top of page

Matthew 5:17-20

Jesus fulfills the Old Testament: the Law and the Prophets.

Tom Faletti

April 26, 2024

Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus came to fulfill the Law


What does Jesus say in verse 17?


Jesus refers to “the law and the prophets.”  The law and the prophets are two of the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament.  The “law” is the Torah, the first 5 books of the Old Testament.  The “prophets” refers to the books of the prophets – Isaiah, etc.  The third division of the Hebrew Bible is the “writings” – which includes the Psalms and other books of literature (Proverbs, etc.) that are grouped with the Psalms in the Hebrew Bible.


In Matthew, Jesus uses the phrase “the law and the prophets” here and in three other places: Matthew 7:12; 11:13; and 22:40.  In 7:12, he says that the “Golden Rule” – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – is the law and the prophets.  In 22:40, after talking about the two Great Commandments – love the Lord our God and love your neighbor – he says that all that is written in the law and the prophets hangs on these two commandments.


Jesus says he did not come to “abolish” the law and the prophets. What would it mean to “abolish” them?  And therefore, what does it mean to not abolish them?


What does it mean to “fulfill” the law and the prophets?


To “fulfill” means to “complete,” or to bring to completion, or to have reached the point of completion.


To “fulfill” the law and the prophets can be explored in two ways:


  • How the law is fulfilled as we follow the moral law first outlined in the Old Testament; and

  • How Jesus, by his life, death, and resurrection, fulfilled the purposes and promises of God presented in the Old Testament.  With regard to Jesus, it is useful to note that in Luke 24:44, Jesus said that “everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (NRSV).  There, he is referring to all three divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures.


With regard to how the law applies to us, the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible comments that the New Covenant Jesus presented “perfects and transforms” the Old Covenant: “While sacrificial laws of the OT expired with the sacrifice of Jesus, the moral Law (Ten Commandments, etc.) was retained and refined” (fn. to 5:17, p. 15).  In the next section of Matthew’s Gospel, we see Jesus transforming the teachings of the Old Testament in ways that we still try to follow today.


In what ways do we continue to follow the commandments of the Old Testament and embrace the teachings of the prophets?


How does our commitment to following the law allow the law to fulfill its intended purpose?


In what ways did Jesus fulfill the law and the prophets?


Some scholars argue that this teaching in Matthew contradicts what Paul says when he says that we are not justified by doing the works of the law (for example, in Galatians 2:15-16; Romans 3:21-31).  How would you respond?  Is Jesus saying we are justified by doing the works of the Law?  Is Paul saying we don’t have to obey the basic commandments of the Law?  Or do these passages of the Bible fit together even though they may be looking at the issue from different perspectives?

Some scholars overstate Paul’s rejection of the Law.  Paul affirmatively cites the Ten Commandments in Romans 13:8-10 and says they are summed up in the command to love your neighbor, as Jesus said in Matthew.  And throughout his letters, Paul expects a high moral standard of the people to whom he is writing.  We are not justified by doing the works of the law – we still need salvation through Jesus; but Jesus expects us to follow the Ten Commandments and also other elements of the moral/social law – for example, to care for the poor, treat workers justly, welcome the stranger, etc.


In verse 18, Jesus says that not one letter of the law will pass away.  The word for “letter” is literally the Greek word iota – their name for the letter “i,” which is the smallest letter in Greek as it is in English.

It is important to note that Jesus is not endorsing all the tiny details of the interpretations of the Law that the scribes and Pharisees had piled on top of the actual words of the Old Testament Law. He broke their "laws" frequently and derided them for their excessive devotion to the laws they had made. But he is expressing a deep reverence for the word of God handed down in the Old Testament itself.


Jesus’s reference to heaven and earth passing away may be recalling Isaiah’s prophecy of a “new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17, NRSV and NABRE).  In Matthew 5:18, Jesus says that nothing will “pass” from the law “until all is accomplished.”  This could be interpreted as referring to the “eschatological” end of the world (the “end times”), but it makes more sense to understand it as referring to Jesus’s fulfillment of the law and the prophets by his death and resurrection.


Jesus has already preached that the kingdom of heaven is near.  In what ways are we living, metaphorically or partially, in the “new heavens and new earth” that Isaiah foretold, even as we wait for its complete fulfillment at an end time that is yet to come?


In what ways do the law and prophets still apply to us in this interim time we live in?


Given that Christians do not accept the obligation to carry out all 613 commandments in the Old Testament – for example, we do not follow the kosher laws, the sacrificial laws, or other ceremonial laws – how do we know which laws Jesus still expects us to follow today?


Notice in verse 19 that Jesus does not consign to hell those who break the commandments, but he says they will be called “least” in the kingdom of heaven.  What do you think this means?  What might “least” look like in heaven?


Verse 19 particularly makes a point about teachers. Why are they so important?


Jesus ends this passage with a statement that would have been a surprise to his followers.  The scribes and Pharisees sought to live at an extreme or maximum level of righteousness.  What does Jesus say in verse 20?


What do you think Jesus is telling you, in saying that your righteousness must be greater than that of the people who are trying the hardest to be righteousness?


For you, what is the good news in this passage?



Take a step back and consider this:


If the Law was a sentient being, you might picture it eagerly anticipating its “fulfillment.”  It was created for a purpose – to prepare the way for Jesus and the salvation of not only the Jewish people but all of humanity.  Now, in Jesus, the beginning of that time of fulfillment is at hand.


We, too, are on a path to fulfillment.  God is working his character into us and reflecting his goodness and love out through us to a world that desperately needs opportunities to see God through us.  In the end, our goal is to allow God to work his character fully into us so that we are like Jesus.


I can’t be exhibiting God’s character and manifesting God’s love if I am insulting, unfaithful, hateful, etc. – issues that Jesus will take up in the next passage.  Those attitudes do not reflect the image of God because God does not have those attitudes.  If my ultimate fulfillment is to be like Christ, then those attitudes must go.


The moral law set forth in the Old Testament, however, does reflect aspects of God’s character.  The Law helps me understand, in some ways, the kind of person God is calling me to be.


For you, is the Law a bad guy that prohibits you from doing what you want to do and being what you want to be?  Or is it a good thing that reminds you of what you want to do and who you want to be?  How does the Law help you to live the life of Christ?


How can you embrace more fully this vision: that the Law, which is fulfilled in Christ, is not something to be abolished but rather is a support for your life of faith that can help you reach your ultimate fulfillment in Christ?



Click here for the bibliography.

Copyright © 2024, Tom Faletti (Faith Explored, This material may be reproduced in whole or in part without alteration, for nonprofit use, provided such reproductions are not sold and include this copyright notice or a similar acknowledgement that includes a reference to Faith Explored and See for more materials like this.

Please Join the Conversation!

If you are a member and would like to react to or ask a question about any topic here, please post a question in the forum below. You are also encouraged to continue the conversation in any post by posting a response. Join the conversation here:

bottom of page