Martin Luther transformed Paul’s teaching about justification into a Protestant dogma about salvation. For Luther, salvation meant being saved from his guilt through the forgiveness found only in Christ’s death. This salvation was then equated with justification, understood as Christ’s righteousness (especially his sacrificial death) being imputed to the sinner–who then continued to be a sinner, albeit a justified sinner, a saved sinner.
The result is a long history of Protestant churches who preached “cheap grace.” The grace of justification could be received by simple confession of sin and belief in Jesus’ death as the means of becoming righteous. Accept Jesus as your personal Savior and your sins will be forgiven and you will be saved for eternity.
Luther was the first to separate justification (and salvation) from regeneration. One could become a Christian with no expectation of being transformed by God into a new creation, into a child of God who has the Spirit and is led by the Spirit of Christ. Luther’s reductionism isolated a partial view of justification (“reckoned as righteous”) to the point that Paul’s full teaching on righteousness/justification was downplayed. Thus Rom. 3 and 4–about justification through Christ’s death and Abraham’s justification of being reckoned as righteous–were elevated far above Rom. 2 and 6.
For in Rom. 2:13 Paul writes that it is the doers of the law (of Moses) that will be justified. This relates to final judgment, a final reckoning, but note that it takes seriously what one does. God’s righteous judgment will give to every one according to his works, to what one has done (2:5-6). In Rom. 6:4 Paul says baptism (the very beginning of being a Christian) includes dying and rising with Christ, with the result that one then walks according to a new way of life. Such a one is no longer enslaved by sin; instead, having died with Christ, one is “freed” from sin (6:6-7). The Greek word translated “freed” in many translations (in 6:7) is the same word translated as justified earlier in Romans. Even in Rom. 3 justification is linked with “redemption,” a word used especially for being freed from slavery (3:24). In Rom. 6:12-23 this new life is a life of righteousness and sanctification/holiness; having been set free from slavery to sin, one can now–through the power of God’s grace–become obedient to the teaching of Paul and Christ (who affirm only a small part of the law of Moses).
Rom. 8 is a beautiful commentary on Rom. 5:6 (God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us). Because of this powerful grace of the Spirit, the “righteous requirement” of the law (of Moses), namely, “love” (as summarized by Jesus–love your neighbor–and by Paul, in Rom. 13:8-10) can be fulfilled in us, who walk according to the Spirit. This is so important to simply being a Christian that Paul can say in Rom. 8:9 that “anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” So, “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (8:14).
All of this is what Paul means by righteousness and salvation–and justification.
As he nears death, Jesus prays in the garden to “Abba” (in Mk. 14:36). This Aramaic word was originally used by infants to address their daddy; but by Jesus’ time it was also used by adults as an endearing word to address their dad. When Jesus addresses his dear Dad, he does so as an obedient son–”not what I want, but what you want.”
The Old Testament never uses Abba; instead the more formal “Abi” (my Father) is found. When used for God, Abi is found in only 15 passages and refers to God as the Father of Israel (where often Israel is depicted as a disobedient son, for example in Deut. 32:6) or as the Father of the king of Israel (as promised to David and his son in 2 Sam. 7:14, which adds that when this son sins, the Father will punish him).
Besides Mk. 14:36, Abba is also used in Rom. 8:15 and Gal. 4:6; in all three the Aramaic Abba is followed by the Greek “pater.” Those addressing God as Abba-pater confirm they are children of God; and all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God (Rom. 8:14-16). Unlike most of Israel, and unlike most of Israel’s kings, these children are obedient, as the Spirit leads them. Thus all true disciples of Jesus are Spirit-led obedient children of their heavenly Dad.
Whenever the Greek word pater is used in the New Testament for the heavenly Father of Jesus or his disciples, one should also think of Abba, Dad. Indeed, the New Testament overflows with passages that refer to God as the Dad of Jesus–and as the Dad of Jesus’ disciples. In Mt. 11:27, Jesus tells his disciples that “no one knows the Dad except the son and any one to whom the son chooses to reveal him.” Such language is most similar to Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John, which refers to Jesus’ Dad around 100 times. In Jn. 14, which uses “Dad” for God 23 times, Jesus tells his disciples “no one comes to the Dad except through me” (14:6). Jesus’ new revelation of Abba will lead to many other children coming to this same Dad.
While earlier faithful forefathers and pious prophets in Israel will be in the heavenly kingdom of Israel’s Father, only Jesus and his disciples now know this Father as Dad. Jesus’ disciples will be born from above, born of the Spirit, so that they become obedient children of their heavenly Dad. To all who received him (the “Word made flesh”), Jesus gave power/authority to become children of God (Jn. 1:12-14). Now the powerful Spirit not only comes and remains on Jesus, the Son of God (Jn. 1:32-34); the Spirit of truth will also be given to disciples, and remain with them and in them (Jn. 14:16-17). Through the Spirit, God’s beloved children all over the world will remain close to their Dad, and remain faithful children as they follow the “agape” (loving) way of their king, the Son of God.
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.
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.
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.)
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.