The “What” Question
What is it that Jesus commands us to do as his disciples?
As we know, people answer this question in a variety of ways. Some reduce it to “being nice” to others. Some view Jesus through Paul’s “gospel lens” and perceive only the necessity of faith in him as their gracious savior. Some engage in various social justice causes, seeking to obey Jesus’ great command to love their neighbors as themselves. Others translate Jesus’ commands into guidelines involving such things as not swearing, smoking, drinking, or having sex outside of marriage. Still others sell most everything and go to the ends of the earth with the gospel.
But what does Jesus mean when he calls people to a life of discipleship? Once again, our answer comes in the covenantal framework that he fulfills.
Since Jesus is the great King, who reigns over the New Covenant era, it is not surprising that he articulates the covenantal demand of righteousness, summoning people to follow him as one would follow God (Luke 18:18–23). For this reason, Jesus claims in Matthew 5:17 to be bringing the fulfillment of the law (and the prophets). Our knee-jerk reaction to this claim might be to interpret it as implying he would be the one to live out the law’s commands himself or to provide the final atoning sacrifice required by the law. But the nature of his fulfillment in this context turns out to be neither of these. Rather, as the succeeding verses make clear (vv. 21–48), his fulfillment consists in articulating the end-time expression of the law for his new covenant disciples.
This finds agreement with Jeremiah’s great description of the “new” covenant that God will one day make with his people (Jer. 31:31). Rather than dispensing with the law (as many Christians think), the new covenant involves the internalization of the law in his covenant people (v. 33). Jesus’ end-time articulation of the law is therefore what is to be internalized in the hearts and minds of his followers.
And yet, even though Jesus affirms the eternality of each of the law’s provisions (Matt. 5:18), it is clear that some aspects of the law are covenantally altered as they pass through Jesus’ fulfillment. In reality, Jesus’ fulfillment does not always affect the law in the same way. Rather, each instance of Jesus’ interaction with the law must be studied in its own context.
To capture the essence of the kinds of things that Jesus does with the law, we might use three metaphors, each of which pertains to light. Yet we will notice that even though each of these is distinct in itself, they all lead to the same general result—the high demand of righteousness in the new-covenant era.
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