Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Is the Gospel in the Gospels? Part 2

In my last post I said that the Gospel was about the law. Jesus teaching cleansed God's law (=instruction) of awful distortions and restored it to it's proper function in the life of God's people.

Listen to Jesus in Matt. 5:17-20 as he introduces the wonderful news concerning life in his kingdom:
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. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
The first thing to say about this is that the Good News of the Kingdom is that Jesus fulfills everything revealed in the Law and Prophets.

Matt. 5:17 is something of a thesis statement for everything that follows in chapter 5 and indeed in the rest of story of Jesus.

Jesus says, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. " But why would anyone think that? Well, remember what Jesus has said in vss. 14-16. He looks at his disciples and proclaims:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Surely at this point people would have been scratching their heads in wonder. Well, what's the problem? Israel has teachers and we've gone all over the world with the Lord's torah. Our light is shining. The light of the law. Our seminaries pump out bright young rabbis regularly. We've been trumpeting the law of God around the known world. Surely the light shines in Israel! We are not hiding our righteousness! The nations see our good works? Are you, Jesus, suggesting our good works are not good works? What do you mean by this, Jesus? A new law? Are you going to abolish the Torah?

And surely the scribes and Pharisees listening to Jesus teach so far would also wonder: what about the Law? All this talk about YOUR kingdom, Jesus, but not yet one word about the Law. So what about the Law, does it have a place, Jesus, or are you abolishing it?

Add to this the fact that Jesus was not living scrupulously according to accepted legal traditions and rituals—multiple washings, staying away from contact with Gentiles, multiple tithes, extreme Sabbath observances, and the like— then it's not too hard to see that he might be mistakenly hailed as a radical, a revolutionary, one bent on overthrowing the Law and the Prophets. One who was bringing in something novel.

People listening to Jesus teach would have heard something different than what they were being taught. Maybe not altogether different, but different enough to wonder. People were curious: this is not what we have heard our teachers and theologians emphasize in their teaching. Most first-century Jews would have thought that the traditional instruction of the Rabbis, especially that of the conservative Scribes and Pharisees embodied the true interpretation of the Law and Prophets. The Pharisees taught that their traditions, the oral law, was the end, the goal of the torah, and and that they had uncovered the true meaning of the law and the prophets. Everything was fulfilled when people ordered their lives according to the tradition of the elders as the Pharisees taught it.

So if Jesus is not saying exactly what the scribes and Pharisees were saying, then what is he saying?

Jesus says, first of all: NO, not to abolish (smash, tear down, destroy, nullify, make useless) "the law or the prophets" = the entire older revelation of God—Pentatuech and Writing and Preaching Prophets (Joshua- Malachi). Not to abolish, but to fulfill.

We might put it like this: the Gospel is NOT that Jesus tears down everything in what we call the OT and replaces it with something novel and different, but that Jesus' life and teaching makes sense of it all, brings it all to completion, makes its meaning crystal clear, for those that have ears to hear and eyes to see! This is Good News.

Jesus is the "end" or "goal" of the Law and Prophets. He interprets it, and it is only interpreted rightly when done so in terms of him.

The only legitimate way to understand the OT today is by means of Jesus' life and words. After all, the Law and the prophets always pointed to something, indeed, someone beyond themselves. To the future. The OT instruction could not stand on its own. The Pharisees believed that it pointed to their oral tradition, that everything was fulfilled in their way of living out the implications of the Torah. But Jesus didn't think so. The Law and Prophets come to completion in me, he says.

So to read and interpret the OT as if Jesus wouldn't come or hasn't come is to miss its divinely intended fullness of meaning.

This would be like trying to understand baseball by reading the rules, but never having played baseball or seen a baseball game. One might get some things right, but one really does need to see it played, lived out and embodied in the players. So also with the law and the prophets. Without Jesus' life the OT Law and Prophets are opaque and enigmatic.

Israel knew that her Law as well as her existence pointed to something, someone greater. She knew that she could not fully understand her own mission and character without reference to some future fulfilment. But until Jesus came, all she could do was grope around in faith or substitute faith in Yahweh's work in the future for something else—the oral law, for example.

To be continued. . .

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