The most controversial passage in today’s chapter is this one:
“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the Law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousnessof the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” Mat 5:17-20
We have been taught in our day and age that Jesus fulfilled the Law, the Torah, when He died on the cross and was raised from the dead. Therefore since that has been fulfilled, we can ignore this passage now, and it is no longer required of us to do the commandments in the Law. That is why I get funny looks from church people when they find out I rest from labor on Saturday.
But that understanding of this passage is not the one the church has historically held. Believers rested on Saturday and observed the Lord’s feast days, in some cases, for centuries after the age of the apostles. Then after the Reformation, Puritans and most of the Protestant denominations returned to strict observance of the Sabbath and other commandments, although not perfectly, as there was much that was lost still to be restored to the church. That commandment keeping has been done away with, is a relatively new idea in the church.
Jesus did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets (verse 17). The Law is full of foreshadows and types which teach about the Messiah. The doing of many commandments (such as the Sabbath commandment) teach about and prophesy of the Messiah.
Likewise, the Prophets are full of prophecies which proclaim the Messiah. So when Jesus says, “I came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets,” He is saying, “I am He whom the Law and the Prophets declare!”
The meaning of this verse is not that Jesus kept the Law so now the rest of us can ignore it! If that was the meaning, then it would contradict verse 17. For in verse 17, not only does Jesus say He did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but He also verifies the permanency of the Law by saying that the smallest letter shall not pass from the Law until heaven and earth pass away.
He also verified the permanency of the Law by declaring that it will not pass away until all that is written in the Law and the Prophets has been fulfilled. All that has been written in the Law and the Prophets has not been fulfilled: Jesus has not yet returned for example. So the Law, i.e., God’s definition of what is righteous conduct and what is sinful conduct, is still in effect.
Now there is a portion of the Law which Jesus has fulfilled: that is the law concerning animal sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus fulfilled that law when He died on the cross, and became the sacrifice for sin, once for all. God reiterated that this law was fulfilled, by allowing the Temple, the only lawful place for the animal sacrifices to be performed, to be destroyed and not rebuilt after the resurrection of Jesus.
How do we know what law has already been fulfilled and what law still remains? The book of Hebrews explains that question to the church.
For further reading:
Matthew 5, obeying from the heart (2009)