Friday, July 5, 2019

The Meaning of Matthew 5:17-19, Part 5: What Did Jesus Mean by “These Commandments”?

By Michael J. Vlach

This entry is Part 5 concerning what Jesus meant in Matthew 5:17-19. My focus here specifically is on what Jesus meant by “these commandments” in Matthew 5:19. This verse reads:

Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus makes two key points here. First, anyone who “annuls one of the least of these commandments” will be called “least in the kingdom of heaven.” Second, whoever “keeps and teaches” the “least of these commandments” will be called great in the kingdom. Since Jesus’ message involves one’s status in the kingdom of God, getting “these commandments” right is important.

The word for “annuls” comes from luō which often means “loose,” “set free,” “dissolve,” or “destroy.” In this context, “annuls” probably means to “to do away with.” If one does away with “the least of these commandments” they can expect a lower position in the kingdom.

The word for “keeps” is poieō. Of the 581 uses of poieō in the New Testament the dominant meaning is related to “does” or “doing.” There are also a variety of nuances of this term based on context. Since this term is paired against “annuls” the meaning here is probably that of “establishes” or “does”. Thus, the one who is great in the kingdom is one who “establishes” or “does” “these commandments.”

But what are “these commandments” Jesus refers to? The word for “commandments” is entolē, which can be translated as “command,” “commandment,” “order,” “instruction,” or “precept.” This term in 5:19 differs from Jesus’ two uses of nomos (“Law”) in Matthew 5:17-18. This shift from nomos to entolē may or may not be significant. Is Jesus using entolē as a synonym for nomos or is He using entolē to contrast His teachings with “the Law”? Context will determine which understanding is more accurate.

There are three options for understanding “these commandments” in Matthew 5:19. First, “these commandments” could refer specifically to the commands of the Mosaic Law. This view, which is held by many, is based on the belief that Jesus’ second use of “Law” in Matthew 5:18 refers specifically to the commands of the Mosaic Law. Thus, keeping “the least of these commandments” means keeping all of the Mosaic Law commands.

Second, another view is that “these commandments” refers to the Old Testament as a whole, including its principles and prophecies. If Jesus is referring back to verse 18, this view is possible. If “Law” in 5:18 referred to the Old Testament as a whole, then “keeping” and “teaching” “these commandments” could refer to keeping and teaching the instructions, principles, and predictions of the Old Testament.

One thing to note about Views 1 and 2 above is that they both assert that “these commandments” in 5:19 point back to the “Law” of 5:18. The third view discussed below is different in that it anticipates what Jesus will say starting in 5:21 through chapter 7.

A third view is that “these commandments” refers to Jesus’ instructions in the Sermon on the Mount of Matthew 5-7, particularly what He says from 5:21 through chapter 7 where many commands are given. The Sermon of Matthew 5-7 is full of commands from Jesus and perhaps that is what Jesus refers to. Particularly significant is Jesus’ statements at the end of the Sermon concerning “these words of Mine” and the “authority” He possesses:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matt. 7:24).

“Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand” (Matt. 7:26).

When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes (Matt. 7:28-29).

This third option asserts that “these commandments” of 5:19 is the same as “these words of Mine” in 7:24, 26, which encompass the entire sermon of Jesus. If this view is accurate, Jesus is not pointing back to the “Law or the Prophets” of 5:17-18 in 5:19, but He is emphasizing His own authoritative commands in Matthew 5-7, particularly beginning at 5:21. Starting with 5:21 Jesus offers many commands and instructions. Thus, “these commandments” in 5:19 could refer to Jesus’ New covenant instruction as the Messiah. This view is consistent with the idea that Jesus is not “explaining” Moses, but is offering His authoritative New covenant instruction for the new era in Him.

These three views can be summarized as follows with the arrows meaning “refers to”:
The Law (Mosaic Law)      These commandments
The Law or the Prophets (Old Testament)   These commandments
These commandments Jesus’ commandments in Matthew 5-7

So which of the three views mentioned above is most accurate? The first view concerning keeping Mosaic Law commandments is unlikely since Jesus’ use of “Law” in 5:18 is most likely shorthand for “the Law or the Prophets” mentioned in 5:17, which refers to the Old Testament as a whole, not just the Mosaic Law. Mosaic covenant instruction is too narrow in this context. Plus, with Jesus’ six “But I say to you” statements in 5:21-48, Jesus seems to be asserting His superior instruction as the Messiah. In addition, there are major theological problems with asserting that all commands of the Mosaic Law must be kept after Jesus’ first coming. If Jesus is referring specifically to the Mosaic Law, this seems to be an affirmation that all 613 commands of the Mosaic Law, including all the civil and ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic Law, must be kept by His followers. This idea seems to be refuted by much teaching in the New Testament (see 2 Cor. 3:6-11; Hebrews 8-10).

The best answer lies with either View 2 or View 3. Concerning View 2, the near context of “these commandments” in 5:19 with “the Law or the Prophets” in 5:17-18 shows Jesus could be referring back to the Old Testament as a whole. This view is possible.

View 3 is also very possible. If one looks at the Sermon as a whole, Jesus is giving His authoritative instruction for His followers. He does not seem to be pointing back to Moses; instead, He is asserting His authority, which clearly is noted in Matthew 5:21-48 and 7:24, 26. So, “the least of these commandments” could point forward to what follows starting in 5:21 through chapter 7. If accurate, this understanding would be similar to Jesus’ statement in John 14:15: “If you love Me you will keep my commandments [entolē].”

If this third view is correct, then Jesus’ message in Matthew 5:17-19 is that He is the King and greater Moses (see Deut. 18:15-18) who is giving new instruction for His followers. But in contrast to the claim of His enemies, this new instruction is not contrary to what the Old Testament taught. A person cannot rightly claim that he is following the Hebrew scriptures while also rejecting Jesus and His teachings since Jesus and His words are in perfect harmony with the Law and the Prophets. Every single thing the Old Testament taught must come to pass, including the reality that the Messiah would bring a better New covenant (see Jeremiah 30-33).  

In the end, it is a close call between Views 2 and 3. I give preference to View 3 and its assertion that “these commandments” refers to Jesus’ instructions in the Sermon on the Mount of Matthew 5-7. I believe this because Jesus emphasizes His authority in 5:21-48 and the sermon ends with an emphasis on Jesus’ words (see Matt. 7:24, 26).

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Paul’s Uses of “Law” in Romans

by Michael Vlach

Most who study the use of “law” in Paul’s writings note that understanding all of Paul’s uses of the term is not easy. Below is a listing of Paul’s uses of “law” (nomos) in Romans and my attempt to categorize each use. Paul’s use of “law” (nomos) occurs about 80 times. The vast majority of “law” statements refer specifically to the Mosaic Law. Yet there are about 20 uses of “law” that do not refer to the Mosaic Law. At this point in time, this is how I categorize his uses. This could be altered with further study.  

Mosaic Law: about 56 times
Mosaic Law for Jews/God’s law known to Gentiles: 2 times
Principle of faith: 1 time
What God requires: 4 times
Law in general: 2 times
Standard of what is right: 1 time
New Covenant Law: 1 time
Old Testament as a whole:  2 or 0 times
Civil law concerning marriage: 4 times
Disposition to sin: 4 times
Anti-God’s law: 3 times
Righteousness through the Mosaic Law: 2 times
Knowing what is right: 1 time

(NOTE 1: I did not find any references to Jewish abuses or misunderstandings of the Mosaic Law)

(NOTE 2: I am not commenting on Paul’s uses of “commandment” (entole) in Romans.

For all who have sinned without the Law (MOSAIC LAW) will also perish without the Law (MOSAIC LAW), and all who have sinned under the Law (MOSAIC LAW) will be judged by the Law (MOSAIC LAW);

for it is not the hearers of the Law (MOSAIC LAW FOR JEWS/GOD’S LAW KNOWN TO GENTILES) who are just before God, but the doers of the Law (MOSAIC LAW FOR JEWS/GOD’S LAW KNOWN TO GENTILES) will be justified. (NOTE: the point seems to be that those who do what God requires will be vindicated on judgment day; see Matt. 25:31-46)

For when Gentiles who do not have the Law (MOSAIC LAW) do instinctively the things of the Law (MOSAIC LAW), these, not having the Law (MOSAIC LAW), are a law (STANDARD OF WHAT IS RIGHT similar to Mosaic Law) to themselves,

in that they show the work of the Law (MOSAIC LAW) written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them,

But if you bear the name “Jew” and rely upon the Law (MOSAIC LAW) and boast in God,

and know His will and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law (MOSAIC LAW),

a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law (MOSAIC LAW) the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth,

You who boast in the Law (MOSAIC LAW), through your breaking the Law (MOSAIC LAW), do you dishonor God?

For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law (MOSAIC LAW); but if you are a transgressor of the Law (MOSAIC LAW), your circumcision has become uncircumcision.

So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law (essence of the MOSAIC LAW), will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?

And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law (essence of the MOSAIC LAW), will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law (MOSAIC LAW) and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law (MOSAIC LAW)?

Now we know that whatever the Law (MOSAIC LAW OR OLD TESTAMENT AS A WHOLE) says, it speaks to those who are under the Law (MOSAIC LAW OR OLD TESTAMENT AS A WHOLE), so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God.

because by the works of the Law (MOSAIC LAW) no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law (MOSAIC LAW) comes the knowledge of sin.

But now apart from the Law (MOSAIC LAW) the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law (MOSAIC LAW) and the Prophets,

Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law (LAW IN GENERAL)? Of works? No, but by a law of faith (PRINCIPLE OF FAITH).

For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law (MOSAIC LAW).

Do we then nullify the Law (MOSAIC LAW) through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law (MOSAIC LAW as a witness to the righteousness to be manifested in Christ (see 3:21)).

Blessed are those whose lawless (ANTI-GOD’S LAW) deeds have been forgivenAnd whose sins have been covered.

For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law (MOSAIC LAW), but through the righteousness of faith.

For if those who are of the Law (MOSAIC LAW) are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified;

for the Law (MOSAIC LAW) brings about wrath, but where there is no law (EXPLICIT STATEMENT OF WHAT GOD REQUIRES), there also is no violation.

For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law (MOSAIC LAW), but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all,

for until the Law (MOSAIC LAW) sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law (LAW IN GENERAL).

The Law (MOSAIC LAW) came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,

For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law (LAW IN GENERAL WITH IMPLICATIONS FOR THE MOSAIC LAW) but under grace.

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law (LAW IN GENERAL WITH IMPLICATIONS FOR THE MOSAIC LAW) but under grace? May it never be!

I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness (ANTI GOD’S LAW), resulting in further lawlessness (ANTI-GOD’S LAW), so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.

Or do you not know, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know the law (MOSAIC LAW)), that the law (CIVIL LAW CONCERNING MARRIAGE) has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives?

For the married woman is bound by law (CIVIL LAW CONCERNING MARRIAGE) to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law (CIVIL LAW CONCERNING MARRIAGE) concerning the husband.

So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law (CIVIL LAW CONCERNING MARRIAGE), so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man.

Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law (MOSAIC LAW) through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.

For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law (MOSAIC LAW), were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death.

But now we have been released from the Law (MOSAIC LAW), having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.

What shall we say then? Is the Law (MOSAIC LAW) sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law (MOSAIC LAW); for I would not have known about coveting if the Law (MOSAIC LAW) had not said, “You shall not covet.”

But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law (MOSAIC LAW) sin is dead.

I was once alive apart from the Law (MOSAIC LAW); but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died;

So then, the Law (MOSAIC LAW) is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

For we know that the Law (MOSAIC LAW) is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.

But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law (MOSAIC LAW)confessing that the Law (MOSAIC LAW) is good.

For I joyfully concur with the law of God [PROBABLY MOSAIC LAW) in the inner man,

but I see a different law (A DISPOSITION TO SIN) in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind (KNOWING WHAT IS RIGHT) and making me a prisoner of the law of sin (DISPOSITION TO SIN) which is in my members.

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God (MOSAIC LAW), but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin (DISPOSITION TO SIN).

For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (NEW COVENANT) has set you free from the law of sin and of death. (DISPOSITION TO SIN probably linked with the MOSAIC LAW)

For what the Law (MOSAIC LAW) could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh,

so that the requirement of the Law (MOSAIC LAW INSTRUCTION CONCERNING LOVE (SEE ROM. 13:8-10)) might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God (WHAT GOD REQUIRES), for it is not even able to do so,

who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law (MOSAIC LAW) and the temple service and the promises,

but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness (RIGHTEOUSNESS THROUGH THE MOSAIC LAW), did not arrive at that law (RIGHTEOUSNESS THROUGH THE MOSAIC LAW).

For Christ is the end of the law (MOSAIC LAW) for righteousness to everyone who believes.

For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law (MOSAIC LAW) shall live by that righteousness.

Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law (WHAT GOD REQUIRES CONCERNING LOVE).

Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (WHAT GOD REQUIRES CONCERNING LOVE).

*Scripture references are from from the NASB.

Friday, April 19, 2019

A Good Friday Lesson Involving a New Testament Use of the Old Testament

by Michael J. Vlach

It just so happens that my study of "New Testament Use of the Old Testament" intersects with Good Friday today. This involves the quotation of Psalm 31:5 in Luke 23:46.

Psalm 31 describes David’s trust in God while in distress. While in turmoil, it is the Lord in whom David takes refuge; and it is the Lord who is David’s rock and fortress (Ps. 31:1-3). With verse 5 David declared: “Into Your hand I commit my spirit; You have ransomed me, O Lord, God of truth.” David trusted the Lord with his life.

Centuries later just moments away from death, the ultimate David, Jesus the Messiah, quoted David’s words of trust in Psalm 31:5 as described in Luke 23:46:

And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” Having said this, He breathed His last. 

This was no coincidence. The first David trusted God during troubling times, and now the ultimate David, Jesus, trusted His life to God in the ultimate moment of darkness on the cross as He bore the sins of the world. Pao and Schnabel point out that Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 31:5 reveals two truths.

First, it demonstrates that Jesus’s death fulfills God’s purposes in the midst of darkness.

And second, it reveals “that he [God] will rescue him [Jesus] from his enemies and raise him from the dead.” Thus, Jesus’ final words are more than nice famous last words; they were “a gesture of confidence.” They were a statement of trust in God to decisively vindicate Him and raise Him from the dead.

Psalm 31 expresses David’s heartfelt trust that God would deliver him. While Psalm 31:5 probably is not a direct prophecy of what Jesus would say on the cross, it was appropriate that Jesus used the words of the first David concerning trust in the Lord as His earthly life as the ideal David expired. This is a contextual use of the OT. As Pao and Schnabel note: “The appropriation of Ps. 31:5 in v. 46 does not violate the original context and meaning in the psalm.” It takes David’s trust of God in life and extends it to death, in this case the death of the Messiah.

These are sober and encouraging words to think about on Good Friday. 

Quotations are taken from, David W. Pao and Eckhard J. Schnabel, “Luke,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, eds. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 399.

Monday, April 1, 2019

The Meaning of Matthew 5:17-19, Part 4: The Meaning of "To Fulfill"

By Michael J. Vlach

In my previous post I addressed the meaning of “to abolish” in Matthew 5:17. Now I interpret the meaning of “to fulfill” in 5:17 with a view to understanding what Jesus meant when He said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (emphases mine).

What Jesus meant by “to fulfill” has been the subject of much debate with several differing views offered. At first, I considered discussing the various views and then presenting my particular understanding all in one post. But that is far too much for one entry. So my purpose here is to positively present the view I think is accurate.

Pleroō in the New Testament
The Greek term for “to fulfill” in Matthew 5:17 is plērōsai, coming from the verb, pleroō. A form of pleroō occurs 90 times in the New Testament. There are several ways the word is used (list is not exhaustive):

--To fill up
--To fill to the full or top
--To complete or accomplish
--To carry through to the end
--To make complete or perfect
--To show a correspondence with heightening
--To realize or bring something to realization

Because the term is used 90 times, sometimes in differing contexts, the interpreter must determine which sense of pleroō is the precise meaning in any given example.

More narrowly, pleroō is found sixteen times in Matthew outside of 5:17. Within Matthew the term is used in four senses:

(1)  the literal accomplishment of an Old Testament prophecy (1:22; 2:23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:54, 56; 27:9, 35);

(2)  a correspondence with heightening between an event in Israel’s history and an event in Jesus’ life to connect Israel with Jesus (2:15, 17);

(3)  the bringing to fruition of something or making something happen (3:15);

(4)  a filling to the top or making full (13:48; 23:32).

The most dominant use in Matthew is the first option mentioned above concerning the accomplishment of Old Testament prophecy. But what does Jesus mean by plērōsai (“to fulfill”) in Matthew 5:17? That is the main issue before us.

We do know that plērōsai is an active infinitive verb, indicating that Jesus actively takes it upon himself to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (i.e. the Old Testament). He is not passive, but active in this process.

The Meaning of “Fulfill” in Matthew 5:17
With Part 2 I argued that “Law or the Prophets” in 5:17 and “Law” in 5:18 refer to the Old Testament in its entirety. Thus, I think “to fulfill” in 5:17 relates to the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures as a whole. Remembering this point is important since many assume that Jesus is only referring to Mosaic Law commands. But Jesus is referring to the entire Old Testament Scriptures with His “to fulfill” claim in 5:17.

Before getting into the details, I state my view upfront:

I believe “to fulfill” in Matthew 5:17 means “to complete,” “to come to pass,” or “to accomplish.” In this context, Jesus declared that everything stated, promised, and predicted in the Old Testament Scriptures must come to pass or be accomplished in all its details because He takes it upon himself to bring these to completion. I call this view the “Everything written in the Old Testament must happen because of Jesus” view. There is no matter too small that will not occur.

By stating “everything” in the Old Testament must happen, this seems to include the following:

--all messianic prophecies about Jesus in the Old Testament

--all prophecies and eschatological details in the Old Testament, including Day of the Lord and Kingdom predictions.

--all aspects of the covenants of promises (Abrahamic/Davidic/New) in the Old Testament. (This includes the promise that the New covenant would supersede the Mosaic covenant (Jer. 31:31-34))

Of the three categories mentioned above, the first—all messianic prophecies about Jesus—could be primary. Note the similarity between Matthew 5:17 and Luke 24:44 below:

Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.

Luke 24:44:  “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”

These two verses above are the only cases where “Law,” “Prophets,” and “fulfill” are mentioned together, and with Luke 24:44 Jesus’ emphasis is on the fulfillment of messianic prophecies about himself.

With Luke 24:25-27 Jesus stated that messianic prophecies about His suffering and glory were predicted by “Moses” and “all the prophets”:

And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!  Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures (emphases mine).

Again, when it comes to what Moses and the prophets predicted, Jesus emphasized the fulfillment of messianic prophecies. A similar statement is found in Luke 18:31:

Then He [Jesus] took the twelve aside and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things which are written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished.”

Here Jesus actively takes it upon himself to go to Jerusalem and accomplish what was predicted by the prophets.

Also, when it comes to Jesus and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies about His sufferings, note Acts 3:18 and Peter’s words:

But the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled (emphases mine).

I am not saying that only messianic prophecies are in view with “to fulfill” in Matthew 5:17. As mentioned earlier, there are other matters that must be fulfilled as well. But so much emphasis in the New Testament is given to the fulfilling of messianic prophecies, it is difficult not to see this category as being a major part of Jesus’ meaning in Matthew 5:17, especially when He mentions messianic prophecies about himself on several other occasions.

Matthew 5:18 as the Explanation of 5:17
Matthew 5:18 is a major reason why I believe “to fulfill” means the accomplishing of all things stated in the Old Testament. To know what “fulfill” means in 5:17 we need to grasp what verse 18 means, especially the word “accomplished.” The conjunction “for” (gar) early in verse 18 connects the word “fulfill” with what Jesus means by “fulfill”:

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill18 For [gar] truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (emphases mine).

Why do I mention that verse 18 is the explanation of verse 17? In my opinion, discussions of “to fulfill” in Matthew 5:17 often miss this point. Sometimes when I read scholars comment on “to fulfill” in 5:17 they appeal to the various nuances of pleroō found in lexicons or dictionaries. Or they offer broad theological statements on what they think it means for Jesus to fulfill the Law. Now, I’m certainly not against looking at lexicons or engaging in broader discussions of Jesus and the Law. But the immediate context is the most important factor here. We can look at Jesus’ explanation in 5:18 to know what He meant in 5:17.

Jesus’ point in Matthew 5:18 is that every part of the Old Testament must come to pass as stated. This involves “the smallest letter or stroke.” In fact, the universe cannot pass away until everything stated in the Old Testament happens.

Note that there is a close connection between “fulfill” in 5:17 and “accomplished” in 5:18. So much so, that I think “accomplished” is the explanation of “fulfill.” As we discover what “accomplished” means in verse 18, we can understand what “fulfill” means in 5:17. As I will assert below, when “accomplished” is linked with prophets or prophecies by Jesus, the meaning involves the completion or coming to pass of prophetic and eschatological details.

“Accomplished” in Matthew 5:18 is the Greek verb, genetai, coming from ginomai. Forms of ginomai occur around 460 times in the New Testament, and 75 times in Matthew. In Matthew 1:22, ginomai and pleroō are used together concerning the messianic prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 concerning Jesus’ virgin birth:

Now all this took place [ginomai] to fulfill [pleroō] what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us” (Matt. 1:22-23) (emphases mine).

When dealing with the details of prophecies or events, the word ginomai often has the idea of “come to pass” “happen” or “take place” concerning these details (Matt. 21:21; 24:6; 26:56). In the great prophetic message of the Olivet Discourse Jesus declared:

You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place (genesthai)” (Matt. 24:6) (emphases mine).

Here Jesus says eschatological details must happen. When discussing detailed eschatological events in Luke 21:32 Jesus said:

Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all things take place [genetai]” (emphases mine). 

Again, Jesus used ginomai to indicate fulfillment of all prophetic details in His discourse.

Significant for our purposes is this—when ginomai is used by Jesus in reference to prophets or prophecies, the literal accomplishment of prophetic details is often on His mind. And that is what we see in Matthew 5:17-18 where Jesus explicitly mentioned “the prophets” (5:17) and then referred to “accomplished” (5:18).

Again, I am not limiting “fulfill” or “accomplished” to just prophecies. But the idea of fulfillment of prophecies seems to fit well in Matthew 5:17-18. In the book, The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian (Zondervan, 1993), Wayne Strickland observed, “That fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament is in view is signaled by the phrase, ‘until everything is accomplished’ in verse 18” (258). I agree with Strickland.

At this point, I anticipate the objection that the Mosaic Law, not prophecy, is in view in Matthew 5:17-18. In the same book mentioned above, Greg Bahnsen mocked Strickland for claiming that Jesus included prophecies in 5:17-18:

But the alert reader must cry out: “Where is there any mention or discussion of Old Testament prophecies in this passage or its local context?” The fact is that there is not so much as a word about Old Testament prophecies to be found. Strickland fabricates that this is the subject under discussion and then imports it into the passage from the outside. Any reader can see that Christ is not discussing prophecy but ethics, at this particular point—indeed, extending up to the end of the sermon[1] (emphases in original) (299-300).

Also disagreeing with Strickland, in the same book, Moo said the Golden Rule of Matthew 7:12 and Jesus’ statement that love of God and people is linked with the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 22:40) shows that that “Law” and “the Prophets” is focused on commands and not Old Testament prophecies (Moo, 314). Moo also claimed that Matthew 5:21-48 revealed that Jesus’ emphasis was on commands (314).

My response to these objections is twofold. First, as we have seen, when Jesus mentions “Law” and “Prophets” together, He often does so with messianic prophecies about himself in mind. That He also does so in Matthew 5:17-18 is likely. Note that Jesus mentioned “prophets” in 5:17, so the prophets are in the context, contrary to what Bahnsen claimed above. Perhaps the question could be asked back to critics: “If Jesus mentioned ‘Prophets’ in 5:17, why would we not believe prophecies were on His mind, especially when He does this on other occasions where the Law or Moses are mentioned too?” Second, we must remember that the books of Moses also contain major prophecies and prophetic details, some of which are messianic such as Genesis 49:8-12; Numbers 24:17-19; and Deuteronomy 18:15-18.

Also, this idea that pleroō is linked with the literal accomplishment of messianic prophecies fits well with the dominant use of the term in Matthew. As mentioned earlier, pleroō in Matthew often refers to the accomplishment of prophetic predictions concerning Jesus (see Matt. 1:22; 2:23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:54, 56; 27:9, 35). So for messianic prophecies to be part of the meaning of “to fulfill” in Matthew 5:17 makes sense.

In sum, my view of “to fulfill” in Matthew 5:17 is that “everything written in the Old Testament must happen because of Jesus.” While not exhausting the meaning of “fulfill,” this primarily involves messianic prophecies about Jesus. I think this understanding can be defended from the immediate context of Matthew 5:17-18, and it can be supported by other passages in which Jesus and others link messianic prophecies with the Law and Prophets.