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.
— Matthew 5:17 —
When we say that Jesus fulfilled the law, we often abstract what the law means. That is, instead of letting “the Law” be the five books of Moses (Genesis–Deuteronomy), we often put the law into the paradigm of the law and the gospel, or some other theological construct. Such formulations are good, but they are also one step removed from the biblical text.
In Matthew 5:17, the place where Jesus says that he has fulfilled the law, he actually identifies “the Law” and “the Prophets,” which tells us he has the five books of Moses in mind when he says “law.” Jesus does the same in Matthew 7:12. And throughout Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus speaks about the Law (see 11:13; 22:40; cp. 5:18; 12:5; 22:36; 23:23), we find an ongoing focus on Moses’s five books. In fact, this focus on the five books of Moses, what we call the Pentateuch, is seen not just in the way Jesus uses the word nomos (Law) in Matthew, but in the way Matthew himself introduces Jesus.
Here’s my thesis: In the first seven chapters of Matthew, the tax collector-turned-apostle presents Jesus as the fulfillment of the Pentateuch. In canonical order, Jesus fulfills each book of the Law in each of the opening chapters of Matthew. Here’s my argument at a glance.
|Matthew 1||Genesis||Jesus is the New Adam|
|Matthew 2||Exodus||Jesus is the New Moses|
|Matthew 3||Leviticus||Jesus is the New Priest|
|Matthew 4||Numbers||Jesus is the New Israel|
|Matthew 5–7||Deuteronomy||Jesus is the New Covenant|
Such a comparison between Matthew and Moses requires a thorough acquaintance with the Law, but for those familiar with Matthew, we know he has an intimate knowledge of the Law and employs it to structure his book and to tell the story of Jesus. And here, as we meditate of the birth of Christ, I want to sketch in brief how the coming of Christ fulfills each book of the Pentateuch.
Jesus is the Fulfillment of the Pentateuch
Jesus, the New Adam
In Matthew 1:1, the Evangelist points to Genesis, when he begins his Gospel with these words: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ.” The language here recalls the genealogies of Genesis and specifically the genealogy of Adam (5:1). Richard Hays (Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, 110) suggests that this verse may serve as title for Matthew’s Gospel, presenting the story of Jesus as a “new Genesis.” And in what follows, we find in Matthew’s genealogy (1:1–17) an origin story that leads to Mary. Importantly, her virgin birth, the main point in Matthew 1:18–25, shows that Jesus is the “seed of the woman” (Gen. 3:15). Miraculously, Jesus is not the seed of any man—like all those sons listed in the genealogy.
From this presentation of Jesus, we have good reason for connecting Matthew 1 to Genesis. Yet, it is the observation made by Richard Hays (ibid. 111) that there is no mention of Moses in the genealogy that triggered this train of thought: Matthew is recapitulating in his Gospel, the Law of Moses. Accordingly, Moses does not show up in Matthew 1, because Moses shows up in Exodus, which is what we find in Matthew 2. In Matthew 1, the Evangelists presents Jesus as a new Adam. Then, in Matthew 2, we find Jesus as the New Moses.
Jesus, the New Moses
There are countless ways in which Matthew connects Jesus to Moses. But this begins with the birth story of Jesus, which relives the birth story of Moses (see Exodus 2). Just as Moses was nearly put to death by Pharaoh, now Herod (a new seed of the serpent) seeks to put Jesus to death. Matthew reports the way God miraculously saved Jesus, by leading him out of Egypt (2:15). Figuratively speaking, Jerusalem and Judea had become a new Egypt. In a way similar to Moses, who left the land of Egypt to go to Midian and then came back to Egypt in order to deliver his people from Egypt, Matthew presents Jesus as a new Moses.
In Matthew 2, Jesus begins in Egypt (figuratively), leaves Egypt to go to Egypt (literally), and then he comes out of Egypt (literally) to lead his people out of Egypt (spiritually) by his death and resurrection. In Matthew 2:15–17, Jesus is identified as the fulfillment of Hosea 11, which also has three mentions of Egypt, and foreshadows the back-and-forth reality of Jesus’s early life. Understandably, this Egyptian ping-pong is a bit complex (you can find a sermon on it here), but the main point is clear. Jesus is a new Moses, whose early life reflects many of the same features as Moses and who will, like Moses, lead his people out of Egypt.
Jesus, the New Priest
Matthew 3 presents Jesus in priestly ways. First, John the Baptist, a son of a Levitical priest (cp. Luke 1), is presented as one preparing the way for the Lord. Next, Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist, a priestly act that prepares Jesus for his earthly ministry.
It is possible that the connection between Matthew 3 and Leviticus is the most difficult to see. But when we remember that Leviticus was the instruction manual for the priests and that the only time one person washed another in water in the Old Testament was when one priest ordained another (see Leviticus 8–10), it becomes more apparent. When John the Baptist, an Aaronic priest of the old order, baptized Jesus he symbolized the end of his priestly order and the beginning of a new priesthood. For more on this point, see The Royal Priesthood and the Glory of God.
All in all, in light of the flow of Matthew 1–7, there is a sufficient evidence to make connections between Matthew 3 and Leviticus. And this means, that Jesus both fulfills Leviticus and will in time exceed the Levitical priesthood. See Hebrews.
Jesus, the New Israel
Moving from baptism in Matthew 3 to the temptation in Matthew 4, we find another connection to Israel, but specifically Israel in the wilderness. In Numbers, Israel failed to trust God in the wilderness. When they complained about food and refused to enter the Promised Land (Numbers 14), God sentenced them to forty years in the desert (one year for every day the spies walked in the land). Moreover, Israel was given snakes in response to their rebellious complaining (Numbers 21). And thus, the first generation of Israel proved themselves unfit to be called God’s Son. As a result, the first generation all died in the wilderness.
In Matthew 4, as the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, the Ancient Serpent came to tempt Jesus. And significantly, the devil called into question Jesus’s standing as God’s Son. And this is the connection to Israel. In Exodus 4:22, God called Israel his firstborn son. However, in the Wilderness, the first generation proved themselves to be anything but the son of God by their disobedience and unbelief. By contrast, Jesus proved himself to be the Son of God, when in the wilderness he was tempted by the devil and yet continued to trust God, hold fast to his word, and prove his sonship.
A word of clarification here: The events of Matthew 4 also make connections with Genesis, as Adam was also tempted by Satan, and Deuteronomy, as Jesus quotes from that book. This means that the individual chapters of Matthew 1–7 are not singularly connected to the order of the Pentateuch. It simply means that Matthew’s presentation of Jesus in these seven chapters follows the canonical order of Moses’s five books.
Adding to this point is the way Jesus ministry also connects to Numbers. In Matthew 4:12–22, when his ministry begins and he calls to himself his first disciples, we see a new generation of true sons emerging. Going back to Numbers, these true sons (i.e., the second generation of Israel) are the ones counted in the second census (see Num. 26). They are also the ones who will be led into the Promised Land by Joshua (cp. Num. 27:12–23). Jesus is now a new Joshua who is leading his people into a new covenant. In Matthew 4, Jesus brings his people to a place where they can receive a new covenant, just like Moses led Israel in Numbers to place where they could receive a covenantal renewal.
Jesus, the New Covenant
In Matthew, this new covenant comes in Matthew 5–7. (Technically, Matthew 5 should begin in Matthew 4:23). In another post, I have argued for reading the Sermon on the Mount through the lens of the new covenant, so I won’t make all the connections here. But suffice it to say, Jesus comes as a New Moses in Matthew 5 and presents a proper reading of the Law. Only, instead of pointing back to Law, Jesus, like Moses in Deuteronomy looks forward to the new covenant.
In Deuteronomy, we find God’s covenant with Israel. And in Deuteronomy 30, Moses even looks past that covenant to a new covenant that will include a circumcised heart (v. 6). In this way, Moses looks to the days of Christ and the covenant he will bring. And now, in Matthew 5–7, we see the first of Jesus five discourses in Matthew, where the new and better Moses brings a new and better covenant. Put this all together, and we see how Matthew 5–7 rounds off the five books of Moses.
Celebrating the Fulfillment of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy
What are we to do with this reading of Matthew 1–7?
One answer is that we should dig deeper into the connections between Matthew and Moses. Are the connections offered here the creations of an overactive imagination, or are they really in the text? This is an important question and inquiry. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.
Yet, without denying the importance of ongoing exegesis, this reading of Matthew should lead us to worship. In one sense, Matthew’s whole gospel is meant to lead us to worship. In Matthew 2, the Magi come bringing gifts to worship Christ. And in Matthew 28:17, the disciples do the same (sans gold, frankincense, and myrrh). In between, Matthew shows why all the nations can and must bow before Christ and give him the worship.
In my reading of Matthew 1–7, I marvel at what God hath wrought in the birth of Christ and I glory in what he hath written too. The only way we know God is by his revelation, both in scriptures and in the Son. And what it means that Christ has come to fulfill the law, not just in some abstract way, but in ways that correspond to all five books, only heighten my joy and jubilation in the coming of Christ. I pray they might do the same for you!
As Paul says, when he considered the history of God’s works, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33). Truly, God is worthy of everlasting praise. And when we see in Scripture, the wisdom of God that proves that Christ is the fulfillment of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, it invites us to know him more and to marvel at the one who was born in Bethlehem.
At Christmas, I pray you marvel at this babe born in the manger. For truly, he is the One who is, and was, and forever will be. And we know that more and more, as we continue to see him and seek him in his wise and wonderful word.