Law,  New Testament

How Did Jesus Fulfill the Law? (Matt 5:17-18)

What does it mean that Christ came to fulfill the Law? In Matthew 5:18 Jesus promises, “Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” The KJV translates this verse as, “one jot or one tittle shall no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”

How did Jesus Fulfill the Law photo of a gavel

The “jot” is likely referring to the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, the yodh, which looks like ” י “. The “tittle” is probably referring to the part of the Hebrew letter which differentiated nearly identical letters. For example, the difference between ר and ד is only the smallest stroke at the upper right part of the letter.

Apparently, some people were questioning Jesus’ motives in His early ministry. In Matthew 5:17 He begins correcting the people who were supposing that He was attempting to subvert or abolish the Law and/or the prophetic teachings. Then, in Matthew 5:18 Jesus gives the reason why he is not abolishing the Old Testament—because the written Word of God has enduring validity.

Some have taken this passage to support a view of the Law called Theonomy. Others have used this passage to support their own idea of the transmission of Scripture. There are a couple observations we need to make on this passage which will help clarify these things.

Jesus said he did not come to destroy the Law or prophets, but that does not mean the Law remains binding (Matt 5:17).

Some have tried to use Matthew 5:17 to say that the OT Law remains binding upon Christians. For some, the interpretive key to understand the idea “to fulfill” (πληρόω) is to read it as a direct antithesis to “to destroy/abolish” (καταλύω) the law. If Jesus did not abolish the law, then in contrast, He confirmed its binding authority in exhaustive detail. However, this is not necessarily the case.

Although this interpretation of πληρόω is possible, it relies on translating πληρόω as an antithesis to καταλύω. But Matthew uses πληρόω quite often, and it is consistently used by Matthew as a key term to describe Jesus’ impact on the Old Testament (Matt 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 26:54, 56). Rather than seeing πληρόω used uniquely in antithesis, it is better to read it within the context of its usage in Matthew. Thus, Matthew 5:17 appears to be saying that Jesus is not bringing about a forced abandonment of the Law, but rather He is bringing about the true manifestation of what the Law was always anticipating.

This view is best since it takes into consideration the Matthean use of the term πληρόω, as well as the immediate context mentioning both the Law and the Prophets being fulfilled by Christ. In this understanding Jesus is not abolishing the law, but neither is He saying that it remains binding in all of its authority.

Jesus emphasizes enduring application, not means of preservation (Matt 5:18).

Some who hold a King James Only viewpoint will use Matt 5:18 as evidence that there must be a single perfect manuscript which has no errors in it. There are three problems with this argument.

First, the context of Matt 5 indicates that application and validity are the main ideas in view (cf. Matt 5:17). Second, the promise focuses on the Old Testament. Jesus is describing the Hebrew language; and if one takes this as a literal statement of preservation, then He is specifically describing Old Testament Law and prophetic words. Finally, God does not anywhere promise that the means of preserving His Word will be one perfect manuscript or copy. Rather, in God’s providence, He has chosen to preserve the Words of Scripture through multiple manuscripts which through comparison yield God’s Word.

These two observations help us understand what it means for Jesus to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. Jesus knew that his life was meant to fulfill the intent of the Old Testament Law. This is similar to what Paul believed when he said Christ was the goal of the Law (Rom 10:4). As such, Matthew 5:17-18 stands to highlight the importance and centrality of Christ in the overarching plan of God.

Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

2 Comments

  • Joel Hug

    I love what he says in vs 18-20 that if anyone disobeys the law will be called least in Heaven and whomever obeys the law will be called great in Heaven. A great testimony to the fact that we are still called to follow the Torah as believers in Yeshua but not for our salvation. We obey out of love.

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