"...In the context of quite a long section of Matthew (chapters 5-7) which clearly challenges not only the previous Jewish interpretation of law but - clearly - also aspects of any law which comprises simply a list of 'do's and don't's, our Lord wanted to firstly clarify the position of the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament)..."
D oes Matthew 5:17-19 say that Jesus 'did away with the law'? What exactly did Jesus mean by His comments on fulfilling the law in these somewhat difficult verses? Here is a vital subject which has caused much controversy; lamentably it is also a subject which often produces much emotional heat but little in-depth theological consideration.
Let us look at this Scripture. Since there exists (unfounded) prejudice against the NIV Bible and I want to keep everybody with me for the next few minutes, I have decided to use the NKJV. Okay, these are the words of Jesus:
(Verse 17) 'Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfil.
(Verse 18) For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.
(Verse 19) Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
(Matthew 5:17-19 - NKJV).
The context here is that this was towards the beginning of Jesus' ministry; Jesus – having resisted Satan's temptation (Matthew 4:1-11), thereby effectively reducing his power to deceive (Matthew 10:1; Luke 10:17-20), was now ready to give more detailed teaching to His disciples, many of whom would be instrumental in laying the foundations of the Church. Matthew, chapters 5 through 7, contains the famous Sermon on the Mount which effectively outlines The Law of Christ and a whole new approach toward law which Christians would very much need to understand. Soon Jesus would seriously challenge the Jew's traditional understanding of the commandments and of the law in general (Matthew 5:21-48) in the six famous 'You have heard...but I say...' type-statements, but – first of all – Jesus wanted to ensure that the disciples correctly understood that the Old Testament still held a valid place in the Scriptures.
The Vital Teaching.
a. Verse 17.
The 'Law and the Prophets' which Jesus refers to in verse 17 is a clear reference to the Hebrew Bible – what we now call the Old Testament. This was known as 'The Law, Prophets and Writings' – 'The Law' was the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses), The Prophets (self-explanatory) and the 'Writings' were the wisdom books (Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes etc). So this is a reference to the validity of the Old Testament: the Old Testament continues to have validity, it is and aways will be divinely-inspired Scripture! Jesus would soon make some quite sensational comments as He outlined how the New Covenant would be dramatically different to the 'ministration written on stones', but He first wished to ensure that His listeners correctly understood the ongoing validity of the Old Testament as Holy Scripture! (Sometimes the Old Testament was called 'The Law and the Prophets' but at other times 'The Law, Prophets and Writings' - compare Matthew 5:17 with Matthew 7:12, Luke 16:16-17 and Romans 3:21. Also check out Luke 24:27,44. In verse 44 the Old Testament is described as 'the law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms').
So if Jesus had used modern English in verse 17, He might have said something like,
'Do not think that I have come to overturn/destroy the authority of the Old Testament – in fact, I have come to fulfil the things in the Old Testament.'
Some mistakenly think that this statement addresses whether Christians should still keep the law and spend many hours arguing about what 'fulfil' means, when it should be obvious to all of us what that word means, but check out our inset article! (inset article not in the printer-friendly version).
So we need to understand that, in verse 17, Jesus is talking about the validity of the Hebrew Scriptures - He is not talking about obedience among the faithful! Failure to understand this point has caused much confusion.
b. Verse 18.
Verse 18 corroborates that Jesus had been referring to Holy Scripture in the preceding verse by His comment that 'one jot or tittle' will by no means pass from the Law. 'One jot' means the smallest written letter. In English we sometimes say, 'it doesn't make one iota of difference' – referring to a small Greek letter. This is the Greek equivalent to the smallest Hebrew letter, 'yodh' which Jesus undoubtedly had in mind since He was discussing the Old Testament, written of course in Hebrew. What about 'tittle'? This refers to the stroke involved in writing just part of a letter (such as crossing one's 't's in English) – actually this is all made completely clear in the NIV Bible, where it is rendered,
'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.'
Again, let us remind ourselves that Jesus obviously challenged much of what the Pharisees and scribes said and did and - in this very chapter - He would soon make some amazing statements about a new understanding of law – so He initially tells His listeners, and you and I today, that, despite everything, the Old Testament must continue to be considered as 'Holy Writ'. Indeed He Himself would fulfil numerous things written therein. Jesus was concerned that we should all continue to learn about, and to be inspired, by people like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and the Prophets – indeed so many things in the Old Testament continually point to Jesus. So the Old Covenant might be dead, but the Old Testament must not be put aside.
Oh, the other point to mention is that Jesus just says 'Law' in verse 18 (correctly capitalized in the NIV but incorrectly left uncapitalized in the NKJV), however the context leaves us in no doubt that He continues to discuss what we call the Old Testament – which is why 'Law' should be capitalized. It could be argued that since Jesus only mentions 'Law' in verse 18 He is only referring to the Torah here but there is no reason to assume that – the context has already clearly been established in the previous verse, Jesus is referring to the Old Testament Scriptures; He chooses to say 'Law' because He is summarizing in this verse.
c. Verse 19.
The word 'commandments' (Greek, 'entolay' - '1785' in Strongs) indeed refers loosely to the 'commandments', but it is a little loose and can refer to other instructions. It can certainly refer to the Ten Commandments (Matthew 10:19; Luke 18:20), but in Colossians 4:10 it means 'instructions' where Paul refers to instructions concerning Barnabas, Mark and Aristarchus. In Titus 1:14 it refers to 'the commandments of men' - NKJV, ('the commands of those who reject the truth' - NIV). Today we might say, 'the rules' or 'standards' of those who reject the truth.
To digress just for one moment, we may note that the Apostle John has a huge preference to use 'entolay' when referring to the teachings of Jesus and to the great moral and spiritual law which lies behind the Ten Commandments, yet which is infinitely greater than it – the 'Law of Christ' – which is what Jesus expounds in Matthew 5-7. There are many examples of John's use of this word, just notice John 14:15,21 and every appearance of 'commandments' in his First Epistle (usually rendered 'commands' in the NIV). Many carelessly assume that these are references to the Ten Commandments as a code - when they patently are often not. Finally, John defines his own use of 'entolay' in 1 John 3:22-23:
'And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight. And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment.'
This comment by John certainly does not rule out that he would ever use 'entolay' when discussing the Ten Commandments, but it does show that he understands the word in a broad, rather than in a specific, sense.
But to return to Matthew 5: In verse 19, Jesus could have said, 'Whoever breaks even the smallest part of the law (nomos), and teaches men so...' but He plainly decided not to do so, preferring to use 'commandments' (entolay) which is broader and may mean the Ten Commandments or any divine teaching instructions or admonitions from God to Mankind (in this context-type).
But – certainly - We must understand that 'entolay' does not mean 'law' - The Greek word used for 'law' in the New Testament is almost invariably 'nomos' (word '3551' in Strongs).
So when Jesus says, 'Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments...' is He necessarily referring to Old Covenant law, or to the Ten Commandments specifically? After all, He is talking about the ongoing importance of the Old Testament Scriptures here. I would say no, although He may well have had the Ten Commandments somewhat in mind - yet there are clear difficulties here - Which commandment of the ten would be 'the least of these commandments' ? Certainly He is clearly not discussing the whole package of Old Covenant law in view of the comments He would later make in this chapter, and comments which people like Paul would later be inspired to make. Therefore I suggest that Jesus is simply discussing whether or not one is obedient toward God and to His revelation to Mankind; He backs up the authority of the Old Testament and is telling us that we should also back up its authority (It is true, of course, that the era of the 'Law and Prophets' has now passed and many things in the Old Testament may no longer be applicable to Christians – as Luke makes very clear in Luke 16:16). The point is: are we willing to obey God and walk in faith towards divine commands and instructions and admonitions – even what may appear to be more minor ones? This is surely what Jesus' central point is here!
The Following Verses Explain Much More...
As this chapter continues beyond our specific verses of consideration we may well imagine how shocked Jesus' very first listeners would have been to hear some of His comments – this is why – first of all – Jesus established that the Hebrew Scriptures would have ongoing authority as inspired Scripture. Lets look at some examples of these comments:
In the very next verse, He launches into an attack on the scribes and Pharisees plainly stating that their “righteousness” would be insufficient for them to enter the kingdom of Heaven! (Verse 20). We must understand that such comments must have seemed shocking and astonishing to many!
It is often said that Jesus only challenged the Jewish religious leader's approach to God's law, rather than that law itself – actually this is incorrect! Jesus is determined to point out the insufficiency of any code which is of the letter, rather than of the Spirit.
When Jesus said, 'You have heard that it was said by those of old, 'You shall not murder....' (Verse 21), Who had said that? Why, of course He is quoting the sixth commandment (Exodus 20:13)! Then He makes it plain that hatred and anger are the real evils here (Verse 22). In this way the point is made that while the commandment is good, it did not go far enough. The disciples of Jesus were to be obedient in the spirit – not purely the letter! Then, in verse 27, Jesus takes the example of the commandment against adultery (Exodus 20:14). Again, He wishes to magnify the law by showing the insufficiency of the command against adultery. Many might find it entirely possible never to commit adultery, but Jesus makes it plain that those who continually lust after beautiful women have already been guilty of adultery (Verse 28)! The glorious Law of Christ goes beyond the code of the Ten Commandments, it is the great moral and spiritual law which the commandments were based upon – it is this law, incapable of being set down as a code since it concerns the spirit and the heart, which the disciples of Jesus were to follow!
So Jesus not only challenged the scribes and Pharisees and their interpretation of the law (which He does in many places), but He is also even prepared to challenge divinely instituted law where it might have given the impression that ten or so 'do's and 'donts' could ever give a true righteousness of the heart!
But not a single word here or anywhere else in the New Testament places the followers of Jesus Christ back under any code of law - the Law of Christ transcends all such codes!! (Romans 7:1-6).
Yet despite this, many continue to insist that Jesus' statement in Matthew 5:17-19 means that today Christians are indebted to keep “The Law” (they invariably refer to the Ten Commandments plus other elements of Old Covenant law, even though – as we have seen - Jesus Himself - and in this very same chapter - carefully outlines the insufficiency of previously received law and of various interpretations of it - Matthew 5:21-48). One man (sincere, I have no doubt) contacted me to tell me that, “..Jesus' words in Matthew 5:17-20 make it plain that Christians still stand under the Torah.” Now maybe he was confusing terms here because let us understand that the word, 'Torah' refers to the whole body of Jewish teaching as recorded in the first five books of the Bible. If that man is correct, then the following must certainly also follow:
Now Let Us Understand - Christ Paid the Penalty of the Law
Now let us ensure that we correctly understand this vital manner by considering the way in which the New Testament explains this vital matter of a Christian's relationship to law!
The apostle Paul took it upon himself to carefully explain this matter. His explanation appears in several places but is mainly focussed on the books of Romans and Galatians, yet I am disturbed that many modern Christians apparently never sit down and read such books right the way through anymore!
We have to understand that:
The law can also be compared to a mirror which makes us look at ourselves and see how wretched we are. In this manner, the law actually brings condemnation (Romans 4:13-15; Romans 7:7-12; Romans 5:20-21). We look at ourselves through the mirror of the law and become convicted of sin! The mirror allows us to see the hideous scars and stains of sin on our bodies! – how utterly tragic it is that so many modern ministers don't carefully bring new converts down this path in order to ensure that their repentance is truly real and genuine!
Through our schoolmaster and mirror we learn that we are headed for Hell! But then we learn of the work of Christ upon the cross and discover that we have a Saviour! – Jesus Christ has already paid the penalty of our sins and the sins of all who will appropriate Him in faith! Here is our solution!! We find that God loved us before we even knew Him and He has already died upon the cross as our substitute (sin must invariably lead to death)!
As newborn babes in Christ, we start to undertake our walks – more 'toddling' at that stage - in Christ. Certainly the Ten Commandments are a good initial ethical yardstick – but (as Jesus plainly shows) they don't go far enough. The standards which we must aim for are above and beyond the ten 'do's' and 'don'ts' of those commands. The new righteousness which we start to find in our lives is truly not ours but Christ's as the Holy Spirit gradually starts to refashion us – this is sanctification. If God were to remove His bounteous grace from us, we would fall again instantly!
The overall point of Matthew 5:17-19 is not – as so many carelessly assume – whether or not Christians still stand under any part of Old Covenant law (the Scriptures are quite plentiful which reveal that this cannot be the case), rather in the context of quite a long section of Matthew (chapters 5-7) which clearly challenges not only the previous Jewish interpretation of law but - clearly - also aspects of any law which comprises simply a list of 'do's and don't's' – our Lord wanted to firstly clarify the position of the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament). He tells us that it is divinely inspired Scripture which should continue to be seen as 'Holy Writ' – He did not come to overturn that authority; moreover, many things within it actually testified of, and looked forward to, the ministry of Jesus – who therefore fulfilled those things. Verse 18 tells us that the authority of the Old Testament will continue until 'all is fulfilled.' And verse 19 tells us that the basic teachings and instructions within the Old Testament should still be understood and appreciated (even though – as Christians standing under the grace of Christ and the New Covenant – we will understand the importance of obeying in the Spirit, rather than the letter – something which Jesus is especially at pains to ensure that we understand).
Any concept that Matthew 5:17-19 somehow places Christians back under the Torah – or even any part of it – is completely unbiblical, and would necessarily make many other New Testament statements especially by Paul and the writer of Hebrews to be heavily in error.
I would just close by pointing out that the verses which we have considered are, of course, in Matthew (5:17-19). Matthew, as is well-known, had a strong agenda to keep the Jews on-board and addressed his gospel account primarily to them. He wanted to win their support and to win them for Christ. To this end, his gospel does contain more than one statement which would not have found a home in the other, broader gospel accounts (especially Luke and John). For instance, it is Matthew who quotes this:
'But He answered and said, I am not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.' (Matthew 15:24).
In complete contrast, the gospel of John describes Jesus as 'the Saviour of the World' in John 4:42 and John repeats this comment in 1 John 4:14. Matthew would not have described Jesus in such a manner in his gospel account (although surely privately having little doubt that Jesus was indeed the Saviour of the world). So we do have to note differing emphases and different anticipated audiences among the gospels with Matthew's gospel, for sure, mainly intending to address Jewish sensitivities, a fact well understood by all Bible commentators. Matthew 5:17-19 should also be understood in this light. We may ask this question: Would the Apostle John - writing several years later and with a deeper theological understanding of the Gospel than Matthew had in the 40s AD - ever have included Matthew's comments of Matthew 5:17-19? Almost certainly not, for the words are just a little prone to causing confusion and he, like Luke, was committed to a world-wide scenario beyond the small world of the middle east.
Robin A. Brace, 2005.
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