Jesus as the Fulfillment of the Law – Matthew 5:17-20

Jesus begins by making it clear he is not abolishing the Law, but rather demonstrating how to keep the Law properly. It is possible, Scot McKnight suggest, that Jesus has been accused of breaking the Law or teaching things which nullified the Law. There are several examples of the Pharisees questioning Jesus about certain practices such as eating with sinners (Matt 9:1-11), fasting (Matt 9:14), and Sabbath (Matt 12:1-13).

The word fulfill in in contrast to annulling the Law, “far from undercutting the role of the Law and the Prophets, is to enable God’s people to live out the Law more effectively” (Nolland, Matthew, 218). For Jesus the Law is God’s eternal word. The heaven and earth itself will pass away before the Law does.

Jesus is not abolishing the commands of the Law at all. The righteousness of the true disciple of Jesus must exceed even the Pharisees. The Pharisees were known for “building a wall” around the Law so that they would not break the Law in ignorance. For example, the Law did not require a tithe on herbs such as mint, dill, or cumin. But the Pharisee tithed on everything, including these plants. Later in Matthew Jesus will call this “straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel” (Matt 23:23-24).

Sometimes the Pharisees are mis-characterized as hyper-legalists who demanded all Jews following their interpretation of the Law. Contemporary preaching makes them sound like Puritans (or the men from A Handmaid’s Tale). It is important to understand the motivation for much of the teaching of the Pharisees: they wanted to obey the Law since it was God’s holy and perfect will. They did not obey out of fear, but as a response to God’s grace given to all Israel. For a Jew living in the Second Temple Period, the Pharisees were not the “bad guys” (in contrast to contemporary Christian preaching).

To have “more righteousness than the Pharisees” does not mean “have more rules than the Pharisees.” They increased the number of rules and traditions to build their wall around the Law, Jesus wants his disciples to seek the heart of the Law. What are the principles found in the Law which reflect the heart of God? What are the principles behind a particular command which God demands of his people at in time in salvation history?

Scot McKnight suggests this section of the Sermon on the Mount is a new way of reading Scripture. For McKnight, Jesus is setting himself up as a lens through which Scripture should be read. Jesus “had the audacity to think he was the messiah and taught a Messianic ethic” (Sermon on the Mount, 67). This messianic re-interpretation of the Law was radical and resulted in conflict with the Pharisees and other religious leaders. Imagine if Jesus showed up in a typical Bible College or Seminary classroom (or a plenary session at the Evangelical Theological Society) and told the professors they were reading the Bible wrong and were “blind guides”(Matt 23:16) or hypocrites who look good on the outside but are “full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matt 23:27-28). I am certain they would question Jesus in the same way the Pharisees did (Where is your authority? Where did you get your degree? Where are your scholarly publications?)

This is not a kind of “find Jesus in the Old Testament” hermeneutic. Jesus fulfills the entire theological story of the Old Testament. He is the climax of the story since everything in the Law and prophets point towards him.

Jesus really is teaching his disciples how to understand the Law and apply it in a new context (like the Pharisee), but not by multiplying commands. Jesus demands his disciples go deeper than a list of rules and seek the true heart of God behind the Law. He will give two examples of this new way to read the Law in the next two paragraphs of the Sermon on the Mount by re-reading two of the Ten Commandments.

16 thoughts on “Jesus as the Fulfillment of the Law – Matthew 5:17-20

  1. It is important to note that Jesus did not come to abolish the law. I enjoy how McKnight states that Jesus is coming to fulfill, or affirm, the law (p. 66). The law that is being discussed in the passages of Matthew 5:17-20 is the law given to Israel by God through Moses. Jesus did not come to affirm the laws that the Pharisees had made in an effort to build a wall around the law. Jesus came to fulfill the law made by God and not by man. Jesus was tearing down the law made by man and enforcing the laws made by God. Jesus was pointing out that the laws the Pharisees had made and were following made them righteous on the outside only (McKnight, 70). Jesus is calling for a dramatic change, not with the law but with those who obey the law. Jesus is trying to explain that the law is not an object that needs to be protected by a wall, but rather used as a tool to help transform the heart and lives of all people.

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    • As it says in the post above how Jesus wants to make it clear that He is not trying to abolish the law, He is just trying to show us how to properly use the law. The Bible is the law, and the book that we should be following. I feel like a lot of people think that Christian are these people who have to follows rules and are under strict guidelines. They are not necessarily rules, I like what sarahmasscom says, how they are tools to help us in life. If we use these tools or rules we will be living a life for God and the way He wants us to be living. These tools can also help us and guide us down the right path. God is aiming to complete and fulfill the law. McKnight says, “Yet these words “completed” and “fulfilled” do not mean “abolished” (McKnight, pg. 66). So why then do people think he is abolishing the law?

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      • To answer your question, (Why do people think he is abolishing the Law?) it is all about our misinterpretation of Scripture. We have a tendency to change Scripture into what we want to believe, rather than what it truly is. It is crucial for our accurate interpretation of Scripture that we study through various commentaries so that we are not blinded by our own experiences. Pharisees loved to follow every little rule that the Bible set forth, and even began to make up their own rules, just as Dr. Long pointed out in his post. People think that because Jesus was telling people to not be like the Pharisees, that the Law we being “abolished” by the Grace of God. He makes it clear that his intentions were not to “abolish” the Law, but rather to further explain it to give us a better understanding. In reality, Jesus was not changing the Law at all, he more wanted us to look internally at our heart. This is why we must study through the use of commentaries to gain an accurate understanding of what the Scriptures are telling us.

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      • You made some great points Maddie. I think that people believe Jesus is trying to abolish the law because he was so radically different than all of the other teachers of the law at that time. The people saw what Jesus was teaching to be destroying the law, however the only laws that Jesus was destroying was laws of tradition made by the Pharisees to “protect” the law. The Pharisees then probably used this to their advantage to say that Jesus was a false teacher trying to destroy the law rather than fulfill it. However, those who truly understood the law and the prophecies could see that Jesus was fulfilling the law.

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  2. Jesus goal is not to abolish the Law, but rather he desires to demonstrate how to keep the Law properly and his lifestyle resemble that perfectly. Many people, during the time of Jesus and after, question whether he taught going against the Law or if he simply just acted against the Law. For Jesus the Law is God’s eternal word. The heaven and earth will pass away but God’s word is forever. His word teaches us how to follow him, glorify him, live for him and lead others to him. Many individuals believed that you were supposed to tithe on everything, everything they owned. The Pharisees wanted to obey the Law, because it was of God and of God’s will and who he is. They did not obey out of fear but rather they did to a response to God’s grace given to all Israel.
    Jesus walked the earth spreading truth and claiming he was the messiah. Many people disowned him and thought he was crazy and came to spread lies. But Jesus fulfills the entire theological story of the Old Testament. Jesus is the climax of the story because all things points towards him and are for him. Jesus desires to teach his disciples how to understand the Law and how to apply it in a new context. “Jesus tells his followers not to ‘look somber’ like the hypocrites, and he partly explains what this means when he adds that the hypocrites ‘disfigure their faces.’ Walk in a way that is glorifying and honoring to God.

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  3. It is quite clear that Jesus’ goal was not to “abolish” the Law, but rather to help us gain a more clear understanding of what it truly is. During this time period, the Pharisees were changing the Law and making it more difficult to follow. It was becoming a check list for “good Christians” to do, and this was not what God intended. Then Jesus steps in and delivers this message to us, changing what people believed “good Christians” needed to do. Jesus challenges us to look more internally at our heart on these issues, rather than the check list mentality. “The claim by Jesus that he fulfills the Torah and the Prophets might suggest that we can be done with the Torah, but Jesus says precisely the opposite” (McKnight, p. 68). We must be clear in that Jesus did not suggest that the Law was gone, but rather that we should look at the Law through a fresh lens; rather than our clouded lens that the Pharisees have been looking through. This was Jesus’ true goal of his sermon.

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    • I agree with your post especially when you talk about Jesus wants us to look at law through a fresh lens. Often times people take what is said in passage and interpret how they want. Jesus only changes the views of the pharisees because the laws made where not God intended. I enjoyed reading your post.

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  4. There is much misunderstanding in regards to the Old Testament Law. Is it still relevant to us today, or irrelevant? Was it only for the ancient Israel? Do we no longer have to follow the Law since Jesus fulfilled it for us? Was it a burden that Christ freed us from? Is trying to keep the Law a legalistic approach to follow God?
    All of these are valid questions, and we will never have the “correct” answer. It is important to note that the Pharisees were not bad guys. Professor Long states that they desired to follow the Law because they knew it was from God who is holy and perfect. The context in which they lived called them to follow the Law in such a way because the salvation of Jesus was not yet present. We approach Jesus Christ in a different way than the Pharisees did because we’re learning from the past about how to change in our present. In Matthew 5:20, Jesus talks about how our knowledge must surpass the knowledge of the Pharisees, and I think His language here is futuristic. He knows what is coming, that He will die on the cross for everyone of all time. I think His words are speaking to those (us) who will learn about Him after His death, resurrection, and ascension. We have way more context – the whole story – and because of that we have the opportunity to gain greater wisdom. McKnight says, “righteousness emerges out of communion with Jesus and redemption; it is a kingdom righteousness, a kingdom that comes with new covenant power to heal and transform. Yes, this is righteousness under the cross. But it is a righteousness that is done” (70). Jesus is challenges us to be better followers – not followers who try to obey every single Law, but followers who boldly love Him and seek to be changed and transformed by His Word.

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  5. “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” Matthew 5:17. Jesus didn’t come to rewrite or rip the law, but rather he came to show us and the world he lived in how to truly live it out. unlike the religious rulers that were before him, doing everything as a show for the public to see. our relationship with God is supposed to be personal. Jesus came to fulfill, in that he came to keep the law and bring to completion the prophecy of the old testament. from the beginning of his ministry Jesus was bogged down by all the accusations of breaking the very law his father put in place. rather than going against his accusers he went out of his way to express love.(McKnight, 67).

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  6. I really like that this states clearly Jesus intent for the law. In this time period many people get confused about what the old testament means when it talks about traditions and laws. Some people still try to use all of that as our rules to live by. But Jesus came and made what is important clear to us and the more we realize that and meditate on those things the more our lives can reflect those principles.

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  7. It is very clear in Matthew 5:17 that God did not come to abolish the law, but to show us how to properly keep the law. McKnight also notes that the words used are “fulfilled” and “complete”, not abolished (pg. 66). Romans 13:10 is an example of loving as a fulfillment of the law, and this is just as Jesus is seeking to describe here; showing us what it truly means to fulfill the law, and is not “abolishing” what is written, but should be viewed as a clarification. Jesus showed us how to live out the law and to truly fulfill them.

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  8. Yes i agree with this passage and enjoyed reading it. Jesus eating with sinners showed us we are all sinners and are all children of God. Jesus makes readers feel like we are all equal which we are

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    • I don’t believe Jesus was trying to abolish the law but only have pharisees and people of the town view the laws in a different perspective. In Matthew 5:20, Jesus talks about how our knowledge must outgrow what is known by the pharisees.

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