In Matthew 5:17 Jesus says that he has not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them. And as D. A. Carson has observed about these verses, “The theological and canonical ramifications of one’s exegetical conclusions . . . are so numerous that discussion becomes freighted with the intricacies of biblical theology” (“Matthew,” 141).
In other words, it is really easy to import one’s biblical framework into Jesus’s words. For how one understands the law and its use in the New Testament and how the New Testament relates to the Old Testament, will in large measure impact the way one understands Jesus’s words, which in turn reinforces, or reforms, our biblical-theological framework.
Therefore, the question before is, “How do we stay on the line of Scripture when we interpret Matthew 5:17”? By comparison with Matthew 10:34 (“I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”) and Matthew 5:9 (“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God”), we learn that Jesus “non-abolishment clause” in Matthew 5:17 may not be absolute. Sharing the same structure as Matthew 5:17, Matthew 10:34 does not mean Jesus has forsaken his peace-making ways. Rather, his peace-making will include the restructuring (and severing) of family relations in order to make a new family of peace.
From this analogy, we learn there are some things in the Law that have come to an end—e.g., Hebrews indicates that Christ’s sacrifice ends the old covenant system of animal sacrifice. Therefore, we should go back to Jesus’s words to learn how to apply the Law. And thankfully, because of Matthew’s repeated and technical usage of the word “fulfill”/”fulfillment” (pleroō), we can get a good idea of how to understand the relationship of the Law to Christ and from Christ to us.
Matthew’s Use of Fulfill/ment (Plēroō)
To begin with, consider the 14 places where the word plēroō is used with respect to the Old Testament (specifically the Prophets) in Matthew.
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.
15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled
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.
17 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”
17 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:
35 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”
4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,
54 But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”
56 But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled.
9 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel,
From these verses, we learn at least three things. First, “fulfill/ment” is always applied to the Prophets (or the Law with the Prophets); it is never used of the Law alone. In this observation, we learn that the Law is fulfilled in accordance with the Prophets.
Second, it is always related to Jesus; i.e., it is Christ-centered. The importance of this is the fact that with respect to the Law, every command is personalized and mediated through Jesus Christ.
Third, each fulfillment formula is related to salvation and the people of God saved by Christ. As Nicholas Piotrowski observes in his study on the subject (Matthew’s New David at the End of the Exile), the fulfillment texts of Matthew are meant to evoke the story of Israel’s “exile and restoration.” They do not simply relate to Jesus; they are about Jesus and his people. As we will see, the fulfillment of the law is creative—i.e., it creates a new people.
Christ, Redemption, and a Redeemed People
In this setting, all that happened in the exodus/exile are now being fulfilled—in Jesus, God has raised up the promised savior-king from the line of David to save his people in a new exodus, which will result in a new covenant. As Piotrowski frames it,
I contend that the prologue-quotations [i.e., the fulfillment quotations in Matthew 1–4] select a “David/end-of-exile” frame and in so doing become a hermeneutical guide for the rest of the gospel. Their repetition early in the gospel and close proximity to one another have the aggregate effect of powerfully selecting this frame, thus giving clear orientation and definition to the rest of the story. Matthew’s gospel, in turn, becomes a treatise on the effect the (still-operable) exile and (David-led) restoration have on the identity of Israel.
With this narrative framework in place, Piotrowski explains how the fulfillment formulas combine the themes of Christ, salvation, and redeemed people.
From the very beginning, Matthew sets his narrative as though Israel is, despite their residency in the land . . . in a state of exile. In that context these quotations share a common concern for when Yahweh will bring Israel out of exile. Naturally, it is the Messiah’s calling to lead this restoration. It is no surprise, therefore, that scholars have seen a significant messianic emphasis in the quotations.
The return from exile, however, is primarily an ecclesiological concern: the return of the community of Yahweh’s people, the restoration of an identifiable group. It is not unexpected, therefore, that Matthew’s quotations would be concerned with not only the Messiah who leads the peoples, but also with the people themselves. I take the position that the quotations do not purport a Christology that serves as an end to itself, but a Christology with an ecclesiologically defining purpose. It is a Christology with an ecclesiological focus through the lens of exile and restoration.
The struggle, then, is not simply over whom the Christ is or whether Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, but also over whom the ongoing people of God are and what time it is on the redemptive-historical calendar. This is Christology as a means to an end: to bring the church to understand themselves as Yahweh’s return-from-exile people. Thus, I contend that a mere christological reading of the quotations is slightly myopic. The christological concern of the quotations should be seen as a part of a broader theological landscape of images drawn from the narrative world of Israel’s hopes for restoration from exile. The Christology of the quotations needs to be understood within this broader theological landscape as the heir to David’s eternal throne identifies and reconstitutes Israel, and judges their enemies. (Matthew’s New David at the End of the Exile, 12–14)
While technical, Piotrowski’s careful reading of Matthew helps us understand how to relate the Old Testament to the New. Matthew gives us a Christ-centered, redemption-oriented, and people-creating message. In other words, Matthew’s presentation of Jesus is fulfilling all that the Prophets foretold, which means he has come to save his people Israel (Matthew 1:21). But instead of saving them under the old covenant, Jesus is creating a new covenant with a new people who will live by faith in him. While in Matthew, this begins with a remnant from Israel, by the end of the Gospel it will include disciples from all nations (28:19–20).
The Fulfillment of the Law is Found in Christ’s New Covenant
When we think about the way Jesus fulfills the law, we should see his person, his work, and his words in the framework of a new exodus that leads to a new covenant. As Moses led Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 1–18) to Mount Sinai to make a covenant with God (Exodus 19–24), so Jesus does the same with a new covenant people. In fact, this fulfillment is just what Moses foretold. Beginning with Moses (Deut 30:6), the Prophets proclaimed the coming of a new covenant, with all its blessings. And this is what Jesus is fulfills. Therefore, as we hear Jesus say that he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, we should understand the eschatological meaning of his statement.
Moreover, when listening to all that Jesus says in his five discourses in Matthew, we should learn how he is fulfilling the law. In a word, he is fulfilling the law in the way that the Prophets foretold—he is bringing a new covenant. As Matthew 26:28 will indicate, this means there is no longer a need for sacrifice, because he is the final sacrifice. At the same time, because his sacrifice creates a new people, it also leads to a new way of obedience as Jesus says in Matthew 28:20. And thankfully that obedience has also been provided in Christ—Matthew 5:8 says that Jesus has given his disciples new hearts, new hearts that will soon enjoy the power of Spirit that will come at Pentecost (see Matthew 3:11).
Therefore, our best bet in understanding Matthew 5:17 is to keep reading Matthew’s Gospel. This, ultimately, is how we stay on the line. As we see Christ and hear his instructions, we learn how he is both fulfilling the Law in himself and teaching his followers to do the same (see Matthew 7:12). As he instructs us, he calls his followers to faith and by his words, he is also creating faith. In all these ways, he is fulfilling the law—not by rehabilitating the old covenant, but by establishing a new covenant in his blood, by his Spirit, and through his Word.
In the end, all Jesus’s instructions orbit around the concept of the new covenant, and thus we must learn from him how he inaugurated that covenant and what it means to walk therein. His fulfillment perfectly terminates the old covenant, but also builds upon it as the One to whom the Law and the Prophets foretold. And thus, we learn from the whole of Matthew’s Gospel how he fulfilled the Law through the Prophets.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds