Jesus' Fulfilment of the Law in Matthew 5:17: A Panacea for Breaking the Law in Africa.

Author:Sewakpo, Honore
Position:Mosaic Law - Critical essay


[phrase omitted]

Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets;

[phrase omitted]

I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.

The above passage reflects how Jesus' constant manner of speaking in regard to the Jewish religion and Scriptures shows the reverence in which he held them. The Old Testament represents the first steps in a great course of revelation and redemption which reaches its consummation in Christ himself. There were imperfections in the Jewish religion which were incidental to its character and purpose. It was in its very nature provisional and preparatory, and was adapted to an early and rude stage of human development (Matthew 5: 38, 39; 19:8; Mark 7:15; 12:33). (1) Similarly, the image projected in Africa since the early seventies has been one of strife, mismanagement, cruel leadership and self-serving elites. (2)

In addition, philosophical issues have become burdened with political and emotional issues giving rise to inconsistencies which have made progress towards a greater respect for the rule of law difficult and embarrassing. The questions arising from the above submission are in what ways did Jesus fulfil the Law and the prophets? And how could Jesus fulfil the Law in Matthew serve as a catalyst to addressing breaking the Law in Africa? The most important passage, in its bearing on these problems, is [phrase omitted]. "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them" (Matthew 5:17).

Driver (3) attests to Moses as the leader under whom Israel was delivered from the Egyptian bondage, led through the wilderness, and received a revelation. The formulation of many customs and institutions from which the later national system was developed came through him, so that Israel as a people owed its existence to Moses, a unique personality of supreme importance in the Old Testament. It is hardly contestable that the laws which came to guide the lives of Israel are attributed to Moses. For instance, the commandment, ordinances and statutes contained in the Law books (Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers) were given directly to Moses by Yahweh. Many of the laws and institutions of the Pentateuch originated with Moses or at least received his sanction. On this Peterson (4) notes that we must look upon Moses as Israel looked upon him, that is, the original Law maker to whom all laws are ascribed. Through the Law Moses established a firm relationship in the wilderness of Kadesh between the Israelites and Yahweh, thereby becoming the originator of the Torah in Israel. Obedience to these laws was to be the distinguishing mark of the Israelites from other nations. These laws covered all aspects of life, regulating relationships and dealing with both personal and economic matters. They laid down guidelines for the way Israel would relate to other nations; they regulated the cult and its sacrifices through which their sins could be forgiven. Sometimes the Israelites obeyed these laws carefully and experienced God's blessings in their national life. At other times they disregarded God's laws and brought sanctions upon themselves; they were overrun by other nations and eventually suffered exile. It must not be misconstrued that Mosaic Law in all its detail is a human production, applicable to a particular people in a rude age, though it contains some moral precepts universally accepted. After the coming of Jesus Christ, obedience to the Mosaic Law was no longer the distinguishing mark of the people of God. They were now distinguished by their faith in Jesus Christ and participation in his spirit. The Law continued to have an educative role for them, but it was no longer the regulatory norm under which they lived. (5)

Kidder and Hodge affirm that the moral teaching of Christianity does not differ, in the main, from the moral teachings of philosophy. Unbelievers accept them, not as the result of revelation or the offspring of religion, but as the best deductions of human experience and thought. They are apart entirely from matters of doctrinal belief or religious worship, and just as good coming from Zoroaster as from Solomon, from Buddha as from Jesus, from Socrates as from Paul, from Shakespeare as from Augustine. (6)

Humans, therefore, are essentially moral beings since "the law written on humans' hearts" and "the light of nature" renders humans moral agents, capable of doing right in many relations and responsible in all known relations, irrespective of any supernatural revelation whatsoever.

For Meyer (7) the ritual of the Torah seems to have left New Testament thought free to entertain the property and expediency of its entire omission. But it must be born in mind that the early Christian church was modelled after the Jewish synagogue rather than the Jewish temple. As far as the ritual of the synagogue is contained, in the Torah may not the latter be regarded as fundamental to Christian worship? The New Testament is not anti-nomistic in the sense of being opposed to any vital principle of the Law. Paul's apparent anti-nomianism is only on the surface. Christ came not to abolish but intensify and supplement Old Testament ethics and religion.

Religion in Africa, as elsewhere, is a fact of life, a fait accompli. Neither persecution nor death can prevail against it. Religion has, indeed, long been recognised as one of those inalienable rights of man. Religious liberty is today accepted as "a normative principle for almost all nations and, conversely, the denial of religious liberty is viewed virtually everywhere as morally and legally invalid." (8) Law in Africa is that left over from colonial days, plus ethnic or customary law, plus the new law (Constitutions and statutes) made since independence of those nations. (9) Law in Africa bears the imprint of the nationalism which expresses the continent's universal feeling at the moment.

Prevalent approaches to Matthew 5:17

The passage, [phrase omitted] "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Matthew 5:17), has long been considered of fundamental importance for an understanding of Jesus' attitude to the Law through four main approaches in recent scholarship. These are (i) historic-critical, (ii) form-critical, (iii) redaction-critical and (iv) textual-critical approaches. (i) In the first stage of historic-critical enquiry it was almost unanimously accepted as an authentic utterance of Jesus; (ii) however, with the arrival of form-critical methodology, it was, for the most part, relegated to a conservative Jewish-Christian milieu; (iii) since the advent of redaction-critical analysis more emphasis has been placed on the role of Matthew in reworking the tradition; (iv) nevertheless, where investigation of Matthew's genuineness has been undertaken, Matthew 5:17 generally continues to be viewed as a creation of the later Church rather than as an original utterance of Jesus though this has been less true of Matthew 5:17 than of succeeding verses. For the purpose of this study, Ralph Martin's grammatico-historical approach to biblical exegesis was used to elicit information from the selected biblical text. In this approach, an inquiry is made into what the words (Greek grammata) meant to the original recipients of the passage under study.

Since the original autographs of biblical texts are no longer available, the scholar should make use of the 'best' translation. Ralph is of the opinion that the best translation is the one that is close to the original manuscript after it has been subjected to thorough textual criticism. (10) The fulfilment of the Law and the prophets by Jesus Christ is a great historic process, the adequate understanding of which requires a careful study of the text, [phrase omitted] "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Matthew 5:17).


Stevens (11) maintains that the passage, [phrase omitted] "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them" (Matthew 5:17), must be read in the light of the explanations and application which follow it. Jesus proceeds to say that [phrase omitted] "not an iota, not a dot will pass from the law," a statement which, if read by itself, would seem to indicate the perpetual validity of the whole Old Testament system, ritual, sacrifice, and all. But to the statement in question Jesus immediately adds: [phrase omitted] "until all is accomplished". He does not, therefore, say that no part of this system shall ever pass away (as it has done, and that, too, in consequence of his own teaching), but only that no part of it shall escape the process of fulfilment; that it shall not pass away till, having served its providential purpose, it is fulfilled in the gospel.

Matthew 5:17 has no parallel in other synoptic gospels. The opening words [phrase omitted] "do not think" are employed as a rhetorical device to strengthen the positive aspect of the following statement: [phrase omitted] "I have...

To continue reading