Matthew 5:17-18, Fulfillment of the Law

“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. I tell you the truth, 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.

//That was Jesus speaking, in the book of Matthew. These two verses are often quoted with some bewilderment, or as evidence of contradiction in the Bible, because other passages seem to say just the opposite.

Luke 16:17 says, “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached.” In the very next verse, Jesus softens the blow, admitting that it’s very difficult for the Jews to give up their law as required, because “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.” Doesn’t that contradict Matthew?

Paul certainly expected the Law to go away. Romans 7:6 explains, “We have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” Galatians 3:13 tells how we have been redeemed by Christ from the “curse of the law,” and Galatians 5:8 promises that if we follow the Spirit, we don’t need the law.

So what was Matthew saying? Many scholars, noting Matthew’s Jewish bent, see his writing as explicitly combating the attempt by other Christians to supersede the Law. But I read it differently.

To me, Matthew, writing some fifteen years or so after the Great War devastated Jerusalem and the Temple, sees in that destruction a fulfillment of the covenantal promises. When Matthew says “not the least stroke of a pen will disappear” from the Law, he means God will not lessen the suffering of his people one iota from what he threatened. Matthew knows this to be true; he watched it happen.


  1. Anonymous

    yea, but what about the “least commandment” being important? And what “covenantal promises” were fulfilled by the temple being destroyed? It is more likely a polemic against Mark 7:19.

  2. I agree that, for some reason, each of the other three Gospel writers felt it was necessary to enhance/redirect Mark’s Gospel. Matthew certain ran his own direction with the ball.

    But to answer your question, this is not about moral issues; it is about the fulfillment of promise. Everything God promises will be fulfilled. Scholars surmise that a Greek-educated Jew in the Diaspora wrote the book of Matthew, probably someone who fled Jerusalem during the war, someone writing with a deep-seated concern for the fulfillment of prophecy and for the end times.

    In Deuteronomy 32, God promises that in Israel’s last days, he will avenge the blood of the martyrs. In Leviticus 26, God threatens Israel with the sword of their enemies, disease, pestilence, famine, and death. In Deuteronomy 32, the Song of Moses, God foretells the final days of Israel, warning that he will bring his arrows upon them, that the sword will destroy them, and that pestilence and famine will overwhelm them. In Jeremiah 5, the prophet threatens Judah with pestilence, famine, the sword, and the arrow, and Ezekiel 5–7 threatens Judah and Jerusalem with sword, famine, evil beasts, and plague. Moses: “you will eat the flesh of your own sons and daughters, whom the LORD your God has given you … The most tender and delicate woman among you … will be cruel to the husband she loves and to her own son or daughter. She will hide from them the afterbirth and the new baby she has borne, so that she herself can secretly eat them.”

    These are the sort of things Matthew watched. If you’re interested in more, check out my book:

  3. Anonymous

    Lee, I think I understand better what you mean about the covenantal aspects. But Mat 5:19 says, “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” It seems the focus is to oppose Christ’s slackening of the law.

  4. Yeah, ok, you’re right. Compromise time: The focus may be to oppose a slackening, but the evidence of the law’s validity is provided by what God did to his own people a few years before Matthew wrote.

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