Nearly every 119/Hebrew Roots follower has quickly pointed out the Matthew 5:17-19 passage as the proof-positive that the Old Testament Law is absolutely still in effect today for believers.
Let’s test it.
Matt. 5:17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 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. 19 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.”
First we have a strange problem. Jesus here uses two conditions:
1. Until heaven & earth pass away
2. Until all is accomplished
It’s perplexing because He doesn’t link them with an “and”. He actually keeps them separate, regardless of which translation. So to just assume they are linked isn’t accurate.
Here’s a random example of what the double condition is like: “Until it stops raining, I cannot walk home until I get new shoes.”
This sentence does not say: “Until it stops raining & I get new shoes, I cannot walk home.”
As it is written, it’s perplexing.
Thankfully, this is not the only passage we have to figure out its meaning. God also had Luke record this.
Luke 16:17 says, “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail.”
So now we see how this is meant to be taken. Not literally. If it were literal, then the Matthew passage and the Luke passage would be in conflict.
Going back to my random example. It could have been also written elsewhere, “It would be easier for it to stop raining than for me to walk home.”
So if I had both statements, I could get a very clear meaning of what the single spoken phrase means.
Likewise, if we take both the Matthew & Luke references we can understand that the heaven & earth passing away is meant in terms of its difficulty, magnitude, and importance. I’ll come back to this point because it’s absolutely BEAUTIFUL and FAR-REACHING.
Taking a look again at Matthew 5:17-19 in its context, is where this whole story is really the story of humanity.
Here we have just had Jesus call the multitudes, lots of people, and deliver the beatitudes. Then He expresses that the Law is very much intact and He didn’t come to abolish it but to fulfill it and how important it is to keep every last command and teach it correctly.
So He’s just called attention to the critical importance of keeping the Law. Up to now the people would most likely be in agreement with Him, feeling called to step up their keeping of the Law and do a more diligent job. RIGHT AFTER THAT, He makes the claim that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” I’d argue that at this point, many of the people listening have just been struck with fear. The Pharisees were their teachers and example. They knew the Law better than anyone. They at least pretended to follow it. If anyone were to be found righteous according to the Law it would be a Pharisee. But Jesus has just thrown out to them that their righteousness has to SURPASS that of the Pharisees, and on the line here is entrance into the kingdom of heaven. Who in that crowd would have any confidence of achieving this? They were working people, rich, poor, literate, illiterate, schooled in the Law, cursory understanding of the Law, Pharisees, and common Jews…it was a multitude. Nobody could hope to exceed the Pharisees’ righteousness.
And Jesus knew this. He now had not only their attention, but also their fears of just how NOT righteous they were. But then Jesus does something else…He draws out certain familiar laws and tells the people, “You have heard it said…but *I* say…”
And when He does this, He sharpens the points of these Laws so that they are driven like nails into the people’s hearts. These Laws have now been placed at a heart-level, no longer external, no longer measurable. You can measure murder; but who can measure anger at the point it becomes equal before God to murder? You can measure adultery; but who can measure a look containing lust at the point it becomes equal before God to adultery?
So now, the people are facing an insurmountable obstacle: the Law which nobody can keep and which Jesus has just driven home, that unless it is kept better than the Pharisees, there will be NO entering the kingdom of heaven.
And Jesus also knew this.
He concludes Matthew 5 by telling these people, who are very likely scared out of their wits thinking they are doomed, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.”
Oh dear. And now their fate is sealed. Because there is none righteous, no not one. And I dare say these people knew just how unrighteous they were and how unattainable the kingdom of heaven really is.
Now, WHY would Jesus do this to His beloved Israel?
Because ALL throughout history mankind has needed a Savior. And here before this multitude, though they didn’t know it, was that very Savior. They were brought low by the highness of the unkeepable Law and pushed to the point where they knew they personally needed the coming Messiah. Oh if He would only come and save them.
And if they only knew how little time remained before He would!
Now back to the beautiful and far-reaching point of Jesus expressing that it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the Law to fall away UNTIL ALL IS ACCOMPLISHED… The difficulty, the magnitude, the importance of heaven and earth passing away. Think about heaven & earth passing away. An event of all time that is COLOSSAL. Well, on the cross, Jesus accomplished it all: “It is finished.” Finished. Accomplished. Fulfilled. This single event is so HUGE that the only thing easier is for heaven and earth to pass away. Do you see it? The hugeness?
It’s such a miniscule thing to assume Matthew 5:17-19 is Jesus declaring the Law is to be followed for all time. It’s not about the Law at all. It’s about something greater than the Law. It’s about Messiah! He’s here, Immanuel, God-with-us is finally here!
You see, He insisted the Law was still in full force while He lived on this earth, because He had not yet died and He was following it in order to perfectly fulfill it so that when He died He would be a sacrifice without blemish so that He could perfectly fulfill the the sentence for those who did not keep it, namely every human being.
As He gave up His life, He announced the Law’s abolishment by saying, “It is finished.” He had pre-announced it when He declared the New Covenant by breaking break, as His body, and sharing wine, as His blood. And He pre-announced it in John 3:16.
And His resurrection brought about the open door for Jews & Gentiles to enter the family of God as His sons and brothers of Jesus.
So here is the summation, the culmination of it all: In His life, Jesus fulfilled the Law; in His death, He abolished the Law; and in His resurrection, He ushered into effect the New Covenant where the Jew-Gentile church is His body with Him as the head.
I’ve just summarized Ephesians 2:13-22
“13 But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, 16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. 17 And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; 18 for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, 20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.”
Do you see the Law is abolished in His DEATH, not while He lived. Do you see that He brought two groups, Jews & Gentiles, into one NEW man in Himself? Do you see that the foundation is the apostles & prophets, with Jesus as cornerstone…not the LAW and the prophets. In fact, no mention of Law at all other than it’s abolishment.
So the over-arching point (not the only point) of Jesus’ discussion of Law in Matthew 5 is to pierce our hearts with the great need we have for a Messiah. And the point of calling out heaven & earth passing away is to demonstrate just how huge and universe-altering Jesus’ completing it ALL really is.
Do you see it? It just brings me to my knees.
Scriptures to Hang it On
The Law bring us to see we need a Savior:
24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. -Galatians 3:24-25