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The Life of Jesus - Series 4: Episode 4

Jesus fulfils the OT Law & Prophets

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 5:17-20

Jesus fulfils the God-given Law of the Old Testament but not the man-made laws added. He fulfils the Law by being obedient to it, fulfilling Old Testament prophecies and by bringing in the New Covenant.

Jesus fulfils the God-given Law of the Old Testament but not the man-made laws added. He fulfils the Law by being obedient to it, fulfilling Old Testament prophecies and by bringing in the New Covenant.


Hello and welcome to Series 4 Episode 4. This is entitled ‘Jesus Fulfils the Old Testament Law and Prophets.’ We're in Matthew 5: 17 - 20, which is a really important passage to explain Jesus' relationship with the Old Testament, with prophecy, the Law and how the New Covenant and the Sermon on the Mount are different from the Old Testament Law.

Introduction and Recap

We're well into the Sermon on the Mount now. I hope you've read the earlier episodes which will help you understand how this teaching is developing. Let's quickly summarise a few things as we start: we've moved with the Sermon on the Mount, dramatically away from the narrative story of Jesus performing many miracles and having a very popular ministry around Galilee with thousands of people coming to hear him and see him and be healed by him. We've moved to a much greater focus on the formation of his discipleship community, which will eventually be the Church. Just prior to the Sermon on the Mount, Luke 6 tells us in his account, that the twelve Apostles have been appointed amongst the wider discipleship group and, as soon as that happened, Jesus started teaching them and explaining what Kingdom lifestyle, as his disciples, was going to be like.

We started with Luke's Blessings and Woes, in Luke 6, in which Jesus already warned people that opposition and persecution - with real difficulties attached - was likely to happen to them and that they would be blessed despite the difficulties they might face. Then we looked at Matthew's introduction to the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes and at the inner attitudes of Christian disciples that Jesus is seeking. In the last episode, we looked at two very vivid images Jesus uses of his disciples and of the Church: one is salt on the ground, on the earth, and one is light for the world - light for the community, for society around us. Jesus positively indicated there that if we live godly, moral Christian lives, full of integrity and the right attitude inside us, then we're going to be influential as Christians in the society around us. We're going to be like salt that fertilises the earth and disinfects the manure heap - as Jesus explained in Luke 14: 34 and 35, when he explained that metaphor - and also we're going to be like light, bringing light to people in darkness, following Jesus and pointing to Jesus who is the Light of the World.These are the things that have been taught by Jesus in the early sections of the Sermon on the Mount.

Religious Context

 We now come to a rather different but very important section which explains what is distinct and new about the Sermon on the Mount and the Christian discipleship community that Jesus is seeking to form at this time. The context is very important to understand before we look at the text, so let's think about that for a moment. You will remember, if you've read Series 3 particularly, that as Jesus' popularity increased there was one group of people who were very uneasy and became directly hostile and that was the Jewish religious leadership and establishment. This included the priests, who served in the Temple and particular religious groups, like the Pharisees, who were very intense, serious-minded observers of the Jewish Law. It also included the council, the ruling council, known as the Sanhedrin, which ruled over the Jewish religion at the time. They were becoming hostile and there are a number of incidents in Series 3 which illustrated this hostility as they observed what Jesus did - as they heard about the miracles he performed and the claims he made. There were many things that made them feel they wanted to get rid of him. There is a conflict already emerging in these early stages in the Gospel narrative. The Pharisees, who were a very serious-minded group of people, had a particular concern about Jesus - and many of the other Teachers of the Law and rabbis as well. They are the subject of this particular discussion in terms of Jesus making a comparison between them and his own followers.

The Pharisees were very keen to give an example to all the ordinary Jewish people of how the Law of Moses should be obeyed. They had a high reputation. There were several thousands of them and they were scattered all over the country. They were admired and feared and were strict in their interpretation of the Law of Moses - so they went through all the over 600 laws that are recorded in the Old Testament and they looked very carefully at how they should be applied. They (and others like them) had developed over the years their own traditions, their own rules, their own man-made religious rules, of which there were hundreds, and these rules were designed to provide an answer for what a man or woman might do in any particular situation. Over time they became more and more detailed. They were added on top of the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses was given by God - it is the inspired will of God for the Jewish people of the time and Jesus acknowledged that very clearly - but all these man-made rules were not given by God; they were created by the religious leadership of Judaism over hundreds of years. The Pharisees were a leading exponent of that way of thinking; they were quick to get out the rule book and they were also quick to criticise people who they felt were not serious enough about their religion.

We've seen examples of this already. For example, in Matthew 9 when Matthew is called by Jesus, he holds a feast in his house. Tax collectors and sinners are gathered (a really irreligious group of people) and Jesus is having a meal with them, with his disciples. The Pharisees immediately say, “Well, he shouldn't really be associating with these people. Why is he spending time with these people; they're not at all serious about religion?” They were quick to criticise and one of the criticisms that was developing was that Jesus was not obeying the Law of Moses. There had already been a dispute, which we looked at in Series 3 on several occasions, about the law to do with the Sabbath (the fourth commandment of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) where the Jews had to rest from their work on the Sabbath day. There had been some disputes about whether Jesus was encouraging people to disobey the Sabbath law and was doing it himself - by healing on the Sabbath, for example. They were already criticising Jesus concerning his approach to the Law of Moses.

The Old Testament is Important

It's at this point that Jesus definitively answers that criticism and explains the significance of what he is doing. Let's read this short but highly significant passage so that we can understand what Jesus is saying. So, Matthew 5:17 - 20,

‘“17Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”’

Matthew 5:17-20, NIV

Christians have sometimes struggled to understand how to interpret this passage but, as we go through it verse by verse, I think you'll find that there is a clear and simple interpretation open to us which really helps us to understand the issues that we are looking at today. Verse 17: ‘“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”’ The ‘law and the prophets’ is an expression which describes the Old Testament as a whole, with a particular emphasis on the Law of Moses in this context, but it's a reference to the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus said, “I am not abolishing any of that, I'm not overthrowing any of that but what I am doing is I'm fulfilling it.” The Old Testament is still important; it's still helpful for us, but he's fulfilling it. In other words, he is bringing it to it's destined purpose. He's bringing it to a conclusion. He's bringing it to the place where it finds its fullest meaning. It hasn't yet found its fullest meaning until Jesus comes and so that's why he goes on to say that ‘“not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law.”’ He's not wiping it out or abolishing it and that's why the Old Testament is in our Bibles and why Christians respect the Old Testament and read it and find it very helpful.

New Commands

He goes on to clarify that what is happening is that he's setting up his own commands which become the centre of Christian discipleship, rather than the Law of Moses, because what we find is that Jesus is actually going to fulfil the Law of Moses and something different is coming into place. Verses 19 and 20 are very important:

‘“Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”’

Matthew 5:19, NIV

What are ‘these commands’? That's critical to interpreting this passage. ‘These commands’ doesn't refer, as such, to the Ten Commandments or the Law of Moses - it refers to the commands that Jesus is just about to teach in the subsequent passages - where he takes a commandment from the Old Testament (and some other popular sayings, but particularly the commandments from the Old Testament) and he reinterprets them. He's saying that these commandments are very important and we must follow them.

He concludes,

‘“I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”’

Matthew 5:20, NIV

Even though they were very religious and they had the Law of Moses plus hundreds of their own laws, which they were following very carefully day by day, he said, interestingly enough, “They're not going to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” This outward obedience to many religious laws, is not enough to enter the Kingdom that Jesus is bringing about. That is because the entry to that Kingdom is not by outward religious duties, religiosity and moral life - it's by faith in Jesus, who died for us and makes a way of forgiveness and gives us a new life. It's by way of repentance, turning away from our old life, trusting Jesus, receiving the Holy Spirit and living a new life from within. Even the most religious people of his day were not going to be able to enter into the Kingdom of God; the entry point was not through human effort and religious achievement, it was through faith in Jesus. That's clear from the start to the finish of the Gospels and it becomes clear in Acts and the Epistles as well: faith in Jesus. In other words, we don't bring anything to our salvation, we don't bring any merit, we don't bring any good works, we don't bring any religious duties - they won't be enough. They weren't enough for the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law at that time and they aren't enough today and, if you're trying to do that, then it won't work and it won't happen. There's another way - which is faith in Jesus. Jesus is basically saying, “Don't trust in religious laws to bring you to salvation. Trust in me, but also my commands. My commands are deeper - require deeper obedience - than all the hundreds of commands.” His commands are very few - theirs were hundreds - but they're deeper and we're going to find that out in the next section. For example, where it says ‘Do not murder’ - as we're going to study in the next episode - Jesus said, “It's not just about the action of murder, it's about the attitude of anger.”

Can you see what's happening? He's deepening all the commands; he's saying, “Religious commands aren't enough to get you into the Kingdom of Heaven but, if you follow me, the entry into my Kingdom will be by faith but the way you live your life will have a deeper moral foundation and transforming effect on you, than all the religion that the Pharisees and those other Teachers of the Law can put together.” That's a very powerful message and he's defending himself by saying, “Look, I'm not abolishing the Law of Moses but I'm replacing it with something even deeper” - through the Sermon on the Mount and other teaching - “and I'm fulfilling it” - in a number of different ways.

Jesus is resisting the claim that if you follow him you won't care about morals, you won't care about religious duties, you're just free to do whatever you like - you just believe in him and do whatever you like. Jesus is saying, “No, quite to the contrary. If you believe in me you'll be changed from within and you'll be more moral and you will be more godly than the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law could ever be through their hundreds and hundreds of rules and the system of legalism” - depending on rules for salvation. Jesus goes down a completely different route; that's not the way of salvation in the New Testament.

How Jesus Fulfils the Law and Prophets

That brings us to the question that we need to understand more deeply: how does Jesus fulfil the law and the prophets? I want to suggest to you three different ways in which we can express this fulfilment and they're all important. In order to understand these, we'll draw upon a few other scriptures in different parts of the New Testament to help us on this journey. How does Jesus fulfil the Old Testament law and prophets? Number one, he fulfils the Old Testament law and prophets by fulfilling Messianic prophecy. He is actually the fulfilment of the key prophetic themes of the Old Testament - particularly in the books of the prophets of the Old Testament. We've already seen some examples of that. For example, he fulfils Isaiah's prophecies about the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 42, 49, Isaiah 50, Isaiah 52, 53 and Isaiah 61. I have described this twice already, in two different contexts. For example, in Luke 4 we have the Nazareth manifesto, where Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61 and he says that Scripture is being fulfilled at that very time. In Matthew 12, Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 42 concerning the Servant of the Lord - this is the passage in Matthew 12: 15 - 21. Another one, for example, Jesus' birth - Matthew 1: 22, 23 - the virgin birth 

22All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”)’

Matthew 1:22-23, NIV

quoting from Isaiah 7:14. There are numerous other examples. These are just one or two that come to mind. Jesus fulfils prophecy concerning the coming Messiah; he fulfils Messianic prophecy.

Secondly, Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament law by perfect, sinless obedience. He was literally living under the Old Testament law. As he lived his earthly life until the point of his death he was, as Paul describes in Galatians 4: 4, ‘under the law.’ That law was the rule for his life and, astonishingly and uniquely, Jesus didn't break any of the Laws of Moses that applied to him - he didn't sin by doing so - and that is a remarkable reality. For example, if we're going to describe this, let's take a couple of statements from New Testament writers later on: 2 Corinthians 5: 21,

‘God made him (Jesus) who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’

2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV

Notice there Paul says, ‘God made him who had no sin,’ so he hadn't sinned at all in his life - that meant he obeyed the Law perfectly. Let's take Hebrews 5: 8 and 9

‘(Even) though he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered 9and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.’

Hebrews 5:8-9, NIV

He learned obedience from what he suffered and was made perfect. He learned obedience through the suffering of life and death and he obeyed everything that he needed to obey. How did Jesus fulfil the law and the prophets? Not only by fulfilling prophecies about the Messiah, but he also fulfilled the Old Testament law by perfect obedience to that law.

Thirdly, he fulfilled the Old Testament law and prophets by bringing in the New Covenant. In Jeremiah 31: 31 - 34, it prophesies a New Covenant and Jesus brought in that New Covenant. Paul makes very clear in Romans 3: 21 to 26, which I'm going to read now as a key passage how the New Covenant came about through Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross and how he replaced the Old Testament law but fulfilled the law and the prophets. Here's a very clear statement of this reality, Romans 3: 21:

21But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26he did (this) to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.’

Romans 3:21-26, NIV

Notice verse 25, God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement through the shedding of his blood. This is the once for all, complete sacrifice for sins that fulfils the Old Testament animal sacrifice system which is now no longer necessary. Hebrews 8 tells us very clearly that the Mosaic Covenant is becoming obsolete and is fading away because a New Covenant has been brought about. Everything is reaching its fulfilment and Christ fulfils the Old Testament law. Romans 10: 4, ‘Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.’ He didn't abolish anything, he fulfilled it; he moved it on to the next level, and in doing so he didn't start a religion where people could have faith and do whatever they liked - just live a very selfish and ungodly life, as he was being accused of at that time, breaking the Law of Moses and disrespecting the Old Testament, the Law and the prophets. Jesus said, “No. I'm not abolishing them, I'm fulfilling them and bringing them to their goal, their culmination, and their final purpose by introducing the New Covenant.”

He then makes the point that the people who follow him will live deeper, more godly, more spiritual, more moral lives than even the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law - the most intensely religious Jews of that age, with hundreds and hundreds of rules and regulations to guide them. Jesus said that his disciples would have a righteousness that exceeded that of those religious leaders. He's going to go on, in the next sections of the Sermon on the Mount (which we'll follow through in the episodes that come after this one) to put some detail on this and give some strategic, challenging and exciting examples of how disciples of Jesus should live their lives.


What are my final reflections as we draw this episode to a conclusion? First of all, our attitude to the Old Testament is one of great respect: Jesus didn't abolish it, he fulfilled it. We should see it as the story that leads to Jesus. It's pointing in the direction of Jesus all the time, and we should know (and it's taught elsewhere in the New Testament, explicitly) that the Old Testament Law of Moses does not apply to Christians today unless a particular law is reapplied in the New Testament writings - either through Jesus or through the Apostles. We're going to see some examples of that coming up in the subsequent episodes. If there's a law in the New Testament that is exactly reproducing what's in the Old Testament Law of Moses, then it becomes a law for us and it becomes a law for us because it appears in the New Testament. Apart from that, the Law of Moses was a covenant between Israel and God in the time before Jesus came and that covenant has been brought to conclusion: it's done its work, its fulfilled its purpose, Christ has come, a New Covenant has been instituted.

What we can learn from this passage, also, is that discipleship is a serious business. Jesus asked us to give our whole lives to him and to change our lives in order to follow his ways more closely - and there'll be a number of very specific examples of that that we'll discuss in the episodes that immediately follow this one, where particular areas of human behaviour are looked at quite closely. In conclusion, we must never separate the Sermon on the Mount from the fundamental reality that it's based on Jesus dying for us on the cross, being raised again, making a sacrifice for us, making atonement for us, giving us new life and giving us the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit within us, is the energy and the power that enables us to live the life of the Sermon on the Mount in all integrity and to be fruitful in our lives as a result of doing so. We'll discuss some more details of how that works out in the episodes that follow.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. ‘We don't bring anything to our salvation; we don't bring any merit; we don't bring any good works; we don't bring any religious duties - they won't be enough.’ What does this mean?
  • Discipleship
    1. What is your attitude towards the Old Testament? How important is the Old Testament?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. What are the differences between Judaism and Christianity regarding religious laws?
    2. Use tagging to discover more about the Pharisees and their conflict with Jesus.
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