Matthew 5:17-18

Setting and Overview
Matthew 5:17 contains the first half of an inclusio (along with 7:12) which bookends the body of the Sermon on the Mount. This inclusion indicates that the content in between will all deal with Jesus’s relationship to the law and prophets. Interestingly, although it is not the primary point of verse 17 and 18, these verses are often at the center of debates about the application and authority of the Mosaic law to Christians today. While it is important not to lose sight of the primary focus of these verses, it is important to also see how these verses can shed light on that debate, and also how they affect our understanding and application of the verses that follow.
The experts in the law spent a lot of time examining and debating different aspects of the law. They counted 613 different commands in the law: 248 positive and 365 negative. They debated which ones were “heavier,” and which ones were more foundational, but there was an understanding that the law could not be separated. Matthew 5:17-18 at first seem to align most with passages such as Romans 3:31, Luke 16:17, and Matthew 19:18-19 which emphasize the continued relevance of the law, but passages such as Mark 7:18, Acts 10:15, Hebrews 10:8-9, and Romans 6:14 must be considered as well. To understand how they all align, it is useful to look at what both the Old Testament and New Testament say about the law.
Deuteronomy 11:1 provides a foundational text for obedience to the law, but the language in it is very similar to Genesis 25:6, which speaks of Abraham following God’s commands long before the Mosaic Law. The Old Testament speaks of weightier matters of the law (Hosea 6:6, Micah 6:8, and Proverbs 21:3) and both emphasizes its continued relevance (Psalm 119:152) and the fact that a new covenant will come (Jeremiah 31:31-34.) The New Testament also emphasizes the weightier matters of the law (Matthew 23:23, 9:13), and the positive aspects of the law (Romans 7:12-16), but also its inability to save (II Corinthians 3:7-9.) It shows us that it allows us to recognize sin (Romans 3:20, 7:7), that it brings wrath (4:15), defines sin (5:12-14), provokes sin (5:20), was added because of transgressions (Galatians 3:19), imprisons us (3:22-24), but also enables the promise (3:23-24.) It further shows us its temporal nature (Galatians 3:24-25, Hebrews 7:11-9:10, I Cor 9:20-21, Romans 7:6) and that Christ is its perfection and completion (Romans 8:3-4, 10:1-4.)
Matthew 5:17-18, however, are not just about the Mosaic law, but rather the whole Old Testament (“law and prophets.”) Jesus makes clear that He is not destroying or invalidating that, but rather fulfilling it. Matthew uses “fulfill” often (2:17, 4:14, 3:15) and in the verse that closes the inclusion (7:12), we see that the treating others as we would want to be treated fulfills the law (also Matthew 22:37-40, Romans 13:8-10, Galatians 5:14.) That usage helps us to get a sense of the full picture of “fulfill” in 5:17, which is that the Old Testament points to Jesus and finds its perfection and completion in Him (Matthew 11:13, Luke 16:16, Romans 3:21, Colossians 2:16-17, Hebrews 10:1-10.) This tells us that while the Mosaic law may not have authority over us as Christians, none of the Old Testament is wasted, none of it is contradicted, all of it is true, and all of it is still relevant for us for us to study and learn.

Examination and Application
While we may debate and disagree over how specific aspects of the Mosaic law apply to us as Christians, Matthew 5:17-18 show us clearly where our focus needs to be. Our goal should not be to use Jesus’s teaching to better understand and apply the Mosaic law, but rather to use the Mosaic law and all of the Old Testament to better understand, obey, worship, glorify, and serve Christ. As we study the Old Testament, and we should do so consistently, we should at all times look for how it points to and proclaims Jesus as King (Luke 24:13-53.)
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