Matthew 5:17-20 & Fulfillment

This is one of the most difficult passages in the gospels… in the Bible. Some may think that Jesus is easy reading and that it is Paul who is difficult, but I wonder if they have ever read Jesus, and if they have, if they really pay attention to what He says or just read Him in a light superficial manner. If you think Jesus was just an ethical teacher and Paul was the theologian, think again.

But don’t let this passage intimidate you. It is crucial, for at least three reasons. It is crucial for understanding :

  1. The Sermon on the Mount. The phrase “law and the prophets” appears again in 7:12; this forms an inclusio (think something like parentheses). They let us know what this whole section is about.
  2. How the Old Testament relates to the New Testament.
  3. How the law relates to the Christian.

As I entered into my study of this text I was excited about this passage because I knew it was a passage that influences my basic approach to the Bible. An approach that a children’s story bible nails, and sadly many ministers fail to realize.

Now, some people think the Bible is a book of rules, telling you what you should and shouldn’t do. The Bible certainly does have some rules in it. They show you how life works best. But the Bible isn’t mainly about you and what you should be doing. It’s about God and what he has done.

Other people think the Bible is a book of heroes, showing you people you should copy. The Bible does have some heroes in it, but (as you’ll soon find out) most of the people in the Bible aren’t heroes at all. They make some big mistakes (sometimes on purpose), they get afraid and run away. At times, they’re downright mean.

No, the Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a Story. It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne-everything-to rescues the ones he loves. It’s like the most wonderful of fairy tales that has come true in real life!

You see, the best thing about this Story is-it’s true.

There are lots of stories in the Bible, but all the stories are telling on Big Story. The Story of how God loves his children and comes to rescue them.

It takes the whole Bible to tell this Story. And at the center of the Story, there is a baby. Every story in the Bible whispers his name. He is like the missing piece in the puzzle-the piece that makes all the other pieces fit together, and suddenly you can see a beautiful picture. – Sally Lloyd-Jones in The Jesus Storybook Bible

Jesus fulfills all Scripture. Some 16 times Matthew will use “fulfilled” in regard to Jesus, we have seen it several times already (Matthew 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14). The excitement over this truth remained for me as I studied, but desperate prayers were turned to God in trying to understand how verses 18-20 related to verse 17. Simplistic answers at how the law relates to the Christian fall flat here. Some chop the law into three sections; moral, civil, and ceremonial. They will say the moral law remains, but the civil and ceremonial law have been done away with. There are some problems with this; we never see this kind of division hinted at anywhere in the Bible, the first mention of it come from Aquinas, and it doesn’t gel well with what Jesus is saying here about not one iota or dot.

The best help I received and pass onto you is R.T. France’s helpful paraphrase.

Do not suppose that I came to undermine the authority of the OT scriptures, and in particular the law of Moses. I did not come to set them aside but to bring into reality that to which they pointed forward. I tell you truly: 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 (and is now doing so in my ministry). So anyone who treats even the most insignificant of the commandments of the law as of no value and teaches other people to belittle them is an unworthy representative of the new regime, while anyone who takes them seriously in word and deed will be a true member of God’s kingdom.

But do not imagine that simply keeping all those rules will bring salvation. For I tell you truly; it is only those whose righteousness of life goes far beyond the old policy of literal rulekeeping which the scribes and Pharisees represent who will prove to be God’s true people in this era of fulfillment.

So it isn’t that we toss parts of the law as unimportant, but that we realize their full significance in light of Jesus. The law then must be read not through a threefold division grid, but in light of Jesus and His fulfilling it.


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