The Active Obedience of Christ in Matthew 5:17 and 10:34

Part Three: καταλῦσαι, πληρῶσαι, βαλεῖν, εἰρήνην, μάχαιραν

In the first half of this paper, it was established that between chapter 5 and chapter 10 there was a particular pattern painted in a variety of ways. In demonstrating the various forms of this repetition, it was noted that 5:17 and 10:35 are linked syntactically and thematically as the two verses, wherein on their own display the broader theme seen throughout the chapters. The question posed early on in this essay was whether the terms of these statements were meant by Matthew to express different aspects of the same theme. It was already claimed that the pattern would have expected a mention of the Law and the Prophets in some form in 10:34, yet it is the use of the formulaic terms that draws upon the context of 5:17 and sets up the second theme, which is division.

In this way, the pattern also expects 10:34 to overlap in meaning with 5:17 and even if there is some hesitancy to make that presumption, the relationship between the first theme and the second theme in the broad context of chapters 5 through 10 should encourage the overlap. The first theme in agreement with George Law is to view the Sermon on the Mount as a replication of the covenant law documents; the second theme focuses on a division between the people who have faith and follow Jesus on his mission and those who do not. Just as Israel was separated from all the nations because a covenant was established between God and Israel through Moses the mediator, so also believers are separated from the unbelievers by a covenant established in the blood of the mediator made between the Father in heaven and those who are being reconciled to Him. The first theme establishes the context for the second theme, so it might be better understood as a causal relationship. How does Christ bring the sword of division? He brings it by establishing a covenant that separates the sheep from the wolves. Therefore, the proper way to read 5:17 in relation to 10:34 is to understand that if Christ came to καταλῦσαι τὸν νόμον ἢ τοὺς προφήτας, then he would have brought εἰρήνην, but instead πληρῶσαι is to bring μάχαιραν.

A.     The first pair: καταλῦσαι , εἰρήνην

Regarding καταλῦσαι, BDAG highlights this verse in particular describing it as meaning to do away with, annul or repeal the law. As an infinitive, it is clearly expressing the notion of purpose as it is tied to the verb ἦλθον. The accusative phrase τὸν νόμον ἢ τοὺς προφήτας latches onto to the infinitive to describe what exactly Christ did not abolish. What the τὸν νόμον ἢ τοὺς προφήτας refers to is the subject of much of the debate. The particle ἢ joins the two concepts together and as a disjunctive and it can be considered appropriate to not join them with the usual English conjunction of ‘and’ but rather to use ‘or.’ Carson is quick to admit that when only the law is mentioned in verse 18, the referent remains the same even if an interpreter follows Gustaf Dalman’s redactional criticism concerning the disjunctive.1)C.f. Gustaf Dalman, Jesus-Jeshua: Studies In The Gospels, trans. Paul P. Levertoff (Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2010), 62. Carson, 142. Many interpreters struggle to determine the proper referent as they wrestle with what Carson calls the nub of the problem in the verb πληρόω.2)Carson, 142.   Some take it mean a general notion that it is the will of God, others take it as the Mosaic order and some, following Carson’s interpretation of πληρόω, call Christ the butterfly fulfillment of the Old Testament law.3)C.f. Zaspel and Carson. New Covenant Theology (NCT) as represented by Zaspel is predicated upon Carson’s interpretation of 5:17 Carson, relying on verse 18 takes τὸν νόμον ἢ τοὺς προφήτας to mean all of Scripture and therefore not a jot or a tittle of Scripture will be erased until all things happen.4)Carson, 142. The position advocated by Carson is that the Law and the Prophets refers to all scripture, and that Christ fulfills it by showing how it points to him. So in specific for the content of the Sermon on the Mount how does the Law relate to Christ? The interpretation of πληρόω as pointing to Christ is based on Carson’s views concerning Matthew’s use that quoted prophetical material is fulfilled because it points to Christ. There are two points of contention with this perspective. First, understanding Law and Prophets as referring to scripture necessarily causes an interpretive division between 5:17 and 10:34. Carson’s claim in no way can be connected to Christ’s mission in bringing a sword of division. The fact that the scriptures point to Christ does not create any separation between saints and sinners. This method interprets 5:17 and 10:34 as isolated texts. Second, Carson’s metaphysical approach to Matthew’s use of prophecy fulfillment seems to be wanting. Instead of adhering to Occam’s razor, his interpretation reaches for something beyond what is simply there. The actions in Christ life are deeds by which prophetical proclamations were ultimately fulfilled. For example, Hosea said; ‘Out of Egypt I will call my Son.’ The text then claims that Jesus, as a babe, did in fact go into and come out of Egypt following the instructions of an Angel. The use of πληρόω in the first two chapters can bare the meaning assigned by BDAG, as action that accomplishes what a prophecy foretold would happen. This paper advocates the simple interpretation that in 5:17 that Christ fulfills the law by doing it, despite the fact that Carson says, “So any interpretation that says Jesus fulfills the law by doing it misses the point (of Matthew 5).’ Instead of beginning with πληρόω, it would be better to begin with what it means to abolish the Law and the Prophets, and as this paper has argued consistently, what does it mean to bring peace.5)Another option for determining the referent is to examine how Matthew uses those terms in the entirety of the gospel and seek to find unified concept that is applicable in all situations. That approach necessarily diminishes the significance of the structural unity between 5:17, 7:12, and 10:34. Ephesians 2:15 sheds light upon our text in this way. Using the semantic synonym for καταλύω, Paul says that Jesus καταργήσας the law of commandments in the decrees and thus made peace (L&N). The two things that Jesus claims he did not come to do, Paul states that he does. The difference between Ephesians 2:15 and Matthew 5:17 is the identification of the τὸν νόμον ἢ τοὺς προφήτας versus τὸν νόμον τῶν ἐντολῶν ἐν δόγμασιν. In Ephesians, the context articulates that Christ broke down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile when he abolished the Mosaic covenantal economy by his active obedience in his incarnation.6)Cf. Harold Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2002).. Hoehner is an example of a scholarly approach to seeing Eph 2:15 as referring to the entirety of the mosaic economy rather than attempting break it up along a tri-partite distinction. Hoehner advocates that the three terms in the phrase communicate the oppressiveness of the Mosaic Law. In light of this newfound unity, Jesus creates peace between the divided nations by creating in himself one new man.7)I have written further on this issue in a currently unpublished work on Eph 2:14b-15a, The Active of Obedience of Christ in Ephesians 2:14-15.   The act of abolishment is tied to the caused result of peace existing between Jew and Gentile.

Taking Paul’s explication of Jesus’ accomplishments in Ephesians back to the text in Matthew, it is apparent that τὸν νόμον ἢ τοὺς προφήτας cannot be a reference to things in the Jewish society lest these two verses contradict each other. This should also emphasize the point that the infinitive cannot be taken in conjunction with the clause as an absolute statement because clearly between Matthew and Ephesians there is some sort of law that Jesus abolishes and some sort of law that he does not abolish. It could be argued that in Ephesians the focus is upon the civil and ceremonial laws while Matthew is concerned with the moral law, and therefore the two texts uphold the tripartite distinction of the law in the Mosaic economy. Carson dismisses the notion that this an example of the tripartite distinction in favor of his understanding that it is a reference to all of Scripture.8)Carson, 143. Yet, a cursory overview of the content of the sermon would show that in the stipulations Jesus is not speaking about Scripture in a vague general sense.

As part of the overall structure, Matt 7:12 transitions between the two primary themes by closing off the Sermon on the Mount discourse. Matt 5:17 and 7:12 bracket the discourse and expresses the thematic movement of a law that creates the division between the saved and the damned. In all of the places in which the theme is replicated the notion of the law and the prophets should have a unified sense. It would not be fitting for the law and the prophets to mean different things in each place where it is used, whether it be 5:17, 7:12 or anywhere in between. In 7:12, the οὗτος at the closing out of the Sermon on Mount should be understood in light of the overriding thematic structure as pointing to the content found in the Sermon on the Mount.

Contrary to this, Carson sees Jesus in his role as fulfilling all of scripture by showing the people that what they heard about the law is a misunderstanding when contrasted with the true direction in which the law points, according to his own authority.9)IBID, 148. Carson’s position assumes that the law and prophets in 5:17 refers to Scripture specifically and that the Old Testament law in the following discourse is one aspect of the scriptures by which Christ explains how it points to himself. Then in dealing with 7:12, Carson claims that the οὗτος refers to the golden rule specifically and all of Scripture merely by extension.10)IBID, 187-189. Carson’s position is created without regard for the underlying structure and he nuances the meaning of the law in each place differently. Going against Carson, this essay affirms a consistency in Matthew 5-7 that the law and the prophets is not what you heard before, but is something better.11)The stress in this passage should be understood fundamentally as an ecclesiastical issue. Ultimately, in Chapters 5-10 Matthew is answering the question concerning the identity of the people of God. By the covenantal document signed in the blood of Jesus believers are separated from destiny of condemnation and judgment, but have been adopted as sons it the household of God, the Kingdom of his son. Affirming George Law’s notion that the Sermon is a covenantal document and that, in light of Ephesians 2:15, it is not the Mosaic covenant, but by looking at the concept through the lens of typology as discussed in the excursus, the presumption would then be that 5:17 is referring to the natural law contained in the Adamic covenant and the prophetic ריב (rîb) of the covenantal judgment. This reading is confirmed by an analysis of the content of the Sermon on the Mount.

In the first six antitheses, 5:21-48, laws given to Israel by the proxy Moses are referenced and the response that Jesus gives is what could be expected of life without an Adamic fall. There would be no hating your brother or calling each other a fool if sin did not have a captive hold upon the flesh of man. We would pray not vainly in the sight of men but with a focus toward the consummation of the kingdom by the perfect perpetual obedience of Adam. To see further affirmation of this understanding that the Mosaic laws represented here were shadowy representations of the law in the hearts of men before the fall requires looking the second time where divorce is talked about in Matt. 19:1-12.

In 19:1-12, Jesus is again refuting the Mosaic system and finds the authority for the command not in himself, but in the original order of creation. In 19:8, Jesus makes the contrast with the time of Moses and the way it was from the beginning and the mitigating factor between the two situations is the hardness of heart or the sinful nature of man. Transposing Matthew 19:8 with 5:31-32 would result in the claim by Jesus that “it was also said ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce,’ but from the beginning it was not so. Therefore I say to you …” The statement ‘but from the beginning, it was not so,’ can be applied to all six antithesis. The point being that the laws given to Moses were imperfect representations of the original natural law in the garden before the fall. Also, Jesus’ instructions that, on the surface, internalize the law, are not a redirection of the Mosaic law as it relates to him, being the fulfilment; rather, they are adaptations of the natural law for a people no longer living in the purity of the garden. A people living in a world marred by sin. The law content of the Sermon on the Mount is a covenantal declaration of the natural laws belonging to a renewed covenant that promises eternal life in exchange perfect perpetual obedience. The covenantal nature of the sermon as articulated by George Law corresponds to a typological understanding that the Covenant of Works would be renewed by Christ. The contrast in the six antithesis along with 19:1-12 affirms this reading.

Knowing that the term τὸν νόμον ἢ τοὺς προφήτας, which envelops the Sermon on the Mount by 5:17 and 7:12, refers to the original Adamic covenant, it can be argued now what it means for Jesus to abolish those laws and bring about peace. Had Jesus come to abolish the law of the Covenant of Works then there would no longer be a moral standard by which entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven needed be merited. Abolishing the prophets as well would be a termination of the word of judgment against those who fall short of the glory of God. The original law predicted what would happen for disobedience and implied the reward for obedience; failure meant eternal death in hell. The prophets themselves brought the covenantal rîb, predicting what would happen though obedience and disobedience to the Mosaic covenant. Their predictions can be understood has having multiple points of reference so just as they condemned the Israelites for disobedience they also condemn the sons of Adam for disobedience. Since, Israel is reflective of the Kingdom of Heaven; the speech of the prophets can be related to the judgment against the whole of humanity. Abolishing those standards of judgment would bring about a peace between humanity and God in a way different from the cross. Instead of meeting the required obedience of the Covenant of Works and satisfying the justice of God, Christ would have erased our condemnation without propitiation. In doing so, God would not be the just and the justifier, but rather a corrupt and immoral judge who ignores sinful disobedience.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.C.f. Gustaf Dalman, Jesus-Jeshua: Studies In The Gospels, trans. Paul P. Levertoff (Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2010), 62. Carson, 142.
2.Carson, 142.
3.C.f. Zaspel and Carson. New Covenant Theology (NCT) as represented by Zaspel is predicated upon Carson’s interpretation of 5:17
4.Carson, 142. The position advocated by Carson is that the Law and the Prophets refers to all scripture, and that Christ fulfills it by showing how it points to him. So in specific for the content of the Sermon on the Mount how does the Law relate to Christ? The interpretation of πληρόω as pointing to Christ is based on Carson’s views concerning Matthew’s use that quoted prophetical material is fulfilled because it points to Christ. There are two points of contention with this perspective. First, understanding Law and Prophets as referring to scripture necessarily causes an interpretive division between 5:17 and 10:34. Carson’s claim in no way can be connected to Christ’s mission in bringing a sword of division. The fact that the scriptures point to Christ does not create any separation between saints and sinners. This method interprets 5:17 and 10:34 as isolated texts. Second, Carson’s metaphysical approach to Matthew’s use of prophecy fulfillment seems to be wanting. Instead of adhering to Occam’s razor, his interpretation reaches for something beyond what is simply there. The actions in Christ life are deeds by which prophetical proclamations were ultimately fulfilled. For example, Hosea said; ‘Out of Egypt I will call my Son.’ The text then claims that Jesus, as a babe, did in fact go into and come out of Egypt following the instructions of an Angel. The use of πληρόω in the first two chapters can bare the meaning assigned by BDAG, as action that accomplishes what a prophecy foretold would happen. This paper advocates the simple interpretation that in 5:17 that Christ fulfills the law by doing it, despite the fact that Carson says, “So any interpretation that says Jesus fulfills the law by doing it misses the point (of Matthew 5).’
5.Another option for determining the referent is to examine how Matthew uses those terms in the entirety of the gospel and seek to find unified concept that is applicable in all situations. That approach necessarily diminishes the significance of the structural unity between 5:17, 7:12, and 10:34.
6.Cf. Harold Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2002).. Hoehner is an example of a scholarly approach to seeing Eph 2:15 as referring to the entirety of the mosaic economy rather than attempting break it up along a tri-partite distinction. Hoehner advocates that the three terms in the phrase communicate the oppressiveness of the Mosaic Law.
7.I have written further on this issue in a currently unpublished work on Eph 2:14b-15a, The Active of Obedience of Christ in Ephesians 2:14-15.
8.Carson, 143.
9.IBID, 148.
10.IBID, 187-189.
11.The stress in this passage should be understood fundamentally as an ecclesiastical issue. Ultimately, in Chapters 5-10 Matthew is answering the question concerning the identity of the people of God. By the covenantal document signed in the blood of Jesus believers are separated from destiny of condemnation and judgment, but have been adopted as sons it the household of God, the Kingdom of his son.

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