Matthew 5:17-20, the Smoking Gun of the HRM?

There is no doubt of the importance of Matthew 5:17-20 in any discussion related to the law and its place in the Christian life. Indeed, there are few passages more important. However, what often happens is that this passage is simply quoted rather than explained. Sometimes, it seems to be treated as a smoking gun, as if people who do not agree with the HRM (Hebrew Roots Movement) have never read this passage before. The fact of the matter is that this passage is a minefield of difficulties, and is hardly as straightforward as the HRM seems to assume by simply throwing it at their adversaries (as has happened to me many times on this blog). The HRM folk have quoted this to me and then asked the double question, “Why do you hate the Torah so much?” Of course, this question makes a rather whopping assumption: that I do in fact hate the Torah, which is false. I love the law, since it is a reflection of who God is, and it teaches me about God, and because the essence of the law is love for God and love for neighbor. A couple of other preliminary questions need to be dealt with before we can address the exegesis of the passage itself.

One issue that needs to be addressed is the big picture of the Old Testament. What is the point of the Old Testament? According to John 5 and Luke 24, Jesus is the point of the Old Testament. Jesus flat out says in John 5 that Moses wrote about Him. What is so fascinating about that claim is Moses never directly talks about Jesus. The name of Jesus is not mentioned except by way of typology in Joshua’s name. And yet Moses wrote about Jesus. That was the content of Moses’ writings. All of Moses’ writings had a direction arrow saying “This way to Jesus.” As we will see from an exposition of Matthew 5:17-20, this includes the law. The law is not ahistorical, timeless and changeless, but has a telos, a goal. The law points forward to Jesus. It is sometimes objected at this point that the character of God forbids any change in the law. This does not follow. God created everything there is. Everything that God created reflects the glory of God in one way or another, and yet it changes, because it is created. Now, God’s character does not change. But time and people on earth do change, and the way God relates to His people does change in some ways over time. The law can therefore change. Hebrews says this explicitly: “For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must be a change of law as well.” The text is Hebrews 7:12, which in context is contrasting the order of Aaron and the order of Melchizedek, portraying Jesus as the great high priest in the order of Melchizedek. The implication is that when Jesus comes as the great high priest in the order of Melchizedek, there is a change of the law to match the change of priesthood. The word for “change” is “metathesis” which means an alteration from one state into another, or a transformation. So, that thing which the HRM says never happens to the law (i.e., change), Hebrews expressly and explicitly states does happen to the law. Verse 18 confirms this interpretation by stating that a former commandment is in fact annulled. The reason it was annulled is because it was weak and unprofitable (for the law perfected nothing) as verse 19 states. This does not mean that the law is bad, of course. It just means that the law cannot perfect people, and that when people think the law can do that, they quickly find that it is weak and unprofitable. The law needs to be used for its proper uses, and not for something it cannot do. The whole issue here in Hebrews 7 is the change of priesthood from Aaronide priesthood to Melchizedekian priesthood. There had to be a change in the law, since the law stated that a priest had to come from the tribe of Levi (this is the point of verses 13-14). This verse (as well as John 5 and Luke 24) has a great impact when we come to Matthew 5.

A second issue is the clarity of Scripture. HRM advocates often quote Scripture as if all Scripture were perfectly clear, and all that is needed is to quote it rather than discuss its meaning. The Reformed church has always believed that everything necessary for salvation is clearly revealed in Scripture in one place or another. But the Reformed church has never believed that because of the clarity of salvation issues, that therefore all Scripture is equally clear. This is proven conclusively by 2 Peter 3:15-16. The irony in those verses is clear. They clearly teach that not all Scripture is clear. Given the interpretive issues that have come up in the exegesis of Matthew 5:17-20, I would say that Jesus’ meaning in those verses is not initially clear, and must be carefully treated in context.

Matthew 5:17-20 seems to be directed against a possible misunderstanding of what Jesus is going to teach. What Jesus teaches about the law could give rise to a misinterpretation of His words that results in Jesus rejecting the law. The issue is not rejection, but fulfillment.

The form of verse 17 has the exact same form as Matthew 10:34 right down to verbal parallels, which are precisely the same. The form is this: “Do not suppose that I came in order to do X. I did not come in order to do X, but rather Y.” This raises the question of whether Matthew 5:17 is absolute or not (this point is raised by Carson in his commentary). No one would suppose that Jesus did not come into this world to bring peace of any kind. Of course He brought certain kinds of peace (most notably peace between God and man: otherwise, Luke 2:14 is meaningless!). Certain other kinds of peace He did not come to bring (such as peace between Christians and non-Christians). These kinds of statements need to be interpreted in their proper context. So, it is at least possible that what Jesus said in Matthew 5 does not have reference to all forms of abrogation. In this regard, Carson is extremely helpful: “The antithesis is not between ‘abolish’ and ‘keep’ but between ‘abolish’ and ‘fulfill.'”

In fact, the meaning of the entire text hinges on the meaning of “fulfill” (Greek “pleroo”). Whatever the word means, it has to mean more than simply “do.” The reason for this is the inclusion of the prophets in Jesus’ purview. It is highly unlikely, incidentally, that the word “pleroo” reflects the Aramaic word “qum,” (which means “establish, validate, or confirm”) since the LXX never uses “pleroo” to translate that word “qum.” The LXX uses the words “histemi” or “bebaioo” to translate “qum.” The verb “pleroo” translates the Hebrew word “male'”. The meaning of the word in this context is therefore almost certainly “fulfill,” and not “establish.” However, even that word “fulfill” can have more than one meaning. Whatever meaning is correct must be able to account for the law and the prophets being in the text. This is where John 5 and Luke 24 help us out. Jesus is saying in those two passages that the entire Old Testament has a direction arrow pointing straight to Him.

An assumption that is gratuitous in the HRM is that change equals annulment. This is certainly not obvious. If a law changes in its application because of some great eschatological change, such as the coming of the person and work of Jesus Christ, that does not mean it is annulled.

This understanding of verse 17 allows verse 18 to have its full force without any equivocation: not the smallest part of the law will pass away. And it hasn’t. The whole law, in its entirety, and in every part, is still there for us, helpfully teaching us about Jesus, helpfully pointing us to Him, and teaching us important spiritual principles that are always valid. The law has a prophetic function. The word “Torah” points in this direction, with its common meaning of “teaching.” Again, notice the difference between “pass away” and “change.” The text does NOT say that no change will ever occur in the way the law is applied. It says that nothing in the law will pass away. That is, nothing in the law will be erased from the law.

Verse 19 must be understood in the light of what has already been said. Verse 19 does not prejudge the question of whether any change has happened to the law. It does rule out a Marcionite rejection of the Old Testament law. The upshot of the passage is that there are aspects of continuity and discontinuity with regard to how the law of God applies after the events surrounding Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus will illustrate how that works in the rest of chapter 5. In some cases, that means drawing out the meaning of the law that was already there in the OT, but in certain other cases, it means a modification of the law in its application. An example of the former would be Jesus’ treatment of the sixth and seventh commandments in verses 21-30. The implications of those laws are already present in the Ten Commandments. Any one of the Ten Commandments commands all the lesser virtues of the same kind, and forbids all sins of the same kind. However, examples of modification include the teaching on divorce, the teaching on oaths, and the teaching on the eye for an eye. Jesus offers serious qualifications to the law that were not present in the original setting. These modifications are based on Jesus’ own authority as the law-giver (see 7:28-29). He is the new Moses, giving an authoritative interpretation and modification of the law on the new Mount Sinai. Whatever is new in Jesus’ teaching has to do with what time it is: time for fulfillment, and the kingdom promised in Jeremiah 31.

This passage is fraught with difficulties. The meanings of the words “annul,” “fulfill,” “pass away,” and “accomplished” all have an impact on the meaning of the passage. Furthermore, the interpretation we wind up with must match the rest of Scripture, such as Matthew 10, John 5, Luke 24, and Hebrews 7. Any interpretation of Matthew 5 that states that there is no change that ever happens to the law will bring it into direct contradiction with other passages of Scripture.


  1. Tim Harris said,

    January 7, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    Maybe a quicker way to cut to the chase would be to point out that Bahnsen’s Theonomy argues for jot-and-tittle continuing applicability, yet they don’t want to become theonomic Presbyterians. Why?

  2. Pete Rambo said,

    January 7, 2014 at 8:37 pm


    Any interpretation of Matthew 5 that states that there is no change that ever happens to the law will bring it into direct contradiction with other passages of Scripture.

    Nice straw dog ya got there!

    In fact, I seem to recall a discussion we’ve had (I thought on here, but maybe via email or in our personal meeting) about Hebrews 7:12 and the fact that there are several changes in the Law, but, each had to be prophesied. (Amos 3:7) Our King is kind enough to put Himself in a box so that He does nothing capriciously, or overturns anything that He Himself tells us is ‘forever.’ (Compare Genesis 9:8-17 and Exodus 31:12-17. Identical formulas, zero prophesy for a change in either, yet Christendom upholds the first and ignores the second. Why?)

    Deuteronomy 12:32-13:5 explains in very simple terms why Yeshua/Jesus did not and could not change the Torah. (This should also help you understand why Christendom has near zero credibility in Jewish missions with Jews who KNOW the Torah, despite ‘to the Jew first.’ They understand that a Yeshua/Jesus who changes or annuls the Sabbath, as an example, is a false Messiah.)

    Now to the verse in question. 5:17.

    “pleroo actually appears in the LXX nine times in the form plerosai,” translated as ‘consecrated,’ ‘dedicated,’ ‘fill,’ and ‘fulfill.’ More details and a good overview of HRM perspective on the larger scope of this topic in a paper here. I recommend it to see our perspective on this verse in context of larger Scripture.

    Yeshua, as our Atonement and as our perfect example, did not ‘fulfill’ the Torah so that He could change it or remove it as the will of our Father for righteous behavior. Rather, He ‘fulfilled’ it in the sense that He carried it out and taught it at its highest order. He consecrated it. It is something that comes from the heart. He did not relax the code, He HEIGHTENED the code and is the sacrifice when we sin. The code/instructions will stand until heaven and earth pass away.

    He NEVER did away with the Feasts of the Lord. He NEVER did away with Sabbath. He NEVER did away with the dietary laws. Never! (Roman Bishops and church ‘fathers’ did.) Had He done any of those things, He would have violated Torah and the Jews would have been duty bound and perfectly JUST in putting Him to death. Deuteronomy 13!

    May Abba bless you!


  3. greenbaggins said,

    January 7, 2014 at 9:28 pm

    Pete, nice bare assertion dog there.

    Amos 3:7 does not say that any change has to be announced ahead of time. That is something you are importing into the text. The only way you can make the text say that is if you assume that prophets are only and all about saying something ahead of time. But that is not the only thing that prophets do. Not all prophecy is about the future. They forth-tell as well as foretell. Any change in the law will be told to us, but the announcement could happen at the time of the change. It does not have to happen ahead of time.

    As to the Sabbath, you seem to ignore the Puritan view of the Sabbath entirely, don’t you? The Puritan view of the Sabbath is that it has abiding validity in the New Testament era, but that the day has changed. Again you assume that change equals abrogation in the way you put things. I once lent you The Market Day of the Soul, by James T. Dennison, but you apparently didn’t read it. It would be a good antidote to your seemingly complete ignorance of the Puritan view of the Sabbath.

    As to Deuteronomy 12:32-13:5, I am amazed at your twisting of that passage. First of all, God is addressing God’s people, not His own Son, who is law-giver along with the Father. This is explicit in 12:32 “Everything that I command _you_, _you_ shall be careful to do. _You_ shall not add to it or take from it.” This says nothing about what the God-man is able to do or not do with the law, since He is the lawgiver. Secondly, the danger in view in chapter 13 is clearly stated in verse 2: the false prophet is enticing God’s people to idolatry. This cannot possibly apply to Jesus, the lawgiver, changing the law in view of the eschatological situation that has arisen due to the arrival of the kingdom of God.

    That article you link to (which I would remind you is an extra-biblical source) is a piece of junk, frankly. Half of it is bare quotation of the Bible with no discussion whatsoever of the meaning of the passages it quotes. The sparse and measly “arguments” that remain don’t hold any water whatsoever. That is a terrible source, Pete, and I am frankly amazed that you would even quote it. It has all the hermeneutical carefullness of a bull in a china closet. There is hardly any argumentation whatsoever on the meaning of Matthew 5 except the highly truncated discussion of pleroo. It doesn’t even remotely address the issues I have brought up.

    You have not addressed the significant problem of the addition of the words “prophets” in Matthew 5, which negates any possible meaning of “pleroo” as a bare “doing” of the law. Pleroo has to cover the inclusion of the prophets as well as the law.

  4. Pete Rambo said,

    January 7, 2014 at 10:37 pm


    A God that can change His Law at will, or reneg on promises can not be trusted and gives zero assurance. You should consider building an ark!

    As to Dennison, funny you point me to him and then castigate me for my extra-biblical source. That is rich!! The Puritans were wrong on the Sabbath, regardless of their stretches of logic. Scripture does not support a change. The day Yeshua was raised had everything to do with the Feast of Firstfruits and nothing to do with a change of day. (Firstfruits always happened on the day after the first weekly Sabbath after Pesach.)

    And, the Deuteronomy passage is untwisted. In fact, you quote John 5… Do you believe Moses… or not?

    I do, and he points straight to a Torah obedient King who will reign from Zion according to the Torah (Is. 2:1-5) over the whole house of Israel (Ez. 37:24-28).


  5. greenbaggins said,

    January 7, 2014 at 11:44 pm

    God can change His law if He wills. You have already admitted that there is a change of some sort in the law, according to Hebrews 7, so you have already given the barn away on that one. I never said God reneges on His promises. He doesn’t. He fulfills absolutely every one of His promises. I wonder why you brought that up, since I never said it, and I certainly don’t believe it. You seem to be an expert on changing the topic, and charging me with beliefs I don’t hold.

    I have zero problem with quoting extra-biblical sources. I have never had problems with citing extra-biblical sources. If you do not know from past history why I brought up the topic, then your level of self-awareness is close to zero. And I am not going to hash that out on the blog, since it is personal.

    You charged that all of Christendom ignored the Sabbath. I answered that the Puritans did not, and, in fact, believed in the continuing validity of the Sabbath. The question of the change of day is a distinct topic from whether they ignored the Sabbath altogether. You can disagree with the Puritans (as you obviously do) on whether the day has changed. But you cannot charge the Puritans with ignoring the Sabbath, or with abrogating it. That was the reason I brought up the Puritans. So you changed the topic from ignoring the Sabbath altogether to the change of day. The charge I was countering is not the one you are talking about in your last comment, but the charge you leveled at all Christendom in comment 2. That is a false charge, and a lie. Will you or will you not admit any errors whatsoever in anything that you ever say? Or are you completely unteachable?

    Why are you saying that I do not believe Moses? I believe Moses, and I believe that Jesus gives us the key to understanding Moses: that the main subject of which Moses wrote is Jesus. And again, you simply quote more Scripture verses (Is 2 and Ez 37) without any explanation of the texts. This is not argumentation but mere assertion.

  6. Roy Kerns said,

    January 8, 2014 at 12:19 am

    Note, Pete, that the Westminster Standards treat the 4th C as part of the 10C’s. These did not come into existence at Sinai. Instead, from the Beginning they were so. In fact, each reflects something about the character of God. Thus say the WCF and WLC. For these reasons and others the Westminster Standards and Puritans did not merely believe in the continuing validity of the 4th C: they asserted, taught, and practiced that.

    As to change of day, any honest reading of the NT recognizes that the day of corporate worship did change. The question avoided and not faced is not whether the day changed, but how come it HAD to change. What happened in redemptive history such that, with no debate recorded, no discussion, no specific teaching, the Apostles (godly saints who knew, understood, and loved the Torah) and the church simply did congregate for worship on the First Day rather than the Seventh? What inherent in the 4th C itself demanded that change?

    Roy (since we’ve not met before, I identify myself as a member of Christ PCA, Tulsa.)

  7. Jack Bradley said,

    January 8, 2014 at 1:55 pm

    Lane wrote:

    “Carson is extremely helpful: ‘The antithesis is not between ‘abolish’ and ‘keep’ but between ‘abolish’ and ‘fulfill.’” [Lane]: “The meaning of the word [pleroo] in this context is therefore almost certainly “fulfill,” and not “establish.”

    Lane, I can appreciate Carson’s (and your) antithesis to a degree, but I think it doesn’t make full contact with the larger question of whether pleroo should be interpreted, “fulfill and transcend” or, “fulfill and establish.” You obviously are making a case for the former.

    But it seems that the largest issue Jesus is addressing in this text (Mt 5:17-20) is that the coming of the Kingdom does not abolish the law (as he was continually accused of), but rather establishes it: “. . . until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

    Yes, we must deal with the all-important qualifier, “until all is accomplished.” And I agree with your observation: “The law is not ahistorical, timeless and changeless, but has a telos, a goal. The law points forward to Jesus.”

    Yes, Jesus accomplishes the law in that the law points to/is fulfilled in Him (Romans 10:4). But the larger question remains: should pleroo should be primarily interpreted “fulfill and transcend” or “fulfill and establish”?

    I think Gordon Wenham makes a convincing case for the latter interpretation:

    “Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament (the law and the prophets), and he has certainly superseded the law in the sense that our relationship to God is now through Christ, not through the law. But Christ has not fulfilled and superseded the law in the sense that all Old Testament law ceases to be binding on a Christian. No; we have to distinguish those laws, which may be said to point forward to Christ and which are therefore unnecessary after his coming (e.g. The ceremonial laws according to Hebrews) and the moral laws, which do not so obviously point forward to Christ (though they were explained more fully by him) and which continue to be binding eternal moral truths for the Christian. These moral laws are ‘fulfilled’ by Christ in a very different sense from the ceremonial laws: they are not superseded, but rather are included in the new Christian framework of reference.”

    I certainly agree with you here: “The upshot of the passage is that there are aspects of continuity and discontinuity with regard to how the law of God applies after the events surrounding Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension.”

    Yes. As Wenham put it above: “Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament (the law and the prophets), and he has certainly superseded the law in the sense that our relationship to God is now through Christ, not through the law.”

    But Wenham gives a fuller picture in the entire paper (which is only four pages) of what is at stake in adopting the “fulfill and transcend” interpretation of pleroo. As he says above: “Christ has not fulfilled and superseded the law in the sense that all Old Testament law ceases to be binding on a Christian.”

    I’m not saying that you are connecting these dots from: “fulfill and transcend” to: “OT [moral] law ceases to be binding on a Christian.” But many do so connect them.

  8. greenbaggins said,

    January 8, 2014 at 5:36 pm

    Jack, I’m not sure that your position on this particular matter is all that different from mine. If one wants to say that Christ establishes the law as a pointer to Himself, that is much the same thing as saying that particular applications of the law have their telos in Him.

    Pete, one other thing. Make sure that if you or any of your family violates the Sabbath law in any respect, that they are executed. Exodus 31:14 specifically states that anyone who profanes the Sabbath day must be put to death. And, by your rule of interpretation, since there is no prophesied change to that law anywhere in the OT, and no obvious change to that law (by your hermeneutics) in the NT either, all Sabbath breakers must be executed. Guess you better start shooting. Or stoning.

  9. michael said,

    January 8, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    For me this sentence hits pay dirt:

    “… In some cases, that means drawing out the meaning of the law that was already there in the OT, but in certain other cases, it means a modification of the law in its application. …”.

    This seems to be where all the heat comes from whatever the issue is about?

    The simple resolution could be to quote Hebrews 1:1-4. Getting there for some is much easier than for others.

    Great articulation of how to resolve the HRM’s problem. Now if only they were mindful of your articulation?

  10. Jack Bradley said,

    January 8, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    “… Christ establishes the law as a pointer to Himself, that is much the same thing as saying that particular applications of the law have their telos in Him.”

    Lane, I’m sure most reformed folks would agree with this, but some would not agree with the continuing application of moral law. I can tell you from firsthand experience in some ordained quarters of the OPC that there is very little use for the Third use of the Law: to instruct Christians in godliness (its primary use, according to John Calvin).

  11. greenbaggins said,

    January 9, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    You’re right, Jack. Antinomianism is rife in the Reformed world, and indeed in the entire Christian world.

  12. Jack Bradley said,

    January 9, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    Yes. And I don’t mean to impugn even the few in the OPC who don’t subscribe to the 3rd Use, as consciously Antinomian. Sinclair Ferguson says it well in his sermon on the subject:

    “. . . this Antinomianism, error though it may be. . . let us beware. . . that we so often attribute the worst possible conclusions of theological positions to men who would themselves eschew such conclusions, and whose personal lives are beyond reproach.”

    But Ferguson clearly shows the doctrinal/practical issues at stake:
    “The law of the Lord as a rule of life is, in one sense or another, what Antinomianism denies.”

    I think our WCF says it beautifully: “Neither are the forementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the gospel, but do sweetly comply with it.”

    Law and Gospel, in this 3rd Use, “sweetly comply.” As Ralph Erskine put it:

    “When once the fiery law of God has chased us to the gospel road; then back unto the holy law most kindly gospel grace will draw.
    A rigid master was the law, demanding brick, denying straw; but when with gospel tongue it sings, it bids me fly, and gives me wings.”

    John Murray, Law & Grace

    “The purity and integrity of the gospel stand or fall with the absoluteness of the antithesis between the function and potency of law, on the one hand, and the function and potency of grace, on the other. But while all this is true it does not by any means follow that the antithesis eliminates all relevance of the law to the believer as a believer. The facile slogan of many a professed evangelical, when confronted with the claims of the law of God, to the effect that he is not under law but under grace, should at least be somewhat disturbed when it is remembered that the same apostle upon whose formula he relies said also that he was not without law to God but under law to Christ (I Corinthians 9:21).

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