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Jesus and the Law


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

The history of Israel is a history of struggle against God and his law. No matter where you dip into the Old Testament, you find the same things happening again and again: cycles of sin, repentance, deliverance, complacency, and sin again. From the Aachen’s sin at the conquest of Jericho, to the dull refrain in Judges that the people did what was right in their own eyes. From Eli’s sons taking bribes and perverting justice, to Solomon’s burden of taxation. From the splitting of the kingdom, to the Assyrian captivity of the northern kingdom. From the threats posed by Egypt to the Babylonian captivity. From the ethnic cleansing under Ezra to the revolt of the Maccabees. Even after the Babylonian captivity, when the Jews finally accepted the monotheism of their religion, they still were not able to fully embody the Law Moses had given.

For the Law was intended as a revelation of God’s unchanging nature: his unfailing compassion, kindness, and love. But by Jesus’ day it had become a labyrinth of laws, commentaries, and further clarifications, obfuscating God’s nature and burdening his people beyond endurance. Yet Jesus makes it clear that he has no intention of abolishing the Law or the Prophets. Rather, he has come to fulfill them.

It is easy to understand what it means to fulfill prophecy—though very hard to actually do it. How do you choose your birthplace, for example? But it may be hard to understand what it means to fulfill the Law. One possibility is to simply keep the Law, something Jesus claimed to have done. He challenged his critics to produce one shred of evidence that he was guilty of breaking any Law. Yet if keeping the Law were all he did, his accomplishment would have meaning only for himself alone. But he went further, and made it possible for his followers to have a change of heart so that they would observe the Law not by outward rituals and forms but by representing to the world the real character of God—his loving kindness and compassion. He fulfilled the Law by internalizing it in his followers.

Thus he goes on to redefine murder as hatred and adultery as lust. He urges his followers not to take oaths to certify the truth of what they say, to be generous even to those who try to harm them, and to show care even for enemies. In short, he wants them to be perfect as their heavenly Father is perfect. This is the fulfillment of the Law—an assembly of believers who represent God’s perfect love to a skeptical, watching, hurting world.

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How to Resist


Immediately after his baptism with water and with the Spirit of God, that same Spirit leads Jesus into an uninhabited region where he goes without food for 40 days and faces testing from the devil. After 40 days, he was hungry, so the first test he faces springs from his hunger. The devil says, “If you’re the Son of God, prove it. Turn these stones into bread.” But Jesus responds with a truth more profound and basic than his hunger. He responds with what is written in the Law, “Human beings don’t get their life from bread but from every word that God speaks.”

The devil tries a different tack that is really just a variation on the same test. He takes him to the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem and says, “If you are the Son of God, prove it. The Bible says, ‘He will put guardian angels around you to protect you from harm. You won’t even stub your toe.’ Jesus again goes to the Law for a more basic truth. “The Bible also says, ‘Don’t put the Lord your God to the test to see if he’ll do what he says.'”

The devil makes one more attempt. Since he couldn’t get to him by questioning his identity, he tries to short cut what he believes must be God’s plan. He offers all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus will just acknowledge Satan as God. Jesus doesn’t dispute the devil’s power to do as he says. Instead he responds that worship and service belong to God alone and not to any created being. So again, Jesus does nothing except quote the Bible.

Later, when Jesus is teaching his disciples to pray, he tells them to pray, “Lead us not into temptation.” Yet the Spirit led Jesus into temptation, and James tells us to consider times of trial as pure joy because they produce patience. Patience is yielding to the agency of others. In this case, it is yielding to the agency of God. In each case, the temptation was to exert agency and do something, and each case, the resistance was to do nothing but hold on to God’s plan. So “lead us not into temptation,” but if you do, then “deliver us from the evil one.” God’s deliverance comes in the form of a patient resistance that keeps trusting in God to be the one who moves his plan forward.

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Joseph the Dreamer


The birth narrative in Matthew is told entirely from Joseph’s point of view, and like his namesake in the final 21 chapters of Genesis, Joseph is a dreamer of dreams. Through dreams God communicates with him, telling him to take Mary as his wife, to flee the murderous cruelty of Herod, to return to Israel, and to make his home outside Judea. It is even possible that, like Joseph of old, he was the one who interpreted the dream of the Magi, warning them not to return to Herod, for how would anyone know about it unless the Magi had told someone, and who better to tell than Joseph?

The first two chapters of Matthew recall the history of Israel and various prophecies about the coming Messiah, some of which don’t seem so much prophetic as historical. The story of the Magi serves to recall the prophesied birthplace of the Messiah in Bethlehem. It also introduces a recurring theme in Matthew of acceptance by Gentiles and rejection or dismissal by the Jews. Though the Magi threw all Jerusalem into consternation with their talk of searching for a recently born king, there is no record that anyone from Jerusalem accompanied them to Bethlehem to find the child. So the Jews are repeatedly agitated by Jesus, but very few become his followers, and within a few decades of his resurrection, his Gentile followers outnumber his Jewish followers.

The coming of the Magi also provides the impetus for the flight into Egypt, where Jesus lived with Joseph and Mary until the death of Herod. Matthew appropriates a verse from Hosea, where it was clearly meant as a reference to the Exodus, and applies it to Jesus. “Out of Egypt I called my son.” In doing so, he seems to authorize a reinterpretation of the Old Testament that centers on Christ.

The most troubling reference to prophecy is the last, where Matthew refers apparently to multiple prophecies or to a general consensus of prophets that the Messiah would be called a Nazarene. There is actually no such prophecy in the Old Testament nor in any extant text that might have been considered prophetic. Moreover, the town of Nazareth is likewise never mentioned prior to the gospels. However, Jesus was repeatedly referred to as “of Nazareth,” so much so that his followers were said to be “of the Nazarene sect” many years later when Paul was arrested in Jerusalem (Acts 24:5). It’s possible that Nazareth had taken on a pejorative meaning, much as we might say someone was from Podunk, meaning an insignificant hick town. In this view, Matthew was summing up a prophetic tradition in Judaism which held that the Messiah would come from humble origins. This would also explain why he refers to “prophets” rather than to a single “prophet” as in other passages in the chapter.

After chapter 2, Joseph never makes another appearance in Matthew, although we are told that Jesus had a brother named Joseph, along with James, Judas, and Simon. We also learn that Joseph was a carpenter. So after taking pains to present Joseph as a dreamer like Joseph of old, Matthew tells us almost nothing else about him.