Matthew 5:17-20 – Examining Jesus’ Authority on the Law

I have been at Gracehead for a bit (again commenting on the law) and have found myself asking what does Matthew 5:17-20 mean? It seems to be very controversial on the aspects of what the law means. I have examined it a few times and again I do it here – for discussion.

(v.17-18) “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”

Jesus mentions the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Tanakh – the Law) and the prophets (a series of books from prophets to Israel) – the two great movements in Jewish faith (bookends within the Tanakh). Jesus simply says he came ‘to fulfill/accomplish’ these things (likely in a messianic sense). Well what would that look-like (or what can he mean)? Would you say Jesus has accomplished/fulfilled the law/prophets? This is what is being pointed to here. Matthew seems to be making this exact point – he will ‘fulfill/accomplish’ by the end of this book. Matthew also splatters numerous messianic quotations from prophets and the law in his writings (maybe as proof-texts of this point). Then the resurrection at the end- really what more do we need as ‘proof’ it is ‘fulfilled’?

Matt 7:12 also seems to make sense here – “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets“. Same point being made here by Jesus in Matt 22:36-40 (love God & your neighbor – on these 2 commandments depend all the law and prophets). Matt 24:35 says “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.” Jesus seems to be the person who outlines the meaning of the law (also in Matt 5:21-48) for us and equates his words with ‘not passing away’. How interesting the ‘Love God and love your neighbor as yourself’ values have never fallen out as the cornerstones of the Christian faith? Those words have ‘never passed away’. As for other aspects of the law – well some faded out – not much to say there (ex: temple sacrifices).

(v.19-20) “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

One key point is being made here and it relates to these words ‘these commandments’. What commandments? Nothing has even been really said up to this point except for the beatitudes (which I could see being the reference for this passage as ‘these commandments’). If you actually look at the beatitudes they are framed like the Moses scene @ Sinai. Jesus is on a mountain, there is multitude of people, and then gives 10 ‘blessed are you’s’ – quite the parallel. Just maybe, these are the ideals that frame the book of Matthew as an index of the core teachings Matthew will touch upon as we continue to read on (and if you check it out – those beatitudes are continually touched upon).

But the goal that Jesus points to is ‘unless your righteousness surpass that of the scribes/Pharisees’. Anyone ever study the Pharisee’s? They were literalists and they followed the law to it’s core. Surpass that? How? Well what makes it easier is Jesus lays down some of their mistakes throughout Matthew (check almost any chapter). But right after this passage (vs.20) Jesus does go into a whole teaching pattern of ‘how this (vs. 21-48) righteousness’ looks. Then at the end of the chapter 7 (v.24-29) Jesus again relates these teachings to wisdom and folly, or his teachings are a good foundation vs. some of the other teachings he over-rides. Jesus claims ‘authority’ even within the sermon on the mount – as someone who knows God more than the scribes.

I think Jesus teachings are the ‘fulfillment/accomplishment’ of the law – even the very person of Jesus was (ie: messiah). I don’t think Matthew is hearkening to the idea ‘keep the whole law’ but ‘keep the teachings of Jesus’ (as they are the greater weight in authority). The law has to be looked at through this newer rabbi’s sayings – our teacher – and to look back in that lense if we look back into the law. Basically, it’s 2 commandments – Love God and love your neighbor (as yourself) – and that is the end/beginning of the law for us.

What do you think – am I hitting the mark here or am I off? Jesus levies 2 commandments as the ‘whole law and prophets’ – twice within Matthew – is this true? Is teaching against those ideals what Jesus is referring to (ie: least in the kingdom)? Or is the law still in tact and this is only a piece of what is being said about the ‘whole law’? Worth considering that’s for sure – especially if you are of a Gentile culture who came to this faith.