In Jesus, “all the promises of God are Yea and Amen,” and the “Law and Prophets” find their fulfillment – Matthew 5:17-21.
Fulfillment and Kingdom are prominent themes in Matthew’s gospel. With the arrival of the Messiah, the season of fulfillment began, and all things anticipated in the “Law and Prophets” were coming to fruition. But what were the implications for the Mosaic Law? Fortunately, Jesus provided us with a direct answer to that question.
He did come to adjudicate any of the interpretive disputes between competing Jewish sects over legal details. And his focus was not on how to keep it blamelessly, or whether it must be restored to some pristine condition free of later traditions. Instead, Jesus summed up his mission as one fulfillment:
- (Matthew 5:17-20) – “Do not think that I came to pull down the law or the prophets, I came not to pull down, but to fulfill. For verily I say to you until the heaven and the earth shall pass away, not one least letter or one point will pass away from the law till all be fulfilled. Whosoever, therefore, shall relax one of these commandments, even the least one, and teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of the heavens, but whosoever shall do and teach, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of the heavens. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, in nowise may you enter the kingdom of the heavens.”
The Pharisees kept the law scrupulously, having hedged it about with a myriad of oral traditions and regulations. And the Sadducees rejected their “oral law,” and instead insisted that only what was written in the Torah itself is authoritative. But Jesus intended something beyond the disputes that raged between these sects.
His most consistent opponents were the Pharisees, not because he kept the law more scrupulously than they, but because of his looseness to some requirements of the Law, at least, as interpreted by the “traditions of the elder.” And if he had come simply to reaffirm the Torah as originally written, why did the Sadducees find it necessary to conspire to deliver him to the Roman governor for execution?
Certainly, he did not come to dismantle the “law or the prophets.” And when he stated this, he was referring to the entire body of the inspired writings that constituted the Hebrew Bible, and not just to the Torah itself. In the New Testament, “law and the prophets” is a summary statement for all that God revealed in the Hebrew scriptures – (Matthew 7:12, 11:13, 22:40, Luke 16:16, Acts 13:15, Romans 3:21).
But Jesus proved later that he was no rigorist when it came to the minutiae of the legal code, especially in his attitude toward Sabbath-keeping and dietary restrictions. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, a perspective that the strict legalist could never comprehend or endorse.
And his claim that neither “one jot nor one tittle” of the Law will pass away is a colorful way of describing the unchangeable nature of the expressed will of God, for it represents both His will and nature and therefore, it does not change. However, that does not mean His past revelations revealed everything about Him, or that it was His final word on every matter. And if it was His final and absolute word on everything, why, then, did He send His Son who brought new insights and teachings that went even further than the statutes and regulations received by Moses at Sinai?
Similarly, the author of Hebrews began his letter by stressing the supreme “word” of the Son, one that surpassed all previous “words” given in the prophets. In the past, God spoke “in many ways” and in “many parts,” here a little and there a little, but His final “word” was “spoken in His Son.”
The words “spoken in the prophets” were partial, promissory, and preparatory but not final. The very fact that the Levitical system of priests and sacrifices proved incapable of “achieving the purification of sins” or cleansing anyone’s “conscience from dead works to serve the living God” demonstrated that the older legislation was provisional and not complete or final.
And this “change in law” was anticipated by the prophets themselves when they predicted the coming “new covenant,” one of a different order than the Mosaic legislation, one in which God would write His laws on the hearts of His people so that everyone would know Him “from the least to the greatest” – (Jeremiah 31:31, Hebrews 8:6-13).
In the passage from Matthew, “fulfill” translates the Greek verb with the sense “to fill to the full, to make full, to fill up completely” (pléroō). And this is precisely the point and exactly what Jesus did – fulfill the Law AND the “prophets.” Furthermore, Matthew presents Jesus as nothing less than the fulfillment of what had been promised in the “law and the prophets.”
This understanding is borne out by the several antitheses that follow his declaration about the “law and prophets.” In each case, Jesus introduced a legal principle, then reinterpreted it on his own authority, as each time he began with the emphatic Greek pronoun egō, or “I, myself…” – (Matthew 5:21, 5:27, 5:31, 5:33, 5:38, 5:43).
In doing this, Jesus went straight to the heart of the matter. It is not enough simply not to kill. A disciple must abstain from hatred and anger, emotions that slip easily into violence and murder.
And the six antitheses provide real-life examples of what it means to have “righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees,” and to see the “law and prophets” fulfilled in one’s life.
And this is especially demonstrated in his explanation of how one “loves his neighbor as himself.” With their rigorist approach to the Law, the “scribes and Pharisees” interpreted this to mean they owed love only to their immediate “neighbor.” But Jesus expounded the true meaning of love by pointing to the nature of God Himself.
If He sends rain upon the just and the unjust, who are we to withhold love and mercy to our “enemies”? In fact, above all, it is by doing acts of kindness to our sworn “enemy” that we emulate God and become “perfect as He is.” Doing good to one’s “enemy” is the highest expression of the love commandment, and the ultimate expression of that divine statute was the sacrificial death of the Son of God who gave himself to reconcile men to God when they were yet His “enemies.”
In the new era inaugurated by Jesus, it is not conformance to the rigorous requirement of the Torah that determines entrance into his kingdom, but whether one obeys his words, including his interpretations of the Mosaic Law, words that Jesus invested with ultimate authority:
- “Not every person that says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven… whoever hears these sayings of mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man, who built his house upon a rock; and the rain descended and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house; and it fell not, for it was founded upon a rock. And every person that hears these sayings of mine and does them not shall be likened to a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand; and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7:22-27).
Thus, even if the disciple rigorously avoids committing acts of murder and adultery, as stipulated in the Law, if he continues to harbor hatred or lust, he fails to keep the commandments of Jesus and may very well find himself rejected by him on the day when it matters the most. The standard of righteousness demanded by him goes far beyond anything found in the Torah.
And the theme of fulfillment is threaded throughout Matthew. Most often, a citation formula is used to introduce a scriptural passage that has been fulfilled in Jesus, usually employing the verb “fulfill” (pléroō), and this understanding originated with Jesus himself (e.g., Matthew 3:15 – “It is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Compare Matthew 1:22, 2:15, 4:14, 8:17, 12:16-21. Also, Luke 24:44 – “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled”).
And fulfillment does not mean that the new revelation revealed by Jesus is unconnected with the old covenant, or that the Hebrew scriptures have been discarded. He came not “to pull down the law or the prophets, but to fulfill.” Thus, what was germinal in the Old Covenant has come to fruition in the new one inaugurated by Jesus. In him, “all the promises of God are Yea, wherefore also through him, Amen.” He is “the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” And he himself is the ultimate fulfillment of every “jot and tittle” found in the “law and prophets.”