“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever 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 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.”
Matthew 5:17-20 (NRSV)
In this passage, a number of concepts are being brought together, and it’s hard to say with ironclad certainty exactly what Jesus’ pronouncements mean, here. Certainly various people have suggested Jesus, here, institutes a radical break with Judaism all the way to people suggesting Jesus is making an announcement that nothing has changed whatsoever.
The first thing to note is that we are talking about both the law and the prophets, not merely the law. Whatever we make of Jesus’ teaching, here, it needs to have the same effect for both. Whatever it means for Jesus’ work to fulfill the prophets, that same thing applies to the law, and vice-versa.
The second thing to note is that both “abolish” and “fulfill” bring something to an end. The contrast between abolish and fulfill is not that one ends and the other keeps going; both end, but they end in very different ways.
Let’s say you and I make a deal. In this deal, I will mow your lawn all summer, and you will give me $1000 (I really hate to mow the lawn and would drive a really hard bargain, here). If I mowed your lawn once, decided I didn’t like it, and refused to mow your lawn ever again, I have abolished our agreement. If I mow your lawn all summer, I have fulfilled our agreement. In both cases, our agreement comes to an end. Fulfilling our agreement does not mean I keep mowing your lawn well into the foreseeable future – it means doing what I said I would do and, thus, bringing our agreement to its intended end. This is in contrast to simply breaking and discarding our agreement.
But at the same time, Jesus says the law and the prophets will not be fulfilled until “all is accomplished” and the present world as it is passes away. For this reason, the law should continue to be taught and practiced by Israel. Thus, we see that Jesus is not instituting some new, non-Jewish religion, nor is he promoting a version of Judaism free from “legalism.” He is, in fact, maintaining that, for the time being at least, people should continue to be taught to observe the law – the entire law, in fact – sacrifices, circumcision, food laws, the whole shebang – and he is embarrassingly clear about that.
I think this concept is best understood against the backdrop we have seen from Matthew so far – the law and the prophets defined Israel as a unique, faithful community in the world. As time went on, Israel found that the law and the prophets condemned her and called her to repentance. We also find a startling abomination – the very priests and teachers of the law who should have been leading Israel to greater faithfulness and trust instead began to use the law as a tool of oppression. They gave rise to their own traditions to preserve a sort of “civic righteousness” while the actual law that called Israel’s leaders to show mercy, compassion, partiality to the poor and disadvantaged, etc. went ignored. Prophets, too, were ignored or even killed.
Because of disobedience to the law and prophets, Israel found herself in exile, but her leaders began a campaign to keep them that way and used the law to help them do it. Turns out exile as they knew it by Jesus’ day worked for them just fine. They could afford the expensive sacrifices as well as the comforts the Empire had to offer. They were respected and powerful. Everyone who saw them saw how “righteous” they were with their extravagant displays of donations, fasting, and public prayers that made it clear that they were not sinners like everyone else. What God had intended for covenant life, Satan had used to kill Israel and shut her up under sin.
And so, we have Jesus, who Matthew has already portrayed as faithful Israel. He will keep Israel’s covenants faithfully and, in doing so, will cast off the strictures that the power structure in Judea has used to keep the common Israelite distant from their God.
But Jesus will also fulfill the law and the prophets by bringing the judgement they promised. God is about to move against unfaithful Israel in a final way – a way that will irreparably change the face of their world.
What is the hope for those in Israel who have longed for restoration? Jesus must save them from their sins. Repentance, renewal, recreation – the things that the law and the prophets have been telling them would move God’s hand in mercy and deliverance. The reformation of faithful Israel – their faithfulness to the covenant (i.e. righteousness) will exceed the scribes and Pharisees, and they will enter the kingdom.
Jesus lays this necessity out for Nicodemus when he says, “All of you must be born again.” and “None of you can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” The rebirth of Israel so vividly portrayed in Ezekiel 37 will now come to pass as a result of what Jesus has done. He will create a new Israel of repentant followers who pursue what Israel had always been meant to be. He will put Israel’s sin on the cross in his own flesh. He will be the first of Israel to be eschatologically vindicated by God in resurrection. He will pour out on them the promised Spirit. He will raise their martyrs from the dead to reign with him. He will destroy the Temple and the structures both physical and political that had so long kept them in chains. He will seal a new covenant in his blood with this renewed Israel that, wonder of wonders, will also include faithful Gentiles, which will be the herald of his Lordship over the entire world.
A call to Israel for faithfulness, a promise of judgement, and a hopeful guarantee of the future. These are the things we find in our passage.
As we move through the Scriptures, we find faithful Jewish converts continuing to practice the law, and we find Gentile converts being warned not to, but both of them are enjoined to be the things in the world faithful Israel was always meant to be, and the promised rewards belong to both of them. Then the Temple comes down, bringing an end to the era of Law-as-we-know-it for everyone.
All has been accomplished that Jesus set out to do. We find ourselves on this side of those events. We do not enjoin new converts to keep the Mosaic law, nor should be. The law and the prophets have been fulfilled; they do not keep going.
But what we do find in both law and prophets, looking back on them, are those new creation strains that define a faithful people over and against the rest of the world. We find those strains in the teaching of Jesus. We find those strains in the letters to the new communities of faith, both Jew and Gentile. We find some of them in the first creation. We find them attested to throughout the scriptures and empirical signs of faithful communities that Paul notes will do these things whether they’ve ever heard the law or not – they do them by nature. We share the same Spirit, Lord, and baptism with these communities, and like them, we by our behavior join hands with them and our faithful Jewish forefathers going back millennia – eons of testifiers that the God who created the heavens and the earth will see it through to its intended purpose.
- Throughout history, believers have sort of intuitively seen in the law things that seem temporary versus things that seem ongoing. The laws themselves do not make any such indicators or divisions. How do you explain our perceptions that some of these laws seem to transcend their particular historical period?
- The covenants with the Jewish patriarchs defined what it meant to be a faithful follower of Jesus and remains the root that believing Gentiles are grafted into. How does a deeper knowledge and appreciation of Judaism help us in being the faithful people of God in the world?