Christ, the Law, and the Prophets - Matthew 5:17–20


Gospel - Matthew 5:17–20

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.

Commentary


Last time, we have learned that our good works glorify our heavenly Father. Soon, we will know exactly what kind of good works our Lord expects from us. But before that Jesus needs to clarify certain misunderstandings regarding His position on the law of Moses.


The pious Jews considered Jesus as a radical, a lawbreaker. He was healing on the Sabbath day (Matt 12:9–14), mingled with tax collectors and sinners (Matt 9:9), and disregarded the teaching about the kosher food (Matt 15:17–20). The first Christians followed Jesus in this regard. They abolished the law of circumcision (Acts 15:6–11), the food was irrelevant to faith (Rom 14:17), and the celebration of the Sabbath has shifted to the first day of the week - the day of Christ’s resurrection.

“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 5:15).


Jesus was not changing the customs that Moses delivered to the Jews. The key words here are: abolish and fulfil. The Greek word ‘kataluo’ - abolish - is a metaphor for bringing something to naught. That was not the aim of Jesus. Moses and the Prophets played a crucial role in God’s plan of salvation. Moses was the lawgiver and the prophets were the Law’s interpreters. But none of them was God’s final word. On the other hand, the Greek word ‘pleroo’ - fulfil - contains the meaning of completeness, bringing something to its full measure. That is what Christ did with the Law and the Prophets. He brought them to perfection. “For Christ is the end/aim of the law” (Rom 10:4).

“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 phrase - “For truly, I say to you” - indicates that what follows is of the utmost importance. In this case, the accomplishment of all - the entire plan of salvation and the fulfilment of God’s promises. The promises of the Law include a nation and a land (see Gen 12:1–2). The promise of the Prophets speaks an ideal king (see Is 11:1–11). Taken literally, they point to the Jewish nation, Palestine, and another David-like king. But, in the spiritual sense, a nation refers to the Church, a land to the heavenly Jerusalem, and an ideal king to Christ. With the arrival of Jesus on the stage of history, the process of accomplishment of all has entered its final stage. Now “we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).


“Therefore whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments …” (Matt 5:19). There is an essential unity in the Law. “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10). Matthew does not tell us which one is “the least of these commandments”, but we know which one is the greatest. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom 13:10).

“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).


Breaking “one of the least of these commandments” and teaching to do the same could still get us to heaven (Matt 5:19). However, no such outcome is promised to those whose righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt 5:20). There is a ‘righteousness of the Law’ and there is also a ‘righteousness of faith’ (Rom 10:1–3). The first one was established by the scribes and the Pharisees and it relies on the scrupulous observance of the Law. The second one is God’s gift and is founded on faith in God’s saving grace. The first is unattainable: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20, see also Gal 3:10–11). The second leads to the kingdom of heaven: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).

Conclusion


The phrase “the Law and the Prophets” refers to the books of the Old Testament. They bear witness to God’s righteousness “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom 3:21). God is a patient teacher. “The Law and the Prophets” reveal God’s long-suffering way of dealing with humanity. This process of education gets completed in Jesus Christ. He has revealed the truth about God and human being to its fullness. Now, we finally know who God is and what His expectations are. As children of our heavenly Father, we go beyond the letter of the Scriptures reaching towards its spiritual sense. In verses that follow, Jesus will explain to us God’s intended meaning of the commandments.