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What Does Matthew 5:17 Mean?

This article is part of the What Does It Mean? series.

“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.”
—Matthew 5:17

Abolish vs. Fulfill

Jesus summarized his relationship to the Old Testament with this surprising statement in the Sermon on the Mount: “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” (Matt. 5:17). If we understand what Jesus means here, it will shine clarifying light on other important questions: What do the Old Testament commands have to do with New Testament Christians? Should Christians seek to obey the Old Testament just like the Israelites? Can we “unhitch” ourselves from it altogether?

We can rule out one interpretation right away: Jesus is not abolishing the Law and the Prophets—he says as much explicitly. But, on the other hand, he apparently didn’t come to simply keep, restate, or reestablish them either. The word he used signals something more radical and profound: He came to “fulfill” them.

Here’s one of the key questions we can ask of Jesus’s statement: What, specifically, did he come to fulfill? We may at first assume he’s only referring to ethical commands. But he actually refers to something much broader—he has in view the entire Old Testament, which he summarized here and elsewhere with the phrase “the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 5:17; see Matt. 7:12; Matt. 11:13; Matt. 22:40). This includes the whole Old Testament, with all of its commands and covenants and poems and prophecies.

Matthew

Drew Hunter

In this 12-week study, pastor Drew Hunter leads readers through the Gospel of Matthew, helping them come face to face with Jesus Christ, Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

Jesus also used this same phrase in Matthew 11:13 to say that all the scriptures were prophetic: “all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.” This means it’s not just the prophets like Isaiah and Malachi, but also the Law of Moses that prophesied. In other words, the whole of the Old Testament is a unity that prophetically anticipated Jesus and his kingdom. The scriptures tilted forward toward the arrival of Jesus. They “prophesied until John,” who came as the last of the Old Testament-era prophets to point to him.

An Era of Fulfillment

But what does it mean that he came to “fulfill” the scriptures? It’s not just that he fulfills various scattered predictions. It means he is bringing the entirety of the scriptures to their appointed goal. The Old Testament prophetically anticipated Jesus, and he came to fulfill these expectations.

This fits with how Matthew often used the word “fulfill.” He used this word several times before this (Matt. 1:22; Matt. 2:15, 17, 23; Matt. 3:15; Matt. 4:14). They together show that the Old Testament told a story awaiting an ending, and Jesus came to complete it. The Old Testament story is the shaft of an arrow, and its tip comes to rest on Christ. Everything finds its intended destination in him.

And how does Jesus bring this fulfillment? By inaugurating the long-awaited age which would fulfill all the ancient promises—promises like a true King who would create a new humanity and promises of a new covenant that brings new hearts for true obedience. With the arrival of Jesus, this new age of fulfillment has dawned. Or as Jesus announced just before the Sermon on the Mount: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). We no longer live in the old covenant era of anticipation, but the new covenant era of fulfillment.

The whole of the Old Testament is a unity that prophetically anticipated Jesus and his kingdom.

Christians and the Old Testament

How then do New Testament Christians relate to the Old Testament scriptures? We seek to keep the scriptures in two ways: as they are fulfilled in Jesus and with heart-rooted and holistic obedience.

Consider the Old Testament stories and instructions related to the temple. God gave Israel the temple as the place to meet with him. Priests represented the people, drew near to God, and offered sacrifices. The whole temple system was designed to echo the Edenic blessing of dwelling with God while also pointing forward to a new age when God would purify his people to dwell with him forever. When Jesus came, he announced “something greater than the temple is here” (Matt. 12:6). All the commands associated with the temple find their fulfillment in him. He is the true temple, high priest, and final sacrifice. Now those united to him become part of this temple, draw near to God through Jesus as a new priesthood, and offer their whole selves in sacrificial worship.

What about other commands that seemed more directly ethical—like “do not murder” and “do not commit adultery”? Jesus addressed a sampling of these in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. He showed that they prophetically anticipated this new covenant era where we would give a deeper and holistic obedience. Unlike the scribes and Pharisees who reduced God’s expectations to something they could externally manage, Jesus enables us to obey from the heart (Matt. 5:20). In light of this, the command to not murder is fulfilled in God’s people as they renounce hatred (Matt. 5:21–25). The command against adultery is fulfilled as his people renounce even lustful thoughts (Matt. 5:26–30). Every command is caught up in this bigger story that finds its fulfillment in Jesus’s kingdom and the heart-level transformation he brings.

This all leads us to avoid two extremes in relation to the Old Testament. We neither ditch the Old Testament altogether, nor do we seek to follow it apart from its fulfillment in Jesus. He did not come to start something brand new, nor did he come to maintain status quo. He is the king of God’s long-anticipated kingdom. He didn’t come to abolish the scriptures, but to fulfill them.

Drew Hunter is the author of Matthew: A 12-Week Study.



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