Matthew 23, Laying Down the Law

False Glory

False Glory by Odilon Redon, 1885

If you want to understand the New Testament you have to understand the Apostle Paul. And you can’t get very far into Paul’s writings before you come across one of his main themes—abuse of “the Law.”

Just what is or was the Law, and why does Paul devote so much energy and passion to it?  Before you get to Paul however, it is important to understand what Jesus himself actually said about the Law.  The identity of Jesus is tightly resolved if we understand the answer to this question.

Lee Strobel describes the prophesies that could only be fulfilled by Jesus. Mathematically, the odds that anyone who ever lived could fulfill only 48 of the Old Testament messianic prophesies were calculated by Dr. Peter Stoner to be one chance in ten to the 137th power—unimaginably small.  Add to that the Messiah had to color between the lines, so to speak, in fulfilling and not changing the Law, and you have what Lee Strobel would call the unmistakable “fingerprint of Christ.”

First let’s start with a parallel reading of Matthew 23.  There is a lot going on in this text so we’ll take it a step at a time.  (Get ready for some reading; this could take a few posts to get through.)

The big picture is that Jesus is taking on the hypocrites in power by calling them out publicly.  In this dressing down Jesus tells his disciples to practice and observe what the teachers of the law (scribes) and Pharisees have taught them—but not to follow their hypocritical practices.

Jesus also lays out God’s values, much as he did in the Sermon on the Mount. “The greatest among you shall be your servant.  Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”  Then he uses strong, biting language to condemn the behaviour of the teachers of the law, scribes, and Pharisees.  He concludes with his lament over Jerusalem, built from a string of Old Testament scriptures and references (from Genesis, Zechariah, Ruth, Exodus, 2 Kings, Ezekiel, Psalms, Proverbs, Deuteronomy, Ruth, Isaiah, and Jeremiah).  The teaching from the end of Matthew 23 through the end of Matthew 25 contains the powerful, clear, passionate teaching of Jesus Christ, and leads right into the plot to kill him and his crucifixion.  So much for any misconception of Jesus as a milquetoast savior—this is the real Jesus.

The NIV and ESV are both excellent translations of the earliest manuscripts.  But this is one situation where we might prefer to use the ESV version of the Bible—because it is more literal in translation than the NIV and we really want to carefully dissect some words and phrases before we’re done.

Now that we’ve read Matthew 23, let’s explore the meaning of “the Law.”  Later we’ll get beyond the definitions to purpose and intent, but for now consider what Jesus said about the Law in the Gospels.  According to the ESV there are 33 verses in the Gospels that address Jesus and the Law  (39 total minus 6 that are “relative-in-law” references).

Check out what Jesus and the Gospel writers said by clicking the preceding hyperlink about the Law:

  1. 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.
  2. Until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
  3. Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
  4. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.
  5. Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?
  6. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers.
  7. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.
  8. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
  9. And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.
  10. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”
  11. And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.
  12. He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”
  13. The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it.
  14. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.
  15. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
  16. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
  17. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
  18. Has not Moses given you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why do you seek to kill me?”
  19. If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man’s whole body well?
  20. But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed.”
  21. Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?
  22. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”
  23. In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true.
  24. Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’?
  25. So the crowd answered him, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?”
  26. But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.’
  27. Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.”
  28. The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.”

That’s a lot to get your mind around in one post.  The next time we take up Matthew 23, we’ll delve into the Law and some of the terms used by Jesus in the text.


About John Paine

This blog is topical and devotional--we post whatever interests us, whenever. If you want to follow in an orderly fashion, please see our Kaqexeß page. View all posts by John Paine

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