Jesus’s most misinterpreted teaching.

by K.W. Leslie, 30 August 2020

Matthew 5.17-20, Luke 16.16-17.

Matthew 5.17-20 KWL
17 “Don’t assume I came to dissolve the Law or the Prophets.
I didn’t come to dissolve but complete:
18 Amen! I promise you, the heavens and earth may pass away,
but one yodh, one penstroke of the Law, will never pass away; not till everything’s done.
19 So whoever relaxes one of these commands—the smallest—and thus teaches people,
they’ll be called smallest in the heavenly kingdom.
Whoever does and teaches them,
they’ll be called great in the heavenly kingdom:
20 I tell you, unless morality abounds in you, more than in scribes and Pharisees,
you may never enter the heavenly kingdom.”

This connects to Jesus’s similar teaching in Luke.

Luke 16.16-17 KWL
16 “The Law, and the prophets up to John: From their time on,
God’s kingdom is proclaimed as good news, and all struggle to get into it.
17 It’s easier for heaven and earth to pass away
than for one penstroke of the Law to fall.”

Despite this very lesson, many Christians do in fact teach Jesus did come to dissolve “the Law and the Prophets”—the way people in his day referred to the bible, our Old Testament.

As in Luke 16.16-17, Jesus is not announcing the termination of the OT’s relevance and authority (else Luke 16.17 would be incomprehensible), but that “the period during which men were related to God under its terms ceased with John”; and the nature of its valid continuity is established only with reference to Jesus and the kingdom.

D.A. Carson, Expositor’s Bible Commentary at Mt 5.17

It’s still relevant, still authoritative; it’s why Christian bibles still include it. But it’s no longer valid. It no longer counts. Fun to read, useful for historical context, and we can even pull a few End Times prophecies out of it. But follow it? Nah.

Exactly how is that not dissolving it? See, καταλῦσαι/katalýsë, which I translated “to dissolve,” refers to breaking stuff apart, like in water. Pour water on a sugar cube to dissolve it, and it’s no longer solid. Can’t construct any sugar-cube buildings, like the ones we made in grade school: It’s useless for any function which requires it to be solid. That’s precisely what Jesus said he didn’t do: He didn’t turn the Law and Prophets into crumbling, insubstantial mush. Yet that’s precisely what we claim he did: Rendered it moot. Invalid. Not binding. And therefore, really, not relevant and authoritative.

This idea exposes a huge, huge error in the way Christians think about God, his commands, the Law, and legalism. Worse, this false idea worms into the rest of Jesus’s teachings. Really, every instruction we find in the bible. As a result, Christians use grace as a loophole, an excuse to ignore Jesus’s teaching—or misunderstand it, misapply it, even violate it.

Gonna be a lot of “smallest” Christians in his heavenly kingdom.


DISPENSATION dɪs.pən'seɪ.ʃən noun. Organized system of government or order, over a nation or community, particularly during a length of time.
2. [in theology] God’s plan of salvation for a particular people or era.
[Dispensational dɪs.pən'seɪ.ʃən.əl adjective, dispensationalist dɪs.pən'seɪ.ʃən.əl.ɪst adjective, dispensationalism dɪs.pən'seɪ.ʃən.əl.ɪz.əm noun.]

Properly, Christians teach there’s only one way to be saved: Through Christ Jesus. Ac 4.12 He’s the way, truth, and life, and nobody gets to the Father otherwise. Jn 14.6

But many Christians believe there are other ways to be saved. That God used to save people a different way, before Jesus died for our sins. Under these old rules, people were saved by obeying the Law, and—provided the prophets pointed to this Law—following the Prophets. But this formal relationship was only how God saved people till the days of John the baptist. Then Jesus entered the picture. He inaugurated a new dispensation, a new system of salvation. Throw out the Law; we’ve got new rules.

Old rules: Saved by legalism. Current rules: Saved by God’s grace. That’s how they interpret this line in John. Law’s the old dispensation; grace and truth is the new one.

John 1.17 KJV
For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.

For most dispensationalists, there are only two dispensations. There’s the Christian Era, our current age, where everyone’s saved by God’s grace, and has to believe in Jesus to receive it. And there’s Before Christ, where everyone was saved by Law—and if you broke it, you practiced the ritual sacrifices and fixed your relationship. The split between the eras doesn’t precisely match our usual dividing line of BC and CE (or AD, for fans of Latin) but close enough.

For the followers of Anglican clergyman John Nelson Darby (1800–82), whom I call Darbyists, they actually believe in seven dispensations. Sometimes more: Sub-dispensations within the seven dispensations. But seriously, they believe God changed the rules five different times, and is planning to change ’em again.

See, Darby was a cessationist. He believed the miracles stopped, and he deduced they stopped because we switched dispensations. So he searched his bible for proof texts, and came to the conclusion God didn’t just have the two dispensations—for the Law Dispensation can’t possibly have applied to people who lived before God gave the Law to Moses. (The Pharisees’ explanation: In prehistoric times, God sent angels to teach people the Law in advance. Ac 7.53, He 2.2 Darby didn’t buy it. Neither do I.) So Darby came up with seven dispensations. Congregationalist clergyman C.I. Scofield popularized them in the United States with his Scofield Reference Bible. They’re as follows.

  1. INNOCENCE. Adam and Eve lived under this dispensation, where everyone was sinless and didn’t need saving. After they sinned, God implemented the dispensation of…
  2. CONSCIENCE or MORAL RESPONSIBILITY. Without the Law, people had to do whatever didn’t personally make ’em feel bad about themselves. When they violated their own consciences—as Cain did when he murdered his brother—they had to make up for it by sacrificing an animal. Problem is, things got so bad under this system, God decided to wipe out humanity and start over with Noah. The great flood is when this dispensation ended.
  3. HUMAN GOVERNMENT. By forbidding murder and making humans responsible for one another Ge 9.5-6 (as if God hadn’t already done so Ge 4), God expected humans to organize into governments, which would define the laws and defend human life. Of course, humans being selfish, we organize into governments for the protection of life, liberty, and property… and usually that of the wealthy and powerful. In any event, this dispensation ended with Abraham.
  4. PROMISE. God promised to bless Abraham, and everyone else in the world through his descendants. (Which sounds more like a prophecy about a future dispensation, if you ask me.) Basically people were saved by supporting Abraham and his descendants.
  5. LAW. Now we get to the commands God gave Moses. People were saved by obeying them. Most dispensationalists figure it ended at the death or resurrection of Jesus; others figure Pentecost. Darby believed it ended at the death of Stephen.
  6. CHURCH. Jesus taught us grace, and told his followers to start an organization which likewise teaches grace. This is the church. This is the dispensation we’re currently in. We get saved by believing in Jesus and joining his church. (Darbyists would of course prefer you join one of their churches.)
  7. KINGDOM. This is the future dispensation, the next one, the millennium—which takes place after Jesus returns. During this time, everyone gets saved, ’cause supposedly everyone who opposed Jesus was killed off in the great tribulation.

Darbyists figure the Church Dispensation comes in two segments, or sub-dispensations: The New Testament era, in which Jesus’s followers did all the works in Acts and finished writing the bible; and the present era, where the bible’s complete so God needn’t do miracles any longer.

Certain early Pentecostals, who were Darbyist and wanted to reconcile the 1906 Pentecostal revival with the Darbyist system, tried to introduce a third sub-dispensation, the “Latter Rain.” Since miracles needed to happen during the End Times, God needed to turn them back on—and that, they claimed, is what Pentecostalism was all about. Well, it didn’t sell Darbyists. There are still Pentecostal Darbyists—and a lot of Pentecostals still believe the Darbyist view of the End Times, despite the cessationist views they’re based on.

Where dispensationalism goes wrong.

As you can see, dispensationalism claims there used to be a way, apart from Jesus, by which we could be saved. Through good works.

And you’ll find, from time to time, dispensationalists claim this is still an option. Seriously. They’ll even preach it in their sermons. “All you have to do to be saved is follow God’s Law. Follow it precisely. Make no mistakes. Except you can’t really do that, can you?—you’re inevitably gonna sin, ‘for all have sinned.’ Ro 3.23 It’s why you need Jesus. Turn to Jesus.”

Well yeah you’re gonna sin. But here’s the thing: The Law expected that, and made accommodations for that. If you sin, all you need do to make things right is ritually sacrifice an animal. Cow, goat, sheep, pigeon… so if you wanna do an end-run round Jesus, why can’t you just atone for your sins with one of these animals?

Yeah, I know why. But dispensationalists never say why. They just say, “If you could follow the Law perfectly, you wouldn’t need Jesus.” Problem is, thanks to ritual sacrifice, people can follow the Law perfectly. People did it for centuries. It’s why they were called “blameless.” 2Sa 22.24, Jb 1.1, Ps 37.18, 119.1, Pp 3.6 Daniel managed to stay blameless, Da 6.22 even with the temple destroyed. Christians achieve blamelessness through God’s grace, 1Co 1.8, Ep 1.4, Pp 1.10, Cl 1.22, 1Th 3.13, Tt 1.6, Rv 14.5 which is way easier—but if being blameless was impossible under the old dispensation, why are there any many blameless people in the Old Testament?

Here’s the loopy thing: Some dispensationalists claim Jews can still be saved by following the Law. They don’t claim the Law Dispensation passed away; they think it still applies to Jews, ’cause they’re God’s chosen people. So it exists concurrently with the Grace Dispensation: All Jews need do is keep the Law, and they’re saved. Don’t have to turn to Jesus. Don’t have to embrace their Messiah. However, gentiles still have to be saved through Christ. (I’m guessing God doesn’t count all the non-Jews who’ve converted, like Ruth.) True, these dispensationalists are a minority—but a big minority.

The rest insist the Law Dispensation is totally null and void. There’s only one current way to be saved, and it doesn’t matter how people used to be saved. (Or will alternately be saved in future.) One dispensation at a time, folks. So in practice, they’re not really committing the heresy of accepting multiple ways of getting saved.

But lemme bring up the big nagging problem underlying dispensationalism: Why would God need multiple systems of salvation? Why couldn’t he have created the correct system the first time?

Dispensationalists claim it’s to show us how perfect, in comparison, the Grace Dispensation is. Which sounds impressive. Still means, however, that for millennia—not just a few years, but from the fall of humanity to the year 33—God implemented defective, messy systems of salvation.

The Darbyist “dispensation of conscience,” fr’instance. That’s gotta be the stupidest of the dispensations: If it doesn’t bother your conscience any, it’s not sin. You do realize most of humanity, pagans and Christians alike, are still putting this idea into practice. Have you seen how people behave under this guideline? We rationalize away everything. The Darbyists say God ended it by flooding the planet. Well, he’d have to: It’d produce the most twisted, evil humans imaginable. It still does. What kind of boneheaded plan is that? Sounds like a human idea. Certainly not a godly one.

Darbyist speculation aside, the idea God had to keep fixing or scrapping his own plans, makes him look far from wise and omniscient. But let’s step away from the Darbyists.

Your typical dispensationalist believes in two systems: Law and grace. And Law, they believe, did actually work for its time. It was complicated and messy, but it did the job. So… why replace it with Jesus then? Why obligate him to die in a nasty, painful way? Why didn’t Jesus just come to earth, tell people, “You know that Law which the Father gave to Moses? Keep it up.” Then get resurrected without dying, like he’ll do with some of us when he returns; 1Co 15.51-52 then ascend to heaven. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Lastly, your typical dispensationalist splits the eras of BC and CE at the death of Jesus. (Which makes sense. Once he died for our sins, that’d be the point the new system kicked in.) Thing is, you know the Sermon on the Mount? Jesus preached it before the Grace Dispensation started. And I kid you not, a number of dispensationalists actually claim the Sermon is among the rules in the bible which grace nullifies. By doing away with laws and rules, Jesus even did away with his own teachings. Forget the red letters; start crossing ’em out with a red pen.


Only one way to be saved.

If the idea Jesus invalidated himself sounds insane, good: You’ve not lost your mind.

’Cause Jesus invalidated nothing. There aren’t seven systems of salvation. Nor even two—one of Law, one of grace. There’s one. Only one. Only ever been one. That’s through grace.

We, and all humanity, throughout all history, are saved through Christ Jesus’s death and resurrection. Through his defeating sin, death, and the devil. Through God making daughters and sons out of everybody who trusts him to save them. Jn 1.12 It’s just we Christians happen to know some of the details of how God saves us: Through Jesus.

Nobody was saved by the Law. Nobody was ever saved by the Law. Trusting the Law to save us, simply condemns us. Ro 3.20 The Hebrews were saved by God rescuing them from Egypt, Dt 20.1 and he gave them the Law after he saved them. The Law was never salvation; it was the good works God prepared in advance for his saved children to do. Ep 2.10 “Now that you’re saved, here’s how to live as my people.” The Law is a form of grace, the “grace after grace” which properly interprets what John meant by the Law through Moses, and grace and truth through Jesus. Jn 1.16-17

What about the people who lived before Jesus? Please: Only a weak, pathetic, phony god is limited by time and space. The LORD is not. Jesus paid the penalty for all sins in all times. After all, when the Hebrews ritually sacrificed an animal for their sins, they didn’t sacrifice ’em for future sins. That’s not how sacrifices work. Sacrifices count for past sins. So Jesus’s death canceled out past sins. All the sins from Adam to the first century. The unique thing about Jesus’s death is it works forward—as no other proper sacrifice had been reckoned before. It pays for our sins, long in advance.

As for all those ritual sacrifices: They never actually saved anyone. He 10.4 God did. The sacrifices represented how God would eventually save them, through Jesus. The people before Jesus had no clue how he’d do it; it was a mystery to them. Ro 16.25 But salvation works regardless of whether we know how it works. Or through whom it works.

So when Abraham believed God, and was counted righteous, Ro 4.3, Ga 3.6, Jm 2.23 he was saved by grace through faith. Same as us. Ep 2.8 That’s why the apostles kept referring to Abraham when they were trying to explain salvation. Jesus didn’t inaugurate a new system. It was the same old system of grace God had always used; it’s just that now Jesus had been revealed, grace finally made sense. Mystery solved. Ro 16.25

That’s why we preach the gospel. We let people know the good news: God, in his grace, granted us his kingdom, with Jesus as king. Salvation is for all who accept his grace. The Law defines sin, Ro 3.20 and we ought not sin; but when we do, we have Jesus to fall back on. 1Jn 2.1-2 So people need to embrace this good news, follow Jesus, receive his Holy Spirit, and know they’re saved. Ep 1.13-14

Law and grace work together.

Nope, Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law. He came to complete it. To fill in the missing parts of it. To make sense of it. To explain how it really works, dig it out from under Pharisee tradition and loopholes, and use it to reveal God’s goodness and character.

See, the Law can only do so much. We can’t have a relationship with it, fr’instance. Not that Christians don’t try to have close personal relationships with their bibles. But it’s a book. It’s very limited in what it does. It tells us what God thinks about animal sacrifice, slavery, which foods to eat… but it says nothing about gun control, time management, how democracies oughta work, which musical style God likes best, and who specifically he wants me to pray for today. There are a lot of blanks in it. Meant to be filled by the Holy Spirit himself.

But like the Pharisees, we fill in those blanks with our deductions. Whenever the bible is moot, we cherry-pick scriptures so we can create a “biblical principle,” and claim that’s God’s will. Some of us try to enforce these deductions upon others. Trouble is, these added rules bind people, not free them. And they always reflect the person issuing the rules, not God.

In comparison, Jesus came to set us free. Jn 8.31-36 Rather than drive ourselves bonkers ’cause we haven’t got the Law perfect, Jesus grants us grace: Follow the Law as best you can. And if you can’t, don’t sweat it. Pick yourself up and try again.

Too many lawless Christians teach us to not try again. They even claim any attempt to obey the Law rejects grace. They take the scriptures where Paul rebuked the Galatians for thinking they could be saved by Law, Ga 3.1-4 and claim it also means we shouldn’t follow the Law in the first place. Yep, the opposite of what Paul meant. He himself taught it’s wrong to figure since we’re not saved by Law, sin’s okay now. Ro 6.15 Yet that’s what many a dispensationalist teaches.

This is why Jesus pointed out anyone who ignores the Law, and teaches others to ignore it, will be least in his kingdom. Mt 5.19 Thanks to God’s grace, such people are still in his kingdom—but because they reject God’s revelation in the Law, and ignore God’s revelation through his prophets, they’re gonna suck as Christians. They won’t be the sort of people God wants to populate his kingdom with. They’ll be in it, they’ll be saved, but they’ll be as raw as a last-second deathbed convert. They’ll still have a lot of growing up to do.

Conversely, anyone who knows God’s Law, obeys it, and teaches it, will be considered great. Mt 5.19 After all, Jesus is God: He’s the very same LORD Almighty who gave his Law to Moses at Mt. Sinai. It’s why he can teach so authoritatively on it: It’s Jesus’s Law. He knows what he meant by it, and how it’s to be applied. Namely in love and grace, not legalism.

So don’t assume Jesus came to dissolve the Law and Prophets. Learn from them. Learn how to apply them rightly. Follow Jesus. Don’t misinterpret him.