“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.”
John Wesley once remarked about this seemingly arcane passage, “There are few subjects within the whole compass of religion so little understood as this”. Through post-Reformation history, conflicts that have arisen over the interpretation of this passage rival all others in regards to barring ecumenical dialogue. However, with the rise of “Progressive Dispensationalism” (Bock, Blaising, Saucy, etc.) at Dallas Theological Seminary (the hub of Traditional Dispensational thought) and the concessions of discontinuity found in “New Covenant Theology” (while not subscribing to a wholly new systematic way of approaching redemptive history, can be cited to have made such concessions) have brought positive dialogue between these two historically polarized positions.
So what does all of this have to do with Matthew 5:17? Pretty much everything. One’s view of the relationship between Law and Gospel almost absolutely determines where one stands on this issue. Dispensationalists tend to see a break, sometimes a complete split, between the Old and New Covenants. Therefore, they emphasize discontinuity. On the other hand, Covenant theologians tend to see the New Covenant as further emphasizing or explaining that which was set forth by the prophet Moses. Therefore, they emphasize continuity. Some may see these distinctions as theological hair-splitting. Is this truly akin to debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? It seems to me that the clash between the Swiss Reformers and the Anabaptists in the 16th century should shed some light on the answer to this question. How we view the Law’s relationship to the Gospel impacts the entirety of our theology, both systematic and practical. Not least of which is the fact that this distinction (between Law and Gospel) has bearing on our entire ethical system. Many ecclesiological issues are decided on this basis (purpose and method of baptism, the Eucharist, etc.) as well. Therefore, we must never consider this debate to be theological sophistry. How we read our Bibles is at stake!
With that said, let us now turn to the passage in question. First and foremost – why is Jesus speaking here in the first place? Using mirror hermeneutics, we can safely assume that someone was questioning, whether explicitly or implicitly, that Jesus was, in some sense, abolishing, or quite possibly questioning, the authority of the Law. Therefore, the Lord states that he was, by no means, abolishing the Law with his teaching, but was, in some way, fulfilling it. There are many views on the meaning of this statement, but the two main accounts, from the two respective positions mentioned earlier, will suffice for our argument.
The classical reformed position is that Jesus, through his teaching, is somehow explaining the true intent of the Law of Moses. Continuity is upheld and none of the Law of God is abrogated in any sense. This holds up when applied to Jesus’ teaching on hatred being a transgression of the fifth commandment or lust a transgression of the sixth. Unfortunately, however, this view utterly fails to stand up to scrutiny when applied to the rest of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5.
Verses 31-32 present Jesus as seemingly abolishing the divorce law of Duet. 24:1-4. He even regards such a practice as “adultery”! Furthermore, in verses 43-44 Jesus demands that “love your neighbor” be extended to “love your enemy”. In light of Duet. 23:3-6, this can be see as nothing other than an extension beyond what was taught in the OT. Therefore, the argument that Jesus is simply further emphasizing the intent of the OT Law cannot be considered sound. After all, the crowds were amazed at the authority that Jesus displayed over the Scripture (7:29), for it was unlike the scribes.
The classical dispensational approach to this passage is to see a final (at least for this dispensation) break from the Old Covenant. The Law was but a shadow of the New Covenant. Jesus came to establish a new law, the Law of Christ (Gal. 6:2, 1 Cor. 9:21). Unfortunately, this also seems to contradict the words of Jesus.
Jesus made clear in verse 17 that he came “not to abolish the Law”. “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.” We must not take these words of Jesus lightly. To consider this statement a complete break from Old Covenant Law unreservedly ignores the warning in the very same passage. Jesus came to “fulfill” the Law. So what exactly does this mean?
In their book, New Covenant Theology, Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel lay out a convincing case for a middle ground between these two traditional views.
First, the context of Matthew’s Gospel must be noted. Most scholars agree that there is a clear contrast between Jesus and Moses in Matthew’s frame of reference. The infancy narrative of Jesus (Matt. 2) is strikingly similar to that of Moses (Exodus 2), the flight from Egypt by Joseph and Mary with Jesus compares to Moses’ similar flight. Jesus spent 40 days in the desert before giving this “law” on the mountain as did the Israelites before Moses gave them the Law on Sinai. Clearly, Matthew wants the reader to have Moses in mind in this passage. Pair this with the fact that Jesus is always presented as “greater” than Old Testament figures (12:3-4, 6, 8, 41,42) and it is obvious that Jesus has authority over the Old Covenant.
So how exactly does Jesus “fulfill” the Law with His divine authority? Some have alleged that this is a reference to Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. However, it is obvious that larger issues of the law (hate, lust, love, etc.) are in view here. In NCT, Zaspel places forth a hypothesis called eschatological fulfillment. In Zaspel’s own words, “Jesus came to bring about what Moses’ law anticipated. The law pointed forward to him all along; he is its eschatological goal. Only in him does it find its full significance and continuing validity… In Jesus Moses is fulfilled. (emphasis mine)” Here are some of the strengths of this hypothesis: 1) It preserves the contrast between “destroy” and “fulfill”. 2) It fits very well in the larger Christological context of Matthew (“Jesus is greater than…”). 3) It gives close attention to Matthew’s emphasis on inaugurated eschatology in Jesus’ relation to the Law of Moses. 4) It provides a single explanation for Jesus as “fulfillment” of the law which applies equally to every detail (“jot and tittle”) of it. Jesus fulfillment of both the ceremonial and the moral aspects of the law are understood in precisely the same sense. 5) It provides the simplest explanation of Jesus’ handling of Moses’ law in v. 21-48. He did not merely “intensify” the law. Instead, he proceeded to extend it (“hate is murder”), add to it (“love your enemy as well as your neighbor”), and even replace it (“divorce is adultery”). All of these explanations are involved at different points, but none is sufficient by itself. 6) It preserves the continuity with Moses that is directly implied in the contrasting phrase “not to destroy but to fulfill”, it is no mere replacement theology. Yet it also allows for the dramatic shift that is sometimes evident in v. 21-48, and often in Paul, which is required by the “newness” of the age and the precedence of the law of Christ in this era.
Ultimately, this seems to preserve the strengths of both the Reformed and Dispensational traditions while removing the weaknesses. After all, Jesus said “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” The law of Christ must, therefore, exceed the Law of Moses in some way. Eschatological fulfillment certainly does the job.