The Letter and Spirit of the Law

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The Letter and Spirit of the Law

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Notice, in His familiar words in the Sermon on the Mount, His teaching about the commandments of God: "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill" (Matthew 5:17). Jesus spoke plainly. God's law is not abolished, and, according to Christ's own words, anyone who teaches otherwise directly contradicts Him and is in serious trouble (Matthew 5:18-19).

Some people assume and teach that we do not need to keep God's law because Jesus "fulfilled" it. But they fundamentally misunderstand Christ's clear words. The word translated fulfill in this passage means "to make full, to fill to the full" (Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1985, "Fill"). The same word is used of filling up nets with fish (Matthew 13:48). In the same way that a fisherman fills his nets with fish, Jesus perfectly "filled up" the law of God. He perfectly kept the Ten Commandments, including the spiritual intent of God's laws and how we should apply them.

How did Jesus expand on the law, showing its fuller and deeper spiritual intent? Notice one example in Matthew 5:27-28: "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart."

The immoral act of committing adultery is defined as a sin by the Seventh Commandment (Exodus 20:14). Yet the literal wording of that commandment—the letter of that law (2 Corinthians 3:5-6)—does not fully reflect God's intent. Jesus showed that the spirit of the law—its spiritual intent—is much broader than the letter and encompasses even our thoughts toward others. Lustful thoughts, He taught, are mental, emotional and spiritual adultery and are contrary to a basic principle of His will—loving our neighbor as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39).

Similarly, Christ expanded the intent of the Sixth Commandment, which prohibits murder (Exodus 20:13). "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire" (Matthew 5:21-22, New Revised Standard Version). Jesus explained that uncontrolled or unjustified anger can break the spirit of the Sixth Commandment.

He continued: "Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.' But I say to you, do not swear at all . . . But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No.' For whatever is more than these is from the evil one" (Matthew 5:33-37).

Jesus' teaching about oaths illustrates another aspect of applying the spirit of the law rather than just the letter of such biblical commands. In this example the spiritual principle underlying the law demands that those who serve God should be truthful in everything they say. They should not have to be required to swear an oath before their words can be regarded as honest and factual. Therefore the commandment telling us not to "bear false witness against your neighbor" (Exodus 20:16) should mean far more to us than only being required to tell the truth if we are under an oath. Jesus made the New Testament application of this command even more demanding by saying, "Do not swear at all."

With the help of His Spirit, God enables us to discern that the intent of a law may extend far beyond the letter—the exact wording—originally written in the five books of the law, the first five books of the Bible. God expects us to look at specific problems that the written laws address and discern how we should apply the intended principles of those laws in reference to the spirit or intent of all of God's Word as magnified by Christ and His apostles.

This requires a wisdom and spiritual balance that we can attain only if we are guided by God's Spirit. Those who do not have the Spirit of God simply do not have this discernment. Rather, they naturally tend to be "hostile" to God's laws (Romans 8:7, NIV) and perceive them as "foolishness" (1 Corinthians 2:14). They do not see them as the wisdom of God that needs to be properly discerned and "correctly handled" (2 Timothy 2:15, NIV).

God will help us, through His Spirit, to begin to discern how to apply the principles contained in the Scriptures in this manner—to discern and comprehend the proper application of those Scriptures. This means that the standards for our conduct will be even higher than those expressed in the literal words—in the letter of the laws—recorded for us in the Old Testament.

Jesus illustrates this with two other examples. First, He explains: "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees [who prided themselves in obeying the letter of the law] you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20; compare Luke 18:11).

He also taught: "So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do'" (Luke 17:10). Our righteousness has to exceed the letter of the law. We become profitable servants of God only if we begin to discern and apply to the way we obey Him the primary principles (such as faith, hope, love, justice, good judgment and mercy) on which all of the Word of God is based.

God gives us His Spirit so we can properly discern and apply the spirit and intent of the Holy Scriptures. (To better understand the spiritual foundation and intent of God's laws, be sure to request your free copy of the booklet The Ten Commandments.)