Sunday, 27 March 2011

Exodus and Law Fulfilled in Jesus

In the opening section of the Old Testament there is one more story to tell.

The first five books of the Bible make up the Law, the Torah.

The first 11 chapters of Genesis contain a sequence of larger than life stories that tell of the beginnings of things but speak to the world of today in every generation.

From Genesis 12-50 there is a sequence of true to life stories that help us to understand who we are and how we relate to each other. They tell of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekkah, of Jacob and Rachel, and of Joseph. The last great story of Genesis tells the story of the sons of Jacob and Rahcel, the 12 brothers who become the clan

There is then one more story to tell. It is the story of Moses. Born in troubled times and rescued from Pharaoh’s purge of Hebrew male children, he is brought up in the Egyptian court until he intervenes when a Hebrew slave is beaten to death by an Egyptian guard. Moses fless to the land of Midian where he is welcomed as a refugee and an alien. He settles there and marries and has a son. It is while on the mountain top that he has an experience of God in the burning bush and is given the task by God of leading all God’s people from bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land.

Moses is wary of speaking to the people unless he knows the name of God. God responds in that most mysterious of ways and identifies himself as I am who I am, or I will be who I will be, or I am what I am.

With the help of a spokesman, Moses then appeals to Pharaoh. A sequence of 10 disasters wreaks havoc with the region of the Nile where the Hebrew slaves are being abused … until at the very last they mark the lintels of their doors with lamb’s blood and the angel of death passes over.

Pharaoh is persuaded at last and lets God’s people go.

They escape through the Red Sea, and expect to go straight to the promised land.

It is not to be, however, and the people find they face a prolonged period in the hardships of the wilderness. They complain to Moses. And God provides each with their daily needs … and no more.

Still the people are not happy.

They reach Mount Sinai and there Moses encounters the presence of God on the mountain top and receives the Ten Commandments.

From then on the wandering continues and from time to time the people rebel. Set into the framework of the story of Moses and the liberation story of Exodus are law codes that shape individual behaviour and society at large. There are also law codes to do with ritual, worship and holiness.

For the Jewish people Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are the core of their Holy Scriptures. The bulk of the five books are built around Moses and so the Law, the Torah, is associated with Moses.

Each Synagogue would have its scrolls of the Law, the Torah, they would be read each week at the Synagogue.

Jesus was part of the synagoguge in his home town of Nazareth and from the very youngest age read the Torah, and reflected on it. By the age of 30 so steeped was he in the Torah and the Prophets and Writings that he was highly regarded as a Rabbi, able to teach from the Torah in a gathering of the Synagogue.

From the outset of his ministry something very curious happens.

By the time you get to Mark chapter 3 verse 6 still at the beginning of the Gospel you are left in no doubt at all that something very strange is going on. As Jesus speaks and teaches he is highly regarded: but those who are drawn to him recognise that it is ‘a new teaching – with authority!’ (Mark 1:27). He is prepared to touch the one suffering from leprosy, he is prepared to heal on the Sabbath, he is prepared to forgive the sins of the paralysed man. And he was flagrant about it. By the time he heals a man with a withered hand in the synagogue and on the Sabbath Jesus has succeeded in doing the impossible, he has brought together Pharisees and Herodians. The two sets of people could not have been further apart. The Herodians were content to collaborate with the Roman power. The Pharisees on the other hand went in the face of Roman domination and wanted to maintain the identity of the Jewish people by reasserting the purity of the Law.

What Jesus was doing was too much.

And yet it was something of a paradox. For while Jesus was prepared to break the law and engaged in what people recognised as a new teaching with authority, he yet had respect for the Law.

Matthew’s gospel hasn’t covered so much ground before Jesus preaches the first of what is to be come in Matthew a sequence of five great sermons. It is right at the outset in the Sermon on the Mount that he says quite categorically …

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

What do we make of this curious set of circumstances?

The key to our understanding of this is a key to our understanding as Christians of the Torah and the Books of the Law. It is, it seems to me, vitally important for us to grasp it.

Jesus has come not to abolish but ‘to fulfil’ the Law.

Until heaven and earth pas away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, not one jot or tittle will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

The key to our reading of the Law lies in those two phrases – what does it mean for Jesus to say he has come to ‘fulfil the law’ what does it mean to when he talks about all being accomplished.

In Matthew, Mark and Luke the central point of the Gospel, the turning point, the hinge on which the Gospel story comes in a narrative that is full of mystery, awe and wonder.

Like the sermon on the Mount it happens on a mountain.

It’s 8 days after the moment when Peter has made his confession of faith saying to Jesus You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.

Jesus takes Peter, John and Jams and went up the mountain to pray. And while he was praying

And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.
That’s all Matthew and Mark report. But it is tremendously significant. Moses stands for the Law. Elijah is the archetypal Prophet. We will return to this moment and to him when we come to look at the Prophets, the second section of the Hebrew Scriptures we think of as the Old Testament.

It is as if these two figures of the Law and the Prophets who are seen on the Mountain, in the glory that is the shekinah cloud of God’s presence, endorse Jesus.

Jesus has maintained that he has come to fulfil the law and the prophets. This appearance of Moses and Elijah so central to each of the first three Gospels is making an enormous statement. Each of those Gospel writers is convinced. Jesus has fulfilled the law and the prophets – and he has received the endorsement of Moses and Elijah to that end.

Moses and Elijah are talking to Jesus.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to eaves drop on the conversation.

Luke enables us to do just that. Luke tells us what they were talking about.

In practically all the English translations you miss the point of his description of the conversation.

They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Four things are significant in that sentence.

First the word ‘they’. It has to be Moses and it has to be Elijah. They are the embodiment if you like of Law and Prophets. The major part of the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures.

They appeared ‘in glory’. That word ‘glory’ is a major key word. It is the tangible cloud of glory, the shekinah cloud that signifies in so many accounts of mountain-top experiences in the Torah the very presence of God.

They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure.

That’s where our English translations let us down. Luke uses a very specific Greek word. When I read it out you will immediately recognise it. The word translated ‘departure’ is simply the word Exodus.

The second book of the Torah is called Exodus because that is what it is about – the Exodus of the People of Israel from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the promised land. The settlement in the promised land reaches its climax in the establishment of Jerusalem as the city of God.

They appeared in glory and were speaking to him of his Exodus which he was about to ‘accomplish’

The word translated ‘accomplish’ there is the word ‘fulfil’

Jesus was about to accomplish his ‘exodus’ in the very place where the climax of the Exodus story is reached, albeit quite a bit later, in Jerusalem.

As far as Luke was concerned, and for that matter the other Gospel writers too, Jesus had fulfilled, brought to its fulfilment, accomplished, the Law. By the time his death and resurrection were completed a new Exodus had been accomplished.

Something new was here.

Matthew points out echoes of the story of Moses in all sorts of ways, in the birth of Jesus, the slaughter of the innocents and the flight into Egypt. He then structures his Gospel around five sermons of Jesus as if it is a new Torah.

Mark it is who puts the endorsement of Moses and Elijah, Law and Prophets, right at the centre of the Gospel.

Luke sees in Christ the accomplishment of a new Exodus.

And as for John – he sees in Jesus the one who lays claim to the very identify of God disclosed to Jesus when he uses that very phrase of himself, I am …

All four Gospels see in the death and resurrection of Jesus the fulfilment of the Passover. And that is sealed in the institution of communion to take the place of the Passover.

The excitement of all this is that we can treasure the account of Moses and the Exodus and the whole framework of law. But we cannot do that by simply lifting those laws from the Old Tesatment and abiding by them.

Because Jesus has fulfilled that Law, because of that endorsement by Moses, we must take into account the perspective Jesus gives on the law in his teaching.

And that is what we are going to do as we take a look at those law codes that shape individual behaviour and society at large, at the law codes that have to do with ritual, worship and holiness.

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