The following is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon delivered on Monday afternoon, October 17th, 2011 during the annual Pastor’s Conference at Trinity Baptist Church in Montville, NJ. This is the second session and the preacher is Pastor Dave Chanski.
Usually we have preaching in this conference, but I don’t think there’s really any sense in which what I’m going to be doing is preaching. It’s definitely more of a theological lecture.
My topic is the threefold division of the law.
So if you were hoping for liveliness in preaching to be the thing that would help you to stay awake we do need to rely on more supernatural sources than that.
There really isn’t a lot of practical application. I mean, there is a whole lot of practical application, but not which I’m going to be drawing out. The many branches of the tree, if you will, the main one would be the abiding relevance of the moral law—that’s the main practical application for all of us and I will—perhaps the most helpful thing I’ll be able to do for you is provide for you (not today, but, God willing, before the week is over) a helpful bibliography for the subject of the threefold division of the law.
Of course, the threefold division of the law refers to the ceremonial, the civil and the moral law.
The ceremonial law being regulations for worship under Israel’s old covenant, it included sacrifices, rituals, food and drink, religious festivals and so on. These things pointed forward to Jesus Christ. They foreshadowed Him and His work that was to come. They are not binding for us since the death of Christ. They’ve been abrogated, as we say. They are not to be followed by us. They are not to be reinstated. I appreciate the sincerity of some Messianic believers that they want us to observe the Passover. I appreciate their sincerity, but those are not things we are to do. They’re part of the old covenant ceremonial law.
Then there’s the civil law, laws governing Israel as a nation under God, having to do with political and domestic affairs for that nation: matters such as how they would wage war, how they would use the land, how to deal with debt and so on. These are binding for us in the new covenant only in their underlying principles not in their specific regulations.
Then, there is the moral law of God which means the expression of the character and the will of God for us, for all people at all times in every place. They’re summarized in the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue. They are ever binding.
When we use the word division, threefold division, it does not necessarily mean or imply that there is disunity, there is an old covenant that consisted of civil and ceremonial and moral law—and when we say that there is a division it doesn’t mean disunity.
Dr. Ferguson wrote in his book on the Holy Spirit, “These three aspects of the law were tightly and inextricably interwoven, but the Mosaic law was always intended to be a temporary divine administration of law. It served God’s purposes first in governing a distinct people until the time when the promised Messiah should arise from among them, especially including the civil law. That is, it preserved for God the nation from which the Redeemer would come, and of course, then, when the Redeemer came, these things were going to disappear, and then, secondly, he said, it served this purpose, it prescribed a way of atonement for those who breached the moral demands of God—and by this he means the ceremonial law. It held forth in this way the hope of redemption.
What is the relevance and what is the significance of the topic of the threefold division of the law?
For one thing, it is what we could call catholic doctrine: it has been believed by Bible believers for many, many centuries. It has been taught in the Reformed confessions.
It is taught in those confessions, and yet in our day and age this idea that there really is a threefold division of law is dismissed out of hand by scholars. They assert that the idea of the threefold division of the law was foreign to the writers of Scripture and therefore foreign to the original readers of Scripture, Old Testament and New.
George Eldon Ladd could write, in 1974, “Most of the studies on the apostle Paul emphasize the fact that Paul does not explicitly distinguish between the ethical and ceremonial aspects of the law.”
Now that was true thirty-seven years ago when Ladd wrote those words and it is no less true today.
Perhaps one difference is that those who call themselves Calvinist and even Reformed in some sense now argue that there is no threefold division of the law.
So what? Well, here’s the so what, as you all know: Paul says, “We are not under the law but we are under grace,” if there’s no threefold division of the law, we cannot say we are under the moral law such as it says in the Westminster Confession and in our London Baptist Confession of 1689 and other Reformed confessions. This is exactly the way many people argue, that we are not under the law in any sense, in part because there is no division of the law.
Or, it’s significant for this reason: we say that the fourth commandment is relevant for us because it is part of God’s moral law. If there is no threefold division, we will be told “There is no moral law. The Old Testament is not three different types of law, it is just Mosaic law so the fourth commandment is not relevant for us. It was only relevant for old covenant Israel.” And this is how people argue. They do away with the Decalogue, with the Ten Commandments, that easily.
Those who write such things are scholars, and what they say affects many people—the trickle down effect, if you will. It affects people then, who visit our churches. It affects members of our churches. It affects their children. It affects our children. It does affect people that we minister to and that we know. There’s a sense in which it is—this kind of thinking—antinomianism. It fits under that heading. It’s one of those roots or one of those branches of antinomianism and therefore, brethren, this should be important to us. This is one of the ways that men try to cut at the root of the relevance of the law of God.
So, this afternoon I want to make a case for the threefold division of the law and in doing so I am also making a case for the relevance of the moral law in the life of the Christian.
So, some arguments, some evidence for the threefold division of the law:
Evidence from Historical Theology
I’ll begin with evidence of historical theology. One of my observations about historical theology when I first began to take it seriously was, you know it is a lot easier to make bogus arguments in historical theology than it is to make arguments from the Bible that are bogus, because when it comes to the Bible a lot more of the people that you are trying to fool are at least reading the Bible. If you try to make arguments from historical theology it’s very easy to make false arguments because people don’t know what you’re talking about and you sound like an authority.
Well, that’s how it goes in this area of the threefold division of the law.
Many people who argue against the threefold division, including men that we would call scholars, dismiss that whole view by saying “Well, basically that was an invention of Aquinas.” And, in effect, they’re saying, no one really believed that prior to the thirteenth century. Well, since they’ve read Aquinas and presumably at least checked out whether anybody else did believe it, it sounds very authoritative and persuasive.
But listen to what Calvin wrote in the Institutes Book 4, “We must bear in mind that common division of the whole law of God published by Moses into moral, ceremonial and judicial laws,”
Now I know Aquinas preceded Calvin, but Calvin then went on to speak about the ancient writers who taught about this division.
Who were these people, if they really existed? Is this really a doctrine with an ancient pedigree or not, or did it in fact originate with Aquinas?
Well, here is some evidence that it did indeed precede Thomas Aquinas.
First of all it was believed—has been believed, is to this day, this threefold division, among Jewish thinkers and writers, among ancient writers:
Walter Kaiser in his book, Toward an Old Testament Ethics pointed out that rabbis in the early centuries distinguished between what were called light and heavy commands.
Jesus Himself made that kind of distinction when He referred, in Matthew 23, to the weightier matters of the law.
In the middle ages:
Philip Ross (and much of what I say, at least at points, is probably just going to sound like a book report of his book, From the Finger of God a very good book, very helpful on this subject), he wrote, “Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages unhesitatingly restated this quote, unquote ‘ancient view’ that the Ten Commandments were the sum of all of the Torah.”
They saw that there was this sum of all that God requires in the Ten Commandments.
And then even modern Jewish writers, certainly not dependent on Aquinas or Calvin or the Puritans or Reformed confessions:
Samuel Holdheim, a 19th century rabbi, wrote of moral and ritual laws. Boaz Cohen in the 20th century, wrote about the threefold division and he said that there is ceremonialism, jurisprudence and ethics (ceremonial, civil, moral) and he found this threefold division in Deuteronomy 6 and verse 1 in the words commandment, statutes and judgments (and I’ll say more about that text and those words later).
And then, in Christian history:
There’s not, going back to the early centuries, certainly and obviously, a full-blown threefold division of the law that is taught like we have in our confessions, but you see the seeds of it there.
Just like with the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s similar to that, someone might say there’s no wording in the New Testament, threefold division. Well, we can have the same arguments about the Trinity and we can have the same arguments about when these things became crystallized, but we see the seeds in the Word of God and we also see them in the early church.
Irenaeus in the 2nd and 3rd century wrote about the words of the Decalogue in contrast with laws of bondage. Clement of Alexandria, 2nd and 3rd century wrote about four divisions.
The author of the epistle of Barnabas, whoever he was, but likely lived in the early 2nd century wrote of the need for distinctions to be recognized within God’s laws.
Justin martyr, the 2nd century, taught a threefold division, not identical with what we understand, but a threefold division with some similarities.
Tertullian, 2nd and 3rd century, wrote of the existence of moral law prior to Moses. There was obviously no ceremonial law prior to Moses, or no judicial law, but he talked about the existence of moral law prior to Moses. He distinguished.
And then—this was a heretic and not a Christian but I didn’t have a separate category for heretics, so Ptolemy, the late 2nd century, he had a threefold division roughly—didn’t correspond to ours.
Augustine in the 5th century recognized a twofold division and he did not believe that Christians were required to obey the ceremonial law.
Now, this is very different from simply saying this originated with Thomas Aquinas. It did not originate, even in the Christian church, with Aquinas.
Aquinas agreed with the Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages. Ross said that he aimed to show that any other moral precepts found within the law are reducible to the precepts of the Decalogue as so many corollaries of it. As we say it, the moral law is summarily comprehended in the Decalogue.
And in answer to the question of whether the law was comprised of ceremonial as well as moral precepts, Aquinas said, yes and he gave as his proof Deuteronomy 4:13 and 14 (we’ll look at it in a moment) which refers to the Ten Commandments on stone (verse 13) and then statutes and judgments, verse 14.
One writer has said that Aquinas’s task was one of synthesis and clarification. He was not inventing something new.
Ross said, “The creation of the threefold division cannot be attributed to one individual. More likely it was an uncontroversial, orthodox position that was, overtime restated with increasing precision in theological writings and confessions.” Aquinas did not invent it. It did not originate with him as many modern writers simply assert that it did. Ross asks the question, “Should a doctrine that has been taught by the church for centuries be so easily set aside?” So there is some historical evidence, now let me give you evidence from the Word of God.
Evidence from the Word of God
Regardless of what Aquinas said or Calvin, or anything else, what they said or didn’t say, what matters is what the Bible says.
Our confession, following the Westminster Confession says this, “besides the law commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel ceremonial laws,” and then it says, “to them He also gave sundry judicial laws.”
So this is a statement of our confession. Our question is: Is it biblical to say that there is moral law, ceremonial law and judicial law?
When our Reformed forebears made such statements in their confessions, their authority was not Aquinas, nor Calvin nor Augustine, nor any other mere men. They held that Scripture was source of the threefold division.
So, as we think through the Biblical testimony, then, we begin in the Old Testament.
Our question, is there a threefold division?
We start with the Pentateuch then, the five books of Moses. Is the Decalogue distinctive? Does it stand by itself in comparison to other laws that we could call civil and ceremonial?
Bruce Waltke says, “The law itself,” that is the Pentateuch, “suggests the appropriateness of the Westminster Confession’s tripartite analysis of it” (breaking it down into three).
First, from the Pentateuch, the Decalogue was not a marked historical development or new law.
So the Ten Commandments were not something new when God gave them to Moses. (Many of these things are just very, very basic.)
Genesis 6, verse 5 describes the sinfulness of mankind. What told us they were sinful? Well, it’s the fact that they were in violation of God’s law.
The Lord says in Genesis 26:5, “Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws.” What were those laws? They were the laws written on his heart and in whatever other ways God had communicated them at that time but they didn’t await the day on Sinai to be God’s laws.
Those are general examples of the antecedents of the Decalogue. There are specific examples in the five books of Moses. There are places in Genesis and Exodus, prior to the giving of the Decalogue in Exodus 20 in which specific commandments are assumed to be man’s duty and violations of them are considered as sin.
We won’t take the time to go through—there’s a list of these (I can’t remember if they are in Ross or if it was in Bruce Waltke), but there, we could go down commandments one through ten (I didn’t have one in their lists for the third commandment) but you can look at several places where in the book of Genesis or the early chapters of Exodus it’s very evident that whether it’s a matter of taking God’s name in vain, having false gods, stealing, killing, etc., these were sins in God’s eyes.
And there’s not a word-for-word statement of one of the Ten Commandments but it’s very clear these are violations of God’s will, of His law.
Ross said, “Abraham lived in accordance with the Decalogue and therefore with the whole law founded upon it. He did not need the Decalogue to know what God expected of him, confirming that according to the Pentateuch, knowledge of its content came before it’s delivery.”
This supports, he says, the view that the Decalogue is distinct from the rest of the Mosaic code because it came before it.
It is distinctive because it is not a distinct historical development. Civil law was a new and distinct historical development. Ceremonial law was a new and distinct historical development. Moral law was not.
So that’s the Pentateuch, the fact that the Decalogue was not a marked historical development or new law.
Second, the Decalogue is patently distinguished from the rest of the law.
Turn to that passage I mentioned earlier, Deuteronomy 4:12 through 14.
There are a number of ways in which we see that the Decalogue is the distinguished from the rest of the law. So that’s the thing that we want to notice here, for a few moments. We read here,
“And the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of the words but saw no form. You only heard a voice. So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform,” that is, the Ten Commandments, “and He wrote them on two tablets of stone and the LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statues and judgments that you might observe them in the land which you cross over to possess.”
First of all, the Ten Commandments have a priority through the chronology of their revelation. You see what Moses is saying? God spoke to you there. He gave you the Ten Words and then He gave you the rest of the statutes and the judgments.
Even if you argue with interpreting the words in verse 14 as civil and ceremonial, just reading the history it’s very clear: God gave the Ten Commandments and then He gave the rest. They came before the rest of the law, the ceremonial and judicial.
Further—the distinction of them from the rest of the law—they have a priority through the manner of their revelation.
The way that God revealed them obviously (you’ve preached this, no doubt, to your people) tells us that there’s something different about them, there’s something significant about them. God spoke the words Himself. They came out of smoke and fire on a mountain in the hearing of all. There was the sound of the trumpet. They came from the finger of God that He wrote on tablets of stone. It says in Exodus 31:18 that when He had made an end of speaking with Moses on the mountain, He gave him two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone written with the finger of God. (That’s the reason for Ross’s title, From the Finger of God.)
Third, under this heading, the Ten Commandments have priority through their unrestricted extension. They are not restricted to time and place in terms of who and where they apply.
Nowhere, Ross writes, does the Pentateuch suggest the ten words of the covenant were of temporary jurisdiction. Their being written in stone with His finger symbolize that.
A fourth thing that shows they’re distinctive from the other two kinds of law: the Ten Commandments alone were placed in the ark of the covenant (Deuteronomy 10, verses 1 through 6) and, of course, the ark of the covenant itself was housed in the Holy of Holies, the most holy place, the copy of heaven itself (Exodus 26:33).
Fifth, they had special designations, the Ten Commandments did, or special titles given to them, in one place or a couple of places. Exodus 34, Deuteronomy 4:13. God calls the Ten Commandments, His covenant.
Ross says, “According to the Pentateuch the commandments on the tablet were not merely central to the covenant. They were in a sense the covenant.”
Second, they’re called the Ten Commandments, or the Ten Words: Deuteronomy 4, a few places there, Deuteronomy 5:5 and 22, Deuteronomy 9:10, Deuteronomy 10:2 and 4.
Ross says, “In giving these designations it was not Justin, Aquinas or the Westminster Assembly that first distinguished those laws as the Ten Commandments. Moses is entirely to blame.”
Sixth, there are special remarks or indications that confirm the uniqueness of the Ten Commandments. Look over at Deuteronomy 5 and verse 22. After the giving of the Ten Commandments again, the second time here in Deuteronomy, the very next words are,
“These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly on the mountain from the midst of the fire, the cloud and the thick darkness with a loud voice and He added no more and He wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me.”
Ross says, He added nothing to those words and no other part of the law had that binding foundation scroll status. Certainly, the phrase, “He added nothing more,” refers specifically to the ten words. It states plainly that God limited Himself to the Ten Commandments in His direct communication with the whole congregation on Sinai.
And this is one more pointer, then to the distinctiveness of the Decalogue.
Also, under this heading about specific remarks or special remarks or indications that confirm the uniqueness of the Ten Commandments is this: that in the book of Exodus the Ten Commandments, or the moral law, are plainly distinguished from the judicial commandments which are designed for the land and are collected in the book of the covenant.
So you have Exodus 20, verses 1 to 17, the Ten Commandments, and then, in Exodus chapter 20, beginning at verse 18 (this is something you just have to look it up if you want to search it out) going through chapter 23 and verse 19, that is the book of the covenant. Those are laws that are designed for use in the land and there’s a division between the Ten Commandments and then those laws.
And then additionally, the first revelation of the law on Sinai was to all Israel, Exodus 19:24 going through Exodus chapter 20 and verse 20. This is spoken to all Israel, the words of God leading up to the Ten Commandments and then the Ten Commandments and then, beginning at chapter 20 and verse 21 and going all the way through chapter 23, verse 33, you see that God is then speaking to Moses.
We read in Exodus 20 verse 20,
“and Moses said to the people, ‘do not fear for God has come to test you and that His fear may be before you that you may not sin,’”
And then it says in verse 21,
“so the people stood afar off but Moses then drew near the thick darkness where God was,”
and then, verse 22,
“the Lord said to Moses” all these things that followed.
There’s a clear demarcation between the Ten Words and the rest of these laws that follow.
Ross says, “these features uncovered in the Pentateuch support the traditional view that the Ten Commandments were a distinctive part of the law, they were not only the basis upon which God judged Israel but also the standard by which He would always measure all men everywhere, for the Pentateuch they forever bind all. In contrast, the ceremonial laws, the judicial laws were not meant for all people in all places at all times.”
The point is this, brethren, this is not just the perspective of reformed theologians, it is the perspective of the Old Testament itself, it is the perspective of the Pentateuch itself.
So, the Decalogue, as we look at the Pentateuch, was not a new historical development, or a new law, the Decalogue is patently distinguished from the rest of the law.
Third, ceremonial and civil laws are also distinguished.
I’m just going to pass by the material I have here and just summarize it this way at this point about the judicial first of all: the binding force of the statutes and the ordinances if we can say those words did refer to the judicial law and even if they don’t refer to it, the point is this, as you think through what we regard as judicial law, their binding force was restricted to the promised land and in that way they are clearly distinguished from the Decalogue which is always binding, but then they’re also distinguished from the ceremonial laws because the ceremonial laws were binding even in the wilderness.
So there’s that phrase, in the land, that refers to some of the laws. Well, they’re the judicial laws but not the moral laws and not the ceremonial laws.
And then regarding the ceremonial laws, the law also plainly distinguishes the ceremonial legislation or the cultic legislation, as they call it, from the Ten Commandments and the judicial ordinances in a number of ways. I’m not going to take the time to go over them, for the sake of time.
And then, a fourth thing, there is some vocabulary that we could call apparently particularizing vocabulary for various categories of laws.
Some men will make the argument that sometimes at least certain words can refer to certain types of laws. You see that in Deuteronomy 4:13 and 14 that we saw already.
Well, I’ll give you a couple of passages. We won’t take the time to look directly at them. Exodus 21 and verse 1 where you have the words judgments, plural, of mishpat, and then you have some other commandments that come after that are obviously judicial laws.
Then Deuteronomy 6 and verse 1, the Hebrew words are commandment, mitsvah, and then statute, chok, and then judgment, mishpat.
The point is that these words may well be referring to the different kinds of laws even as we divide them in the threefold division.
I would have to see or do more extensive analysis than I read in the last weeks, but you can summarize it this way: it would be hard to argue dogmatically but I think there is most likely some distinction, sometimes at least, indicated by these synonyms.
As I mentioned early, some Jewish writers look at it that way.
Ross says this does at least further challenge the view that the Old Testament law was written and always viewed as an indivisible whole. And then, Ross concludes regarding everything we’ve seen from the Pentateuch that the view that the laws of Moses are one indivisible whole finds no real support in the Pentateuch itself.
The ancient threefold division is not, in other words, entirely unjustified even if all we limited ourselves to was the Pentateuch itself. We don’t even have to go beyond that into the rest of the Bible let alone to the thirteenth century for Aquinas to say that we see it already.
Now, then, let’s go on to the rest of the Old Testament, and I will not be nearly as thorough with the rest of the Old Testament. One of the main things about the rest of the Old Testament in terms of the threefold division of the law would be the calls that we have in the Old Testament for mercy and not for sacrifice (mercy, of course being a reference to moral obligations to God, as we call them, and then, sacrifice to ceremonial).
Walter Keiser says this kind of language points to a deliberate priority and ranking among the commandments.
Let me just quote a few of these passages.
“The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord but the prayer of the upright is His delight.”
Or Proverbs 21, verse 3,
“To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.”
These texts, affirm, one, that there is a distinction between moral and ceremonial law, and they affirm the primacy of moral law. God desires mercy and not sacrifice.
And you see the same thing then in 1st Corinthians 7:19, where Paul says, what matters is not circumcision or uncircumcision but keeping the commandments of God.
Or Romans 2:25 to 27—and I know, and I agree, but for the Old Testament, and for the Jews, circumcision was law-keeping, but that’s the point, isn’t it? That within their keeping of the law there were distinctions and there was priority.
As Ross says, “No where does Scripture suggest that God ever hates obedience to any part of the Decalogue, not even in the case of the Sabbath commandment does He hate or not desire obedience.”
And the way to prove that is just try to take any commandment and imagine God saying that: I hate your faithfulness to your wife.
Now, all mere outward obedience, obviously God hates, but you get the point.
So, Old Testament evidence, let’s move to the New Testament. In the New Testament, what do we see? Well, let’s start with our Lord Jesus Himself.
And perhaps I’ll spend the main amount of time here—if I at least get through this I’ll be happy—but start with Jesus, our main focus, for two reasons, two obvious reasons, one He is the great Lawgiver, He’s the greater than Moses, is He not? The second reason is the matter of time, but I hope to be able to even get beyond just what I have to say about Jesus.
First of all, let’s consider His life and then we’ll consider His teaching. First, His life and just as we look at it generally, the gospels present Jesus as a man who lived in conformity to the Mosaic laws. That’s a view that is widely accepted by scholars of all stripes. They don’t say Jesus showed by His life and by His own inattention to or disobedience of the Mosaic law or any part of it that therefore He despised the moral law or any other part of it. They don’t. Everybody acknowledges He lived in obedience to the law.
But the question we want to ask is did Jesus approach to the law conflict with what we saw is the Old Testament’s own view of the law and the law’s view of itself (that some of it is moral law that the Decalogue is for all time, all people, all places)? Did He suggest that His death and resurrection would change the degree to which the Decalogue would be binding?
Well, there’s no evidence that He did, not at any point in His life. He didn’t overturn any Mosaic law, He was subject to it.
There’s every reason, rather to say that Jesus viewed the Decalogue as always binding and as regulative for the life of the Christian.
He obeyed it in His life even when we come to the fourth commandment. Even people who oppose a Christian Sabbath acknowledge that Jesus Himself kept the Sabbath. Now, some of those writers will point out, yeah, He was also circumcised, too, according to the law. So, now granted, that doesn’t prove our point, but it’s just the observation that we have to make at this point. According to the gospel writers, Jesus kept the Sabbath and He did nothing either directly or indirectly that would’ve undermined the fourth commandment in His own life and practice.
What about Jesus’s teaching then? Well, first of all consider His teaching in general and I would make this observation: Jesus said nothing either directly or indirectly by personal claims that would later be understood by the apostles or by us that would undermine the Ten Commandments or would undermine any one of them. Nothing in His teaching as a general statement that would undermine them.
In particular, let’s consider His teaching about the greatest commandment, Mark 12, verses 28 to 34.
Let me just make a summary statement here about this. I quote Ross, he says, “There is every reason to agree with the well-established history of interpretation that the two great commandments are an abridgment or a summary of the Decalogue.”
So, that’s what people recognize across a broad spectrum. The two great commandments are a summary of the Decalogue.
We need to—I wish I had Murray’s quote that I quoted yesterday in my sermon about how, if something is a summary of something it doesn’t abolish the thing itself. We need to be reminded of that.
Although the judicial law and the ceremonial law are no longer in effect, the Decalogue clearly is and the fact that the two great commandments, that everybody agrees are relevant for us are summaries of those ten.
And then, third, regarding the Sabbath: did Jesus make the Sabbath as a statute null and void? That’s the question, because, if He did it would undermine the framework of the threefold division and its claim that the moral law forever binds all.
Did He abolish the Sabbath? Did He make that commandment null and void for the New Testament people of God?
We answer to that (and again I’m just summarizing here), Jesus kept the Sabbath Himself (which we just noticed). Secondly, He never said anything that could legitimately be claimed to abrogate it. Third, as we’ll see in a moment, He criticized in His teaching and He contradicted and He corrected not the fourth commandment but the Pharisees and their view of the fourth commandment. We had teaching on the Sabbath here, I think two years ago in the Pastor’s Conference where our brother Gordon Cook addressed this more at length. I’m not doing that now. The point is, He didn’t contradict the Old Testament. He didn’t contradict God’s Word. He didn’t contradict the fourth commandment. He contradicted and criticized and corrected the false teaching, the perverted teaching of the Pharisees.
Then, we come in particular to one passage, Matthew 5:17 to 48 in the Sermon on the Mount which we will look at a little bit more closely. Matthew 5:17 to 48. This is a passage, obviously that is important beyond the threefold division of the law. It’s important when it comes to the whole idea of moral law—is there law that applies to all people at all times and so on? And what is the relevance of the moral law, what is the relevance of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments for us and for the New Testament people of God?
But here is the importance of this passage for the threefold division: many people assert that Jesus in this passage is critical of the Old Testament law or that He dismisses the Old Testament law or parts of it, or that He modifies it or at least parts of it and specifically, that He modifies parts of the moral law. That’s what many people teach that this passage is saying and that would make the threefold division non-sensical because the point of the threefold division is that some of the commandments of the old covenant do not apply to us under the new covenant, but some do and the ones that do apply to us are the moral commands, particularly the ten commandments, but if Jesus is showing the irrelevance of the Decalogue in the new covenant here, He’s saying that the whole lot of the commandments of the Old Testament are set aside by Him.
But He does not set aside and He does not even modify or criticize the Decalogue, the moral law in this passage.
Let’s look at this passage under three main headings, Matthew 5:17 to 48—I won’t read the whole thing and I’ll only refer to verses 21 to 48, but let me read verses 17 to 20 of Matthew 5, very familiar words, but an important passage for this whole subject.
“Do not think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill for assuredly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.
Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does and teaches them he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
For I say to you that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
And then in verse 21, He goes on to give us those several instances where He begins by saying, “You heard that it was said to those of old but I say to you…”
We’ll look at it under these headings:
First, Jesus assertion that He fulfills the law, verse 17.
Second the intensification or emphasis of His assertion, verses 18 and 19.
And then the application of the assertion, verses 20 and following.
First, Jesus assertion that He fulfills the law.
He uses the word, in verse 17, fulfill.
He says, I came to fulfill the law, the word pléroó. There are five main interpretations of pléroó—not translations but interpretations and I especially refer you to Ross for this (he has a very extensive discussion about it) and to Greg Welty. (When I give you a bibliography I’ll find you a web article of Greg Welty on this whole subject. He is reacting to Don Carson’s commentary on Matthew on this subject.)
But the five main interpretations are:
First, to confirm, that fulfill would mean confirm. He came to confirm the law—and that’s the traditional reformed interpretation.
Second, to transcend—that’s how some people look at it, but there’s no way really, you could translate fulfill to mean transcend, as if Jesus went beyond what the Old Testament taught.
And then the other three all are fulfilling:
But one would be that Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets by His Person and His teaching.
The second would be He fulfills it by His obedience.
The third, He fulfills it by His teaching or by the actualization of it in His followers.
Well, I do believe the best meaning is fulfill, it’s normal meaning, but specifically it’s not simply the eschatological but I believe with Ross (and Welty’s view, is not that different) that He fulfills it eschatologically, His coming is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, and what He does.
Second, He fulfills it soteriologically, in other words, He obeys all the commandments. He does it in our place. He does it obeying the laws of His Father and the will of His Father and then He also does it, He fulfills the Law and the Prophets in another way and that is soteriologically—that He saves us by what He does.
Here, listen to Ross’s summary. He says, “Thus He fulfills the law and the Prophets, first of all in His person and teaching,” that is, by His presence, by His teaching, by His work. He fulfills specific prophecies and other types and shadows. “Second,” he says, “He does it by His obedience, meaning He did what the law requires in our place, and He did it to save us.”
We could say that God might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Him.
And then, also He fulfills it in making His followers obedient. In other words, He makes us obedient by, first of all, demanding that we keep the moral law (He did that in His teaching, right here) and, by enabling us to keep the moral law through His death and resurrection and through the Holy Spirit that He purchased for us.
So, His fulfillment is eschatological, soteriological and moral.
So, there’s Jesus assertion that He fulfills the law.
Now, we notice then secondly the intensification or the emphasis of Jesus assertion, verses 18 and 19.
First of all, verse 18,
“For assuredly, I say to you till heaven and earth pass away one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.”
What’s He doing in that statement? He’s making His statement in verse 17, “I did not come to destroy but to fulfill,” He’s making it more emphatic. He’s making it absolute. He’s saying, that’s never going to happen that I would abolish the law and the prophets and then we have verse 19 further intensifying what He’s already said,
“whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments”
And these commandments are based on the context, the commandments of the Old Testament, and specifically in the following verses, the Ten Commandments.
“Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Clearly, when you look at verses 21 and following, He means here the Decalogue. He means the Ten Commandments, specifically.
And then, thirdly, we see His application of His assertion. Verse 20,
“For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
You see His application? In light of the binding character of the law, you need to live a lot better than the way you’ve been taught by the present teachers, the teachers of the day, and that’s what He goes on to unfold in verses 21 and following.
In Matthew 5:21 to 48, Jesus is not dismissing the moral law. He’s applying it practically in keeping with the way the Old Testament itself applies the Ten Commandments.
Listen to Ross’s summary. He says, “Matthew 5 is probably the key passage in any discussion of Jesus’s attitude to the law since it records Jesus’ declaration that He came not to abolish but to fulfill.” And then he says, “None of the arguments put forward by critics of the threefold division land a mortal blow to the ancient framework or compel us to accept that Jesus and the evangelists broke away from the Old Testament view that some laws were a pattern, others were to be obeyed in the land, while the Decalogue was the controlling influence.”
There’s a lot of good stuff in his exposition of this passage and in Greg Welty’s, especially like I say, interacting with new covenant theology and I’ll give you the references to those things, but this is really the text for dealing with this whole new covenant theology, that is, that the Decalogue is passed away, we only follow what is restated in the new covenant—oh, by the way, the fourth commandment isn’t, etc.
This is good stuff, brethren, and this is the passage, especially that addresses that and deals with that.
Let me just give you a statement from Sam Waldron here, about just highlighting the problems of New Covenant theology in relation to this passage here.
He says, “Essential to each of the treatments of Matthew 5:17 to 48, noted above, he’s talking about new covenant views, is the theory that Jesus is contrasting his own teaching with that of the Mosaic law. Typical is Douglas Moo’s statements that quote, ‘Jesus enunciates these components of kingdom righteousness by comparing His demand with the commandments of the Mosaic law.’” He’s not.
Listen to Murray’s summary of this passage with a few supplements to it. He says, “One of the three main lessons,” and this is in Principles of Conduct, “One of the three main lessons of this passage here,” Matthew 5, he says, first, “Jesus did not come to abrogate the law.”
Listen to Sam Waldron’s remarks. He says, “The new covenant view must ignore the plain fact that in Matthew 5:18 to 19, Jesus clearly affirms the abiding authority of Old Testament law. However this may need to be qualified,” and it surely does need to be qualified in some way, “it does not suggest that Jesus is now about to contrast the superior authority of His own words with the inferior authority of the Old Testament law.”
He’s not contrasting His own teaching with that of the Old Testament.
That’s the first thing, He did not come to abrogate the law.
“Second thing,” Murray says, “the kingdom of heaven demands the most meticulous observance of the law, not only in its broad principles but in its minutest details.”
And then, “third,” he says, “there is a complete contrast between the righteousness which the kingdom of heaven requires and that exemplified in the scribes and Pharisees” and that’s the point of verse 20 and verse 20 is the introduction to verses 21 to 48.
In fact, when you read Greg Welty, you’ll see how he points out as he’s dealing—and he does very, very meticulously deal with Carsons—he points out how Don Carsons just keeps hammering on this word, pléroó in his own understanding of it and then he just jumps over the next three verses into verses 21 and following, ignoring these other statements and to the detriment of his understanding of it.
So, those are the points that Murray gives us, and then he says how we can tell how Jesus is contrasting His teaching not with the Old Testament but with the scribes and Pharisees in this way. He says, “Is it even imaginable that Jesus so totally and forcefully endorsed the Old Testament in verses 17 to 19 and then turned around and set Himself against it?”
Secondly, and I’m just summarizing him in my own words, his teaching in verses 21 to 48, rests upon (and these are Murray’s words here) “the validity and sanctity of the Old Testament commands He expounds.”
He’s expounding those commandments.
The third thing, if Jesus were contrasting His teaching with that of the Old Testament, He would not have used the formula, “You have heard that it was said” (this is the only place He uses that) but He would have said, “it is written,” like He says in every other place.
And in some of the instances that we see in verses 21 to 48—some, people want to debate about, but in some it’s very evident He’s not contrasting His teaching with the Old Testament because He specifically quotes additions that have no counterpart in the Old Testament.
In other words, I’m thinking of the place where He talks about your enemies, verse 43, “you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” All right? He’s not expounding the Old Testament there. He’s expounding the common teaching of the day.
Sam Waldron has a very helpful way of looking at the overall teaching of the New Testament regarding God’s law with special reference to new covenant theology.
I’ll just read a few paragraphs here. He points out three different ways we should look at it. He says we should look at the law of Moses perspectively, creationally and centrally.
He says, perspectively. “The law is viewed perspectively in the New Testament. That is to say, it is viewed from two complementary and supplementary perspectives. New covenant theology, not withstanding some inconsistencies, views the law as a temporary covenant passed away, abolished and fulfilled in Christ. That is half, but only half of the truth. It is certainly true that in various books of the New Testament, this perspective is dominant. Hebrews 10,” he cites, “Galatians chapter 3, it’s mainly looking at the law in a sense as something that is passed away, but then,” he says, “we need to remember, however that in those books where this perspective is dominant the emphasis is clearly on those aspects or dimensions of the law that reformed theology has historically described as ceremonial or civil. Equally important is the emphasis of other books of the New Testament on the abiding validity of Old Testament law as a permanent revelation of moral principle.” And he has a number of texts.
And then, he says we have to look at the law creationally. We look at the law creationally.
“In the New Testament the law is viewed creationally,” he says. “That is to say it is viewed against the backdrop of, and as stemming from creation and therefore as perpetual in character. It is viewed as substantially identical with the law in place from the beginning of creation written on our hearts. This perspective requires that we think in terms of the fundamental continuity and the substantial identity of the law of God in all ages of the world. It tells against a perspective that places the law within a framework governed by the idea of discontinuity.”
It’s just like our confession says, the same law that was first written in the heart of man continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness after the fall and was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai in Ten Commandments.
That’s why it’s the moral law and that’s why it binds all men.
And then, he says, we need to look at it centrally.
He says, “in the New Testament the law is viewed centrally, that is to say the focus is on those moral requirements summarized in the Ten Commandments that lay at the heart of the law of Moses. New covenant theology denies the threefold division of the law into the moral, ceremonial, and civil dimensions. So, also, in its own way does theonomy, or Christian reconstructionism. Historic reformed theology as articulated in the Westminster and 1689 confessions teaches this tripartite division of the law.”
Then, let me just in the last five minutes I have just mention, in summary, the teaching as we look at the rest of the New Testament—and I’m just being selective here.
But, first of all, as you consider the New Testament, where does the definition for sin come from?
It comes from the law. It comes from the Decalogue. It’s the standard for what sin is. 1st John 3, verse 4, James 2 especially, verses 8 to 12.
It’s the standard in the day of judgment, Romans 2:13.
It’s the standard for Christian conduct. It’s the standard for love to the brethren, Romans 13:8-10.
So the definition of sin comes from the Ten Commandments.
Second, there is regular reference to the Decalogue in the New Testament and there is an unvarying presupposition of the New Testament about the law of God, the Decalogue and that is that the Decalogue is valid.
Go and look up every place where the Ten Commandments are cited in the New Testament, or any one of them and just ask yourself the question, how are the apostles, how is Jesus using it?
They’re using it to verify their exhortations and to validate their exhortations. They’re not in anyway presuming that they’re establishing something for the new covenant people of God or re-establishing a moral code, they’re just saying this is what is, and they use it, cite it as authority.
Third, when we look at the great promise of the new covenant, 2nd Corinthians 3, Hebrews 8—I’m quoting from Rich Barcellos here, “The promise of the renovation of all souls in the New Covenant includes the promise of the same law written on all the hearts of all new covenant members, just like we read in Jeremiah 31:33, the law to be written on the heart of the new covenant believer is the same law written previously on stone tablets.”
What’s the difference? Not the law itself or the content of it—where it’s written. That’s the difference in the new covenant.
Fourth, there’s the New Testament’s teaching that the ceremonial law, not the whole law but the ceremonial law are copies and shadows. The book of Hebrews, Colossians 2:16, Ephesians 2:14 and 15. (I again recommend Ross on those texts).
And then, finally just a note about the fourth commandment. Ross makes this observation—because really, what many people do want to do is exactly what he says, they want to perform a precision strike on the Sabbath—and he says, “attempts at performing a precision strike on the Sabbath produce an embarrassing amount of unintended damage. Strike out the Sabbath and you also shatter the entire category of moral law that depends on it.”
He has some very interesting quotes on pages 5 and 6 of his book.
But you see that when you try to look at some of—and I read years and years ago the book, From Sabbath to Lord’s day edited by Carson, and then—written by him and others—and it just struck me back then, just as a relatively young theologian, if you will, is that, boy, there’s a lot more here than just dealing with the fourth commandment. They have to rip the guts out of the whole ten, don’t they?
And that’s what they do; they have to—unintended damage.
Well, I can provide what I think will be a helpful bibliography for you men sometime before the end of the week. If you don’t have it in your hands by Wednesday afternoon, remind me, and then I’ll make sure that happens.
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