Does Matthew 5:17-20 Teach That Christians Are Under the Law?

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:17–20, NASB 1995)

In Matthew 5-7 Jesus presents to the people of Israel three great truths: (1) True righteousness does not—and never did—come from external obedience to laws, (2) true righteousness was needed in order to enter the kingdom of the heavens, (3) the people did not have it, the scribes and Pharisees weren’t representing it properly, and they had to look to Jesus in order to get it.

In Matthew 5:1-12 Jesus explains some of the blessing in store for those headed for His kingdom (the kingdom of the heavens was God’s heavenly kingdom that was promised to one day change address and come to earth literally and physically). Jesus then illustrates for His listeners the importance of being distinct—ultimately of maintaining true righteousness—the kind that is internal and not merely the external appearance, the kind that when people see it they glorify God.

After presenting this initial picture of the importance and application of true righteousness, He explains to them that this is not a departure from what God had said earlier—it is not a contradiction of the Law that had been given to Israel through Moses. On the contrary, what Jesus would be presenting to them was to fulfill that Law, not destroy it. He Himself would be the fulfillment of that Law (Matthew 5:17), and until all had been accomplished the people of Israel were still in that Mosaic system. But just a few short years from His proclamation Jesus cried out on the cross “It is finished” (John 19:30)—seemingly referring to all the work He had come to accomplish (which certainly included His fulfilling of the Law). In His death on the cross Jesus was the reality of what the Law of Moses was pointing to. The author of Hebrews communicates beautifully how in so many ways, Jesus was the One the Law was anticipating (e.g., Hebrews 10:1-18).

As certain as it was that heaven and earth would not pass away until all had been accomplished (meaning that the fulfillment of the Law would come), not a stroke of the Law would pass away—be contradicted or canceled—until all had been accomplished (Matthew 5:18). Paul indicates that is exactly what happened. When Jesus died on the cross the Law was fulfilled (Ephesians 2:14-15). Note that while in the NASB both Jesus and Paul use the word abolish, the Greek words are actually different, and that Paul’s reference is that the Law was now rendered ineffective or powerless, because its purpose had been accomplished.

Paul explains in Romans 3:28 that people are justified apart from works of law, and he explains further in Galatians 3:24-25 that the Law was a tutor to point us to faith in Christ (not faith in one’s own obedience to law), and after that the purpose of the Law had been served.

Jesus further emphasized that until all was accomplished (by His death on the cross—something He would prophesy not long after his Sermon on the Mount), that even the least of the commandments were still important (Matthew 5:19), and He reiterates that true righteousness was something far more than what the scribes and Pharisees were teaching (Matthew 5:20). He illustrates that true righteousness actually goes much further than simply obeying the letter of the Mosaic Law (Matthew 5:21-48). True righteousness involved a whole other set of priorities and ethics (Matthew 6-7) than what the scribes and Pharisees were teaching. Jesus concludes His message by illustrating that fake righteousness (the kind being offered by the scribes and Pharisees [Matthew 23:28]) and true righteousness (which meant humility of spirit and looking to God in faith) represent two houses, one built on a foundation of sand (fake righteousness) and one built on the rock (true righteousness). The one would last forever, while the other would collapse in the storm (Matthew 7:24-29).

Unless one had true righteousness they would never enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:20). When Nicodemus sought Jesus’s direction, Jesus told him directly that in order to enter the kingdom of God he had to be born again (John 3:3)—true righteousness comes by being reborn through faith in Him, not by works of law. The Law of Moses, which Jesus fulfilled on the cross, served to point us to our need for a Redeemer who could provide a permanent and final resolution to our guilt and shame.

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Ed Vasicek's picture

The subject of the Law and the Christian is very complex, since the Law had many purposes. Certain purposes of the Law have been fulfilled, others not.

Messianic sources say that "to fulfill" is a Jewish figure of speech, meaning "to properly interpret and apply."  Not sure if that is correct, but is worth considering.  Others. like Stern in Jewish New Testament Commentary, suggest the Greek word means to "make full" (add to it, complete it).

I have studied this subject for years, and it is very confusing.  We can say that believers are not required to be Torah-observant, however. We are "under the Law of Christ."

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

One thing that makes it more difficult--at least IMO--is that there are times in Scripture when "Law" refers clearly (and solely) to the law of Moses, other times when it refers to Moses plus other principles in the OT, other times when it refers to both written and oral law, and sometimes when it seems to refer solely to oral law/Torah.  One differentiates between these by and large by the context in which it's used.

Long and short is that we're not under the law anymore.  I had to bite my tongue recently, along those lines, when a dear brother--apparently young in Christ--decried his tattoos on the grounds of Leviticus 19:28.  Too complex for a quick conversation, and I didn't want to damage his young faith by confusing him with a glib answer.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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