THIS IS FOR THOSE WHOSE COMMITMENT TO JESUS...
HAS MADE THEM A "THREAT" TO CHRISTIANITY.
(It's also for those who think they are dealing with that "threat" by quoting verses like this.)
And it's especially for anyone who has ever wondered how you can both honor the Old Testament AND honor the fact that Jesus presented a great challenge to it in how he revealed God.
It may seem an odd statement to tackle, but there is a whole bunch of everything wrapped up in what we're going to look at with this Entry. Near the beginning of Jesus' great 'Sermon On the Mount'... just after the "Blessed ares" and the "city on a hill" stuff... Jesus says this about himself:
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill them."
You might think, "Really? A 'You Have Heard It Said' about something JESUS said?" But my aim here is not to disagree with Jesus. These Entries seek to confront unhealthy Christian attitudes, formulas and clichés, and we know that often those clichés are built on the pretense of being "scriptural." We also know that people can directly quote scripture to say whatever they want to say... So it's only a matter of time before we encounter a 'You Have Heard It Said' that is derived from something Jesus himself said.
The COMMON usage of this quote is a distortion of it,
and that's worth carefully contending with, if you ask me.
I also realize it's pretty impossible to make this sort of Entry the type of Christian article or blog that people consider sexy enough to pass around. It's not like a list of "__ Ways YOU Can Have the Most Godly Relationship Ever," or a scary and sensational piece about "__ Reasons People Are Leaving the Church."
(We really love our lists.)
Despite all that, I'd like to think that a lot of Christians will believe this topic is worthy of consideration. I'd like to think that the idea of challenging the general usage of a verse like this is not only interesting, but - more importantly - necessary... I guess time will tell. For now, it's hard to communicate just how crucial it is for Christians to have this discussion. It's hard to bring across just how much of what we believe and who we are is wrapped up in the way we see Jesus here. His discussion of what he was *not* here to do and what he *was* here to do is as close as we can get to finding these ideas framed in a single place, because it's here that we can see how Jesus perceives his relationship to all that came before him. If you have ever heard someone quote these words of Jesus, it was likely someone who was trying to elevate the Old Testament to what they consider its "proper place" of full equality with Jesus and the New... And I believe that view is mistaken, even though I also believe the Old Testament is God-inspired.
Does that confuse you? Bother you? Excite you? Whatever the case may be, read on. I'll explain... But know this: So long as we continue to hear people teach God from the Old Testament without allowing the greater light of Jesus to have a say in qualifying and clarifying that revelation, we are sorely in need of this discussion.
Much of the work I've published lately (1, 2, 3) has been dancing with this theme. Some readers have picked up on that, and have understood the implications, and have raised some really good questions as a result. Here is the straightforward truth of what I've been thinking: In the midst of a Christian culture which claims that every word of The Bible is equally authoritative, and that being "inspired" has to mean that the scriptures are all equally inspired... I'm here to disagree.
what I have to say will make some people ANGRY, or SCARED, OR BOTH.
I understand that sort of worry, too, because I've worried the same things. I've worried what opening up this whole discussion might do to my faith as I knew it. I've worried that I might fall off a theological precipice and be "lost" - the proverbial ship sailing over the edge of the sea on a flat earth... But deconstructing this whole "abolish" and "fulfill" thing matters to me. And when things matter to me, I've always assumed they matter to other people, too. (Not to mention, leaving the false security of that flat earth and sailing on to the unknown... is awesome. I highly recommend it. There's nothing to worry about.)
I think the message Jesus is communicating, preserved in Matthew's gospel, is absolutely, staggeringly beautiful. I've been considering these words for a long time - and especially lately - since I actually hear (and see) people quote (and post) this verse a lot in conversation. This statement of Jesus has actually become a response I generate often by what I write and share. And that is weird to me - not because Jesus is being quoted, but because something else strikes me in the way certain people retreat to this verse:
THE REASON PEOPLE QUOTE JESUS HERE IS TO GUARD THEMSELVES
FROM THE IMPLICATIONS JESUS LEAVES ELSEWHERE.
Call me a dodgy heretic, but I think that's an odd reason to quote Jesus. I think it's strange to use one thing Jesus says to essentially defend yourself from dozens of other things he says and does... It's like people are quoting Jesus in order to say "Um, slow down, uh, Jesus" when I'm speaking in regards to his lordship - or when I mention one of the many places in which he challenges, recasts, and even outright contradicts the Old Testament and Covenant... But let's be honest: If we're just pitting Jesus against himself in order to keep from having to consider new possibilities or draw new conclusions, then aren't we just making it clear that we would rather ignore most of what he shows us in order to cling to our reading of this one statement? It all seems pretty sketchy... and yet it's also still pretty common amongst our people - the very same crowd that claims to not have a bias when it comes to the Bible.
Lately, when I'm in conversation, or replying to comments over something I've written, and someone has brought up, "Well, Jesus said he didn't come to abolish the law..." I have taken to simply answering that...
Whatever Jesus does mean by these words - it's clear he means something different than what you are suggesting.
And that should be evident to anyone who's read any of the rest of the gospels. Whatever he means by "abolish" and "fulfill," it can't be what a lot of Christians assume. If they're right about what he's saying here, then Jesus is - at best - incredibly inconsistent and schizophrenic as a teacher... I don't believe he is, I'm just admitting that my own former ideas (which many still cling to) paint him in precisely that way. And in order to maintain them alongside all the other things we see Jesus doing and saying and implying, we have to set up special compartments in our heads for all the contradictory things we try to hold as simultaneously "true."
This is a well-known and understood psychological phenomenon. It's called "cognitive dissonance." If you've never heard of it, here's the basic idea:
noun -- the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.
If you live in that world of compartments long enough, do you know what happens? If you're an honest person, you break down. You just sort of snap. You lose touch with much of what you hold dear, and you're left spinning and spiraling - you're left feeling alone, wondering what is left that is worth holding on to... But even this period of tremendous loss can be a beautiful thing. It certainly was for me. And when I say that my old ideas - the ones Christianity handed to me - were dissonant, and made Jesus schizophrenic and inconsistent, I mean it. It's something I lived and experienced. So understand that I am not trying to "water down" Jesus here. And I'm not trying to run from what he says.
SEE, JUST Like anyone else, I desire harmony in the way I view scripture...
But what I learned from Evangelicalism was often to ignore Jesus in that very pursuit. In order to see the Bible as perfectly consistent and without contradiction, I had to avoid much of what Jesus said and did, and then read the rest of the New Testament through the lens and assumptions of the Old. So my idea of who God was and what God was like? It didn't need Jesus to be what it was. But that didn't even scare me at the time. In fact, it was more often like the gospels got in the way of the God I believed I saw clearly in the Old Testament - the same God I then projected onto Paul, misreading him and the other New Testament writers. I was getting everything backwards: I saw the Sermon On the Mount and Jesus' parables to be the "simple stuff" you learned as a kid, and found the greatest depth in Old Testament narratives and the letters of Paul. Despite scripture's own claims to Jesus as God-revealed-in-full, "Emmanuel" - God With Us, I went on not recognizing that this implied something prior to him was at all lacking. Those titles and designations of Jesus had little to no say in the way I believed God the "Father" was to be known or understood.
CENTRAL and defining portions of the New Testament fell on my deaf ears.
And it wasn't just the things Jesus and the gospel writers said. (I've gone into some of this at length in other entries.) When Paul said Jesus was to have "first place in all things," and was the very "fullness of God," and "the image of the invisible God," I still believed I could see God just fine apart from Jesus. And when Hebrews said that Jesus was what God has to say, or how God desired to be heard and known, and that he was "the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature," I still thought God spoke just as exactly through the things which preceded Jesus. And when John the apostle said that Jesus WAS the Word of God, and was himself God, and that up until Jesus no one had seen God or made God fully known... I missed it. I saw it, but I missed it. I missed it all. And I missed the very obvious reason so many Jews had such a problem grappling with Jesus in the first place - because of the challenge he posed to all they had believed and expected.
SO I WAS JUST LIKE MANY OF THE PEOPLE IN THE GOSPELS WHO RAILED AGAINST JESUS...
EXCEPT I WAS UNDER THE ADDED DELUSION THAT I WAS FOLLOWING HIM.
That's a tangled web of mess if ever there was one! But there was no need for Jesus in my former understanding of God. He made a decent addition, and he made this "God" I had a good idea about already more acceptable... But he did not define God for me. He was not the essence of my faith, and thus, he was not... essential. No matter how much my words would have claimed to the contrary, he was not truly "lord." Jesus was just the nice guy who died so God wouldn't have to be so angry with us anymore, and we could all escape and go to heaven someday because of him. Jesus was the convenient tool we brought in merely to confirm our biases and misunderstandings about God. Rather than allowing Jesus to paint the canvass of God anew in fullness and in truth, we subjected him to the definitions we already had. We made him servant to what we already thought, but never master.
Spoiler alert: This is the same thing we do with Matthew 5:17.
If you were wondering why I was including so much of my own story, that's why. It's very much related to the topic at hand.
...There is just so much wrong with the way I used to keep Jesus away from my perceptions. And what was true of me is still true of many. It's still the dominant idea being put out there by much of Christianity, and Evangelical culture in particular... But I don't regret my past, because it made the Christlight all the more bright and beautiful when I finally saw it. And I recognized I was in good company, since even the disciples didn't get it for so long. He had to tell them the very week of his crucifixion, "If you've seen me, you've seen the Father." I am very much like them. I have walked that same road, and met that same response from Jesus... So I speak from experience when I say that I understand. I understand how seductive the common ideas are. I understand how easy they seem to make everything (at least for awhile). I understand that most Christians I've known have accepted the idea that Jesus is just some instrument of God's wrath management, wheeled out for torture and death, and as a result, they almost completely miss the scandal of his life: What his incarnation says about the previous "forms" God took... Or what "God-with-us" has to say about the God we thought we already saw so clearly.
But now that I see things differently, it strikes me that it shouldn't be such a radical thing to say that the Old Testament image of God is incomplete. It really shouldn't. Not to anyone who believes Jesus. In fact...
WHY ISN'T IT OBVIOUS TO MORE OF US?
if God had been perfectly depicted and known through the Old Testament,
There would HAVE BEEN no reason for Jesus to come and MAKE GOD KNOWN.
All of this applies to the way we approach Jesus' words about "abolish" and "fulfill" in Matthew 5:17. How could it not?
So Jesus said he didn't come to abolish the Law and prophets? True. He did say that. But what he was not doing was insulating the Jews from having to approach everything they'd known in a brand new and revolutionary way - as everything else he says in the Sermon on the Mount goes on to prove repeatedly... Why would we ever devolve to think that we were above the very same challenge he posed to them? Let's not forget that as soon as he says he didn't come to abolish, but to fulfill, he then completely blows their concept of scripture and covenant. So - above and beyond anything we might do to unpack the verse itself - this simple fact cannot be overstated: The best antidote to the way Christians use this statement from the Sermon On the Mount... is the Sermon On the Mount itself.
That said... now let's break it down:
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill."
JESUS IS STATING HIS PURPOSE AND RELATIONSHIP TO ALL THAT CAME BEFORE HIM. IN ORDER TO UNPACK HIS INTENT, WE FIRST RECOGNIZE There are two key words contained in his statement.
He says, "I didn't come to do this one thing, I came to do this other thing..." The first key word is one we typically find translated as "abolish," and sometimes as "destroy," which is probably the better rendering. The second key word we typically see translated as "fulfill," but also sometimes as "complete" - which is another minority rendering, but also probably the more solid one to communicate accurately to modern English ears like ours.
In order to see WHY, we need to take these words on one at a time, peering behind the veil of English translation...
Is this the most accurate English word to use? For many of us, the word "abolish" conjures up an image of the "abolishment of slavery" during the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, etc. The dictionary says this:
abolish -- verb -- to do away with; put an end to; annul; make void
Which is pretty cool for the whole slavery fiasco... But is it true to the Greek word it's translating? That is the question. And that word is kataluō...
kataluō -- verb -- most literally to throw down; to disunite or dissolve; to disintegrate, demolish or destroy; to utterly separate what has been joined... metaphorically to overthrow, i.e. to render vain and deprive of success, bring to naught, discard
Already, I think the two definitions start to show some interesting differences. Perhaps more interesting, though, is this: The term actually had an association with travel in the first century - the idea being that a traveler might kataluō for the night, which is to say, the traveler finds lodging as a guest, and thus stops traveling. Stops journeying. Stops being on the path that leads to the destination he had in mind when he set off. Some travelers might find a place they want to settle, and kataluō for a month, a year, or even for good. The implication is that, if the person on a journey was to kataluō, the journey itself has ceased. It's on hold. Wherever the journeyman has become a guest, the journeyman has been disunited from the road (and whatever destination it was leading to... The path is dissolved so long as the adventurer is not walking it. The traveler no longer sees the path being walked, because the path being walked no longer dominates the field of vision.
This is the connotation a first century Greek speaker is familiar with. It's a fascinating language to even scratch the surface of. A word that means both "to dissolve or disunite" AND speaks of a journeyman who ceases the journey? A word that might mean "destroy" OR "find lodging" depending on the context? It is a strange and wonderful thing... And perhaps not well-served by "abolish" to the modern ear.
Now, CAN those words mean the same thing or speak to the same idea? ...Sure they can... Maybe... Kinda... But, more importantly, DO they always, or do they NOW? And there, I'm not so sure. My hunch is that "abolish" - at the very least - softens katalūo for most of us. And for some of us, it might obscure it entirely. Either way, a more clear image begins to take shape. In that image, Jesus tells us that he sees himself as a part of the same trajectory as the Law and the Prophets. So his approach is dynamically related to the road the Hebrew people have walked...
The path traveled has led to him, and he hasn't come to erase the journey SO far.
...But don't jump to the conclusion that this means he won't stand in stark contrast to it. And regardless, we don't really get this depth from "abolish," which - again - occupies most of our popular translations... Of course, even those which use the more powerful word choice of "destroy" might still be leaving us in the dark, because there's a second key word in Jesus' statement...
In this case, the Greek word here is plēroō.
plēroō -- verb -- to make replete; to fill up, to be or make full... literally to cram (a net), or figuratively to furnish, satisfy, execute (an office), finish (a period or task); to verify, accomplish, complete, end, expire, fully preach, perfect, or supply.
In modern English (and especially when dealing with scripture), we understand a word like "fulfill" to be connected with some sort of prophecy. And, while there are plenty of those to be found in relation to Jesus throughout the New Testament, this isn't - strictly speaking - one of them... At least, not in the sense we might think at first glance - the same sense in which we might say Harry Potter "fulfills" a prophecy. Based on the definition of the Greek plēroō, "complete" is probably the better English word for communicating accurately. The way we usually unwrap a term like "fulfill" makes Jesus more of an object than a subject when it comes to scripture... Like a pawn in the grand narrative the Law and Prophets were declaring - as though he were simply fulfilling an order which superseded Him. In reality, Jesus is Lord of the Law and the Prophets - just as my previous post focused on within the story of the Transfiguration. So "fulfill" is not used here merely in the sense of an obligation... a debt owed, an event foreshadowed... It is used in the sense of making up for a deficiency - what is lacking, what is incomplete.
Are we catching the difference? It's essential. As in, "These things were NOT full before, or I wouldn't have needed to FILL them." As in, "They are lacking without me." As in, "I don't simply accomplish them as they are, I accomplish what they should be." As in, "I'm not just making them come true, I'm making them fully true." As in...
"I do not answer to the Law and the Prophets. They answer to me."
(Isn't this verse awesome?)
Here's where we see just how marvelous Jesus' statement is. Jesus was NOT saying was that he didn't come to overshadow or overrule the Law and Prophets... because he absolutely did, as he makes abundantly clear all over the place. And sure, he fulfilled them all, too - he made good on their essential promises and all the rest... But let's not forget he also revolutionized the way humanity even understood those promises, which is what he's claiming in the Sermon on the Mount: He's the one who casts them in their true light.
He Is providing their fullness. They are not providing his.
To be absolutely and exhaustively clear, let's put it another bunch of ways... While Jesus didn't intend to make us forget the Law and the Prophets ever existed, he absolutely intended to change our relationship to them. He absolutely intended to get us engaging them in an entirely different way. He didn't want them to disappear from the record, but he did want to alter the whole paradigm through which we engaged them. Jesus is not just an add-on to them: he is their dimensional shift - the plot twist which reveals everything in full. And he does not come to appease what we think they say or should mean. This is likely the very reason the crowd in Jerusalem went from welcoming him one day to calling for his execution just a few days later... because Jesus wasn't who they thought he was supposed to be. They, like many today, did not want to embrace the idea that this king was not some puppet or slave to their Law and Prophets... because he was their master. He wasn't here simply to do what they had said; he was here to define what they should mean - probably beyond the ability of the ancients who did the writing to even fully know or grasp in their own times.
And though he said the Law and Prophets would always remain for us, he didn't say that so they would have power over us, and he certainly didn't want us to think they would "show us the Father" better than he himself was doing... He just wanted us to know that the former things would always be there... So that we could remember our lineage in faith. So that we could mark the differences. So that we could know the contrasts.
If I was translating this verse to be as accurate to the meaning of Jesus' words as possible, I might not go with a rigidly literal translation at all. If there is one thing I've learned in peering behind the veil of English and into the original languages of scripture, it is this: Language itself is a dance. And quite often, rigid literalism fails to convey the beauty of its steps. Bearing that in mind, and looking not only at a couple specific words in a specific verse, but also at the context of the entire Sermon On the Mount... and at Jesus' words and actions everywhere else... and to the Grand Narrative scripture paints for us in total... I would suggest we read Matthew 5:17 differently than we may have always read it. I would suggest we understand the intent of Jesus' words to be something like this:
I didn't come to bring an end to our journey. I came to bring our journey to an end.
Such an incredible thought. With the former things, we can see the progress made in our journey through the revelation of God. The story is precious to us, and we should never forget all that came before... because all that came before only makes Jesus all the more beautiful and revolutionary. It's not an either/or decision. We can both honor the Old Testament and recognize that Jesus presented a great challenge to it in making God known. And when we deny this dynamic approach, we miss out.
Perhaps it's the Contemporary English Version (CEV) - an almost unknown Bible translation at this point - which renders Matthew 5:17 best of all. It says, "Don’t suppose that I came to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I did not come to do away with them, but to give them their full meaning." Simple and straightforward. A right understanding leads us to keep our eyes on Jesus to discover what that "full meaning" is. And as we do, we see his message take shape. We see that...
JESUS DIDN'T COME TO ABOLISH THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS, BUT - IN COMPLETING THEM AND BEING THEIR FULLNESS - HE DEFINITELY CAME TO ABOLISH HOW WE VIEW THEM... AND HOW WE USE THEM.
The Law and the prophets are not over, because we must still grapple with them and examine what they amounted to. That's how we mark the contrasts. That's how we see just how revolutionary this "new thing" Jesus accomplishes is... But as for the Law and the prophets having mastery over us?
"For Christ is the end of the law, with the result that there is righteousness for everyone who believes." —Paul (Romans 10:5)
The wonderful and evocative ART featured here is the work of George Grie. Check his stuff out!
This Entry is dedicated to my sister Cori, who knows how lonely it can be inside your own head when your commitment to Jesus shakes up everything you thought you believed, and leaves you wondering... "What is left?"