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One of the Least of These Commandments

While the fulfillment of Mt. 5:17-18 emphasizes all the events the law and prophets prophesied would come to pass before heaven and earth pass away, the fulfillment of the law and prophets will also include commands. In Mt. 5:19 Jesus refers to the least of these commands. Most interpreters think of 5:18 and the smallest letters or marks of the law of Moses. But 5:18 is about what events, not what laws, will come to pass, will happen, in the future.

So what commands is Jesus talking about? Has he given any commands yet? Yes indeed, in the verse immediately before 5:17, Jesus commands his disciples to let their light shine before men (5:16). This command will fulfill their being the light of the world (5:14). And this expanded vision of the world beyond Israel, his new international kingdom, is what leads to his words in 5:17-19 about how he comes to fulfill, not destroy, the law and the prophets of the kingdom of Israel.

In 4:14-16 Jesus says he is fulfilling the prophet Isaiah by being the great light that Galilee of the Gentiles now sees. This is reinforced later in Mt. 12:17-21, where Jesus again says he is fulfilling the prophet Isaiah by proclaiming justice (righteousness) to the Gentiles, who will find hope in him. So Jesus’ fulfillment means a new world mission, and a new worldwide kingdom. This is the basis for his new command in 5:16.

This command could also be (dis)regarded as the least of his commands by Jewish disciples who have grown up hating Gentiles. When a scribe (teacher) of the Pharisees later asks Jesus what is the great command in the law, Jesus quotes Deut. 6:5 (love God with all your heart, soul, and mind) and Lev. 19:18 (love your neighbor as yourself). When Jesus refers to this (second) great command in Mt. 5:43, he adds another (former command): “and hate your enemies.”

The main enemies the law (of Moses) says to avoid, or to destroy, are the Gentiles, especially those living in the promised land (for example, Lev. 20:23-24; 26:6-8). Lev. 19:18 defines the neighbor (in “love your neighbor”) as “the sons of your own people.” So early on, in Jesus’ new kingdom, Jewish disciples have trouble reconciling his new commands about reaching out to Gentiles, to the world, and their traditions and laws about hating Gentiles.

Some Jewish disciples might (and will) decide that this command about being light to the world is the least of their concerns. Jesus warns such disciples: they will be called least in the kingdom of heaven (5:19). Only disciples who do and teach such difficult commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Shortly, in 5:21-48, Jesus will give more new commands; these will also fulfill–“fill out” and sometimes replace–several of the most basic commands of Moses. Jesus’ disciples must take all these new commands seriously if they are to receive their reward in the end. Disciples who do and teach even the least of these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (5:19). Jesus is talking about his commands and rewards in the kingdom of heaven, not the commands and rewards of Moses in the kingdom of Israel.

Future fulfillment of the law (and prophets)

In Mt. 5:17 Jesus says the time of fulfillment has come; much of the law and prophets is now being fulfilled in Jesus and his new kingdom. Then, in 5:18, Jesus adds that there will be still more fulfillment in the future: every prophecy found in the law (and prophets) will finally be fulfilled–will come to pass–when the time comes for heaven and earth to pass away in the end. Not even the smallest letter or mark (not a “jot” or “tittle”) of the written (prophecies of the) law will pass away until all comes to pass in the end.

When heaven and earth pass away is when all comes to pass. All the smallest details of the scriptures that prophesy the future and the final end of history–when heaven and earth pass away–will then be fulfilled and pass away. For all the prophets and the law prophesied about the future (see Mt. 11:13), the future that has now come with Jesus and the future that will all come to pass at the end of history.

In Mt. 24:34 Jesus uses some of the same phrases as in 5:18: “truly I say to you;” “will not pass away;” “until all comes to pass.” It is significant that these phrases in 24:34 refer to events in the (near) future: all these things that come to pass are about the destruction of the temple (and Jerusalem) before that generation passes away. So the similar language in 5:18 also refers to events–prophesied in the law (and prophets)–that will come to pass in the (near and distant) future.

An example of future prophecy from the scriptures that Jesus says (in 24:30) will be fulfilled in the end is Dan. 7:13-14 (the royal son of man will come on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory). In that same context (24:29-30), Jesus alludes to writings of other former prophets when he describes the final passing away of the heavens and the mourning of all the tribes of the earth. Thus the sign of his coming (24:30) will include the passing away of those heavens and that (evil) earth–and the fulfillment of those details in the scriptures.

Jesus will also warn disciples not to be deceived by false Messiahs or false prophets (who give false hopes and promise the imminent end of the evil age) (24:4,11). Their pious promises and holy wars will not bring the end (24:6). In 24:24 Jesus predicts that false Messiahs and false prophets will “give” great signs and wonders, an allusion to Deut. 13:1-3 (in the law of Moses).

All (the law and prophets) will finally come to pass (and pass away) when the old heaven and old earth pass away (Mt. 5:18; compare Rev. 21:1); yet much (of the law and prophets) is already coming to pass (and passing away) with Jesus (5:17). Because much is already coming to pass (being fulfilled) with Jesus and his new kingdom, much of the law and prophets is now passing away.

How Did Jesus Fulfill the Law and the Prophets?

When Jesus said (in Mt. 5:17) he came not to destroy the law and the prophets but to fulfill them, what did that mean? Before that, the early chapters of Matthew have emphasized that the coming of Jesus fulfills the words of the prophets. And the fulfillment even exceeds the expectations of the prophets.

Just before Mt. 5:17 Jesus tells his disciples they are the light of the world (5:14) and commands them to let their light shine before the “people” (of the world, Gentiles as well as Jews) (5:16)–just as Jesus himself is a light shining in “Galilee of the Gentiles,” fulfilling Isa. 9:1-2 (Mt. 4:15-16). While the disciples’ scriptures, the law and the prophets, focus on the kingdom of Israel, Jesus’ focus is on a new international kingdom of disciples. The crowd that now surrounds Jesus and his disciples–as he teaches them on the mountain–includes Gentiles from Syria, the Decapolis, and the other side of the Jordan (4:24-5:1). Is Jesus now doing away with the law and the prophets? Jesus clarifies that he is not destroying, but fulfilling, the law and the prophets. Yet his fulfillment is on a higher level than anyone expects.

In Mt. 1:18-23 Jesus is not only born of the virgin and called Emmanuel (fulfilling Isa. 7:14); he is conceived by the heavenly Spirit and called Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. His people turn out to be “his disciples,” as in Mt. 5:1, in contrast to the majority of the Jews, in “their synagogues” (4:23). In Mt. 2:15 the prophecy of Hos. 11:1 (about Israel being God’s son called out of Egypt) is fulfilled by God’s son Jesus, who would come out of Egypt. In Mt. 3:2-3 the prophecy of Isa. 40:3 (about preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness for the return of the kingdom of Israel from exile) is fulfilled by the kingdom of heaven that is at hand. When Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptized by John (who wants to be baptized by the powerful Messiah), he tells John they will fulfill all righteousness (3:15). So Jesus and his new kingdom of heaven fulfill the prophets on a whole new level, beyond what the prophets expected or even wanted to happen. The fulfillment transforms, and replaces, what was expected.

Later, in Mt. 11:14, one of the final Old Testament prophecies (from Mal. 4:5), about the coming of Elijah before the great day of the Lord comes, is fulfilled by the coming of John, according to Jesus. All the prophets and the law prophesied until John, the final (great) prophet of the kingdom of Israel (11:13). Now that the kingdom of heaven and its new king have arrived, a greater era in history has begun; now even the least (disciple) in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John, who was the greatest in the kingdom of Israel (11:11). The time of the law and prophets and John in the kingdom of Israel is now fulfilled, and replaced, by the greater time of Jesus and his disciples in the kingdom of heaven.

(The next post will discuss Mt. 5:18, and the post after that Mt. 5:19.)

Worship: Watching a Spectacle or Speaking the Truth?

Worship is one of the foremost activities that Christians emphasize. But their worship is primarily thought of in terms of going to a church building, where they sit and watch worship leaders conduct a worship service. Then the quality of that worship is rated in terms of how the leaders did: the sermon was inspiring (or boring); the choir sounded great (or lousy).

This identification of worship with particular holy places where special holy persons predominate is indeed biblical. But it’s the Old Testament where the tabernacle or temple was the holy place, and the priests and Levites were the holy persons leading the way–as the people of Israel watched. In Jesus’ day, Jewish synagogues had multiplied in Israel, and outside Israel. There the scribes and Pharisees sat at the front and taught as the authorities of the law.

When Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman, she raises the question of which holy place is the proper place to worship (Jn. 4:20). Jesus’ response envisions a whole new perspective of what worship entails. Yet often his words about worshiping “in spirit and truth” are interpreted to simply mean being sincere or reverent when you worship (in a holy place).

The word combination of spirit and truth, like Jesus’ words about living water (Jn. 4:10-15), should point us (the readers) to later passages in the Gospel of John that interpret what these mean. In Jn. 7:38-39 Jesus’ living water is interpreted as the Spirit; in Jn. 14-16, the Spirit of truth will be given to the disciples and enable them to speak the truth about Jesus; and sometimes when the Spirit of truth bears witness to Jesus through disciples, they will be kicked out of the synagogue (Jn. 15:26; 16:2). So Jesus is not talking about our own sincere spirit of worship; he is referring to the Spirit of truth, who will speak through disciples of Jesus. The speaking of this truth is what Jesus says is now the true way to worship. It is even happening already, since the Spirit is in Jesus and speaks through him to the Samaritan woman.

While the Spirit could speak through various prophets at various times in the Old Testament, when Jesus comes, the Spirit remains constantly with him (Jn. 1:32-33). Because God has now given the Spirit without measure, Jesus speaks the words of God continually (Jn. 3:34). And everyone who comes to be born from above, to be born of the Spirit, will have the wind/Spirit that blows/breathes in them, producing a sound/voice (Jn. 3:8).

Worship is thus what happens every day when those in whom the Spirit lives and speaks continue to pass on the truth of Jesus. This worship is not just an inner sincere reverence (in a holy place); it involves actions of speaking the truth. And this worship is not just a private conversation with another person; it also includes public conversations, especially as one gathers with other disciples of Jesus–with no holy place needed. (A simple home is sufficient; or an outdoor location is fine).

All of this is why I prefer to gather with other Christians in a home bible study, or in certain Sunday School classes, where participation is encouraged and the teacher is not too talkative. That is where I think this new worship of sharing the truth with one another can happen, much more so than in a formal worship service.

How Does Jesus Come Soon?

At the end of Revelation, Jesus emphasizes he is coming soon (Rev. 22:7,12,20). Most readers have interpreted this to mean his “second” coming, his final coming. But there are reasons to interpret this coming soon as a different kind of coming.

In his message to the seven churches, Jesus sometimes warns disobedient churches that he will come soon with stronger words of judgment against them (through prophets like John) (Rev. 2:5,16). And in the case of one church, one of the two obedient churches, he says he will come soon–and reminds them to remain obedient so they will not lose their crown; if they conquer (by being faithful), they will become part of the heavenly new Jerusalem (Rev. 3:11-12). In this case, Jesus comes as the one who has the key of David, who can open what no one can shut (3:7), and sets before them an open door (in the near future) (3:8). Because much of 3:8-12 is about their future reward in heaven, this open door is the door to heaven (like the open door in 4:1).

The key of David links with the “keys” of death and hades in 1:18. Jesus’ keys open the door out of death and hades for those who have been faithful, and his key of David opens the door into heaven for them. So Jesus is encouraging them to continue to keep his word and hold fast what they have, and he will come soon (when they die) to welcome them into heaven.

Likewise, in Rev. 22, similar words surround Jesus’ assurance that he is coming soon. In 22:7, right after saying he comes soon, he encourages readers with a blessing: “Blessed is the one keeping the words of the prophecy of this book.” Compare 3:9–“you have kept my word.” In 22:11, Jesus encourages the righteous to continue to do right. Compare 3:11–“hold fast what you have.” In 22:12, after again saying he is coming soon, he says he will give to each a reward (or recompense) for his work. Compare 3:8–“I know your works and I have given an open door before you.” In 22:14 part of the blessing Jesus gives is that they may enter the city (the heavenly new Jerusalem) by the gates (the doors). Compare 3:12–“The one who conquers . . . I will write on him . . . the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem.” And in 22:16 Jesus says he is the root and offspring of David. Compare 3:7–“The words of the holy one . . . who has the key of David.”

Thus the similar content that surrounds the context of Jesus saying he is coming soon in Rev. 3 and Rev. 22 could lead the reader to interpret this coming as his coming soon to welcome those who remain faithful unto death into the wide open door of heaven, entering the gates of the new Jerusalem. If readers remain faithful unto death, holding fast what they have, they will receive the heavenly crown of life (Rev. 2:10; 3:11).

Think of Stephen, in Acts 7:55-56, facing death from stoning and seeing the heavens opened, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, standing to welcome him into his heavenly home. As they stone Stephen, he prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” In Rev. 22:20, because Jesus says “Surely I am coming soon,” the proper response of the faithful is “Amen. Come. Lord Jesus.” We are ready, and anticipate this coming–whenever our faithful witness on earth is finished.

Jesus’ greater righteousness

Jesus warned his disciples that unless their righteousness was greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees, they would not enter his kingdom (Mt. 5:20). The Greek word for “greater” here (perisseuo) is found again in 5:47, where Jesus said “if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more (perisson) are you doing? Don’t even Gentiles do the same?”

In the concluding section of Mt. 5 (5:43-48) Jesus told his disciples they had heard (in the synagogues, as taught by the scribes and Pharisees) that it was said “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” This refers back to the law of Moses, where in Lev. 19:18 it says to love your neighbor–and it defines the neighbor there as “the sons of your own people” (fellow Jews). In Lev. 19:17 it says not to hate your brother (fellow Jew). As for “hate your enemy,” passages like Lev. 26:7 say “you will chase your enemies, and they will fall before you by the sword” (the enemies being especially the Canaanites, the Gentiles, in their promised land). A similar passage is Deut. 20:1-20, a whole chapter about rules for waging “holy war” against (Gentile) enemies of Israel.

So Jesus’ greater righteousness includes a love for enemies, even Gentiles; and it replaces the righteousness of Moses and the scribes and Pharisees that included hatred for Gentiles. For Jesus’ new kingdom will be a worldwide kingdom of disciples, from every nation, including Jews and Gentiles. In Mt. 5:14 Jesus said his disciples would be the light of the world. So they should let that light shine before people, so they may see their good works and give glory to their heavenly Father (5:16). When people all over the world see these Jewish disciples greeting even Gentiles and doing acts of love toward even Gentiles, some will glorify the Father they serve.

It is the heavenly Father who shows the way by sending good things like rain and sunshine to evil people as well as good people (5:46). So children of this Father should do the same. It is Jesus’ disciples who are peacemakers–making peace where there was enmity and hate–who will be called children of God (5:9).

Jesus’ final words in this section are often translated “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). I think the CEB translation gives the best contextual meaning: “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”

When earthly ruling fathers call for hatred against national or local enemies–or for taking up arms against these enemies–disciples of Jesus should be focusing instead on their heavenly Father, on their Christ/king, and on their kingdom that acts differently from all the kingdoms of earth. True disciples should be reaching out in love to those outcasts of their society. In the U.S. this would include white middle-class disciples “breaking out” of their white churches and neighborhoods to “make peace” with certain poor black or brown people, like those in inner cities or on reservations–or increasingly in the suburbs.

Just before Jesus’ teachings in Mt. 5, he was showing mercy by healing even Syrian Gentiles who came to him, as well as Gentiles from the Decapolis (Mt. 4:24-25). He himself practiced the greater righteousness he demanded from his disciples. Practical acts of love, including gifts of money, to “outcasts” of mainstream society could lead them to thank the God who inspired such “perfect” love.

The Spirit of Truth

The Gospel of John is overflowing with the Spirit of truth. This Spirit is a river of living water that flows deep and wide–a veritable fountain of life (Jn. 7:37-39). This Spirit is poured out from above, first on Jesus at his baptism, and then on his disciples, after Jesus is glorified (after he returns to his Father).

While the Spirit was active in certain others at various times before Jesus, the new life Jesus brings is “eternal life” (literally, life of the age), the life of the coming age. It is a life of light and truth empowered by the Spirit. At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descends and remains on him (1:33). Thus Jesus always speaks the words of God, for it is not by measure that God gives the Spirit to him (3:34). Indeed, this one who continuously speaks the words of God is himself the Word (1:1); in this Word is life, and this life is the light of people (1:4). The Spirit is the life in Jesus, and enlightens people as the Word speaks the words of God.

Just before Jesus returns to the Father, he speaks many words to his disciples about the Spirit of truth: the Paraclete (the “Exhorter-Teacher”), the Spirit of truth, will come to dwell (remain) in them after he goes to the Father (14:12,16-17); this Paraclete will teach them, helping them remember all the words Jesus spoke (14:25-26); the Paraclete, the Spirit of truth, will bear witness to Jesus, and the disciples–who have been with Jesus from the beginning–will be witnesses (15:26-27); the Paraclete will convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (through the disciples) (16:7-8); the Spirit of truth will guide them into all the truth, including things to come (16:13); and the Spirit will glorify Jesus by passing on to his disciples what Jesus said (16:14).

Anyone who is thirsty for this living water can come to Jesus and drink from this flowing fountain that is the Spirit (7:37-39). Even the Samaritan woman could receive this water that Jesus will give, a spring of water that gushes forth with eternal life (4:14). When the Spirit is poured out from above, true worshipers will worship the Father in (the) Spirit and in truth  (4:23). Whenever disciples speak the words of God, the words of Jesus, it will be the Spirit of truth speaking through them; that is true worship, wherever it happens. The living Spirit is life-giving, enabling a life of worship that receives and passes on the words of God and Jesus.

The original Word became flesh, and was full of grace and truth; and the disciples came to perceive this glory (1:14). Even John the Baptist saw this glory when he saw the Spirit descend on Jesus at his baptism (1:33). And this grace and truth that is the Spirit of truth–that filled the Word made flesh–will also fill disciples, remaining in them as in Jesus, grace upon grace (1:16). For the law (the former words of God) was given through Moses; but grace and truth (the Spirit of truth) came through Jesus Christ (1:17). This grace truly saves: the Spirit focuses on the new words of Jesus; the Spirit enlightens disciples about what the words mean; and the Spirit empowers them to speak and live according to what Jesus said and did.

The Gospel of John has written all these words in order that readers (even us) might believe (or, continue to believe) that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing (continuing to believe) we might have life (the same living water that filled him) in his name (20:31). May we continue to read and believe and speak as the Spirit teaches us; and may that worship glorify the Father and the Son. The light still shines in the darkness of a world whose father is the father of deception and death (8:44); yet to those who receive Jesus, he gives power (the powerful Paraclete) to become children of God, to be born of God, to be born of the Spirit (1:4,10-13; 3:5-6).


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