The Sermon on the Mount Incorporates the Law into the Gospel: Part Three of a Review of Andy Stanley’s “Irresistible”

Pastor Andy Stanley says in his book Irresistible that Christians should “unhitch” the Old Testament from their Christian faith.  These words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount seem to say the opposite, incorporating the Old Testament law into the New Covenant:

17 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.  18 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. 19 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.  (Matthew 5:17-19)

Pastor Stanley justifies his position by focusing on the phrase “until all is accomplished” (v. 18):  “To put what he said in uncomfortable contemporary terms, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy may start disappearing once everything is accomplished.” (108-109).  Pastor Stanley is saying Jesus would be putting an end to the law when He would be resurrected.  It doesn’t make much sense, however, to say that “I haven’t come to abolish the law, but I will make the law disappear within three years.”  And if “until all is accomplished” means Jesus’ resurrection within three years, then why even mention “until heaven and earth pass away” thousands of years later?  That phrase becomes irrelevant.

The best explanation of what Jesus means by “until all is accomplished” is given by Greg Bahnsen.  Since the noun panta (“all”) does not refer to any particular nearby word (it does not agree in number or gender), the phrase “until all is accomplished” is functionally equivalent to the phrase “until heaven and earth pass away.” Jesus is saying the same thing two different ways for emphasis.[1] Jesus’ message is that the Law will never be abolished before the end of the world.

As for the word “abolish,” ironically, one of the meanings is “unharness” as in “unharness pack animals.”[2]  Jesus says that He did not come to unharness the Law and the Prophets from His Kingdom.  Pastor Stanley says Christians should “unhitch” themselves from the Law and the Prophets.  I’ll go with Jesus.  Pastor Stanley defines “abolish” by saying, “Jesus did not come to abolish—as in destroy—the validity of, or undermine the credibility of, the law. Jesus came to bring it to a designated end” (109).  He says that the Law has become “obsolete.” (110)  In other words, the Law has finished serving its purpose and is being retired by Jesus.  No hard feelings, but don’t come back.  Your security clearance in the Kingdom is hereby revoked.   That’s the most charitable position that Pastor Stanley takes toward the Old Testament.  He certainly seems to “undermine the credibility” of the Old Testament by refusing to defend it against charges of “the misogyny, the scientific and historically unverifiable claims of the Hebrew Bible” (290) and by saying that “In the Old Testament, God played by the rules of the kingdoms of this world.” (163)  But in addition to “abolish” meaning “demolish” in a physical sense (as Jesus said would happen to the Temple: Matt. 24:2, Mark 15:29), the meaning of the Greek word for “abolish” (katalysē) can be “to end the effect or validity of something,” “to cause to be no longer in force,” and “to bring to an end.”[3]  That is exactly what Pastor Stanley says Jesus came to do to the law – “bring it to a designated end.”  Jesus is emphatically denying that He is ending the Law.

We can also learn from the context that not ending the obligation to obey the Law is exactly what Jesus was talking about.  He explains what He means in verse 19:  His disciples should do and teach even the least commandment of the Law.  In fact, the word translated as “relaxes” in verse 19, also translated as “sets aside,” “breaks,” “looses,” or “releases,” is lysē, which is the same root as the word for “abolish” in verse 17, katalysē, creating a wordplay between the two statements. The wordplay that links verse 17 and 19 strengthens the case that “abolish” in verse 17 means to no longer teach that the Law is obligatory and to no longer obey the Law.  Jesus came to do the opposite – teach that the Law and the Prophets should still be taught and obeyed.

In verse 18, Jesus plays on two meanings to the word “pass” or “pass away” (parerchomai).  It can mean to “pass out of sight,” as could happen to heaven and earth.  But another meaning is “to lose force” or “become invalid,”[4] which is how Jesus applies it to the Law:  “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law.”  The issue is the enduring authority of the text – exactly what Pastor Stanley is denying.

Pastor Stanley says that fulfill “means to bring to a designated end.” (109)  It can have that implication, but it is a word with a wide variety of meanings and applications.  Regarding prophecy, fulfillment can mean bring to an end or begin something new, depending on the content of the prediction.  Jesus ended animal sacrifice by His once-for-all-time sacrifice of His own body.  But other Old Testament prophecies begin to occur with Jesus’ resurrection and continue throughout the New Covenant era.  Jesus’ resurrection began the fulfillment of the gospel being taken to all nations.  Jesus’ fulfillment of the moral law (e.g. don’t murder, don’t steal), as opposed to sacrificial laws, is like the gospel (and part of the gospel – people who trust in the Messiah should live more moral lives, like no longer murdering and stealing).  Some of these prophecies are the following:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.  (Eze. 36:25-27)

My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd.   They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes.  (Eze. 37:24)

And this greater obedience to God’s law will extend to every nation on earth:

It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go the law,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.
(Isa. 2:3-4, cf. Mic. 4:1-4)

Give attention to me, my people,
and give ear to me, my nation;
for a law will go out from me,
and I will set my justice for a light to the peoples.
My righteousness draws near,
my salvation has gone out,
and my arms will judge the peoples;
the coastlands hope for me,
and for my arm they wait.
(Isa. 51:4-5)

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations. . . .
[A] bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law. . . .
The Lord was pleased, for his righteousness’ sake,
to magnify his law and make it glorious.
(Isa. 42:1,3-4, 21; cf. Mat. 12:20)


The Moral/Ceremonial Distinction

Now, of course, not all Old Testament laws continue into the New Covenant.  Sacrificial laws and dietary laws, for example, are nullified by the changes brought about by Christ’s sacrifice.  While the continuation of God’s law is predicted in the Messianic Age of the New Covenant, certain aspects of God’s law in the Old Testament are said to have a lower and temporary status.  Consider this passage from the Psalms:

In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear.  Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.   Then I said, “Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me:  I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”  (Psalm 40:6-8)

As the author of Hebrews explains (Heb. 10:5-10), this passage teaches that the Messiah who had been predicted will do God’s will in a way that that sets aside sacrifices and burnt offerings.  The Messiah follows God’s law (“your law”) in a way that sets aside an aspect of God’s law because the Old Testament taught that these kinds of laws would be set aside in the future.  The Old Testament predicted that the Messiah would be the Lord God Himself and a king and priest forever in the order of Melchizedek (Psalm 110:1-7), of the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:10; Isa. 11:1) rather than of the tribe of Levi, which indicates a change in the law concerning priesthood  (Heb. 7:11-16) and the end of the need for any human priests after Him (Heb. 1:5-13; 7:21-28).  The importance of the Ark of the Covenant would end (Jer. 3:16), and the special holiness of the temple would end and break out into all creation under the New Covenant (compare Exo. 28:36-38 with Zech. 14:20-21).[5]

These passages indicate that God’s law in the Old Testament contains different categories of law.  Some laws have universal moral validity, and some were meant to be temporary.  This is contrary to Pastor Stanley’s claim that “The old covenant, like the new covenant, is an all-or-nothing proposition.”  (143)  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is concerned with the moral law.  As the Messiah, he knows that He came to fulfill the prophecies about increasing obedience to God’s law throughout the world.  Those laws that should be obeyed worldwide would be the moral law.  Those passages teaching the future worldwide obedience to God’s law would be the ones that Jesus is referring to when He says that He came to fulfill the Law by having it taught and obeyed down to the least commandment. Yet during the time that He walked the earth, the Pharisees were held up as the models of law-keeping even though they were actually hypocritical and lawless in many ways.  Jesus needed His disciples to set a different example of obedience to the universal moral laws of the Old Testament.  He wants the world to see His disciples’ “good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).  He says that He wants His disciples to live by the universal moral standards that require avoiding unrighteous anger, lust, frivolous divorce, deceitful oaths, vengeful retaliation in personal affairs, loving only those who love you, and hypocritical giving, prayer, and fasting – just to be seen by men rather than in genuine service to God and fellow humanity.

Theologians tend to like their theology systematic, so they often make Jesus into their own image by assuming that Jesus is giving a systematic exposition of God’s law in the Sermon on the Mount.  They try to stuff all categories of law into Jesus’ words in the Sermon – both ceremonial and moral law, both judicial law and personal morality.  But while, like anything in the Bible, there are applications of the text that are universal and that apply to all Christians, the Sermon on the Mount is more of an occasional sermon, addressing pressing issues at the time it is given, than theologians usually consider. Careful attention to the text shows that how priests carried out ceremonial laws and or how civil rulers carried out judicial laws were not Jesus’ main concern in the historical circumstance that He was addressing, which was the egregious behavior of the Pharisees.  The opinions of the Pharisees, who were neither priests nor civil rulers, concerning ceremonial and judicial laws were either agreeable to Jesus or not the highest of His concerns to correct at that time.  My best attempt to reconcile, on the one hand, Jesus’ statement that the jots and tittles of God’s law in the Old Testament have abiding validity with, on the other hand, the clear New Testament teaching that many laws in the Old Testament, particularly the ceremonial laws, become obsolete under the New Covenant, is this:  When Jesus talks about the jots and tittles having abiding validity, He is talking about the moral law that the Old Testament predicted would be obeyed worldwide, not the ceremonial law, which the Old Testament said would pass away.  Furthermore, Jesus concentrates on the personal ethics of the Pharisees and not judicial ethics in the Sermon on the Mount.  Some inferences can be drawn about whether the judicial law, in part or in whole, continues to be authoritative under the New Covenant, but it is not an issue that is addressed directly.  Consequently, much care needs to be taken in drawing implications about judicial and ceremonial law from what Jesus incidentally says about them in the Sermon.  We must check our inferences by tota scriptura.


The Law and the Prophets and the Golden Rule

In the last post, I argued against Pastor Stanley’s position that the Golden Rule is new to the New Covenant and a repudiation of the Law of Moses.  I can strengthen that argument from the Sermon on the Mount.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus equates obeying every jot and tittle with the Law and the Prophets in Matthew 5:17-18; and near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus equates the Golden Rule with the Law and the Prophets:  “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12).  Since A = B and B = C, then A = C.  The Golden Rule from the Old Testament (Lev. 19:18) is used by Jesus and the authors of the New Testament to encapsulate the meaning of the Old Testament law, and thus “love one another” is used in the New Testament as shorthand for obeying God’s law down to the smallest details.  When Jesus and the authors of the letters of the New Testament say over and over to “love one another,” they are saying the same thing as Jesus is saying when He says to obey every jot and tittle of the Old Testament law (Matt. 5:17).  “Love one another” is a summary of the Old Testament law (Matt. 22:36-40; Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:13-14, 6:2).



Obey every jot and tittle of the Law




Fulfill Law and Prophets





Golden Rule/ Love Others


(Matt. 5:17) (Matt. 7:12)


“You have heard it said” – Oral Tradition Against God’s Law

Since Jesus is not abolishing the obligation to obey God’s moral law in Matthew 5:17-19, the antitheses (You have heard it said. . . , but I say to you. . .”) in the following section of the Sermon on the Mount are not overturning God’s law but explaining how God’s law should be understood and obeyed.  When Jesus quotes the Old Testament as it should be understood, He says “it is written,” such as when He quotes the Old Testament to defeat the temptations of Satan in the wilderness (Matt. 4:4,6,7,10; cf. Matt. 11:10, 21:13, 26:24; Mark 7:6, 9:13, 14:21, 14:27; Luke 7:27, 19:46, 24:46).  The phrase “you have heard it said” refers to the oral traditions of the Pharisees that distorted God’s law.


Murder, Anger, and Insults

Pastor Stanley says, “You can’t but something handed down by Moses! But he did.” (106)  No, He didn’t. It is particularly clear in the first antithesis that Jesus is not contradicting the Old Testament law:  ““You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insult his brother will be liable to the council. . . ” (Matt. 5:21-22).  Jesus says nothing against the Old Testament demand of judgment for murder that He referenes.  Jesus is saying that it is not enough merely to not murder your brother to be counted as someone who obeys God’s law.  The basis for punishing murder is that the person is made in God’s image (Gen. 9:6).  If you do is not murder your brother, but you have a continual, vengeful anger against someone (as the Greek implies[6]), you have violated the basis for the command against murder, which is that man is made in the image of God, so God’s image should not be attacked (also see James 3:9-10).

The next thing Jesus says is, “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” (Matt. 5:23-24).  Pastor Stanley comments on this passage:  “And the crowd went wild. Actually, they probably shook their heads in disbelief. . . .  This was new.” (179-80)  Pastor Stanley is jubilant in his confidence that he found a contradiction between Old Testament ethics and New Testament ethics here, but he is completely wrong.  This would be funny if it weren’t such a negligent handling of the word of God.  Jesus is emphasizing the requirement of Leviticus 6:2-7, that a person should confess his crime to his victim and pay restitution to his victim before he brings his guilt offering to the priest:

If anyone sins and commits a breach of faith against the Lord by deceiving his neighbor in a matter of deposit or security, or through robbery, or if he has oppressed his neighbor or has found something lost and lied about it, swearing falsely—in any of all the things that people do and sin thereby— if he has sinned and has realized his guilt and will restore what he took by robbery or what he got by oppression or the deposit that was committed to him or the lost thing that he found or anything about which he has sworn falsely, he shall restore it in full and shall add a fifth to it, and give it to him to whom it belongs on the day he realizes his guilt.  And he shall bring to the priest as his compensation to the Lord a ram without blemish out of the flock, or its equivalent for a guilt offering.   And the priest shall make atonement for him before the Lord, and he shall be forgiven for any of the things that one may do and thereby become guilty. (Lev. 6:2-7)

Quick reconciliation with a person whom you have wronged is also the advice given in Proverbs:  “if you are snared in the words of your mouth, caught in the words of your mouth, then do this, my son, and save yourself, for you have come into the hand of your neighbor:  go, hasten, and plead urgently with your neighbor” (Prov. 6:2-3).

Pastor Stanley makes this ignorant claim as well:  “You’re familiar enough with Old Testament stories to know Israel never, ever, turned the other cheek.” (107)  Wrong.  God gives Israel the same command in Lamentations when they came under Babylonian rule, a similar situation to Israel being ruled by Rome in Jesus’ time:  “let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults” (Lam. 3:30).

Jesus says to turn the other cheek in contrast to the “eye for an eye” law of the Old Testament.  But He is correcting the misuse of this Old Testament command, not abolishing it.  It means that the punishment should fit the severity of the crime, which is considered the cornerstone principle of modern penology:  “Today, the idea that the punishment must fit the crime is ubiquitous; it has attained the status of a ‘general principle of law common to all civilized nations.’”[7]  Nevertheless, the Pharisees had the misunderstanding, shared by many modern people, that the Law of Moses allowed personal vengeance according to the “eye for an eye” rule.  But this is specifically condemned by the Law of Moses:  “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people” (Lev. 19:18).  Proverbs 20:22 says, “Do not say, ‘I will repay evil;’ wait for the Lord, and he will deliver you.”  And Proverbs 24:29 says, “Do not say, ‘I will do to him as he has done to me; I will pay the man back for what he has done.’”  David took what is equivalent to a cheek slap without returning personal vengeance when he let King Saul escape when David could have killed him (1 Sam. 24:6-7).  Jesus’ statement here no more undermines the Mosaic Law than do these passages from the Old Testament itself.  Any physical punishment for a crime was to be carried out at the direction of a court – “as the judges determine” (Exo. 21:22).  Ronald Worth accurately comments:  “What was intended to restrain and eliminate retaliation becomes the ‘authority’ for inflicting it!  No wonder Jesus could contrast his own teaching with such a misuse of the Mosaic Law!”[8]

Paul teaches the same thing as the Old Testament in Romans 12 and 13.  The individual is to follow this rule: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God” (Rom. 12:19), and then Paul quotes Deuteronomy 32:35 as support.  The wrath of God, however, is to be carried out by the civil ruler: “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4).


Swearing Oaths

One other teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount that is often interpreted to be a clear contradiction of Old Testament law, even though Pastor Stanley doesn’t address it in his book, is the one about not taking oaths (Matt. 5:33-37).  Superficially at least, Jesus seems to forbid all oaths in the passage, which would include judicial oaths.  But this interpretation is inconsistent with the rest of Scripture and Christ’s own actions.  God Himself swears (Ps. 110:4; Heb. 6:13), and the Old Testament commanded swearing oaths by God’s name in certain circumstances (Deut. 6:13; Isa. 19:18, 65:16; Jer. 12:16; Exo. 22:10-11).  The word “vain” in the third commandment (Exo. 20:7) means “falsely,” meaning that we should not swear by God’s name to affirm a falsehood; and this allows for true oaths.  Those who claim that Jesus is changing the Old Testament rules here run into the problem of scripturally approved oaths made after the Sermon on the Mount.  When Christ is on trial, He is put under oath by Caiaphas, and Christ speaks in compliance with the oath (Matt. 26:63-64).  Christ speaks in accordance the requirement of Exodus 22:11, that an accused swear an oath before the judge of their innocence. The Apostle Paul utters oaths in Scripture (Rom. 1:9; Phil. 1:8; 2 Cor. 1:23; 1 Thess. 2:5, 2:10, 5:27).  The Old Testament and the New Testament are in agreement about oaths:  Oaths are appropriate in certain circumstances, and when used, they should be to affirm the truth rather than falsehoods.  The deceptive use of oaths, which is what the overuse of oaths tends to support, is in violation of the Golden Rule that is found in both the Old and New Testaments.

Jesus’ point is that in normal circumstances, our word of “yes” or “no” should be enough to assure someone that we speak truthfully without adding an oath to it.  The example of swearing cited by Jesus in this passage indicates that He is talking about non-judicial oaths.  As Ronald H. Worth rhetorically asks:  “Did any culture ever have individuals swear judicial oaths by their hair?”[9]  Nowhere in this passage is swearing by God’s name mentioned, which would have been used in the formal, judicial-type of oath.  The Pharisees used these creative types of oaths to give their speech the appearance of truthfulness while asserting falsehoods. As Jesus says in Matthew 23:16:  “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’”  These types of creative oaths would not have been used in a formal, judicial setting but in private interactions, like in the marketplace or with other private, oral contracts.


The Sermon on the Mount and the Great Commission

A comment that Pastor Stanley makes about the Great Commission is relevant to the Sermon on the Mount.  Here is Jesus’ Great Commission:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  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. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.  (Matt. 28:18-20)

Pastor Stanley says, “As you read them this time [the words of the Great Commission], count the number of references to Moses or the law. . . .   That would be none.” (113) But since the Sermon on the Mount is the largest block of teaching in the book of Matthew, and since Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount that the Law of Moses has continuing authority, at least an aspect of it (the moral law as opposed to the ceremonial), then the reference in the Great Commission to “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” most certainly means that the Law of Moses should be taught to the nations, just as the Old Testament predicted would happen in the Messianic Age.  To faithfully carry out the Great Commission requires faithfully teaching obedience to the Law of Moses.  A watered-down, antinomian attempt to carry out the Great Commission, which characterizes Pastor Stanley’s church as well as most others in our day, is unfaithful to Jesus and will produce conversion results far short of “irresistible.”  Jesus will be “with you always” to carry out His Great Commission, not the cheap imitation of the Great Commission that pretends that mature Christian disciples can be made by ignoring God’s law in the Bible.



[1]  Bahnsen, No Other Standard (Tyler, TX:  Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), p. 279, 280 (online).

[2]  “καταλύω,” definition 4, in W. Bauer, F.W. Danker, W.F. Arndt, and F.W. Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (University of Chicago Press, 2000).

[3]  “καταλύω,” definition 3, in W. Bauer, F.W. Danker, W.F. Arndt, and F.W. Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature

[4]  Charles Quarrels, Sermon on the Mount: Restoring Christ’s Message to the Modern Church (Nashville, TN:  B&H Publishing Group, 2011), p. 95.  For the definition of “pass away” Quarrels cites “παρέρχομαι,” in W. Bauer, F.W. Danker, W.F. Arndt, and F.W. Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 776; and for the definition of “destroy” he cites “καταλύω,” Ibid., p. 521-22 (definition 3).

[5]  See “The O.T. Foretold its Own Demise,”

[6]  Quarrels, Sermon on the Mount, p. 109.

[7]  Alan Tzvika Nissel, “Equality or Equivalence: A very brief  survey of Lex Talionis as a concept of justice in the Bible” in International Law: Routledge Critical Concepts, Joseph Weiler and Alan Nissel, eds., Vol. 6, 355 (London: Routledge, 2010) , p.118.

[8]  Roland H. Worth, Jr., The Sermon on the Mount:  Its Old Testament Roots (New York:  Paulist Press, 1997), p. 241.

[9]  Roland H. Worth, The Sermon on the Mount, p. 198.


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