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Matthew 5:17-20 “Fulfilling the Law and the Prophets”

Do not suppose that I come to dismantle the Law or the Prophets. I do not come to dismantle but to fulfill. For truly I say to you until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota or letter stroke will ever pass away from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever loosens the least of one of these commandments and teaches the same of men, he will be called least in the kingdom from heaven. So, whoever does and teaches them, this one will be called great in the kingdom from heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses more than the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter into the kingdom from heaven.

Because Jesus’ remarks about His disciples’ blessed status (vv. 11-12), and as salt and light (vv. 13-16) seem to contradict expectations of the whole nation of Israel fulfilling those terms and roles, it could be misunderstood that Jesus is breaking away from Old Testament expectations. To this we could add that what follows (5:21-48) has the appearance of contrary teaching from what is found in the Old Testament. It is thus necessary for Jesus to set a foundational precedent of biblical fidelity at the very beginning of His sermon. This precedent is first made with the utmost candor and then supported and applied to His audience. Jesus does not reinterpret, reinvent, spiritualize, or superimpose alternative meaning or nuance upon the text of Scripture.

Jesus’ approach to Scripture should be noted and imitated, for the church today has many poor alternative examples to choose from. There are myriads of ridiculous teachings regarding the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament and the necessity to triage various portions of Scripture. Silly men say silly things. Jesus is not silly. Here, our Lord affirms that the New Testament does not interpret the Old but completes it. Likewise, He affirms that there is no such thing as doctrinal triage and warns those who commit such evils to cease and desist before it is too late.

The Foundational Precedent (v. 17)

Jesus is certainly breaking away from something, but it is away from the traditions of men rather than the commandments of God. Both the scribes and the Pharisees had a particular way of teaching and applying the Scriptures to the effect that to offer an alternate interpretation or application was considered as changing the divine command itself.[1] Tampering with Scripture is not to be taken lightly. The nation of Israel was warned never to add nor subtract from the commandments of Yhwh (Deut. 4:2; 12:32) and to execute any and all false prophets who speak presumptuously in Yhwh’s name (Deut. 18:20). In other words, the stakes are very high. For this reason, Jesus immediately heads off any possibility of an accusation.

The Statement Made

Do not suppose that I come to dismantle the Law or the Prophets.

The aorist subjunctive negated by μὴ (Μὴ νομίσητε) is the strongest negation in the Greek language. Jesus’ point is to prohibit the thought (don’t even think that I came to abolish…), not just the accusation (don’t say that I came to abolish…). To “abolish” or “dismantle” (καταλύω) conveys the idea of untying or loosening the ropes holding a tent up. In this light, Jesus is denying a possible accusation that He is breaking down the tent that is the Law and the Prophets. By “the Law” (τὸν νόμον) Jesus refers to the books of Moses (Genesis-Deuteronomy) also known as Torah (תּוֹרָה). The LXX almost exclusively translated the Hebrew תּוֹרָה with νόμος leading to the confusion that תּוֹרָה means “law” when “instruction” is closer to the mark. “The Prophets” (τοὺς προφήτας) refers to more than those books with a predictive bent or apocalyptic flare. The Hebrew canon attributes this title “The Prophets” to a portion of Scripture ranging from Joshua-Ezekiel, though the Hebrew canonical order differs from our modern English. In any case, Jesus clearly refers to the entirety of Old Testament Scripture by this reference to the Law and the Prophets.

It is noteworthy that Jesus presents the Old Testament in two parts. He refers to the Law or (ἤ) the Prophets. Jesus does not pit one against the other, nor hold one above the other. Rather, He is being precise. He states that He has not come to tear down, dismantle, abolish, or alter the Old Testament in any capacity. He comes to dismantle neither the Law nor the Prophets. The Old Testament stands together and will be left unmolested. That is a bold and orthodox statement but given what Jesus has already said concerning His disciples (vv. 11-14) and what He is about to say concerning various commandments (vv. 21-48), that statement requires some clarification.

The Statement Clarified

I do not come to dismantle but to fulfill.

This is a necessary statement because it is obvious to all who have heard Jesus speak up to this point that He certainly is interacting with the Law and the Prophets in a greater capacity than to simply affirm them. Jesus speaks of His mission here. The present aspect “I come” (ἦλθον) does not refer to a past action (I have come) but a present reality (I am here). Jesus here explains why He was born of a virgin, grew up under the Law, was baptized by John, and is presently on a mountaintop teaching His disciples. This would also include why He will move on from here to perform miracles, healings, be crucified, buried, and rise from the dead. All of this is reflected in “I come.” The two infinitives that follow reflect the purpose of this advent. Jesus is here not to dismantle (οὐκ καταλῦσαι) but rather to fulfill (ἀλλὰ πληρῶσαι).

There is no shortage of debate regarding the meaning of “fulfill” in this verse, but the text provides us with several clues. First, whatever “fulfill” means, it is used as the antithesis of “dismantle” or “abolish”. As the antithesis of dismantle/abolish/annul, Jesus is at the very least affirming the Old Testament as it is.

Second, “fulfill” (πληρόω) might be expected to share a similar meaning here as it has previously in Matthew’s Gospel (1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 3:15; 4:14). To “fulfill” is not a difficult term to understand. It means to fill up, to make full what was empty or lacking, to complete what was left unfinished. The reason Jesus is here is not to dismantle the Old Testament but to bring it into a state of completion. The entirety of the Old Testament is future facing as they anticipate the coming Seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15), the Prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15), Seed of David (2 Sam. 7:12-16), the restoration of Israel and salvation of the nations (Is. 49:1-7), return of Yhwh’s glory to a future built temple (Ezek. 43:1-5), and the establishment of Yhwh’s kingdom (Ps. 72; Obad. 21). The Old Testament freely admits that none of these things have been fulfilled and eagerly anticipates them. Jesus thus states that it is His mission, the reason why He is come, to fulfill these things that are lacking.

Finally, while there is an obvious expectation of Jesus fulfilling the Old Testament by what He will do (actively living up to Old Testament types and accomplishing the work of Messiah through active obedience to Yhwh), the context here emphasizes Jesus’ teaching more than His actions. We do not deny that Jesus actively fulfilled the Old Testament through His actions. However, the near context suggests an emphasis upon Jesus’ words as fulfilling the Old Testament. While we deny that the New Testament should hold priority over the Old Testament, we joyfully acknowledge that Jesus is the expositor par excellence. What He has said about His disciples (vv. 11-16) and what He is about to say regarding Old Testament command (vv. 21-48) does not contradict or dismantle the Old Testament but fills out and completes their understanding. Jesus is come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, meaning that He is come to (a) physically accomplish all that the Scriptures say He will accomplish and (b) make clear through His teaching what the Scriptures have already said. He is come to fulfill the Old Testament’s expectations and fill out its implications and no man is to think otherwise.

The Precedent Supported and Applied (vv. 18-20)

Such a statement requires development. Both vv. 18&20 begin with the statement “for truly I say to you/For I say to you” (ἀμῆν γὰρ λέγω ὑμῖν/Λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν) indicating two points in this development. The first (vv. 18-19) support the statement by affirming and explaining the Old Testament’s validity, purpose, and importance while the second (v. 20) brings out the immediate application.

Support for the Precedent (vv. 18-19)

Jesus includes these verses as an explanation. It is ridiculous to think that He intends to abolish the Law because (γὰρ) they simply cannot be undone. These verses together do much to affirm the lasting validity and importance of the Old Testament, yet they do so in two different areas. In v. 18 Jesus affirms the nature of the Old Testament while in v. 19 He draws out the implications of how one interacts with the Old Testament.

The Law’s Validity & Purpose (v. 18)

For truly I say to you until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota or letter stroke will ever pass away from the Law until all is accomplished.

Truly” (ἀμὴν) translates a Hebraic expression that indicates truth, faithfulness, fidelity, and affirmation. This is the sort of expression that a worshiping congregation would respond to their leader’s faithful statement. Here Jesus does not expect a response from His audience but includes it for them, not at the conclusion of the statement but at the beginning. He affirms His own statement before He begins! The prophets began their preaching with “thus sayeth the Lord”, the apostles with “it is written”, but the Lord Jesus Christ simply says “truly, I say to you.”[2]

The longevity of the Old Testament is pronounced in terms related to the created order. The point of calling both the heavens and the earth to bear witness to Yhwh’s covenant with Israel (Deut. 4:26; 30:19; 31:28; 32:1) was to emphasize the fact that though the individuals may come and go, the covenant witnesses remain. Jesus bases this statement on the Noahic Covenant (Gen. 8:20-9:17), a covenant which promises stability upon the earth so that life may thrive. The point is very simple, can God be trusted to uphold His promise that seed time would be followed by harvest and that day will be followed by night (Gen. 8:22)? Can God be trusted not to destroy or dismantle the world with a flood (9:8-17)? Is there still ground beneath your feet and is there a sky above your heads? Then the Old Testament is still in effect. But to what extent is the Old Testament in effect?

Jesus’ precision cannot be overstated. Most versions say something like “the smallest letter or stroke” (NASB) when translating ἰῶτα ἕν ἤ μία κεραία. Literally the Greek reads “one iota or one horn.” An iota is the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet (ι) made even smaller in some cases when used as a subscript letter placed underneath another letter (ῃ). The iota subscript isn’t even pronounced in Koine Greek, and yet Jesus states plainly that the Greek versions of the Old Testament will not even be altered so as to neglect a single one. The “little horn” refers to the smallest stroke of a pen that distinguishes one letter from another. Several Hebrew letters are distinguished by the smallest of strokes. Compare ך vs. ד vs. ה. English equivalents are common enough. There is but a stroke or two that distinguishes a P from a B or an F. Imagine the implications of confusing PIN for BIN or FIN. A single stroke can change the whole meaning of a sentence. Imagine the implications of reading יְהוָה אֶחָד (Yhwh is one – Deut. 6:4) vs. יְהוָה אַחֵר (Yhwh is another). So long as the Noahic Covenant is in effect (everlasting covenant), not the least stroke of a pen will be altered, changed, modified, or invalidated from the Law until all is accomplished.

This is an interesting point, that the Law is purposed to be accomplished. How can one expect the Law to be changed if all that the Law predicts and anticipates has not yet come to fruition? Such thinking is madness! Jesus is not suggesting that the Law will pass away into irrelevance once such thing happens but rather that to suggest that the Law is invalid before it is accomplished betrays a failure to trust the Law at all. One can believe that the Law will be completed as it presents itself, or one can reject the whole Law. But it is impossible to affirm the Law one the one hand while attempting to alter it on the other. In the most emphatic way possible, Jesus affirms the present and ongoing validity and purpose of the Old Testament.

The Law’s Immediate Importance (v. 19)

Therefore, whoever loosens the least of one of these commandments and teaches the same of men, he will be called least in the kingdom from heaven. So, whoever does and teaches them, this one will be called great in the kingdom from heaven.

If the Old Testament remains valid so long as the earth and atmosphere remain intact, then there are serious implications for those who live and teach as if this is not so. Many foolish men (modern day scribes and Pharisees) attempt to twist our Savior’s words into making an admission that there are some commandments that are of lesser importance than others.[3] While it is true that the unbelieving Jews dissected the Law in such a dishonorable way,[4] it is a wonder that Jesus would argue so precisely for the Laws validity only to undermine the whole by calling some of the law “lighter/lesser” than other parts. To argue for unity only to allow for triage betrays a weakness of logic that could never describe the most brilliant apologist in history. To fully appreciate what is going on here, let us make a few points.

First, the comparison between the least and the greatest is not between rebels and the redeemed but between faithful and sloppy disciples. Both the least and the greatest are said to be in the kingdom which is from heaven. Second, the action being described is similar, but not identical to that of dismantling (v. 17). Jesus warns against the one who would loosen (λύςῃ), not dismantle (καταλῦσαι). His focus is on just one of these commandments, not the whole body of the Law and the Prophets. His language is very precise. The idea is not that this one believes and teaches an alternative to the Old Testament but that he weakens, loosens, or lays aside just one of the hundreds of commands contained in the Law. To consider even one of the Old Testament’s commands as least and thus ignore it and teach others to ignore it is enough to earn the lowest possible place in the coming kingdom. True, this one is still in the kingdom. But only as one who escaped a fire.

On the other hand, the one who adopts Jesus’ orthodoxy and orthopraxy (he does and teaches) by both affirming and upholding the Old Testament, this one is called great in the kingdom. To the one who takes every jot and tittle seriously will be called a good and faithful slave.

John Nolland makes an important observation on this point: “Despite the strong link with action here, it is important to note that the framework of thought does not encourage us to think in terms of a need for moral perfection: the issue is not the degree of success in resisting temptation but rather recognition of and commitment to the will of God in all its breadth, depth, and detail.[5] In other words, what separates the least from the greatest is not attempts at perfection, but (a) the content of their faith in its totality and (b) the application of their faith. The details matter.

Application of the Precedent (v. 20)

For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses more than the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter into the kingdom from heaven.

With this second statement of authoritative address, Jesus returns to His disciples for the purpose of applying the concepts He has introduced. He first produces a condition: superior righteousness to the scribes and Pharisees. The scribes and Pharisees are not necessarily descriptions of the same people. “Scribes” refers to those men who devote their lives to studying and teaching the Old Testament, particularly the Law. The Pharisees are not necessarily professional scholars (most weren’t) but were men devoted to a specific way of practicing the commands of Scripture. It is not that these men are particularly morally wicked, for they were all seen as pillars of society and models to immolate in many ways. Rather, it was that their understanding (scribes) and practice (Pharisees) were superficial and deficient. These are men who did triage the Scriptures into major and minor points and thus provided men with a ready-made formula on how to “keep” these laws. They failed to see that every command in the Old Testament is there for a reason and contains implications that cannot be ignored or loosened.

The result of having a righteousness that does not surpass the superficial and deficient righteousness the scribes and Pharisees is that one does not enter into the kingdom which is from heaven. This draws all things to a very pointed head. Jesus stated in the clearest of terms that the scribes and the Pharisees (the most brilliant scholars of the Bible and those who practice the strictest observance) are not kingdom citizens. The disciples are those described in vv. 3-10 while the religious establishment is certainly not. They have not loosened just one of the commandments but have altered the whole course of the Law’s teaching. Jesus’ point is very simple: He is the standard for teaching and righteousness, not religious men. Follow Him Alone.

In the verses that follow, Jesus will prove that (a) His teaching fulfills the Old Testament and (b) the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees dismantles that which stands as long as the heavens and earth endure.

[1] Grant Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 179.

[2] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 109.

[3] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 210-12.

[4] John Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, An American Commentary on the New Testament (Forgotten Books, 2012), p. 101.

[5] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), p. 223.

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