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Fulfilling the Law

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“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 tell you, 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.”

Matthew 5:17-18

One of the charges leveled at the early church—and indeed at Jesus himself—was that they taught people to ignore the demands of the Torah, referred to here as the Law and the Prophets. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contrasts the behavior expected of his followers with the behavior demanded by the Law. He makes it clear at the outset that his intention is not to get rid of the Law or supersede it. Instead, he is going to fulfill the Law and the Prophets.

What does it mean to fulfill the Law and the Prophets?

Of course, the immediately obvious answer is that the Old Testament contains numerous references to a coming Messiah, so Jesus could be proclaiming himself to be that Messiah. But Jesus doesn’t refer only to prophecy. He refers also to Law, to the rules God gave through Moses for governing human behavior. He claims that he has come to fulfill those rules. What can it mean to fulfill the Law?

One of the repeated themes of the Old Testament is that no one is righteous. Paul summarizes it in Romans 3 where he quotes eight Old Testament passages about the universal depravity of human beings. No one, Paul claims, keeps the Law. Is it because the demands of the Law are too difficult to be kept? Is it because, as many of the poor in Jesus’ day apparently believed, only the wealthy can afford to meet the Law’s demands? Regardless the reasons, the Torah is clear that everyone is guilty of not keeping the Law.

Despite these warnings from the Torah, the Pharisees and religious leaders in Jesus’ day thought of themselves as keeping the Law. They were confident that by keeping the commandments and doing pious acts, they were meeting the requirements of the Law and would be saved. Jesus again and again exposed their hypocrisy and pointed out that they were deluding themselves. In fact, far from being righteous enough on their own merits, they were actually in worse shape than the “sinners” they so despised.

Jesus fulfilled the Law by keeping it, not as the Pharisees kept it by assiduously following the rules to the letter while gratifying their own lust and greed and desire for power. No, he kept it as it was intended: as a guide to loving God and other people. He kept it by doing good. In the end, he fulfilled the Law by meeting its demands for justice in his own body, a blameless, unblemished Lamb sacrificed for human beings’ inability to fulfill the Law on their own. To those who by trusting in him accept his sacrifice, he gives the ability by his Spirit to see him as he is and become like him, doing good wherever they go.

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Christians faith hell jesus salvation sin spiritual life theology

Just Deserts

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Among atheists, Christians have a reputation for consigning people to heaven or hell based on the orthodoxy of their beliefs. You can be a sexual predator who preys on children, but if you confess your sins and accept Jesus as your savior, you have a guaranteed spot in heaven. On the other hand you can be a world-class humanitarian, but if you deny the basic tenets of the Christian faith, you are doomed to hell. To be sure, this is something of a caricature of Christian beliefs, but I think it describes fairly accurately what many Christians believe to be true. However, there is no foundation for this view in the Bible. The Biblical view of judgment in the afterlife is that it is based on deeds. Again and again, both Old and New Testaments stress that all people will be judged according to what they have done, whether it is good or bad. This includes Christians. Nowhere in the Bible is there any mention of people being judged according to their beliefs. Everyone is judged according to their deeds.

Suppose a man believes—as some Muslims reportedly believe—that he will go to heaven if he kills an infidel. Will he be sentenced to jail for such a belief? Will our courts fine him or exact some other punishment for this belief? No. He will go to jail only if he is found guilty of actually killing someone. Are human courts more righteous than God’s? Of course not. Then how can we think that God will condemn people or reward them for what they believe?

Someone may object at this point that there are many Bible verses that also tell us we are saved by faith, that God rewards believers with eternal life in heaven, and that these rewards are not promised to unbelievers. To answer this objection, I need to introduce a distinction in different kinds of believing.

I believe that the earth is round, that the sun is a nearby star, that all life on earth has a common ancestor, that Abraham Lincoln was our 16th President, and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Will any of these beliefs save me? No. They will not. Most of them have little or no impact on how I live my life. Even the last one cannot save me if I do nothing about it. It is perfectly possible for me to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and not follow him or do anything that he commands. These are what I think of as propositional beliefs. They are beliefs in certain propositions, statements of fact or opinion. This kind of belief is almost never meant when the Bible talks about faith. James is a notable exception, and if you want to see what the Bible has to say about whether faith or deeds are more important, read James 2:14-26. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

See? James points out that demons believe in God’s existence. Merely believing that there is a God gets you no brownie points with him.

I believe in my children. I believe in my wife. I believe in myself. I believe in Jesus. This is a different kind of belief. This is not an academic assent to certain propositions. This is relational trust. I have confidence in my kids. I have watched them grow into adulthood and take responsibility for themselves. I know they have learned good principles, and I have done my best to set them a good example. I believe in them. Likewise I believe in my wife. She is talented and smart and strong, and she can do what she sets out to do. I trust her. And, yes, I trust Jesus. He has proven himself loving and good in everything I know of him. He encouraged me when I struggled with depression, and he has given me a family to love, enriching me beyond anything I could have hoped for or imagined. This is the belief the Bible talks about, confidence in God’s goodness and love as a father to us all. It is this faith that saves us because we fully entrust ourselves to him, fearlessly doing what we know is right because our souls are at rest in him. By this faith we share with others when we have barely enough for ourselves. By this faith we speak out against injustice. By this faith we continue to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus even when we are ridiculed for believing impossible stories.

What we believe matters far less than what we do, but what we do depends a lot on whom we trust.

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faith jesus love resurrection salvation trust

Peter’s Reinstatement

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Peter was downcast after the initial joy of Jesus’ resurrection. He couldn’t forget that he had denied Jesus after boasting of his loyalty. Even though Jesus had anticipated his desertion, Peter knew he could no longer expect to be part of the new kingdom Jesus told them about. Like the other disciples, he still expected Jesus to seize power, oust the Romans, and make Israel great again. But for Peter there would no longer be a place at court on Jesus’ right or left hand. He had failed in the time of trial. He had proved disloyal and untrustworthy.

Peter still knew how to fish. So he returned to what he knew, and some of the other disciples went with him. Though not plagued with the same sense of failure, they did not know what was going to happen, and they needed to work to occupy their hands and thoughts. They spent the night fishing but caught nothing. In the morning, they saw Jesus standing on the shore of the lake, but they did not realize it was him.

Friends,” he called to them. “Don’t you have any fish.”

“No,” they answered.

He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because there were so many fish.

Then John said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were only about 100 yards from shore. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish already on it, and some bread.

Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.

After they ate, Jesus took Peter aside and asked him, “Peter, do you love me more than these?”

Yes, of course, Lord,” said Peter. “You know that I love you.”

Feed my lambs,” said Jesus. Then he asked again, “Peter, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord. You know that I love you,” Peter replied.

“Take care of my sheep,” said Jesus. Then he asked yet again, “Peter, do you like me?”

Peter was hurt that the Lord had asked the third time, “Do you like me?” He thought back on the years they had spent together, the wonders he had seen this man do, the conviction that had inexorably stolen over his heart that this man was somehow God. He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I like you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old, you will feel your way, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Then he said to him in that no-nonsense tone Peter knew so well, “Follow me!”

Could it be true? Was Jesus really telling him that he still had a place for him? Wasn’t there someone else better suited to the task Jesus had in mind. He could see John obviously eavesdropping nearby. “What about him?” he asked Jesus.

If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Jesus replied.

Then Peter knew. He knew beyond doubt. Jesus had urged all the disciples to believe in him, and Peter had. His faith in Jesus had saved him, but what transformed him was Jesus’ faith in him.

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