Explaining Matt. 5:17 and Abandoning the Law of Moses...Need help!

I was just wondering if anyone could explain to me the Catholic theology behind Matthew 5:17, which reads in part: “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them.”

I suppose what confuses me is that obviously the Catholic Church has determined that certain portions of the Old Testament are no longer valid (an argment I know Peter and Paul had many times) but doesn’t this passage in the Bible contradict that? How can Catholics argue that portions of the Law are no longer valid when Jesus said the Law is not abolished? Any help on this would be wonderful, especially if references are available. Thank you so much!

Please also note Matthew 5:18-5:19 reads: "
In truth I tell you, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, is to disappear from the Law until all its purpose is achieved.

Therefore, anyone who infringes even one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the kingdom of Heaven; but the person who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the kingdom of Heaven."


Commentary under St. Ignatius Study Bible NT

5:17 the law and the prophets: A shorthand expression for the entire OT to fulfil them: Jesus completely fulfilled the Mosaic Law and the OT prophecies [1:23, 2:6, 15;, 4:15-16, Lk 24:44-47]. The Greek word translated fulfil means “to make complete.” The New Covenant that includes and concludes the Old Covenant; it both perfects is and transforms it. While sacrificial laws in the OT expired with the sacrifice of Jesus, the moral Law [Ten Commandments, etc.] was retained and refined [5:21, 27, 43; 19:17]. In Christain life, the power of God’s Spirit is necessary if we are to obey the Law and grow in Holiness. Romans 8:4] [CCC 577-81, 1967]

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church

Paragraph 577

At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus issued a solemn warning in which he presented God’s law, given on Sinai during the first covenant, in light of the grace of the New Covenant:

[quote]Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets: I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law, until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.


Paragraph 578

Jesus, Israel’s Messiah and therefore the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, was to fulfil the Law by keeping it in its all embracing detail - according to his own words, down to “the least of these commandments”. He is in fact the only one who could keep it perfectly. On their own admission the Jews were never able to observe the Law in its entirety without violating the least of its precepts. This is why every year on the Day of Atonement the children of Israel ask God’s forgiveness for their transgressions of the Law. The Law indeed makes up one inseparable whole, and St. James recalls, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”

Paragraph 579

This principle of integral observance of the Law not only in letter but in spirit was dear to the Pharisees. By giving Israel this principle they had led many Jews of Jesus’ time to an extreme religious zeal. This zeal, were it not to lapse into “hypocritical” casuistry, could only prepare the People for the unprecedented intervention of God through the perfect fulfilment of the Law by the only Righteous One in place of all sinners.

Paragraph 580

The perfect fulfilment of the Law could be the work of none but the divine legislator, born subject to the Law in the person of the Son. In Jesus, the Law no longer appears engraved on tables of stone but “upon the heart” of the Servant who becomes “a covenant to the people”, because he will “faithfully bring forth justice”. Jesus fulfils the Law to the point of taking upon himself “the curse of the Law” incurred by those who do not “abide by the things written in the book of the Law, and do them”, for his death took place to redeem them “from the transgressions under the first covenant”.

Paragraph 581

The Jewish people and their spiritual leaders viewed Jesus as a rabbi. He often argued within the framework of rabbinical interpretation of the Law. Yet Jesus could not help but offend the teachers of the Law, for he was not content to propose his interpretation alongside theirs but taught the people “as one who had authority, and not as their scribes”. In Jesus, the same Word of God that had resounded on Mount Sinai to give the written Law to Moses, made itself heard anew on the Mount of the Beatitudes. Jesus did not abolish the Law but fulfilled it by giving its ultimate interpretation in a divine way: “You have heard that it was said to the men of old. . . But I say to you. . .” With this same divine authority, he disavowed certain human traditions of the Pharisees that were “making void the word of God”.

Paragraph 1967

The Law of the Gospel “fulfills,” refines, surpasses, and leads the Old Law to its perfection. In the Beatitudes, the New Law fulfills the divine promises by elevating and orienting them toward the “kingdom of heaven.” It is addressed to those open to accepting this new hope with faith - the poor, the humble, the afflicted, the pure of heart, those persecuted on account of Christ and so marks out the surprising ways of the Kingdom.

God bless.

Thank you very much for posting and for providing very helpful resources.

I still am, however, a bit confused. I can understand the point that the Old Law has been abandoned as it relates to sacrifices (that makes perfect sense), but I cannot understand how the Church reasons for abandoning other portions of the Old Law.

For instance, Christians are not required to adhere to certain standards regarding eating kosher and other similar requirements, yet these had nothing to do with sacrifices. Jesus clearly states no portion of the law is to pass away so how can the Church reason that we no longer need to avoid eating shellfish or pork? I understand that the rules changed when Jesus died on the cross but his claims seem rather final and unyielding as they are recorded in the Bible.

Another example is homosexuality. There is no mention of homosexuality by Jesus so Christians derive their beliefs on the subject largely from the Old Testament and some writings by Paul, who also was reflecting on Old Testament tradition, but if the Old Law was replaced by the New Law, rendering Old Testament requirements void, why do Christians believe homosexuality is in opposition to God’s Law?

It seems like the Church is sort of picking and choosing which portions of the Old Law to follow. They obviously support the Ten Commandments and the ban on homosexual male sex but not on eating shellfish. How do they make the distinction when Jesus ultimately states no portion of the law will pass away?

I feel like I am missing something here.

Also, let me clarify. I am not saying having homosexual sex is the “same” as eating shellfish in the eyes of the Old Testament, only that the ban on homosexual sex and the requirements of the Ten Commandments are still followed by the Catholic Church when other portions of the law like prohibitions on certain foods and behaviors are not. I just want to know how the Church reasons which portions of the Old Law are still valid and which portions are not. Clearly they believe that some portions, even some portions outside of those relating to sacrifices, are no longer valid even though Jesus said no portion of the Old Law should ever pass away.

First, let me dispell the Jesus never said anything against homosexuality.
Matthew 19:4 And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, 5 And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?

Mar 10:6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh.
Jesus clearly says that from the beginning male and female, husband and wife, that’s pretty clear. Liberals will tell you that Jesus would have had no concept of two gay people living in a committed relationship, that is wrong. If we consider that train of thought, which other teaching by Jesus should be discarded as old fashioned?
Mat 15:19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies:
The Greek word for fornications is porneia, from which we get pornography, which means sex related sins. Still under the law of Moses, homosexuality would have been included in this.

Now as to the Law. The function of the Law was not to save the Jews, they were saved by faith in God, just as we are. The law was to be obeyed out of devotion to God, just as we are to complete works of compassion to others and service to God. The law kept the Jews a distinct ethnic group throughout ancient history as a starting point for the Messiah. Look at all the racial groups of the OT, they are all gone, intermarried, migrated, mixed religions and customs together, but not the Jews. God used the law to keep them together for Jesus ministry. Shortly after that, 70 AD they were scattered around the world. However, their religion and customs kept them a distinct group until the late 1940s when Israel was reestablished fulfilling OT prophecy.
Isaih 66:7 Have you ever heard of a woman who gave birth to a child before having labor pains? 8 Who ever heard of such a thing or imagined it could happen? Can a nation be born in a day or come to life in a second? Jerusalem is like a mother who gave birth to her children as soon as she was in labor.
This one is a little long, but stick with it.
Ezekial 37:1 Some time later, I felt the LORD’s power take control of me, and his Spirit carried me to a valley full of bones.
7 I did what the LORD said, but before I finished speaking, I heard a rattling noise. The bones were coming together! 8 I saw muscles and skin cover the bones, but they had no life in them. :9 The LORD said: Ezekiel, now say to the wind, “The LORD God commands you to blow from every direction and to breathe life into these dead bodies, so they can live again.” 10 As soon as I said this, the wind blew among the bodies, and they came back to life! They all stood up, and there were enough to make a large army. 11 The LORD said: Ezekiel, the people of Israel are like dead bones. They complain that they are dried up and that they have no hope for the future. 12 So tell them, "I, the LORD God, promise to open your graves and set you free. I will bring you back to Israel, 13 and when that happens, you will realize that I am the LORD.

In Acts 15:20 the church leaders decided that Gentiles would not have to follow the Law of Moses and gave them only a few cultural commandments. As for Jewish Christians, I don’t know if they are expected to follow the Law of Moses or not.

Hi Jinc, you could just accept this as a contradiction… and leave it at that.

The gospel writers contradict each other, and the OT and Paul’s letters. Each gospel writer and writer of books in the Bible has their own theology, points of view and cultural influences. God bless

I think you are just reading something into the text to justify your own homophobia.

I would not go as far as saying that anyone is “homophobic” but I would argue that those quotes are not condemnations of homosexuality…but it’s really a matter of opinion I suppose because I can understand your line of reasoning.

As for the rest of your point regarding the laws, I think you brought up a number of good points but essentially they all boil down to the Catholic Church made a determination that gentiles don’t have to follow many of these rules any longer. I understand that this is the case but it doesn’t really explain how they were able to do this and also reconcile Matthew 5:17-19, which expressly forbids anyone from thinking the Old Law is gone.

Does anyone know how the Church reconciles this point?

Good information though by the way steve…I really appreciate all of the insights.

Dave, I agree with you that certain parts of the Bible do contradict to a certain extent but my question relates more to the Church’s position on getting rid of certain Old Law requirements and how they reason they are able to do this even though Matthew 5:17 says the Old Law won’t pass away. I guess what I am saying is that I am not talking about a contradiction between biblical passages but instead between the Church and the Bible.

Its because, like all of us, they pick and chose to an extent what parts of scripture to believe. some of the writers like the author of Matthew believed the OT law was eternal. Some believed it was temporary. “Matthew” is the most Jewish of the gospels. He makes statements which very different to those of Paul. A number of scholars say the “Pauline” gentile version of Christianity prevailed, and the Jewish one faded away. God bless

Jesus gives an updated Midrash of most of the commandments in the top ten. He does not hold us to all 600 plus of the Torah. Basically, if you can see how a commandment fits into us loving God and loving our neighbor then that command is a good guideline for our conduct.

Matthew 22:35-40

35Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying,

36Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

37Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

38This is the first and great commandment.

39And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Christians are no longer bound by the Law as LAW; if we are then we must also be subject to the specific punishments prescribed in the OT for breaking each Commandment. Thus we are not bound by the Law itself but by the righteousness (perfected in the Person of Jesus Christ) Yet, we are not.

It is one thing to be in a Covenant based on Law (the Old Covenant) but quite another thing to be in a Covenant based on Love (the New Covenant). In both Covenants, for example, adultery and homosexual practice is forbidden. But, in the Old Covenant one avoided committing these sins because it was a violation of the Law that subjected you to punishments (remember the attempted stoning of the woman caught in adultery and the Lord’s intervention?). In the New Covenant, one avoids these sins because they violate the Covenant of Love between you and Jesus Christ, and outside of that Covenant of Love there is no salvation for you or anyone. This is an important distinction, because it personalizes our Covenant with God. We do not do righteous things merely because we’re scared of the Law and its punishments and so do what the Law demands. Rather, we do righteous things because we are in a Covenant of Love with Jesus Christ, and we do not want to ruin this Covenant (this “friendship” or love relationship) with Him. This is why St. Paul, in Romans 3:28, says that Christians are saved “by faith and not by the works of the Law.”

And this is what Jesus means when, at the beginning of the passage in Matthew 5, He says:

*“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill. …I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” *
IOW, the Law must be kept in a way that is greater than a mere legal observance of the Commandments. It must be exceeded by the example of Him Who embodies the Righteousness behind the Law: Jesus Christ. This is why Christians are not bound by the Law, but by the New Covenant of grace and love in Jesus Christ

Excellent response, I think many of the points you brought up are very helpful and do illustrate a changing understanding of the Old Law. However, it still does not really explain how the Church chooses which laws need to be abandoned completely and which laws must be adhered to perfectly. Your entire argument is based on a situation where laws are not abolished…you gave an example of homosexuality and adultery but those are two things the Church has not abolished. What I want to know is how do they determine the aspects of the Old Law that are no longer valid? Even if you want to argue that Church applies your covenant logic to every decision they make regarding the Old Law, it still does not explain HOW they are abole to reconcile the claims Jesus makes in Matthew 5:18 and 5:19, when he essentially forbids a person removing the Old Law. At some point, the Church had to make decisions that flew in the face of these statements.

Well, yes. But what are those Laws? - the moral laws summed up in the Ten Commandments and amplified by the Lord in the Sermon on the Mount. The Church cannot abolish what is according to the natural law which the Ten Commandments reflect; this is the law written on our hearts. St. Paul speaks of this in Romans (chapter one). Now, through the grace won for us by the Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection, we are able to live according to this Law of Love in the New Covenant.

What I want to know is how do they determine the aspects of the Old Law that are no longer valid? Even if you want to argue that Church applies your covenant logic to every decision they make regarding the Old Law, it still does not explain HOW they are abole to reconcile the claims Jesus makes in Matthew 5:18 and 5:19, when he essentially forbids a person removing the Old Law. At some point, the Church had to make decisions that flew in the face of these statements.

Consider the whole context of those verses; following the Beatitudes we see the Lord giving only examples from the moral law, expanding His hearers’ understanding beyond what is required in the Ten Commandments: killing, insults, forgiveness, adultery, false witness, revenge, etc., to the end of chapter seven. Obviously, then, the Church’s teaching and guidance must adhere to how the Lord Himself has commanded that man must live to be at peace with God and with one another (the second proceeding from the first and greatest commandment). Regarding vs. 18 and 19, this from the New American Bible is helpful in understanding the meaning of the Lord’s words regarding the “jot and tittle”:

To fulfill the law appears at first to mean a literal enforcement of the law in the least detail: until heaven and earth pass away nothing of the law will pass (Matthew 5:18). Yet the “passing away” of heaven and earth is not necessarily the end of the world understood, as in much apocalyptic literature, as the dissolution of the existing universe. The “turning of the ages” comes with the apocalyptic event of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and those to whom this gospel is addressed are living in the new and final age, prophesied by Isaiah as the time of “new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22). Meanwhile, during Jesus’ ministry when the kingdom is already breaking in, his mission remains within the framework of the law, though with significant anticipation of the age to come, as the following antitheses (Matthew 5:21-48) show.

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