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Monday, April 29, 2013

Messianic Fulfillment and Law in Matthew 5

The passage of Matthew 5:17-20 and the following "antitheses" is one of the most controversial and exegetically involved passages in Matthew, and perhaps any of the four gospel accounts. It is also one of the most important for establishing one's view of covenantal continuity and discontinuity, especially as it applies to Christian ethics--what OT laws, if any, are to be followed by Christians today, and why. These very kinds of topics are among the first I began to study seriously in Scripture (perhaps even before I was wrestling deeply with leaving Roman Catholicism), and continue to be some of my favorite things to study and talk about. I even find myself right now in the middle of a written debate (in other Facebook notes) on the nature and timing of the beginning of the "body of Christ" in Scripture.

There is no way I'm going to come on here and claim I can give a full, convincing exegesis of vv.17-48 and settle all the issues once for all as if I were some quasi-omniscient theologian or even had the Greek chops to potentially do it (or...even...had a full grasp of all the most basic fundamentals of Greek at all). My goal is to simply bring together a couple of ideas about this passage from different interpretive schools that tend not to get along well, and briefly discuss one or two others at a couple points. I'm not a "let's-sing-Kumbayah" relativist or pluralist type who thinks each one is fully right, or that they should just all be combined for the sake of some arbitrary kind of "balance" or "middle-ground." Rather, I will be slightly re-interpreting their own conclusions, seeking to bring out the truthful aspect of each, discarding the rest, and then will be able to bring them together and show their compatibility.

Now that I've completely oversold myself with my characteristically lofty prolegomena, let's get to the text and some discussion of it so I can disappoint you, yet hopefully, offer some initial thoughts that could lead some of you (seminarians especially) to following some potentially interesting trajectories of insight into the NT teaching on Christ, fulfillment, covenants, and law.

The Passage and Major Interpretive Issues

Matthew 5:17-20 reads,

"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For 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. 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. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven."

This introduction is followed by the six "antitheses" each begun by Jesus' formulaic refrain "You have heard that it was said..." or slight variations of that language. The passage raises dozens of important theological questions. Among these: 1) What does Jesus mean by not having come to "abolish the Law or the Prophets?" 2) What does "fulfill" mean here? 3) What do "until heaven and earth pass away" and "until all is accomplished" mean? 4) What does the "kingdom of heaven" refer to here? 5) What does it mean to surpass the scribes and Pharisees in righteousness? 6) What does "these commandments" refer to in v. 19? and one of the biggest over-arching questions...7) Do Jesus' antitheses constitute a change of moral standards from the Law under Moses to a new ethical code for the people of the New Covenant/kingdom of heaven (a distinct "law of Christ"), or do they constitute a correction of Pharisaical distortions toward a true fulfillment of the moral intent of the Law for the Christian life?

Moving forward, it will be useful to abbreviate some relevant theological positions and items. Henceforth,

CCT = Classical Covenant Theology (as seen in most traditional Reformed circles; results in advocating strong continuity of moral law)
TCT = Theonomic Covenant Theology (CCT plus advocacy of strong continuity of Mosaic civil law)
NCT = New Covenant Theology (results in emphasizing discontinuity of ethical norms from Moses to New Covenant but sees unity of purpose and people of God)
DT = Dispensational Theology (emphasizes discontinuities and maintains strong distinction even between the Church and Israel and their respective redemptive programs)
HP = Hyperpreterism (unorthodox belief that all biblical prophecy whatsoever was fulfilled at or by AD 70)
OP = Orthodox Preterism (belief that many but not all New Testament prophecies were fulfilled by AD 70
MC = Mosaic Covenant (also frequently referred to in the NT simply as "the Law")
NC = New Covenant


NCT is a relatively recent development, although various parts of its system reflect ideas that remind the reader of DT or CCT, depending on which particular aspect is in view. Its advocates see it as a potential middle-road or "third way" between traditional DT and CCT. The approach of NCT to the antitheses in Matthew 5 is generally to say that Jesus is, in fact, changing the moral standards of the Law. The imminent completion of Christ's work and the outpouring of the Spirit inaugurating the NC would mean that the people of God could be appropriately held to an even higher standard of love and righteousness that would surpass that expected under the MC. NCT advocates criticize CCTers for trying to divide up the MC Law into artificial categories of moral, civil, and ceremonial, and trying to say that only the ceremonial and perhaps civil aspects passed away with the coming of the NC. Rather, NCTers say, the MC as a whole--and its laws with it--passed away and the old law was replaced with the "law of Christ." After all, they reason, Hebrews explicitly says that where there is a change in priesthood, there is necessarily a change of law (Heb. 7:12). Also cited as evidence is the fact that Jesus quotes Scripture itself right before giving each authoritative antithesis.

In conjunction with their general view of the discontinuity of ethical standards described in this passage, then, NCTers read the introduction to the antitheses of vv.17-20 as saying that Christ came not to abolish the Law or Prophets, but to eschatologically fulfill them. They make much out of saying that plēroō (the word for "fulfill" here) means, almost every single other time in Matthew, something like "eschatologically fulfill" (when Matthew quotes the OT as a prophetic explanation of some event of Jesus' life, for example). Not only did Christ fulfill the Law by obeying it and dying under the curse of it for His people, but His moral teaching also fulfills the moral teaching of the MC. NCT is not monolithic, so various proponents would nuance things differently from each other, but at least some NCTers would say that the moral teaching of the OT actually itself pointed forward to a greater and higher moral teaching--the moral teaching of Christ in the NC which would eschatologically fulfill the old Law by replacing it. Of course there are strands of continuity still--one still may not steal in the NC--but the emphasis is unmistakably discontinuity, at least when interpreting this passage. Additionally, some NCTers will say that Christ, in fact, did come to abolish the Law in the way discussed in this passage, and that His statement in v.17 is only intended as a relative negation, so that He should be read as saying "I did not so much come to abolish as to fulfill, although I did also come to abolish." While there is an element of truth to the NCT perspective on Matthew 5, this latter idea is highly problematic, as we will see below.


In contrast, CCT and most closely-related systems, even among confessionally Reformed Baptists, have asserted that Matthew 5:17-48 emphasizes continuity rather than discontinuity, especially regarding moral law. CCTers generally assert that the antitheses constitute not a Messianic change in moral standards from covenant to covenant, but rather constitute a Messianic correction of the abuses and distortions of the Pharisees and scribes--their extrabiblical traditions and twisted applications of the Law. While it is true that Jesus quotes Scripture before giving each of the antitheses, it is also true that Jesus begins each of His antithetical comments not by the common Matthean formula "it is written" (referring authoritatively to Scripture and affirming its teaching on its own terms) but rather "you have heard that it was said," or "you have heard that the ancients were told," pointing to a Messianic conflict with oral rabbinic traditions and applications rather than with Scripture itself. Furthermore, the content of the antitheses itself points in the direction of correction of Pharisaical distortion rather than discontinuity with the true moral law. Without going into detail, two lines of argument here would be 1) the standards Jesus commands to be followed here, such as abstinence from even heart-lust (not just acted-out adultery) can be found already taught in the Old Testament as the true and full meaning of the Law (although proving this may take some slightly more complicated exegetical work in a couple of the cases such as the antithesis about oaths), and 2) there are strong echoes of detailed rabbinic debates and traditions about Jewish law lurking in the background of the antitheses, to which we see Jesus responding with great frustration at many other places in the gospels.

Another, even more foundational line of evidence for the CCT view of moral continuity is Jesus' emphasis on continuity in the introductory material of 17-20. Contra some of the more extreme NCT and DT interpreters, v.17 cannot be read as a merely relative negation. The surrounding context prohibits it. Specifically, Vv. 13-16 earlier in the chapter elevate the importance of good works of Jesus' disciples, and of them being seen by the world to the end that the Father is glorified (v. 16); and then after Jesus' negation in v. 17, He goes on in vv. 18-19 to teach moral continuity in the strongest possible terms!: "For 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. 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." And as if Jesus hadn't been emphatic enough already, He concludes the introduction to the antitheses with the charge of keeping the Law better than the scribes and Pharisees, on pain of failing to enter the kingdom of heaven at all (v. 20) (and while it could be argued that this wouldn't be all that difficult since the scribes and Pharisees did not truly keep the heart of the Law but rather manifested merely external obedience and adherence to often contra-biblical rabbinic traditions, the point remains that Jesus' charge is to be Torah-observant better than these, not to be non-Torah-observant). Continuity is the emphasis.


We need to say more about the introductory verses, though, because in recent years, interpreters from a HP perspective, and possibly others, have attempted to interpret v. 18 in very strange ways. For example, HPers like to assert that Jesus is simply teaching that all of Torah, including the ceremonial law, is to be observed "until all is accomplished" and "until heaven and earth pass away," reading these as referring to either Jesus' death (cf. with "It is finished" in Jn. 19:30), or the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, or both. Once the MC passes away theologically at the cross, and the "heaven and earth" of OT Israel passes away historically in AD 70 as a national covenant entity in covenant with God (with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple), there is no longer Torah observance in any sense at all for HPers. Ironically, some DTers and NCTers--no friends of HP--have followed similar lines of thought with regard to the Torah part of this argument, even if they disagree with the "heaven and earth" passing away in AD 70 idea.

In response, I would say that while there is an element of truth to the idea of the MC passing away theologically at the cross (such that the ceremonial laws in their original form, as well as the MC as a covenant, passed away, as in Eph. 2:15-16), and from an OP perspective, there is some truth in the idea of OT Israel being capitally punished as the unfaithful bride of God in AD 70, the overall HP view of this passage is defective. We must insist again that Jesus' negation in v. 17 is not relative, as the surrounding context demonstrates. We must also notice that it is not only the "Law" which is not abolished, but neither are the Prophets. And for most HPers, while all OT and NT prophecies are viewed as definitively fulfilled by AD 70, there is still infinite, ongoing fulfillment of some kind as more people are born and more and more of them are joined to Christ in a very ethereal, spiritual understanding of His NC. Therefore even for them, it can never really be said that the Prophets are abolished, even if they find a way to say that the MC is totally abolished in every sense. But if you have the Prophets fulfilled rather than abolished, you must also have the Law fulfilled and not abolished according to this passage. This is because the comments in v. 18 about the smallest strokes not "passing from the Law" (being abolished?!) cannot be abstracted from Jesus' negation about the abolishment of the "Law or the Prophets" in the preceding verse.

Moreover, can it truly be said that Jesus' advocacy of "righteousness" in a rather general and comprehensive-sounding way (vv. 16, 20) should be understood as unrelated or irrelevant to post-AD 70 Christian living? Obviously not, yet in this passage, "righteousness" in general is bound up explicitly with Torah observance. Of course the way in which many things in the Law are observed in the NC is different than when the Law covenant as such was in effect. But the point of the continuity of moral norms seems to stand. Unless we want to say that our righteousness should not still surpass the scribes and Pharisees in the eschaton--whatever the "eschaton" precisely means in one's theology--we cannot understand "until heaven and earth pass away" as any kind of specific eschatological reference at all. Jesus seems to simply be using the phrase as a rhetorical device for strong emphasis here (although He may not always do so; but compare Lk. 16:17 as a clear example of a rhetorical use with Matt. 24:35-36 as an arguable example of a more literal use [and yes, I take and think I can defend the topical transition view of Matt. 24]).

So far, we have discussed views of Matt. 5:17-48 which assert: 1) NCT: "fulfill" means "eschatologically fulfill such that there is significant discontinuity of moral norms between the MC and the NC;" 2) HP: not necessarily mutually exclusive with aspects of '1', the Law actually is abolished and all things accomplished by the cross/AD 70 such that there is no sense of Torah observance for Christians today whatsoever; 3) CCT: Jesus' "fulfillment" of the Law and Prophets, whatever it involves, does not result in a change of moral law from MC to NC; rather, the antitheses simply constitute a Messianic correction of Pharisaical distortion of the Law, traditional rabbinic legalism, and the like.


'3' in the preceding paragraph seems lacking so far, though. This is because we have mostly only talked about it in negative terms up to this point--there is not a change of moral law. But what does the "fulfillment" mean, positively? We can turn to one of the most vocal advocates of TCT from the 20th century for one possible answer. And actually, we have already stated it. Greg Bahnsen, a Reconstructionist, theonomist, and vocal Reformed apologist of the 20th century, interpreted plēroō in Matt. 5:17 not as "eschatologically fulfill" but rather as "confirm." In his writings advocating theonomy (belief that even the principles of the civil codes under the MC should apply to the state today), he argues extensively that the context of the passage--which he, as a TCT subset of CCTers, sees as correction of Pharisaical distortions--demonstrates that the primary if not exclusive meaning of "fulfill" at least in this passage has to do with "confirming" the moral norms of the MC as continuing, valid, and authoritative for NC Christians.

In response to critics who point out that no lexicon or NT Greek dictionary points out "confirm" as a primary or even slightly common meaning of plēroō, Bahnsen defends himself by explaining that his definition is a precising definition, not meant to deny the legitimate, more general definition of "to fill up," "to render full," "to carry into effect," "to bring to realization," etc., but rather to specify a more narrow sense in which Jesus is recorded as using the term.

What shall we say about Bahnsen's view? The traditional CCT view contains nothing which would conflict with an understanding of plēroō as "confirm;" indeed, "confirm" does fit well with the traditional view of the antitheses which sees them as correction of Pharisaical distortions. However, while Bahnsen's "precising" definition and exegesis was perhaps effective as a programmatic, polemical response to neo-antinomians against whom he was arguing in his historical context, is "confirmation of moral norms" really all Jesus meant by fulfilling the Prophets? It seems extremely reductionistic, if one valid aspect of NC fulfillment.


If the entire OT spoke of Jesus and His coming Messianic mission (Lk. 24:44, et al), what it means that Jesus "fulfills" the Law and Prophets is necessarily extremely multi-faceted, even if a single passage of the NT doesn't spell out every detail. It would take time and space, but not great effort, to show, for example, that Jesus fulfills the Law and Prophets by: 1) Obeying the Law as the Last Adam on behalf of His covenant people, as the finally faithful and true human "son of God" and "Israelite;" 2) Suffering the curse and penal sanctions of the Law as a vicarious sacrifice for His covenant people, fulfilling all that the MC sacrificial system pointed forward to, and hence in a sense abolishing the ceremonial parts of the Law (this is an aspect of truth found also in DT and HP systems); 3) Acting as the ultimate High Priest of His people not only in His self-sacrifice but also in His constant intercession at the Father's right hand; 4) Acting as the ultimate Davidic King over the whole world, subject only to the Father; 5) Acting as the eschatological Prophet and indeed embodying the ultimate prophetic "Word" of God (Heb. 1:1-2)--which role would be the best to see as related to Bahnsen's idea of fulfillment as "confirming/correcting distortions of the Law;" 6) Becoming a light to the Gentiles such that the nations, as a whole, would come to join the covenant people of God through faith in the Messiah, worship and be taught of Yahweh, the God of Israel, and adopt the OT Scriptures as their own; and most relevant for the conclusion of this article, 7) Bringing about the NC reality of faithful, heartfelt Law-observance in the covenant people!

This last aspect of Messianic fulfillment is most evident in the only OT passage that explicitly uses the terminology of "new covenant," namely, Jeremiah 31. In vv. 31-33, we read, "'Behold, 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. 'But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,' declares the LORD, 'I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.'" The NC was purchased by Jesus' blood (Lk. 22:20), was already a present reality in the first century according to the author of Hebrews (Heb. 8; although there is greater fulfillment of it still to come in the eschatological conversion of the majority of ethnic Jews to Christ [Rom. 11]), and it benefits Gentiles as well as Jews (see Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, writing in the first person in 2 Cor. 3:6). And one of the central blessings of the NC, according to Jer. 31 and related passages like Jer. 32:38-40 and Ez. 36:26-27, is the reversal of the general situation of unfaithfulness under the MC: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit such that the covenant people as a whole (rather than a mere, small remnant of the visible covenant community) are finally faithful to God's Law. What divine law-norms are in view here, exactly? Obviously, it is the only Law the readers of Jer. 31 would have been familiar with--the moral norms of the MC. They are not abolished under the NC but rather realized and finally faithfully obeyed by the covenant people! Indeed, there is a sense in which even the ceremonial and sacrificial laws are observed by Christians today in a spiritual sense (cf. the language of Rom. 12:1). Moreover, even non-theonomists must articulate some kind of contemporary application of the Mosaic civil code, even if only for the institution of the church (cf. 1 Cor. 9:9 and 1 Tim. 5:18)!


1) "To eschatologically fulfill" is an excellent and strongly Matthean, if broad, interpretation of plēroō in Matt. 5:17. It needs unpacking, and the NCT way of doing so needs biblical correction, but the definition itself is an accurate and necessarily broad summary. 2) "To confirm" is a legitimate and included idea, but by itself is reductionistic and too narrow, even for the particular concerns of the passage. 3) It is true that the MC is abolished by Christ's death insofar as the old covenant as such and the sacrificial law and ceremonial holiness code do not apply to NC believers in the same way they did to OT believers. 4) In the sense intended by Jesus in the passage, however, neither the Law nor the Prophets are ever abolished, but rather eschatologically fulfilled in Jesus' person and work as the Messiah. 5) One meaning and result of this "eschatological fulfillment," particularly of the Prophets, is not a covenantal change of moral norms, but rather the NC people's observance of them.

"Walking according to the Spirit" (Rom. 8:4) rather than living by the "letters" of the Law "engraved on stones" (2 Cor. 3:6-8) refers to NC Spirit-empowered obedience to the moral norms of the Law without the ceremonial and animal-sacrifice trappings of the MC; it does not refer to NC lawlessness or some alleged radical change of moral norms for NC believers. In fact, Romans 8:4 mentions the "requirement of the Law...fulfilled (plēroō!) in us, who...walk...according to the Spirit." Paul generally uses plēroō differently from Matthew, admittedly, but the strongly redemptive-historical semantics of Romans 7 and 8 may legitimize a linguistic connection here nevertheless.

Of course there is some discontinuity even in the Reformed CCT position, and even in CCTers' contemporary application of moral norms, as evidenced by the first-day observance of the Sabbath rather than seventh-day observance (because of the resurrection of Christ as the beginning of New Creation, etc.). But the strong emphasis of Matt. 5:17-48 and its Messianic-prophetic background with regard to Law-observance, is definitely continuity, and there's nothing non-eschatological about that. It is, in fact, fundamentally eschatological, fulfilling the Prophets' expectation of a faithful and obedient covenant people in the "last days" of the Messiah/inauguration of the NC.


Anonymous said...

Does the moral law of the MC include its teachings on divorce? In Mt. 5:31-32 Jesus says not to divorce, and contrasts this to Deut. 24:1. Does it include teachings on swearing oaths? In Mt. 5:33-37 Jesus says not to swear at all, and contrasts this to passages like Lev. 19:12 and Deut. 23:21. Does it include teachings on revenge? In Mt. 5:38-42 Jesus says no revenge, and contrasts this to passages like Ex. 21:24, Lev. 24:20, and Deut. 19:21. And does it include teachings on hating enemies? In Mt. 5:43-48 Jesus says no hating enemies, and contrasts this to passages like Ex. 23:27-33, Lev. 26:7-8, and Deut. 20:1-20. I think Jesus' fulfillment of those laws is about morality--and a new righteousness--and this should help us properly interpret Mt. 5:17-20.

S. T. said...

Thanks for your comment but Im not convinced. As I acknowledged in the explanation of the NCT view, Jesus does quote portions of Scripture before each of His antitheses. However, that His antitheses are correcting common, distorted applications of the Law rather than changing the Law itself is shown by 1) the intro in vv 17-20, 2) the verses before that (which all stress moral continuity), 3) NC prophecies like Jer 31:31-34 which speaks of the Law written on the NC people's hearts, 4) Paul's frequent appeal to the Decalogue in his epistles, 5) the OT itself prohibited lust not just adultery, as well as lying altogether rather than just swearing falsely on this or that (which is the Rabbinic issue behind the oaths antithesis, 6) Jesus continues the OT prohibition of divorce with the exception of unfaithfulness, even if the exception isn't listed in every passage about divorce in the gospels, 7) Jesus' antithesis about retaliation addresses the misuse of the lex talionis; it was never meant to govern interpersonal relationships (mercy should) but rather the state and judicial courts (as it still should today). Our righteousness should exceed the scribes' and Pharisees' still today, and that righteousness is explicitly bound up with the Law according to Matthew 5.