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The New Covenant of God for His People (II): Jesus in Matthew's Gospel

Introduction

The first essay on the new covenant (see: 13 March, 2017) noted, among other things, that key Old Testament prophecies of a new covenant envisioned no change to the Law.  Instead, Isaiah 59.20-21, Jeremiah 31.31-34, and Ezekiel 36.25-28 speak of a restoration of Israel from exile due to their sins—a restoration that would involve forgiveness and transformation of God’s people such that they would obey God’s Law.  These texts repeat the expectations stated already in Deuteronomy 30, where Israel’s failure to abide by the covenant, its exile due to this failure, and its restoration and ultimate obedience are already in view.

These prophetic texts affirm a continuity of the Mosaic Covenant with the New Covenant.  There is not a change of covenantal stipulations or laws.  In this essay, I will note that the same perspective is in view in Jesus’ teaching and ministry as we find it in Matthew’s Gospel.  Jesus did not, as is sometimes erroneously thought, reject the Old Testament commandments as pertaining only to the Old Covenant.  Nor did Jesus take the view that Christian ethics should involve a departure from a ‘command ethic’ (or rule ethic) in favour of a value ethic (e.g., love or liberation) or even virtue ethic—even though values and virtues can be affirmed as part of Christian ethics.  Yet Matthew does help us to see how the New Covenant is not merely a duplication of the Old Covenant but an intensification of it.  In this regard, there is a difference between the Old and New Covenants.  Secondly, in Jesus' own Passover sacrifice for the New Covenant, he brings more than what the first Passover sacrifice did for the Old Covenant: he not only establishes a people for God but also saves them from their sins.

Jesus’ Intensification of the Law in Matthew’s Gospel

A key passage is Matthew 5.17-20:

Matthew 5:17-20 (ESV) "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.  18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.  19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

The language of ‘fulfill’ and ‘until all is accomplished’ has, at times, led to speculation that Jesus had in view some impending transition from the Law during or at the conclusion of his ministry.  Moreover, the statement that his followers needed to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees—Jews committed to obeying the Law—has also suggested to some that Jesus intended an end to the Law.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

As the passage continues with the so-called ‘Antitheses’ of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5.21-48), Jesus does not counter the stipulations of the Mosaic Covenant.  He rather calls for a ‘New Covenant’ form of obedience to the Mosaic Covenant’s ethics.  Where his followers were to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was not in the Law’s stipulations but in their obedience from the heart.  Isaiah 59.21, Jeremiah 31.31-34, and Ezekiel 36.26-27 present the New Covenant in terms of an internal obedience—with God’s words in their mouth, a heart of flesh, and God’s Spirit within.  As Ezekiel says, ‘And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules’ (Ezekiel 36.27).  Jesus’ ‘Antitheses’ explore ways to obey God’s Law from within, not ways to reject the stipulations of the Old Covenant. 

Moreover, Jesus calls on his disciples to obey his commands not because they are different but because the ethic of the Kingdom is deeper.  The letter of the Mosaic Law is only indicative of a deeper Law of God. A classic instance of this matter may be found in Jesus’ teaching over against Moses’ teaching on divorce and remarriage.  Moses’ allowance of this on account of human sin (cf. Deuteronomy 24.1-4) is not relaxed by Jesus but intensified in light of what God had intended for marriage in creation (cf. Matthew 19.1-9).  To be sure, Jesus does relax certain practices of the Pharisees (cf. Matthew 15.1-20) and is not partial to Mosaic laws that do not extend to the heart (such as food laws, cf. Mark 7.19).  The Pharisees’ practices are ways to maintain an external rather than internal righteousness of the heart; they are ways to halt the pursuit of righteousness before it extends to the inner person.  Consequently, their ethic involved ways to continue in sin even while making a great show of obedience to commandments.  Such is not, however, an option in the Kingdom of God, where perfection (an ethic of the heart) rather than half-measures (a merely literal obedience to the letter of the Law) is the goal (Matthew 5.48).

Thus, Jesus’ teaching continues the stipulations of the Mosaic Law, but it becomes His commandments.  He does not merely repeat the external rules of Moses but intensifies the stipulations.  The Law of the first covenant, a moral code written on tablets of stone, becomes an internal Law of the new covenant, a law of the heart.  Now Israel will be truly restored from captivity in their sins; now they can enter the Kingdom of God and there seek God’s righteousness (cf. Matthew 6.33).  When the risen Christ sends out his disciples to the nations to make other disciples and teach them His commandments, it is the intensification of the Law for God’s Kingdom, not a replacement of the Law, that is in view (Matthew 28.20).

When Jesus says that there is a first and second commandment among all of the Mosaic commandments, he does not do so in order to overthrow the other commandments of the first covenant.  He does so in order to give right perspective.  Jews did not at the time simply treat the supposedly 613 commandments of Moses as independent rules but sought a way to structure them.  Jesus was not the first teacher in Israel ever asked to suggest which one of the commandments was primary.  When he is so asked (Matthew 22.35-40), he responds that the first commandment is to love God, as Jews affirmed daily in the Shema from Deuteronomy 6.5.  And to this he adds that the second of the commandments is to love one’s neighbour as oneself—also an Old Testament word (Leviticus 19.18).  Jesus uses Old Testament commands to provide a means of interpretation for the other commands, not to move beyond commandments with an ethic of love.  Indeed, he says, On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22.40).  This makes excellent sense, for the first law, to love God, encapsulates the first four of the Ten Commandments, and the second law, to love one’s neighbour as oneself, encapsulates the last six of the Ten Commandments.  And, as we know from Philo, for example (see his Special Laws), other laws could be related to the Ten Commandments.  The Ten Commandments functioned more as topics for the rest of the laws.  If the laws of the covenant could be encapsulated by the Ten Commandments, then Jesus’ two laws of love could encapsulate the two parts of the Ten Commandments.  Thus all the Law and the prophets could be said to hang on these two laws—not replace them.

Jesus’ Provision of a New Passover Sacrifice

Jesus’ teaching on the Law comes with his sacrificial offering of Himself on the cross.  He does not merely intensify the Law that Israel, after all, was not able to keep in the first instance.  He intensifies the Law and offers a forgiveness of sins through his own blood of a New Covenant.  Jesus dies at the time of the Passover, a Passover sacrifice for the people.  While it may be pointed out that the Passover sacrifice was not a sacrifice for sins, it was, after all, a sacrifice in reference to establishing God’s covenant people.  The initial Passover allowed Jews to leave Egypt and to gather at Mt. Sinai to receive God’s commandments and become His own people.  Jesus’ celebration of the Passover with his disciples (cf. Matthew 26.26-28) was like, and yet slightly different from, this initial Passover.  He tells his disciples that it is a sacrifice of his body (symbolized in the bread) and blood (symbolized in the wine) to establish a new covenant—the new covenant foretold by the prophets.  It is a sacrifice that establishes a new people, Jesus’ disciples.  Yet he adds that his blood of this covenant is ‘poured out for the many for the forgiveness of sins’ (Matthew 26.28).  This goes beyond establishing a people.  Jesus’ Passover sacrifice is also a sacrifice for sins.

How is it that the first Passover is a sacrifice that establishes a people for God and the Passover of the new covenant is this plus a sacrifice for sins?  The answer lies in the story of Israel itself.  The first exodus of the Jews was a liberation from slavery in Egypt that led to establishing them as God’s treasured possession.  At this time, God gave them His commandments.  Subsequently, however, Israel broke God’s commandments to the extent that, in time, they were rejected by God and sent into exile (the northern kingdom in 722 BC and the southern kingdom in 587/6 BC).  When the prophets speak of a future new covenant, they speak of it as God not merely restoring Israel from captivity but also dealing with their sins.  The new exodus from exile is not merely a liberation but a salvation from sin.  Nor is it merely a forgiveness of sins but a transformation of the heart, a giving of God’s Spirit, such that the people will be established in righteousness.  Thus, Jesus’ ‘Passover’ is associated with the new covenant and so not only establishes a people for God’s Kingdom but also, in keeping with the inauguration of an inward righteousness in the new covenant, is a sacrifice for sin.

Conclusion

Jesus’ intensification of the Law with his announcement of the coming of the Kingdom of God was in keeping with expectations in the prophets about the new covenant.  The difference between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant lies in its keeping, not changing its stipulations.  Yet to keep the stipulations of the covenant, a new heart was needed, and this involved not a relaxing but intensification of the ethics of the Mosaic Covenant.


Along with this intensification of the Law also came Jesus’ dealing with sin in accordance with God’s promises for the New Covenant.  Whereas the first Passover brought about redemption from slavery in Egypt and led to establishing Israel as God’s covenant people, Jesus’ Passover brought about redemption from slavery to sin through his shed blood.  As Matthew states in the beginning of his Gospel, Jesus was given his name precisely because he was to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1.21).  This new Passover, established by Jesus’ blood, constituted not simply a people freed to live for God but a forgiven people that was now able to live for God.