Matthew 5:17-20

From The Kingdom series.

Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.  For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter  or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

(Mt. 5:17–20)

Jesus always confounds people. He came speaking a different kind of language, used different words, and had different priorities to the teachers of his day. So therefore he came to destroy it. Or at least that must have been what people were thinking.

Why else would Jesus say: Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill? (Mt 5:17)Maybe that’s the kind of thing messianic aspirants did back in the day. Jesus is saying to them: “I am the opposite of what you think – I have come to fulfill the Law, fulfill the prophets, not destroy them”. This much is clear, but what does it mean?

Firstly, the Law is just a category name for the first five books of the Hebrew Bible – the Torah. A better word for us today might be “Instruction”. “Law” feels so, well, lawyer-ish at times. And the prophets (Nevi-I’m) is the division of the Hebrew Scriptures that cover what we recognise today as the historical and prophetic books. Here’s a link with the breakdown.

In this passage, Jesus is talking about the relationship between the Kingdom of heaven and the Law, so it’s important we understand what he is and is not saying.


Let’s take a closer look at the word translated as fulfill.  The word is πληρόω (plēroō) which carries the sense of completeness, fill to the top, accomplish, cram a net or carry out. Jesus is saying: “I’m not here to burn it all down, I’m here to show how you can actually live out the Law and Prophets in the fullest sense.” His message to his audience was “Live your life out fully by following the principles laid down in the Torah and emphasised and illustrated  in the Prophets. The way we are going to get there is by me giving you a new way to think about it.”

Passing Away

There is something troubling here for some modern-day Christians and it is the use-by date. Jesus said that “until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter (a jot or a tittle) will pass away until all things are accomplished. (Mt 5:18). It’s troubling because many of us like to think we can put that “law” stuff behind us now because we are in the age of Jesus, faith, grace and all that good stuff.

Heaven and earth passing away does seem to point to a future time in history. Even future for us. How do we deal with this? Well, “heaven and earth” is a key phrase- it reminds us of creation (Gen. 1:1,2:1, 2:4, 14:19, Ex 20:11 etc). Jesus repeats the idea towards the end of his earthly ministry:

Heaven and earth will pass away,  but My words will never pass away. (Mt. 24:35). 

Not one word from the Law or the Prophets will pass away. Not one word of his will pass away… Wait! Is Jesus saying the Law and the Prophets are his words too?

So we must turn to Paul to bolster our growing “it must be faith, not law” panic. Here’s a verse from Romans:

Do we then cancel the law through faith? Absolutely not!  On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Rom. 3:31). 

That was unexpected! Paul is saying he upholds the Law as well…. Let’s keep looking.

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness  to everyone who believes. (Rom. 10:4).

Whew, that’s better. Paul must have been having an off-day when he wrote Romans 3:31.

However, the “end” here is τέλος (telos) which means end-point or culmination. So again, we are not talking about replacement of the Law but rather the perfect fulfilment of it in Christ. Not “no longer relevant” so much as “ultimate purpose”.

And there seems to be a practical implication of this for those who follow Jesus:

Therefore, whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them—this is the Law and the Prophets. (Mt. 7:12)

And Romans disappoints again:

Do not owe anyone anything,  except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments: Do not commit adultery; do not murder; do not steal; do not covet;  and whatever other commandment—all are summed up by this: Love your neighbor as yourself.  Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, therefore, is the fulfillment of the law. (Rom. 13:8–10)

Joking of course. This passage makes the point about fulfilling the Law by actually  quoting the Law – the Ten Commandments no less, and “whatever other commandment” there may be. All are fulfilled when we learn to love like Jesus loved. Is there a theme emerging here ?

So back to the heaves and earth passing away thing. 

Dear friends, this is now the second letter  I have written to you; in both letters, I want to develop a genuine  understanding with a reminder, so that you can remember the words previously spoken by the holy prophets and the command of our Lord and Savior given through your apostles. First, be aware of this: Scoffers will come in the last days  to scoff, living according to their own desires, saying, “Where is the promise of His coming?  Ever since the fathers fell asleep,  all things continue as they have been since the beginning of creation.” They willfully ignore this: Long ago the heavens and the earth were brought about from water and through water  by the word of God.  Through these waters the world of that time perished when it was flooded.  But by the same word,  the present heavens and earth are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment  and destruction of ungodly men. 

Dear friends, don’t let this one thing escape you: With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.  The Lord does not delay His promise,  as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any  to perish  but all to come to repentance. 

But the Day of the Lord  will come like a thief;   on that day the heavens will pass away  with a loud noise, the elements will burn and be dissolved,  and the earth and the works on it will be disclosed.  Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, it is clear what sort of people you should be in holy conduct and godliness as you wait for and earnestly desire the coming  of the day of God.  The heavens will be on fire and be dissolved because of it, and the elements will melt with the heat. But based on His promise, we wait for the new heavens and a new earth,  where righteousness will dwell. (2 Pet. 3:1–13).

Let’s trace the argument. Long ago, the heavens and earth were brought about from water and through water by God’s word. (3:5). There was a judgment then – the world  perished. (3:6). By this same word, the present heavens and earth are stored up for another judgment using fire – the agent of destroying judgment. (3:7) The ungodly will be destroyed at that time. 

Based on God’s promise, (3:13) there will be a new heavens and a new earth where righteousness will dwell and this is God’s ultimate destination – a perfect realm where everyone there is living in right relationship with God and each other – a world where the greatest commandments are lived out by everyone all the time.

So as a result, it is clear the life to live now is one of holy conduct and righteousness  (3:12), fulfilling the Law by loving others.

Greatest and Least

Back to our text. 

  • Practice and teaching are inseparable in Jesus’ view.
  • If you do not have righteousness you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
  • The least and the great.
  • Scribes and Pharisees – they would have been the religious face of society. 
  • Is Jesus saying the way of the scribes and Pharisees is even more hopeless than someone who is least in the kingdom?
  • We can easily accept the idea that breaking a law and teaching others to do so makes you the least. And that keeping and teaching them is highly valued in the Kingdom. But the idea that the most knowledgeable and prominent exponents aren’t getting into the kingdom would have been mind-blowing to the original audience.
  • We learn that the kingdom is something that must be entered. You are not automatically an insider (5:20).

Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses .that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Mt 5:19-20)

Jesus picks up on this  “entering the kingdom” theme later:

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,  but only the one who does the will  of My Father in heaven. On that day many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons  in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name?’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!’ (Mt. 7:21–23)

More on this in a future post, but Jesus is saying there is a day coming when many will be surprised they are denied entry to the kingdom. And these are the religious people! They prophesied, drove out demons and performed many miracles in Jesus’ name…. Yet somehow didn’t make it in? Jesus response is supposed to be jarring… I  never knew you, go away. You were never actually on my team. I see you as a law breaker.

But hang on, I thought we are talking about the gospel here, not the law. Isn’t everybody a lawbreaker at some point? That’s why we need the gospel after all right? What is your basis Jesus?

Turns out that Jesus does want us to keep his commands after all. And the command is to love. Is love your core project? Am I determined above all else, to act in love in all of my relationships? Do I pursue this as my priority every day? Or am I using some other measure?

Maybe Jesus is using the term “lawbreaker “ ironically. “Here is my reasoning in language you can understand. You wanted to measure your performance legally? Then let’s play that game then… did you love other people yes or no? What was it like for the people in your family? In your marriage? In your dart’s team? In your workplace? in your ministry? If they spoke at your funeral, what would they say about you?…. I rest my case.

Where Jesus wants us to get to spiritually is a place where loving God and people are the very core of our faith and how we live life. Love is what the kingdom is actually all about. And the state of things in the new heaven and earth as well.

This is a very important key to truly “getting” the gospel. It’s not about performing religious deeds, it’s not even about repenting of most of your sins. it’s about acquiring the heart to obey the greatest commands. If you don’t do that you haven’t even heard the gospel. You have to think differently about this – everybody does. And it might take a few years to really get it. Even Jesus’ disciples hadn’t quite graduated after three.

Wrapping up

So, wrapping up. How to be great in the kingdom of heaven? It’s very simple – just keep God’s commands and teach others to do the same. However if you hear that as talking about faultless execution of all 613 Torah commands you will probably just curl up in a spiritual foetal position – not even the best scribes and Pharisees fully achieve that. But if you hear it as Jesus saying you need to let all that measuring go, and acquire this heart of deep love, you can certainly be one of the greats.


  • Does this idea even attract me? Does it wildly attract me?
  • What would it look like in my life to love God with all of my heart, soul, mind and strength? What does this even mean for me?
  • What would it look like in my life to love my neighbour as myself?
  • What does my life, my words, my actions teach others? If I am a “religious” person, would Jesus consider me to be one of the “scribes and Pharisees” based on my life and teaching?