Matthew 5:17-20,  Jesus and the law

Matthew 5:17-20 comprises the following sections:

  • Matthew 5:17-18, on Jesus' own role in fulfilling the law
  • Matthew 5:17-20, on the status of the least commandment and the requirements of righteousness

Jesus, having addressed the rewards of loyalty to Israel's God, now moves on to examine the key issue of how God's children were intended to obey their heavenly father. For Israel, those commandments were embodied within the law, so, for them to obey their heavenly father required that the law be both communicated and obeyed. In this section, Jesus addresses both issues. For the law to be genuinely communicated to the world, then those with that light must be displayed before it. For the law to fulfill its role, then it must be kept, but not simply in the way that Jesus' contemporaries were accustom to keeping it. A greater level of righteousness was required and so this section serves to introduce the Antitheses, in which Jesus contrasts current understanding of the law, with his understanding of it.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus appears to be advocating a strict compliance with the law, and yet the gospels are quite candid in recording how often his critics accused him of breaking it. This criticism, together with later comments concerning the law in the letters of Paul, in practice, he simply understood aspects of the law that his peers had overlooked. To undermine such criticism he emphasised that God’s commands are permanent and that status within the Kingdom of Heaven belonged to those who both kept them and taught others to keep them.