Three Horizons of Matthew 5:17-20
Matt 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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (1)
“The theological and canonical ramifications of one’s exegetical conclusions on this pericope are so numerous that discussion becomes freighted with the intricacies of biblical theology. At stake are the relation between the testaments, the place of law in the context of the gospel, and the relation of this pericope to other NT passages that unambiguously affirm that certain parts of the law have been abrogated as obsolete.” (2)
In the opening chapters of Matthew’s gospel (1:1-4:16), the reader is barraged with a flood of Old Testament quotations and allusions which serve to establish Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, the righteous Redeemer of his people. (3) Jesus’ messianic message explicitly echoes the prophetic message of John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17). With Christ’s disciples as the primary audience, Matthew begins his account of Jesus’ ministry with the famous Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:28), giving the messianic exposition of the nature of the kingdom of heaven and the character of its inhabitants. (4)
The Sermon opens with the “Beatitude” inclusio (set apart in context by the repetition of the phrase “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” in verses 3 and 10, respectively), declaring the attitudes of those in the kingdom of heaven, which are in stark contrast with the natural expectations and attitudes of sinners. The Beatitudes allude to the blessings pronounced for Mosaic covenant-keepers, (5) the wisdom literature of the Psalms and Proverbs, (6) as well as the prophetic promises of God as the redeemer of His oppressed people. (7) We see here the inauguration of an eschatological kingdom which promises future, eternal blessings as well as present, temporal suffering. These beatitudes prophetically foreshadow the absolute righteousness of Christ’s life (which led to his being persecuted to death), even as they masterfully reveal the progression of righteousness in the life of his disciples, from spiritual bankruptcy (vs. 3) to rejoicing, not merely in spite of, but because of persecution for righteousness’ sake (vs. 12).
It is important to take note of the shift in language from verse 10 to 11. The disciples are first told generally, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”; this teaching is then amplified and personalized when Jesus tells them directly, “Blessed are you when others… persecute you… on my account.” This parallel subtly identifies “Christ” and “righteousness,” for persecution because of righteousness is persecution because of Christ. (8) This equation sets the stage for Christ’s amazing declaration in verse 17.
After implicitly identifying himself with righteousness, the Messiah announces his own position in the progress of divine revelation: he came to fulfill, not abolish, all the Law and the Prophets. With these words, Matthew opens another inclusio regarding the relationship of Christ to the Law and Prophets (which does not conclude until chapter 7:12). At the heart of this pericope is righteousness: the righteousness necessary within the kingdom of heaven.
It is important to recognize the canonical location of this teaching, because it is not always easy to discern whether Christ’s teaching is intended primarily for his immediate audience (as they live under the old covenant) or if his statements are intended to have a broader application to the New Covenant era which he was inaugurating. (9) It would seem that these verses play a significant role in the transitional period of revelation in moving from prophetic promise to messianic fulfillment.
The direct contrast in verse 17 is between the two verbs: “abolish” and “fulfill,” with the emphasis being placed on the positive aspect of fulfillment. (10) An unhelpful dualism has crept into many interpretations of this verse, reading “fulfill” as though it has two different senses, one concerning the Law and another regarding the Prophets. Christ is said to fulfill the Law by obeying its commands and to fulfill the Prophets by fulfilling their predictions. (11) However, there are two problems with this interpretation: to “obey” the Law does not contrast with “abolish,” and there is no indication here that Christ is equivocating in his use of the term “fulfill.” It is far more natural to recognize that the whole Old Testament has a prophetic element to it; even the commandments of the Law point forward to the coming Messiah’s ethical reign. Christ doesn’t merely obey the Law; he is the righteous archetype which the holy and good Law foreshadowed. This even implies that without Jesus the Law would, in some sense, be unfulfilled. (12)
Jesus then emphasizes the abiding nature of the Law in verses 18-19, saying that it will not pass away until heaven and earth pass away, that is, until the new heaven and earth are consummated at Christ’s second coming. (13) These verses have produced much controversy regarding the role of the Mosaic Law in the Christian life. One of the most time-honored traditional ways of interpreting this statement of Christ is to adopt the tripartite distinction of moral, civil and ceremonial laws in the Old Testament, arguing that Christ is referring here to the abiding force of the moral law alone, summarized in the Ten Commandments. (14) However, this distinction is not only illogical (for all laws are moral laws by definition), it also contradicts Christ’s statement affirming “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law,” which would rather obviously include civil and ceremonial iotas and dots.
This statement of Christ is finely attuned to have direct application to both his contemporary Jewish audience and the still-being-inaugurated body of Christian disciples. By identifying himself as righteousness and emphasizing his own role as the one who fulfills the Old Testament, Christ is introducing the fact that he is “the end of the law for righteousness to all who believe” (Rom 10:4). (15) It is not merely that his teaching “intensifies” the commands of the Law while his life fulfills the prophecies of the Prophets, but it is his entire person which fulfills the entire Old Testament. He “fulfills all righteousness” (Matt 3:15). He points to himself through the Law, so that his contemporaries have no warrant for disobeying the Law, while also introducing the authoritative ethical fulfillment found in the kingdom of heaven.
As the King of the kingdom of heaven, he is the Law. Everything he does is inherently good and loving, while everything he says is incomparably prophetic and wise. His every statement and action simultaneously obeys and surpasses the law in righteousness, filling it full to overflowing.
As Priest he puts an end to sacrifices, not by abrogation through divine fiat, but by permanently fulfilling the sacrificial system in his own substitutionary death. Its principles abide still, though the practice has ceased by being gloriously surpassed.
As Prophet he is the pinnacle of revelation. General revelation and special revelation are conjoined in the person and work of Jesus Christ, such that our understanding of all of Scripture and the universe must be filtered through Christ or we will misapply it, to our own detriment. Our understanding of how Christ fulfills the law must be right if we are to be “great,” and not “least,” in the kingdom of heaven (vv. 18-19).
This righteousness is alluded to in the next statement: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This indicative righteousness comes into greater focus in the imperative of verse 48, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Between these two statements outlining the absolute, perfect righteousness of the kingdom of heaven are the six “antitheses.” These antitheses (“You have heard it said…, but I tell you…”) are often represented as an “intensification” of the Mosaic Law or rabbinic traditions.
Yet this interpretation misunderstands the preceding statement of Christ regarding his personal fulfillment of the Old Testament while also misrepresenting the nature of the Mosaic Law. The requirements of perfect righteousness and godliness are not something which Christ introduced in the Sermon; they were present in the old covenant as well (Deut 6:5; Lev 19:1-2, 18).
A detailed analysis of the numerous implications of Christ’s personal fulfillment of the Old Testament would go beyond the scope of this paper. However, one fulfillment theme needs to be expounded clearly if we are to properly understand the antitheses, and, more broadly, the ethical relationship between the two testaments of Scripture.
Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Testament introduces a motif of what I will call emphasis inversion between the testaments (a specific aspect of the general “lesser-to-greater” theme in the progress of biblical revelation), whereby the teaching of Christ emphasizes something which was present, but often overshadowed, in the Law. Christ’s fulfillment inverts the emphasis without abolishing the Law.
By way of example, the Law of Moses consisted of six hundred thirteen imperatives written on stone tablets, while the New Covenant Law of Christ is written on hearts of flesh by the Holy Spirit (Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:26; Heb 8). The old covenant emphasized the physical progeny of Abraham, ethnic Israel, as God’s chosen people (Deut 7:6), while the New Covenant emphasizes the spiritual seed of Abraham by faith as those who are truly God’s elect (Gal 3:7). Physical, national, historically-elect Israel typologically foreshadowed the New Covenant reality of spiritual, global, eternally-elect Israel; (16) and it is Christ who fulfills both, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor 1:20).
Often in Scripture, physical types of the Old Testament are fulfilled in spiritual antitypes in the New. The spiritual realities were present in the OT, but the emphasis is inverted in the NT, placing the physical elements in the background and bringing what is spiritual to the foreground (Heb 9:23-24). Ethically, the inversion of emphasis from the Old Testament Law to its fulfillment in Christ is a movement from imperative-based to indicative-driven ethics. The Sermon on the Mount contains fifty imperatives in one hundred sentences, but still maintains a thoroughly descriptive tone throughout, using three hundred twenty non-command verbs. (17)
Those who interpret the Sermon on the Mount as simply the moral teaching of “a new kind of rabbi” miss the fact that no one can attain the perfect righteousness required for admission to Christ’s kingdom (Rom 3:10-18). However, to interpret the Sermon as merely the intensification of Old Testament morality equally misses the point. The Sermon is not merely given to display humanity’s sinful inability to obey God’s laws; it does that, but it also simultaneously reveals the redemptive solution to this fallen condition in the perfect righteousness of Christ.
It is his absolute righteousness, as declared on this mount, which leads him inexorably to another mountain, Calvary, where the same perfect righteousness is fully and permanently displayed. It is this perfect righteousness which is imputed to all believers and Christ’s cross is the example of righteousness for all believers. In this way, the indicative of Christ’s righteous love surpasses even the imperative commands to love God and neighbor, not in the sense that the imperative is not binding (it is), but that its fulfillment displays a love greater than the letter of the command could ever convey. The indicative of Christ’s forensic justification of believers provides the necessary condition for imperative exhortations to ethical sanctification, which are often summarized in the statement “Be who you are in Christ.” Put more simply, the basis for ethical behavior is union with Christ. The Sermon reveals humanity’s complete moral inability, displays Christ’s perfect moral righteousness and implies the resolution for the chasm between the two: the Gospel, whereby we become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21).
It is within this larger epochal/canonical context of fulfilled righteousness and prophetic emphasis inversion that the antitheses must be understood. The antitheses do not simply dispel an old law and create a new one; they are a call to see the world as Christ does, to live and love as he does. (18) Even the imperatival statements of the antitheses function within the larger flow of the Sermon as exhortations to righteous living rather than specific, literal commands. If read without consideration to the broader canonical themes surrounding the Sermon, it is easy to understand why so many view the antitheses as merely newer, more intense commandments. While much could be said regarding each antithesis, I will attempt to show that the motif of emphasis inversion aids in gaining a clear understanding of the way in which the antitheses introduce Christ’s fulfillment, and not abolition, of the Law. (19)
The first antithesis shows an inversion of ethical emphasis, in that the solemn act of making sacrifice for sin ought to be interrupted for the sake of immediate reconciliation with an offended brother, alluding to the fact that mercy should be desired over sacrifice (Matt 9:13; 12:7). The hyperbole of the second antithesis regarding eye-plucking and hand-cutting no less shockingly displays the inversion of emphasis from physical adultery to adultery of the heart, moving from the emphasis on external conformity to a focus on internal conviction. It is better to be maimed physically than to suffer forever spiritually. Rather than explicitly forbidding divorce in the third antithesis, Christ explains the heinous character of such an action, while also showing that what is permissible is not always righteous (1 Cor 10:23). He also authoritatively expands the Mosaic divorce laws by declaring remarriage after improper divorce to be adultery. The fourth antithesis emphasizes the absoluteness of the Creator, such that to swear by anything is to implicitly swear by God, making all oaths irreverent oaths and forthrightness the only acceptable pattern of speech. The fifth antithesis brings into view the complex, paradoxical relationship of mercy to justice in the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven (which also finds its ultimate resolution at the Cross), by exhorting disciples not to resist those who are evil and to give liberally to all whom ask. The final antithesis emphasizes the Law of Love, showing that the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven is most clearly viewed in the righteous love of the King, who even shows grace and love toward his enemies. This emphasis displays the counterintuitive nature of supernatural righteousness. Out of this love flows all good things, from sunshine to eternal life, and we are able to obediently join in that love through union with Christ.
The antitheses do not explicitly abrogate any OT commandment, and neither do they merely exposit or intensify them. “What is the dominant note, hinted at in the emphatic, ‘I say to you,’ testified to by the crowds at the conclusion of the Sermon and observed in all the antitheses, is the independent, authoritative teaching of Jesus, which is neither derived from nor explicitly related to the OT.” (20)
Our interpretation of all of Scripture must be performed with an eye to Christ the Final Prophet who fulfills the Prophets and declares the Way, Christ the Righteous King who fulfills the Law and declares the Truth, and Christ the Resurrected High Priest who brings abundant Life out of death. All of our understanding of hermeneutics and its ethical implications are refracted through the crèche, the cross and the crown of Christ who fulfills all revelation and righteousness.
1 The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton: Good News Publishers, 2002), 810.
2 D.A. Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew Chapters 1 Through 12 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), 141.
3 G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 1-20.
4 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), 18-20.
5 William Hendriksen, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1973), 261.
6 Ben Witherington III, Matthew (Macon: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc, 2006), 118.
7 G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 20.
8 In each case the blessed ones will be persecuted e[neken (“because of”) “righteousness” or “me” (Christ).
9 Douglas J. Moo, “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses: A Modified Lutheran View,” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley N. Gundry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 323.
10 R.T. France, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985), 114.
11 John Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 1983), 30.
12 William Hendriksen, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1973), 288. Douglas J. Moo, The Best in Theology, Volume One, ed. J.I. Packer (Carol Stream: Christianity Today, Inc, 1987), 106.
13 D.A. Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew Chapters 1 Through 12 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), 144. Contrast this with the statement of Christ in Mt 24:35, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
14 John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 279-280.
15 Compare the parallel passage in Luke 16, particularly verse 16, “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it.”
16 John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing Company, 2002), 317-330.
17 Daniel M. Doriani, The Sermon on the Mount (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing Company, 2006), 8.
18 Daniel M. Doriani, The Sermon on the Mount (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing Company, 2006), 9.
19 For brevity’s sake, I will forego any discussion regarding whether the antitheses refer to the Mosaic Law or rabbinic traditions (or both). In any case, if my interpretation of verse seventeen is correct then there is no threat of contradiction even if Christ is referring at any point to the Mosaic Law proper.
20 Douglas J. Moo, The Best in Theology, Volume One, ed. J.I. Packer (Carol Stream: Christianity Today, Inc, 1987), 113.