SOTM: Matthew 5:17-20 (Torah)


(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 mannerwhat 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.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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17 Responses to SOTM: Matthew 5:17-20 (Torah)

  1. R.J. says:

    Indeed! The contrast is not between common righteousness and ultra-saintly righteousness. But true righteousness above legalistic hypocritical standards the elite often possessed.

  2. Ray Downen says:

    The clear meaning of what Jesus is reported to have said is that the Law has been fulfilled and is no longer binding on anyone who turns to Jesus for salvation. As history, the Old Testament is useful indeed. It tells us how the earth was created and how people lived prior to the time of Jesus. History helps us understand the present. But some who claim to honor Jesus try to keep Old Testament laws and think they are serving Jesus by doing so. It’s from apostolic writings that we learn how WE are to live and what we should do to honor Jesus.

  3. Ray Downen says:

    Should we not also realize that Jesus while on earth was teaching JEWS how to correctly obey the Law God had given for JEWS to obey. His teaching to Jews doesn’t relate exactly to us who are not Jews. It’s apostolic writings which guide us in serving Jesus today.

  4. Will Ray says:

    I respectfully disagree Ray Downen. As Mr. Guin points out, to “fulfill” meant “to correctly interpret” the law. (see “the difficult words of Jesus” by Blizzard and Biven. As the verse says, heaven and earth will pass away until one small letter of the law passes away. What was the last thing Jesus said in Matthew? (Paraphrase) teach them to obey all that I have commanded you. In the sermon on the mount, everything he commanded went one step further than the law. Obviously, in light of Galatians and other NT letters, we know we are saved by grace but we don’t throw out the law, we follow it by spirit, rather than by letter even as we are saved by grace. What about Romans 3:31 “Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.” People quote “let the women be silent in the church” but don’t quote the next part “as the law says” – the law is still referenced as the standard in the NT.

    Jesus fulfilled the law in correctly interpreting it. His sacrifice gave us the grace to save us, and the spirit to walk the law out, the law is what Jesus followed and that is our standard. He didn’t throw out the law against adultery, murder or anything. Jesus prophesied the end of the sacrificial system himself, but the rest of the law remains as a guide. As Romans 7 says “the law is holy just and good”. How could something that is holy just and good not be a guide. Col 2:14 doesn’t nail the law to the cross – Law is “nomos” in greek and is not found in Col 2:14.

    Don’t get old covenant / new covenant confused with old testament/ new testament. As Jer 31 says and is repeated in Hebrews 8 and Hebrews 10, the “new covenant” is that he would write the law (not old law) on our hearts. Why would he write something no longer binding on our hearts?

    God bless – William Ray

  5. Dwight says:

    Jesus was the word, right. So Jesus fulfilled the law and the purpose of the the Law, which was Christ Himself. Jesus lived as a Jew perfectly, even though He didn’t do all of the things in the Law perfectly, or at least as the Jewish leaders interpreted them. Jesus taught the Law not to tell them how to do the Law better, but what they were missing when they did it. Matt.5 shows where Jesus attacked their hearts, then drew them to the Law within that context. Jesus gave a new Law, “As I have loved you, so love one another.” The law was fulfilled in His love and sealed in His death, which gave rise to a new testament, which required the death of the testator. We there after were under the Perfect Law of Liberty, which loosed us from the works, as Paul said, “All things are lawful for me…” Now just because we lack the structure of the OT law, does’nt mean we lack law, but it is law that frees us. The Temple is now us, the priest are now us, we in one sense fulfill the Law by our being in Christ and we are to sacrifice ourselves in service.

  6. Jay Guin says:

    Will Ray,

    I’ve just bought The Difficult Words of Jesus by Blizzard and Biven. Very helpful. They sometimes overreach a bit, I think, but on the whole, a very good and helpful read. Thanks for mentioning.

  7. Will Ray says:

    Jay Guin, I agree, there were only a few nuggets in the book and the rest was trying to prove the new testament was really written originally in Hebrew. Good blog post. Thanks for responding.

  8. Jay Guin says:

    Will Ray,

    I agree, but the nuggets are going to help me with my SOTM series. Well worth the price. I was just starting on “turn the other cheek” and the book gave me a much-needed backup for my own reading. Truly a blessing. (And I’m going to get in so much trouble for what I have to say …) 😉

  9. Ed Green says:

    With all due respect, Ray Downen, while I agree with your conclusion about the Law and salvation, it is far from the “clear meaning” of what Jesus meant in these verses. It is not clear at all. Thank you, Jay, for your post. I, too, am journeying with my Bible class through the Sermon on the Mount. Your understanding about “abolish” and “fulfill” from Vander Laan is interesting and I have heard this before. However, I have not heard anything else to back that up. What modern profs write and mean with the terms does not necessarily identify how first century rabbis would have used them. I would be interested to find out more. It seems almost too convenient, as a way of getting around the difficulty. I don’t find that these verses (17-20) are too difficult in the setting of Jesus’ ministry to the Jews. However, they are some of the most troublesome theologically for those of us who are not Jewish, on this side of the cross, as you noted. When it comes to Paul, I think I have a handle on his view of law (though I haven’t read . I just want to give a fair hearing to Matthew’s record of Jesus’ words and what he intended to communicate in the context of the present and future Kingdom of heaven. That is my struggle.

  10. Jay Guin says:


    While Ray Vander Laan offers the grades he received on papers as an example, that is hardly his proof. He studied the OT under very conservative Jews, and this understanding of the Hebrew words was taught as part of the meaning of the Hebrew words going back to Jesus’ time. Recall that Hebrew and Greek both have far fewer words than modern English (by about 1,000 to one) so that the words often had to carry a fairly wide range of meaning.

    Here’s a link that quotes Rabbi Gamaliel (a contemporary of Jesus and Paul) in support of RVL’s teaching:

    And this is from a book I recently bought —

    “Destroy” and “fulfil” are technical terms used in rabbinic argumentation. When a sage felt that a colleague had misinterpreted a passage of Scripture, he would say, “You are destroying the Law!”

    David Bivin;Roy Blizzard Jr. Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus: New Insights From a Hebrew Perspective (Kindle Location 913). Kindle Edition (1983, revised 1994).

    This book predates RVL’s teaching. Bivin and Blizzard are highly credentialed Hebrew scholars.

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  12. Hank says:

    Jay (and anybody else),

    I was/am curious as to your thoughts regarding those who will be called “least in the kingdom”. I have read one brother recently arguing that it means, basically, that even if/when a brother breaks and teaches others to break commandments, he does not jeopardize salvation or suffer any great punishment for he will still be “in” the kingdom.

    What are your thoughts?

    1) What. ARE the “least commandments”?
    2) What does being called “least in the kingdom ” mean?

    Could they be the bad fish which are “in” the net (the kingdom)? The dishonorable vessels “in” the great house (the church)?

  13. Alabama John says:


    I believe there will be degrees of rewards and punishment. How God determines that will be His to determine, not mine or anyone elses.

    Its easy to see how our judging has worked out and its a confusing mess.

    Best to live as best you can and don’t try to totally understand God. Remember His thoughts are higher than ours and God can do what he wants, even change His mind. We are told in the bible of a few times God has done just that and we do not know how many more times God has changed His mind in the last 2,000 years that are not in the bible or told to us. If we didn’t believe he intercedes and can change things today, why pray? Sure a lot more folks praying to Him today than there were back then.
    WE see people and rules, laws, God sees the heart and mind.

  14. Hank says:

    AJ, thanks for your reply. I agree with what you said. Still, Matthew 5:19-20 means something, and I wonder what it is…

  15. mattdabbs says:

    Hank, I want to clarify the point I was making and am still working on understanding as well as I can regarding the “least of these”. I am not saying that we can break any and all of the commands and not bat an eye. I am not saying that we are “once saved always saved.” I do believe we can be entirely mistaken in our teaching on SOME points and still be saved. There are some who would disagree with that, saying salvation hinges on perfect doctrine. I disagree. However, get the whole Jesus is Lord thing wrong and I don’t think that fits what Jesus is saying here. Put yourself in rebellion doing the things Paul said lead to everlasting punishment and I don’t think that applies either.

  16. Dwight says:

    Gal.3 “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.”
    Jesus was the fulfillment of the Law in every aspect and was the goal of the law. The Law was accomplished in Jesus death and resurrection that brought us a New Testament. As Jesus has come and secured us by faith the Law is no longer able to hold us or bind us. We are thus under the perfect Law of Liberty.
    Matthew 5 is not an argument for us being under the old law, but for Jesus.
    When Jesus states, “Whoever breaks one of these commandments….” He could either be talking of the whole Law or those commandments that Jesus was going to focus on next and the sense in how they were to be looked at…through the heart.
    This might be why Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
    The scribes had the Law and knew the Law and pushed for a strict following of the Law, but did not follow the Law from their heart, but from penalty and did not see where the Law led them…Christ, as it did not secure their own righteousness and could not offer forgiveness.

  17. Rob says:

    Jesus was the messiah, the awaited fullfillment of the OT. The Jews awaited him and hoped that he would accomblish a new covenant with God. Philip the apostle was sure: „We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth“ (John 1,45): the messiah. On the Mount of Transfiguration Jesus spoke to Moses (law) and Elijah (prophets) about the fullfillment of the OT in Jerusalem. God told the disciples not to worship the Law and the Prophets any longer. Only listen to Jesus: This is my Son (…) Listen to him“. On the cross Jesus said: „It´s finished“ – he has accomblished everything to install the new covenant. On the way to Emmaus he assured: He has fullfilled Moses and the Prophets and accomblished what God wanted! Jesus said about fullfilling the OT: „These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.“ The Jews believed: The law could only pass away as a whole (not one jot or one tittle shall pass). Only under a new covenant the old could pass away as a whole. The stone-commandments had glory, but nothing compared to Jesus: “the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious”, but “if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious” (2 Cor 3): the new covenant, the Law of Christ: “Bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6,2) the “new commandment”: “That ye love one another; as I have loved you” (John 13).
    “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Rom 13)

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