The Last Measure — Matthew 5:17-20
Everything about this passage hangs on how you understand Matthew’s choice of the Greek word for “fulfill” (pleroo play-rah’-oh) in verse 17.
Once again, let’s remind ourselves that there are two primary issues behind this sermon: (1) renewing the Covenant (2) for the coming of the Messiah. Jesus flatly says that He didn’t come to “destroy” the Covenant. The Greek word here is kataluo (kat-ah-loo’-oh), meaning to allow something to disintegrate. In other words, Jesus confirms the Covenant. That’s the whole meaning of the Messiah; He fulfills all of the promises as a living fulfillment.
But what was the whole point of the Covenant? It was revelation; Israel the nation was chosen to convey Israel the message. By living according to the Covenant with their Maker and Master, Israel would convey to the world who the Creator was in terms of His provision for life in a fallen world. The codes of law gave shape to His moral character, an outline humanity could recognize. God would back their declaration by showing that Creation itself was on board with this. The Covenant granted all kinds of promises, summed up in the word shalom. But the emphasis was peace with God. Anyone with half a brain in the Ancient Near East would have recognized that it was all a parable, acting out the protocols of making Jehovah a feudal Sheikh. And He in turn would offer a covenant of adoption as family; those who entered this covenant were His own kinfolk.
There was a little of that imagery still swirling around in the minds of common Jewish people, despite at least a couple of centuries of increasing legalism among the rabbis and leaders. The Covenant was progressively rendered lifeless and dead by that legalism. So along comes Jesus claiming that He was the whole point of the Covenant. Whatever that legalism had done to vacate the Covenant, Jesus was coming onto the scene to put it all back into place. That “fulfill” meant to pack something full, to fill up what was missing to make it complete. Jesus was the final revelation of God’s Person in a human form; you couldn’t get any closer to the Creator than to get to know Jesus, His Son. Jesus was the Covenant, because He was One with the Father who gave that covenant.
Thus, in verse 18 He says that the Covenant would remain intact and applicable as it ever was, so long as our current existence remains. Not the Talmudic perversion of the Covenant, but the same eternal promise of God to make family out of anyone who bows the knee before the Creator and claims Him as feudal Lord. Jesus became that Flaming Sword at the gate of Eden. Whatever it is that God intends to do on the earth with mankind is still rooted in this covenant, but it was the Covenant as it would be with Jesus making it complete. That is, the Covenant was whatever Jesus said it was. In His own mind, Jesus knew that this meant His death on the Cross, and His resurrection. As the Letter of Hebrews explains, Jesus planned to update the terms of the Covenant with the full authority of the Maker of that Covenant.
There was one major reason for updating the Covenant: It was badly broken on the Jews’ end. In verse 19 Jesus warns that those who try to shortcut the Covenant would be cut out of the provisions and privileges of adoption into the Sheikh’s household. The “whole law” was not a matter of cataloging each nitpicking legalistic requirement, but it was the very personal commitment that any ANE sheikh would have required for adoption as his children. God’s favor was reserved for those who truly favored Him.
And lest there be any mistake, in verse 20 Jesus points out that the Scribes and Pharisees don’t get it. They were the ones teaching legalistic shortcuts. Their brand of righteousness was badly broken, a complete failure of the Covenant. It was the kind of rightness that was pure legalism, as if God never knew their hearts, but admired their smart-ass intellectual maneuvering and semantic wrangling. In their mythology, God had to admit He was bound by their acumen in twisting His words. Jesus was restoring the image of God as the ANE shepherd sheikh. This was the God of ancient mystical wisdom, who sees through the lip service and empty protocols, the God who knows hearts and measures genuine loyalty.
Jesus came to restore the Covenant to what it meant in Heaven. That His nation would reject Him and murder Him was proof they were unworthy of the Covenant. They had abrogated the terms of adoption and were about to be disowned and disinherited. He was about to offer it to the rest of humanity on a much clearer explanation of the terms.