The Meaning of Matthew 5:17-19 (Part 2)

Understanding “the Law or the Prophets”

In Part 1, I mentioned that a decision must be made concerning what Jesus meant by “the Law or the Prophets” in Matthew 5:17 and “Law” in 5:18. While this issue might not seem that significant at first glance, it is important for a correct understanding of Matthew 5:17-19. The purpose of this post is to survey the issues here and comment on what I think is the best understanding.

Before we start, though, I understand that the issues we are beginning to discuss are heavily debated And reasonable people can disagree with my findings.

To begin, note Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:17-18:

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.

Meaning of “the Law or the Prophets” in 5:17

Ten other times, “Law” and “Prophets” are coupled in the New Testament—Matthew 7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Luke 16:16; 24:44; John 1:45; Acts 13:15; 24:14; 28:23; and Romans 3:21. The joining of “the Law” and “the Prophets” together refers to the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures, i.e. the Old Testament. The “Law” in this context refers to the Torah or first five books of the Bible. And “Prophets” refers to the rest of the Old Testament books. As Grant Osborne observes, “‘The law or the prophets’ means the whole of Scripture” (Matthew, 181).

Jesus’ mention of “or” (ē) instead of the usual “and” (kai) when connecting “the Law” with “the Prophets” does not change this reality. The point is that Jesus did not come to abolish “the Law” as part of God’s Word “or” “the Prophets” as part of God’s word. Together, there are no parts of the Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus came to abolish. In sum, we are on solid ground to view “the Law or the Prophets” in 5:17 as referencing the entirety of the Old Testament.

Meaning of “Law” in 5:18

But determining what Jesus meant by “Law” in Matthew 5:18 is more challenging and debated:

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 (emphasis mine).

Here Jesus mentioned “Law” but not “Prophets.” What should we conclude from this? Is Jesus drawing specific attention to the Mosaic Law commandments only? This is the majority view among commentators. Or is He using “Law” here as shorthand for “the Law” and “the Prophets” just mentioned in 5:17? With this understanding, this second use of “Law” also refers to the Hebrew Scriptures as a whole.

Three arguments exist for the “Mosaic Law only” view. First, Jesus just mentions “Law.” By leaving out “Prophets” here He is focused solely on the Mosaic commands. Second, the context indicates He is focused on Mosaic Law commands. In verse 19, Jesus will mention “these commandments.” And in verse 20, He will discuss a righteousness needed to enter God’s kingdom. Then with Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus will bring up six Mosaic commandments showing that the Law was His emphasis. Third, most uses of “Law” in the New Testament focus on Mosaic Law commandments.

On the other hand, some believe “Law” in 5:18 is shorthand for the entire Hebrew Scriptures. So the Old Testament as a whole is in view, not just Mosaic Law commands. Several arguments exist for this view.

  • First, since Jesus just mentioned “the Law or the Prophets” in 5:17 it seems unlikely that He would exclude “the Prophets” in 5:18.
  • Second, the conjunction “for” (gar) connects the “Law” and “Prophets” of 5:17 with 5:18. So the message of 5:18 seems to be an explanation of what was stated in 5:17. This would have to include Hebrew Scriptures outside just the Mosaic commands.
  • Third, with 5:17 Jesus speaks of fulfilling the Law and the Prophets, and in 5:18 He speaks of accomplishing all the details of the Law. It seems odd that the accomplishing of 5:18 would be distinct from the fulfilling of Matthew 5:17.
  • Fourth, while it is true that “Law” most often refers to Mosaic commandments, it is not uncommon for “Law” to be used of the Old Testament as a whole. As Schreiner observes:

In some texts “Law” alone seems to refer broadly to the Old Testament Scriptures (Matt. 22:36; Luke 10:26; John 7:49; 10:34; 12:34; 15:25; 1 Cor. 9:8-9; 14:21, 34; Gal. 4:21), though in some of these texts a particular precept from the Mosaic law may be in view as well (John 7:49; 1 Cor. 9:8-9; 14:34) (Schreiner, 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law, 21).

  • Fifth, in the only other case where the three elements of Mosaic Law, Prophets, and “fulfill” occur, the emphasis is on prophecies of the Old Testament being fulfilled, not just Mosaic Law fulfillment:

Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”

In looking at the two views, I think the second view is more convincing and is more likely to be accurate. It seems best to view “Law” in 5:18 as shorthand for “Law” and “Prophets” and to see Jesus as including the entire Old Testament corpus with His second use of “Law.” With 5:17-18 Jesus addressed more than Mosaic Law commands. He made a statement about the fulfillment of the entire Hebrew Scriptures. Perhaps Jesus includes the prophecies, covenants, messianic predictions, and principles of the entire Old Testament. With Luke 24:44 we know that He included prophecies about his death and resurrection.

But what about the argument that the context of Matthew 5:17-48 is focused on the Mosaic Law commandments? There are several responses. First, the broader view of “Law” does not exclude the possibility that Jesus could make statements about the Mosaic Law. A statement about the “Law” does not mean the “Prophets” are excluded from the discussion. Second, as will be shown in a later post, “these commandments” in 5:19 might not refer to Mosaic Law commands. A reasonable case could be made that “these “commandments” refers to the entirety of the Old Testament instruction. Or, “these commandments” could refer to Jesus’ authoritative words in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). At the end of the Sermon, Jesus draws attention to “these words of Mine” (Matt. 7:24, 26). Also, while Jesus will bring up six Mosaic commands in 5:21-48, He could be doing so to contrast Mosaic Law instruction with the New covenant instruction He is now offering. The main point here is that it cannot be assumed that the context of Matthew 5 demands that “Law” in Matthew 5:18 means only the Mosaic Law. 

The Debate on This Issue

This debate concerning what Jesus meant by “the Law or the Prophets” and second use of “Law” in 5:18 was tackled by the contributors in the book, The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian. Taking the broader view that Jesus was referring to the entire Old Testament Wayne Strickland stated:

In Matthew, the phrase “the Law and the Prophets” refers not simply to the Mosaic law, but to the entire Old Testament (cf. 7:12; 11:13; 22:40). Thus the term “law” in the following verse [5:18] is an abbreviated way of referring to the same Old Testament. It should also be noted that the explicit reference to “Prophets” indicates that the author is speaking of prophecy. That fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament is in view is signaled by the phrase “until everything is accomplished” in verse 18. (p. 258)

Douglas Moo pushed back on Strickland’s understanding saying Strickland’s view “skews not only the meaning of this passage but one’s general theological synthesis” (p. 313). Moo says the phrase, “the Law and the Prophets” “focuses not on the prophecies of the Old Testament but on the legal, or commanding, aspects of the Old Testament” (p. 314). Thus, Moo thinks the context supports a narrower understanding concerning Mosaic commands.

But if “Prophets” are in the near context of Jesus’ discussion in 5:17 it makes sense that Jesus includes the Prophets in 5:18. That is hardly a skewed understanding, but a contextual one. Also, I am not sure how a statement that the Old Testament Scriptures must be fulfilled in their entirety is a threat to a “general theological synthesis.”

Conclusion

In sum, I believe “the Law or the Prophets” in 5:17 and “Law” in 5:18 refer to the Old Testament as a whole. I would not say this understanding is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt or that reasonable people cannot disagree. But I think this understanding is more likely than not, even probable. I certainly think it is reasonable and worthy of consideration. On the other hand, I think the Mosaic Law-only view is harder to prove. I also would be cautious of any theological system or view that bases the weight of its validity on a narrower understanding of “Law” in Matthew 5:18.

My next post will look at the meaning of “abolish” and “fulfill” in Matthew 5:17-18 and how these terms relate to “the Law or the Prophets.”

Michael Vlach bio


Michael J. Vlach, Ph.D. (Twitter: @mikevlach) is Professor of Theology at The Master’s Seminary where he has been teaching full time since 2006. Michael specializes in the areas of Systematic Theology, Historical Theology, Apologetics, and World Religions. Dr. Vlach was awarded the “Franz-Delitzsch Prize 2008” for his dissertation, “The Church as a Replacement of Israel: An Analysis of Supersessionism.” He blogs here.

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Ed Vasicek's picture

Michael Vlach wrote:

In looking at the two views, I think the second view is more convincing and is more likely to be accurate. It seems best to view “Law” in 5:18 as shorthand for “Law” and “Prophets” 

This is correct, IMO. A clear case of ellipsis.  It is the natural, unstrained way to understand this text.

Solid reasoning indeed.

"The Midrash Detective"

ScottS's picture

The structure of Matthew chapter 5 seems to be:

  1. A focus on the blessedness of the final state of affairs for those following God's ways (vv.2-10)
  2. An encouragement to endure persecution while being salt and light (i.e. living as reflections of God on earth, vv.11-13).
  3. A promise that fulfillment of the Law (i.e. righteousness) will happen through Christ (vv.17-20)
  4. A demonstration that righteousness is more than what the Law even outlines (vv.21-48, and then continued into the next chapter)

It seems that Law (as commandments) in relation to righteousness is the focus of the passage overall.

Still, v.17 has already made a statement that both Law and Prophets will be fulfilled. Whether v.18 includes the Prophets again or not explicitly is somewhat a moot point, since it was already stated that both would be fulfilled. The only thing v.18 is adding is that the written revelation of such will not pass away until that fulfillment. So is it correct to include the Prophets in that? I think so. Does that mean the emphasis in v.18 (and chapter 5) is not on the Law itself (as commandments)? I don't think so.

So while I agree that written revelation remaining includes the Prophets, and so v.18 is a reference to the whole of the OT revelation, I also think that the emphasis is intended to stay focused here on the Law aspect of that revelation. Everything that the revelation of the Prophets expand upon is based in something already promised, warned of, or commanded in the Torah (the promised seed of the woman, the covenant with Abraham [that includes blessings/cursings to nations], the coming Prophet like unto Moses, blessings/cursings of the Mosaic covenant, etc.); the Prophets are progressively revealing more details about what the Law already noted in (normally) lesser detail. Fulfilling of the Law will automatically bring about a fulfilling of the Prophets as well, for the fulfillling of the Prophets is the detailed path to fulfilling of the Law.

But the real focus in Matthew 5 is on the righteousness needed to "enter the kingdom of heaven" (v.20), which righteousness elsewhere is learned must match God's own righteousness (Rom 10:3 et al.), which is provided through Christ's work and available through faith in Christ (Rom 3:22-26), which faith God presently accounts as believers' righteousness (Rom 4:5), an accounting grounded in the fact God will have believers "made righteous" (Rom 5:19) at the resurrection (remade to be "like" God again, as He originally designed humanity to be).

So in the following verses of Matthew 5, Jesus is showing how there is something more to righteousness than just the Law (which is righteous, Rom 7:12, it just can't give righteousness, Gal 2:21, 3:21); the Law is a righteous standard, but it is not the supreme standard (God's own character). So when the supreme standard is met (people are again made righteous like God through what Christ has done), then the Law will be fulfilled, for righteousness will reign in the resurrected life (Rom 5:17, 21). In the mean time, people ought to be living righteously, being salt and light on this earth, despite the persecution it may bring.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

Ed Vasicek's picture

Scott, I think Michael Vlach has yet to show us where he is going.

He might be saying, for example, that "fulfilled" does not mean "eliminated," and thus the Law and Prophets are both fulfilled.  Let's see where this goes.

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

....what the usage is in ancient Jewish writings.  There is doubtless a difficulty in that, in Jewish use, "Torah" can refer both to "written" Torah (books of Moses, Pentateuch) or "oral" Torah--Talmuds, etc..--but if I remember correctly, there was at the time of Christ an argument between the Pharisees and the Sadducees about whether the "writings" (history and poetry) and prophets were part of the canon at all.  

But that conceded--that Jewish usage is not definitive--it might give a hint as to what Jesus did. 

There is also another consideration here in there was an ongoing debate at the time between Pharisees (who became modern Judiasm) and Sadducess about whether the Prophets (and other writings) were part of the canon at all.  Jesus could be referring to the entire Tanach, sure, but could He also be gently challenging the authority of the Sadducees, who tended to control the Temple, and did not acknowledge the Prophets?  This might also say something about when Jesus reminds the Jews that they're the ones that killed the Prophets.

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