17“ Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, 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.
Jesus now moves on from telling the believers in His audience how they should reflect Christ to the world through their lifestyles to explaining His purpose in coming to earth (the main thrust of Matthew 5-7). He did not come to liberate the Jewish nation of Israel from the oppression of their Roman “overlords.” The Jews expected a conquering king riding on a white war horse but instead, got a suffering servant (the bull part of the Cherubim symbolizes this aspect of Christ’s work as the One who laid down His life as a sacrificial offering for all Ezekiel 10:14, Revelation 4:7). The only way to fulfill the whole purpose and meaning of the Law was for God’s Son (also the Son of Man because of the incarnation) to lay down His life for the sins of all people (past, present, and future) 1 John 2:2. Without this sacrifice, all people of all time would stand condemned and without hope. That was one of the biggest reasons Jesus gave the sermon on the mount.
The Law refers to the Mosaic Law of the Old Covenant consisting of the first five books of the Bible known as the Pentateuch, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Prophets refer to every prophet of the Old Testament, including the major, minor, and former. Therefore, Jesus had the entire Old Testament in mind and the Old Covenant, which those of that period and up to the time Jesus spoke these words lived under. It was soon time for Israel to step into the period of grace.
Replacement, in this case, does not mean “abolishment” (even though much of the Mosaic Law no longer applies to the modern church since many of its practices and rituals have disappeared). In other words, Jesus came to demonstrate the true spiritual meaning behind many of the beliefs, procedures, and traditions adhered to by Israel up to that point. Additionally, Jesus fulfilled all of the prophecies spoken of Himself recorded in the Old Testament. However, many of the Torah’s teachings were twisted and misapplied by Israel’s leaders, particularly the Scribes and Pharisees, who habitually added and took away from the meaning of the sacred texts.
Part of the reason our Lord spoke this sermon to His countrymen was to help correct many of the errors promulgated by the misguided teachings of those in leadership during this period. The spiritual state of the Jewish people was deplorable at this time and had suffered tremendous apostasy and compromise during the Maccabean and Hasmonean periods (the time between the testaments before Christ’s birth). It was during that time (prior to Christ’s first advent) that the elite religious classes of the Pharisees and Essenes first emerged and began to twist the true meaning of the Mosaic Law through many of the false rituals and applications they propagated. Jesus gave His sermon sometime earlier in His ministry, in 30 AD and would respond to correct many of these false teachings through this same sermon.
However, the word “fulfilled” is nowhere near limited to simply our Lord’s corrections of some of the misunderstandings accumulated by an unknown handful of those within Israel. A small review of the Law’s purpose will help us see what Jesus meant here. We know from Galatians 3 and Romans 7 (two prime examples) that the Law was meant to lead people to Christ by exposing their inner sinfulness. Of course, people could know some of these things by nature apart from the written code (Romans 2:14), but God designed the Law to lead people to repentance and faith in Christ by showing them their need for a Savior.
7 What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. 9 Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.
19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. 20 Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one. 21 Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. 22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
The Law looked forward to Christ’s coming, as the Old Testament sacrifices it prescribed represented. It had no power to save (Romans 3:20, Ephesians 2:8-9), nor was it designed for that purpose. It was only meant to be a guide (schoolmaster) to lead people to faith in Christ. It was added to bring people to the faith by pointing to the Messiah who was to come. Belief in Jesus Christ has always been the prerequisite to salvation (Hebrews 11).
Had Jesus not come and died for our sins, the whole purpose and meaning of the Law would have been false and useless. And this means that the faith of every Old Testament saint during that period would have been worthless as well because then no one would have had any hope of being saved. The Law pointed people to salvation in Jesus. However, the work (His death on the cross) needed to enable that deliverance had to occur through Christ.
The passage below talks about the resurrection, which was the confirmation to the Son and all the world that the Father accepted our Lord’s payment because it carried out its purpose. In other words, Christ’s rising from the dead shows that Jesus’s spiritual death on the cross sufficiently paid for our sins. Had He not risen, this would indicate His sacrifice was for naught as unacceptable to the Father. And if that were the case, we would all still be spiritually dead in our sins so that our faith would be entirely worthless.
12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
The New Covenant ushered in by Jesus has since replaced the Mosaic Law (Romans 6:14). But all the prophecies proclaimed during the Old Testament shall all see their fulfillment before “heaven and earth pass away” (many of them still have yet to take place). That (along with Christ’s death on the cross) is the primary meaning of Matthew 5:18.
The sentence, “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” refers to the end of the Millennium during which God will destroy the present heaven and earth right before eternity’s commencement. The meaning and fulfillment of the Law will not see their end until all creation does. Jesus was saying that none of the Law would disappear until everything in it prophesied therein saw its completion. Therefore, Jesus was indirectly telling the people that His first advent was not Him commencing eternity, let alone the Millennium. The people thought He arrived for another reason but missed the main point of why their Messiah came to begin with.
Jesus fulfilled the Law through His birth, life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, but more still has to occur until we can say EVERYTHING has been accomplished when all future events (including the salvation of all who God foreknew would come to Him in faith) and prophecies happen. But none of these would have been possible without Christ’s sacrifice for our sins since the righteous requirement of a holy God (the Father) demanded a perfect sacrifice be made to take away our transgressions. Jesus not only kept the Law perfectly (something no human being could do), but flawlessly satisfied the law of love in the ultimate way through His sacrificing of Himself for the sins of the entire world Romans 13:8-10). Therefore, the demands from the Father and the righteous requirements of the Law were all appeased. This most critical moment in history would fulfill and empower all that came before and after.
In summary, when Jesus said that He came to fulfill instead of abolish the Law, He did not mean that many of the Law’s practices and rituals would continue for the church since the Mosaic Law has been set aside for the New Covenant of grace. All Jesus meant was that He would fulfill the meaning of the Law (His death would empower everything that came thereafter to the end of the age), not do away with it entirely because that could not occur until the end of the present cosmos after all the prophecies contained therein have come to pass. The Law still stands in that regard because it presently contain future events that have yet to take place. In one sense, much of the Law and the Old Covenant way of life have disappeared for the church, which now orientates itself under the new order of grace brought in by Jesus. But that is (from what we’ve just seen) not what Jesus meant when He said what He did. We will discuss the meaning of this in more detail in our next section below.
19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly 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. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Regarding the phrase, “Whoever sets aside” again, the Israelites to whom Jesus spoke were still under the Law of the Old Covenant so that every aspect of it still applied to them. But once the New Covenant became the new reality, all believers were to obey that which was still relevant.
The word “therefore” in verse nineteen connects with the previous verses above when Jesus stressed the significance of the Law. Because of its great importance, it would be dangerous for any Jew at that time to disregard any of it in any way (regardless of intentions) since Christ had not yet died on the cross to begin the new covenant. The Scribes and Pharisees were notorious for this and would fall into the category of those deemed “least in the kingdom.” They were so bad in that they even twisted moral truths still applicable today!
Nevertheless, no Jew of that time had the right to set aside that which still applied for their time. The same goes for the church today regarding that which still remains applicable. There were many aspects of the Law that Christ set aside (fulfilled) through His death on the cross. It should, for example, be obvious why we no longer sacrifice animals or partake of any of the dietary regulations prescribed in the Torah. But we need to remember that these were things that JESUS did away with and that no believer after should ever do with anything else. Many of the moral laws and teachings contained in the Torah still apply to us today (you shall not murder, covet, steal, etc.). Therefore, anyone who “throws them out” (such as those who embrace antinomianism) endangers their salvation. We see many glaring examples of this with many apostate denominations that justify homosexuality, transgenderism, and other various sinful behaviors.
The words “greatest” in the kingdom of heaven do point to the believer’s level of reward in eternity and the administrative position they will hold in it (which includes all of their jobs, duties, and rulership). The greatest in this world are those who believe in Christ and keep His commandments (John 14:15).
Time and space do not permit us to list everything else that became obsolete, but the reader should understand the point. The application for the modern church is to keep on with that which Christ did not abolish (mainly moral principles such as not stealing, murdering, etc.) but to refrain from practicing what He brought to an end.
13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. 16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. 20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, 2 instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And God permitting, we will do so.
And, of course, nothing above suggests in any way that keeping all relevant (or old ones no longer valid) Old Covenant commands can earn us salvation. The truth is, as we know, the exact opposite (Romans 3:20). This approach was chosen by Israel’s rulers, who believed they could receive the kingdom through good works as an addition to faith. They were also notorious for adding and taking away from the Holy commands passed down to them so that they fell into the category of those who disregarded certain parts of the Law and taught others to do so likewise. These Israeli leaders rejected Jesus Christ by substituting the true gospel of faith by grace alone and adding to it their religious system of beliefs and practices. They tried to do the impossible by keeping the Law perfectly in the power of their flesh. Only Jesus could and did that, an act He did for our benefit because He loved and longed to save the human race (John 3:16). Only Jesus could and fulfilled the Law perfectly. So what our Lord meant with the words, For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven, was that only by faith through grace alone could any person spend eternity with God. In other words, stop trying to work your way to heaven and rest in the work of Christ that was to accomplish everything for you. At that time, the Jews to whom Jesus spoke looked forward to His death on the cross through animal sacrifices. Today, we look back on this same work. But the gospel has always been the same by faith through grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Jesus used the impossible standard of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law to help those within His audience see the utter futility and impossibility of trying to earn salvation through their efforts. The Law was put in place for that very reason, so Jesus used it in the same manner here. These words would cause some of the Jews to think, “If we can’t keep the Law perfectly, how then can we be saved?” They would have no other option to conclude other than that they can’t save themselves and must trust and rely on God for deliverance. Their righteousness could only surpass the religious leaders if they attained it through faith and not by their good behavior. There is no one righteous in and of themselves apart from Christ, and that is the whole point. Only God is righteous and has the power to impart anything truly good to us.
10 As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: 11 There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.12 They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.