A Commentary by John Stott
A Christian’s righteousness. Christ, the Christian and the Law.
In every generation of the Christian era there have been those who could not accommodate themselves to Christ’s attitude to the law. The famous second-century heretic Marcion, who rewrote the New Testament by eliminating its references to the Old, naturally erases his passage. Some of his followers went further. They dared even to reverse its meaning by exchanging the verbs so that the sentence then read: ‘I have come not to fulfil the law and the prophets, but to abolish them’! Their counterparts today seem to be those who have embraced the so-called ‘new morality’, for they declare that the very category of law is abolished for the Christian (though Christ said he had not come to abolish it), that no law any longer binds Christian people except the law of love, and in fact that the command to love is the only absolute there is. I shall have more to say about them later. For the moment it is enough to emphasize that according to this verse (17) the attitude of Jesus to the Old Testament was not one of destruction and of discontinuity, but rather of a constructive, organic continuity. He summed up his position in a single word, not ‘abolition’ but ‘fulfilment’.
The apostle Paul taught very clearly the same truth (E.g. Acts 26:22, 23). His statement that ‘Christ is the end of the law’ (Rom.10:4) does not mean that we are now free to disobey it, for the opposite is the case (Rom.8:4). It means rather that acceptance with God is not through obedience to the law but through faith in Christ, and indeed that the law itself bears witness to this good news (Rom.3:21).
Having stated that his purpose in coming was to fulfil the law, Jesus went on to give the cause and the consequence of this. The cause is the permanence of the law until it is fulfilled (18), and the consequence is the obedience to the law which the citizens of God’s kingdom must give (19,20).
This is what Jesus has to say about the law he has come to fulfil; *Truly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota (which is Greek for [yod], the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, almost as small as a comma), not a dot (keraia, a horn, referring probably to one of the tiny hooks or projections which distinguish some Hebrew letters from others), will pass from the law until all is accomplished*. His reference now was only to ‘the law’ rather than to ‘the law and the prophets’ as in the previous verse, but we have no reason to suppose that he was deliberately omitting the prophets; ‘the law’ was a comprehensive term for the total divine revelation of the Old Testament. None of it will pass away or be discarded, he says, not a single letter or part of a letter, until it has all been fulfilled. And this fulfilment will not be complete until the heaven and the earth themselves pass away. For one day they will pass away in a mighty rebirth of the universe. (Matt. 24:35; cf. 19:28). Then time as we know it will cease, and the written words of the God’s law will be needed no longer, for all things in them will have been fulfilled. Thus the law is as enduring as the universe. The final fulfilment of the one and the new birth of the other will coincide. Both will ‘pass away’ together (*parelthe* is repeated). Jesus could not have stated more clearly than this his own view of Old Testament Scripture (cf. Lk.16:16, 17).
Tomorrow: The Christian and the law. (Matt. 5:19,20).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.