We recently received a question concerning a posting to the Wayside Gospel Chapel blog concerning the understanding of what is meant in Matthew 5:17 by "the Law or the Prophets". Here, in part, is the question we received:
"I haven't considered the possibility that Jesus might have been speaking of the law and prophets from the standpoint of addressing the entire Old Testament....However, is there actual Biblical support for this?"
What follows is the substance of the response to this question, including an edited consolidation of portions of two different emails on this passage:
The Matthew passage appears to be phrased to include all of the OT Scriptures, “the law or the prophets”. There are times when the entire OT is referred to as “the law, the prophets and the writings”, usually as “the law and the prophets”, and sometimes as “the law”. In Mt. 5:17-18 two of these designations are found. I would humbly suggest that the fulfillment or destruction mentioned here has more to do with the OT as a whole, i.e., the OT Scriptures, rather than the Old Mosaic Law Covenant per se. More is involved here than just fulfilling the righteous requirements of the Law by obedience, or “fleshing out” the shadows of the Laws ceremonial requirements. The fulfillment of the OT prophecies cannot be ruled out due to the wording of the passage, and “one jot or one tittle” applies to the entire corpus of inspired Scriptures extant at that point.
Here are the passages of Scripture involved in maintaining this understanding of what is meant here by “the Law and the Prophets”:
1. “the Law” as a reference to the entire OT –
cp. Jn. 10:34; 12:34; 15:25; Rom. 3:19a.
John 10:34 - Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?
[Note: The quote here is from the Psalms, and not from the Pentateuch.]
John 12:34 - The people answered him, We have heard out of the law that Christ abideth for ever: and how sayest thou, The Son of man must be lifted up? who is this Son of man?
[Note: The allusion here is to the Psalms and the prophet Ezekiel, not the Pentateuch.]
John 15:25 - But this cometh to pass, that the word might be fulfilled that is written in their law, They hated me without a cause.
[Note: The quotation here is once again from the Psalms, and not from the Pentateuch.]
Romans 3:19 - Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.
[Note: The series of quotations immediately preceding this verse are from the Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, Proverbs, and the prophet Isaiah, and not the Pentateuch.]
2. “the Law and the Prophets” as a reference to the entire OT –
cp. Mt. 5:17; 7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Lk. 16:16, 29, 31; Jn. 1:45; Acts 13:15; 24:14; 26:22; 28:23;Rom. 3:21b.
Matthew 5:17 - Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
Matthew 7:12 - Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
Matthew 11:13 - For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John.
Matthew 22:40 - On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Luke 16:16 - The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it.
Luke 16:29 - Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.
Luke 16:31 - And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
Luke 24:27 - And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.
John 1:45 - Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.
Acts 13:15 - And after the reading of the law and the prophets the rulers of the synagogue sent unto them, saying, Ye men and brethren, if ye have any word of exhortation for the people, say on.
Acts 24:14 - But this I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets:
Acts 26:22 - Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come:
Acts 28:23 - And when they had appointed him a day, there came many to him into his lodging; to whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning till evening.
Romans 3:21 - But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;
3. “the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms” as a reference to the entire OT –
cp. Lk. 24:44 - And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.
Below are some sources which agree with this understanding of "the law or the prophets" in Mt. 5:17 that you may find helpful, along with citations from them. These sources could easily be multiplied.
1. Gary D. Long, Biblical Law and Ethics: Absolute and Covenantal, An Exegetical and Theological Study of Matthew 5:17-20 in Perspectives: Studies in Baptist Thought, Exegetical Studies (Rochester, NY: Backus Book Publishers, 1981), pp. 22-25.
August Tholuck, Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, 4th ed., trans. R. Lundin Brown (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1874), pp. 121, 125.
[Cited by Long, op. cit., pp. 23, note 29, and 24, note 31.]
Rudolf Stier, Words of the Lord Jesus, 2nd ed., trans. William B. Pope, 8 vols. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1871), 1:27-29.
[Cited by Long, op. cit., pp. 23-24, notes 30 and 32.]
John A. Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886; reprint by Judson Press, Valley Forge, PA, n.d.), pg. 99.
[Cited by Long, op. cit., pp. 22, note 25.]
2. Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1968), pp. 80-81.
“The most common description of the Old Testament is “The Law and the Prophets.”” (pg. 81)
“That these two sections encompass the whole Old Testament is obvious from several passages.” (pg. 80)
3. Greg L. Bahnsen, Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Douglas J. Moo, Wayne G. Strickland, and Willem A. VanGemeren, Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley N. Gundry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), pp. 258, 330.
You may find this entire volume helpful in your study of this passage and the issues related to it. Both Wayne Strickland and Douglas Moo maintain this understanding of Matthew 5:17.
“In Matthew, the phrase “the Law and the Prophets” refers not simply to the Mosaic law, but to the entire Old Testament (cf. 7:12; 11:13; 22:40). Thus the term “law” in the following verse is an abbreviated way of referring to the same Old Testament.” (Strickland, op. cit., pg. 258)
“There is no doubt that the word nomos can mean something other than the Mosaic law. It sometimes has a “canonical” sense, that which is central in the Jewish estimation of Scripture, standing for the Pentateuch (1 Cor. 9:8, 9; 14:21, 34; Gal. 4:21b) or for the whole Old Testament (John 10:34; 12:34; 15:25; Rom. 3:19a); note, also, the combinations “Law and Prophets” (Matt. 5:17; 7:12; 11:13; Luke 16:16; John 1:45; Acts 13:15; 24:14; Rom. 3:21b) and “Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44).” (Moo, op. cit., pg. 330)
Sola Scriptura, Soli Deo Gloria,
John T. "Jack" Jeffery
Pastor, Wayside Gospel Chapel
January 2, 2008