This article will combine a couple of my emphases. It continues my series of the Sermon on the Mount but it also connects with the series I did on the relationship between the Christian and the Law of Moses. I believe that the Law of Moses is done away as a rule of life for the believer while others point to these verses and say they teach otherwise. Theonomists, who teach that the Law of Moses is to be made the rule of law – the constitution – for the world, point to these verses as part of their justification.
“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I didn’t come to destroy them, but to fulfill them, because I tell you with certainty that until heaven and earth disappear, not one letter or one stroke of a letter will disappear from the Law until everything has been accomplished. So whoever sets aside one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom from heaven. But whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom from heaven because I tell you, unless your righteousness greatly exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom from heaven!” (Matthew 5:17-20)
This part is a change of subject from the previous section. Coming off talking about the Christian’s influence, he turns to matters of the Law. In my outline, the section starting here is titled; True Righteousness Affects Your Obedience.
To start off with some technical stuff, in the Greek language there are a couple of ways to say “do not think”. Written one way, it would mean “stop thinking” as if the speaker is correcting something that had already crossed the minds of the listeners. The other way would be translated “do not start thinking” as if the speaker is countering something that might cross the minds of the listeners. The Greek in this opening phrase is this second way. That accords with the thought that Jesus is introducing a new topic here. Some commenters say the “do not think” means that there already was a buzz about Jesus and some were hoping that he was going to overthrow the Law. Besides the grammar, it does not seem likely that part of Israel’s Messianic Hope was that the Messiah would throw off the Law of Moses. Before Jesus corrects the popular misconceptions of the Law, and before his public practicing of true righteousness (note that Jesus was called a law-breaker, though he broke no laws), he tells his listeners that he is not abolishing the Law but fulfilling it. Structurally, this section breaks down fairly neatly. It has a statement followed by two explanations (for) with one of the explanations having an inference (then). It can be outlined:
Statement: I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.
First explanation – I did not come to abolish the Law because it is permanent: Foruntil heavens and earth pass away …
Inference – do not annul or water down the Law: Whoever, then, annuls shall be called least …
Second explanation – I fulfill the Law because of the righteousness required: For unless your righteousness greatly exceeds …
Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I didn’t come to destroy them, but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17)
The contrast between abolish and fulfill is a significant issue in understanding what Jesus was saying. Those who wish to make the Law of Moses the law of the land say that this phrase should be translated “I have not come to annul the law but to confirm it”. In reality, the Greek words are far stronger in both cases. “Destroy” translates a word which means “throw down, destroy, abolish”. Other times in Matthew this word is used include the Temple stones will be “thrown down” (24:2) and “destroy” this temple (26:61). It seems the best corresponding word in the legal sense (we are talking about the Law) would be “abolish”.
The word translated “fulfill” means “to fill, complete, finish, fulfill”. It is used repeatedly in Matthew in the phrase “This took place to fulfill the Scriptures which said …” (1:22; 2:15 et al). How does Jesus fulfill the Law? Several options are offered.
First, it is taught that Jesus fulfills the Law by obeying it perfectly. Second, Jesus fulfilled its types and prophecies. Third, the phrase could be looking ahead to the whole section of showing the true teachings of the Law against rabbinical interpretation and nuancing. Fourth, some say that Jesus is pointing ahead to his sacrificial death which satisfied the demands of the Law. With the exception of this fourth point (which, frankly, I see as a sub-set of the second option) these all fit into the context of Matthew’s Gospel. As I said, Matthew repeatedly points out where Jesus’ actions accurately lived out the prophecies. The coming section of the sermon is one where Jesus gives true interpretation to the law against our nuancing for the sake of self-justification.
Historically, Christian theologians divide the regulations in the Law of Moses into three categories; Civil, Ceremonial and Moral. Outside of those who wish to make the whole Law binding (a small minority but very influential in today’s American political climate), most teach that the first two categories were fulfilled by Christ and/or were socially and politically only for the nation of Israel and so they are not binding on the Christian. The Moral part of the Law, they say, is still binding on the Believer (and everybody else). However, this division is not found biblically. The Scriptures teach that the Law is a unified whole which cannot be divided. In the book of Galatians, Paul argues that to legalistically submit to circumcision (a part of the Law – specifically being the sign of being in the nation of Israel), he is under obligation to the whole law (Galatians 5:3) Likewise, James says that if you fail to keep any one part of the Law he is guilty of breaking the whole law (James 2:10) When Jesus “fulfills” the Law it is in its entirety. However many categories one may find helpful in analyzing the Law, all of them are fulfilled in Christ.
Earlier at his Baptism, Jesus said it was to “fulfill all righteousness” (3:15). Righteousness, as I’ve said all along, is a key word for this sermon. This brief section I am addressing in this article ends with the declaration that the righteousness required to enter the kingdom “greatly exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees”. The millennia of reading the Gospels’ portrayal of the scribes and Pharisees may make it hard for us to realize that these guys were considered the religious holy men. “Pharisees” comes from the word meaning “separate ones”, indicating how they were viewed as “on another plane” in terms of holiness. For the ones listening to this sermon this would have been shocking to hear.
If one approaches righteousness as a shopping list to check off, this puts us on a futile and exhausting treadmill of doing things. A righteousness of lists and comparing yourself with others is not what Jesus is talking about. As Paul puts it, Apart from the Law, righteousness from God has been revealed (Romans 3:21). He also later contrasts the righteousness of lists this way not knowing the righteousness from God, they seek to establish their own and so do not submit to God’s righteousness (Romans 10:3) Like in the Galatians passage I quoted earlier, the choice is between relating to a Law, or relating to God. It is Jesus’ fulfilling of the Law (all righteousness) which establishes this greater righteousness. This greater righteousness is a matter of kind and not degree.
In this section, Jesus says he has not come to abolish the law because that covenant was permanently made between God and Israel. Rather, he came to fulfill the Law’s commands, types and prophecies and thus reveal the righteousness of God. This section does not establish or transfer the Law of Moses in any of its parts to the Christian Church, but rather speaks to the unity of the Law all of which fulfilled by Christ.