Well-meaning Christians at times speak of “law and grace” as opposite ways of salvation, as if the the Old Testament and the New Testament were opposed to one another. This viewpoint results from thinking of the law of Moses as legalism rather than God’s gracious instruction for Israel. Thinking of the OT law as legalism typically comes from misunderstanding Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians. This approach leads to a misunderstanding of the Gospels, especially Matthew. One person put it this way: “Did Jesus preach Paul’s gospel?” The more I reflect on that question, the more upside-down it seems. But the notion that Jesus and Paul were at loggerheads comes from the more basic error that the teaching of Jesus contradicted the Torah (instruction) of Moses.
Anyone who thinks that the New Testament is at odds with the Old Testament, that Jesus’ message contradicted Moses’ message, has to deal with Matthew 5:17-48, where Jesus strongly prohibited that very thought, let alone that teaching. In this post we want to get a better understanding of how Jesus understood the Old Testament and his relationship to it. That should impact our own Bible reading today, and our understanding of the relationship of Christians to the Old Testament law. You’ll notice in these verses that Jesus forbids us to think that he has done away with the OT. Rather he said he had come has come to fulfill it. We’ll talk through what “fulfillment” means and how that impacts our Bible reading and Christian life.
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For an unedited Zoom teaching video on Matthew 5:17-48, go here.
Previous Studies of the Sermon on the Mount:
The Sermon.1: Vista (Introduction and Overview)
The Sermon.2: The World Upside Down (The Beatitudes)
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The Flow of Matthew 5:17-48
Matthew 5:17-48 is a large chunk of the Sermon on the Mount. Biting it off, chewing, and digesting it all at once is aided when we understand its logical flow. It’s about how Jesus understood his mission in relationship to Moses and the Old Testament. First there is the general principle—Jesus came to fulfill Moses and the prophets, not to annul them (5:17). He affirms that even their most minute details will not pass away (5:18), and then warns that greatness in his eyes is a matter of obeying and teaching these details in a way that is superior to Israel’s current legal experts’ approach (5:19-20).
Jesus then gives six specific examples that unpack how he fulfills Moses, and what he means by a righteousness that is superior to that of Israel’s legal experts.(5:21-48). Each of these six examples begins with the repeated phrase you have hard that it was said in 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43, followed by rather I say to you, which introduces Jesus’ teaching. This formula sets Jesus’ teaching apart from the typical way Moses was understood in Jesus’ day.
What is Fulfillment?
“Fulfillment” is an important concept in the Gospels in general, and it is especially crucial for our understanding of Matthew’s teaching about Jesus and Moses. We can’t go into details here, but you can study fulfillment in Matthew by going here and inserting the word “fulfill” in the search box. To summarize, in Matthew Jesus completes the entire Old Testament, its history, laws, and promises. He fills the Old Testament up to its fullest significance by:
- correctly teaching and obeying its laws (ethics). By his words and deeds Jesus embodies and actualizes the moral requirements of the Old Testament. This idea is prominent in Matthew 3:15, where Jesus tells John the Baptist that his baptism is necessary “to fulfill all righteousness.” Actualizing Moses’ instructions is obviously at the heart of Jesus’ mission in Matthew 5:17-20. Saint Paul spoke similarly of love as the fulfillment or actualization of the Torah in Romans 13:8-10.
- fully accomplishing its promises, (prophecy). All the prophetic promises of the Old Testament come to fruition in Jesus the messianic Son of David, whose birth (Matt 2:5-7->Mic 5:2), ministry (Matt 4:12-17->Isa Isa 9:1; Matt 12:15-21->Isa 42:1-4), death (Matt 26:31, 54-56->Zech 13:7), and coming (Matt 26:63-64->Dan 7:13-14) were foretold by the prophets. Many promises have already been accomplished by Jesus, and there is so much more to come!
- intentionally completing its patterns (history). The history of Israel is recapitulated by Jesus—he places his feet in the footprints left in the sand by the God of Israel. Matthew’s genealogy, with its three sets of fourteen generations, presents Jesus as the culmination of Israel’s history (Matt 1:2-17). The holy family’s return to Israel from Egypt is seen as revisiting Israel’s historic exodus from Egypt in Matthew 2:15->Hosea 11:1. And there are many more example of such “typology” in Matthew. Much of it has to do with Jesus and Moses.
Jesus and Moses in Matthew
Many Bible teachers (e.g. here and here) have pointed out that Matthew presents Jesus as a new Moses, one who restores the nation of Israel to its covenant relationship with God. Matthew’s teaching flows from Deuteronomy 18:15-20, where Moses promises that God will raise up a prophet like him, a teacher whom Israel must obey or suffer grave consequences. It is likely that the words from heaven at Jesus’ transfiguration “Listen to him!” (Matt 17:5) are intended as an echo of Deuteronomy 18:15. All the prophets of Israel are encompassed in this promise which culminates in Jesus, the prophet-like-Moses who actualizes the law by his life and teaching.
The very patterns of Jesus’ ministry recall the ministry of Moses. Among the more obvious parallels are attempted murder by an evil king (Exod 1:15-2:10; Matt 2:1-18), a journey out of Egypt (Exod 4:22-23; Hos 11:1; Matt 2:15), a 40-day fast (Deut 9:9, 18; Matt 4:2), miraculous feedings (Exod 16; Matt 14:13-21; 15:32-39), and the blood of the covenant (Exod 24:8; Matt 26:28). The table below shows more of the remarkable instances of correspondence between Jesus and Moses.
Typology is not a matter of allegorizing the biblical text to extract superficial coincidences from trivial details. Typpology is a matter of clear historical correspondences that show the providence of God and the progress of God’s revelation. The Old Testament antitype is a historical person (e.g. David or Moses), institution (e.g. the tabernacle and priesthood), or event (e.g. the Exodus and wilderness wandering). Potential parallels or correspondence between the testaments must be validated by careful study of the historical and literary contexts of the passages, demonstrating an organic connection based on God’s providential design. Most importantly the type must escalate and deepen the antitype. The type is greater than the antitype. In the case of Jesus and Moses, it is not a matter of demeaning Moses in order to aggrandize Jesus. Moses was a uniquely gifted and great man of God who led Israel’s redemption from Egypt, gave Israel divine revelation and instruction, and prepared the nation for the promised land (Deut 34:9-12; Heb 11:24-28). Jesus was the Son of God who redeemed people from all nations, inaugurated the new covenant, and began the fulfillment of all God’s promises. As the final law-giver whose life and teaching perfectly exemplified God’s law, Jesus is greater than the initial law-giver Moses, whose disobedience led to his death before Israel entered the promised land (Num 20:2-13; Deut 32:48-52). The author of Hebrews put it like this:
Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest. He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything. “Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house,” [Num 12:7] bearing witness to what would be spoken by God in the future. But Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house. And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory. (Hebrews 3:1-6 NIV)
“It was said . . . and yet I say . . . :” Antitheses?
Jesus’ six examples in Matthew 5:21-48 illustrate what he meant when he said he had come to fulfill the Old Testament, and they point us to a righteousness superior to that of the Pharisees. Bible teachers commonly yet mistakenly describe these examples as antitheses. But antitheses are two opposing statements—an antithesis is contrary to a thesis. If that were the case in Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus would be saying the opposite of the Bible. For example, the antithesis of the sixth commandment—”you must not murder” (Matt 5:21->Exod 20:13; Deut 5:17)—is “you must murder.” How absurd! That would mean Jesus came to annul the law, not fulfill it.
Jesus is not countering Moses in Matthew 5:21-48—he is clarifying Moses. If anything, Jesus’ teaching amounts to epitheses which get the law right and counter the traditional interpretation of Moses that his audience has heard from the scribes and Pharisees. As the one who came to fulfill the law and prophets, Jesus’ interpretation of Moses is not just a correct interpretation, it is the ultimate interpretation, one backed up by Jesus righteous performance of the Torah’s requirements. No other interpretation is needed once Jesus has spoken and acted. Bible teachers commonly say that Jesus is deepening, intensifying, or internalizing the law of Moses. No doubt Jesus does intensify the traditional pharisaic understanding of Moses (cf. Matt 15:1-20; 19:3-12), but he does so simply by drawing out the meaning that God communicated through Moses originally. And yet Jesus does more than reaffirm or “ditto” Moses—he performs and teaches the Torah in a way that brings it to its ultimate goal.
Jesus aligns himself with Moses and the prophets against the Pharisees by stressing the heart as the source of outward behavior, much as the tenth commandment forbids coveting one’s neighbor’s property, not just stealing it (Exod. 20:17). As coveting is the root of theft, so anger is the root of murder, lust is the root of idolatry, and so on. Jesus stresses that purity is first a matter of the heart (Matt 5:8, echoing Ps 24:3-4; Matt 15:1-20, citing Isa 29:13). Forgiveness of a sinning brother must be from the heart Matt 18:35). Jesus was not opposed to the Pharisees wearing phylacteries and fringes ((Matt 23:5; Deut 6:8; 11:18; Num 15:37-41); he opposed their inner motivation to be seen by others as holy. Jesus did not oppose the Pharisees tithing their garden herbs; he opposed their neglect of the weightier matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matt 23:23-24; Lev 27:30-33; Deut 14:22; Mic 6:8; Zech 7:9). Jesus’ consistent emphasis on the heart is not new; it is firmly rooted in the Old Testament:
- Genesis 6:5; 8:21 identifies the heart as the source of the sinfulness that led to the judgment of the flood. In Deuteronomy we find the heart of the entire Old Testament, the Shema (pronounced Sh’ma), which affirms that the Lord alone is Israel’s God, and that Israel must keep covenant with their God through whole-hearted love. Moses told Israel that their hearts and their ears should be circumcized so that they truly could obey God (Deut 10:16; 30:6). Leviticus 19:17 forbids hating one’s brother in one’s heart as the corollary to 19:18 commanding loving one’s neighbor as oneself.
- The Old Testament historical books also stress the importance of the heart in texts like 1 Samuel 7:3, 12:24, and 16:7: the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.
- By my count 74 of the 150 Psalms speak of the heart. The psalmist stressed the importance of the heart in texts like Psalm 51:10 and 139:23 (Search me o God and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts.). The heart is mentioned in 29 of the 31 chapters of Proverbs. Proverbs 4:23 puts it in this way: Above all things guard your heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life.
- The biblical prophets continued the emphasis on the heart in texts like Jeremiah 4:4 and Joel 2:13: Tear your hearts, not your garments. Heart-repentance leads to an authentic relationship with God:
For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite. (Isa 57:15 ESV)
- Saint Paul extended the teaching of Jesus and the Old Testament on the circumcision of the heart in texts like Romans 2:25-29, Galatians 5:6; 6:15, Philippians 3:3, and Colossians 2:11.
Epitheses: Jesus exegetes Moses. Jesus’ six examples make it clear that the real meaning of the Torah was much more intense that the Pharisees realized:
- Anger is tantamount to murder (Matt 5:21-26).
- Lust is tantamount to adultery (Matt5:27-30).
- Divorce/remarriage is tantamount to adultery unless infidelity is involved (Matt 5:31-32; cf. 19:1-14).
- Swearing calculated oaths is tantamount to bearing false witness about God (Matt 5:33-37).
- Getting even is tantamount to denying God’s final judgment (Matt 5:38-42).
- Hating enemies is tantamount to paganism (Matt 5:43-48).
Jesus didn’t come to get rid of Moses and the law, but neither did he come just to reaffirm or “ditto” it. He came to explain to us what God originally intended when he gave Moses those two stone tablets on Mt. Sinai. That’s fulfillment, and these six examples go a long way to show us the heart of God for his people, and how his people are being transformed to be “perfect” (5:48), with a family resemblance to their heavenly Father, and a righteousness greater than the Pharisees.
A Greater Righteousness
The greater righteousness of which Jesus spoke was promised by the prophet Jeremiah, who spoke of the inauguration of a new covenant. Jeremiah’s vision was not of a time when the law of Moses would be superseded, but of a time when that law would be internalized by the work of the Spirit:
This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more. (Jer 31:33-34)
In Matthew 5:17-48 Jesus engages our hearts, not just our behavior, calling us to examine whether our religion is more than skin-deep. Our self-examination should go beyond our outward behavior to our innermost thoughts. We should not congratulate ourselves simply because we have not murdered, committed adultery, or stolen. We need to ask ourselves whether we have hated, lusted, or coveted—whether we have spontaneously willed the will of God from our hearts. This is the Torah, the moral instruction of Jesus, our law-giver and Lord.
As we examine our hearts and our deepest thoughts we commune with God, who searches us through his Word and his Spirit. We need to be prayerful students of the whole Bible. It never would have occurred to Jesus and his apostles to dismiss the Old Testament as inferior and legalistic. The same Paul who is misused by some to diminish the Old Testament actually taught repeatedly about its value for Christians. Paul told the Romans that the Old Testament was written to instruct and encourage Christians (Rom 15:4). He told the Corinthians that Israel’s wilderness wanderings were exemplary and instructive for their situation (1 Cor 10:1-13). He taught Timothy that the Old Testament was inspired and profitable for instruction and warning God’s people so that they would be equipped to do the will of God. (2 Tim 3:16-18).
As we open our hearts to the Word of God, the Spirit of God transforms us into the likeness of the Son of God, to the glory of the Father. Prayerful study of the Scripture should be done in community with others who share the commitment to a greater righteousness. Transformation from the inside out occurs as we share biblical insights and questions regarding the blessings and challenges of life with like-minded people who provide mutual care, encouragement, and accountability.
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Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matt 5:8->Ps 24:4)
Jerry Wittingen says
This was helpful to me as I now better understand the relationship between Jesus’s life and teaching and the Old Testament. It is tempting at times to think the O.T. is irrelevant to our faith and life. Your post clarifies the necessity of understanding and studying the whole Bible.
Tammy Erste says
Thank you for this post. It challenged me in ways unexpected. By explaining the OT Law and how Matthew connected Jesus as the perfect ‘fulfillment’ of that Law, you helped bridge the gap in my mind about what God means when telling us the real issue is our heart condition and how utterly impossible it is to change that condition ourselves. As I read, I kept thinking about this verse from Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”
I’m thankful for teachers like you who are faithful to the Scriptures as God used you and this post to shed His light on my own heart condition that I may see my true inner self in light of who He truly is. I now have a clearer understanding of my only hope for the day of salvation is to be found in Christ’s righteousness alone.
I concur with Jerry when he wrote, “your post clarifies the necessity of understanding and studying the Bible as a whole.”
I pray for wisdom and the prayer today of the psalmist, “Save, O Lord.” (Psalm 12:1) as I reflect and am utterly amazed at God’s unfailing love and promise towards answering that prayer through the giving of His precious Son’s blood and the pouring out of His Holy Spirit.
“And I WILL give you a new heart, and a new spirit I WILL put within you. And I WILL remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” Ezekiel 36:26 (emphasis mine)
The Glory is His alone. 🙌🧎♀️🤲🙏❤