend the agreement to include new obligations and rights. They can also decide that some terms of the contract are no longer necessary and remove those terms. In the most extreme case, they simply discard, or annul, the original contract and either write a new one or abandon the relationship all together. When seen in terms of contract, what Jesus said was, God's covenant will not be amended, no part will be removed, and it will not be annulled. God's covenant will be executed in full. What causes contention, of course, is whether the fulfillment of the law is by Jesus alone or by us also. I say, it's both, but not the way most people think or for the reasons that people think.
The root meaning for both the Greek word for law, nomos, and the Hebrew word torah, is "to pour out." The law that God gave is where he pours out before us a revelation of Him and how he will accomplish the end of His creation. As law is an ordering or scheme, then God's law is God's plan for His creation. By this revelation, we come to know our sin, but more importantly we learn the nature of God and His glory. Through the imagery of the festivals we come to have an understanding of who the Messiah is, what He will do, and how to recognize Him when He appears. If this law of God is taken away, then how can we ever gain understanding? Studying the law and the prophets, keeping of feast days, seeing the fulfillment of His prophecies all gives us the understanding we need. As Paul said, the law is a schoolmaster. It is not that we are made righteous by works of the law; we gain understanding of God by His law.
God is not a man that He should lie. In the most general sense, a lie is something not true. But, a lie is not just saying something we know is not true; it is also saying something that we intend to be true but turns out to be false. If we say, "I will do a thing" and then don't do it, we have lied. Furthermore, if we do what is right in order to conform to proper appearance while feeling something else in our heart, we have lied. When God gives his Word, saying what he will do, He always fulfills it. Otherwise, God would have lied. If God creates a covenant and then changes it, then He has failed to keep His word. Why would we ever trust God's word if it weren't completely true? If any part of His word is simply discarded we have no reason to believe Him when He says that we can receive salvation in exchange for faith. God could just as easily change His mind later and dump all the obligations of some new covenant on us leaving us once again without any hope. I believe that this is one of the most important concepts to get from what Jesus said. We can trust in God because every bit of His word is always true and He will always fulfill every bit of His word. The fulfillment of His covenant is the very basis of our faith.
In the Garden of Eden, God had said that if we eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we would suffer death. Having said this, God could not then just "unsay" it when Adam and Eve sinned. To do so would be against His very nature and would destroy any basis we have for our trust in Him and His word. God, to avoid conflict with His nature and at the same time redeem us, needed a way to correct the problem without changing His word. The law and the prophets provide all the "legal right" that God needs to do this for us and only us. There are many examples of the rights obtained from God's covenant. I'll use just one to demonstrate this.
For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul. (Lev. 17:11)
And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many. (Mark 14: 23-24)
But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith by his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law . . . Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law. (Romans 3: 23-31)
The blood of Jesus is our propitiation for sin. Because of this propitiation by the law of the blood sacrifice, we obtain through the fulfillment of the law a righteousness separate from the law. It is a righteousness that is by grace, obtained by faith. There is an incredible and awesome beauty to this when we understand. God keeps His law, his covenant, and his plan, and in so doing allows us to be moved out from under the condemnation of that law so that we might live. By removing the sin from our heart, He can once again reside in us as His Holy Temple without corrupting His nature with our sin! But, this salvation is only provided to those who are in Jesus. God can rightfully reject the seed of Satan from His mercy and choose only those who are kin with Jesus. (The law of kinsman redeemer.)
Note also the contrast between the commandment in Leviticus and the word that Jesus spoke in the Gospel of Mark. Under the old covenant, the blood had to be poured out. Under the new covenant the blood is consumed. Symbolically, the life is lost by judgement under the law but regained by the spirit of Christ in our heart.
God gave His law so that He could keep it even though we don't. His performance of His covenant, in spite of our failure, stands as a permanent testimony to His greatness and glory. And, as a result, all the glory goes to Him!
My mercy will I keep for him for evermore, and my covenant shall stand fast with him. His seed also will I make to endure for ever, and his throne as the days of heaven. If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgements; if they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless my loving-kindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer my faithfulness to fail. My covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that is gone out of my lips. Once have I sworn by my holiness that I will not lie unto David, His seed shall endure for ever and his throne as the sun before me. It shall be established for ever as the moon, and as a faithful witness in heaven. Selah. (Ps. 89:24-37)
All of this apparent conflict is resolved when we understand that the intent of God's law is to remove the corruption from His creation and to create a new man that will fulfill His purposes (not ours), which is to make manifest His glory (not ours). It is the old man, dead to sin, who is burdened and condemned by the law, while the new man is Christ is free from the law of sin and death.
No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for that which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment, and the rent is made worse. Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved. (Matt. 9:16-17)
Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:6-11)
If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him. (1 John 2:29)
Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him. Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth rightesouness is righteous, even as he is righteous. He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil. Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. (1 John 3:6-10)
How then do we keep the law? Obviously, we cannot keep the law in the flesh, standing apart from God. Our heart is filled with corrupt desire and will always cause us to fail at keeping God's law. The carnal man dies, as the law requires. (We are crucified with Christ.) In this way, God's law destroys the works of the devil. The law is kept in us through the implant of a new heart. The new man, born again in Christ lives. We die to self, but live in Christ. Because the new heart is filled with the spirit of God and not with the evil of Satan, that new heart will always keep God's commandments.
A desire or seeking to keep the law and commandments in the flesh is just the old man of pride still trying to find a way out without dying. It won't work. The corruption that entered in through man's fall must be removed from God's creation in order that He might inhabit and manifest His glory throughout everything that was, is or will be. That new heart is created in us by faith. First, the faith of Jesus and second by our faith in Jesus. In other words, the just shall live by faith! That is God's everlasting covenant with us and is made by Him to be an everlasting witness of His glory.
Nevertheless I will remember my covenant with thee in the days of thy youth, and I will establish unto thee an everlasting covenant. . . . And I will establish my covenant with thee; and thou shalt know that I am the LORD. (Ezekiel 16:60, 62)