The Relationship of Jesus to the Old Testament - Matthew 5:17-18

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As Jesus began His ministry, He began proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. He was calling people to repentance and to following Him. But as His influence grew so did the questions about His teaching. 

In the day of Jesus our Old Testament was their Scriptures. As the ministry of Jesus grew and people became familiar with His teaching questions began to arise about His views of the Old Testament Scriptures. Does He believe in the Scriptures? Is He teaching a Gospel apart from the Old Testament Law? Is He trying to abolish the Law or replace it?

It seems these were common questions during the days of Jesus’ ministry, and they are questions that are still common today. What is the relationship between Jesus and the Old Testament? If we have the New Testament is there any need for the Old Testament? How much, if any of it is needful for today? 

Jesus is Fulfillment of the Old Testament (5:17)

  • Do not think – The way Jesus begins this section tells us that He knows that people will be inclined to misunderstand His teaching.
  • The Law and the Prophets – When Jesus refers to the Law and the Prophets this is a reference to the whole of the Jewish Scriptures, what we know as the Old Testament.
  • Jesus did not come to abolish the Old Testament – Before He describes what His relationship to the Scriptures is, Jesus makes it clear what He is not doing: He has not come to abolish the Scriptures. His teaching is not a departure or a diminishing of the Old Testament.
  • Jesus came to fulfill the Old Testament
  • A radical claim – If Jesus had come out and said that He was seeking to abolish or do away with the Old Testament He would have been less controversial. If He denied the Old Testament He could have been written off as a heretic. Instead, Jesus says something far more radical; He claims to be the fulfillment of the Scriptures.
  • A repeated claim – This is a message that Jesus repeats over and over throughout His ministry. He leaves no room for misunderstanding – He states plainly that the Old Testament points to Him and fulfilled in Him (John 5:39-40; 45-46; Luke 24:25-27; 44-45).
  • How Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament?
  • Jesus fulfills the prophecies and promises of the Old Testament – Throughout the Old Testament there are predictive prophecies and promises that have clear and direct fulfilment in Jesus. In fact, Paul says that all promises of God find their yes in Christ. (Matthew 1:22-23; 2:23; 2 Corinthians 1:20).
  • Jesus fulfills the Law in His keeping of the Law – Part of the way Jesus fulfilled the Law was in His perfect keeping of the Law. He lived a perfect life, never violating the Law in any way.
  • Jesus fulfills the Law through His death and resurrection – Because Jesus lived a perfect life, He was able to fulfill all the requirements of the Law on behalf of sinners. In His death and resurrection Jesus became the perfect sacrifice and ultimate priest on behalf of His people (Hebrews 10:1; 11-14; 7:17-19; Colossians 2:16-17). 

Jesus Affirms the Permanence of the Old Testament (5:18)

  • While some speculated that Jesus was trying to diminish or do away with the Old Testament He spoke in no uncertain terms about the continuation and permeance of the Scriptures. He affirmed that every word and letter of the Scriptures is to remain and none will be lost until all are accomplished.

Looking Ahead

While Matthew 5:17-18 answers the question of Jesus’s relationship to and views of the Old Testament these verses are leading up to an equally significant and pressing question: What is the relationship between the Law of God and the person who belongs to the Kingdom of God? Are we saved by works of the Law? What role should the Law of God have in our lives? This is the focus of the next two verses (5:19-20). How we understand Matthew 5:17-20 will impact how we understand the rest of the Sermon on the Mount as well as the nature of the Christian life.