Christ Contains the Law: insights from an early church leader on Matthew 5

While studying for my message at Eastbrook from this past weekend, “Real Righteousness,” I came across these words by an anonymous church father from homily 11 of an incomplete work on Matthew. I found these insights helpful in understanding how Christ does not abolish the Law but fulfills it. The author is commenting on the first of six examples by Jesus of true righteousness, here addressing anger and murder: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22).

This fulfilling of the law, depending on the circumstances, fell naturally into place. As Christ did and taught these things, he fulfilled the law–he did not do away with it. For Christ’ commandment is not contrary to the law but broader than the law. Christ’ commandment contains the law, but the law does not contain Christ’s commandment. Therefore whoever fulfills the commandments of Christ implicitly fulfills the commandments of hte law. For one who does not get angry is much less capable of killing. But on who fulfills what the law commands does not completely fulfill what Christ commands. Often a person will not kill because of the fear of reprisal, but he will get angry. Do you see then that the fulfilled law has the benefit of not being abolished? Consequently, without these commandments of Christ the commandments of the law cannot stand. For if the freedom to get angry is allowed, there are grounds for committing murder. For murder is generated by anger. Take away anger, and there will be no murder. Therefore whoever gets angry without cause commits murder with respect to the will, even if he does not actually do so out of fear of reprisal. The remorse may not be the same as if he had committed the deed, but such a sin matches the one who gets angry. Thus John in his canonical epistle says, ‘Everyone who hates his brother without cause is a murderer’ (1 John 3:15).

Consider the wisdom of Christ. Wanting to show that he is the God who once spoke in the law and who now commands by grace, he placed that commandment before all others in the law. And now he placed it at the beginning of his commandments. It was first written in the law: ‘You shall not murder’ (Exodus 20:13). He immediately begins with murder, so that through a harmony between commandments he is found to be the author of the law and of grace. ‘Everyone who is angry with his brother without cause shall be liable to judgment’ (Matthew 5:22). Therefore whoever gets angry with cause will not be liable. For if there is not anger, teaching will be of no use, nor will judgments be necessary, nor will criminal actions have to be held in restraint. Therefore just anger is the mother of discipline. Those who get angry with cause not only do not sin, but, unless they get angry, they do sin. Moreover, irrational patience sows the seeds of vice, nurtures negligence and encourages not only the wicked but also the good to do evil. Although a wicked person may be rebuked, he is not made to change his way; but a good person, unless he is rebuked, will come to ruin because evil rather than good prevails in his body. Anger with cause is not anger but judgment.”

[Anonymous, Incomplete work on Matthew, Homily 11, from Manlio Simonetti, ed., Matthew 1-13, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture 1a (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 101-102.]

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