March 29, 2017 – How Jesus Understood the Law and the Prophets

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.—Matt. 5:17

Is there an absolute basis for truth, for law, for morals, for real right and wrong? The absolute, Jesus says, is the law of the eternally sovereign God. God laid down His absolute, eternal, abiding law and made it known to humanity. And as God’s own Son, Jesus declared unequivocally that He did not come to teach or practice anything contrary to that law even in the slightest way, but to uphold it entirely.

Jesus obviously had a high regard for the law, but at the same time He taught things completely contrary to the traditions. His teachings did not lower scriptural standards but upheld them in every way. He not only elevated God’s standard to the height it belonged, but also lived at that humanly impossible level.

The law and the prophets represent what we call the Old Testament, the only written Scripture at the time Jesus preached. Because Matthew does not qualify his use of law, we are safe to say that it was God’s whole law—the commandments, statutes, and judgments; the moral, judicial, and ceremonial—that Jesus came not to abolish but fulfill. It was also the other Old Testament teachings based on the law, and all their types, patterns, symbols, and pictures that He came to fulfill. Jesus Christ came to accomplish every aspect and every dimension of the divinely authored Word.

ASK YOURSELF

Knowing how hard it is for us to maintain holy attitudes and behaviors for more than a few hours at a time, marvel again at the extreme power of Jesus Christ, who endured every temptation to maintain His perfect purity on earth. And marvel anew that such supernatural righteousness has been imputed to us![1]


Christ and the Law—Part 1: The Preeminence of Scripture

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. (5:17)

In a recent book titled The Interaction of Law and Religion (Nashville: Abingdon, 1974), Harold J. Berman, professor of law at Harvard University, has developed a significant thesis. He notes that Western culture has had a massive loss of confidence in law and in religion. One of the most important causes of this double loss of confidence is the radical separation that has been made between the two. Berman concludes that you cannot have workable rules for behavior without religion, because only religion provides an absolute base on which morality and law can be based. The author fears that western society is doomed to relativism in law because of the loss of an absolute. When men break away from the idea of an authoritative religion, and even from the concept of God, they break away from the possibility of absolute truth. Their only remaining resource is existential relativism, a slippery, unstable, and ever-changing base on which no authoritative system of law or morals can be built. Religionless law can never command authority.

In that book Professor Berman notes that “Thomas Franck of New York University [has observed that law] in contrast to religion ’has become undisguisedly a pragmatic human process. It is made by men and it lays no claim to divine origin or eternal validity.’ ” (p. 27). Berman says that this observation

leads Professor Franck to the view that a judge, in reaching a decision, is not propounding a truth but is rather experimenting in the solution of a problem, and if his decision is reversed by a higher court or if it is subsequently overruled, that does not mean it was wrong but only that it was, or became in the course of time, unsatisfactory. Having broken away from religion, Franck states, law is now characterized by “existential relativism?” Indeed, it is now generally recognized “that no judicial decision is ever ‘final,’ that the law both follows the event (is not eternal or certain) and is made by man (is not divine or True).” (pp. 27–28)

Professor Berman goes on to ask, “If law is merely an experiment, and if judicial decisions are only hunches, why should individuals or groups of people observe those legal rules or commands that do not conform to their own interests?” (p. 28)

He is right. Rules without absolutes are rules without authority, except the authority of force and coercion. When God is abandoned, truth is abandoned; and when truth is abandoned, the basis for morals and law is abandoned. A consistent, coherent legal system cannot be built on philosophical humanism, on the principle that right and wrong fluctuate according to man’s ideas and feelings.

In an article in Esquire magazine titled “The Reasonable Right:” Peter Steinfels asks, “How can moral principles be grounded and social institutions ultimately legitimized in the absence of a religiously based culture?” (13 February 1979). The obvious answer is that they cannot be.

If there is no religious absolute there can be no basis for real law. People will not respect or long obey laws that are only judicial guesses. An evil, godless society, floating about on a sea of relativism, realizes that it has no foundation, no anchor, no unmoving point of reference. Law becomes a matter of preference and order a matter of power. A democracy where power is ultimately vested in the people is particularly vulnerable to chaos.

Is there an absolute basis for truth, for law, for morals, for real right and wrong; and if so, what is it? Those questions are the essence of what Jesus teaches in Matthew 5:17–20. The absolute, He says, is the law of the eternally sovereign God, God has laid down His absolute, eternal, abiding law and made it known to men. And as God’s own Son, Jesus declared unequivocally that He did not come to teach or practice anything contrary to that law in even the slightest way, but to uphold it entirely.

We continually hear the idea that because times have changed the Bible does not fit our day. The truth, of course, is the opposite. The Bible always fits, because the Bible is God’s perfect, eternal, and infallible Word. It is the standard by which true “fit” is measured. It is the world that does not fit the Bible, and not because the world has changed but because the Bible has not changed. Outwardly the world has changed a great deal since biblical days, but in its basic nature and orientation it has always been opposed to God and has never conformed to His Word. The world has never fit Scripture.

The argument is also proposed that Scripture is but a collection of various men’s ideas about God and about right and wrong. One person’s interpretation of the Bible is therefore just as good as another’s, and there is no place for dogmatism. Men have been left free to believe or not believe, to follow or not follow, any or all of Scripture as it suits them. Each person becomes his own judge over Scripture, and the end result for most is to disregard it altogether.

It is impossible, however, to take Jesus seriously and not take Scripture seriously. It is impossible to believe Jesus spoke absolute truth and not to consider Scripture to be that absolute truth, because that is precisely what Jesus taught it to be. If Jesus was mistaken or deluded on this point, there would be no reason to accept anything else that He said. At the outset of His ministry He makes clear that His authority and Scripture’s authority are the same; His truth and Scripture’s truth are identical and inseparable.

God’s revealed Word, Jesus says, not only is truth, but is truth conveyed with absolute, inviolable authority. It is in that authority that He came to teach and to minister, and it is to that authority that He commands His kingdom citizens to bow and obey. “Let it speak,” He says. “Let it rebuke, correct, shatter, overturn all your evil ways and let it show the absolute, inerrant, and perfect will of God-and the way to eternal life.”

For thirty years Jesus lived in privacy and obscurity. Oy Mary and intimates to the family would have remembered the miraculous events that surrounded His birth and early years. As far as His friends and neighbors were concerned, He was but a unique Jewish carpenter. It was when He began His ministry, when He was immersed in the Jordan by John the Baptist and started to preach, that all eyes suddenly turned on Him. At that point, even the leaders of Israel could not ignore Him.

Jesus’ meekness, humility, gentleness, and love marked Him out in great contrast to the proud, selfish, and arrogant scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and priests. His call to repentance and His proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom made people listen, even if they did not understand or agree. They wondered if He was just another prophet, a special prophet, or a false prophet. They wondered if He was a political or military revolutionary who might be the Messiah they anxiously awaited, who would break the yoke of Rome. He did not talk or act like anyone else they had ever heard or seen. He did not identify Himself with any of the scribal schools, or with any of the sects or movements of the time. Nor did He identify Himself with Herod or with Rome. Instead, Jesus openly and lovingly identified Himself with the outcast, the sick, the sinful, and the needy of every sort. He proclaimed grace and dispensed mercy. Whereas all the other rabbis and religious leaders talked only about the religious externals, He taught about the heart. They focused on ceremonies, rituals, and outward acts of every kind, whereas He focused on the heart. They set themselves above other men and demanded their service, while He set Himself below other men and became their Servant.

Of primary concern to every faithful Jew seeking to evaluate Jesus was, “What does He think of the law; what does He think of Moses and the prophets?” The leaders often confronted Jesus on matters of the law. Many Jews believed that the Messiah would radically revise or completely overturn the Mosaic law and establish His own new standards. They interpreted Jeremiah 31:31 as teaching that God’s new promised covenant would annul the old covenant and start over on a completely new moral basis. Sickened of the demanding, hypocritical legalism of the Pharisees, many people hoped the Messiah would bring in a new day of freedom from the burdensome, mechanical, and meaningless demands of the traditional system.

Even the scribes and Pharisees realized God’s revealed standards of righteousness were impossible to keep-which is one reason they invented traditions that were easier to keep than the law. The traditions were more involved, complicated, and detailed than God’s law, but for the most part, they stayed within the bounds of human accomplishment, within what man could do in his own power and resources. Because of that, the traditions invariably and inevitably lowered the standards of God’s scriptural teaching. The whole system of self-righteousness is built on reducing God’s standards and elevating one’s own imagined goodness.

It soon became obvious that Jesus fit none of the common molds of the religious leaders. He obviously had a high regard for the law, but at the same time He taught things completely contrary to the traditions. His teachings did not lower scriptural standards but upheld them in every way. He not only put God’s standard at the height where it belonged but lived at that humanly impossible level.

The Law and the Prophets represent what we now call the Old Testament, the only written Scripture at the time Jesus preached (see Matt. 7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Luke 16:16; John 1:45; Acts 13:15; 28:23). It is therefore about the Old Testament that Jesus speaks in Matthew 5:17–20. Everything He taught directly in His own ministry, as well as everything He taught through the apostles, is based on the Old Testament. It is therefore impossible to understand or accept the New Testament apart from the Old.

As has been pointed out several times, each teaching in the Sermon on the Mount flows out of the teachings that have preceded it. Each beatitude logically follows the ones before it, and every subsequent teaching is related to previous teachings. What Jesus teaches in 5:17–20 also follows directly from what He has just said. Verses 3–12 depict the character of believers, who are kingdom citizens and children of God. Verses 13–16 teach the function of believers as God’s spiritual salt and light in the corrupt and darkened world. Verses 17–20 teach the foundation for the inner qualifies of the Beatitudes and for functioning as God’s salt and light. That foundation is God’s Word, the only standard of righteousness and of truth.

We cannot live the righteous life or be God’s faithful witnesses by lowering His standards and claiming to follow a higher law of love and permissiveness. Whatever is contrary to God’s law is beneath His law, not above it. No matter what the motive behind them, standards that are unbiblically permissive have no part either in God’s love or His law, because His love and His law are inseparable. The key, and the only key, to a righteous life is keeping the Word of the living God.

Jesus’ warning, do not think, indicates that most, if not all, of His hearers had a wrong conception about His teaching. Most traditionalistic Jews considered the rabbinic instructions to be the proper interpretations of the law of Moses, and they concluded that, because Jesus did not scrupulously follow those traditions, He obviously was doing away with the law or relegating it to minor importance. Because Jesus swept away the traditions of washings, special tithes, extreme Sabbath observance, and such things, the people thought He was thereby overthrowing God’s law. From the outset, therefore, Jesus wanted to disabuse His hearers of any misconceptions about His view of Scripture.

Throughout the gospel of Matthew, more than in the other gospels, Jesus repeatedly uses Scripture to contradict and indict the superficial and hypocritical scribes and Pharisees. Though not always specifically identified as such, it is primarily their beliefs and practices that Jesus exposes in Matthew 5:21—6:18.

Kataluō (abolish) means to utterly overthrow or destroy, and is the same word used of the destruction of the Temple (Matt. 24:2; 26:61; etc.) and of the death of the physical body (2 Cor. 5:1). The basic idea is to tear down and smash to the ground, to obliterate completely. In several places, as here, the word is used figuratively to indicate bringing to naught, rendering useless, or nullifying (see Acts 5:38–39; Rom. 14:20). Doing that to God’s law is the antithesis of the work and teaching of Jesus.

In the remainder of verse 17 Jesus focuses on the preeminence of Scripture as God’s perfect, eternal, and wholly authoritative Word. By implication He suggests three reasons for that preeminence: it is authored by God, it is affirmed by the prophets, and it is accomplished by Christ.

Authored by God

By including the definite article (the) Jesus made clear to His Jewish audience what Law He was talking about-the Law of God. The giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai was prefaced by the statement: “Then God spoke all these words, saying …” (Ex. 20:1). That God gave the law personally and directly is emphasized repeatedly in verses 2–6 by the use of the first person pronouns I and Me. The law given there is the only law because the Lord is the only God. The Lord does not change (Mal. 3:6), and His law does not change. It does not change to meet the whims of society or even of theologians. It was not given to be adapted and modified but to be obeyed. It was not given to suit man’s will but to reveal God’s.

Jews of that day referred to the law in four different ways. In its most limited sense it was used of the Ten Commandments. In a broader sense it was used of the Pentateuch, the five books written by Moses. In a still broader sense it was used to speak of the entire Scriptures, what we now call the Old Testament.

The fourth and most common use of the term law, however, was in reference to the rabbinical, scribal traditions-the thousands of detailed and external requirements that obscured the revealed Word of God the traditions were supposed to interpret. Jesus sternly told the scribes and Pharisees that they “invalidated the word of God for the sake of [their] tradition” (Matt. 15:6). On the surface it seemed that the traditions made the law harder, but in reality they made it much easier, because observance was entirely external. Keeping the traditions demanded a great deal of effort, but it demanded no heart obedience and no faith in God.

God’s law had always required inward as well as outward obedience. “This people draw near with their words and honor Me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote” (lsa. 29:13). During the Exile and especially during the intertestamental period, the traditions were greatly multiplied and covered almost every conceivable activity a person could be involved in.

The rabbis looked through Scripture to find various commands and regulations, and to those they would add supplemental requirements. To the command not to work on the Sabbath they added the idea that carrying a burden was a form of work. They then faced the question of determining exactly what constituted a burden. They decided that a burden is food equal to the weight of a fig, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, honey enough to put on a wound, oil enough to anoint a small member of the body, water enough to moisten eyesalve, paper enough to write a customs house notice, ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet, reed enough to make a pen, and so on and on. To carry anything more than those prescribed amounts on the Sabbath was to break the law.

Since it was not possible to anticipate or provide for every contingency, much time was spent arguing about such things as whether a tailor committed a sin if he went out on the Sabbath with a needle stuck in his robe, or whether moving a lamp from one place in a room to another was permissible. Some strict interpreters believed that even wearing an artificial leg or using a crutch on the Sabbath constituted work and argued about whether or not a parent could lift a child on the Sabbath. They decided that to heal was work, but made exceptions for grave situations. But only enough treatment to keep the patient from getting worse was allowed; he could not be fully treated until after the Sabbath.

It was the keeping of such external minutia that had become the essence of religion for the scribes and Pharisees and for many other Jews as well. To the strict orthodox Jew of Jesus’ day the law was a plethora of extra-Scriptural rules and regulations.

The phrase the Law and the Prophets, however, was always understood to refer to the Jewish Scriptures themselves, not the rabbinical interpretations. The phrase is used in that sense some fifteen times in the New Testament (see Matt. 11:13; Luke 16:16; cf. 24:27, 44; etc.), reflecting the common Jewish understanding. Therefore when Jesus said, Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets, His Jewish hearers knew He was speaking of the Old Testament Scripture.

The foundation of the Old Testament is the law given in the Pentateuch, which the prophets, psalmists, and other inspired writers preached, expounded, and applied. That law of God was composed of three parts: the moral, the judicial, and the ceremonial. The moral law was to regulate behavior for all men; the judicial law was for Israel’s operation as a unique nation; and the ceremonial law was prescribed to structure Israel’s worship of God The moral law was based on the Ten Commandments, and the judicial and ceremonial laws were the subsequent legislation given to Moses. On the plains of Moab Moses reminded Israel that “He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, that is, the ten commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone. And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that you might perform them in the land where you are going over to possess it” (Deut. 4:13–14).

Because Matthew does not qualify his use of Law, we are safe to say that it was God’s whole law-the commandments, statutes, and judgments; the moral, judicial, and ceremonial-that Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfill. It was also the other Old Testament teachings based on the law, and all their types, patterns, symbols, and pictures that He came to fulfill. Jesus Christ came to accomplish every aspect and every dimension of the divinely authored Word (cf. Luke 24:44).

Affirmed by the Prophets

The law is also preeminent because it is affirmed by the Prophets. The prophets reiterated and reinforced the law. All of their warnings, admonitions, and predictions were directly or indirectly based on the Mosaic law. God’s revelation to the prophets was an extension of His law. The prophets expounded the moral, the judicial, and the ceremonial law. They spoke on idolatry, adultery, lying, stealing, and all the other Ten Commandments. They warned the kings, the nobles, and the people in general about keeping the laws God had given for their government, their life-style, and their worship.

Though all the prophets did not have their mouths touched by God’s own hand as did Jeremiah, they could all claim with him that the Lord had put His very words in their mouths (Jer. 1:9; Heb. 1:1). Clearly, the work of the prophet was to preach the law of God. Exodus 4:16 gives an excellent definition of a prophet when it records the word of the Lord to Moses regarding the service of Aaron: “He shall be as a mouth for you, and you shall be as God to him.”

Accomplished by Christ

The culminating reason, however, for the law’s preeminence was its fulfillment by Jesus Christ, God’s own Son. I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. In His incarnation, in the work of His Holy Spirit through the church, and in His coming again Jesus would fulfill all of the law-moral, judicial, and ceremonial.

The Old Testament is complete; it is all God intended it to be. It is a wondrous, perfect, and complete picture of the coming King and His kingdom, and Jesus the King came to fulfill it in every detail. Five times in the New Testament we are told of Jesus’ claiming to be the theme of the Old Testament: here, in Luke 24:27, 44; John 5:39; and in Hebrews 10:7.

Bible students have suggested a number of ways in which Jesus fulfilled the law. Some say He fulfilled it by His teaching. The law was the divine sketch or outline which He filled in with detail and color. In this view Jesus completed what was incomplete by giving it full dimension and meaning. There is a sense in which Jesus did that. Through His direct teaching in the gospels and through the apostles in the rest of the New Testament, Jesus elucidated more of the law of God than anyone ever had.

But that cannot be the primary meaning of fulfill, because that is not what the word means. It does not mean fill out but fill up. It does not mean to add to but to complete what is already present. Jesus did not add any basic new teaching but rather clarified God’s original meaning.

Other commentators say that Jesus fulfilled the law by fully meeting its demands. In His life He perfectly kept every part of the law. He was perfectly righteous and did not violate the smallest part of God’s law. Jesus, of course, did that. He was utterly flawless in His obedience, and He provided the perfect model of absolute righteousness.

But most importantly, as the Spirit surely intends to emphasize here, Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament by being its fulfillment. He did not simply teach it fully and exemplify it fully-He was it fully. He did not come simply to teach righteousness and to model righteousness; He came as divine righteousness. What He said and what He did reflected who He is.

Jesus Fulfilled the Moral Law

The moral law was God’s foundational code. As already mentioned, Jesus fulfilled that law by His perfect righteousness. Every commandment He obeyed, every requirement He met, every standard He lived up to.

Because keeping the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments, it may be helpful to comment on that part of the moral law The essence of Sabbath observance was holiness, not resting or refraining from work. It was a provision meant to remove the heart from earthly endeavors and to turn it toward God. Because Christ fulfilled all righteousness and has become our righteousness, the purpose of Sabbath observance ended at the cross. Christians possess the reality, and so no longer need the symbol. All believers have entered into permanent salvation rest, as the writer of Hebrews carefully points out (4:1–11). Every day has become holy to the Lord.

In demonstration of that fact the early church met together every day for worship (Acts 2:46). But before long their primary worship meetings were held on the first day of the week (see 1 Cor. 16:2), which came to be called the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10) because of its association with Jesus’ resurrection. That day was to stimulate them to holiness every other day as well (Heb. 10:24–25). As Paul made clear, however, there is no longer any special day of worship (Rom. 14:5–6; Col. 2:16–17). Worship on Tuesday, Thursday, or any other clay of the week is no less biblical or spiritual than worship on the Lord’s Day. Sunday is not the “Christian Sabbath,” as some claim, but is simply the day of worship most Christians have observed since New Testament times, a special time set aside for spiritual exercises. The moral aspect inherent in the Sabbath law is the heart of true worship.

Jesus Fulfilled the Judicial Law

God’s judicial law was given to provide unique identity for Israel as a nation that belonged to Jehovah. The laws relating to agriculture, settlement of disputes, diet, cleanliness, dress, and such things were special standards by which His chosen people were to live before the Lord and apart from the world. That judicial law Jesus fulfilled on the cross. His crucifixion marked Israel’s ultimate apostasy in the final rejection other Messiah (see Matt. 27:25; John 19:15) and the interruption of God’s dealing with that people as a nation. With that the judicial law passed away, because Israel no longer served as His chosen nation. Before His crucifixion Jesus warned the Jews, “I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you” (Matt. 21:43). Praise God, He will someday redeem and restore Israel (Rom. 9–11) but in the meanwhile the church is His chosen body of people on earth (1 Pet. 2:9–10). All the redeemed-those who receive the work of His cross-are His chosen ones.

Jesus Fulfilled the Ceremonial Law

The ceremonial law governed the form of Israel’s worship. When Jesus died on the cross He fulfilled that law as well as the judicial. Sacrifice was the heart of all Old Testament worship, and as the perfect Sacrifice, Jesus brought all the other sacrifices to an end. While He was on the cross “the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matt. 27:51). Christ Himself was the new and perfect way into the Holy of Holies, into which any man could come by faith. “Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:19–22). The Levitical, priestly, sacrificial system ended. Though the Temple was not destroyed until a.d. 70, every offering made there after Jesus died was needless.

Symbolically they had no more significance. The Tabernacle and Temple sacrifices even before Christ’s death never had power to cleanse from sin. They were only pictures of the Messiah-Savior’s work of cleansing, pictures that pointed to that supreme manifestation of God’s mercy and grace. “When Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:11–12).

The ceremonial law ended because it was fulfilled. Because the reality had come, the pictures and symbols had no more place or purpose. On the final Passover night of our Lord’s life, He instituted new symbols to commemorate His death. (The Prophet Ezekiel points to a future time in the kingdom when Old Testament symbols will be a renewed part of worship by the redeemed; see Ezek. 40–48.)

Aaron was the first and foremost high priest of the Old Covenant, but he could not compare with the great High Priest of the New Covenant. Aaron entered the earthly tabernacle, but Christ entered the heavenly. Aaron entered once a year, Christ once for all time. Aaron entered beyond the veil, Christ tore the veil in two. Aaron offered many sacrifices, Christ only one. Aaron sacrificed for his own sin, Christ only for the sins of others. Aaron offered the blood of bulls, Christ His own blood. Aaron was a temporary priest, Christ is an eternal one. Aaron was fallible, Christ infallible. Aaron was changeable, Christ unchangeable. Aaron was continual, Christ is final. Aaron’s sacrifice was imperfect, Christ’s was perfect. Aaron’s priesthood was insufficient, Christ’s is all-sufficient.

Nor could the Tabernacle and Temple compare with Christ. They each had a door, whereas Christ is the door. They had a brazen altar, but He is the altar. They had a laver, but He Himself cleanses from sin. They had many lamps that continually needed filling; He is the light of the world that shines eternally. They had bread that had to be replenished, but Christ is the eternal bread of life. They had incense, but Christ’s own prayers ascend for His saints. They had a veil, but His veil was His own body. They had a mercy seat, but He is now the mercy seat.

Nor could the offerings compare with Christ. The burnt offering spoke of perfection, but Christ was perfection incarnate. The meal offering spoke of dedication, but Jesus was Himself wholly dedicated to the Father. The peace offering spoke of peace, but Jesus is Himself our peace. The sin and trespass offerings spoke of substitution, but He is our Substitute.

Nor could the feasts compare to Christ. The Passover spoke of deliverance from physical death, whereas Christ is our Passover who delivers from spiritual death. The unleavened bread spoke of holiness, but Christ fulfilled all holiness. The first fruits spoke of harvest, but Jesus rose from the dead and became “the first fruits of those who are asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). The feast of Tabernacles spoke of reunion, but only Christ is able one day to gather all of His people together in His heavenly house forever.

From Genesis 1:1 through Malachi 4:6, the Old Testament is Jesus Christ. It was inspired by Christ, it points to Christ, and it is fulfilled by Christ.

Over and over the New Testament tells us that the law could not make anyone righteous. Jesus had to do what the law could not. “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). The law only pointed to righteousness, but Christ gives us righteousness, His own righteousness.

The judicial law and the ceremonial law were fulfilled and set aside. They ended at the cross. But the moral law fulfilled by Christ is still being fulfilled through His disciples. Because Christ fulfilled the law, so can those who belong to Him. God sent “His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3–4). When we walk in the Spirit we fulfill the righteousness of the law, because Christ in us fulfills it with His own righteousness which He has given to us.[2]


17 The formula “Do not think that” (or “Never think that,” Turner, Syntax, 77) is repeated by Jesus in 10:34 (cf. 3:9). Jesus’ two sayings were designed to set aside potential misunderstandings as to the nature of the kingdom, but neither demonstrably flows out of open confrontation on the issue at stake. Matthew has not yet recorded any charge that Jesus was breaking the law. (On the relation between these verses and the preceding pericopes, see W. J. Dumbull, “The Logic of the Role of the Law in Matthew 5:1–20,” NovT 23 [1981]: 1–21.)

Some have argued that many Jews in Jesus’ day believed that law would be set aside and a new law introduced at Messiah’s coming (cf. Davies, Setting, 109ff., 446ff.). But this view has been decisively qualified by R. Banks (“The Eschatological Role of Law,” in Pre- and Post-Christian Jewish Thought [ed. R. Banks; Exeter: Paternoster, 1982], 173–85; Jesus and the Law, 65ff.), who presents a more nuanced treatment.

The upshot of the debate is that the introductory words “Do not think that” must be understood, not as the refutation of some well-entrenched and clearly defined position, but as a teaching device Jesus used to clarify certain aspects of the kingdom and of his own mission and to remove potential misunderstandings. Moreover, comparison with 10:34 shows that the antithesis may not be absolute. Few would want to argue that there is no sense in which Jesus came to bring peace (see comments at v. 9). Why then argue that there is no sense in which Jesus abolishes the law?

The words “I have come” do not necessarily prove Jesus’ consciousness of his preexistence, for “coming” language can be used of prophets and indeed is used of the Baptist (11:18–19). But it can also speak of coming into the world (common in John; cf. 1 Ti 1:15) and, in light of Matthew’s prologue, is probably meant to attest Jesus’ divine origins. At very least, it shows Jesus was sent on a mission (cf. Maier).

Jesus’ mission was not to “abolish” (a term more frequently connected with the destruction of buildings [24:2; 26:61; 27:40], but not exclusively so [e.g., 2 Macc 2:22]) “the Law or the Prophets.” By these words Matthew forms a new inclusio (5:17–7:12), which marks out the body of the sermon and shows that Jesus is taking pains to relate his teaching and place in the history of redemption to the OT Scriptures. For that is what “the Law or the Prophets” here means—the Scriptures. The disjunctive “or” makes it clear that neither is to be abolished. The Jews of Jesus’ day could refer to the Scriptures as “the Law and the Prophets” (7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Lk 16:16; Jn 1:45; Ac 13:15; 28:23; Ro 3:21); “the Law …, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Lk 24:44); or just “the Law” (v. 18; Jn 10:34; 12:34; 15:25; 1 Co 14:21); the divisions were not yet stereotyped. Thus even if “or the Prophets” is redactional (Dalman, Jesus-Jeshua, 62, and many after him), the referent does not change when only law is mentioned in v. 18, but it may be a small hint that law also has a prophetic function (cf. 11:13, and comments there). Yet it is certainly illegitimate to see in “the Law or the Prophets” some vague reference to the will of God (so G. S. Sloyan, Is Christ the End of the Law? [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978], 49–50; Sand, Gesetz und die Propheten, 186) and not to Scripture, especially in the light of v. 18.

The nub of the problem lies in the verb “fulfill” (plēroō, GK 4444). N. J. McEleney (“The Principles of the Sermon on the Mount,” JBL 41 [1979]: 552–70) finds the verb so difficult in a context (vv. 17–48) dealing with law that he judges it a late addition to the tradition. Not a few writers, especially Jewish scholars and some in the Reformed tradition, take the verb to reflect the Aramaic verb qûm (“establish,” “validate,” or “confirm” the law; GK 10624). Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to confirm it and establish it (e.g., Dalman, Jesus-Jeshua, 56–58; Daube, New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism, 60–61; Schlatter, 153–54.; and esp. Sigal, Halakhah of Jesus, 23ff.; Greg Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics [Nutley, N.J.: Craig Press, 1979], 90ff.).

There are several objections.

  1. The focus of Matthew 5 is the relation between the OT and Jesus’ teaching, not his actions. So any interpretation that says Jesus fulfills the law by doing it misses the point of this passage.
  2. If it is argued that Jesus confirms the law, even its jot and tittle, by both his life and his teaching (e.g., Hill; Maier; Mark E. Ross, Let’s Study Matthew [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009]); Ridderbos, Coming of the Kingdom, 292–321)—the latter understood as setting out his own halakah (rules of conduct) within the framework of the law (Sigal)—one marvels that the early church, as the other NT documents testify, misunderstood Jesus so badly on this point; and even the first gospel, as we shall see, is rendered inconsistent.
  3. The LXX never uses plēroō (“fulfill”) to render qûm or cognates (which prefer histēmi [GK 2705] or bebaioō [“establish” or “confirm,” GK 1011]). The verb plēroō renders mālēʾ (GK 4848) and means “to fulfill.” In OT usage, this characteristically refers to the “filling up” of volume or time, meanings that also appear in the NT (e.g., Ac 24:27; Ro 15:19). But though the NT uses plēroō in a number of ways, we are primarily concerned with what is meant by “fulfilling” the Scriptures. Included under this head are specific predictions, typological fulfillments, and even the entire eschatological hope epitomized in the OT by God’s covenant with his people (cf. C. F. D. Moule, “Fulfillment Words in the New Testament: Use and Abuse,” NTS 14 [1967–68]: 293–320; see comments at 2:15).

The lack of background for plēroō as far as it applies to Scripture requires cautious induction from the NT evidence. In a very few cases, notably James 2:23, the NT writers detect no demonstrable predictive force in the OT passage introduced. Rather, the OT text (in this case Ge 15:6) in some sense remains “empty” until Abraham’s action “fulfills” it. But Genesis 15:6 does not predict the action. Most NT uses of plēroō in connection with Scripture, however, require some teleological force (see Notes, 1:22); and even the ambiguous uses presuppose a typology that in its broadest dimensions is teleological, even if not in every detail (see comments at 2:15). In any case, the interchange of mālēʾ (“fulfill”) and qûm (“establish”) in the Targumim is not of sufficient importance to overturn the LXX evidence, not least owing to problems of dating the Targumim (cf. Meier, Law and History, 74; Banks, Jesus and the Law, 208–9).

Other views are not much more convincing. Many argue that Jesus is here referring only to moral law: the civil and ceremonial law are indeed abolished, but Jesus confirms the moral law (e.g., Hendriksen; D. Wenham, “Jesus and the Law: An Exegesis on Matthew 5:17–20,” Them 4 [1979]: 92–96). Although this tripartite distinction is old, its use as a basis for explaining the relationship between the Testaments is not demonstrably derived from the NT and probably does not antedate Aquinas (cf. R. J. Bauckham’s chapters in Carson, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day; Carson, “Jesus and the Sabbath”). Also, the interpretation is invalidated by the all-inclusive “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen” (v. 18).

Others understand the verb plēroō to mean that Jesus “fills up” the law by providing its full, intended meaning (so Lenski), understood perhaps in terms of the double command to love (so O. Hanssen, “Zum Verständnis der Bergpredigt,” in Der Ruf Jesu und die Antwort der Gemeinde [ed. Edward Lohse; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1970], 94–111). This, however, requires an extraordinary meaning for plēroō, ignores the “jot and tittle” of v. 18, and misinterprets 22:34–40.

Still others, in various ways, argue that Jesus “fills up” the OT law by extending its demands to some better or transcendent righteousness (v. 20), again possibly understood in terms of the command to love (e.g., Lagrange; Grundmann; A. Feuillet, “Morale ancienne et morale chrétienne d’après Mt 5:17–20; Comparaison avec la doctrine de l’épître aux Romains,” NTS 17 [1970–71]: 123–37, esp. 124; Trilling, Das wahre Israel, 174–79). Thus the reference to prophets (v. 17) becomes obscure, and the entire structure is shaky in view of the fact that mere extension of law will not abolish any of its stringencies—yet in both Matthew and other NT documents some abolition is everywhere assumed. H. Ljungman (Das Gesetz erfüllen [Lund: Gleerup, 1954]) takes the “fulfillment” to refer to the fulfillment of Scripture in the self-surrender of the Messiah, which in turn brings forgiveness of sins and the new righteousness the disciples are both to receive and to do. But in addition to weaknesses of detail, it is hard to see how all this can be derived from vv. 17–20.

The best interpretation of these difficult verses says that Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets in that they point to him, and he is their fulfillment. The antithesis is not between “abolish” and “keep” but between “abolish” and “fulfill.” “For Matthew, then, it is not the question of Jesus’ relation to the law that is in doubt but rather its relation to him!” (R. Banks, “Matthew’s Understanding of the Law: Authenticity and Interpretation in Matthew 5:17–20,” JBL 93 [1974]: 226–42). Therefore, we see in plēroō (“fulfill”) exactly the same meaning as in the formula quotations, which in the prologue (Mt 1–2) have already laid great stress on the prophetic nature of the OT and the way it points to Jesus (see Davies and Allison; France [TNTC]; Gibbs; Turner; Roland Deines, Die Gerechtigkeit der Tora im Reich des Messias: Mt 5:13–20 als Schlüsseltext der mattäischen Theologie [WUNT 177; Tübingen: Mohr, 2004]). Even OT events have this prophetic significance (see comments at 2:15). “It is eschatological actualization that is in view” (Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel, New Covenant Theology [Frederick, Md.: New Covenant Media, 2002], 115). A little later Jesus insists that “all the Prophets and the Law prophesied” (11:13).

The manner of the prophetic foreshadowing varies. The exodus, Matthew argues (2:15), foreshadows the calling out of Egypt of God’s “son.” The writer to the Hebrews argues that many cultic regulations of the OT pointed to Jesus and are now obsolete. In the light of the antitheses (vv. 21–48), the passage before us insists that just as Jesus fulfilled OT prophecies by his person and actions, so he fulfilled OT law by his teaching. In no case does this “abolish” the OT as canon, any more than the obsolescence of the Levitical sacrificial system abolishes tabernacle ritual as canon. Instead, the OT’s real and abiding authority must be understood through the person and teaching of him to whom it points and who so richly fulfills it.

As in Luke 16:16–17, Jesus is not announcing the termination of the OT’s relevance and authority (else Lk 16:17 would be incomprehensible), but that “the period during which men were related to God under its terms ceased with John” (Moo, “Jesus and the Authority of the Mosaic Law,” esp. 23); and the nature of its valid continuity is established only with reference to Jesus and the kingdom. The general structure of this interpretation has been well set forth by Banks (Jesus and the Law), Meier (Law and History), Moo (“Jesus and the Authority of the Mosaic Law”; see also his “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses: A Modified Lutheran View,” in The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian [ed. Wayne G. Strickland; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993], 319–76), Wells and Zaspel (New Covenant Theology), and, at a popular level, Carson (Sermon on the Mount, 33–40). For a somewhat similar approach, see McConnell (Law and Prophecy, 96–97), who points out that Jesus’ implicit authority is also found in the closing verses of the sermon (7:21–23) where as eschatological Judge he exercises the authority of God alone. Of course, if Jesus fulfills the law and the prophets in this eschatological sense, such fulfillment brings with it both continuity and discontinuity. The authority of the older revelation is not called into question, but its continuing power lies not in unchanging legal prescription but in that to which it points, its fulfillment.

Several objections to this view have been raised. One is that the use of “to fulfill” in the fulfillment quotations is in the passive voice, whereas here the voice is active. But it is doubtful whether much can be made out of this distinction (cf. Meier, Law and History, 80–81). Perhaps one of the weightiest objections has come from Greg Welty (“Eschatological Fulfilment and the Confirmation of Mosaic Law: A Response to D. A. Carson and Fred Zaspel on Matthew 5:17–48” [http://www.the-highway.com/mosaic-law_Welty.html], last revised on March 28, 2002). Welty’s lengthy discussion depends almost entirely on his claim that what is being argued here is that OT prophecies are fulfilled in Jesus’ person and actions, while OT law is fulfilled in the teaching of Jesus. But that means the former category cannot be used as a reliable analogy of the latter—and the latter Welty finds incoherent for a number of reasons. But it is very doubtful that such a sharp antithesis can legitimately be introduced:

(a) Matthew 11:13 insists that both the Law and the Prophets prophesy. Similarly here: Jesus comes to fulfill both the Law and the Prophets.

(b) It is not only OT prophecies (understood as verbal predictions) that “prophesy” and are “fulfilled,” but very frequently the “prophecies” are in fact legal structures and institutions that “prophesy” and are “fulfilled.” They are, in short, typologies that establish patterns that point forward. That is presupposed by Paul, for instance, when he tells us that Christ our Passover has been sacrificed (1 Co 5:7): the legally established Passover of the Mosaic covenant is a prophecy that anticipates the ultimate “Passover.” It is presupposed again when texts that describe David or some other early Davidic king are said to be “fulfilled” in King Jesus, the ultimate Davidide.

(c) When one speaks of “prophecy” and “fulfillment” in this larger eschatological sense, inevitably there is both continuity and discontinuity between the prophecy and the fulfillment. If X in some sense prophesies Y, and Y in some sense fulfills X, it is impossible to think of continuity alone. Equally, however, it is impossible to think of discontinuity alone, for all links between X and Y would disappear. If the ancient Passover celebration anticipates Christ our Passover, the discontinuities are plain: Jesus is not a literal lamb, his blood was never put on the two doorposts and the lintel, he is not eaten by a family, and so forth. Yet the fundamental continuity is equally plain: Just as the death of the Passover lamb and the sprinkling of its blood ensured that the angel of death “passed over” the house, so the death of Christ our Passover and the shedding of his blood ensure that those protected by Christ escape the certainty of death and judgment. The Passover ritual simultaneously looked back to the Passover night in Egypt, and looked forward to the ultimate Passover sacrifice.

(d) One must not forget the commonplace observation that tōrâ (GK 9368), “law,” fundamentally means “instruction” rather than “legal demand” (Lat. lex). The “instructions” or “laws” related to the observation of Passover celebrations clearly (from the perspective of NT writers) point forward to the ultimate Passover. It is difficult to imagine why “laws” such as “Do not commit murder” might not also point forward to something deeper—not merely the prohibition of murder but the promised transformation of God’s image bearers such that they will love. The orientation, in other words, is eschatological. In other words, the bifurcations that Welty detects simply are not there.

(e) It appears that the fundamental reason why Welty cannot allow something called “law” to foreshadow the teaching of Jesus is that he is operating with an a priori definition of moral law. Thus in the antitheses (vv. 21–48), when Jesus says, for instance, that under his authority the prohibition of adultery includes the prohibition of lust, Welty says this is merely unpacking moral dimensions that are implicit in the OT commandment; there is no discontinuity. But it is better to say that the “fulfillment” terminology suggests that all the moral dimensions Jesus delineates are not already in the legal antecedent but are precisely that to which the legal antecedent points. In other words, both Welty and this exposition usually come out at the same place when it comes to understanding what Jesus is teaching and demanding, but Welty claims such material was already present in the OT law—and thus he loses the eschatological framework, the sense that the new fulfills the old.

(f) The approach adopted here does not render useless the category of “moral law.” The difference is this: Welty and many others promote an a priori definition of moral law as that law which never changes, unlike civil and ceremonial law, both of which pass away as the locus of the people of God escapes the national boundaries of the OT and becomes an international community, and the ceremonies give way to the realities. This a priori understanding of moral law then becomes the criterion by which to establish patterns of continuity and discontinuity between the Testaments, without first taking on board the categories used by the biblical writers themselves. By contrast, one might usefully come up with an a posteriori (“after the fact”) definition of moral law. One might attempt to delineate the patterns of continuity and discontinuity between the Testament on their own terms and then label “moral” those instructions and laws that change the least across time (contra Richard Barcellos, In Defense of the Decalogue: A Critique of New Covenant Theology [Enumclaw, Wash.: Winepress, 2001]).

(g) Finally, we should reflect on 7:12, where, we are told, the Golden Rule “sums up” the Law and the Prophets. The verb used is estin (“is,” GK 1639)—but transparently this verb takes on various emphases from its context. It cannot in 7:12 be making an ontological claim (that would be silly); the NIV attempts to catch the idea by rendering it “sums up.” One might as easily supply “fulfills,” as in Acts 2:16 and elsewhere. This is all the more attractive when one observes that 7:12 closes the body of the Sermon on the Mount as the paragraph vv. 17–20 opens it.

Three theological conclusions are inevitable. First, if the antitheses (vv. 21–48) are understood in the light of this interpretation of vv. 17–20, then Jesus is not engaged there primarily in extending, annulling, or intensifying OT law but in showing the direction in which it points, on the basis of his own authority (to which, again, the OT points). This may work out in any particular case to have the same practical effect as “intensifying” the law or “annulling” some element; but the reasons for that conclusion are quite different. On the ethical implications of this interpretation, see the essay by Moo (“Jesus and the Authority of the Mosaic Law”).

Second, if vv. 17–20 are essentially authentic (cf. Davies, Christian Origins, 31–66) and the above interpretation is sound, the christological implications are important. Here Jesus presents himself as the eschatological goal of the OT and thereby its sole authoritative interpreter, the one through whom alone the OT finds its valid continuity and significance.

Third, this approach eliminates the need to pit Matthew against Paul, or Palestinian Jewish Christians against Pauline Gentile believers, the first lot adhering to Mosaic stipulations and the second abandoning them. Nor do we need the solution of Brice Martin (“Matthew and Paul on Christ and the Law: Compatible or Incompatible Theologies?” [PhD diss., McMaster Univ., 1976]), who argues that Matthew’s and Paul’s approaches to law are noncomplementary but noncontradictory; they simply employ different categories. This fails to wrestle with Matthew’s positioning of Jesus within the history of redemption; and Paul well understood that the Law and the Prophets pointed beyond themselves (e.g., Ro 3:21; Gal 3–4; cf. Ro 8:4). The focus returns to Jesus, which is where, on the face of it, both Paul and Matthew intend it to be. The groundwork is laid out in the Gospels for an understanding of Jesus as the one who established the essentially christological and eschatological approach to the OT employed by Paul. But this is made clearer in v. 18.[3]


[1] MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 97). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 248–259). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 172–177). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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