What does Matthew 5:17 mean?
ESV: “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.
NIV: 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.
NASB: Do not presume that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill.
CSB: "Don't think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.
NLT: Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose.
KJV: Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
As He gained fame through healing miracles and compelling teaching, some of Jesus' critics claimed He was teaching people to ignore the law of Moses (Matthew 12:2). Hostile religious leaders began to falsely say He was teaching a new or different law from what God gave to the nation of Israel (Matthew 12:2). Jesus was eventually accused by the Jewish religious leaders of blasphemy, primarily for His claim to be the Son of God (Matthew 26:63–65; John 8:58–59).
Jesus counters the lie that He is calling for the law of Moses to be "abolished." He tells all those who are listening His intent is not to discard the law or the Prophets. The Jewish law of Moses consisted of the first five books of the Bible, known as the Pentateuch. "The Prophets" include most of the rest of what Christians now call the Old Testament, especially books by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other prophets sent by God to deliver His messages to Israel.
The book of Hebrews explains how God always intended the old covenant to lead to a new covenant (Hebrews 8:6–8). That transition is not to eradicate what God has spoken, but to complete its intended purpose. As the Son of God, the God who gave the law to Moses and gave the prophecies to the prophets, Jesus would have no desire to wipe out those messages. Instead, Jesus declares that He has come "to fulfill" the law and the Prophets.
This is a key point of understanding Scripture: everything in the Jewish Scriptures—what we now call the Old Testament—has been "pointing forward" to the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah. The law described a life of perfect, sinless righteousness, which no Israelite had been able to fulfill until Jesus arrived. He was the first and last to accomplish this.
In addition, the sacrificial system given to Israel by God in the law required the killing of animals, blood sacrifices, to pay for human sin. They were effective only temporarily, and only until new sins were committed, then more blood had to be spilled (Hebrews 10:1–4). Jesus, though, as the perfect, sinless human sacrifice for sin fulfilled the need for that blood sacrifice once and for all (Hebrews 10:11–14).
Matthew also demonstrates throughout his book how Jesus' life fulfilled one prophecy about the Messiah after another. Jesus did not discard the words of these prophets; He fulfilled them with every word and action of His life.
Matthew 5:17–20 sets up an important point about the nature of sin. To do so, Jesus first declares that heaven's standard of righteousness is beyond human ability. His purpose is not to discard the law of Moses, but to accomplish the purpose for which the law was given. A cornerstone of Jesus' teaching is that man cannot earn salvation, since we cannot hope to be good enough. This passage sets the stage for this idea, through exaggeration. In order to earn the kingdom of heaven, a person must be even more righteousness than the scribes and Pharisees—that culture's ultimate standard for ''good behavior.'' In later passages, Christ will expand on how sin involves not only what we do, physically, but our thoughts and motivations.
The Sermon on the Mount contains some of Jesus' most challenging teaching. It begins with the unlikely blessings of the Beatitudes. Jesus' disciples must do good works in order to be a powerful influence: as the salt of the earth and light of the world. The superficial righteousness of the Pharisees is not good enough to earn heaven. Sins of the heart, such as angry insults and intentional lust, are worthy of hell just as much as adultery and murder. Easy divorce and deceptive oaths are forbidden. Believers should not seek revenge. Instead, God intends us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. In short, we should strive to be perfect, as God is perfect.
Matthew 5 follows Matthew's description of the enormous crowds that were following Jesus (Matthew 4:25). One day, Jesus sits down on a hill to teach them, in an address we now call the Sermon on the Mount. He describes as blessed those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, and who are persecuted. Christ also explains how God's standards of righteousness go far beyond behaviors and speech; they also include our thoughts and attitudes. Meeting God's standards means perfection. Chapter 6 continues this sermon, with more examples of Jesus clarifying God's intent for godly living.
The Gospel of Matthew clearly shows the influence of its writer's background, and his effort to reach a specific audience. Matthew was one of Jesus' twelve disciples, a Jewish man, and a former tax collector. This profession would have required literacy, and Matthew may have transcribed some of Jesus' words as they were spoken. This book is filled with references to the Old Testament, demonstrating to Israel that Jesus is the Promised One. Matthew also includes many references to coins, likely due to his former profession. Matthew records extensive accounts of Jesus' teaching, more than the other three Gospels.
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