Below is a listing of six
views on New Covenant fulfillment of which I am aware. This is simply a listing
and is not a refutation or defense of any of these views. Also, my emphasis is
not on the adherents of each view, although I make some general statements
concerning which theological camps hold to each view. For the curious, I hold
to View 6. Here are the views:
1. The New Covenant will be fulfilled in the future with national Israel;
the church has no relationship to the New Covenant (some classical dispensationalists)
2. There are two New Covenants—one with Israel and another for the church (some traditional dispensationalists
including John Walvoord)
3. The New Covenant is completely fulfilled with the church; there is no
future fulfillment with national Israel (Covenant Theology and some non-dispensational systems)
4. The New Covenant will be fulfilled
with Israel but the spiritual blessings of the covenant are applied to the church today (some traditional and revised dispensationalists)
5. The New Covenant will be fulfilled
with Israel but the church is an added
referent to the New Covenant promises so there is a sense in which the New
Covenant is being fulfilled with the church. The New Covenant has two referents—Israel and the
church (some revised dispensationalists; Paul Feinberg)
6. Since the New Covenant was given to Israel for the purpose of also blessing
Gentiles there is literal fulfillment of the spiritual blessings of the New
Covenant to all believing Jews and Gentiles in this present age, while the
physical/national promises await fulfillment with Jesus’ second coming when
national Israel is incorporated into the New Covenant (some revised and most progressive dispensationalists)
Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus quoted the OT seven times. Six of these involve an OT
command from the Law of Moses followed by the statement “But I say to you. . .
. .” A seventh concerns a statement that Jerusalem is “the city of the great King,”
a reference to Psalm 48:2 in Matthew 5:35. This latter example, from Psalm 48:2,
is a contextual affirmation of the significance of Jerusalem. Our attention,
though, focuses on the other six uses of the OT. These reveal how Jesus viewed
himself in relation to the Law of Moses. These six uses of the OT by Jesus are:
have heard . . . “‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable
to the court.’ . . .
But I say to you . . . .” (Matt. 5:21-22; quotation of Exodus 20:13).
You have heard that it was said, “‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you. . .
.” (Matt. 5:27-28; quotation of Exodus 20:14).
“It was said, “‘Whoever
sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’; but
I say to you. . . .” (Matt. 5:31-32; quotation of Deut. 24:1).
Again, you have heard . . . “‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to
you. . . .” (Matt. 5:33-34; allusion to Lev. 19:12; Deut. 23:21).
You have heard that it was said, “‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say
to you. . . .” (Matt. 5:38-39; quotation of Exod. 21:24).
You have heard that it was said, “‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your
enemy.’ But I say to you. . . .” (Matt. 5:43-44; quotation of Lev. 19:18).
Noticeable is the recurring formula, “You have heard” or “It
was said,” followed by “But I say to you.” This repetition indicates these six
uses of the OT are joined in a broader argument. These six uses must
be studied individually and collectively.
How is Jesus using these OT texts from the Law of Moses? Before
commenting on this question, note that the meaning of Matthew 5:21-48 is
heavily debated, as is the section immediately preceding it—Matthew 5:17-20. These
two sections have ramifications for how Jesus viewed the Law of Moses and whether
the Mosaic Law is binding on Christians today. A full discussion of these
issues and the debates over them go way beyond our purposes here. But it is
necessary to briefly state the main positions concerning what Jesus is doing in
One view is that Jesus corrected distortions that the Jewish
religious leaders allegedly made to the Law of Moses. So Jesus is removing
rabbinic-tradition clutter from the Law of Moses so the Law can be correctly
understood and followed. If this is accurate, Jesus is not really “quoting”
Mosaic commands but stating rabbinic traditions of the Law so that He can
correct them. Charles Quarles seems to affirm this position when he writes:
“The formula [“But I say to you”] contrasts Jesus’s interpretation of the
Scriptures with popular rabbinic interpretations” (Matthew, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament, 55).
Another position is that Jesus actually quotes Mosaic Law
instructions to contrast these with His new instruction for the new era He brings.
With this view, Jesus is the better Moses and King who offers New Covenant
instruction that supersedes the instruction of the Mosaic era.
In short, the issue here is whether Jesus is exegeting and
confirming the Mosaic Law as a rule of life or whether He is giving New Covenant instruction that is not the same as the Mosaic Law. Or is the truth
somewhere in between? Which view one holds often affects how the six quotations
in Matthew 5:21-48 should be understood. If the first view above is correct
then Jesus confirms the Law of Moses by removing false Jewish understandings of
the Law. If the second view is correct, Jesus is quoting actual Mosaic Law commands
to contrast them with His new instruction as the better Moses and Messiah. The
third view takes a middle-ground approach. If correct this seems to blend
Mosaic and New Covenant instructions in a hybrid manner.
We think the second view is accurate. All six statements by Jesus
can be linked with specific Mosaic instruction. And while Jesus mentions the scribes
and Pharisees in Matthew 5:20, He does not appear to be addressing the issue of
rabbinic interpretations in His sermon. Thus, the simplest and best view is that
Jesus is simply quoting and paraphrasing Mosaic Law instruction. In sum, Jesus
quoted the Mosaic Law six times in Matthew 5:21-48, not simply to explain the Mosaic
Law or to correct misunderstandings of this Law, but to contrast Mosaic Law
instruction with His New Covenant requirements. In fact, all of Matthew 5-7 (the
Sermon on the Mount) is new instruction from the King. He offers at least 46 explicit commands in this section. Note Jesus’ emphasis on
His words at the end of the Sermon:
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on
them. . . . (Matt. 7:24).
Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them. . . . (Matt.
for He was teaching them as one having
authority. . . . (Matt. 7:29) (emphases mine).
The stress with these statements is on Jesus’ words, not
those of Moses.
With Matthew 5:17-19 Jesus declared that He did not come to
abolish the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e. “the Law or the Prophets”). He came to
“fulfill” them. Matthew 5:18 reveals that fulfillment means that everything in the
Hebrew Scriptures (i.e. the Old Testament) must come to pass. And one of these
predictions was that there would be a coming New Covenant that would supersede
the previous Mosaic Covenant. Jeremiah 31:31-32 predicted this:
days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the
house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with
their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the
land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband
to them,” declares the Lord (emphases
So fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets includes the prediction that the New Covenant would replace the older Mosaic Covenant.
This does not mean Jesus’ New Covenant instruction is
contrary to what Moses said. While God’s moral standards existed before the
Mosaic Law was given in Exodus 20, the Mosaic Law represented God’s moral
standards for the era between Moses and Jesus. And we should expect continuity
of God’s moral standards across human history. This is true for both the Law of
Moses and the Law of Christ. But a new era arrived in Jesus and with it a New Covenant and it requirements. Just as Jesus’ superior priesthood has superseded
the Aaronic priesthood (see Hebrews 7-8), so too Jesus and the New Covenant
supersede Moses and the Law of Moses. In
sum, with Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus is the ultimate Prophet and Lawgiver who now declares
a transition from Moses and the Mosaic Covenant to Himself and the New Covenant.
An epochal transition has occurred (see 2 Cor. 3:6-11). This development was not
unforeseen. Moses himself predicted a coming Prophet to whom the people would
listen (see Deut. 18:15, 18), and that prophet arrived with Jesus (see Acts
Important with Matthew 5:21-48 are the six transitions from
“You have heard it said” to “But I say to you.” The “but” (de) is adversative and indicates a contrast. The “I say” (egō legō) highlights the authority of
Jesus. To paraphrase, “Moses said . . . but
I say to you . . . .” This is more than Jesus explaining Moses, He is
emphasizing His authority. A transition occurs from the Mosaic era to the New Covenant era in Jesus (see John 1:17). Jesus
presented Himself as the New Covenant lawgiver who contrasted His new and
authoritative teaching with that of the Mosaic instruction. Jesus is not
saying the previous Mosaic Covenant was wrong (see Rom. 7:12), any more than
the old Aaronic priesthood was wrong. But the Mosaic Covenant and its
particulars were shadows (see Heb. 10:2) that now give way to the superior New
Covenant. This transition is similar to the message of Hebrews 8:13: “When He
said, ‘A new covenant,’ He
has made the first [Mosaic] obsolete.” With Galatians 4 Paul said the Law was a
“tutor” to that leads us to Christ, but now that Christ has come the tutor is
no longer needed (see Gal. 3:24-25).
What does this mean for our purposes? Jesus’ six quotations from the Mosaic Law are contextual and offered
for the point of contrast for the new era in Jesus. There are no
explanations of the Mosaic commands mentioned because Jesus takes them at face
value to springboard to His new requirements. There certainly are no hidden
meanings or reinterpretations being offered. Jesus is saying, “Moses said this,
but now I’m telling you what I expect.”
This understanding is bolstered by the fact that Jesus’ six “But
I say to you” statements sometimes reveal differing
requirements and consequences than Moses spoke of. Jesus quoted Exodus 20:13 in Matthew 5:21 to show that
whoever committed murder during the Mosaic era would be liable to a judicial
court. But with the new era Jesus brings, hatred is considered murder, and the
consequences of hatred can lead to being sent to the “fiery hell” (5:22). While
the Mosaic law was also concerned heart issues such as coveting (e.g. coveting
in Exodus 20:17), Jesus goes beyond the physical act of murder to addressing
hatred. He also points out even more severe eternal consequences for hatred—namely
eternal fiery judgment.
in Matthew 5:27 Jesus quoted Exodus 20:14 concerning avoiding adultery and stated
that lust for a woman is adultery of the heart (Matt. 5:28). Jesus then declared
that radical removal of tempting influences is necessary to avoid adultery of
the heart which can lead to hell (Matt. 5:29-30). As the greater Moses and
Messiah, Jesus requires purity of heart for His followers with implications for
Matthew 5:31, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 24:1, a part of the Mosaic Law that
allowed for divorce. But with Matthew 5:32 Jesus declared that divorce should
never happen except for sexual immorality. The Mosaic Law temporarily allowed
for divorce because of the hardness of men’s hearts (see Matt. 19:8), but Jesus
reestablished the principle from creation that God made man and woman to be
joined for life (see Matt. 19:3-9). So now with Jesus’ new instruction, no
divorces were allowed, except for sexual immorality. The temporary allowance
for divorce under the Mosaic era is removed.
Matthew 5:33 Jesus alluded
to Leviticus 19:12 and Deuteronomy 23:21. Under the Mosaic Law oaths to the
Lord were allowed. But in the New Covenant era oaths are not be made at all.
Instead, the good word of a Jesus follower makes oaths unnecessary (Matt.
5:34-37). This too is a change from conditions under Moses.
Matthew 5:38, Jesus stated that the Mosaic law command concerning retaliation in Exodus 21:24 should not be the emphasis for His followers as they serve Him. Instead of seeking retaliation, the
followers of Jesus should show radical kindness to those who afflict them (see
Matt. 5:39-42) in the cause of Jesus. This is not a statement that governments cannot seek justice for wrongs done, but in the cause of Jesus' work, the emphasis is not on seeking retributive justice.
the six OT quotations in Matthew 5:21-48 are examined properly, we see that Jesus
does more than explain or exegete Mosaic instruction; He offers commands for the
new era He brings. Jesus authoritatively states what He expects from His
followers. Thus, in Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus
quoted the OT contextually in order
to make a contrast. He does not change the meaning or reinterpret the
Mosaic commands. He quoted these to emphasize His role as New Covenant Lawgiver.
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
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.
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).
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.
three views can be summarized as follows with the arrows meaning “refers to”:
The Law (Mosaic
The Law or the
Prophets (Old Testament) ← 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).