How does Matthew depict the relationship between the new teachings of Jesus and the Jewish law?

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In the Gospel of Matthew, the relationship between the new teachings of Jesus and the Jewish law is depicted with profound respect and continuity, yet with transformative insights that fulfill and expand upon the law. Matthew, writing primarily for a Jewish audience, emphasizes Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies and the Mosaic Law, not their abolition. This perspective is crucial for understanding how early Jewish Christians viewed the teachings of Jesus in relation to their traditional beliefs.

Jesus and the Law in Matthew

Matthew’s Gospel opens with the genealogy of Jesus, establishing His rightful place in the Jewish heritage as a descendant of Abraham and David (Matthew 1:1-17). This lineage is not merely historical but theological, underscoring Jesus' role as the expected Messiah who comes not to destroy the Jewish faith but to complete its deepest intentions.

One of the pivotal moments in Matthew that addresses the relationship between Jesus’ teachings and the Jewish law is the Sermon on the Mount, particularly in Matthew 5:17-20. Here, Jesus explicitly states, "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." This statement sets the tone for how Jesus' teachings should be viewed— not as a negation of the law but as its fulfillment. The Greek word used for "fulfill" is "plēroō," which implies bringing to completion or perfecting.

Jesus goes on to intensify the law, presenting a higher standard of righteousness that focuses on the spirit rather than the letter of the law. For instance, while the law commands not to murder, Jesus extends this command to prohibit even anger with one’s brother (Matthew 5:21-22). Similarly, the law says not to commit adultery, but Jesus teaches that even looking at a woman lustfully is to commit adultery in the heart (Matthew 5:27-28). These teachings do not contradict the law; rather, they delve deeper into the intent behind the law, emphasizing moral integrity and the purity of the heart.

Jesus as the New Moses

Matthew also portrays Jesus as a new Moses. Just as Moses delivered the law to Israel from Mount Sinai, Jesus delivers His new teachings from the mountain (Sermon on the Mount). This parallel underscores Jesus as a lawgiver and affirms the continuity of His teachings with the Jewish tradition. The five discourses in Matthew, which some scholars liken to the five books of the Torah, further reinforce this typology, presenting Jesus as both interpreter and fulfiller of the law.

Conflict with the Pharisees

Despite His deep respect for the law, Jesus frequently comes into conflict with the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders, particularly over their interpretation of the law. These conflicts, detailed throughout Matthew, often revolve around issues like Sabbath observance (Matthew 12:1-14) and ritual purity (Matthew 15:1-20). In these disputes, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees not for their fidelity to the law itself but for their legalism and hypocrisy, which obscure the law’s deeper purposes. For example, when the Pharisees condemn His disciples for plucking grain on the Sabbath, Jesus counters by emphasizing the law’s intent to serve humanity’s needs and God’s mercy (Matthew 12:7).

The Great Commandment

In Matthew 22:34-40, when asked about the greatest commandment in the law, Jesus replies with a profound summary: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" and "Love your neighbor as yourself." These commands, rooted in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, encapsulate the law’s essence. By prioritizing these commandments, Jesus underscores that all legal observances should lead to and be motivated by love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3:14).

Conclusion

In conclusion, Matthew’s depiction of the relationship between Jesus’ teachings and the Jewish law is one of fulfillment, deep respect, and transformative expansion. Jesus is portrayed not as an antagonist to the law but as its greatest advocate and the one who reveals its full meaning. Through His life and teachings, Jesus demonstrates that adherence to the law is not about legalistic observance but about a deeper, more comprehensive righteousness that springs from love for God and for one another. This portrayal would have been particularly compelling to Matthew’s Jewish-Christian audience, affirming their faith in Jesus as the Messiah who upholds and transcends the law, guiding them into a new understanding of their covenant relationship with God.

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