(Mat 5:17-20 ESV) “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.”
This a challenging passage indeed — largely ignored by exegetes. Those who don’t ignore it often rationalize it into nothingness. Kudos to McKnight for taking it head on. He outlines it as follows:
First, Jesus fulfills the Torah and Prophets (5:17).
Second, everything in the Torah is true (5:18).
Third, everything therefore must be observed (5:19).
Fourth, your obedience therefore must surpass the experts (5:20).
Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 67.
Which seems right. The key is to interpret “fulfills” correctly.
Jesus fulfills the Torah and the Prophets
The term fulfill relates to Old Testament patterns and predictions coming to realization. Nothing makes this clearer than reading Matthew 1–2, though one can also observe the same at 3:3; 4:1–16; 5:17–48; 8:16–17; 9:13; 10:34–36; 11:10; and 12:16–21. While some have suggested that Jesus “fulfills” by teaching the true meaning of Torah or by “doing what it says,” the use of this term “fulfill” in Matthew makes the sense of an eschatological completion the most accurate meaning. In summary: to “fulfill” or “complete” means history has come to its fulfillment in Jesus himself — that is, in his life, death, resurrection, and exaltation and in his teachings.
We must consider the mind-numbing claim here by Jesus: he is claiming that he fulfills — in a salvation-historical, theological, and moral manner — what the Torah and the Prophets anticipated and predicted and preliminarily taught. What kind of person makes claims like this? It is one thing to say, as Jesus could have, I can do miracles as mighty as Elijah, or I can predict the future as clearly as did Isaiah, or I can do miracles as astounding as Moses. It’s altogether different to claim that he himself fulfills the Torah and the Prophets. But that’s precisely the claim Jesus makes here. Nothing in history would ever be the same. The Torah had come to its goal. The Torah hereby takes on the face of Jesus. His claim is thoroughly Jewish (Isa 2:1–5; Jer 31:31–34), but of a particular sort: messianic. The first lesson we get in reading the Bible is this one: Look to Jesus as its central Story.
Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 68.
Now, I semi-disagree with this sentence: “While some have suggested that Jesus ‘fulfills’ teaching the true meaning of Torah or by ‘doing what it says,’ the use of this term ‘fulfill’ in Matthew makes the sense of an eschatological completion the most accurate meaning.”
Ray Vander Laan points out that, in Hebrew, “fulfill” in Hebrew can mean “interpret correctly” just as “abolish” can mean “interpret incorrectly.” He even tells about receiving papers back from Jewish professors marked either “fulfill” or “abolish” in Hebrew.
Jesus is very capable of a double meaning, and I think both Vander Laan and McKnight are right. Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets both by correctly interpreting them and by personally fulfilling what they have all been pointing to. It’s the same thing.
Jesus doesn’t explain this fully in these few verses, but the rest of the SOTM — as well as the rest of Matthew — offers a series of lessons in reading the Old Testament in and through Jesus.
And notice this: as we’ve worked out way through the Beatitudes and Jesus’ teaching on salt and light, we’ve gone back over and over to the Law and the Prophets. Jesus has already been showing us how we should read the Old Testament in light of the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom. And we find these ancient texts incredibly relevant and instructive for today’s church.
Of course, the challenge is knowing what the Old Testament looks like after it’s been fulfilled in Jesus. This is no easy task. After all, even the apostles struggled with the transition to interpreting through Jesus in the Jerusalem council in Acts 15.
But it’s really about taking Jesus seriously when he answers the question directly, such as when he says,
(Mat 7:12 ESV) 12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
So if the Golden Rule is the Law and the Prophets, that gives you a pretty good filter — assuming you take Jesus seriously.