Over the past few years, I have had numerous encounters with Bible skeptics who have used Matthew 5:17 to claim that Christians are still bound by the laws of the Old Testament. This morning, while preparing for an upcoming chat with an atheist named David Smalley on his “Dogma Debate” channel, I listened to him and another skeptic as they used that passage to inform a Christian that Christians are still bound by the 613 laws of the Jewish Bible. Accordingly, the present writing is to examine Matthew 5:17 in the context of the Scriptures to develop better insight on its meaning. The best way to understand passages in the Bible is to examine the context and other Scriptures in the Bible.
Matthew 5 begins with the Beatitudes, which are an encouraging set of blessings that Jesus shared with his followers. They include blessings such as “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth…Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:3-5; 11-12). The Beatitudes beautifully set the stage for Jesus in his revelation of the New Covenant in the rest of the chapter.
Jesus continued with “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 tell you, 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. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly 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).
The Hebrew Bible
The Hebrew Bible has three subdivisions: the Books of the Law, the Books of the Prophets, and the Writings. The Books of the Law are called the Torah (five books of Moses) and the Books of the Prophets (Nevi’im) and the Writings (Ketuvim) are called the Tanakh. Christians label the Books of the Law in the Old Testament as the Pentateuch. These are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Books of the Nev’im include Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, along with the minor and latter prophets. The 12 “minor” prophets are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. The latter prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The Ketuvim include the wisdom and religious poetry: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. They also include Daniel, Nehemiah, Ezra and Chronicles.
When Jesus stated that he did not come to abolish the “Law or the Prophets,” he came to “fulfill” them, he was referring to the Old Testament as a whole. He fulfilled the Old Testament and replaced the Old Covenant in the Old Testament with the New Covenant of the New Testament. We have an abundance of confirmation in the Scriptures for this assertion. The Scriptures further explain the prophecies and revelations of the New Covenant.
Prophecies of the New Covenant from the Old Testament
Ezekiel 11:19 “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.”
Ezekiel 36:26 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
Faulty Old Covenant Interpretations: Jesus Scolded the Pharisees for their Hypocrisy Concerning their Works
Matthew 23:1-4 “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”
Matthew 23:12 “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Matthew 23:23-24 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. 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. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”
What are the Laws of the New Covenant?
Matthew 22:35-40 “One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “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. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
The Old Covenant [for the Jews] is Replaced by the New Covenant [for All]
Luke 16:16-17 “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.”
Acts 10:28 “[Peter] said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.”
Acts 10:34 “Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”
The New Covenant is Revealed by Jesus
John 6:38-39 “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day.”
Matthew 5:17 “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.”
Hebrews 7:22 “Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantor of a better covenant.”
Hebrews 9:12 “He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.”
Galatians 3:13 “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.’”
Romans 10:4 “Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for anyone who believes.”
The New Covenant Focuses on Faith, Not Works-based Salvation
Ephesians 2:8-10 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
Romans 3:19 “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world will be held accountable to God. Therefore, no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.”
Galatians 3:24 “So the law was our guardian until Christ came by that we might be justified by faith, for all you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves in Christ.”
Jesus did not come to abolish the Old Testament; he came to fulfill it. The 613 laws in the Old Testament are still recognized by Jews today, yet Christians are bound by the laws of the New Covenant: to love our Lord above all else and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The New Covenant is the permanent Covenant that God has given his children. By faith, we follow the New Covenant and Jesus Christ – and by God’s grace we are extended his mercy, forgiveness, love, and salvation. 1 Corinthians 13 well explains the beauty of the New Covenant, which is all about love.
1 Corinthians 13
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Thank you for your time.
- My friend JJ Richards offered his thoughts on this blog – and a different perspective on ways to view the passages. Here is what he says: “What one must be careful of is how the word fulfill is used. The Greek literally means to “fill-full” – To cram it full of meaning, bring out its fullest expression, its telos, its confirmation. (When looked up in Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible pg. 377 it confirms the Greek word pleroo used in this verse means to “make full”) It’s also akin to a very common rabbinic halicic form of argumentation which is used in contrast. It’s very common in other rabbinic writings and the Talmud according to my professors. In other words everything that abolish is – fulfill isn’t. Or everything that fulfill is – abolish isn’t. And when we understand covenant treaties and laws as they are in the OT (and communicated as eternal by God) we understand that covenants do not get wiped out or replaced, but refined and sharpened. It’s a continuous revelation by God that meets its culmination in Jesus. It had to be that way to point to the Messiah or he’d have never been accepted. Yet what’s often not dealt with and what many Christians have a hard time grasping is that Jewish believers “almost” required Gentile Christians to follow the law. And they had a decent case. Yet the Council of Jerusalem decided Gentiles need not be burdened with it and only had to follow the Noachide rules and later what was expounded upon as Jesus teachings, and apostolic rulings.”