Monday, November 30, 2009

Unpacking Luther’s Baggage, chapter 3, page 7

I would like to close this chapter by looking at Matthew chapter 5.  Books and books have been written about this chapter, so my few paragraphs aren’t going to do it justice. I will first break it down into the following sections, using a few illustrations.
1) Verses 1-12: Beatitudes (Psalm 37) “Blessed are you ...”
2) Verses 13-16: Believers are Salt and Light
3) Verses 17-20: “Fulfilling” the Torah
4) Verses 21-48: “You have heard it said...”
For the first, second, and fourth sections, I’ll use this illustration:

The inner red circle represents our salvation. Our inability to keep the commandments is why we need salvation. But the commandments themselves are, as Paul says, “holy, just, and good”. The next circle emanating from the center represents the commandments; imagine hundreds of dots on this circle, each one representing the written “letter of the law”. There are positive ones, negative ones, some for women and some for men, some only for those living in the land, etc. The question is how will “we” apply it?  The outer circle joins together all of the responses that God hopes his people will have in applying the commandments. Each commandment has a line emanating from the center to the outer circle (2 are shown) which represents the sliding scale of the possible choices.  The ragged green blob represents the joining together of all of the actual choices people make. The gap between what was intended and the actual sets the stage for Jesus' comments.

In verses 21-48, Jesus goes over a few examples of the difference between the spirit and the letter of Torah. In so doing, Jesus engages the leaders as the consummate rabbi. In verses 1-16, Jesus speaks of some of the principles that define the Kingdom of Heaven. 
As interesting as these sections are, verses 17-20 have been the most understood. 

Matthew 5:17-19 "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches [them], he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
The key words here are “destroy (abolish in NIV) and fulfill”. David Bivin, who is a member of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Studies, has provided valuable insights into the context of these two words in his books “Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus” and the sequel, “New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus”. Here is a quote from page 94 of the latter: 
“The probable Hebrew equivalent of the Greek verb translated “to destroy” is levatel (literally, “to cancel”), which was used in scholarly rabbinic discussions of Jesus’ day as a technical term for violating a Biblical commandment. 
The probable Hebrew equivalent of the Greek verb plerosai, translated “fulfill” is lekayem. In Jesus’ time lekayem was usually the antonym of levatel (cancel, nullify) and used in the sense of ‘preserve’ or ‘sustain.’ Here, as a rabbinic technical term, it means, ‘to sustain by properly interpreting...
What one encounters in Matthew 5:17-19 is a rabbinic debate. Apparently someone had suggested that Jesus was “canceling” the Torah. He was politely accused of misinterpreting the Scriptures so as to nullify their intent. Jesus politely disagreed, using the usual technical terminology for such situations, the Hebrew verbs levatel and lekayem.”
Verses 18 and 19 provide ample evidence that Jesus is serious about obeying the commandments. And yet, I’ve never heard one sermon on these verses!
In my next post I'll summarize some of the principles that all of these verses and passages highlight. The goal is to help individuals and churches move from Torah Ignorant to Torah Friendly.  

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