“Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18).
There is much more riding on this declaration by Jesus in Matthew 5:17-18 than perhaps meets the eye.
One can learn a lot about the way people understand the Bible and the relationship between the Old and New Testaments by their understanding of the emphasis of these verses. Many focus on the notion that not one bit of the law will pass away until heaven and earth pass away, and therefore suggest the Law is a binding force until this very day. Jesus said, after all, that He did not come to destroy the Law.
Yet such a view intentionally leaves out Jesus’ contrast: He did not just say that the Law would not pass away until heaven and earth pass away: He said that not one detail of the Law would pass away until all things are accomplished. While He did say that He was not coming to destroy the Law, He did say He came to fulfill it. This provides an entirely different emphasis, focusing on fulfillment and accomplishment, leading into a new covenant (cf. Hebrews 7:1-9:27).
It is easy to pit each emphasis against each other; nevertheless, each emphasis has legitimacy in its proper place. Jesus’ declaration involves both a commentary on the present as well as a key by which we can understand His entire life and ministry.
Jesus emphasizes the fixed nature of the Law for good reason. Deuteronomy 4:2 declares that Israel is not to add or diminish at all from the word which God commanded them. In context, Matthew 5:17-18 begin a new section of what is popularly known as the “Sermon on the Mount”; He has previously presented the beatitudes, finding blessings in the most difficult of situations (Matthew 5:3-12), and established the role and work of the disciple in the world (Matthew 5:13-16). Jesus’ thought in Matthew 5:17-18 continues at least through Matthew 5:19-20 and provides a framework for understanding Matthew 5:21-48. Jesus is both defending Himself against upcoming criticism about the relationship between His work and common perceptions regarding the Law while posing a devastating critique of the supposed “lawful” conduct of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:17-20). Jesus confirms His purpose: He is not coming to destroy the Law or what God has been doing. He affirms powerfully that until everything is accomplished, not one jot or tittle of the Law will change: “until heaven and earth pass away” is a confirmation of the strength of that declaration. Jesus is not imagining that the heavens and the earth will pass away, nor is He suggesting at this point that it will do so anytime soon. Instead, He is affirming that the Law represents God’s Word for Israel. God is the Creator; the heavens and earth can only pass away by His will and word. That Law, at the time of Jesus’ dictate, is as fixed as the heavens and the earth. The conclusion of this reality is found in Matthew 5:19: the one who adds to or diminishes from this Law, in teaching or practice, is the least; the one that does them and teaches them is greatest. Therefore, Jesus affirms the Law; He has not come to destroy it.
Well and good; Jesus did not come to destroy the Law. Yet Jesus does not stop there; He establishes why He has come. He has come to fulfill (Matthew 5:17). Yes, until heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or tittle shall pass from the law, but that is so only until all things are accomplished. Jesus speaks to a major interpretive issue for every disciple: the Bible establishes that the Law could not added to or taken away from, but the beliefs and practices of early Christians were not exact copies of what the Law established. There are significant changes between what we see in the life of Jesus in the Gospels and the message and exhortations of early Christianity after His death and resurrection. Many passages make it clear that Jesus’ death and resurrection meant an end to the Law as a barrier between Jew and Gentile, asserting that the Law was a physical shadow of the spiritual reality which exists in Jesus (Ephesians 2:11-18, Colossians 2:14-17). The whole purpose of the author of the letter to the Hebrews is to demonstrate the existence of a new covenant between God and man through Jesus, its differentiation from the covenant which existed before, and its superiority to the covenant between God and Israel legislated by the Law of Moses. Therefore, it is quite evident that the early Christians perceived the fulfillment of all things regarding the Law through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, something He himself proclaims in Luke 24:25, 44-47 and John 19:30.
It is therefore easy to place emphasis on the distinctions and differences between the old covenant between God and Israel and the new covenant between God and all mankind in Jesus, but we must take care. Jesus did not say He came to abolish or remove; He said that He came to fulfill. Yes, as He says Himself, Jesus fulfills all of the specific prophecies regarding the Messiah as found in the Old Testament (Luke 24:25-27, 44-48). Yet Jesus does not just fulfill specific prophecies; He fulfills God’s intentions for Israel by embodying, within Himself, the story of Israel. As Israel was born in Canaan but was exiled to Egypt, so Jesus was born in Bethlehem and spent time in exile in Egypt (Matthew 2:1-15). As Israel was rescued from Egypt through water and endured temptation in the Wilderness, so Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River and was tempted in the Wilderness (Matthew 3:13-4:11). Israel lived and worked in its land, as did Jesus (Matthew 4:12-25, etc.). As Israel experienced exile from its land, so Jesus experienced death and time in the tomb (Matthew 27:45-66). As Israel returned to the land, so Jesus was raised from the dead (Matthew 28:1-17). Where Israel had been unfaithful, Jesus had proven faithful. Jesus is able to embody everything God intended for His people Israel!
But Jesus’ experience does not end at His resurrection; He ascends to the Father and rules over His Kingdom and will do so until the final day (Matthew 28:18-20, Philippians 2:5-11). All of this was predicted in the prophets: God would restore the fortunes of Israel, and through Israel, be a blessing to other nations and see the ingathering of nations to the God of Jacob. This goal for Israel is found through Jesus; little wonder, then, that Paul finds a way to express his faith and trust in Jesus in terms of the story of Israel and God’s promises to Israel (cf. Acts 26:1-23). Israel’s story does not end with their exile in their own land as they endured it for 500 years: Israel’s story finds its fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth, and the Israel of God will continue on in His Kingdom, making primary the shared faith in God as demonstrated by all of God’s people from Abraham until this very day.
This is why it is good to keep both emphases of Jesus in mind: there is both continuity and discontinuity on the basis of His life, death, and resurrection. The Law has been established, and will remain firm until it has been fulfilled. Through its fulfillment all men will be freed from its yoke; yet, at the same time, its fulfillment represents the manifestation, and thus the continuation, of the promises God made to Israel, now embodied in the Kingdom of Jesus. Let us thank God for the fulfillment of the hope of Israel in Jesus, and let us take our place in the Israel of God by putting our trust in Jesus and participating in His Kingdom!
Ethan R. Longhenry