Does God’s will for us ever change? Jesus and the fulfillment of the Law of Moses

Does God’s will change?

It depends on what you mean. God’s righteousness never changes. But in the course of time, as we see in the unfolding of Scripture, God has gradually made known his will to us, culminating in the coming of Jesus.

With regard to God’s will for us this means that things change. As God’s plan advances, some behaviors that were allowed are forbidden and some behaviors that were restricted are allowed. For example with regard to food, first, humanity was to eat only vegetation; then with Noah animals were allowed; then with Moses only certain kinds of animals are allowed; then with Gentile Christians it goes back to Noah’s standard.

We will look at the so-called “moral” portions of the Law, since this is where the question is focused. Does God’s “moral” Law ever change?

Change prior to Jesus

There is a change from before the flood to Noah. For it is only with the Noahic covenant that we see God enjoining the structures of government, that include a rudimentary criminal justice system (Genesis 9:5-6). Before this there was, apparently, only personal revenge (see the Cain-Lamech story in Genesis 4).

There are two similar examples of moral change from the Patriarchs to the Law of Moses: 1) Abraham married his half sister (Genesis 20:12). Leviticus 18:9 forbids this as incest. 2) Jacob was married simultaneously to two sisters (Genesis 29:21-30). Leviticus 18:18 forbids this as incest. In the Genesis narratives there is no negative assessment of these marriages. They were allowed. Yet both of these are later called “depravity” by the Law of Moses. They are forbidden.

Jesus and change: The case of divorce and remarriage

We begin with Jesus on divorce. This is an example of change, in several ways. Jesus said, “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives” – Matthew 19:8. This comes from Moses’ teaching in Deuteronomy 24:1. It wasn’t this way in the beginning – Genesis 2:24, but he did this, “because of your hardness of heart” – 19:8. (So this is another example of Old Testament change. Originally there was to be no divorce, but Moses changed this and allowed it.)

Jesus changes things back to God’s original intention. The text reads: “And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.’” -Matthew 19:3-9.

Jesus makes three significant changes: 1. Moses allowed divorce on fairly vague criteria – because of some “indecency” in the wife. Jesus, however, forbids divorce, with only one exception, if there is sexual immorality. And that because you are simply recognizing that the marriage is already broken, not breaking it through divorce.

2. Moses allowed the husband who divorced his wife (even if there was no adultery) to remarry. Jesus teaches that the husband in this case would be breaking the seventh commandment against adultery – Matthew 19:9. For if the marriage isn’t broken through adultery, he is still married to the first wife in God’s eyes. What Moses allowed, Jesus calls adultery.

3. Moses allowed polygamy. But Jesus forbids polygamy with his teaching. For if sexual union in the context of a second marriage after a wrongful divorce is adultery, then polygamy would be the same; an act of adultery against the first marriage.

So clearly, Jesus has changed the Law of Moses with regard to divorce and remarriage.

Jesus and change: The fulfillment of the Law of Moses

Jesus talks in some detail about change and how his teaching connects with the Law in Matthew 5:17-48. Jesus begins by addressing the issue of whether he was setting aside Moses with his teaching. People could see that he was saying some different things and making some new demands. So the question was naturally raised, “Is he abolishing Moses?”

Jesus responds first of all by saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them . . ..”- Matthew 5:17. He is not setting aside the Law. This gets stated in more detail and in the strongest possible way in vs. 18-19, “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. 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.”

Jesus neither sets aside Moses nor relaxes Moses’ teaching. In fact, Jesus’ presentation of the Law is more strenuous and demanding than what the scribes and Pharisees promote, based, as it was, on the oral teaching of the Elders. He says in v. 20, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

And this fits with the intention of Jesus. As he says in the rest of 5:17, he has come to “fulfill” the Law and the prophets. He is not abolishing the Law, but perfecting it. Again, as he says in v. 20, he is giving the exceeding righteousness of the kingdom of heaven; something that goes beyond Moses and the various interpretations of Moses in Jesus’ day. Jesus is raising the standard.

Jesus spells out three different kinds of fulfillment; three different ways in which his teaching perfects the Law without setting it aside. These examples are laid out in three sets of two, in an ascending order of apparent tension between his teaching and the Law.

I. Fulfillment as raising the standard to include smaller instances of the same sins. The basic idea in these first two examples is that some things that Moses did not mention are also wrong and will bring judgment.

1) Murder-Anger: vs. 21-26.

The Law: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder [Exodus 20:13/Deuteronomy 5:17]; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’” [Exodus 21:12, 14; Leviticus 24:17; Numbers 35:12; Deuteronomy 17:8-9].

Jesus: “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”

Summary of meaning: The Law says that murder is wrong and the one who does this will be judged. Jesus teaches that speaking angry words that tear another down is another form of murder and thus is also a breaking of the sixth commandment. Therefore make peace with the one whom you have offended in this way. If you don’t you will be judged.

The nature of fulfillment: This example has to do with the movement from an obvious, large sin to a less obvious or smaller example of the same evil. Those that murder are liable to judgment (the obvious). But so are those who use angry words to tear down others (the smaller, less obvious evil).

The standard is raised. Although Moses didn’t mention it, angry words are also a form of murder. So God’s standard now includes the smaller example, without contradicting the original command, since literal murder is still wrong.

2) Adultery-Lust: vs. 27-30.

The Law: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’” [Exodus 20:14].

Jesus: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

Summary of meaning: The Law teaches that adultery is wrong. Jesus teaches that the lustful look is also a breaking of the seventh commandment. So take appropriate and radical action to make sure that you don’t lust after another person. If you don’t you will be judged.

The nature of fulfillment: This example also has to do with the movement from an obvious, large sin to a less obvious or smaller example of the same evil. God forbids adultery (the obvious). But God also forbids something as small as the lustful look, which is also adultery (the smaller, less obvious evil).

The standard is raised. Although Moses doesn’t mention it, the lustful look is also a form of adultery. So God’s standard now includes the smaller example, without contradicting the original command, since literal adultery is still wrong.

II. Fulfillment as raising the standard by forbidding practices that were allowed by the Law. In these two examples we see that some things that Moses allowed are actually wrong according to Jesus.

3) Divorce and remarriage: vs. 31-32.

The Law: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’” [Deuteronomy 24:1].

Jesus: “But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Summary of meaning: The Law never commands divorce but it does allow it. Jesus, however, no longer allows it, except in the case of sexual immorality. This means that now if you divorce and remarry on any basis other than immorality, you are breaking the seventh commandment against adultery. In the background here is the concern, stated in Matthew 19:4-6, that this practice goes against God’s original intention for marriage as seen in Genesis 2:24.

The nature of fulfillment: The standard is raised in that the Mosaic allowance of divorce and remarriage is greatly restricted.

4) Swearing oaths: vs. 33-37.

The Law: “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not break your oath, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’” [Numbers 30:2].

Jesus: “But I say to you, do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

Summary of meaning: The Law did not command the swearing of promissory oaths, that is, making commitments by swearing an oath. They are allowed in order to promote integrity, the motivation being that if you don’t come through on your oath, you will come under God’s judgment. Jesus, however, no longer allows this kind of oath – with God’s name or any substitutes for God’s name. You are simply to keep your word. In the background here is the concern that since we can’t always come through on our promises (“you cannot make one hair white or black”) we should not invoke God’s holy name. To do so is to risk taking it in vain.

The nature of fulfillment: The standard is raised in that the Mosaic allowance of promissory oaths is rescinded.

III. Fulfillment as raising the standard by taking into account the intent and trajectory of the Law and moving it to its completion. In these last two examples we see that some things that Moses commanded don’t go far enough.

5) Nonresistance: vs. 38-42.

The Law: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” [Exodus 21:23-25; Deuteronomy 19:15-21; Leviticus 24:17-21].

Jesus: “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who demands from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”

Summary of meaning: The Law says that those who harm others are to be harmed in return, in a proportional way. Jesus specifically applies this to the context of oppression – suffering under evil authorities, where you would return the harm of rebellion for the harm of oppression. Jesus forbids this and commands us to endure the oppression.

The nature of fulfillment: Moses commanded an “eye for an eye” to restrict retaliation. It moves people from unlimited retaliation to limited retaliation. But it nevertheless does command proportional retaliation.

According to Jesus, this restriction doesn’t go far enough. There should be no retaliation. (Again, Jesus is focusing here on resistance to evil authorities, a specific instance of retaliation). So fulfillment means raising the standard from proportional retaliation to no retaliation.

Jesus does this by taking into account the intent and trajectory of the “eye for an eye” command, which is to restrict retaliation. There is movement away from retaliation in the Law and Jesus completes this movement. An “eye for an eye” is not abolished or relaxed, it is fulfilled. Its limitation of retaliation is heightened so that now there is to be no retaliation.

6) Love of enemies: vs. 43-48.

The Law: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor [Leviticus 19:18] and hate your enemy.’” [Deuteronomy 23:6].

Jesus: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Summary of meaning: The Law says, you must love your neighbor, but it restricts this to fellow Israelites, and in some cases commands hatred of the enemy who is not an Israelite. Jesus commands us to love even our enemies.

The nature of fulfillment: In the Law, “love your neighbor” was meant to increase the circle of those who are loved – not just your family or clan or tribe – but all of Israel. But it doesn’t include national enemies and hatred of them is commanded in some cases.

According to Jesus, this doesn’t go far enough. The love command must apply to everyone. So fulfillment means raising the standard from limited neighbor love to loving all people, including enemies.

Jesus does this by taking into account the intent and trajectory of the command – “love your neighbor,” which is to increase the circle of those who are loved. Jesus thus expands it to all people. There is a movement toward increasing the scope of the love command in the Law, and Jesus completes this movement. “Love your neighbor” is not abolished or relaxed, it is fulfilled. Its limitation to certain people so that some can be hated is removed so that now all are to be loved.

Conclusion: The logic of fulfillment. Although there is variation in the manner of fulfillment in these three sets of cases, and in other instances in the New Testament, the logic is always the same. Jesus changes some things. But he does not abolish the Law, he always fulfills it. Jesus always raises the standard. And he always does so in a way that, if looked at closely, is in harmony with the Mosaic Law.

Jesus, the perfect revelation of God’s will

God’s plan has gradually unfolded through time. But it has reached its culmination in the coming of Jesus. He is the final and complete revelation of God’s will for us. And as such he takes precedence over Moses. The New Testament makes this point in several ways:

The Son has unique access to the Father: John says, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” John 1:17-18.

The Son has more authority than mere servants: Hebrews 1:1-3 says, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he created all the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being . . .” The writer goes on to say that we should pay even more attention to what the Son says, than what Moses and others have said – Hebrews 2:1-4. He also says, “Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy ‘on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ How much worse a punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God . . .?” – Hebrews 10:28-29.

With the coming of Jesus a new age has begun and so his message takes priority: Jesus said, “The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the Kingdom of God is proclaimed . . .” Luke 16:16. This refers to Jesus’ message and teaching.

Jesus’ words last forever, Moses’ do not: Jesus said this about the Law, “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.” – Matthew 5:18. The Law will remain only until the end of the world. But concerning his own words he states, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” – Luke 21:33. His words will continue in force on into the full revelation of the Kingdom of God and for eternity.

Jesus is our one teacher: Jesus said, “You have one teacher, the Messiah” -Matthew 23:10. He makes know to us the right way to read Moses and indeed raises the standard of the teaching of Moses. And it is his teaching that we proclaim and teach to the world. He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” -Matthew 28:19-20.

This too is in harmony with the Law

It was foretold that when the Messiah came, he would teach the people and they should listen to whatever he says. He is to be a second Moses. Moses said, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers – it is to him you shall listen.” – Deuteronomy 18:15. The Lord said, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” – Deuteronomy 18:18.

This is who Jesus is (Acts 3:22; 7:37). He has spoken out the words that the Lord has given him – v. 18. And just as Moses said, “it is to him you shall listen.” – v. 15.

William Higgins