The Sermon on the Mount: The Law
The Conclusion of the Law (Matthew 5:17-18)
The relationship of Jesus to the Mosaical Law has been debated among certain people for many years. Most acknowledge that there is a difference between the law delivered by Moses and the one delivered by Jesus, but just how much of the Old Law was replaced and exactly when it was replaced has been contested.
Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).
The word “destroy” is from the Greek word kataluo. It means “to disintegrate, to demolish, to overthrown, or to abolish.” Jesus’ purpose was not to make ruin of the Old Law. That law had a purpose and served its purpose well.
The word "fulfill" comes from the Greek word pleroo, which means "fill, make full, supply fully, complete." Its meaning can be seen in how it is used in other passages. For example there are numerous passages that speak of something being done in order that a prophecy might be fulfilled, such as in Matthew 1:22, 2:15, 17, etc. The word means that the prophecy was answered in full and brought to completion. When something is made completely full by a task, the task is finished. We say this in English when we say we went to the gas station and filled up the car. In other words, we stopped pumping gas into the car once it reach the full mark because no more gas could be added. This sense of a completed purpose is seen in Luke 7:1, "Now when He concluded all His sayings in the hearing of the people, He entered Capernaum." The word "concluded" is the Greek word pleroo. Jesus fulfilled his purpose in that particular lesson. There was nothing more that needed to be said at that moment, so he stopped. It is also seen in Acts 19:21, "When these things were accomplished, Paul purposed in the Spirit, when he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, to go to Jerusalem, saying, "After I have been there, I must also see Rome."" Paul had completed what he set out to do in Ephesus, so he looked to move on to another region. The same Greek word pleroo is being used, though it is translated as "accomplished."
By stating that the law would continue until all was fulfilled, or made complete, Jesus is implying that the law in its current state was not complete. We know from the apostle’s writings that the Mosaical Law was missing some essential parts. It was unable to give its followers life (Galatians 3:21). It could not make its followers perfect (Hebrews 7:18-19). Thus, it had a fault, not in itself, but in the inadequacy of those who tried to live by it (Hebrews 8:7). It could explain and hold a person accountable for sin, but in itself it could not cleanse sin (Hebrews 10:1-4, 8-10, 14). It took the sacrifice of Jesus to correct the missing elements (Hebrews 9:15).
The difference between destroying and fulfilling the law is the same difference between declaring a mortgage note null and void, tearing it up, and throwing it into the fire, and paying the note off in full. Both brings the mortgage to an end, but it is done in vastly different ways. Jesus did not cancel the law but brought it to a natural conclusion.
Jesus explained what he meant by "fulfilled" when he emphasized that the Law would not end until all was fulfilled. “For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matthew 5:18). This "fulfilled" comes from a different Greek word, ginotai. It means, "to be, to come into being, to be made, be done, become, or to be celebrated." Jesus is stating that the permanence of the law was conditional. He gave two possible ending conditions: either heaven and earth would come to and end, or all is accomplished. His phrasing is similar to the parent who tells his child, “You’ll set here all night until you eat your peas.” The implication is that the child would not be at the table all night; the peas would be eaten before then. In the same way Jesus is saying that the world would have a better chance of ending before God accomplished His purpose for the Law. Some people focus so hard on the first condition that they miss the fact that the second condition would occur before the first. The same type of phrasing can be found in Matthew 24:34 and Luke 21:31-33.
Another verse that speaks to this same topic is Romans 10:4, "For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes." The word translated "end" is from the Greek word telos, which means "end, termination, conclusion, aim, result, goal, outcome." In other words the purpose of the Law was culminated in Christ Jesus. Jesus was its goal. With His death, he brought the law to its conclusion. "Having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross" (Colossians 2:14). Or as Paul said in another letter, "Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor" (Galatians 3:24-25).
But in completing the purpose of the Law, I don't want to leave the impression that Jesus left us lawless. "Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, how will the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory? For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory. For indeed what had glory, in this case has no glory because of the glory that surpasses it. For if that which fades away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory" (2 Corinthians 3:5-11). The glory of the old Law was fading, but what remains is more glorious. The Hebrew writer put it this way, "But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises" (Hebrews 8:6). But also notice that the writer of Hebrews said that what remained was a new covenant. "In that He says, "A new covenant," He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away" (Hebrews 8:13).
The Treatment of the Law (Matthew 5:19-20)
The announcement that Jesus was here to bring the law to an end could leave some with the impression that it was no longer necessary to follow a dying law. But Jesus points out that if a person is unwilling to keep the current law, then under the new law he will have the same careless attitude toward the law. Such a person would not make a good citizen of the coming kingdom; such a person would make a poor Christian in the church.
Notice that Jesus puts emphasis on doing and teaching the law. It was not enough to give lip service to God’s teachings. A person had to do as God commanded (James 1:21-25; I John 5:2-3).
In particular, Jesus states that to become a Christian, to enter Christ’s kingdom, a person would have to be more righteous than the Pharisees. As Jesus explains later in Matthew 23, the Pharisees were very picky about following the physical aspects of the law, but they completely neglected the spiritual side of the law. It is not that a spiritual side did not exist to the old law, but that the Pharisees were only partial followers of the law. Someone who wanted to be a part of Christ’s kingdom must display a willingness to follow the whole law – the things that other people can see and the things no one else can see.
Jesus then illustrates his point by taking six traditional Jewish teachings to show how they completely missed the point of the law. The illustrated points are ideas that remain common between both the Old Law and the upcoming New Law, thus serving to also illustrate that if a person is unable to keep the Old Law in these points, then he would run into the same problems under the New Law.