Fulfillment unto Righteousness


by John Drury




Matthew 5:17-20


17) “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets: I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  18) For truly I say to you, until the heaven and the earth shall pass away, one iota or one tittle will in no way pass away from the law, until all has been accomplished.  19) Whoever then shall break one of the least of these commandments, and shall teach men so, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever shall practice and teach, this one will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  20) For I say to you, that unless your righteousness will abound above that of the scribes and Pharisees, in no way will you enter into the kingdom of heaven.”[i]



            In these words Jesus rebuts any accusation that he and his followers are antinomians.  On the contrary, they claim to be the true followers of the law.  I propose this claim to be the meaning of plhrwsai the law.  Jesus has come to fulfill the law in his actions, and his disciples are to follow suit by fulfilling the law according to his interpretation of it.  The “new law” which follows (5:21-7:12) is introduced by this statement of purpose: Jesus fulfills the law in deed and word so that his disciples may too have a better righteousness.

Setting the Stage

            Matthew 5:17-20 can be treated as an independent formal unit.  Whether the teaching originated with Matthew or contains pre-Matthean material,[ii] it congeals into one coherent thought in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.  It functions as a hinge between the introductory material of 5:3-16 and the body of the SM in 5:20-7:12.  It is best understood as an introduction to Jesus’ “new law,” comprised of the following antitheses (5:21-48)[iii] as well as better righteousness described in 6:1-7:12. 

            Before offering his new interpretation of the law, Jesus presents these “hermeneutical principles,” as Hans Dieter Betz refers to them.[iv]  Jesus affirms the validity of the law in the face of opposition and calls his disciples to practice the law according to his forthcoming interpretation.[v]  This interpretation follows familiar Rabbinic techniques.[vi]  Such a succinct introduction is stylistically unique.  Matthew 5:17-20 poignantly sets the stage for the body of the Jesus’ interpretation of the law.

            Matthew 5:17-20 would have certainly been a key passage in the Matthean community.  It could be used as both a polemic against a false understanding of their attitude toward the law as well as an apologetic for their particular approach to Judaism.  These verses contain parallelisms making them easy to memorize,[vii] so any member of the community would have access to these identity-forming words.

Action-Oriented Argument

            However, these words are not merely meant to repeated as a creed.  Their meaning points directly to responsive action by the hearers.  Jesus’ disciples are to have a better righteousness because of his fulfillment of the law.  The relationship of v. 17-18 to v. 19-20 will make this clear.

            Each verse of Matthew 5:17-20 may stand alone as a complete thought.[viii]  However, together they form a continuous argument in two movements.[ix]  The first movement declares Jesus’ fulfillment of the law (17-18).  The second exhorts the hearers to a response of better righteousness (20).  This two-part structure is signified not only by the content of the verses but also the presence of the transitional oun.   The following outline exhibits this rhetorical connection:

I. Declaration of Purpose: Jesus has come to fulfill the Law (17-18)

     A. Purpose Statement (17)

            a  Falsified Statement: Do not think that I have come

                                                    to abolish the law or the prophets

            b  Corrected Statement: I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

     B. Substantiating Statement: Affirmation of the Law (18) 


            For truly I say to you,

                 a  Qualification: until the heaven and the earth shall pass away,

            b  Affirmation: one iota or one tittle will in no way pass away from the law

                 c  Qualification: until all has been accomplished.




II. Exhortation: Do and Teach Jesus’ Fulfilled Law unto a Better Righteousness (19-20)

     A. First Call: Keep the Law (19)

            [antithetical parallelism]

            a  Whoever then shall break one of the least of these commandments,

                 and shall teach men so,

            b  will be called least in the kingdom of heaven;

            c  but whoever shall practice and teach,

            d  this one will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

     B. Second Call: Better Righteousness (20)

            For I say to you,

            a  that unless your righteousness will abound above that

                 of the scribes and Pharisees,

            b  in no way will you enter into the kingdom of heaven.


            The aim of the argument therefore points toward the righteousness of the disciples.  Jesus’ own purpose with regard to the law is not an end in itself.  This ought not to come as a surprise, for Matthew 5:17-20 lies amid the didache of the SM.  Therefore, the meaning of Jesus’ words about the law must be understood in relation to the practice which flows out of them.

 Action-Oriented Fulfillment Language

            How does the righteousness of the disciples relate to Jesus’ statement of purpose?  The connection is far more subtle than simply obedience to his teaching.  Throughout his whole gospel, Matthew depicts a deep continuity between Jesus and his disciples.  They share in his mission.  If Jesus has come to fulfill the law, so they too must fulfill it.

            Awareness of this continuity raises difficulty in the interpretation of plhrwsai.  What does is mean for Jesus to have come plhrwsai the Law?  How can the disciples possibly participate in this act?  Plhrwsai is often interpreted in direct contradiction to katalusai.  Katalusai is rightly understood as a technical legal term,[x] meaning to abrogate a once valid law.  Matthew uses the term later in a non-legal sense with regard to the destruction of the Temple (24:2; 26:61; 27:40).  However, it is appropriate to see the legal use at work in the teaching context of the SM.

            However, the interpreter ought not to use the lingual contrast of 5:17 to lock plhrwsai into a strictly legal sense.[xi]  Plhrow plays too large a role in Matthew’s depiction of Jesus as the fulfillment of Scripture.  Before the first word of the SM is spoken, Jesus’ life story has fulfilled the words of the prophets five times (1:22; 2:15; 2:17; 2:23; 4:14).  Throughout the rest of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will fulfill the scriptures seven more times (8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:54; 26:56; 27:9).  Only twice does Matthew use plhrow in the more straightforward sense of “to fill up” (13:48; 23:32).  Even without 5:17, Matthew’s Jesus is clearly the one who comes plhrwsai the scriptures.

            What is unique to 5:17 is the combination of plhrow with a hlqon purpose statement.  Furthermore, the context is that of teaching rather than narrative action.  How does this peculiar instance tie into the Matthean verbal thread traced above?  Most commentators let it stand alone as a statement of Jesus’ attitude toward the Law.  Albright and Mann say it refers to Jesus’ “mission as it related to the Law.”[xii]  Dibelius defines Jesus’ fulfillment of laws as “deepening and extending their significance” in order to “ascertain the true will of God.”[xiii] Betz goes as far as to say that “the significance of his coming (that is, the aim and result of his historical existence) was his interpretation of the Torah -- and nothing more.”[xiv]   These interpretations are forced to ignore Matthew’s persistent use of plhrow to describe Jesus’ unique scripture-fulfilling life.

            The misunderstanding lies in a false distinction between doing and teaching.[xv]  Jesus ministry fulfills the scriptures in deed.  His teaching would seem to fulfill the scriptures in word.  Yet teaching is not an end in itself.  It is pointed toward action.  Teaching finds its final purpose and meaning when it is enacted.  So both Jesus’ doing and his teaching end in doing.  Embodied righteousness is the final goal.[xvi]        So Matthew 5:17-20 represents far more than Jesus’ “hermeneutical principles.”  It is an invitation to join him as he fulfills the law and the prophets.[xvii]

Conflict, Identity, and Dikaiosunh

            This invitation turns us to the goal of Jesus’ purpose statement: the better righteousness of the disciples.  This better righteousness is defined in contrast with the Pharisees and scribes.  Matthew’s text transparently reveals the conflict between the Matthean community and contemporary Pharisees and scribes.  They are being persecuted for their unique approach to Jewish Law.  Furthermore, Matthew’s community is troubled over its association with false believers.[xviii]  Matthew depicts the community as having both good and bad persons in it (10; 13:37-43; 22:11-14). How can they secure their identity amid these external and internal pressures?

             These words of Jesus serve as exhortation to have a righteousness even greater than those who persecute them.  This is their part in fulfilling the law.  The verbal connection to Matthew 3:15 is unmistakable: Jesus is to be baptized in order to plhrwsai pasan dikaiosunhn.[xix]  Fulfillment in 3:15 is action-oriented.  In the same way, the disciples are to “fulfill all righteousness” by following Jesus’ interpretation of the Law.  Dikaiosunh continues to be to thrust of Jesus’ SM exhortation to his disciples (5:6, 10; 6:1; 6:33).  It appears that dikaiosunh describes proper action in accordance with God’s will as mediated through Jesus’ teaching.  It is the final criterion for entrance into the Kingdom.

            However, more is at work in Matthew’s use of dikaiosunh than eschatological threat.  The Matthean community must have a better righteousness in order to secure their identity as the true followers of the Torah.  Hence the call to righteousness (v. 19-20) is rooted in the affirmation of the Law (v. 17-18).  In the context of a persecuted formative group, it is overwhelming necessary to affirm the community’s continuity with an grand tradition such as the Jewish Law.[xx]  Matthew 5:17-20 responds to the charge that Jesus’ followers are antinomians. [xxi]  Jesus’ affirmation of the Law is not only a matter of legal creed; it is matter of identity.[xxii]   The only way for the Matthean community to secure this identity is to have a righteousness which exceeds even that of their accusers.  Such a better righteousness must have an integrity[xxiii] consistent with Jesus teaching in 5:21-7:12.

Conclusion and Application

            Jesus has come to fulfill the scriptures.  He does so by embodying them in his life.  This embodiment is to be carried out in his disciples too.  Jesus’ purpose statement of fulfillment finds its own fulfillment in the righteousness of his followers.  I have tried to show that the verbal tie between Matthew 5:17-20 and narrative of Jesus’ life drives home this point.  Furthermore, this point would have been well taken by a community in the midst of an identity crisis.  Despite accusations to the contrary, Jesus and his followers are the true embodiment of the Jewish Law.

            Identity remains an issue for Christians to this day.  We can listen over the shoulder to the Matthean crisis and empathize in their struggle.  In the post-Christian Western culture, the church gropes in the dark for a worthy identity.  The call of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is better righteousness.  In response to the accusation of hypocrisy, we must pursue integrity.  We have the authority of Jesus, but it is worth very little if we do not carry on his fulfillment.

            We also cannot ignore the fact that Jesus unabashedly affirms the Jewish Law.  This reminds us to have a renewed respect and understanding of our Jewish contemporaries.  It also critiques any tendency toward antinomianism.  We are clearly called to be law-fulfilling persons.  The Christian tradition has debated for centuries over how to remain lawful while affirming the particular significance of Jesus.  The place to start would be the Sermon on the Mount.  In the face of uncertainty and interpretive dialogue, we must never forget the importance of doing the Sermon on the Mount.[xxiv]  As this paper has shown, Jesus’ teaching is only completed by our action.


Fall 2001



                [i] This translation is based on the text found in United Bible Societies, The Greek New Testament, 4th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Biblegesellschaft, 1994).  The text is in remarkably good condition so there will be no need for textual criticism.

                [ii] The only synoptic parallel is found in Luke 16:17: “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.”  Davies and Allison are comfortable crediting Mt. 5:17-20 along with Luke 16:17 as outworkings of Q, cf. The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Vol. 1 (International Critical Commentary; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988) 482.  Donald Hagner see them as four independent sayings combined by Matthew, cf. Matthew 1-13 (Word Biblical Commentary; Dallas: Word Books, 1993) 104.  If we take the two-document hypothesis as a given, the parallel implies some pre-M material.  However, Matthew’s arrangement and influence is great enough that one would be hard-pressed to draw further source conclusions.

                [iii] Gerhard Barth agrees that v. 20 is a heading for 5:21-48, cf. Bornkamm, Barth, and Held, Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963) 73.

                [iv] Betz, Hans Dieter Essays on the Sermon on the Mount (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985) 37-53 and The Sermon on the Mount (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995) 166-197.

                [v] Although twn entolwn toutwn could refer to the Torah itself, it is best understood as Jesus’ interpretation of it as found in the SM.  In the context of the Rabbinic Judaism, following the Law was contingent on the proper interpretation of it.  In this case, Matthew claims Jesus’ interpretation to be proper.

                [vi] For Rabbinic parallels, see W. D. Davies, The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964) 301, 307.

                [vii] Hagner, Matthew 104.

                [viii] H. D. Betz provided helpful suggestions as to the structure of each verse in Essays 44, 46, 52.

                [ix] The outline found in Davies and Allison, Matthew 481 supports this two part structure.  However, they break the two parts at v. 20, whereas I propose v. 19 and v. 20 are both exhortative statements.  I believe the oun in v. 19 indicates this logical transition.

                [x] H. D. Betz, The Sermon on the Mount 177.

                [xi] Doulgas Hare in Matthew (Interpretation; Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1993) 47, interprets plhrwsai in this manner, saying Jesus came to “establish” the Law.  This makes good sense of the v. 17, but does not take into account Matthew’s use of plhrow throughout his gospel.

                [xii] Albright and Mann, Matthew (Anchor Bible; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971) 59.

                [xiii] Martin Dibelius, The Sermon on the Mount (New York: Scribner’s, 1940) 71.

                [xiv] H. D. Betz, Essays 42.

                [xv] Ulrich Luz casts his entire discussion of plhrwsai in light of this dichotomy; cf. Matthew 1-7 (A Continental Commentary; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989) 260-61.

                [xvi] Support for this thesis is found in Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew (Sacra Pagina; Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991) 81: “The close connection between teaching and doing is one of Matthew’s favorite themes.”  Davies elaborates on this connection: Jesus “fulfills the essential demand of God .... so that to obey his words is to imitate him ... not as the interpreter of the Law is Jesus most emphasized but as its fulfillment: not the substantive pesher, but the verbal plhrwsai is natural to the Evangelist’s pen in connection with Jesus, both in his words and deeds,” Setting 96.  Davis and Allison see fulfillment as transcending and completing the Law, cf. Matthew 486.  Any understanding of fulfillment as telos is on the right path as long as the connection between teaching and action is maintained.

                [xvii] J Andrew Overman describes Matthew’s community as followers of Jesus and fellow “fulfillers” of the Law along with him, cf. Matthew’s Gospel and Formative Judaism: The Social World of the Matthean Community. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990) 87.

                [xviii] This conflict from within the Jesus movement turns the interpreter’s eye toward Pauline Christianity.  Is the Matthean community trying to disassociate itself with the Pauline tradition?  H. D. Betz, Essays 51 would like to think so, pointing to elacistos (v. 19) as an allusion to I Cor. 15:9.  While the struggle with antinomian Christians is a possibility (Gerhard Barth Tradition and Interpretation 159), it is stretch to think Matthew is setting himself up directly against Paul (see Davies Setting 334-335).  Craig S. Keener clarifies the problem by saying “5:17 is non-Pauline, but not anti-Pauline,” cf. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990) 176.  It is important to note that Matthew’s uses of elacistos (2:6; 25:40; 25:45) consistently function as a sort of ironic compliment.  If 5:17 is a jab at Paul, it nevertheless includes him among the faithful and awards him the ironic honor of being least in the Kingdom. H. D. Betz agrees that Paul would be quite happy with such a verdict (Essays 51).

                [xix] Ulrich Luz supports this connection (Matthew 269).

                [xx] This theory is in opposition to Albert Schweitzer’s claim that Jesus’ simply saw the Law as a non-issue since the imminent Kingdom would invalidate it anyway, in The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (New York: Seabury Press, 1968) 190.  In support of the significance of Jesus’ affirmation, Gerhard Barth points out that “18a simply means in the popular mind ‘until the end of the world,’ which means never” (Tradition and Interpretation 65).  18c softens this eternal statement, yet “until all is accomplished” would be easily interpreted by Matthew’s audience as the delayed parousia, henceforth relegating the Law to abide for quite some time.

                [xxi] Overman to this accusation as the “background noise” of Matthew 5:17, in Church and Community in Crisis: The Gospel According to Matthew (The New Testament In Context; Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press, 1996) 78.  H. D. Betz points to some “bowdlerization” of Jesus’ words in circulation at the time of Matthew’s writing (Essays 41 and Sermon on the Mount 175).

                [xxii] Overman draws this out well: “To argue about the law and its interpretation is to argue about myself, my community, and to engage in the profound process of self-understanding and identification” (Church and Community in Crisis 80).

                [xxiii] Bornkamm points out that the Matthew’s primary complaint with the Pharisees and scribes is their hypocrisy (Tradition and Interpretation 24).

                [xxiv] This needed reminder was advanced by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose significance for SM interpretation is chronicled by Warren S. Kissinger on page 85 of The Sermon on the Mount: A History of Interpretation and Bibliography (Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1975).






Text & Translation:

Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 2nd ed.  Stuttgart: Deutsche Biblegesellschaft, 1998.

Metzger, Bruce M. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration 2nd ed.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968.

United Bible Societies, The Greek New Testament, 4th ed. Stuttgart: Deutsche Biblegesellschaft, 1994.

Zerwick, Max and Grosvenor, Mary. A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament, 5th ed.  Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1996.

Background & Reference Materials:

Bauman, Clarence.  The Sermon on the Mount: The Modern Quest for Its Meaning.  Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1985.

Bornkamm, Gunther; Barth, Gerhard; and Held, Heinz Joachim.  Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963.

Davies, W. D. The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964.

Friedlander, Gerald.  The Jewish Sources of the Sermon on the Mount. New York: KTAV Publishing, 1969.

Kissinger, Warren S.  The Sermon on the Mount: A History of Interpretation and Bibliography. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1975.

Moulton, W. F. and Geden, A. S.  A Concordance to the Greek Testament, 5th ed. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1978.

Overman, J. Andrew. Matthew’s Gospel and Formative Judaism: The Social World of the Matthean Community. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.

Schubert, Kurt.  “The Sermon on the Mount and the Qumran Texts.” The Scrolls and the New Testament.  Krister Stendahl, ed. New York: Harper & Bros., 1957. 118-128.

Commentaries and Books:

Albright, W. F. and Mann, C. S. Matthew. Anchor Bible. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971.

Betz, Hans Dieter.  Essays on the Sermon on the Mount. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985. 

Betz, Hans Dieter. The Sermon on the Mount. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995.

Bonheoffer, Dietrich.  The Cost of Discipleship. New York: MacMillian, 1963.

Calvin, John. Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993.

Davies, W. D. and Allison, Dale C.  The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Vol. 1.  International Critical Commentary. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988.

Dibelius, Martin.  The Sermon on the Mount. New York: Scribner’s, 1940.

Hagner, Donald A. Matthew 1-13. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word Books, 1993.

Hare, Douglas R. A.  Matthew.  Interpretation. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1993.

Harrington, Daniel J. The Gospel of Matthew. Sacra Pagina. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991.

John Wesley. “Sermon on the Mount, Discourse V.” The Works of John Wesley. Vol. 5. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978.

Johnson, Sherman E. The Gospel According to St. Matthew. The Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. 7. Nashville: Abingdon, 1951. 229-625.

Keener, Craig S. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990.

Long, Thomas G.  Matthew.  Westminster Bible Companion.  Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.

Luz, Ulrich.  Matthew 1-7.  A Continental Commentary.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989.

Overman, J. Andrew. Church and Community in Crisis: The Gospel According to Matthew. The New Testament In Context. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press, 1996.