How did Jesus fulfill the law? (Matthew 5:17-19)
In Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:
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. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17–19)
People have frequently appealed to these scriptures as proof that “the law” continues to be binding on Christians today. This is usually in response to the claim that Jesus did away with some aspect of the law by his death on the cross. For them, the meaning is that Jesus came to show what the law really means; or that Jesus fulfilled the law by obeying it perfectly, thus setting the perfect example for Christians to follow as they, too, fulfill the law.
There are problems with interpreting Matthew 5:17–19 in these ways. Note, first, that in verse 17 Jesus was speaking of the Law and the Prophets, not of the Law only. Jesus did not restrict that he had come to fulfill to the Mosaic Law code. He said he also came to fulfill the prophetic writings.
Second, Jesus said that “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (verse 18). If Jesus meant by “the Law” the Mosaic Law code, then even the most minor law of the old covenant has ongoing validity. This would mean that every ceremonial and sacrificial law continues to be binding on Christians. Few, if any, Christians believe that they must obey all the laws of the old covenant that God gave to the nation of Israel more than 3,000 years ago.
Therefore, what did Jesus mean when he said that he did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them, and that nothing would disappear from the Law until all is accomplished?
Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets by bringing them to their intended climax in himself. He fulfilled and continues to fulfill in himself all the types and prophecies of the Old Testament that pointed to him. Jesus made this clear after his resurrection. On the road to Emmaus with two of the disciples, Jesus revealed that everything that had recently happened in Jerusalem was spoken of by the prophets. “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them that was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).
Shortly afterwards Jesus appeared to the assembled group of apostles and disciples in Jerusalem. He said to them,
This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. (verse 44)
Luke here records Jesus as saying he fulfilled all three parts of the Old Testament — the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. (Psalms are representative of the Writings, as they are the first book of the third section of the Hebrew Old Testament.) It appears that “the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 5:17), “Moses and all the Prophets” (Luke 24:27), and “the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44) are synonymous terms for “all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27).
In verse 18 of Matthew 5, Jesus makes the point that nothing will disappear from the Law until all is accomplished. What did he mean by “the Law” here? It is unlikely Jesus meant merely the Mosaic Law code. That is because verse 18 builds on what Jesus said in verse 17. To repeat the full phrase “the Law and the Prophets” was unnecessary. “The Law” here represents all the Old Testament writings.1
The fulfillment (“until everything is accomplished”) takes place in the ministry, passion, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus. We can then take Jesus’ words literally, rather than having to make artificial distinctions about what laws Jesus may have had in mind that would not disappear. In Matthew 5:18 Jesus was emphasizing that nothing in the Old Testament that pointed to him could fail to occur.
Then Jesus proceeded to say that:
Anyone who breaks 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (verse 19)
What commandments was Jesus referring to here? Did he mean all the commands of the Old Testament, from the least to the greatest? If so, then the early church was wrong in concluding that physical circumcision was unnecessary to become a Christian. The answer is found in the context of the preceding verses, and in those that follow — the Sermon on the Mount. The commandments of the Old Testament are fulfilled in Christ (Romans 10:4), and as such are redefined and magnified according to his teaching.
Some laws of the old covenant, through their fulfillment in Christ, are not binding on Christians today. They include the ceremonial and sacrificial laws that foreshadowed Christ (Hebrews 10:1). However, other laws do have application in the life of the Christian. In Matthew 5:21–48, Jesus illustrated how certain old covenant commandments now applied through their fulfillment in him. He did not, as some people claim, make Old Testament laws “more binding,” so that Christians now obey according to both the letter and the Spirit, thereby enabling them to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees (verse 20). Rather, he redefined the law of God and showed its full spiritual intent. He established the spirit of the law as the norm for Christian behavior instead of the letter of the law (Romans 7:6).
Sometimes the letter of the law and the spirit of the law complement one another, as in Jesus’ teaching about murder and adultery (Matthew 5:21–30). With other laws, Jesus’ spiritual teaching overrides the letter of the law, as in divorce (verses 31–33). Elsewhere in the Gospels we read of Jesus’ application and defining of the law of God as fulfilled in him.
Thus, we should not see in Matthew 5:17–19 Jesus’ confirmation of the law of the old covenant as the law of God for Christians. Rather, Jesus explained that he fulfills in himself everything to which the Old Testament Scriptures point. He illustrated how the law of God given to Israel is transformed through its fulfillment in him.
Scot McKnight captures the essence of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:
In using his own teachings as the basis for righteousness, Jesus revealed that the OT Law and Prophets (Mt 5:17) were being fulfilled in his own teachings and that he is the Messiah. Jesus fulfilled the Law and so revealed a new standard of conduct (Mt 5:20). From the cross onward, the righteousness of God’s people is determined by conformity to the teachings of Jesus, which in turn fulfill the OT revelation of God’s will. Jesus expects his followers to be righteous in their conduct (Mt 5:6, 10), to do God’s will (Mt 7:12, 13–27) and to pursue justice (Mt 23:23 [krisis]; 25:37; Jn 7:24).
According to Jesus, only those who are righteous are finally acceptable to God (Mt 10:41; 12:37; 13:43, 49; 25:46; Lk 14:14; Jn 5:30). Again, this righteousness is not an outward conformity to the Law or an appeal to ritual observances, but the necessary fruit of commitment to Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Jesus illustrated the link between commitment and obedience at the end of his Sermon on the Mount: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them….” (Mt 7:21–27). (“Justice, Righteousness,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels [InterVarsity Press, 1992], 413)
1 In John 10:34, John quotes Jesus as using the term Law to refer to the entire Old Testament. Jesus asked the Jews, “Is it not written in your Law?” and then quoted Psalm 82:6. In this instance Jesus referred to the Hebrew Scriptures as a whole, not just the Pentateuch. See also
John 12:34 and 15:25.
Were the sacrificial laws added later? (Galatians 3:19 and Jeremiah 7:22)
Some churches teach that the laws of the old covenant apply to Christians today (except for the sacrificial laws). Christians are to obey these laws, not in the strictness of the letter, but according to their full spirit and intent. Thus, they teach the ongoing validity of old covenant laws such as the first, second and third tithes. One scripture sometimes used in support of this idea is Galatians 3:19a, where the apostle Paul wrote:
What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.
“The law” here is equated with the sacrificial law system that was part of the Law of Moses. This part of the Law of Moses was supposedly not part of the covenant made at Sinai, as recorded in Exodus 20–23. Rather, it was “added because of transgressions.” Because the Israelites sinned after the initial giving of the law, God gave them a regulated system of worship. It began about one year after the making of the Sinai covenant. The idea is that this is the law that came to an end when Christ came, and that all other old covenant laws are still in force.
The major weakness in this interpretation of Galatians 3:19 is that Exodus gives no indication that the sacrificial law was added to the covenant. Rather, the sacrificial system was an intrinsic part of the old covenant. God spoke of sacrifices even before the Israelites reached Sinai; they were part of the plan all along (Exodus 10:25; 20:24). Although the sacrifices began about one year after the covenant was made, preparations for them began almost immediately afterwards. It was not possible to begin the sacrifices without first building the tabernacle, instituting the priesthood, etc. (Exodus 25–40). Once these preparations were completed, the sacrifices began.
Jeremiah 7:22 is sometimes used to support the idea that sacrifices were a secondary addition. The New King James Version reads,
For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices.
This verse seems to support the idea that the sacrificial system was added later. However, according to Charles L. Feinberg, this verse illustrates the role that rhetorical negatives play in Hebrew. They highlight points of emphasis. The thing spoken of negatively is not literally being
denied. Its rhetorical denial emphasizes the greater importance of that with which it is contrasted. One needs to understand this idiom to grasp Jeremiah’s argument.
A rhetorical negation is used to point up antithesis between [Jeremiah 7] v.22 and v.23 more emphatically (cf. Deut. 5:3). Moreover, the negative in Hebrew often supplies the lack of the comparative — i.e., without excluding the thing denied, the statement implies only the prior importance of the thing set in contrast to it (Hos. 6:6). In short, the Hebrew idiom permits denial of one thing in order to emphasize another (cf. for a NT parallel Luke 14:26). The idiom does not intend to deny the statement but only to set it in a secondary place. (Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan, 1986], vol. 6, 431)
A close examination of Feinberg’s references to Deuteronomy 5:3 and Hosea 6:6 confirm his point. In Deuteronomy, Moses says that God did not make the old covenant with the fathers (or perhaps ancestors) of those who were about to enter the Promised Land. But that’s exactly what God did. In Hosea, God says to old covenant Israel that he does not desire sacrifices. In truth, under the old covenant, he did. As Feinberg has commented, these are not falsehoods, but rhetorical negatives to emphasize the things with which the negatives are compared. Further on Feinberg writes:
Judah had left out the main element: obedience to God. In view of the passages just cited, and in view of the Pentateuchal legislation, sacrifices were always meant to be of secondary importance to obedience and godliness. Neither Jeremiah nor any other prophet decried sacrifices as such. They meant that moral law is always paramount to the ritual law. (ibid.)
The New International Version seems to capture the intent of Jeremiah 7:22 (emphasis ours): “For when I brought your forefathers out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
This verse does not support the erroneous explanation of Galatians 3:19. In Galatians Paul teaches that the entire old covenant has come to an end through Christ. Paul is not referring to the sacrificial part of the Law of Moses only. There are many non-sacrificial laws of Moses that no longer apply, such as the law to wear tassels on garments, to travel to one central worship location for the annual festivals, etc.
Did Jesus confirm the Law of Moses for Christians? (Matthew 23:23)
A verse sometimes quoted to support the idea that the law of the old covenant is binding on Christians today is Matthew 23:23. Here Jesus said of the scribes and Pharisees:
Woe to you, teachers of the law, and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices — mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
The focus is put on the last sentence of the verse, “You should have practiced the latter….” Jesus’ words are interpreted to mean that Christians should practice the more important matters of the law without neglecting lesser laws, such as the old covenant laws of tithing.
While tithing is a valid biblical model for voluntary giving to the church to support the preaching of the gospel, this verse does not support the view that Jesus here confirmed the ongoing validity of old covenant law. Those who hold this interpretation overlook the context in which Jesus said these words.
Jesus was speaking to people who were under the old covenant. This covenant applied to them, and God required them to live by its terms. Verse 23 records part of Jesus’ condemnation of Pharisaic legalism (see the entire chapter). Among other things, the Pharisees were meticulous about fulfilling the letter of the law in their tithing, but ignored the weightier matters of the law. Yes, they should have been tithing as commanded in the Mosaic covenant, but they should have also been showing such things as love, justice and mercy.
Another illustration of Jesus commanding a person to fulfill the requirements of the Law of Moses is found in Mark 1:40–43. In this instance, Jesus healed a leper and said to him:
See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing as a testimony to them.
Just because Jesus instructed this man to offer sacrifices according to the requirements of the Mosaic Law does not mean that his words have universal applicability for Christians. The context determines the application. Jesus was speaking to a Jew under the old covenant. God does not require a Christian healed of leprosy to offer sacrifices as Jesus instructed this man. The Christian is under the new covenant, and different conditions apply. Matthew 23:23 was spoken to Jews under the old covenant; we cannot assume that its instructions apply to Christians today.
Author: John Curry