Matt. 5:17–20 – Four Contexts
Matthew 5:17–20 is a passage of particular interest because it serves as a proof text for the theology of Torahism,1 which teaches that Christians are obligated to keep the Law of Moses. Thus, correctly understanding this passage will shed valuable light on that discussion. Because this text stands alone and lacks clear, immediate context—it is not explicitly connected to the text that precedes or follows it—this paper will attempt to exegete its meaning through an analysis of four ever–widening contexts. First, in its immediate historical and literary context; second, in the broader context of the Sermon on the Mount; third, within the gospel of Matthew; and lastly, within the metanarrative of Scripture.
The Immediate Context
At the end of chapter 4, Matthew records that Jesus’ fame had begun to spread because of His teaching and healing. Great crowds were following him throughout the region (4:23–25). And “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him” (Matt. 5:1, ESV). Here begins the Sermon on the Mount. The discourse, which spans three chapters (Matt. 5–7), is not a flowing discussion of a moral or theological theme but rather a series of short, discrete teachings spanning assorted topics presented one right after another. The author starts with the beatitudes, then moves to Jesus’ comments on His followers being salt and light. The third teaching in this sermon is the passage we will examine:
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. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes 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 does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.Matthew 5:17–20, ESV
Following this passage, the text immediately moves into Jesus’ antitheses (vv. 21–48). Thus, our passage is not explicitly connected to the text which precedes or follows it. Indeed, because this extended sermon is a series of discrete teachings, it is generally not considered a record of the actual discourse of Jesus. Most likely, it is a collection of Jesus’ common teachings or an abridged summary of His address on the mountain. Barker begins his commentary on this passage by noting, “This commentary on the Sermon on the Mount proceeds with the assumption that Matthew presents the real, historical setting for this discourse, though it recognizes that these chapters are condensed notes rather than the entire sermon verbatim. Thus we find Matthew’s idiom selected and presented in accord with his own concerns.”2
Indeed, the position in which the author placed Jesus’ comments on the law—near the beginning of the sermon and just prior to the antitheses—is perhaps the most helpful clue to be gleaned from its immediate context. However, all that can be offered is speculation. Several commentators have suggested a connection between the “law passage” in vv. 17–20 and the antitheses that follow (vv. 21–48).
Carson sees a connection, suggesting that what Jesus stipulated in vv. 17–20 “is the righteousness to which the law truly points, exemplified in the antitheses that follow.” France categorizes this passage as revealing Jesus’ attitude toward the legal provisions of the Old Testament, “designed to introduce the detailed examples of Jesus’ ethical teaching in relation to the Old Testament law in vv. 21–48, and indeed at many points throughout the Gospel.” By contrast, Chamblin sees the antitheses in vv. 21–48 acting as a practical example of how the disciple’s righteousness can exceed that of the Pharisees (v. 20). For Jones, the antitheses serve as examples of ways in which Jesus’s fulfilling of the law (v. 17) will manifest itself in the inward spirit of His followers.3 As will be demonstrated, there does seem to be a potential thematic connection between vv. 17–20 and the antitheses that follow in which vv. 21–48 serve to expound on the core message of Jesus.
The Context of the Sermon
The pericope in view lacks a clear literary context at a wider scale. Carson holds that Matthew 5:17 marks the beginning of an inclusio (ending at 7:12), “which marks out the body of the sermon and shows that Jesus is taking pains to relate his teaching and place in the history of redemption to the OT Scriptures.”4 That Matthew intended this as an inclusio, however, is not strongly attested in the text. The sole textual indicator is the phrase “the law and the prophets.” Further, the sermon is not contained within 5:17–7:12. Rather, it begins at 5:2, “And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying” and continues through 7:28, “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching.” The more evident inclusio in which the Sermon on the Mount is found spans 4:23–25 to 9:35–38. Compare the verses in 4:23 and 9:35:
And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.Matthew 4:23
And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.Matthew 9:35
Bracketed within this inclusio we find two major sections Piper categorizes as Jesus teaching the way of the Kingdom (5–7), followed by a collection of healings and miracles (8–9) demonstrating the power of the Kingdom.5
Adding to the dearth of literary context is the lack of direct synoptic parallels to 5:17–20.6 This pericope stands alone in Matthew. Indeed, these four verses are so isolated as to cause debate as to whether these are four discreet sayings from varying contemporaneous accounts later edited together. Even if such redaction occurred, we are still left to grapple with the meaning the author intended to convey through the final edited text. And it is at the level of thematic context that we find a great deal of data helpful to interpreting vv. 17–20, first in the book of Matthew and then across the broader corpus of Scripture.
Within Gospel of Matthew
Of the four Gospels, Matthew contains the most frequent and significant use of the Tanakh. His text includes some sixty direct quotes from the OT and numerous allusions and extensions of OT themes. Stanton notes, “The OT is woven into the warp and woof of this gospel: the evangelist uses Scripture to underline some of his most prominent and distinctive theological concerns”7
Of these theological concerns, fulfillment is a prominent theme. Indeed, one of the author’s primary intentions is to affirm that Jesus is, in fact, the promised Jewish Messiah who has come to fulfill the prophecies foretold in the Tanakh. The author of Matthew begins his text with that very claim: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ (Jesus the Messiah), the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1, parenthetical comment added).
Matthew goes on to highlight the theme of fulfillment at every turn. There are ten passages in which the author adds formal commentary statements that point his readers directly to fulfillment (πληρόω, plērou) of the OT (1:22–23; 2:15, 17–18, 23; 4:14–16; 8:17; 12:17–21; 13:35; 21:4–5; 27:9–10). In addition, Matthew 13:14–15 contains an ἀναπληρόω (anaplēroun) formula in which he quotes the prophet, Isaiah. Various other less formal passages speak directly of the fulfillment of OT prophecy (2:5; 3:3; 9:13; 11:10; 12:7; 15:8–9; 26:31, 56).
Thus, our context for understanding Jesus’ teaching recorded in 5:17–20 must be grounded in Matthew’s overall orientation toward communicating Christ’s fulfillment of the messianic promises and prophecies of the Tanakh. In addition to explicit prophetic fulfillment, Matthew often teaches the fulfillment of these prophecies through typology. Jesus is portrayed as a new Moses via indirect presentation, which—based on Deuteronomy 18:15–19 and Isaiah’s prophetic imagery of a new exodus that speaks of future salvation (Isa. 43:15–19)—would have been immediately evident to contemporaneous Jewish readers who were waiting on such a figure.
Jesus, like Moses, is hunted by an aggressive king willing to resort to murdering children to protect his power (1:16–18). Under threat to his life, Moses fled to Midian and later returned to Egypt to save his people; Jesus fled to Egypt for the same reason and returned to Galilee to begin His mission to save His people (1:13–15, 19–23). Scott notes, “Matthew underlines the connection with Moses’ life here by quoting Hosea 11:1: ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’ The ‘son’ of whom the prophet was speaking was, of course, the nation of Israel, called by God out of her Egyptian slavery through the acts of Moses.”8
Indeed, Matthew’s quote from Isaiah in 3:3 frames Jesus’ ministry as a type of new Exodus. In an overt nod to Israel crossing the Jordan to enter the promised land, Matthew shows Jesus passing through the water of that same river via baptism (3:13–17). Like Israel, God calls Jesus “my son” (Exod. 4:22-23; Matt. 3:17) and leads Him into the desert (Matt. 4:1), just as Moses led Israel into the Sinai Peninsula (Exod. 16–18). Moreover, as Moses and the Israelites were tested in the wilderness (e.g., Exod. 15:22–27; 16:1–36), so was Christ (4:1–11). Moses’ first destination after leading the Israelites through the wilderness was Mount Sinai, where he received the Law on behalf of the people (Exod. 19ff.). Likewise, after calling the disciples to “follow me” (Matt. 4:18–22), Jesus’ first act is to go up a mountain (5:1), where He will interpret that same Torah.
Thus, Matthew links the beginning of Jesus’s earthly ministry with the events at Sinai that formally initiated the Mosaic Covenant. And further, at the transfiguration—which also happened on a mountain—Matthew echoes Moses’ glowing face at Mount Sinai after receiving the law (Exod. 34:29) in his report that Jesus’s “face shone like the sun” (Matt. 17:2). Indeed, as a “new Moses,” Jesus brings a new covenant and a new law. And yet, it is not wholly new. Just as Matthew does in his opening genealogy, he here again demonstrates the continuity between Jesus and the Tanakh. The good news Jesus preaches is cast as a new chapter in the same ongoing story of God.
Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount also highlights the superiority of Jesus over Moses. Whereas at Sinai, Moses received the law in fear and fire, Matthew presents Jesus as the Giver of the law. The author also frames Jesus as reliving the experiences of Israel. This association is couched in the model of corporate identity. Ellis notes,
The individual (male) person may be viewed as extending beyond himself to include those who ‘belong’ to him. Thus, the husband (at the family level) and the king (at the national level) both have an individual and a corporate existence encompassing, respectively, the household and the nation.9
Just as in the Tanakh, the king and the high priest were representatives of Israel before God, Jesus the Messiah represents the entirety of the nation as king (1 Tim. 6:15) and high priest (Heb. 4:14–15). Indeed, Matthew casts Jesus as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah who satisfied every scriptural requirement yet was rejected by His own people in fulfillment of Scripture. Osborne concludes, “Matthew sees all three sections of the Old Testament—the Law, the Writings, and the Prophets—fulfilled in Jesus. He has completed their expectations and fully interpreted their meaning.”10 Stanton additionally notes the high Christology held by Matthew as reflected in his highlighting of Jesus as “Son of God” (1:23, 2:15), “God with us” (Immanuel) (1:23, cf 28:20), the shepherd of Israel (2:6), the lowly servant (8:17, 13:35), and the humble king (cf. 5:5, 11:29, 21:1–11).11
A final example of Matthew’s ubiquitous theme of fulfillment is found in the way his gospel marks a major progression in the metanarrative of God’s redemptive story in which the death and resurrection of Jesus serve as the fulcrum of transformation. Prior to these events, Jesus was singularly focused on the nation of Israel, instructing His disciples, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:5–6). Further, Matthew records the prescient conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman whose daughter was oppressed by a demon. As the Gentile woman knelt before Jesus and begged for His help,
He answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.Matthew 15:26–28
The subtext of this exchange reveals that Jesus came explicitly but not exclusively to bring “bread” to the house of Israel (the children). His ministry can and will extend to Gentiles through faith. Indeed, in Matthew 12:17–21, the author applies Isaiah 42:1–3 to Jesus, indicating that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy that the Messiah “will proclaim justice to the Gentiles” (Matt. 12:18, cf. Isa. 42:1). He goes on to addend the text of Isaiah 42:3, adding “and in his name the Gentiles will hope” (Matt. 12:21). The author sees the idea of the Gentiles included in this prophecy where Isaiah did not mention them by name.
The author’s record of the last supper also reveals the nature of the progression Matthew is tracking in God’s redemption story. On the eve of His crucifixion, Jesus takes the Passover cup, tells His disciples to drink of it, and announces the New Covenant is upon them. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). This double reference invokes both the ancient Near East custom of cutting covenants through the shedding of blood and Jeremiah’s prophecy to Israel 600 years earlier.
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.Jeremiah 31:31–33
In Matthew’s presentation of salvation history, the resurrection of Jesus is the pivotal event on which everything turns. Prior to the Resurrection, while Jesus was operating under the last days of the Mosaic Covenant, the scope of His mission was circumscribed to the lost sheep of Israel. Then, in the first days of the New Covenant, the resurrected Jesus announced that the scope of His ministry had expanded to include the entire world. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20).
This broader understanding of the redemptive events of Jesus’ ministry, as recorded by Matthew, serves as a legitimate lens through which we can view His statement about fulfilling the law and the prophets in 5:17–20. Indeed, all but the first verse of this passage are future–facing. Furthermore, Matthew’s record contains numerous examples of Jesus’ awareness of the cosmic scope of His earthly ministry, including three separate predictions of His own death (Matt. 16:21–23, 17:22–23, 20:17–19). Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that Jesus’s statement about fulfilling the law and the prophets in 5:17–20 was made in view of, and indeed was pointing to, the crucial redemptive events to come.
With that larger context established, let us now turn our attention to the text of our passage.
“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” (Matt. 5:17).
This passage begins with the formula μή νομίσητε ὅτι (mē nomisēte hoti), which carries the strong emphasis of “do not even begin to think.”This formula is found in one other place in Matthew. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). This raises a question. How could Jesus say that He did not come to bring peace? His teachings, as recorded across the gospels, include numerous statements promoting peace,12 including in the opening stanzas of the Sermon on the Mount here in Matthew: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (5:9). One must conclude that in 10:34, Jesus was speaking of a particular sense in which He did not come to bring peace. Thus, the same question can be asked of 5:17: In what sense did Jesus not come to abolish the law?
At a minimum, the introductory phrase “Do not think that” cannot be understood as repudiating an articulated position. It is best seen as a teaching device for focusing His hearer’s attention and cautioning them to listen carefully to what follows. Moreover, its use in 10:34 indicates that the antithesis it points to was not intended as absolute. If one understands this verse to mean that there is no sense in which Jesus abolishes the law, one is forced to conclude that there is also no sense in which Jesus came to bring peace. Thus, the force of this verse, which indicates that Jesus has come not to abolish but to fulfill, must be taken in that sense.
The object of Jesus’s statement is the “Law or the Prophets,” which here means the Hebrew Scriptures (OT). Carson notes,
For that is what “Law or the Prophets” here means: the Scriptures. The disjunctive “or” makes it clear that neither is to be abolished. The Jews of Jesus’ day could refer to the Scriptures as “the Law and the Prophets” (7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Luke 16:16; John 1:45; Acts 13:15; 28:23; Rom 3:21); “the Law …, the Prophets, and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44); or just “Law” (5:18; John 10:34; 12:34; 15:25; 1 Cor 14:21); the divisions were not yet stereotyped.13
Indeed, the disjunctive ἢ (ē) makes it evident that neither the Law nor the Prophets are to be abolished, and the verse as a whole clearly indicates both will be fulfilled. Thus, the scope of Jesus’s comments is established as the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures, not merely the Mosaic Law. Jesus has not come to καταλῦσαι (katalysai, lit. to loosen down, dissolve) them, but to πληρόω (plērōsai) them, which can mean “to make full . . . to bring to completion that which was already begun, complete, finish . . . to bring to a designed end.”14
Carson again, “Though the NT uses plēroō in a number of ways, we are primarily concerned with what is meant by ‘fulfilling’ the Scriptures. Included under this head are specific predictions, typological fulfillments, and even the entire eschatological hope epitomized in the OT by God’s covenant with his people.” Osborne concurs:
The meaning of plēroun is found in the programmatic Matthew 5:17–20, “I have not come to abolish … but to fulfill [the Law and the Prophets].” There plēroun means that the meaning of the Old Testament is completed by being fulfilled in Jesus; in both his deeds and his teaching he lifted the Old Testament to a higher plane.15
R. T. France posits that at that time, based on OT passages such as Isaiah 2:3 and Jeremiah 31:31–34, there was a Jewish expectation that the Messiah would fully explain the law when he comes, if not elevate it with new law.16 Indeed, when Jesus speaks of fulfillment, it must be understood in the context of His first–century setting and how His hearers may have taken it. There is a complex of ideas behind πληρόω (plēroō); primary among them is that the work Jesus has come to do is something to which the Tanakh looked forward. He claims His mission is not to καταλῦσαι (katalysai; destroy, tear down, demolish) the OT revelation but to bring it to its intended culmination and embody its eschatological hope.
“For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18).
The conjunction γάρ (gar: for) reveals that v. 18 continues the thought introduced in v. 17. Jesus takes the highest possible view of the Hebrew Scriptures, defending their continuing authority down to the iota and dot. Indeed, because v. 18 further explains the idea introduced in v. 17, the reference here to simply “the Law” is best understood as shorthand for “the Law and the Prophets,” as established in the preceding verse.
The author’s inclusion of two “until” clauses introduces some ambiguity. Is Jesus teaching that nothing will pass from the Law and Prophets “until heaven and earth pass away” or “until all is accomplished”? The grammar allows either clause to be applied to the subject of the sentence. Chamblin takes an eschatological view, concluding, “The Law remains in force ‘until everything is accomplished’ (v. 18)—that is, until the kingdom is consummated.”17 France argues that its fulfillment is imminent.
It is, then, Jesus’ ‘fulfilment’ of the Old Testament which is in view here. The law remains valid until it reaches its intended culmination; this it is now doing in the ministry and teaching of Jesus. This verse does not state, therefore, as it is sometimes interpreted, that every regulation in the Old Testament law remains binding after the coming of Jesus. The law is unalterable, but that does not justify its application beyond the purpose for which it was intended.18
Carson offers a more nuanced reading,
The first “until” clause focuses strictly on the duration of OT authority but the second returns to considering its nature; it reveals God’s redemptive purposes and points to their fulfillment, their “accomplishment,” in Jesus and the eschatological kingdom he is now introducing and will one day consummate.19
If vv. 17–18 are taken as a complete thought, Carson’s interpretation appears overengineered. It seems unlikely that Jesus (or the author) would bracket the statement that nothing will pass from the OT with two “until” clauses pointing to different referents.
A better summary of the overall meaning of these two verses—one which accounts for the deeply figurative teaching style of Jesus—is to understand the two opening phrases (“For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away”) as working in tandem to communicate the importance and enduring authority of His statement. In other words, this phrase communicates the idea that heaven and earth would sooner pass away than what I am telling you not come to pass. And what Jesus is communicating here, as established in v. 17, is that He has come to fulfill what the Scriptures foretold of Him. Thus, “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
This interpretation also convincingly explains the scope and sense in which Jesus spoke of all being accomplished. In light of His impending work on the cross and all it would entail, it is inconceivable that Jesus intended to convey the literal idea that nothing required in the Hebrew Scriptures would pass away until the end of the world. To wit, as Matthew later records, upon Jesus’ death on the cross, the curtain of the temple, which was commanded in the Torah (Exod. 26), was “torn in two, from top to bottom” (Matt. 27:51) by God Himself. One thinks of a father tearing his clothes in grief at the tragic death of his son. As the author of Hebrews acknowledges, Jesus’s death introduced a “new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh” for God’s people to draw near to Him (Heb. 10:20). This certainly qualifies as a change of more than an iota or a dot. Moreover, Matthew records the addition of a new commandment given by the resurrected Jesus, which has no analog in the Tanakh: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).
Thus, the strictly literal interpretation of this passage asserted in the theology of Torahism that even the smallest requirement of the OT law will remain binding on Christians until the end of the world is untenable. Rather, Jesus’ statement in vv. 17–18 may be summarized as:
Make no mistake! I am here to fulfill everything that was prophesied about Me in the Hebrew Scriptures, and nothing will prevent this from happening. The Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets are valid and authoritative. They all point to Me and I will bring them to their divine telos.
This interpretation accords with Matthew’s persistent portrayal of Jesus as the promised Jewish Messiah come to fulfill the prophecies foretold in the Tanakh. This narrative arc is reiterated by the apostle Paul. “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed” (Gal. 3:23–24). Paul goes on to explain the outworking of Jesus’ fulfillment of the OT. “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian” (Gal. 3:25).20
It must be acknowledged that this interpretation has received criticism as a linguistic sleight of hand in which the word καταλῦσαι (katalysai: destroy, tear down, demolish) is interpreted equivocally to mean that Jesus did not come to tear down the law but rather bring it to an end. Critics see this as a difference without a distinction. How can the law not be abolished yet cease to be in effect? Wiersbe offers a helpful analogy. “If I have an acorn, I can destroy it in one of two ways. I can put it on a rock and smash it to bits with a hammer. Or, I can plant it in the ground and let it fulfill itself by becoming an oak tree.”21 In either case, the acorn comes to an end. However, the distinction between the two methods is critical. In the case of the Mosaic legal obligations, Jesus did not bring a metaphorical hammer to end them through opposition and destruction. Instead, He came to cultivate the Law and the Prophets into what they were always intended to become.
“Therefore, whoever relaxes 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 does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19).
Therefore, οὖν (oun)—this inferential conjunction announces a conclusion based on the previous statement. Because Jesus will fulfill everything prophesied of Him in the Tanakh, and nothing will prevent this from happening, it is incumbent upon his hearers not to neglect or oppose any of its commands. In light of the interpretation of vv. 17–18 mentioned above, the language about relaxing/doing “the least of these commandments” is best understood as Jesus’ restatement of His high view of the Hebrew Scriptures and their continuing authority down to the iota and dot. And in light of v. 20, Weber sees the admonition of v. 19 directed toward the Pharisees, focusing on both their tampering with the law and their responsibility to teach others.22 Barbieri concurs.
The righteousness they were currently seeking—that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law—was insufficient for entrance into the kingdom Jesus was offering. The righteousness He demanded was not merely external; it was a true inner righteousness based on faith in God’s Word (Rom. 3:21–22). This is clear from what follows.23
Indeed, the phrases “not an iota or dot” and “the least of these commandments” could denote a meticulous outward observance of the law. Moreover, the gospel of Matthew chronicles the recurring confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees in which the emphasis of Jesus’ reprimands is a hypocritical insistence on the minutia of the law, particularly at the expense of a heart commitment to God. (See especially the seven woes recorded in Matthew 23.) This is an approach Sproul calls “the problem of majoring in minors . . . The Pharisees distorted the emphasis of biblical righteousness to suit their own behavioral patterns of self–justification.”24 Thus, it seems a reasonable inference, given Jesus’ declaration in v. 20, that one’s righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. Additional support for this interpretation is found in the antitheses that directly follow v. 20 in the Sermon on the Mount. The series of “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you” statements can be viewed as expounding on Jesus’ theme of higher righteousness.
It is essential to note the historical context in which Jesus spoke these words. As established earlier, the Sermon on the Mount occurred on the cusp of the New Covenant. Indeed, Jesus uttered these words while under the administration of the Mosaic Covenant. However, they were not recorded by the author of this gospel until decades after the New Covenant had begun. This introduces a quandary for the interpreter. Are these words to be taken solely as Jesus’ admonition to His Jewish followers while under the Mosaic Covenant? While His message certainly applied to those contemporaneous Jews living under the soon–to–be old covenant, it would be myopic to understand it as applying solely to that audience. Surely there is a broader sense in which Jesus’ teaching about the least of the commandments applies to Christians under the New Covenant as well. Jones offers a suitable explanation.
This re–born Law will be enforced with no less rigour. The Christian disciple is perforce always a teacher by his example, 13–16: neglect even of the minutiae will be noticed and will do damage. The new order is to be distinguished by the perfection of its inward spirit, 21–48, but it will not dispense with external works.25
Indeed, as Stagg notes, “Salvation is God’s gift in mercy and forgiveness, but his demands are not thus relaxed. License in the name of liberty is not to be tolerated.”26
It should be additionally noted that those on either side of the antithesis in v. 19—both those who relax the commandments and teach others to do the same and those who keep them—will enter the kingdom of heaven. The keeping and teaching of these commands are not presented as an issue of salvation. Rather, Jesus’ statement insinuates a hierarchy in the kingdom of heaven wherein some will be called least and some will be called great. This raises a question. Who, then, will be excluded from the kingdom of heaven? The answer is found in the final verse of this passage.
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).
Jesus concludes this passage in Matthew 5 by setting the bar for entrance into the kingdom of heaven as a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees. In first–century Jewish culture, the scribes and Pharisees were widely regarded as the most fastidious of law keepers. If anyone kept the law down to the iota, dot, and “least of these,” it was the Pharisees. However, as good as they were at it, Jesus declared they were not good enough. Weber notes, “To the Jewish listener, Jesus’ statement meant that no one could enter heaven. To the average person trying to eke out a living, the Pharisees were the truly holy people.”27 No level of meticulous observance of the law could exceed that of the Pharisees. How, then, can one possibly hope to attain salvation?
Indeed, the righteousness Jesus requires is His own; it is the only righteousness efficacious enough to grant entrance into the kingdom of heaven. And, astoundingly, it is credited to the believer through faith. This is the converse of v. 19, in which Jesus teaches that both those who kept the commands and those who relaxed them will be found in the kingdom of heaven. The requirements of salvation are not based on what we do, but on what we believe, onWho we believe. Thus, the superiority of righteousness Jesus espouses in v. 20 is not about degree but kind. It is not about how much righteousness one demonstrates but the kind of righteousness they claim. Jamieson et al. note,
Our righteousness, then—if it is to contrast with the outward and formal righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees—must be inward, vital, spiritual. Some, indeed, of the scribes and Pharisees themselves might have the very righteousness here demanded; but our Lord is speaking, not of persons, but of the system they represented and taught.28
Matthew 5:17–20 is a standalone pericope that is properly viewed within several levels of context and must be interpreted as a single cohesive thought. Any attempt to “chop it up for parts” risks misleading or even false conclusions. The interpretation that best accords with its context within the Sermon on the Mount, the Book of Matthew, and the broader context of Scripture (in particular, the old and new covenants), can be paraphrased as follows.
I have not come to tear down the Tanakh but to fulfill all that it promised and prophesied about me. Heaven and earth would sooner pass away than what I am telling you not come to pass. And while salvation does not come through works of the flesh, license in the name of liberty is not acceptable. Thus, any follower of Mine who relaxes any command I have given him is an inferior Christian. Indeed, the only righteousness that will gain you entrance into heaven is Mine, which is achievable only through faith in Me.
Contra Torahism, this passage does not declare that every Mosaic regulation is eternally valid. Indeed, the NT teaches the contrary (Acts 15:1–29; Col. 2:16–17; Gal. 3:24–25, Heb. 7-10). Courson rightly concludes, “The Sermon on the Mount, perhaps the most misunderstood passage in all Scripture, is meant to bring us to the realization that there is no way anyone can keep its lofty standards. It is meant to make everyone equally guilty. It is meant to drive us to Jesus.”29 Under the New Covenant, our focus is on Jesus and our obedience is measured against His commands.
1 Also known as the Hebrew Roots Movement or Torah-observant Christianity.
2 Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger. “Matthew” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Abridged Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 2004.
3 A. Jones, “The Gospel of Jesus Christ according to St Matthew,” in A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, ed. Bernard Orchard and Edmund F. Sutcliffe (Toronto; New York; Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson, 1953), 861.
4 D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), 142.
5 John Piper, “The Beatitudes and the Gospel of the Kingdom,” Desiring God, January 26, 1986, http://www.desiringgod.org/sermons/the–beatitudes–and–the–gospel–of–the–kingdom.
6 Similar phrases are found in Mark 13:31, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,” and Luke 16:17, “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.”
7 Graham Stanton. “Matthew.” In It is Written: Scripture Citing Scripture, Essays in Honour of Barnabas Lindars, SSF. Ed. D. A. Carson and H. G. M. Williamson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 205.
8 Ian W. Scott, Jesus as the New Moses in Matthew https://ianwscott.blog/2020/01/17/jesus–as–the–new–moses–in–matthew/
9 E. Earle Ellis, The Old Testament in Early Christianity: Canon and Interpretation in the Light of Modern Research (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 110.
10 Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Rev. and expanded, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 334.
11 Stanton, 1988, 216–17.
12 Matthew 5:9; Mark 9:50; Luke 24:36; John 14:27, 16:33.
13 Carson, 1984, 142.
14 William Arndt et al., A Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 828.
15 Osborne, 333.
16 R. T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 1, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 118–122.
17 J. Knox Chamblin, “Matthew,”in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, vol. 3, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), 729.
18 France, 118.
19 Carson, 1984, 146.
20 See also 10:4, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”
21 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 23.
22 Stuart K. Weber, Matthew, vol. 1, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 64.
23 Louis A. Barbieri Jr., “Matthew,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 30.
24 R. C. Sproul, How Should I Live in This World? (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2010), 25.
25 Jones, 861.
26 Frank Stagg, “Matthew,” in Matthew–Mark, ed. Clifton J. Allen, Broadman Bible Commentary (Broadman Press, 1969), 108.
27 Weber, 65.
28 Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 20–21.
29 Jon Courson, Jon Courson’s Application Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 28.
4 thoughts on “Matt. 5:17–20 – Four Contexts”
Jesus wasn’t speaking to us today. There was more to come! Jesus had not died on the cross, been resurrected and returned for Israel’s judgement in AD 70.
Paul pleaded with his brethren to accept grace truth. Then, moved on to the gentiles, who’ has NEVER been under the Law, just like us today.
Torah adherents may not have truly placed their faith in Christ. They place their faith in themselves.
Although God’s character never changes, what He told His children to do or believe varied over the centuries. He progressively revealed His truths. And truths must be placed in their historical context, noting the audience.
We are not under the Law of Moses.
It seems like you are saying Jesus “wasn’t speaking to us today” when he gave his Sermon on the Mount. Is that accurate? What about his other teachings given before his death and resurrection? None of them are for Christians in 2023? Or how are we to distinguish which teachings apply now, and which do not?
Paul tells his mixed Jewish / Gentile congregation in Ephesus that through Jesus’ death, Gentiles are
joined in faith with spiritual Israel. Gentiles en masse are being called to join with Jews. What a privilege that – as part of our salvation – you and I are now citizens of the commonwealth of Israel, along with the Jews (Paul’s words, not mine – Eph. 1).
It is quite a leap to speculate that Christians who follow the commands of the Torah have placed their faith in themselves rather than in Christ. Our whole church is a bunch of Torah followers who believe they are saved only by grace, through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross. And in gratitude we want to joyfully obey all the commands He gave in his Word, both NT and OT. In what way does that imply faith in ourselves?
According to Romans especially, to be “under the law” is to be under the *penalty of death* for not being able to keep the Law’s commands perfectly. You are correct to say we are no longer under the law, thanks to being buried with Christ and then raised with him. Now we can *obey* in the “new way of the spirit, not the old way of the written code”. Now, as He writes the Law on my heart, I am ready to obey all of God’s commands, empowered by His spirit.
In what ways do you find the Law or Torah being written on your heart? This is the hallmark of the New Covenant described in Jeremiah and Hebrews.
In what ways do you find the Holy Spirit empowering you to obey? This is the same experience I am having.
Long after the resurrection, Paul teaches Timothy that ALL of the Old Testament Scriptures are great for teaching, correcting, and training Christians, so they will be “complete” and fortified for good works (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
How much time do I spend learning, being corrected by, and being trained by the Old Testament? How complete am I without it? Am I ready to carry out its good works?
You have clearly invested a lot of time in this post, and I thank you for it. You make so many great observations and connections that are insightful.
In my reply, I am highlighting only the areas where I think your treatment of the passage would benefit from a different point of view.
It is long, just as the original post.
You state the following is the “legitimate lens” through which to view the passage:
“Prior to the Resurrection, while Jesus was operating under the last days of the Mosaic Covenant, the scope of His mission was circumscribed to the lost sheep of Israel. Then, in the first days of the New Covenant, the resurrected Jesus announced that the scope of His ministry had expanded to include the entire world.”
Please note, Matthew does not say anything about the “last days of the Mosaic Covenant” — you do! His gospel does not present the New Covenant as in any kind of conflict with the Torah commands. Further, we know from the discussion in Gal. 3 (esp. v.17) that a newer covenant does not do away with an older one in toto. [crucial point!]
Please also note, the scope of ministry — moving from Israel to the broader cosmos — is an independent issue from whether or not the New Covenant
(with Torah written-on-the-heart)
includes living the Torah commands.
So, in your effort to legitimize your lens, you are reading “last days” into the context, and you are conflating two independent issues. If your lens is thus skewed, you should be skeptical of what is seen through it.
” . . .the resurrected Jesus announced that the scope of His ministry had expanded to include the entire world. ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you'”
Please note — to Matthew, “all that I have commanded you” includes Jesus’ command to teach even the least Torah commands in the Kingdom
(3) – Verse 17
While giving a hat tip to the “complex of ideas” behind plērōsai, your discussion of verse 17 is weakened by deciding primarily on the meaning fits with your pre-ordained conclusion that Torah commands are not for Believers in the New Covenant. This word has other potentials that should be fairly examined before discarding them.
[Confused — The “higher plane” wording from Osborne I agree with esp. based on the upcoming antitheses, but it strikes a chord that does not harmonize with your commentary nor even the other half of his own quote. Higher plane or deeper meaning does not exclude obedience to the literal words]
Is it legitimate to translate the phrase
>>> “I have come to increase the Law to its appropriate measure”
>>> “I have come to make the Law whole”
>>> “I have come to fill up the Law”
>>> “I have come to help the Law fully arrive”
By far, the most common use of the word fulfill in Matthew is when Jesus brings a prophecy to life. For example, from Matthew 12 –
“And many followed [Jesus], and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:
‘Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.'”
That prophecy was fulfilled, but does that mean it is at a designated END? Of course not – Jesus is still the chosen servant of God, full of God’s Spirit, and still the hope of the Gentiles!
(4) – Verse 18
Yes, the two “until” clauses introduce “some ambiguity” but please explain why we should discount the possibility that: The second is more fully describing the first. This seems the most natural reading, and should be refuted before searching for other ways to explain it.
Also, notice later that the smallest Torah commands will be taught by those who are great “in the Kingdom” — which for Matthew really gets going after the cross and resurrection. This supports the natural reading.
You point out that “the Law” in v.18 includes the entire Scriptures. How, then, can the Prophets and Writings lose their force and validity – along with Torah commands – once Jesus’ post-cross Kingdom is underway? Are you arguing that the entire OT — not just the Torah commands — has been wrapped up?
N.B. The two “until” clauses benefit from comparing this verse in Luke 16: “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Torah to become void.”
(5) – Verse 18
“it is inconceivable that Jesus intended to convey the literal idea that nothing required in the Hebrew Scriptures would pass away until the end of the world.”
I do not know of any Torah-following Xians who believes this. Is this a straw man, or at least a straw child? 🙂
It is easy to believe every jot and tittle of the OT Scriptures is relevant in principle and binding in practice — unless the practice was changed by Jesus (either in person or through the Holy Spirit-led Apostles). But to modify some aspects of the Torah by deepening them or bringing it to it’s ultimate goal (the perfect sin sacrifice for example, or priesthood of all believers) is wildly different that overthrowing or ending the Scriptures. Nor does modifying some Torah commands imply ending the importance of doing the rest of them.
(6) – Verse 18
Re: The new commandment, “which has no analog in the Tanakh: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit'”
Hard to know what to say to this that isn’t obvious, but I’ll try. The Tanakh anticipates the Gentiles of all nations coming to join spiritual Israel in greater numbers than they did in the OT. No Torah-following Christian thinks Jesus doesn’t have the authority to direct a specific mission at them.
(7) – Verse 18
“They all point to Me and I will bring them to their divine telos.”
You are supplying the idea of divine telos, and quoting it in other writers, without showing it in the Sermon on the Mount. Yes, we are all aware that the default position of everyone else is that the Scriptures have been brought to their end-goal in Jesus and can therefore be (practically) ignored.
(8) – Verse 18
I hope it would be hard to find a Torah-following Christian who disagrees that we were held imprisoned under the Torah’s death sentence until “faith” or the “new way of the Spirit” came. This has no bearing on whether or not Torah’s righteous commands should be obeyed.
(9) – Verse 19
The plain meaning of the words of verse 19 is obscured by the distraction of whether them being penned before or after the announcement of the the New Covenant changes what they apply to: Either the Torah commands, or the nebulous idea that there will be no “license in liberty”
Matthew’s use of “the Kingdom” is well-known: The Kingdom is already/not yet. It is HERE, and COMING. It is HERE because Jesus is preaching the news of the Kingdom, and it is COMING because of his resurrection and return. And it will continue forever.
So a plain reading of the words is clear: In the Kingdom — which we are enjoying now — you and I, R.L., have an opportunity to teach even the least of the OT commands. As Jesus told the Pharisees, we should practiced “the latter without neglecting the former”.
(10) – Verses 19 and 20
You explain Jesus *really* means, “License in the name of liberty is not to be tolerated”.
Yet, it IS tolerated I guess, because: Both those who practice and those who do NOT practice the least of the New Covenant commands – as you say – WILL be in the Kingdom.
How much better to realize that all who apprehend Jesus by faith are in the Kingdom, but those who practice what he exactly says (the smallest of the commands of Scripture) will be greater.
(11) – Conclusion
“Contra Torahism, this passage does not declare that every Mosaic regulation is eternally valid.”
Torahism teaches eternal validity for the ideas and principles (even of the Aaronic priesthood for example)
but does NOT teach every Mosaic regulation will be obeyed forever.
Are you truly unaware of this basic norm in Torahism?
Your final thought: Yes, the Sermon on the Mount — like the Torah and the rest of Scripture — IS meant to drive us to Jesus. All of Torahism agrees with you I bet.
And YES! Our focus IS measured against his commands, including his commands to practice even the least of the OT commands in His Kingdom.
Love this post!