The Nature of God’s Law
by Bob Burridge © 2010
This article is a taken from our lager Syllabus lesson about God’s Law. It deals with just one brief aspect of that holy law. For the details, support texts and a more complete presentation read through the lessons on God’s Law in Unit 5, Nomology in our Syllabus. The following paragraphs were excerpted from the first lesson in this Unit.
The Nature of Law
Law is a concept many tend to isolate and examine as if it had an existence of its own. We tend to think of individual precepts and rules that bind us morally or civilly as various conditions arise. However, law ultimately has its origin in the unified and independent nature of God. It is what pleases him, and what is consistent with his purpose as Creator and Sustainer. It defines what is moral and right.
The ancient sects of the Scribes and Pharisees had departed from a right understanding of God’s law and confused its use. They made it into a superficial set of regulations which they saw as a means of salvation, and as a cause for personal pride and judgmentalism. Jesus explained to them how their attitude toward the law was wrong. The context of Matthew 5 contrasts their perversions of moral law with what God had actually said and intended. He also countered the charge that he in any way degraded the ancient law given through Moses. He said …
17. Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill.
18. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished.
19. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus denied that his coming was intended to abolish or to destroy the law or the words of the prophets. The Greek term he use in 5:17 is kataluo (καταλυω), which means to throw down, destroy, demolish, abolish, or annul.
He immediately added the positive side showing what his purpose was regarding the law. He came to fulfill it. The word he used for fulfill is plaerosai (πληρωσαι), which means “to fulfill, accomplish, complete or to bring something to its full measure.”
John Calvin stated in his commentary, “Christ, therefore, now declares, that his doctrine is so far from being at variance with the law, that it agrees perfectly with the law and the prophets, and not only so, but brings the complete fulfillment of them.”
Jesus accomplished this in his three offices. As Prophet he brought the law to it fullest revelation by showing us the meaning underlying the symbols and practices of the ceremonial law. As Priest he was the Sacrificial Lamb satisfying the demands of the law in the place of his people. He represented them both in the keeping of the law perfectly, and in the suffering and dying to satisfy the demands of divine justice for their sin. As King he pronounced the curse of the law upon those who remain the enemies of God and of God’s Kingdom.
The perpetuity of the law is compared with the persistence of the created universe. Beginning with the solemn declaration “truly” (αμην), he said that the law would last as long as the universe lasts. It would remain until the heaven and earth pass away. Those who imagine that Jesus was declaring the elimination of the law should observe the stars and mountains and conclude that such an end to the law has not yet taken place.
He then showed that the law as a whole persisted. Not even the smallest parts were being canceled out. He illustrated with references to the forms of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, the language of the law and the Old Testament. It is represented in Greek by the gospel writer.
The smallest letter in Greek is called the iota. It is like our letter “i” (ι). Matthew uses this to represent the Hebrew letter yodh, (translated “jot” in the KJV). It is a small mark raised above the line (י) representing the letter “y”, or as a helping consonant to lengthen the vowel “i”. The “stroke” he spoke of is the keraia, a Greek word representing the little extension on some forms that distinguish between certain Hebrew letters. For example the “b” (ב) in Hebrew and the “c” (כ) look similar. The difference is the hook or projection on the bottom right which is called the “tittle” in the KJV.
The analogy in English would be to say that not a dot over an “i” or a cross on the “t” would pass away from the law until all has been accomplished. That is the attitude of Jesus regarding the stability of God’s law.
To clarify even further Jesus condemned as least in the Kingdom of Heaven anyone who would dare annul and teach the annulment of even the least of these commandments. The rabbis had divided the law into 613 commandments. They identified 248 of them as stated positively and 365 as stated negatively. They debated which were the heavier or lighter commandments. According to many the lightest was found in Deuteronomy 22:6-7 which says that if you find a bird’s nest with young or eggs, and the mother of the bird is with them, you may take the eggs but you may not take the mother. The most weighty was generally agreed to be Deuteronomy 6:5 which requires that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and might. In Luke 10:27-28 Jesus accepted the answer about the weightiest law when it was offered to him by an expert in the law.
Jesus’ comments clarify what he meant by not coming to destroy the law but to fulfill it. All the points of God’s moral law, expanded upon in the context of Matthew 5:21-48, are perpetual and are not annulled or set aside in the coming of Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus came to complete the law for us, not to take it away.
We must lay hold of the law in its true sense as a moral and perpetual revelation of God’s commanded holiness. This ought to make us live more honorably to the Lord who has transformed us by grace, than did those hypocritical critics the Scribes and Pharisees.
John Calvin comments, “If we intend to reform affairs which are in a state of disorder, we must always exercise such prudence and moderation, as will convince the people, that we do not oppose the eternal Word of God, or introduce any novelty that is contrary to Scripture. We must take care, that no suspicion of such contrariety shall injure the faith of the godly, and that rash men shall not be emboldened by a pretense of novelty.” (Calvin’s Commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels, table 1-43)
Though Jesus seemed to disobey the law, it was really only their perverted interpretations of the law that he disobeyed. He did not abolish the law by fulfilling it. This is directly denied by his own words. Instead of abolishing the law he fulfilled it.
Summary of the Practical Importance of God’s Law
To summarize the practical importance of the law of God for believers living in this age of the ascended Savior, a few principles may provide a helpful guide.
1. God’s moral law reveals what is pleasing to the Eternal King.
It shows us what is right and true. The revealing of the nature of God is presented in Scripture as a prime purpose of all things made (Psalm 19:1-6; Romans 1:20). Therefore making himself known must also be a prime purpose of his specially revealed moral law. The more we understand God’s law, the more we will respond with proper worship regarding his glory.
2. God’s law exposes our fallen nature and inability to please God.
The more we understand God’s law, the more we are humbled before the perfectly pure holiness and justice of our Heavenly Father. It shows how unworthy we are of his blessing, and how impossible it is for us to keep the law sufficiently to please God, even in one little point.
3. God’s law foreshadows the work of Jesus as the Messiah.
The ceremonial law illustrates dramatically that our sin deserves death. It teaches that unless God provides a substitute for his people by a gracious covenant, there is no hope for any one. The symbolic animal sacrifices of the Old Testament foreshadowed the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Since his death for his people has been completed, the rituals of the Levitical code have ceased to have a purpose. But what was required by divine justice remains: Death for sin is required of everyone descending from Adam by ordinary generation. The only satisfaction in place of the sinner would be a perfect Redeemer who was also the infinite God who was the party offended. The ritual laws continue to drive us to Christ as we study the principles underlying them which are now made clear in the New Testament.
4. God’s law is a perfect guide for showing us how we ought to live.
The believer is made alive spiritually. This compels him by the renewed disposition of his heart to give thankful obedience to his Savior. The law of God shows what is pleasing to the object of our love. Otherwise we would not know how to honorably show our gratitude.
5. God’s law restrains sin for the benefit of the covenant people.
The general effects of the law are applied by God to society in general to provide a restraining effect that keeps depravity from expanding into total moral chaos. Ungodly societies have laws against murder, civil violence, theft, and such crimes that would disrupt societal tranquility. These laws are not imposed by them to honor the true God, but to benefit their own peace and prosperity. There is no true benefit to this kind of obedience for the unbeliever. The beneficiary of this restraint is the redeemed people of God.
God’s law continues to have great uses and benefits today. Though some legal duties may have only temporal applications, there is an eternal element to all of God’s law. The moral principles underlying the revealed precepts are never done away. We need to learn to honor that law and to be holy even as the Lord our God is holy (Leviticus 19:2).
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