We are too used to Jesus Christ.
I’m talking to my fellow Christians now, not skeptics.
We’re too accustomed to him. We miss some of the Bible’s most central lessons because of it.
Take Matthew 5:17-18 for example. I just looked through more than a dozen top commentaries on those verses. All of them get the theology; all of them miss the stunning reality that’s staring at us in plain view.
The passage reads (ESV):
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 say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
There’s a lot to be learned here about the eternal nature of God’s law and Jesus’ relation to it. It’s explained fully in the NT book of Hebrews: Jesus fulfills all the OT worship-law, the ceremonial law by which OT believers pursued their relationship with God. The theology here is really important , and since it gets somewhat complicated, we’re used to parsing Jesus statement here on a purely theological level.
But his listeners weren’t clued in on any of that, and they weren’t used to Jesus yet. As far as we can tell from the book of Matthew, the crowds (see Matt. 7:28) knew little about Jesus except that he was preaching repentance and the Kingdom of heaven, (Matt. 4:17), and he was a healer (Matt. 4:23-25).
Now he tells them he hasn’t come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. Think what’s behind that statement. There’s a negative point in it: “I haven’t come to abolish the Scriptures.” Yet there’s a positive statement regarding Jesus’ identity implied there as well.
Only a Nut-Case Would Say That
We were talking about this at men’s Bible study this morning, at a church where I’ve been a guest preacher. I asked the group, “Suppose I had opened my sermon that day by saying, ‘First thing: please don’t think I’ve come here to abolish the Bible.'”
The guys there reacted instantly, physically, like I’d hit them with a stick. No one says that. Why? Because it implies that congregation might actually think that’s what you realistically came to do.
No one but a nut-case would open a sermon that way. Cult leaders might try it, but that’s part of what makes them nut-cases.
Remember, this was a Jewish crowd. They were already by then the “people of the Book,” their devotion to the Law and the Prophets sealed by their history, demonstrated in the accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah, and proved in their devotion to the Temple and the sacrifices. Anyone who came to this crowd with the merest suggestion of abolishing their Bible would have been driven away as a dangerously mad false prophet.
But the crowds listened to him, astonished (Matt. 7:28-29), “for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” Maybe some people in the crowd were theologically naive, but they still knew their scribes never said, “Well, maybe you think I’m planning to abolish the Bible — and I can see why you might think that — but actually no, don’t worry, that isn’t not my plan.”
Except for the One Who Really Did Have That Authority
Jesus went on to say he was going to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. That’s even more audacious. Picture a guest speaker saying, “I’m not actually here to abolish the Bible. I’m here to fulfill everything in it instead.” Nut-case time again, unless — and here’s the one crucial exception — you’re actually the kind of person who can do that.
C.S. Lewis was right: Jesus was no nut-case.
It continues. Jesus gives an entire revolutionary sermon citing absolutely no authority for his teaching except himself. The scribes didn’t do that, either. Their teachings would have been footnoted like a modern academic tome with other scholarly sources. Jesus’ footnotes would have cited others’ teachings only to say they got it wrong and he had it right.
Who did he think he was, anyway?
He believed he was God in the flesh. We can safely believe the same.
Look At Jesus!
Some scholars these days doubt that Jesus saw himself that way. Only God, however, has authority to decide what stays or goes from his Word. Only God has authority to cite no one else but himself as a religious and moral teacher — and later (Matthew 7:21-23) as judge. Only God has authority to say “these words of mine” (Matthew 7:24-27) are the key to each person’s final destiny.
The crowds were astonished. We should be, too. Jesus wasn’t just teaching theology in that sermon; he was putting himself in the place of God. We shouldn’t just look for theology in this sermon: we should look at Jesus himself, and yes, worship him as our God.
And as a closing apologetic footnote I would add this: Does anyone really think this kind of thing could have been made up by a predominantly Jewish community like the early church? Go find out something about first-century Judaism, then try again.
Image Credit(s): Heinrich Bloch, Painter.