Christ The Revolutionary Matthew 5:17

Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfil. - Matthew 5:17

After the multitude had heard those wonderful teachings contained in the Beatitudes, most of which were new and startling, one might well suppose that the question uppermost in every heart would be, Are those laws and institutions which have lasted for two thousand years now to undergo complete change - are they to be superseded by those precepts which we have now just heard propounded by this Great Teacher, who seems to be the Founder of an entirely new law; for what Jewish Rabbi ever gave utterance to such precepts as the proclaiming of blessedness to the poor in spirit, the meek, the humble, the mourning, the persecuted? In the text the Saviour corrects this view.

1. "Think not," He says, "that I came to destroy." It is noticeable at once that Christ uses a word for "destroy" which seems to be merely an echo of some confused popular sayings about the Messiah. It is indeed not easy to state clearly what is meant by destroying a law or a set of laws, still less easy to say what would be the meaning of "destroying the prophets." Laws may no doubt be repealed, but it is not conceivable that any clearheaded man anticipated that the Messiah would repeal the Ten Commandments, or was going to forbid the Old Testament to be read. Strictly speaking, this is the only rational sense which attaches itself to the words. It is probable that Christ was here merely putting on one side a rough popular description of the rôle which He was supposed to be going to play.

It is not obvious at first sight what Christ means by "fulfilling the law." He does not mean taking the written law as it stands, and literally obeying it. That is what He condemns, not as wrong, but as wholly inadequate. He means rather, starting with it as it stands, and bringing it on to completeness; working out the spirit of it; getting at the comprehensive principles which underlie the narrowness of that letter. These the Messiah sets forth as the essence of the revelation made by God through the Law and the Prophets. Through them He has revealed His will, and it is impossible that His Son should attempt to pull down or undo this revelation of the Father's will, or that His will, in the smallest particular, should fail of fulfilment. It is not the Law or the Prophets that Jesus proposes to abolish, but the traditional misinterpretations of these authorities. To destroy these misinterpretations is to open the way for the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets; and He thus substituted free development of spiritual character for servile obedience to oppressive rules.1 [Note: A. Plummer.]

2. To destroy - that is the creed of the revolutionary. In the French Revolution, Robespierre and his confederates went so far as to obliterate the septennial division of time, insisting that the week should consist of ten rather than seven days. New names were affixed to the days, to the streets, and to the officials of the State. But it was not thus that Christ inaugurated His work. He answered the thoughts of His age, saying, "Think not that I came to destroy." Every "jot and tittle" of the ancient code was dear to Him. Jesus was no iconoclast.

3. For there is nothing to be gained by destruction. There are men who think that the best means of heralding the new dawn is to fling a bomb into a crowd of harmless people. There are those who believe, with Bakunin, that the only way to regenerate society is to wipe it out by utter destruction, on the supposition that a new and better order will surely be evolved out of chaos. It never has been so, and it never can be so. Such methods can only delay the advance of progress. You can, indeed, cast out devils by Beelzebub. You cannot keep them out; only angels can do that. "His kingdom shall not stand"; for by fulfilment, not by destruction, the old passes into the new.

Carlyle could not reverence Voltaire, but he could not hate him. How could he hate a man who had fought manfully against injustice in high places, and had himself many a time in private done kind and generous actions? To Carlyle, Voltaire was no apostle charged with any divine message of positive truth. Even in his crusade against what he believed to be false, Voltaire was not animated with a high and noble indignation. He was simply an instrument of destruction, enjoying his work with the pleasure of some mocking imp, yet preparing the way for the tremendous conflagration which was impending. In the earlier part of his career Carlyle sympathized with and expected more from the distinctive functions of revolution than he was able to do after longer experience. "I thought," he once said to me, "that it was the abolition of rubbish. I find it has been only the kindling of a dunghill. The dry straw on the outside burns off; but the huge damp rotting mass remains where it was."1 [Note: J. A. Froude, Thomas Carlyle, 1795–1835, ii. 54.]

"Think not (comp. Matthew 3:9, Matthew 10:34) that I came to destroy the law or the prophets." Such an expression implies that Christ knew that there was danger of the Jews thinking so, and possibly that some had actually said this of Him. The Pharisees would be sure to say it. He disregarded the oral tradition, which they held to be equal in authority to the written Law; and He interpreted the written Law according to its spirit, and not, as they did, according to the rigid letter. Above all, He spoke as if He Himself were an authority, independent of the Law. Even some of His own followers may have been perplexed, and have thought that He proposed to supersede the Law. They might suppose "that it was the purpose of His mission simply to break down restraints, to lift from men's shoulders the duties which they felt as burdens. The law was full of commandments; the Prophets were full of rebukes and warnings. Might not the mild new Rabbi be welcomed as one come to break down the Law and the Prophets, and so lead the way to less exacting ways of life? This is the delusion which our Lord set Himself to crush. The gospel of the Kingdom was not a gospel of indulgence" (Hort, Judaistic Christianity, 15). He was not a fanatical revolutionary, but a Divine Restorer and Reformer.1 [Note: A. Plummer.] 


to be continued