Jesus Fulfills the Law and Prophets (Matthew 5:17-20)
By Lee Jones
A lot has been said, not only on our podcast, across the world about Andy Stanley’s comments about “unhitching from the Old Testament,” that it’s no longer relevant to believers. Not only is that untrue and dangerous, but it betrays the unbiblical nature of that opinion. In this section of Matthew 5, Jesus affirms the importance of the Old Testament and, most importantly, how it all points to him.
In verse 17, Jesus plainly says he aims not to erase the Old Testament but to fulfill it. It’s helpful to know that the phrase “Law and Prophets” is a specific Jewish phrase for most of the Old Testament. Jews call the Bible the Tanakh, which is a portmanteau of three categories: the Torah (law, the 5 books of Moses), the Nevi’im (the prophets) and the Ketuvim (the writings, which means books like The Psalms and Proverbs, etc.). These writings were absolutely binding on the Jewish people, but James argues in his epistle that keeping the law will not save because no one can keep all the Law “for whoever keeps the whole law but fails in in one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” (James 2:10)
With our sins forgiven and having received a heart of flesh, we live now in devotion to our God, which is more than the Pharisees had.
Only one man could not only keep all the Law, but also fulfill it and obey it in behalf of others. That was Jesus, and he alone could accomplish that tall task.
Jesus not only fulfills the predictions of the coming Messiah, but he also satisfies the entire sacrificial system prescribed in the Old Testament by his death and resurrection. This is immensely important to the life of a Christian, and we must study the Old Testament to get a more complete picture of Jesus and his work in our behalf.
That’s why he can say that not an iota nor a dot (the smallest character and grammatical mark in the greek language) will pass away until it is finally accomplished. As long a heaven and earth exist, the testimony of the Old Testament will still be relevant, not as a list of ceremonial law to earn righteousness by following, but as a crystal-clear sign post pointing toward the one who who obeyed that Law for us.
The Pharisees had a system of rating the various commandments, both biblical and man-made, in two categories: light and weighty. Jesus cuts through that false distinction by saying that slacking on the least of the commandments would have eternal consequences. James would certainly agree with his brother on that point, in reference to James 2:10.
To Jesus, simply obeying a list of rules for the benefit of your self-righteousness was an apt description of the “righteousness” of the Pharisees. Jesus instead calls on his disciples, in that moment and even to us now, to exceed their righteousness. How? In loving Christ and following him. We who are redeemed were called by God, and we repented of our sins, and received the righteousness of Jesus applied to us (Romans 2:4). With our sins forgiven and having received a heart of flesh, we live now in devotion to our God, which is more than the Pharisees had. They hated Jesus and preferred to follow traditions of men, rather than the Word of God.
By living that life of repentant joy in being reconciled to our God, trusting the one who fulfilled every requirement of the Old Testament (including the blood sacrifice for remission of sin), we certainly can surpass the self-righteousness of the Pharisees...by grace alone. This is the doctrine of the imputation, a grand and glorious doctrine, and we can’t begin to get a grasp on it unless we know the Old Testament. I write all this to say...stay hitched, my friends.
Glory to God Alone