How does the coming of Jesus relate to Old Testament Law?
We will not understand how Christians should apply the Old Testament without a close look at Jesus’ words in 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. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).
Questions about Jesus’ identity were repeatedly raised by his contemporaries. Some thought he was John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. On one occasion, a Pharisees asked Jesus: “Who do you make yourself out to be?” He didn’t seem to fit the traditional molds of Judaism, yet was clearly willing to confront the leaders of the Jewish religion.
People were particularly concerned with how Jesus viewed himself in relation to the Scriptures. So, in Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus offered a needed word of clarification concerning his relationship to and respect for the enduring validity of the Law. Jesus taught his exhaustive commitment to the enduring integrity of scripture. But He had much more to clarify.
# 1. How do the Old Testament Scriptures (Law and Prophets) relate to Jesus?
“Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
The contrast here is not between abolishing and preserving but abolishing and fulfilling. Yet what did Jesus mean by “fulfill”? Many think he meant that he obeyed the Law. But it’s better to understand this as: “Bringing to its full meaning” or “bringing to completion.”
Two helpful comments
- “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 The detailed prescriptions of the Old Testament may well be superseded, because whatever is prophetic likewise discovers its legitimate continuity in the happy arrival of that toward which it has pointed.”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, The law, the Gospel, and the modern Christian, p. 117).
Other Scriptures about Jesus and the OT
- Luke 16:16 “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached…”
- Acts 10:43 “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
- Luke 24:44 “He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Jesus taught an anticipatory-fulfillment view of the Old Testament as pointing toward, looking to, and anticipating fulfillment in him. 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 look 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).
“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. “For as many as may be the promises of God, in Him they are yes…” (2 Cor. 1:20).
# 2. How does the coming of Jesus impact the OT Law?
Jesus does not merely reassert the OT’s original meaning in each case. “Jesus clearly and authoritatively modified, intensified, repealed or invested with deeper meaning, various parts of the Old Testament” (D. A. Carson).
For example, Jesus declared all foods clean, (Mark 7:1-23; Matthew 5:1-20); declared himself as Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-14; cf. Colo. 2:16-17). He demanded that the temple be honored (Mark 11:15-18 w/ Matthew 23:16-22); commented on sacrificial worship (Matthew 5:23-24), and yet predicted the destruction of the temple (Matthew 24:1-2; John 2:12-22) and related his body to the temple. The NT book of Hebrews repeatedly emphasizes Jesus as the fulfillment of OT Scriptures.
Very few Bible teachers believe that every Old Testament commandment should be obeyed today. Both Jesus and His apostles released people from food and dietary laws (see: Matthew 15:1-20; Act 15). Perhaps Jesus only meant the enduring validity and applicability of the moral law (like the ten commandments). Using a triadic division of the law (moral, ceremonial and civil), some suggest that Jesus was only enforcing the moral portion. But the triadic understanding (though helpful to us) was not used in the time of Christ. More importantly, Matthew 5:17-20 cannot reconcile with such limitations.
# 3. How should we interpret Jesus’ massive claims in Matthew 5:18-19?
“I tell you”
Always see the authority of Jesus in this form introduction. The teachers in Israel never spoke with such authority. They used introductions like, “Moses, Scripture, the Law, Prophets said.” Jesus spoke with unparalleled authority: In Matthew 5:21-48, six times Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said….. but I tell you…”; see also: 7:21-29; 28:18-20; John 14:15; 15:10 “My commands.”
“…until heaven and earth disappear,” (literally)
“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare” (II Peter 3:10). Mark 13:31 – “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”
“…not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law”
jot: (yod) the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet; tittle: (waw) small stroke that distinguishes different pairs of letters in the Hebrew alphabet
“…until everything is accomplished”
This draws attention to the “anticipatory and fulfillment” nature of Old Testament Scripture as noted above in verse 17.
“Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same…” (v. 19).
To break the commandments is to set yourself against Jesus who does not abolish (break) the law and the prophets.
“Least of these commandments”
Matthew 22:36-38 – “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment.”
Matthew 23:23 – “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”
“…will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Here we find some form of gradation within kingdom ranks — one is not excluded from the Kingdom for law breaking but reduced in rank.
- Matthew 11:11 – “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater that John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
- Matthew 18:1-4 – “At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
- Matthew 20:20-28 – “Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
- Luke 12:47-48 – “That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
# 4. What did Jesus mean by his shocking statement in Matthew 5:20?
“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven”
Here Jesus introduced the first of a number of “entrance sayings” found in the gospel of Matthew. An “entrance saying” is a direct statement from Jesus indicating either “who will enter heaven” or “how one must set about to enter heaven.” Three of them refer to “entering life” and two refer to “the faithful servant entering the joy of the Master”
Entrance sayings in the gospel of Matthew
- 5:20- surpassing righteousness is required
- 7:21- doing the will of the father is required
- 18:3-4- childlike humility gains entrance (cf. 19:13-14; Lk. 18:9-14)
- 18:8-9- radical amputation of sinful offenses
- 19:16-24- the love of riches as an obstacle to entrance
- 25:21,23- the faithful servant entering the joy of their Master
Worthy of deeper reflection
How should these sayings influence our approach to evangelism? Could the lack of appreciation for Jesus’ entrance sayings be a contributor to the superficiality found in evangelicalism?
A shocking statement to first century ears!
A Jewish saying: “If two men died and went to heaven, one would be a scribe the other a Pharisee.” Yet Jesus said one’s righteousness must exceed that of the of Scribes and Pharisees to even enter heaven! The rest of chapter 5 and most of 6 offers a commentary on this saying.
- “Little children, let no one deceive you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous” (1 John 3:7; cf. 2:29;3:10;Eph.4:24) Matthew 6:1; Luke 18:9-14
- “I did not come to call the righteous but the sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32)
- “Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money were listening to all these things, and they were scoffing at Him. And He said to them,” “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:14-15).
- “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God (Romans 10:2-3).
- “What does the Lord require of thee O man, but to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God” (Micah 6:8).
- “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).
- “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3)