A Catechism on God’s Law (Part 3)

1. What about the Old Testament?

Not one bit of the Old Testament has become ethically irrelevant, according to Paul. That is why we, as Christians, should speak of our moral view-point, not merely as “New Testament Ethics,” but as “Biblical Ethics.” The New Testament (II Tim.3:16-17) requires that we take the Old Testament as ethically normative for us today. Not just selected portions of the Old Testament, mind you, but “every scripture.” Failure to honour the whole duty of man as revealed in the Old Testament is nothing short of a failure to be completely equipped for righteous living. It is to measure one’s ethical duty by a broken and incomplete yardstick p.25).

2. So, what of Christian ethics?

James tells us that if a person lives by and keeps every precept or teaching of God’s law, and yet he or she disregards or violates it in one single point, that person is actually guilty of disobeying the whole (James 2:10). Therefore, we must take the whole Bible as our standard of Christian ethics, including every point of God’s Old Testament law. Not one word which proceeds from God’s mouth can be invalidated and made inoperative, even as the Lord declared with the giving of His law: “Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it” (Deut.12:32). The entire Bible is our ethical standard today, from cover to cover (p.26).

3. What was Jesus’ attitude towards Old Testament law?

Perhaps the best place to go in scripture to be rid of the theological inconsistency underlying a negative attitude toward the Old Testament law is to the very words of Jesus on the subject, Matthew 5:17-19. Nothing could be clearer than that Christ here denies twice (for the sake of emphasis) that His coming has abrogated the Old Testament law: “Do not think that I came to abolish the law or the prophets; I did not come to abolish.” Again, nothing could be clearer than this: not even the least significant aspect of Old Testament law will lose its validity until the end of the world: “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the slightest letter or stroke shall pass away from the law.”
And if there could remain any doubt in our minds as to the meaning of the Lord’s teaching here, He immediately removes it by applying His attitude toward the law to our behaviour: Therefore whoever annuls one of the least of these commandments and teaches others so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” Christ’s coming did not abrogate anything in the Old Testament law, for every single stroke of the law will abide until the passing away of this world; consequently, the follower of Christ is not to teach that even the least Old Testament requirement has been invalidated by Christ and His work. As the Psalmist declared, “Every one of Thy righteous ordinances is everlasting” (Ps.119:160) (p.27).

4. What is obedience from the heart?

In Matthew 5:20 Jesus taught something which must have been shocking to His hearers. He said, “Except your righteousness shall exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall by no means enter into the kingdom of heaven.” The shocking thing about this was that the scribes and Pharisees had a reputation, one which they were anxious to promote, for a deep commitment to obeying even the minor details of the law. But the fact of the matter was that the Pharisees were far from living up to the true demands of God’s commandments. They had distorted the law’s requirements, reading them in a perverse, self-justifying and externalistic fashion.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus exposed the shallow obedience of the Pharisees for what it was, pointing out that God is not satisfied with anything short of full, heart-felt obedience to His law as comprehensively interpreted (p.29-30).

5. What of the scribes and Pharisees?

After Christ declared that only a righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees would gain entrance to the kingdom of heaven, He went on to deliver a series of illustrations of how the scribes and Pharisees held a diminished understanding of God’s requirements. He set their approach to various commandments over against His own interpretation of God’s demands, thereby restoring the full measure of God’s purpose and requirements to the Old Testament law. His illustrations began with words like these: “You have heard it said by those of old…, but I say unto you.” In such sayings Jesus was not personally dissenting from the law of God but from the Pharisaical understanding and under-evaluation of the law of God.
After all, if the Pharisees really were living up to the law, and Jesus added to the law’s demand, then his ex post facto condemnation of the Pharisees for not living up to His additions would be quite unfair! Rather, Jesus indicted the Pharisees for not living up to what God originally required. “You have heard it said by those of old…” refers to the rabbinic interpretations of the law passed down from one generation to another; the scribes commonly appealed to the traditional interpretations of the ancient rabbis as a way of teaching the law (p.32).

6. Why did Jesus collide with the Pharisees?

The problem with the scribal or Pharisaical understanding of the Old Testament law was that it was trite and externalistic. Jesus had to point out, in accord with Old Testament teaching (for example, Prov.6:16-18, 25), that hatred and lust were the root sins of murder and adultery (Matt.5:21-30). When God commanded that His people not kill and not commit adultery, He did not merely require abstaining from the outward acts of assault and fornication; His requirement went to the heart, requiring that our thoughts, plans, and attitudes be free from violence and unchastity as well (p.32).