Faith Lessons by Ray Vander Laan: “Abolish” and “Fulfill”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus introduced a large section of his teaching by saying,

(Mat 5:17-18)  “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. 18 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.”

This passage has troubled commentators for centuries. If Jesus didn’t abolish the Law of Moses, then are we still under the Law? Paul plainly teaches to the contrary. What could Jesus have possibly meant?

When RVL studied in a Jewish seminary, his professors would return his papers with either of two grades: lekayem, meaning fulfill, or batel, meaning abolish, in rabbinic terminology. In other words, to fulfill the Law means to interpret the Law correctly so that it can be lived correctly. To abolish the Law is to incorrectly interpret it — or to interpret it without giving the student what he needs to know to live it.

Lois Tverberg gives a First Century example from Mishnah, Horayot 1:3 —

If the Sanhedrin gives a decision to abolish a law, by saying for instance, that the Torah does not include the laws of Sabbath or idolatry, the members of the court are free from a sin offering if they obey them; but if the Sanhedrin abolishes only one part of a law but fulfills the other part, they are liable.

Jesus is saying that the Sermon on the Mount is a correct interpretation of the Law and the Prophets, in a way that tells us how to live the Law and the Prophets. And this tells us a lot about how to read the Law as Jesus wants it read.

Church of Christ application

One of the most cited scriptures in Church of Christ exegesis is —

(Col 2:13-14 NIV)  When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.

This is routinely cited for the proposition that the Law of Moses has been repealed. I’ve said the same thing myself. But I came to question that conclusion, and Bobby Valentine provided me with the best understanding of the passage I’ve seen.

“Written code” translates cheirographon, translated “handwriting” in the KJV.

Paul says that the cheirograph was nailed the cross. This word is a Pauline hapax and never occues again in the NT. In the 19th century the word turned up in the sands of Egypt inscribed on papyri. Adolf Deissmann in his epoch making book Light from the Ancient East demonstrates that the term refers to an I.O.U., a certificate of debt incurred by a person (cf. pp. 331-334).

Historical context is a cardinal rule in biblical interpretation. In Jewish apocalyptic there was an idea that there existed a book of records that kept track of our evil deeds. This book, like the mortgage (an I.O.U.) at the bank, provided powerful leverage with less than friendly spirit beings called principalities, powers, angels and the like. This book is mentioned often in Jewish literature of the time (1 Enoch 89.61-64; 108.7; Testament of Abraham 12.7-18; 13.9-14; and many other places). Enoch, for example, tells how he heard the words “write down every destruction {sin} … so that this may become testimony for me against them.” We have an IOU that stands against us and that IOU is our own sin debt. It is that sin that the malignant powers hold over us.

What was nailed to the cross? The ledger of our sins! The NIV totally botched the translation, but other modern translations get it right —

(ESV) canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

(TNIV) having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.

When I was a child, I was taught that God kept a ledger of our good and bad deeds, and we had to have more good than bad to go to heaven. Paul disagrees.

The Law and the Prophets haven’t been repealed. They’ve been fulfilled by the New Testament, that is, the New Testament tells us what they really mean in terms that we can live.

Therefore, when we study heaven and hell in terms of Isaiah, or the role of women in terms of Genesis 1 – 3, or even the Parable of Good Samaritan in terms of 2 Chron 28, we are doing what Paul taught us to do — using the scriptures for instruction and teaching, but doing so in light of the work of Jesus on the cross.

Church of Christ application

There’s a teaching current in some circles that Jesus was an Old Testament prophet because he taught before Pentecost. Therefore, it’s argued, we can ignore his instructions. Obviously, that’s just ridiculous.

Rather, Jesus teaches us how to read the Law, and the method he gives us is —

(Mat 7:12 ESV) “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

Sounds a look like Jesus wants to preserve the moral laws and not the positive laws. You see, the Law “is” the Golden Rule. And this, Jesus said in the same Sermon, fulfills the Law.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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