Jesus: Teacher of the True Law

In the early part of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus stakes out his position with respect to the Law by saying he came to fulfill it (Mt. 5:17). He then urged his listeners to pursue a righteousness superior to that of the legal experts of his day (5:20). He goes on to flesh out his understanding of the law by addressing six laws in particular, exposing misconceptions about them, and articulating the vision implied by them (5:21-48).

The six laws concern murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, eye-for-eye judgments, and loving one’s neighbor. Why did Jesus choose these six laws? Were they the most important to him? Were these issues a particular problem for the Jews of Jesus’s day? In the case of the last of the six—“Love your neighbor”—we can say with some confidence that it was one of Jesus’s ‘favorite’ laws. He repeated it as half of his summary of the Law and the Prophets. But what about the others?

Jesus was the consummate teacher. He was an expert at starting where people were at and moving them to what he wanted to say. The issues that these passages address—reconciliation, purity, fidelity, integrity, mercy, and love—were central to Jesus’s understanding of God’s character and therefore God’s design for humanity. That is to say, Jesus understood these things to be the essence of the teaching of the Law and the Prophets in a comprehensive way. I don’t think that the six laws that Jesus chose to highlight in the Sermon on the Mount were in and of themselves of special concern for Jesus. Rather, he saw in them an effective starting point to talk about the issues he saw as the heart of the law. He very well may have been able to start with any number of other laws, prophecies, or even OT people and events to make the same points.

Jesus was steeped in the Old Testament. More importantly, he was steeped in the essence of the law and the way it testified to God’s character. As a result he could move creatively from virtually any point of the law or any question people might pose him to the heart of the gospel and the heart of the Father. How adept are we at moving conversations toward the essence of the kingdom?

Jesus the hypocrite?

In Matthew 5:22 Jesus tells his listeners that the person who calls his brother “Fool!” is in danger of hell fire. This, he claims, is the idea implied in the command not to murder.

What then to make of the fact that Matthew records Jesus himself using the word “fool” (Gk. moros, from which we get the word “moron”) on at least two occasions: once to rebuke the Scribes and Pharisees (23:17) and once at the close of the sermon on the mount to describe those who do not follow his words (7:26)?

Reading the passages that woodenly ignores the nature of Jesus teaching. Craig Keener notes that “Most hearers understood that such general principles expressed in proverbs and similar sayings needed to be qualified in specific situations; most legal interpreters also recognized that even biblical laws had to be qualified under some circumstances.” Sometimes people really are fools and it needs to be said.

Ironically, those who would accuse Jesus of living a double standard on this issue have missed the very point Jesus is trying to make in the passage. He is not setting up a new law that forbids using the word “fool.” He is expressing the kingdom inappropriateness of relationship breaking attitudes and words. Acting as if it is a new law that Jesus himself has broken is to fall into the trap of thinking that kingdom living can be reduced to rules that we keep.

Living the kingdom life is not and, indeed, cannot, be about abiding by hard and fast rules, though there are certainly boundaries that must not be crossed. It wasn’t even that way in the OT. There, the wisdom literature addresses living the fullness of the covenant life that laws cannot adequately cover. Now, we live out the law, not by living by the law but by living by the Spirit.