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.


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

  1. I love the paralell you draw here between Mt. Sinai and the Sermon on the Mount. That had never ocurred to me before, I think, actually, I am sure that God must have given you that extra insight.:0)

    For me, Jesus is the Law in human form for in everything He did, He was about the business of His Father. He did not obey outwardly only but His heart was fully set upon the Will of God. This too is how Jesus changes us from selfish creatures out to get whatever we can for ourselves to creatures fully set upon Jesus through whom the Will of God is lived out. This is the Kingdom of God.

    Great conversations today and loads to consider. I appreciate you.:0)


  2. It’s nice to have civil conversations over there again…this time, only one of my comments was deleted, but Timothy did apologize for it and it was quickly reinstated. 🙂 I get the feeling that he doesn’t have a solid understanding of God’s grace and Christ’s finished work on the cross and the empty tomb. When he told me,

    “Nowhere in the Bible does it say Jesus is the end of ALL those things, rather men have told you this.”

    I showed him that the BIBLE said,

    “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4)

    He doesn’t understand what Christ came to accomplish IS finished–when Jesus said “It is finished” on the cross, He meant it. 🙂 I don’t have to strain and strive to be right with God through living up to external laws–Jesus did it for me, and now has clothed me with His righteousness, 🙂 so I can stand in God’s sight and He can say, “I’m satisfied” 😀 This is where Timothy is stumbling–he doesn’t yet grasp God’s grace; he’s still trying to fulfill OT laws to be righteous and acceptable to God and is trying to get everyone else to believe and do the same…

    Lord help him,

    Ambree C.

  3. **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.**

    I think, in many ways, that Jesus is referring to people. I’ve found that those who are obsessive about following the law and meeting every criteria are very … well, inflexible. Everything for them becomes about not breaking the law and when someone does, that person is automatically punished.

    Okay, I can’t believe I’m making this comparison, but I watch Law and ORder a lot. Now, many people who commit crimes on there are monsters. But there are also other people on there who were good people and in the heat of the moment, or because they were under a lot of stress, or for a variety of external factors, did something wrong. The ‘law’ just focused on the fact that it was broken, without realizing that the situation was very much not that simple. The person didn’t decide to murder or steal out of cold calculation, but because of desperation or fear.

    Or take the adulterous woman in the Gospel of John. For all we know, the reason why she committed adultery is because her husband beat her or something, and thus she was seeking comfort. Jesus took the time to see the person, while everyone else was seeing a law-breaker.

    And that’s what I think Jesus meant — being righteous means that you see the person, rather than just shoving rules down someone’s throat.

  4. “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees”.

    I have no doubt that my righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees, because I have no righteousness of my own. One the cross, the Christ gave His righteousness to me, and to all of us. I am the righteousness of Christ and it is in him that I live, move, and breathe. Like you, I died with Him, and rose with Him to the glory of God… fully reconciled, fully justified, and fully redeemed. I have no doubt because I did nothing to receive him, it was him who received me.

  5. The question on keeping the Law I think is missing one component, though you sort of dance around it. What exactly is “The Law”? Is it the keepings of what is taught? Is it the 10 Commandments? Is it more, less? Is it what the Pharisees were doing?

    One can’t really say to do this or that until the direct object is identified (the law). Just a bit of a start if you want an exegetical study.

    I think you are asking the right questions, and finding the answers usually proves more fruitful.

  6. Thanks Pam and Ambree for the great insight into your understandings of the passage – as usual – much appreciated. Timothy is quite the study and I think we vary in a lot of ways from him – but I do find him sincere about his beliefs.

    Heather thanks for the great insight to the severity of the law – and one’s views about the law (intentions and strictness debate). I think I agree with you there – this is about the ‘spirit of the law’ – which I agree. Also the adultery story is a very interesting point – thanks – made me see something through a new lense.

    Bruced, I like your view about the faith and righteousness – He did it all (not us). I see the great freedom in that – pure acceptance of what Jesus did on our behalf – I think it speaks volumnes about love, grace, and understanding.

    “What exactly is “The Law”? (M)

    I think you have a point – about defining the law as the object of which I speak. Myself, I would say the whole law (ie: from the Torah – (Exodus, Number, Lev, Deuteuronomy). But again that is a very broad category but it’s all I can think of – and Jesus does pull a lot of these saying from Deuteuronomy. But it’s worth considering – what is the law?

  7. Timothy is quite sincere, I think. I just don’t understand why he doesn’t agree with me on everything…;-]

    I think of the Law as being the Ten Commandments, all of the religious ordinances, and the dietary and health laws. All of the Laws that God gave the Jews which if we were able to live by would give us all health, happiness, and long life. Some speak of the Law as if it is evil but it is very good, we just can’t live up to it all.

    I have always been taught that Christ fulfilled all of the Laws concerning religious oridance and that is why the Sabbath Law is not included in what they call the moral law which they say we are to keep. I differ in that I know that even if I don’t really break those moral laws now as I have in the past, I still don’t always think the way I should and I believe Jesus fulfilled those also. When my mind and thoughts are on Him, I’m less likely to think or act immorally than I am if I am focused on trying to be good. The later just seems to set me up for trouble and I really don’t need any help in that area…


  8. “You do realize that Jesus didn’t have a codified cannon like christianity currently employs right?” (Hineini)

    You know, that’s one of the best points of this whole dialogue. I actually have thought about this thing quite a bit and think that it does change some of the interpretations (cross-indexing from letters and gospels) that some people make. I actually think if I only used Matthew (or another gospel) as a guide – I would likely have as much (or better) perspectives on the Christian faith.

    If you also read my exegesis on this passage – I only use Matthew – I think a book as a whole can be used to clarify a point – but some cross-indexing gets a little weird.

  9. I think “the Law” = the Holiness Code (the dietary and lifestyle laws), as laid out in Exodus-Deuteronomy. IMO, those were not meant for us today, just the Israelites of Moses’ day.

    Anyway, when skimming this post, I thought back to a blog post over at Melting Paradigms (Geo’s blog). A few months ago he wrote his interpretation of the Transfiguration story. Then I thought about the story myself.

    At the beginning, you have Christ, Moses, and Elijah. However, at the end, there is only Christ; Moses and Elijah were consumed (if you will) on the Mount of Transfiguration. Moses = the Law. Elijah = the Prophets and the prophecies made about Christ’s coming to earth as the incarnate God. Christ = the fulfillment of both the Law and the prophecies.

    I believe many of those prophecies were fulfilled at Christ’s birth, as well as during his ministry. As for the Law (and the rest of the prophecies), they were fulfilled on the cross, when Christ said, “It is finished,” just before his death.

  10. Society,

    Do you only read Matthew all the time or do you mean that you only used that book for this blog????

    I love cross referencing as it adds so much depth and I am facinated by the way in which the scriptures fit together. Studying the Bible is a life-long persuit that has no end until one’s life on earth is ended. After over thirty years, I’m still continually learning something new and that is what I find so amazing about the Bible and a characteristic that no other book equals.

    I agree with Shelly that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the whole Law and it isn’t necessary for Salvation but the OT still has much to say to modern day Christians.


  11. Thanks Shelly for weighing in on the convo – I think Geo might be onto something with that interpretation of the Transfiguration event (it’s a take I don’t think I have ever heard – but it does line up nicely with this whole spiel I did). Thanks Shell, great comments.

    “Do you only read Matthew all the time or do you mean that you only used that book for this blog????” (Pam)

    I see the gospels and letters as stand alone documents (as they were originally recieved in their day). I guess the point I am making is I can get just as much from just reading Matthew as I can from reading the whole NT. Do I actually do that – no – but I like the idea a lot (Matt is my go to book though).

    Thanks Pam for the question and the insight you always bring – well actually – the encouragement you bring is worth it’s weight in gold alone.

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