Matthew 5:17-19 and the "Law"

Do Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:17-19 tell Christians they must keep the seventh-day Sabbath? Some people believe these verses make Sabbath-keeping binding on Christians. Others conclude the Sabbath is not in view in this passage. To discover the answer, let us begin by quoting the verses in question:

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven."

We see right away that Jesus did not mention the Sabbath or the Ten Commandments in these verses. To read Jesus’ statement as having these laws specifically in mind is to bring in ideas that were not stated by Jesus.

Nonetheless, there are certain phrases in this text that need further study: Jesus’ assertion that he did not come to abolish the Law; that he came to fulfill it; that not the smallest part of the Law would disappear till everything was accomplished; that whoever broke the commandments he was speaking about or taught others to break them would be of little reputation in the kingdom. What do all these things mean in terms of the Sabbath? By looking closely at the key phrases in this Scripture, we will learn some surprising things.

"Abolish Law and Prophets"

First, we see that Jesus spoke of "the Law and the Prophets" as not being abolished. What did he mean by this phrase? The "Law and the Prophets" was a regular expression Jews of Jesus’ day used to refer to the entire Old Testament. (See Matthew 7:12; 22:40; Acts 24:14; 28:23; Romans 3:21.) The Old Testament comprises the Holy Scriptures or the sacred writings of the Jewish faith. It was through these writings that Jews thought they could understand the will of God and have eternal life (John 5:39, 45).

What Jesus said, then, was the Old Testament as a body of "God-breathed" literature would not be set aside or abolished. His concern was not specifically the Sabbath or the Ten Commandments. It was the entire Old Testament.

"To fulfill them"

Jesus also said he came not to abolish the Law or the Prophets, that is, the Holy Scriptures, but to "fulfill them" (Matthew 5:17). We should notice that Jesus did not tell Christians to "fulfill" these Scriptures down to the smallest letter and least stroke of a pen. He said he came to fulfill the Holy Scriptures.

What did he mean by this? The Greek word for "fulfill" isplerosai. According to Greek scholars, the nuance and meaning of this word is difficult to express in English, and several possibilities have been offered. These are summarized by four options:

  1. Jesus came to accomplish or obey the Holy Scriptures,
  2. to bring out the full meaning of the Holy Scriptures,
  3. to bring those Scriptures to their intended completion,
  4. to emphasize that the Scriptures point to him as Messiah and are fulfilled in his salvation work.

After reviewing several ways of looking at the word "fulfill," the Expositor’s Commentary on Matthew concluded by saying: "The best interpretation of these difficult verses says that Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets in that they point to him, and he is their fulfillment. The antithesis is not between ‘abolish’ and ‘keep’ but between ‘abolish’ and ‘fulfill’" (page 143).

Let’s see how this possibility works out. It is certainly a proper understanding of Jesus’ intent to say that he came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets in himself—in his life and salvation work, and that the Scriptures pointed to him.

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The book of Matthew was written to prove from the Jewish Scriptures that Jesus fulfilled the requirements of messiahship. Matthew often said Jesus acted "to fulfill" what was said through one prophet or another (Matthew 1:22; 2:5, 15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17, etc.). One can read through the book of Matthew and note all the times that a reference is made to the Old Testament as being fulfilled in Jesus. It is surprising, indeed.

Jesus said in Matthew 3:15 that "all righteousness" should be fulfilled in his actions. Luke 24:25-27, 44-45 and John 5:39-47 are also instructive on this point. These verses show that Jesus was interested in showing how the Hebrew Scriptures had himself as their object. He was the Messiah of whom all the Jewish holy writings had spoken of.

The Tyndale New Testament Commentary on Matthew offers another view of "fulfill." It emphasizes that Jesus was bringing the meaning of the Scriptures to their intended completion. It says: "Jesus is bringing that to which the Old Testament looked forward; his teaching will transcend the Old Testament revelation, but, far from abolishing it, is itself its intended culmination" (page 114).

But is the keeping of the "holy time" requirement of the Sabbath something Jesus meant to bring forward for Christians to follow? Since the context does not mention the Sabbath in Matthew 5:17-19, we would have no basis to insist that he did.

"Not the smallest letter"

Jesus also said that "not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen" from the entire body of the Jewish Holy Scriptures would disappear until "everything is accomplished." Some believe that by saying this, Jesus was saying that Christians should keep the seventh-day Sabbath.

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Let’s ask again what the context tells us, and where such a conclusion would lead us. As we saw, Jesus did not mention the Sabbath or the Ten Commandments in Matthew 5:17-19. In order to say that Jesus had the Sabbath in mind, we would be forced to say that he was commanding Christians to follow all the laws of the Law and Prophets, or the Old Testament. At the least, we would have to conclude he was making the entire Law of Moses binding on Christians.

Based on the argument above, we would have to take Jesus’ words as enjoining every single commandment and regulation in the Law of Moses on Christians! The reason is because Jesus said that "not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen" from the entire body of the Jewish Holy Scriptures would disappear until "everything is accomplished."

To ask again: Did Jesus mean Christians had to keep all the regulations of the Law of Moses, including the "holy time" regulations of the Sabbath, or strict tithing, or the food laws? Consider what that line of reasoning would demand.

Christians would be obligated to keep all the sacrificial, ceremonial and civil laws described in the Law of Moses. They would have to keep every single law mentioned in Genesis through Deuteronomy — and the rest of the Old Testament. The Jews calculated that there were 613 laws in their Holy Scriptures. Christians, then, based on the idea that Jesus was telling his disciples to keep the regulations of the Law and the Prophets, would have to keep all 613 laws. No wonder the apostle Paul said that thinking in these terms was wrongheaded (Galatians 3:10).

To pick a few examples of this line of reasoning, Christian men would have to be physically circumcised. All Christians would have to offer sacrifices. Men, at least, would have to travel to Jerusalem to keep the annual festivals. Christians would have to keep the various purification rituals. One of these rituals specified that individuals who came in contact with dead bodies would be "unclean" for seven days. They would have to ceremonially wash themselves on the third and seventh day (Numbers 19:11-13). If any person failed to do this, he or she would be "cut off from Israel" (verse 13). There are many dozens of such laws in the Law of Moses that would have to be followed.

Obviously, when we see the implications, we have to conclude that Jesus could not having been telling Christians to keep all the old covenant Law. But if he was not saying this, then we have no justification for saying his words demand we keep the Sabbath as "holy time," because he did not specifically mention this command — or the Ten Commandments.

"Everything is accomplished"

Jesus said that until heaven and earth ceased to exist, nothing would disappear from the law "until everything is accomplished" (5:18). But heaven and earth will pass away, and by contrast, Jesus’ own words will remain forever (Matthew 24:35). They have a greater validity than the Law because Jesus is greater than Moses.

The meaning of "until everything is accomplished" has several possibilities. It is suggested by the Tyndale New Testament Commentary that the translation: "Until what it [the Law] looks forward to arrives" gives the best sense of this phrase. This links the thought with the idea of "fulfillment" in verse 17. This also seems to be the thrust of Paul’s comments regarding the relationship of the Law and Jesus’ earthly ministry (Galatians 3:19, 23-25).

The Tyndale New Testament Commentary expresses the interpretation of "accomplished" in these words:

"The law remains valid until it reaches its intended culmination; this it is now doing in the ministry and teaching of Jesus. This verse does not state, therefore, as it is sometimes interpreted, that every regulation in the Old Testament law remains binding after the coming of Jesus. The law is unalterable, but that does not justify its application beyond the purpose for which it was intended" (page 115).

The Tyndale commentary also makes the same point in these words:

"This passage does not therefore state that every Old Testament regulation is eternally valid. This view is not found anywhere in the New Testament, which consistently sees Jesus as introducing a new situation, for which the law prepared (Galatians 3:24), but which now transcends it. The focus is now on Jesus and his teaching, and in this light the validity of Old Testament rules must now be examined. Some will be found to have fulfilled their role, and be no longer applicable...others will be reinterpreted" (page 117).

This explanation must be the correct one, or else the early Christian church and the apostles violated Matthew 5:17-19 by telling gentile Christians that circumcision and keeping the Law of Moses was not necessary. The book of Galatians would also have been in error on this point. And the book of Hebrews would have been in extraordinary violation of Jesus’ words, too, since it states that the entire sacrificial system, the temple worship and Levitical priesthood had been annulled.

However, these books are in agreement with the principle mentioned above. They explain that some old covenant religious regulations have fulfilled their role and others need reinterpretation. This is the situation that holds with the ceremonial weekly Sabbath "holy time" regulation. It fulfilled its role in old covenant times and can be interpreted spiritually for Christians as the spiritual Sabbath rest we now have in Christ.

"Least of these commandments"

In Matthew 5:19 Jesus also said that if anyone broke "one of the least of these commandments" and taught others to do so, that person would be called "least" in the kingdom. Those who practiced and taught these commands of which he spoke would be called "great" in that kingdom. How do these words fit into the discussion?

One explanation of this phrase is that "these commandments" refer to the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5-7, and not to the Old Testament or its law. His reinterpretation of old covenant law was certainly the subject of much of the Sermon on the Mount.

After discussing the Law and the Prophets, Jesus went on to give six units of teaching, each introduced by the phrase, "You have heard that it was said... But I say to you" (Matthew 5:21-48). In those six units, Jesus gave varied examples of how the principles he was discussing should work out in practice among his disciples. He began each section with how Jews might have taught and applied a literal understanding of Old Testament law. Then Jesus gave his more discerning view — the real intent or aim of the law in general, and the six examples he chose in particular.

To summarize, he mentioned the following subjects: murder and anger, based on the sixth commandment (5:21-26); adultery, the seventh commandment (5:27-30); divorce, from Deuteronomy 24:1 (5:31-32); swearing and oaths, summarizing teaching from such scriptures as Leviticus 19:12 and Numbers 30:2 (5:33-37); legal rights, quoted from Exodus 21:24-25, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21 (5:38-42); and the principle of loving one’s neighbor, from Leviticus 19:18 (5:43-47).

What we notice is that the examples Jesus chose come from all five books of Moses. These six principles are then summarized as the greater righteousness of Jesus’ disciples (5:48). The disciples of Jesus, in contrast to the scribes and Pharisees, must be "perfect," that is, have a life totally motivated by the will of God. Jesus contrasted this new and radical righteousness (5:20) with the scrupulous religious observance of old covenant demands practiced by Pharisees and other Jewish religious teachers (6:1-8. 16-18).

Jesus did not come to annul the Holy Scriptures as a body of holy writings since they were "God breathed" words of the Creator. But they were not an end in themselves, as many Jews thought. Jesus had come to bring the truth to which those Scriptures pointed (John 1:17).

The law of Christ

If we look carefully at the context of the verse in which Jesus spoke of fulfilling the Law, particularly at what follows Matthew 5:17-19, we will note that Jesus was redefining the teaching from the Law and the Prophets. He was pointing out which principles from the Holy Scriptures had an eternal validity and their intended purpose, and how both were to be understood.

In short, Jesus was creating a spiritual law, which we may call the "law of Christ" (John 13:33-35) — and this becomes the norm for Christian living, not the old covenant law. This is demonstrated by the fact that one cannot find in the teaching in Matthew 5-6 any discussion of ceremonial laws such as the Sabbath and annual festival "holy time" regulations — a hallmark of Jewish religious observance based on old covenant commands.

While Jews concerned themselves with what Moses and their traditions said, Jesus superseded that approach to God with his own instruction. He became the standard of truth (John 1:17). In referring to both the Law of Moses and the tradition of the elders, Jesus boldly proclaimed, "But I say to you" (Matthew 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44). At the end of the Sermon, Jesus told his hearers that the wise person is one "who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice" (Matthew 7:24).

The orientation of the new covenant is to Christ and the cross, not to Moses and the tables of stone. The great sermon of the new covenant is not the one given on Mt. Sinai, but by Jesus Christ (John 1:17). He explained the spiritual-moral principles of the new covenant that apply to Christians. These are amply discussed in several places in the New Testament (in Galatians 5:22-25, for example). We should note that these places do not contain any mention of such ceremonial regulations as keeping a specific day of the week.

Matthew concluded his gospel with the following words of Jesus: "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20). The disciples are to teach and do the commands Jesus gave, not legalistically follow the Law of Moses (John 15:12-13). Since Jesus did not command Sabbath-keeping in Matthew 5:17-19, we cannot use this Scripture to justify teaching it.

In the interest of fairness, we should point out that some scholars object to the view that Jesus was referring to his own commandments in Matthew 5:19. The word for "commandment," entole, elsewhere in Matthew always refers to the Old Testament law. These scholars insist the expression "least of these commandments" would be better understood in the context as referring to the law as expounded in the Old Testament. If so, how are we to understand Jesus’ command to his disciples — to respect and teach the "least of these commandments"?

We have already seen that Jesus cannot be telling his disciples to keep each of the 613 regulations of the Law. That would lead to a logical absurdity, violate his own teaching in Matthew 5, and stand in conflict with other New Testament teachings and writings. (Since Jesus didn’t mention the Sabbath in Matthew 5, we cannot use this Scripture to insist that one of "these commandments" was the Sabbath "holy time" regulation.)

It cannot be a literal observance of the Law of Moses that interests Jesus — this is seen by what he says in Matthew 5:21-48, where he radically reinterprets the commands of the Law. If it were a literal observance that Jesus wanted, the Gospel of Mark was in specific violation of Jesus’ command, because it interpreted Jesus’ view of the laws of "uncleanness" and said he had abrogated these Old Testament food regulations. See Mark 7:19 in any modern translation.)

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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™  Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide.

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What such Scriptures show is that Jesus left the question of interpretation and application of the Law of Moses open to changing circumstances. We can see this in his teaching in Matthew 5:21-48 and elsewhere. Of course, the Old Testament must be respected, and it has value as the word of God, but it is also time-bound to a certain extent. This practical view of the Law is demonstrated in the rest of the New Testament. It allows, for example, the apostles to understand that the ceremonial and sacrificial laws are no longer binding.

Nonetheless, Christians are to respect the Old Testament as the Holy Scriptures of God. They are profitable, when used wisely, for "teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness," and can make one "wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 3:15-16). But no one should place faith in the Law itself, for while the Law came through Moses, grace and truth have come through Jesus. Under grace, Christians are not required to keep a specific "holy time," go to a "holy place" such as the temple, or be under the authority of the holy levitical priesthood (John 4:21-24). These were ceremonial regulations, and Christians do not need to keep them.

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