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Not To Abolish The Law But To Fulfill It

November 21, 2006

Last night and this morning I’ve been listening to a lecture by D.A. Carson on the use of the O.T. in the N.T.  (ht: Son of Matt) Click here to download the mp3s.   Be warned that he’s speaking to doctoral students in Europe, it’s pretty heady stuff and he sprinkles it with German and French.  Don’t listen to lecture one unless you want more on postmodern hermeneutics, he doesn’t really begin our topic until lecture 2.  The last portion of lecture 2 and the first portion of lecture 3 contain his thinking on Matthew 5:17-18, which I will try to summarize here.

Matthew 5:17-18 “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.

1) All the rhetoric you might muster up from this verse against my view of the law applies equally well to yours if you accept the moral/ceremonial/civil law distinction.  After all, does not the ceremonial law and civil law comprise more than the “least stroke of a pen”?

2) The moral/ceremonial/civil law distinction was not used to divide up the law of Moses into binding and non-binding portions until Aquinas (13th century).

3) If the traditional Reformed view of this passage were correct, you would expect him to say something like “I did not come to abolish the law, but to establish it” or to maintain it, or to strengthen and deepen it.  But that’s not what he said.  He said he came to fufill it.  

The word fulfill occurs 16x in Matthew and always means prophetic fufillment.

The word fulfill in the LXX never translates the Hebrew word for establish (qum), but most often the Hebrew word for fulfill (mla).  (This last point from Moo, not Carson).

4) Therefore, Jesus does not fufill the law by reasserting its binding authority on his followers.  He fulfills the law by being the one to whom the law points.  As Jesus said in John 5:46, “if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me.”

And “not abolishing” the law does not mean (manifestly in the case of the ceremonial and civil law) that all the laws of Moses are still to be obeyed by his disciples.  It means that the law of Moses endures as a prophetic witness to Christ and his kingdom.  Jesus is no Marcionite.

5) We are already accustomed to using the law as prophecy.  For example, Jesus is the new temple, the new mercy-seat, the scapegoat, the Passover Lamb, the one who leads a new exodus, the true manna, the rock from which the water springs in the desert, the new High Priest, etc.

6) So how can we think of the moral law as a prophetic signpost?  Consider this: Will there be posted rules in heaven saying “Thou shalt not murder?”  Of course not.  Aside from the difficulty of murdering a resurrection body, the laws will be unnecessary for it will be impossible to sin in heaven. 

So the (ineffectual) moral laws of Moses point ahead to the perfect kingdom that Christ will inaugurate where the law will be (effectually) written on the heart and his people will walk in paths of righteousness.  That kingdom is already inaugurated now in the church, and will be consummated when he returns.

The prohibition of murder looks forward to the abolition of hate.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 22, 2006 7:38 am

    7 things:

    1. this is great stuff – very strong arguements methinks.

    2. Jesus wasn’t/isn’t a fan of Marcion, but he is a fan of Marcin. Just wanted to clarify that.

    3. the arguement would be even stronger if you could have summarized it into 7 points rather than just 6. Kinda lame man, c’mon, we’re christians here – 7’s our number.

    4. what is the witness of the “Ancient Doctors” on this one? What did Origen and Chrysostom and all them think about this verse? I don’t read much patristics, at all, but it would be interesting to see thier take. Although, law and gospel is like so big that it may take 2K years to clear it up in our minds.

    7. under point three (in the post) you mixed in a little Doug Moo, which makes me think of a drink. I think I’ll call Chai tea a “Carson and Moo” from now on. You can guess which component is the dairy.

  2. November 22, 2006 12:00 pm

    1. Markfrench, methinks your list looks like 5 things sneakily masquerading as 7 things. Nice try. :P

    2. Do you make Chai tea? Like from scratch?

    3. Carson and Moo. Ha ha.

    4. Isaiah543, that is a cool point about the dual impossibility of murdering or otherwise committing sin with resurrection bodies.

    5. What’s the LXX?

    6. Yes, give us Origen and Irenaeus and Augustine! Perhaps if we read what they all had to say, and then either concur with it or decide why we disagree with it, we will have a fuller picture of the distinction. Or maybe that would just confuse matters…

    7. What’s so special about the number 7 anyway? It is my own personal favorite number, but what about it means perfection?

  3. November 22, 2006 12:01 pm

    Oh, I guess I should say that I know there are lots of references to the number 7 in Revelation, so my question is, why 7?

  4. November 22, 2006 12:12 pm

    The LXX is the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament done a couple centuries B.C. The word means seventy because of the tradtion that says it was done by seventy translators.

    The number 7 symbolizes perfection. I’ve never really thought about why. Maybe because God rested on the seventh day?

  5. November 22, 2006 12:15 pm

    As for what the early church fathers thought about this, you should ask Eric. Carson said that although some of the fathers talked about moral vs. ceremonial vs. civil law, it was never used as a way to decide which laws were binding until Aquinas.

    He also said some real deep stuff about how the early church read the Bible in a more salvation historical way and then we fell into error by flattening it out and reading it in a more static way. I can’t do this point justice. I recommend following the link and listening to the lectures.

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