Watch / Visual Commentaries / Matthew 5:17-20: Righteousness and Jesus’ Bible

Matthew 5:17-20: Righteousness and Jesus’ Bible

Watch a short video commentary on Matthew 5:17-20 that explains Jesus' perspective on the Torah and the Prophets in the Sermon on the Mount.

Visual Commentaries Apr 8, 2024


  1. Jesus’ opponents doubted his commitment to obey and honor the Torah and Prophets. How does Jesus respond?
  2. What does it mean for the sky and the land to pass on, and what does that have to do with the purpose and word of God??
  3. How is the video’s description of righteousness similar to or different from the way you’ve typically understood it?


Matthew 5:17: Fulfilling the Torah and Prophets [0:00-1:35]

Jon: The Sermon on the Mount is a collection of the teachings of Jesus. We’re in the part of the sermon where Jesus explains how righteousness, that is, right relationships with others, relates to the Torah.

Tim: Jesus takes his Scriptures, the Torah and Prophets, very seriously. So seriously, he says this:

Jon: “Don’t suppose that I’ve come to do away with the Torah or the Prophets. I have not come to do away with them, but to fill them full.”1

Tim: That phrase, “Torah and Prophets,” refers to Jesus’ Bible, the Hebrew Bible. These Scriptures tell a story about God calling all of humanity to partner with him in ruling the world in a way that brings justice and peace. And it’s about how he called one nation, Israel, to lead the way with the hope that he would make all the world new and unite Heaven and Earth.

Jon: That’s a really high calling. Can anyone actually do that?

Tim: Well, Jesus claims he is doing it. And in these teachings, he is renewing Israel as God’s partner, so they can invite everyone else into the good work of reuniting Heaven and Earth, and so bring the biblical story to completion. This is a key part of what he means by saying he came to fill full the Torah and Prophets.

Jon: Okay, but why would people think Jesus wanted to do away with the Torah and Prophets?

Tim: Well, Israel’s leading Bible scholars of the day, called the scribes and Pharisees, they sometimes disagreed with Jesus’ views on God’s instruction in the Torah, like the commands about the Sabbath or ritual purity.2 They accused Jesus of not honoring God’s word in the Torah and Prophets. And so Jesus addresses their skepticism by saying this:

Matthew 5:18: Every Dot and Squiggle [1:35-3:16]

Jon: “Because truly I tell you, until the sky and the land pass on, not one dot or one squiggle will pass on from the Torah until all things have taken place.”3 Alright, what does that mean for the sky and land to pass on?

Tim: Yeah. Jesus adopts this phrase from the opening line of the Torah. “In the beginning, God created the sky and the land.”4 And remember how God creates?

Jon: Yeah. God creates by speaking his word.5

Tim: Right. So while the sky and the land, they’ve been around a really long time, they do shift and change over the ages. But God’s word that brought the sky and land into being, it is above and beyond time. God’s purpose and word revealed in the Torah, like God, endure forever.

Jon: And in contrast, the sky and the land pass on. Are we talking about the end of the world?

Tim: More like a new beginning. Israel’s prophets spoke of a time when all creation would pass through a test, like a transformation, and then come out the other side as a renewed creation, full of order and beauty.6 And all of that is packed into this matching phrase here, “until all things have taken place.”

Jon: Okay. So until new creation, not one dot or squiggle will pass on from the Torah. What are dots and squiggles?

Tim: Yeah. Dot is the word iota, and squiggle is keraia. These refer to the tiniest pen strokes used in writing Hebrew letters to make each one different from another.

So even the tiniest details of the Torah are important. They express God’s wisdom. For Jesus, all the Torah and Prophets, including God’s commands to Israel, reveal God’s wisdom to guide the lives of his people in every age.

Matthew 5:19: The Least and Greatest [3:16-4:48]

Tim: Jesus takes the commands found in the Hebrew Scriptures seriously. And so he says:

Jon: “Therefore, whoever undoes one of the least of these commands and teaches people to do the same, they will be called least in the Kingdom of the skies. But whoever does them and then teaches people, this one will be called great in the Kingdom of the skies.”7

Tim: That word “undoes” is the Greek word luo. And it connects to his earlier claim that he did not come to kataluo, that is, to do away with the Torah and Prophets. To undo the Torah is to reject its commands as useless or out of date.

Jon: And those who undo the Torah are least in the Kingdom of the skies.

Tim: Right. Now, remember, the Kingdom of the skies is God’s heavenly domain, full of right relationships and life and goodness. And Jesus said that heavenly reality was invading Earth through himself as he launched these communities that live by God’s wisdom in new and creative ways.

Jon: Okay, I think I get it. But what does it mean that there are people who are least and people who are great in the kingdom? Is there some sort of ranking?

Tim: Jesus is flipping the social order of his day. So the scribes and the Pharisees, they thought of themselves as the greatest, having the highest rank in their culture. And they thought of those who didn’t follow their Torah teachings as the least.8 But, “surprise,” Jesus says. God’s Kingdom is turning the whole thing upside-down so that the last are first and the first are last.9

Jon: So Jesus thinks there’s an even better way than the way of the scribes and Pharisees.

Tim: Yes, that’s actually how he ends this section.

Matthew 5:20: Surpassing the Scribes and Pharisees [4:48-5:58]

Jon: “Because I tell you, unless your doing-what-is-right far surpasses the scribes and Pharisees, you won’t be entering the Kingdom of the skies.”10

Tim: That word “doing-what-is-right” is usually translated “righteousness.” It’s the Greek word dikaiosune, which means “doing right by God and others.”

And if you asked any Israelite in Jesus’ day about the most righteous people around, they would say the scribes and Pharisees.

Jon: Because they cared most about doing the right thing.

Tim: Yes. But Jesus claims that the Torah and Prophets point to an even more radical behavior change that’s rooted in a transformation of the heart. The Scriptures ought to lead us to a Kingdom of God ethic that is more generous, more just, and more merciful than we could ever imagine.

Jon: Okay, but how could anyone take God’s commands more seriously than the scribes and Pharisees? I mean, what does this even look like?

Tim: Well, next in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will give six case studies, and in each one, he’ll describe how a command from the Torah was understood by the scribes and the Pharisees.11 Then he reveals the higher standard of right relationships that has been at the heart of the Torah and Prophets all along.

1. Matthew 5:17
2. e.g. Matthew 12:1-14; Mark 7:1-13
3. Matthew 5:18
4. Genesis 1:1
5. e.g. Genesis 1:3
6. e.g. Isaiah 2:1-5, Isaiah 11:1-9, and Micah 4:1-5
7. Matthew 5:19
8. e.g. Matthew 23:1-11
9. e.g. Matthew 20:1-16
10. Matthew 5:20
11. Matthew 5:21-48
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