In reading various viewpoints, I kept returning to Matthew 5:17-20 where our Lord taught that he has fulfilled the law and yet strongly affirmed the enduring validity and applicability of the least stroke of a pen within the law. He then warned those who break “the least of these commandments” and “teach others to do so” that they will be demoted in the kingdom of heaven.
An apparent problem
Very few Bible teachers believe that every Old Testament commandment should be obeyed today. Should we insist that the food and dietary laws be enforced? Both Jesus and His apostles released people from these laws (Matthew 15:1-20;Mark 7; Act 15). How many of us offer sacrifices at a temple in Jerusalem or even consider ourselves required to do this?
Perhaps Jesus only meant the enduring validity and applicability of the moral law of God (like the ten commandments). Using a triadic division of the law as: 1) Moral 2) Ceremonial and 3) Civil, some suggest that Jesus is only referring to the moral portion.
But the triadic understanding (though helpful to us) was not used in the time of Christ. More importantly, the text itself (Matthew 5) cannot reconcile with such limitations. In the six antithetical statements in the rest of chapter five, Jesus interacts with more than the so-called moral section of the law. And in 5:17 Jesus referred to, “the law or the prophets” which is a summary way of speaking of the entire Old Testament.
Verses 18 and 19 are even more comprehensive in referring to, ” the least stroke of a pen and the least command.” Jesus was unquestionably affirming the enduring validity and applicability of the whole O.T. in mind. This leaves us with significant questions:
- How then should we understand the abrogation of entire portions of the law, like dietary and ceremonial portions?
- Do we risk demotion in the kingdom by not obeying or requiring things like Sabbath law?
The Harmonizing principle
Those committed to the integrity of Scripture (particularly the fact that it does not contradict itself) must understand the harmonizing principle. It helps clarify the obvious change in the way Old Testament Law relates to the people of God in the New Testament. Prior to the coming of Christ, those who believed in God related to Him on the basis of Old Testament Scriptures (Dt. 8:1-5; Ps. 119; 2 Tim 3:15-16). With the coming of Christ, however, something changed regarding the way God’s people related to Old Testament revelation.
In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus taught the “anticipatory-fulfillment” nature of Old Testament Scripture. He said, “…not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” This is the harmonizing principle: The Old Testament Scriptures point toward and anticipate fulfillment in the Christ event. In the present age, we look to Jesus and through Jesus for our understanding and application of the Old Testament.
The Christ event
Although Jesus himself was “born under the law” (Gal.4:4) and “fulfilled all righteousness” (Matt.3:15), in his person and work, He “wrapped up” that era of biblical history where the law regulated the covenant relationship of the people of God. Jesus is the new locus of authority for God’s people. He determines for us what is pleasing to God. And the entire tone of Jesus ministry indicates that He clearly knew he was, “the end (telos) of the law…” (Ro 10:4).
Jesus opened his public ministry with the words, “the time is fulfilled…” (Mk. 1:15). Expressions attached to the first coming of Christ indicate a significant change (e. g. ”the fullness of time,” Gal. 4:4, or “the consummation of the ages” Heb. 9:26). In these last days, God has spoken to us by his Son (Heb. 1:1-2). All the Old Testament prophecies, promises and laws came to their full and final meaning in Jesus. Food laws, festivities and special days were “a shadow of what is to come but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:17).
“The law was only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very image…” (Heb. 10:1). The earthly priesthood, temple and sacrifices were “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things.” (Heb. 8). All these things come to their full and final meaning in Christ. Jesus said “…all things written about me in the law of Moses, and the prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Lk. 24:44).
Peter, preaching to Cornelius, said with reference to Christ, “Of Him all the prophets bear witness” (Acts 10:43). The Apostle Paul, referring to Jesus, makes this great statement, , He writes: “For as many as may be the promises of God, in Him they are yes…” 2 Cor. 1:20
Jesus taught an anticipatory and prophetic view of Old Testament Scriptures as they point toward, look to, and anticipate fulfillment in the Christ event.
In Matthew 5:18 Jesus taught his exhaustive commitment to the enduring integrity of scripture down to the smallest letter and marking of the Hebrew alphabet. But even in this, he adds, “until all be fulfilled.” Jesus viewed the Old Testament revelation as “provisional” based on a principle of fulfillment.
In keeping with the testimony of the whole New Testament, Jesus presented Himself as the one who fulfills the Old Testament. The harmonizing principle, therefore, that enables us to understand the obvious change of relationship with the Old Testament law (observed in the early church) is the Christ event in its totality. It includes His incarnation, life, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, second coming and glorious reign. This is not to advocate the cessation of the application of the Old Testament to our lives, it simply means that obedience to and teaching of the least commandment must be in keeping with the one who is himself the fulfillment of these scriptures. Matthew 5:18-19 must be approached in the context of Matthew 5:17.
It’s of interest that although Jesus did not always follow the common Rabbinic practice of substantiating ethical demands with quotations from Old Testament Scriptures, He did continue to quote the Scriptures. Most notable is his threefold quotation of the Old Testament to counter the attack of Satan (Matthew 4:1-11). Another significant use is in the account of the rich young ruler who asked Jesus about obtaining eternal life (Lk. 18:18-23; Gal. 3:24; I Tim 1:8-9). Jesus set the example for us in his use of the Old Testament.
Again, in the present age, we look to Jesus and through Jesus for our understanding and application of the Old Testament. If someone asked me if I considered myself directly under the Old Testament law, I would answer: “Not in the same way Old Testament believers were under it.” Yet I do consider myself even more responsible to the Old Testament revelation because I stand on the side of fulfillment. We enjoy a greater privilege being on the fulfillment side of the Old Testament but with that privilege comes greater responsibility and the demand for more careful attention. There is also the threat of a greater judgment if we carelessly disregard the revelation of God in Christ (Hebrews 2:1-4; 10:26-31; 12:18-29).
“If disregard for the Mosaic law was appropriately punished, unconcern for the gospel must inevitably be catastrophic!” (William Lane, Hebrews, WBC, vol. I, II)
Thoughts from Carson and Moo
“Jesus does not conceive of his life and ministry in terms of opposition to the Old Testament, but in terms of bringing to fruition that toward which it points. Thus, the Law and the prophets, far from being abolished, find their valid continuity in terms of their outworking in Jesus. The detailed prescriptions of the Old Testament may well be superseded, because whatever is prophetic likewise discovers its legitimate continuity in the happy arrival of that toward which it has pointed.” (D. A. Carson, Sermon on the Mount, p. 37)
“In all its details the Scripture remains authoritative, but the manner in which men relate to and understand its provisions is now determined by the one who has fulfilled it” (Douglas Moo, Jesus, the Law and You, p. 117)
St. Paul calls the 10 Commandments, “The ministry of death.”
The Jews had Moses and the Law…for all the good it did them.
We have Christ and the forgiveness of our sins.
A much better deal!
Yes, the Law will not be mocked and it is still there. But we are not made righteous by it (“No one will be made righteous in the sight of the law.” – St. Paul)
The Law accuses us, exposes us…and drives us to Christ. And…in it’s civil use, keeps chaos from reigning on the earth (for the most part).
“Christ is the end of the law for all those who have faith.”
I like that. That’s why they call it (the gospel) the Good News!
While the discussion above is good, I’ve heard it all before, and haven’t found it very satisfying.
However, you do include a reference to Galatians 3, which is an entirely satisfactory explanation for OT law!
Naturally, we all agree that Christ is the fulfillment of the law. But why? Galatians 3 (especially verses 15 and following) explain it clearly in everyday terms.
The teachings of Christ were revolutionary in that he moved beyond salvation through deeds and ritual observances as prescribed by the law and established that salvation depended upon accepting the gift of grace that he freely gave to all, a grace made possible by his atonement as a sacrifice for all. This is what he meant when he said that he came not to overturn the law, but to fulfill it. He didn’t end the law; he brought it to its intended, ultimate culmination. It always pointed to him. So, it’s not that he came after the law, but that the law was a shadowy precursor of what was to come; the foundation was being laid for the Kingdom of God to be built at the foot of the cross.
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If someone asked me if I considered myself directly under the Old Testament law, I would answer…