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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.


Matthew’s Gospel


Matthew opens his gospel with a genealogy of Jesus. He presents three lists, representing three periods of time, each comprising 14 generations. The first list goes from Abraham to King David. The second goes from David to the Babylonian exile. The third goes from the exile to Joseph, the father of Jesus. Throughout Matthew’s gospel there seems to be an emphasis on certain numerological principles. Many of his stories of miracles found in the other synoptic gospels double the participants. Here, in the genealogy, he compresses generations to achieve three groupings of twice seven generations. Seven was regarded as a divine number signifying completeness because God finished creation in six days and rested on the seventh. Matthew’s doubling of the sevens, as well as his doubling of other events in the life of Christ, seems to reflect an interest in making clear that his message is for both Jews and Gentiles.

In the same vein, Matthew does something else unusual, especially in a culture as heavily patriarchal as his. He mentions women in the genealogy. He mentions three in the first of his three lists and one more in the second. The first woman, Tamar, was the daughter-in-law of Judah. She had been twice widowed, and Judah had promised her his third son, but he didn’t keep his promised for fear his third son would die as the two older ones had. So Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and Judah slept with her. Perez, a son from that union, entered the genealogy of Christ.

The second woman, Rahab, was a prostitute (or possibly an innkeeper) in Jericho. She protected the spies who came into Jericho to gain military intelligence prior to the Israelites’ attack on the city. She extracted a promise from the spies that she and her family and household would be saved during the subsequent attack, a promise which Joshua honored. So Rahab, a Gentile woman, entered the community of Israel and the genealogy of Jesus.

The third woman, Ruth. was also a Gentile, from the neighboring country of Moab, which was often at war with Israel. Her story is told in the book that bears her name. Like Tamar, she was a widow, but instead of returning to her father’s house in hopes of getting a new husband, she accompanied her mother-in-law Naomi back to Israel, where she met and married Boaz.

The fourth woman is not referred to by name, but rather as the wife of Uriah. This was Bathsheba, whom King David had raped and whose husband, Uriah, he had had killed during a battle with the Ammonites. It’s not clear whether she, like her husband, was a foreigner in Israel, but the entire affair involving her was the greatest scandal of David’s life. Yet she also appears in the genealogy of Christ.

These four women, each scandalous in her own way, and each representing an ethnic impurity in the blood line, Matthew mentions in his genealogy. At the outset Matthew assures his readers that he is going to be inclusive in his treatment of the stories about Jesus. He will include women. He will include Gentiles. He will include outcasts. Because the gospel is not good news for Jews only, nor for men only, nor only for those accepted by society, but for the whole world.