Christ And The Law

By Linus Chua, adapted from message delivered on 6th Jan 2008 in PCC Morning Worship Service

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matthew 5:17-18).

Verses 17-20 form an extremely important section in our Lord’s teaching ministry because in it, we see Him speaking openly and clearly about His relationship to the law of the Old Testament, the present status of the law, and what should be the proper response of His disciples to that law. In this chapter, we want to focus just the first two verses.

When I was in school, the beginning of each New Year brought about some anxious moments for me – a new school year, a new class, a new timetable, and most of all, a new set of teachers. I was always concerned about who would be teaching my class. Would he be kind and sympathetic or fierce and harsh? Would he require a lot of homework or would he allow us to get away with the bare minimum of work? Would he be lenient or would he be a strict disciplinarian? These are questions of great importance to students. But such concerns are not confined to students. They can be found in all other phases of life. 

When Christ first appeared on the scene, He immediately began preaching about the kingdom of heaven. In Matthew 4:17, we read, “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And again in Matthew 4:23, “And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people.” Then in the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, Christ lays out the characteristics of those who are citizens of His kingdom.

But now, one of the questions that must have pressed itself upon the minds of the Jews who were listening to Christ was this: “What is the relationship of Christ and His kingdom to the Old Testament, and especially the Law?” Many of the people had the idea that when the Messiah came, he would radically revise or completely overturn the Mosaic Law and establish His own standards and laws. In fact, many of them hoped that the Messiah would set them free from the numerous burdens and demands which the Scribes and Pharisees had placed upon them and which they mistakenly thought were part of the Mosaic Law. And so, the Jews were very concerned to find out what this new teacher thought of the Old Testament Law.    

Unfortunately in our present day, there continues to be much confusion about the proper relationship between Christ and the law, and one of the reasons is that this passage which we are about to consider has either been neglected altogether or else wrongly or inadequately interpreted.

And so it is of great importance that we study the words of Christ carefully in its proper context and seek to understand its true meaning.

In verse 17, Christ tells us negatively what He did not come to do with respect to the law, and then He tells us positively what He came to do with respect to the law. In verse 18, He gives us the reason for His teaching in vs. 17, namely, the Law’s continuing validity and authority.

What Christ Did Not Come To Do
(v. 17a)

Christ begins with a prohibition. He says, “Think not” or “do not think”. Based on the Greek, we could translate it as, “Do not even begin to think.” Now we must understand that Christ was not answering any particular charge from His opponents that His teaching was contrary to the law otherwise He might have said something like, “Stop thinking”. Rather, He said, “do not even begin to think”. Christ was about to deal with this important subject of the law and He was fully aware of the danger that His hearers might misunderstand or even distort His teaching, and so right from the outset, He commanded them not to even begin having the wrong idea that the Messiah had come in order to destroy the law.

The Greek word for “destroy” is καταλυω and it literally means to loosen down or to demolish or dismantle or dissolve or disintegrate. It is used by Christ for example in Matthew 24:2 to speak of the utter destruction and tearing down of the temple at Jerusalem. Here in Matthew 5:17, the legal context of the verse requires us to understand the word metaphorically in the sense of annulling or repealing or abrogating or invalidating.


Christ is saying that He did not come to abrogate or repeal or set aside the law or the prophets. Now it’s important to understand that in the Bible, this word never takes on the meaning of disobey or violate or transgress. In other words, this aspect of disobedience or transgression of God’s law is not the focus and emphasis of this verse. If we keep this fact in mind, we will be in a very good position to understand what exactly that difficult word “fulfill” at the end of the verse really means.

And so Christ is not saying, in this verse, that He did not come to disobey God’s law, although that is certainly true. Rather, He is saying something deeper, namely, that He did not come to abrogate or invalidate the law. As the great prophet, priest and king, Christ had no intention of setting aside or undoing the will of His Father as it is revealed in the law and prophets.

This brings us to the phrase “the law or the prophets”. What does it mean? When the words ‘the law’ and ‘the prophets’ are placed side by side, they usually include the entire Old Testament Scriptures, for example, Matthew 22:40 says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” And again in Luke 16:16, we read, “The law and the prophets were until John (the Baptist): since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it.”

And so by speaking of law and prophets, Christ is thinking of the Old Testament Scriptures as a whole. But specifically, He is focusing on the ethical stipulations and content of the Old Testament. By ethical stipulations, I mean the commands and demands of God for His people – those things that He requires of them to do. This is clearly seen from the fact that the rest of the chapter deals with God’s law and will for His people. In fact in Matthew 7:12, which is still part of the Sermon on the Mount, we read, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” The emphasis there again is on what God requires of us to do – His moral and ethical stipulations for our lives.

Now it is certainly true that Christ fulfills all the Old Testament prophecies and types concerning the Messiah and that in Him, all the promises of God find their fulfillment. But that is not what He is concerned with in this verse. Instead, He is dealing with the moral and ethical demands of the entire Old Testament and not just those which are found in the first five books.

So let’s summarize what Christ did not come to do. He tells us not to even begin to think that He came to abrogate or invalidate or set aside the laws and commandments which are found in the Old Testament. But if Christ did not come to destroy the Old Testament law, what then did He come to do with respect to it? 

What Christ Came to Do
(v. 17b)

Verse 17 goes on to say, “I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” Notice how Christ gives further emphasis to what He had just said by repeating the idea that He did not come to abolish the law. Instead, He came in order to fulfill the law. Now this word “fulfill” is very crucial for our understanding of the text. The Greek word is πληροω. But what does it mean in this context? Various suggestions have been given. Allow me to briefly go through four of them before giving you what I believe is the best interpretation.

Firstly, some have suggested that the word fulfill means “to put an end to” but this can hardly be correct since Christ had just said that He did not come to abrogate the law, which would be equivalent to putting an end to it.   

Secondly, some have suggested that it means “to replace”, i.e. that Christ came to replace the old law with a new one. The problem with this view is the same as the previous one for in order for Christ to put in place a New Law, He would first have to abolish the Old Law, but Christ explicitly said He did not come to do that. Also, such a view fails to consider the very next verse which speaks of the continuing validity and authority of the Law. And finally, the New Testament never uses this word ‘fulfil’ in the sense of replacement.

Thirdly, yet others have suggested that fulfill means to supplement or to add to. In other words, Jesus came to fill up and bring to perfection the Old Testament Law, which was incomplete and inadequate. The problem is that this plainly contradicts what the Psalmist says in Psalm 19:7, “The law of the LORD is perfect…” The rest of Psalm 19 speaks of the great value and use of the law. No, the law in the Old Testament lacks nothing. What is lacking may be a right understanding and application of it, but the law in itself is complete and does not need any supplementation.   

Fourthly, it has been suggested that Christ came to personally obey the law. Now it is true that Christ came to obey the Law fully on behalf of His people, and that the word πληροω can indeed mean the keeping or doing of a commandment. I personally do not have great difficulty with this interpretation although I do not think that this is our Lord’s main point here and I say this for at least two reasons. Firstly, the context shows that Christ is not dealing with the question of whether He has personally obeyed the law or not. Instead, He is dealing with the question of whether His teaching is consistent with the law or not. It is His teaching concerning the law and not His doing of it that is the primary issue at hand. Secondly, we saw earlier that the word “destroy” never means to disobey or to transgress, and thus it is unlikely that the word “fulfill”, which is the direct opposite of “destroy” in this verse, means to obey or keep.

This brings us to what I believe is the best way of understanding the word πληροω. This word stands in strict and direct contrast to the word καταλυω as seen from the word “but”. Christ did not come to καταλυω (destroy) the law but to πληροω (fulfill) it. If the word καταλυω means to abrogate or repeal, then the word πληροω naturally means the very opposite of it. Now if you check up a dictionary with antonyms (words that mean the opposite) on the word ‘abrogate’, you’ll find entries like uphold, establish, ratify, endorse, validate, renew etc. Probably the best word that expresses the opposite meaning of ‘abrogate’ is the word ‘confirm’. 

Let me give us two examples, one from the OT and another from the NT, to show that πληροω can take on the meaning of ‘confirm’ and ‘ratify’. Firstly, in 1 Kings 1:14, we read, “Behold, while thou yet talkest there with the king, I also will come in after thee, and confirm thy words.” The word “confirm” in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) is the word πληροω.

Then secondly, in James 2:23, we read, “And the scripture was fulfilled (πληροω), which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness…” Clearly, what James means by the phrase “the scripture was fulfilled” is that Abraham’s faith in God, which was spoken of in Genesis 15:6, was openly manifested and ratified or confirmed by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac on the altar in Genesis 22.

Thus I believe that the word πληροω or “fulfill” is best taken to mean “confirm” or “establish” or “ratify”. This is similar to Calvin’s view when he wrote, “By these words he is so far from departing from the former covenant, that, on the contrary, he declares, that it will be confirmed and ratified, when it shall be succeeded by the new.” And more recently, John Murray, in his discussion of Matthew 5:17 and the meaning of the word “fulfill”, wrote, “Jesus refers to the function of validating and confirming the law and the prophets.” And finally Herman Ridderbos wrote, “there is no antithesis…between the principles of the Law of Moses and the Sermon on the Mount. The latter does not abolish the former but confirms it.”

And so to summarize what we have been saying thus far, we could translate Matthew 5:17 in this way, “Do not begin to think that I am come to abrogate the law or the prophets; I come not to abrogate but to confirm.”

The Continuing Validity of the Law
(v. 18)

But Christ does not end there. He goes on in v. 18 to strengthen and confirm what He has just said in verse 17. Verses 17 and 18 are in complete harmony with each other and should be understood together. “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” The word “for” or “because” indicates that Christ is providing the reason for His teaching in v. 17 while the word “verily” or truly” indicates that what is to follow is of great importance, and we would do well to take heed to it.

Verse 18 contains two important truths. Firstly, it teaches us about the length of time in which the law is valid. Secondly, it teaches us about the extent of the law that remains valid.

As for the length of time, Christ says, “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass…” and at the end of the verse, He says, “till all be fulfilled”. In the Greek, it is clear that these two phrases are parallel, and they explain each other. What does “till heaven and earth pass” mean? Well, “heaven and earth” speak of cosmic stability and durability, and thus it becomes a standard of comparison for God’s faithfulness. This phrase is used to express the unchangeableness, faithfulness, certainty and stability of God, of His word and of His covenant. For example, Psalm 119:89-90 says, “For ever, O LORD, thy word is settled in heaven. Thy faithfulness is unto all generations: thou hast established the earth, and it abideth.” Again in Jeremiah 33:25-26, we read, “Thus saith the LORD; If my covenant be not with day and night, and if I have not appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth; Then will I cast away the seed of Jacob, and David my servant, so that I will not take any of his seed to be rulers over the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Finally, in Matthew 24:35, we read, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” 

It is clear from these and many other verses of the Bible that the phrase “heaven and earth” is used as a metaphor for stability and firmness. And so in vs. 18, Christ is teaching us about the immutability of God’s law for all time. The law will have continuing and abiding validity, if not forever, then at least until the end of the world, i.e. as long as this physical universe lasts. Commenting on this verse, Carl Henry says that the law has a firmer basis than the stability of the space-time universe. God’s law shall in no way pass away, that is, it shall not come to an end or disappear or lose its force or become invalid as long as heaven and earth remain.

The phrase at the end of vs. 18 “Till all be fulfilled” gives further emphasis to this thought. Now we need to take note of two important things about this phrase or we’ll misunderstand it. Firstly, the word “all” here cannot refer to the law or the prophets because it has a different gender from those two words. Rather, this word “all” is equivalent to the phrase “heaven and earth” and serves the same purpose. Secondly, the word “fulfilled” is not the same Greek word that we find in vs. 17, so it does not mean confirmed or established. Rather, it means “coming to pass” or “happening”. Christ is simply saying that the law will not pass away until everything that is supposed to happen in history has happened.

If we put these two phrases together, it would go something like this, “For verily I say unto you, until heaven and earth pass away, that is, until everything has taken place…” And so the first thing we learn from vs. 18 is the abiding and continuing validity of God’s law throughout this present age even until the end of the world.   

But secondly, Christ teaches us about the extent of the law that remains valid. In other words, He deals with the question, “How much of God’s law has abiding validity?” To this He says, “one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law”. The word ‘jot’ or ‘yod’ is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, equivalent to our letter ‘i’, while the word ‘tittle’ refers to the very little stroke or projection or hook that serves to distinguish certain Hebrew letters from others that look alike.

Now not only does Christ mention jot and tittle, which are the smallest strokes in the Hebrew alphabet, but twice He uses the word ‘one’ to further emphasize His point. Not one jot and not one tittle shall pass from the law. The phrase “in no wise” is a double negative, which means it is very emphatic. Greg Bahnsen wrote, “It is the point of slightness that Jesus brings forcefully before us. Not even the very least extensive number of the very least significant aspect of the Older Testament law will become invalid until heaven and earth pass away! This statement is underscored in its importance by the double negative (ου μη) and use of “αμην” (truly) at the head of the sentence. It is hard to imagine how Jesus could have more intensely affirmed that every bit of the law remains binding in the gospel age.”      

And so in these two verses, Christ is confirming and upholding the full and exact details of God’s law; not just the law in general or just certain parts, but every single bit of it. Christ did not come to abrogate any part of the law but to establish and confirm every part. And the reason is that every part of it is valid for all time until the end of the world.

 At this point, some of us might be asking, “But if every jot and tittle of the law has been confirmed and not one has been abrogated, then what about the ceremonial laws? Haven’t they been abrogated? Doesn’t the Westminster Confession of Faith say, ‘All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the New Testament’ (19.3)?”

Well the way to resolve this apparent difficulty is this – that the ceremonial laws have indeed been abrogated in one sense and yet in another sense, they have not been abrogated. This is what I mean: as a result of Christ’s finished work, New Testament believers are no longer required to keep and observe these ceremonies in the same way that the Old Testament believers did. For a New Testament believer to do that would be to despise the finished work of Christ and to prefer the symbol rather than the Saviour Himself. The book of Hebrews makes this very clear, and so in that sense, the ceremonial laws have been set aside or abrogated.

Nevertheless, in another sense, they have not been abrogated because the meaning of the ceremonial laws received permanent validity and confirmation in the person and work of Christ. So while the ceremonial observations no longer apply, their meaning and intention have not been cancelled but rather eternally validated by the coming of the Messiah. Far from contradicting Matthew 5:17-18, such a change from the Old to the New Testament is in fact a confirmation of the Old Testament Law for the Old Testament itself anticipated such a change, as implied in Psalm 40, Psalm 110, Isaiah 56, and Isaiah 66.

So that answers the question about the ceremonial law, namely, that the meaning and intention of the ceremonial law has been permanently confirmed in Christ. But what about the judicial or civil laws of the Old Testament, i.e. those laws which governed the social, political and civil affairs of the nation of Israel? Haven’t they been abrogated as well? How should we understand them in light of our text, which teaches that Christ did not come to abrogate any part of the law?

Perhaps the best way to answer this is to look at the words of the Westminster Confession (19:4), “To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity therefore may require.” Notice that the Westminster Divines were very careful not to use the term ‘abrogate’, a term which they used for the ceremonial laws. Instead, they used the term ‘expired’ and there is a reason for that. Furthermore, they taught that the general equity of the judicial laws continues to be binding today.

Now what all this means is this – that when the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, for which these laws were specifically worded, had passed away, the literal wording or the specific form of the judicial laws also passed away or expired. Nevertheless, the underlying principle or the equity of those laws continues to be applicable. An example of this is found in 1 Corinthians 9:8-10, which the Westminster Divines cite as one of their proof texts for this section. In that passage, Paul uses the civil law regarding the muzzling of an ox to teach the Corinthians that they are to provide for those who preach the gospel, and the reason he can do that is that the underlying moral principle or the equity of it continues to be in force today.

In other words, while the outward cultural form of the judicial law may have been altered, the marrow or the underlying substance of the law has not been altered or invalidated. And so in this sense, the judicial laws too have not been abrogated. Their outward form may have expired but their inward substance abides.

But finally, we come to the third category of the law – the moral law. Now there can be little doubt that Christ came to confirm and establish the moral law for in the rest of this chapter and indeed in other parts of the gospels, Christ explicitly touches on the moral law and teaches that they continue to bind all men everywhere. 

And so we’ve looked at these very important words of Christ which teaches us about His relationship to the Old Testament Law. We saw that He did not come to abrogate the law but rather to confirm and establish it. Also, we saw that Christ confirmed the law for all time until heaven and earth pass away, and that He confirmed every jot and tittle of the law, i.e. the law in all its parts and details, be it moral, judicial or ceremonial.


In closing, I would like to draw just one application from this text: that we should all seek to have a right attitude towards the Law of God. We’ve seen what Christ’s attitude towards the law is. What about ours?

There are at least three wrong attitudes towards the law that we should avoid. Firstly, we should avoid an attitude of disdain and contempt for the law. Rather than viewing the law as something hateful and abominable, and thus to be avoided, rejected and set aside as far as possible, we should love it, embrace it and meditate on it day and night. How we need to learn from the Psalmist who said, concerning the judgments and statues of the law, “More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb” (Ps 19:10). And again, “Thy testimonies are wonderful: therefore doth my soul keep them…I opened my mouth, and panted: for I longed for thy commandments” (Ps 119:129, 131). And finally, “I have rejoiced in the way of thy testimonies…I will mediate in thy precepts and have respect unto thy ways. I will delight myself in thy statues: (Psalm 119:14-16)” Christ came to uphold, establish and confirm the law of the Old Testament, and Christians should be the last people on this earth to despise and disdain it. 

Secondly, we should avoid an attitude of embarrassment towards the law. We do not need to feel apologetic or embarrassed when talking to unbelievers or even our children about God’s law, and this includes the ceremonial and civil laws too. The Psalmist says in Psalm 119:46, “I will speak of thy testimonies also before kings, and will not be ashamed.”

Just before the children of Israel entered the Promised Land, Moses said to them concerning all the laws which God had given, “Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?” (Dt 4:6-8).

In other words, the law was intended to be Israel’s wisdom in the sight of the Gentile nations, and Israel’s obedience to it was intended to serve as an example and witness to them. Far from being embarrassed about the law, the people were to be proud of it and uphold it, for it was their wisdom and understanding in the sight of the heathen nations.

Thirdly, we should avoid an attitude of indifference to the details of the law. We often think that details are not important and that all we need is just the broad-brush or broad-stroke picture of the law; and so we conveniently skip over all of its details. But we have seen that Christ upheld every last jot and tittle of the law and thus we too should be concerned with its details.

We would do well to take heed to the words of John Murray on this verse:

“Too often the person imbued with meticulous concern for the ordinances of God and conscientious regard for the minutiae of God’s commandments is judged as a legalist, while the person who is not bothered by details is judged to be the practical person who exemplifies the liberty of the gospel. Here Jesus is reminding us of the same great truth which he declares elsewhere, “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much, and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much” (Lk 16:10).  

May the Lord enable us all to have the right attitude toward His law – the kind of attitude which Christ had when He said,

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” W