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 say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes 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.
Matthew 5:17-19 – Scripture of the Weekend (February 1-2, 2014)
First off, let’s define “the Law or the Prophets” and “the Law.” These phrases are commonly used in the New Testament to refer to the Old Testament (cf. Matt. 7:12; 22:40; Rom. 7:1ff; Gal. 3:10ff). An even better example is Jesus’ reference to “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44), because these three terms show us how the Jews of Jesus’ day defined and categorized the Old Testament canon. “The Law of Moses” refers to the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis through Deuteronomy) which were authored by Moses and contain the laws given to Israel by God through Moses during their wilderness wanderings. “The Prophets” refer to what was known as the Nebhiim, the category in which were found the Old Testament books known as “the former prophets” (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings [the latter two would later be divided up into 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings]) and “the latter prophets” (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and a scroll containing the 12 books which we categorize today as “the minor prophets” of Hosea through Malachi). “The Psalms” refer to what was known as the Kethubhim, the category in which were found three poetical books (Psalms, Proverbs, and Job), five rolls (the Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Esther, and Ecclesiastes), and several historical books (Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Chronicles [again, the latter would later be divided up into 1 and 2 Chronicles]).
Thus, the Old Testament Scriptures of Jesus’ day were called “the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms,” “the Law and the Prophets,” or simply “the Law,” and were ordered in a way that started with Genesis and ended with the Chronicles. We see an allusion to this when Jesus, while condemning the Pharisees, said to them, “so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah…whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar” (Matt. 23:35). He was referring to a murder recorded in Genesis 4:4, the first book of the Jewish canon of the Old Testament, and to a murder recorded in 2 Chronicles 24:21, the last book of the Jewish canon of the Old Testament. Basically, Jesus was telling the Pharisees that on them would come all the blood of the prophets in the Old Testament “from Genesis to Chronicles” (in the same way we would say, “from Genesis to Malachi”).
Now that we have established what Jesus meant when he referred to “the Law and the Prophets,” let’s examine what he meant when he said he had not come to “abolish” them but rather to “fulfill” them. The Greek for “fulfill” basically means “to complete,” or to “bring to realization.” Paul would later show that one of the purposes of the Law (i.e., Old Testament) was to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah (Gal. 3:24-25). Thus, Jesus, being the Messiah whose way the Law would prepare, would naturally come to “fulfill” it rather than destroy it. This he did by fulfilling its prophecies (Luke 24:44) and its demands (Gal. 3:11-13; Heb. 4:15), something none of the Jews could do due to their sin. Since he fulfilled it, he took it out of the way when he died on the cross (Eph. 2:14-15; Col. 2:14) and by doing so fulfilled its prophecy that it would be replaced with his new covenant and testament (Heb. 8:6-13; 9:15-17; cf. Jer. 31:31-34; Rom. 7:1-4).
That being the case, why did he then say that “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law” until “heaven and earth pass away”? Here’s the thing, though. He didn’t actually say that. There are many who believe that Christians are obligated to obey the laws of the Old Testament today, and thus think that is what Matthew 5:18 is saying: that the Old Testament will be in effect until the end of the world. That is not the case, because what Jesus actually said was this: “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” He is not say that the Law would stay in effect until the end of the world. He is saying that the world would not end until everything in the Old Testament was accomplished…something that took place when he died on the cross. Keep in mind, he said this three years before he himself fulfilled the Old Testament on the cross. During those three years, not one thing about the Old Testament changed, not even the tiniest iota or dot…and heaven and earth did not pass away, either. However, at the end of those three years he took the Law out of the way at the cross and fulfilled it completely.
Since the Old Testament laws would be taken out of the way at the cross and replaced with the laws of Christ in the New Testament, why did he then say that those who are great in the kingdom of heaven will be those who both obey and teach the commandments of the Law, and those who are least in the kingdom of heaven will be those who do not obey these Old Testament commandments and teach others to do the same? He said this for two reasons, both of which have to do with the time in which he made this statement.
First, remember that the Sermon on the Mount, a sermon whose theme was the approaching kingdom of heaven (Matt. 4:17, 23; 5:3, 10, 19-20; 6:10; 7:21), was preached three years before he died on the cross and the kingdom, the church, arrived (Acts 1:6-9; 2:1ff; 8:12; Col. 1:13; 1 Thess. 2:12; Rev. 1:4, 6, 9). The Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms were still in effect at the time of the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Gal. 4:4). His Jewish audience, as well as Jesus himself, were obligated by God to obey those commandments. Some of these Jews would later be converted to Christianity and added to the kingdom, the church in Acts. With this in mind, ask yourself this: If you were a Jew who was in the habit of rebelliously disobeying the laws of the Old Testament, what makes you think you would obey the laws of Christ in the New Testament as a citizen of his kingdom?
Secondly, Matthew 5:20 and the rest of the chapter gives us insight into what Christ was thinking when he made that statement. Verse 20 reads, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” What were the scribes and Pharisees doing that was so bad? Basically, they were adding their own traditions to the established Word of God in the Old Testament (Matt. 15:1-9) and were focusing only on obeying parts of the Law rather than all of it (Matt. 23:23). This is seen in the rest of chapter 5, where Jesus time and again tells his Jewish audience, “You have heard that it was said…” (a reference to what they were being taught by the scribes and Pharisees), followed by, “But I say to you…”
An examination of each case of what Jesus cited as being taught to the Jews of his day by the scribes and Pharisees would reveal that in some cases they were teaching only following the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit behind it (i.e., focusing on the commandment to not murder while ignoring the anger that would lead to murder [vs. 21-26], or focusing on the commandment to not commit adultery while ignoring the lust that would lead to adultery [vs. 27-30]). In one case, the scribes and Pharisees were apparently telling the Jews to “hate their enemy” (Matt. 5:43), while the Law actually commanded the opposite (Ex. 23:4-5; Prov. 21-22). In another case, they were taking a command which in its proper context prompted the death penalty for the murder of babies and moving it out of context to teach vengeful retaliation (Matt. 5:38-42; cf. Ex. 21:22-25).
Therefore, the scribes and the Pharisees were proving through their teachings and actions that they were not following the commandments of the Old Testament, and were teaching others to do likewise. That is why they would be called “least” in the coming kingdom of heaven, and why Jesus would enjoin his listeners to make their own righteousness exceed theirs. For again, if one was in the unrepentant habit of disobeying and misinterpreting Old Testament commands while teaching others to do the same, they would certainly not be welcome in Christ’s kingdom of the church which upheld the laws of the New Testament.