It was natural for Jesus to explain His view of the Old Testament since He would shortly proceed to interpret it to His hearers.
5:17 Some of the Jews may have already concluded that Jesus was a radical who was discarding the teachings of the Old Testament, their law. Many others would begin to do so soon. Jesus prepared them for the incongruity between His teaching and their leaders' interpretations of the law by explaining His relationship to the Old Testament.
The terms "the Law"and "the Prophets"refer to two of the three major divisions of the Hebrew Bible, the third being "the Psalms"(Luke 24:44). "The Law and the Prophets"was evidently the most common way Jews referred to the Old Testament then (cf. 7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Luke 16:16; John 1:45; Acts 13:15; 28:23; Rom. 3:21). Jesus' introduced the subject of Scripture interpretation in this verse with this phrase. In 7:12 He concluded the subject with the same phrase. Thus the phrase "the Law and the Prophets"forms another inclusiowithin the body of the Sermon on the Mount and identifies the main subject that it encloses.
Much debate has centered on what Jesus meant when He said He came to fulfill the Old Testament.260The first question is, Was Jesus referring to Himself when He said, "I came . . . to fulfill,"or was he referring to His teaching? Did He fulfill the law or did His teaching fulfill it? Since the contrast is "to abolish"the law, it seems probable that Jesus meant His teaching fulfilled the law. He did not intend that what He taught the people would replace the teaching of the Old Testament but fulfill (Gr. pleroo) or establish it completely. Of course, Jesus did fulfill Old Testament prophecy about Messiah, but that does not appear to be the primary subject in view here. The issue seems to be His teaching.
Some interpreters conclude Jesus meant that He came to fulfill the moral law (the Ten Commandments) but that He abolished Israel's civil and ceremonial laws.261However there is no basis for this distinction in this text nor in any other New Testament text. Others believe that He meant He came to fill out its meaning, to expound its full significance that until then remained obscure.262This view rests on an unusual meaning of pleroo, and it seems inconsistent with Jesus' comment about the jot and tittle in verse 18. Still others believe Jesus meant that He came to extend the demands of the Old Testament law to new lengths.263This interpretation is improbable because the extension of law does not involve its abolition.
Probably Jesus meant that He came to establish the Old Testament fully, to add His authoritative approval to it. This view harmonizes with Matthew's use of plerooelsewhere (cf. 2:15). This does not mean He taught that the Mosaic Law remained in force for His disciples. He taught that it did not (Mark 7:19). Rather here Jesus authenticated the Old Testament as the inspired Word of God.264He wanted His hearers to understand that what He taught them in no way contradicted Old Testament revelation.
"He disregarded the oral tradition, which they [the Pharisees] held to be equal in authority to the written Law; and He interpreted the written Law according to its spirit, and not, as they did, according to the rigid letter. He did not keep the weekly fasts, nor observe the elaborated distinctions between clean and unclean, and He consorted with outcasts and sinners. He neglected the traditional modes of teaching, and preached in a way of His own. Above all, He spoke as if He Himself were an authority, independent of the Law."265
5:18 The phrase "truly I say to you"(NASB) or "I tell you the truth"(NIV) indicates that what follows is extremely important. "Until heaven and earth pass away"is a vivid way of saying as long as this world lasts. The AV "jot,"also translated "smallest letter"(NASB, NIV), refers to yod, the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The "tittle"(AV) or "smallest stroke"(NASB) or "least stroke"(NIV) is not as easy to identify. The best possibility seems to be that it refers to a small stroke on one Hebrew letter that distinguished it from a similarly shaped letter.266In any case Jesus meant that He upheld the Old Testament down to the smallest features of the Hebrew letters that the writers used as they composed the original autographs.
This verse is a strong testimony to the verbal inspiration of Scripture. That is, divine inspiration extends to the words, even the letters, in the original texts. Verses 17-19 also argue for the plenary inspiration of Scripture, the view that inspiration extends to all parts of the Old Testament. God inspired all of it down to the very words the writers used. In verse 18 "the Law"refers to the whole Old Testament, not just the Mosaic Law or the Pentateuch (cf. v. 17). This is clear from the context.
God will preserve His Law until everything in it has happened as prophesied.
5:19 The Jewish rabbis had graded the Old Testament commands according to which they believed were more authoritative and which less.267Jesus corrected this view. He taught that all were equally authoritative. He warned His hearers against following their leaders' practice. Greatness in His kingdom depended on maintaining a high view of Scripture. This verse distinguishes different ranks within the messianic kingdom. Some individuals will have a higher standing than others. Everyone will not be equal. Notice that there will be people in the kingdom whose view of Scripture will not be the same before they enter the kingdom. All will be righteous, but their obedience to and attitude toward Scripture will vary.
5:20 "I say to you"is a claim to having authority (cf. 7:29). The relativistic view of the scribes and Pharisees led them to accept some Scriptural injunctions and to reject others (cf. 15:5-6). This resulted in selective obedience that produced only superficial righteousness (only external conformity to the revealed will of God). That type of righteousness, Jesus declared, would not be adequate for admission into the kingdom.268Selective obedience does not demonstrate a proper faith attitude to God, the attitude John and Jesus called for when they said, "Repent."
Jesus proceeded to clarify exactly what the law did require in verses 21-48.269He selected six subjects. He was not contrasting His interpretation with Moses' teaching but with the interpretation of the scribes and Pharisees. He was expounding the meaning of the text that God originally intended. He was doing Bible exposition.