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From Law to Grace in the Gospels

      As I continued in my study of how the law became obsolete, I came to the gospels. I figured that Jesus' teaching would give me a good clue as to what was happening. As I observed the stories of Jesus' upbringing, I noted that Jesus' parents had him circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21), dedicated as the first-born (2:23), and taken to Jerusalem for Passover (2:41). His mother followed the purification ritual after he was born (2:22). Also his relatives, Zechariah and Elizabeth are described as "observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly." (1:6)

      Early in his public ministry, Jesus delivered what is sometimes called the sermon on the Mount, at least in Matthew. In it he addresses the issue of the law with a fairly blatant statement. "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." (Matthew 5:17-18)

      Jesus then goes on to teach on a number of subjects. Some think that he is changing the law, contrary to his previous assertion. But when looked at closely, it seems that Jesus is getting to the heart of the commandment. To fulfill the prohibition against murder in your heart includes not becoming extremely angry with someone. The intent of the commandment against adultery includes stifling the desire.

      Over the course of his ministry, Jesus encountered controversy regarding observance of the Sabbath. I figured that these instances would give valuable insight into Jesus' views. I found out that in every instance, Jesus defended his position, not by saying that the law was obsolete, but that he was following the original intention of the law. For example, in Luke 13 when people accuse Jesus of healing on the Sabbath, he equates it to them watering their donkeys on the Sabbath. His point: this is obviously something permitted. It should be noted that Jesus waited until after the end of the Sabbath to heal people on at least one occasion (Mark 1:32). After his death, his disciples rested in observance of the Sabbath (Luke 23:56). In fact, in death, Jesus rested on the Sabbath and did not arise until the following day.

      The topic of the law comes up in some of Jesus' other teachings and actions as well. According to John's gospel, he went to Jerusalem for several years at Passover, as well as at Tabernacles and other festivals (cp. Deu. 16:16). When he healed people with leprosy, he ordered them to go through the prescribed priestly ritual (Matt. 8:4). In his story about the rich man and Lazarus, he has Abraham say, "They have Moses and the Prophets" when the rich man asks for someone to go preach to his brothers. (Luke 16:29) When Jesus spoke out about the hypocrisy of some of the Pharisees, he prefaced his remarks by saying that their teachings should be obeyed (Matt. 23:3). And later when he comments on their punctilious tithing practices, he affirms them, and then comments that they should extend this to more important matters (Matt. 23:23).

      There is one place, and only one, that I found where Jesus seems to teach against the Law of Moses. This is in Mark 7:19. Some translators understand the author to be saying that Jesus "declared all foods clean." Since this verse goes against the grain of Jesus' teaching, I decided to study it further. I learned several things.

      First, the Greek original does not say this. The whole explanation about Jesus declaring all foods clean is contained in three Greek words, which are literally "purging all foods", and are apparently part of Jesus' discourse. What he meant by them is somewhat ambiguous, but in the context he was condemning his hearers for ignoring the commands of God and substituting their own traditions. He certainly would not be guilty of doing the same thing himself. And it is worth noting that Peter (who Mark was supposedly connected with) did not understand Jesus to be canceling the food laws. In Acts 10:14 Peter is still, years later, very observant of the food laws and is incredulous that God could allow any exceptions, even to illustrate a larger point.

      So it appears that Jesus is, without exception, supportive of observing the Law given to Moses. But what about the apostles? How do they deal with the issue?


From Law to Grace in Acts
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I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways.
Psalm 119 :15