Fulfilling the Law: Jesus, Law and Prophets

beatitudes1Commentary. The opening passage of this Gospel is controversial.  Is it a general statement of Jesus’ attitude to the Old Testament, especially in its legal provisions, designed to introduce the detailed examples of Jesus’ teaching in relation to the Old Testament law in vv. 21–48 and other points throughout the Gospel? Do Jesus’ words affirm the permanent validity of the details of the Old Testament law as regulations, or do they express more generally the God-given authority of the Old Testament without specifying just how it is applicable in the new situation introduced by the coming of Jesus?

The Role of Jesus and the Law…. and the Prophets. Too often the question becomes framed only with respect to the “Law” where the verse reads: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (5:17).  The “law or the prophets” establishes a literary bracket with 7:12, setting off the sections in between as the instructional core of the Sermon. The phrase itself technically refers to the Pentateuch, the Former Prophets (Joshua-Kings) and Latter Prophets (Isaiah-Malachi), but forms the functional equivalent of the whole of Scripture.

Remember that this is not an apologetic to those who had accused 1st-centry Christians of rejecting the Law (or rather the rabbinic interpretation of the Law), but rather is for “internal use” by Christians who belong to a community that has made some fundamental changes to Torah observance (which is different that rejecting the Law).  Jesus does not abolish the law, yet he does not affirm the status quo of the manner of observance. How are we to understand this “in-between” posture?  Eugene Boring (186-87) offers some clear insights as he writes:

“(1) The whole Scripture (‘law and prophets’) testifies to God’s will and work in history. Matthew does not retreat from this affirmation. He does not play off the (abiding) ‘moral law’ against the (temporary) ‘ceremonial law.’

“(2) God’s work, testified to in the Scriptures, is not yet complete. The Law and Prophets point beyond themselves to the definitive act of God in the eschatological, messianic future.’

“(3) The advent of the messianic king’s proclaiming and representing the eschatological kingdom of God is the fulfillment of the Scriptures – the Law and Prophets. The Messiah has come. He embodies and teaches the definitive will of God. The Law and Prophets are to be obeyed not for what they are in themselves, but because they mediate the will of God. But in Matthew, Jesus declares that what he teaches is God’s will and the criterion of eschatological judgment (7:24, 26; cf. 7:21), so there can be no conflict between Jesus and the Torah, which he fulfills. This is a tremendous, albeit implicit, christological claim.

“(4) The messianic fulfillment does not nullify or make obsolete the Law and the Prophets, but confirms them. The incorporation of the Law in the more comprehensive history of salvation centered is the Christ-event which is an affirmation of the Law, not its rejection.

“(5) But his affirmation, by being fulfilled by Christ, does not always mean a mere repetition or continuation of the original Law. Fulfillment may mean transcendence as well (cf. 12:1-14). The Matthean Jesus elsewhere enunciates the critical principle that mercy, justice, love, and covenant loyalty are the weightier matters of the Law by which the rest of must be judged (see 9:13; 12:7, both of which quote that his own life and teaching are the definite revelation of the will of God; cf. 11:25-27; 28:12-20) does indeed mean that neither the written Torah nor its interpretation in the oral tradition…is the final authority.”

At this point one needs to be careful lest one is drawn into a purely “Law” question and begins to focus on the legal portion of the Mosaic covenant to the exclusion of the remainder of that covenant, as well as the other covenants that make up the whole of the relationship of the people with God. Remember that this passage follows upon an earlier passage wherein Jesus is teaching the disciples about discipleship in the kingdom of heaven (5:1-2) – something that is here and yet not fully here.

Until Heaven And Earth Pass Away. 18 Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.” It is notable that “the prophets” are not mentioned again in Matthew 5; the focus seems to now be on the law alone.  The statement is striking and perhaps somewhat puzzling.  It is clearly a statement of the permanence of the law. The preservation of every least mark of the pen is a vivid way to convey that no part of it can be dispensed with.  But the saying is complicated by two “until” clauses. It is not clear how these two clauses related to one another, or whether they are making the same or different points. “Until heaven and earth pass away” is the equivalent of our modern “until hell freezes over” – a none too subtle “never” (cf. Jer 31:35-36; 33:20-21, 25-26; Job 14:12; also positively in Ps 72:5, 7, 17). The repetition of the verb “pass away” (parerchomai) links the law to the earth/heavens as equally permanent. Note that in Mt 24:35 Jesus’ own words are stated to be more permanent than heaven and earth.

The puzzling part comes with the use of the second “until.”  Some see the repetition as just that, a repetition for emphasis.  But the second “until” is contextualized by something happening, whereas the first is in the context of something that will not happen.  The majority of scholars see the phrase “until all things have taken place” has typical Matthean use of eschatological fulfillment (cf. 24:34). If this is correct then fulfilling the law and the prophets is in terms of a future situation to which the law pointed. Then the text could be saying that the smallest detail of the law would be valid until the fulfillment arrived – and only valid until then.

This is the point at which some insist that Jesus is that fulfillment and since Jesus is there in their midst, then the law passes away. But in the light of Jesus claiming not to abolish the law (v.17), his insistence that even the least of the commandments remains important (v.18) and that the community is to “obey and teach these commandments” (v.19) – that understanding seems improbable.

The double “until” is perhaps awkward but is paraphrased by RT France (2007, p.186) as: “The law, down to its smallest details, is as permanent as heaven and earth, and will never lose its significance; on the contrary, all that it points forward to will in fact become a reality.”  The new reality is present in Jesus, but not fully present as the kingdom of heaven. Still the law (smallest detail and all) have to be seen in a new light, but they still cannot be discarded.  Matthew will make clear in 5:21-47 how the law will function in a new situation where they are not halakah but are pointers to a greater righteousness (relationship) in the family kinship (covenant).

Discipleship and the Law. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 20 I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven

Like the previous two verses, v.19 warns the disciples against altering or setting aside any part of the law, however small.  Although our translation uses “break,” the underlying Greek word is lyō which means “loose, untie or relax” (and is from the same root as abolish in v. 17)  The word typically means to ‘set aside’ or ‘teach against’ a commandment, rather than to disobey it; ‘loose’ in 16:19; 18:18 is the same verb).  To do such a thing would show disrespect for the Old Testament and Jesus implies that makes a poor Christian. “Least” is used chiefly for its rhetorical effect echoing the least commandment, though clearly within the kingdom of heaven there are those who are more or less consistent and effective in their discipleship; the thought is of quality of discipleship, not of ultimate rewards. The good disciple will obey and teach the commandments: he will go beyond lip-service, to be guided by them in his life and teaching. Does this mean literal observance of every regulation? Not if we may judge by vv. 21–48 and e.g. Jesus’ attitude to the laws of uncleanness. The question of interpretation and application remains open: it is the attitude of respect and obedience which is demanded, and to this no single commandment can be an exception.

Verse 20 dispels any suspicion of legalism which v. 19 might have raised. The scribes (professional students and teachers of the law) and Pharisees (members of a largely lay movement devoted to scrupulous observance both of the Old Testament law and of the still developing legal traditions), whose obedience to ‘the least of these commandments’ could not be faulted, do not thereby qualify for the kingdom of heaven (whereas the disciple who relaxes the commandments does belong to it, though as the ‘least’). What is required is a greater righteousness (see on 3:15; 5:6, 10), a relationship of love and obedience to God which is more than a literal observance of regulations. It is such a ‘righteousness’ which fulfils the law and the prophets (v. 17), and which will be illustrated in vv. 21–48 (in contrast with the legalism of the scribes) and in 6:1–18 (in contrast with the superficial ‘piety’ of the Pharisees).

An Interim Summary. R.T. France (1989, p.116) offers a paraphrase to make the point clear:  “‘17I have not come to set aside the Old Testament, but to bring the fulfilment to which it pointed. 18For no part of it can ever be set aside, but all must be fulfilled (as it is now being fulfilled in my ministry and teaching). 19So a Christian who repudiates any part of the Old Testament is an inferior Christian; the consistent Christian will be guided by the Old Testament, and will teach others accordingly. 20But a truly Christian attitude is not the legalism of the scribes and Pharisees, but a deeper commitment to do the will of God, as vv. 21ff. will illustrate.”

Matthew 5:17-20 does not say that every Old Testament regulation is eternally valid. This view is not found anywhere in the New Testament, which consistently sees Jesus as introducing a new situation, for which the law prepared (Gal. 3:24), but which now fulfills it. The focus will be on Jesus and his teaching, and in this light the validity of any particular Old Testament rule must now be examined. Some will be found to have fulfilled their role and be no longer applicable (see especially Hebrews on the ritual laws, and Jesus’ teaching on uncleanness, Mark 7:19), others will be reinterpreted. Matthew 5:21ff. will be dealing with this reinterpretation, and vv. 17–20 can only truly be understood as an introduction to vv. 21ff. To assert, as these verses do, that every detail of the Old Testament is God-given and unalterable, is not to preempt the question of its proper application. If the law pointed forward to a new situation which has now arrived, that question of application arises with new urgency, and vv. 21ff. will go on to indicate some answers to it. Their answers will be the opposite of legalism (the literal and unchanging application of the law as regulations) but will reveal the deeper meaning of covenant.

Notes

Matthew 5:17 abolish: It is perhaps that more legalistically inclined Jews, scandalized by Jesus’ radical attitude to, e.g., the sabbath or the laws of uncleanness, accused him of setting out to abolish the law and the prophets. The charge, and its rebuttal, would be the more worth recording if Matthew’s church included Christians who, like the heretic Marcion in the second century (and like some today), disparaged or completely repudiated the Old Testament. But the emphasis of the saying lies not on the negative but on the positive (cf. 10:34 for a similar rhetorical construction): Jesus has come to fulfill the law and the prophets:  This expression is a regular Jewish name for the entire Old Testament (cf. 7:12; 22:40; Acts 24:14; 28:23; Rom. 3:21) and occurs again in 11:13, with the verb ‘prophesied’. So the whole Old Testament, the law as well as the prophets, pointed forward to what Jesus has now brought into being. His ministry brings them to full measure (cf. plēroō in 23:32), by supplying the final revelation of the will of God. In the background may be the Jewish expectation (based on e.g. Isa. 2:3; Jer. 31:31ff.) that the Messiah’s role would include the definitive exposition of the law. This complex of ideas then lies behind plērōsai: Jesus is bringing that to which the Old Testament looked forward; his teaching will transcend the Old Testament revelation, but, far from abolishing it, is itself its intended culmination.

Matthew 5:18 Amen: Here and in following verses, “Truly I tell you” is  “Amēn gar legō hymin.” The word “amēn” is not a Greek word but is transliterated from the Hebrew and is used as a responsive affirmation to something previously said. until: The Greek word heōs can be translatedas long as, while, until, up to.”  heaven and earth pass away: this need not be understood as a physical passing away, but can be used as a metaphor for permanence or for something inconceivable (e.g. hell freezing over). Most scholars take it to mean until the fullness of the kingdom is present. the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter: The iota (the letter yôd) is the smallest Hebrew letter, and is often optional in spelling; the dot (keraia, ‘horn’) may be either the similar letter wāw (which is equally optional), or the ‘serif’ which distinguishes some similar Hebrew letters. The Rabbis discussed at length the destructive effects of such minute alterations to a single letter of the law (Leviticus Rabbah 19:2).

Sources

  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 183-98
  • R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2007) 177-217
  • R.T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris  (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 118-30
  • The New American Bible

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