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

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

A.     The second pair: πλη ρῶσαι , μά χαι ραν

Having established the proper referent for the Law and the Prophets and discussed what Jesus did not do, by way of contrast bringing into clarity the positive purposes for the incarnation. Jesus came to πληρόω the Law and the Prophets and to bring a μάχαιραν which divides. The easy part of this equation is recognizing that in his role of renewing the Adamic covenant and meeting its demands on our behalf he brings division. The division was originally spoken of in Genesis 3:15 as an enmity set between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. That enmity as it relates to time and place can be understood in a similar fashion to the doctrine of union with Christ. Believers in every time and place share in that union with Christ in three ways: before the foundation of the world, in history and presently. The same is true of the division in humanity. God in the decrees is said to have predestined things for wrath and for mercy before the foundation of the world. Presently, Christians live as strangers and exiles no longer being of this world. Christ, in history, came and brought a sword crushing the head of the serpent and putting formally in place the gospel enmity of Genesis 3:15. This division, established by Christ, comes in all shapes in forms and it is described in detail in 7:13-29 and 10:34-35, as the slicing sword, which goes so far deep that it divides bloodlines.

The temptation at this point would be to affirm πληρόω in 5:17 as meaning to establish. Having built the case thus far that Jesus renews or reestablishes the Adamic covenant which was broken and that by covenants people are divided, the easy answer would be to say that it means to ‘establish’ or ‘confirm.’ The issue with this is that πληρόω is used only one time in a figurative way of saying to confirm or establish in Psalm 20:5-6. In addition, the primary Hebrew verb meaning establish or confirm, especially where it used in relation to covenants, is ּקום (qûm) and πληρόω is never used to translate it in LXX. The evidence against assuming this understanding of πληρόω is great even though the history of interpretation tends to infer that it means confirm in 5:17.1)Cf. Carson, 141. Carson does a fair job of reciting the evidence against this interpretation. This is where Warren Carter’s work comes in handy. His thesis was that all the ἦλθον statements were related and that the intertextually attuned ear would recognize that all the statements are facets of the same purpose.

Carter argues that the clearest expression of purpose came in Matthew 20:28 where it is articulated that Jesus came to give his life as a ransom for many. His propitiatory death satisfies with the wrath of God, the note of condemnation hanging over the heads of those foreordained unto glory. Matthew 20:28 highlights for the reader the passive obedience of Christ in the giving up of his body as a fragrant offering before God. Just as the doorposts of the Israelites were marked different from that of the Egyptians one fateful night, so also are believers separated from unbelievers by their covering in the blood of the one true lamb. Yet passive obedience by itself is not enough it only washes away the stain of sin. The wrath of God may be satisfied but the covenant of the Kingdom of Heaven still demands righteousness merited through obedience to the law. Thus, Christ fulfils the Law and the Prophets, actively meeting its righteous demands and earning the eternal blessing as a second Adam by whom the many are made righteous. The New Covenant is the Covenant of Grace made in history; the Covenant of Works kept for the Christian.

The reading presented by this essay is that Christ came to fulfill the law and the prophets by his active obedience, meriting a righteousness, which is imputed to his followers, bringing them one by one into the Kingdom of Heaven. Without the active obedience of Christ earning the righteousness of the Kingdom of Heaven, there would be no division, as no man would have a right to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (5:20). Bonnard makes this point regarding 5:18 that from the perspective of Jewish tradition that the Jews certainly understood that meeting the demands of the law could be accomplished by one man on the behalf of many.2)Bonnard, 62. Christ is the one man who makes the many righteous, the covenant head who πληρόω the Law and the Prophets.3)Carson dismisses this interpretation of πληρόω saying; ‘The focus of Matthew 5 is the relation between the OT and Jesus’ teaching, not his actions. So any interpretation that says Jesus fulfills the law by doing it misses the point.’ The entirety of this paper has built the case starting from the underlying thematic structure of chapters 5 through 10, to reading 5:17 in light of 10:34, showing that just as abolishing causes peace so also fulfilling causes division. To follow Carson’s argument would understand a purpose of Christ’s incarnation as being a pedagogical moment, teaching how to see scripture points to him. This reading does not describe Christ doing something which brings division, nor does it relate 5:17 to the fullness of thought contained in the 7 ‘I have come’ statements, rather it segregates it from all the other contexts. Jesus meets the demands of the law by being obedient to the father unto death. Carter makes the point clear that all seven statements relate to a mission that ends with his body hanging on the cross. In addition, Jesus’ teaching in Chapters 5-7 is not something new or a redirect of the Mosaic Law but rather it is a restatement of original covenant made with Adam including the blessings and cursing associated with obedience or disobedience.

For the reader of the gospel of Matthew this text speaks to questions of an ecclesiastical nature. Matt 5:17 is not an Christological text talking about how the scriptures are fulfilled because that they point to Christ but rather the structural whole of chapters 5-10 is presenting an ecclesiastical case defining the extent of the Kingdom of Christ. The Church should walk away from this text understanding that Christ, the bridegroom, has earned an alien righteousness for his bride, and the Church by the active and passive obedience of Christ in the renewal of the Adamic covenant is set apart from the rest of humanity.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.Cf. Carson, 141. Carson does a fair job of reciting the evidence against this interpretation.
2.Bonnard, 62.
3.Carson dismisses this interpretation of πληρόω saying; ‘The focus of Matthew 5 is the relation between the OT and Jesus’ teaching, not his actions. So any interpretation that says Jesus fulfills the law by doing it misses the point.’ The entirety of this paper has built the case starting from the underlying thematic structure of chapters 5 through 10, to reading 5:17 in light of 10:34, showing that just as abolishing causes peace so also fulfilling causes division. To follow Carson’s argument would understand a purpose of Christ’s incarnation as being a pedagogical moment, teaching how to see scripture points to him. This reading does not describe Christ doing something which brings division, nor does it relate 5:17 to the fullness of thought contained in the 7 ‘I have come’ statements, rather it segregates it from all the other contexts. Jesus meets the demands of the law by being obedient to the father unto death. Carter makes the point clear that all seven statements relate to a mission that ends with his body hanging on the cross. In addition, Jesus’ teaching in Chapters 5-7 is not something new or a redirect of the Mosaic Law but rather it is a restatement of original covenant made with Adam including the blessings and cursing associated with obedience or disobedience.

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