“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place.”
Note: any Bible reference containing only a chapter number and verse number is understood to be in the Gospel of Matthew.
Eliminating spiritual ignorance
Let there be no doubt that, even at this early stage of his ministry, Jesus was drawing so much attention that theological opposition was bound to start. So, in Matthew 5:17–18, Jesus likely had two purposes: 1) to teach accurately his own relationship to the law of Moses, and 2) to forestall future accusations that he was trying to overthrow the law.
Jesus did not come to head a political revolution, much to the consternation of many people. Judea had been roiled by wars and invasions until the reign of Herod the Great (starting in 37 B.C. and ending in 4 B.C.), who was appointed by the Roman Senate. Rome began ruling Judea directly through governors — called procurators — in A.D. 6. The Jews hated foreign rule.
So, Jesus did not come to overthrow Roman rule, and he did not come to invalidate the law of Moses. However, it will soon become clear that Jesus did intend to invalidate the interpretation of the law given by the scribes and Pharisees (5:20). They had watered down the law’s requirements in a way that promoted the idea that keeping the literal requirements was all that God demanded. R.T. France says, “From now on it will be the authoritative teaching of Jesus which must govern his disciples’ understanding and practical application of the law.”
How does Jesus fulfill the law and the prophets? Turner says that he brings them to their divinely appointed goal, because they point to him. NT scholar Stanley Toussaint adds that Jesus conformed his life to the law’s high standards and retrieved its true meaning from the distorted standards of the religious leaders. The book of Hebrews adds a lot more to demonstrate the supremacy of the new covenant in Jesus’ blood to the old covenant given through Moses!
To underscore his support of the law, Jesus says that the smallest letter in the OT text (the Hebrew letter yod) will not pass away until everything in this present creation has happened (5:18a). He argues from the lesser to the greater — thus intensifying his argument — by adding that not even a stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until the end. In English that is the difference between the symbol for the number one (“1”) and the symbol for a lower case letter “L” (“l”). That difference is almost too tiny to see!
Do you feel the forcefulness of Jesus’ words? If so, then you understand that he regarded the Scriptures with the utmost respect. And he sought to eliminate faulty spiritual assumptions. One such faulty assumption is that Christians should look to the law of Moses rather than to Jesus for the instruction they need.
Jesus is the teacher for every disciple
Jesus began his teaching by dealing with what kind of people his disciples must be (Matt. 5:1–16). He continued by revealing where he stood in relation to the law God had given Israel through Moses. We have just begun with the startling interpretation Jesus gave to the law. More will follow!
If you want to be a disciple of Jesus, then consider how seriously you must take his words: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, but it did not collapse because it had been founded on rock.” (Matt. 7:24–25).
A word to the wise: check your spiritual assumptions against Jesus’ words. Build on the rock!
Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.
 R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 183.
 David L. Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008) 162.
 Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold the King (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1980) 99.