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Reading the Old Testament in the New: The Gospel of Matthew

Lesson Three: ‘Not to Abolish, But to Fulfill’

Lesson Objectives:

1. To read Matthew 3-7 with understanding.

2. To understand the Old Testament background and allusions in Matthew’s depictions of John the Baptist, the Baptism of Jesus and His temptation in the wilderness.

3. To understand the crucial importance of Jesus’ summary in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

Lesson Three: ‘Not to Abolish, But to Fulfill’

Lesson Outline:
1. Review and Overview
2. The Kingdom Comes
    A. Elijah’s Return
    B. Crossing Jordan, Testing Israel
    C. Kingdom Restored
3. New Covenant Blessings
    A. Blessed Are….
    B. Salt and Light
    C. Not to Abolish, But Fulfill
4. Study Questions

I. Review and Overview

In our last lesson, we began our study in earnest - looking at the outline and structure of the Gospel of Matthew. We noted our sympathy with the theory of B.W. Bacon that Matthew is written as a "mini-Penteteuch" - that it seems deliberately arranged to resemble the first five books of the Old Testament, known as the Law.

We noted that in Matthew, we can identify five distinct "books" that follow a similar pattern - a narrative portion in which Jesus debates His adversaries or performs miracles, followed by a portion devoted to His commandments or teachings. Each of the five books ends with a formula-like statement - "And when Jesus had finished…" We also noted that these five books of Matthew’s "Book of the Law" are "book-ended" by a prologue that describes Jesus’ birth and an epilogue that describes His death and Resurrection.

We then studied the Gospel’s prologue, highlighting especially Matthew’s deliberate depiction of Jesus as a "new Moses," leading a new exodus of the people of God, and bringing them a new law and a new covenant.

II. The Kingdom Comes

A. Elijah’s Return

In this lesson, we look in depth at Matthew’s "first book."

The narrative section of the "book" details the preparatory ministry of John the Baptist and the early temptations and ministry of Jesus in Galilee (see Matthew 3:1-4:25). This is followed by a long discourse - Jesus’ "Sermon on the Mount" (see Matthew 5:1-7:27). Finally, the book concludes with the formula statement: "When Jesus finished…." (seeMatthew 7:28-29).

Matthew quite consciously paints the figure of John the Baptist such that he evokes the revered prophet Elijah. Elijah had been swept up to heaven in fiery chariot (2 Kings 2:11). But in the Wisdom literature and in the later prophets, Israel had been taught to expect that he would return to announce the coming of the Messiah or the Day of the Lord (seeMalachi 3:23-4; Sirach 48:4,10). Jesus will tell us later in this Gospel that John indeed is Elijah who was to come (see Matthew 17:10-13).

But Matthew gives us a little clue early on. He begins with John preaching in the desert, clad in the same strange garb as Elijah (compare Matthew 3:4 and 2 Kings 1:8; Zechariah 13:4).

John announces his mission with a quote from the prophet Isaiah (see Isaiah 40:3). The quote, and its context, is significant. It’s taken from the first verses of the central part of Isaiah’s prophecy (chapters 40-55), which describes how God will fulfill His promises of salvation. The specific quote is taken from Isaiah’s description of the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem.

Matthew seems to be saying that John is fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy, paving the way for the "glory of the Lord [to] be revealed, and all mankind shall see it together" (see Isaiah 40:5).

B. Crossing Jordan, Testing Israel

With the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River and his temptation in the wilderness, Matthew returns to the "new Moses" symbolism he introduced in his prologue to the Gospel.

Remember that in the prologue Jesus, like Moses, is born under perilous circumstances - all the male Hebrew children are under a despotic ruler’s death threat. Like Moses, he is saved in Egypt.

Now, in his Gospel, Matthew is going to deepen the identification of Jesus with Moses and the story of the chosen people of Israel. And here, too, if we’re going to understand what Matthew is talking about, we need to appreciate the deep Old Testament background to the text.

Jesus, as Matthew tells the story, is going to relive the experience of Israel - which was born as a new people of God in its miraculous crossing of the waters of the Red Sea, then tested in the desert, before finally being given a new law and a new covenant brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai.

Notice how in His Baptism, Jesus is called the "beloved Son" of God. Israel, too, was called God’s beloved son (compare Matthew 3:17 and Exodus 4:22; Psalm 2:7; Isaiah 42:1;Genesis 22:2).

Immediately upon leaving the waters, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert to be tested for forty days and forty nights. This too corresponds with the history of Israel - which immediately upon crossing the Red Sea into freedom is led into the desert to be tested for forty years (compare Matthew 4:1-2 and Exodus 15:25; 16:1; see also Deuteronomy 8:2-3;1 Corinthians 10:1-5).

Jesus will undergo the same tests and temptations as Israel. But history won’t repeat itself with Jesus. Israel failed its test of divine sonship, falling prey to the temptations to doubt their God, to distrusting His promises and disobeying His commandments. They proved by their grumbling and their idolatry to be unable to keep His covenant. But Jesus will resist and overcome the temptations put to Him by the Devil. In this He will show Himself to be a true and faithful Son of God.

The three temptations put to Jesus roughly correspond to those endured by Israel in the wilderness. He is first confronted with hunger and tempted, as Israel was, to grumble against God (see Exodus 16:1-13). Next, he is dared to put God to the test - challenged to question God’s care and concern for Him. This, too, recalls the quarreling of the Israelites with Moses at Massah (see Exodus 17:1-6; Numbers 20:2-13; Psalm 95:8). Finally, Jesus is tempted to worship a false god, which Israel actually did in creating the idol of the golden calf (see Exodus 32).

Each time Jesus rebukes the Devil, he quotes Moses. These aren’t just random citations, either. Each of His three quotes is carefully drawn from a key section in the Book of Deuteronomy in which Moses warns the people - years after the experience in the desert - to learn from their infidelities and to trust in the providence of God. Each of the quotations refers respectively to the three temptations Israel faced:

In response to His first temptation, Jesus explains, as Moses did, that God tested the Israelites with hunger to show them that people aren’t meant to live by bread alone - but by God’s Word of promise (compare Matthew 4:4 and Deuteronomy 8:3).

The Devil then tries to quote a little Scripture in the hopes of tricking Jesus. He asks Jesus to test what the Scriptures say about God’s promise to protect Him from all harm (compareMatthew 4:6 and Psalm 91:11-12). That was what was going on at Massah, when the Israelites were thirsty and demanded that Moses produce water. Even though God had been feeding them throughout the journey with manna, bread from heaven, still they doubted His care for them, still they demanded another sign.

Jesus responds again with the words of Moses: "You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test" (compare Matthew 4:7 and Deuteronomy 6:16).

Finally, the Devil asks Jesus to bow down and worship him. Jesus waves him off with a final quotation from Moses and Deuteronomy (compare Matthew 4:10 and Deuteronomy 6:12-15).

When we read the temptation episode against the Old Testament backdrop that Matthew supplies it becomes far more than an isolated biographical moment in the life of the Savior. Now, it is a crucial turning point in salvation history. Matthew’s skillful use of the Old Testament materials aims at showing us that Jesus is "the new Israel," the chosen first-born Son of God, who will fulfill God’s will for His people by being a light for the nations. In the desert temptation at the start of His ministry Jesus reverses the disobedience and infidelities of the chosen people - as He will atone for their sins on Calvary at the conclusion of His public ministry.

C. Kingdom Restored

To signal the start of Jesus’ public ministry, Matthew chooses a direct quotation from Isaiah - as he did in heralding the arrival of John (see Matthew 4:15-16; Isaiah 8:23-9:1).

Here, too, we need to pay close attention to the Old Testament history and background if we want to understand the full depth and intensity of the message Matthew wants to convey.

Let’s look at the background of Isaiah’s prophecy: In 733 and 732 B.C., the twelve tribes of Israel were facing a rapacious Assyrian empire. The region where the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali dwelled was the first to be picked off. They were attacked and hauled off into captivity by the Assyrians (see 2 Kings 15:29; 1 Chronicles 5:26). It marked the beginning of the end - or so it seemed - of the kingdom that God had promised to David (see 2 Samuel 7:12-13; Psalm 89; Psalm 132:11-12). Later the tribes beyond the Jordan and in Samaria would fall, and finally, around 586 B.C., Jerusalem was captured and its inhabitants deported to Babylon by the King Nebuchadnezzar (see 2 Kings 24:14).

All this is going on in the background of the Isaiah passage from which Matthew’s quote is drawn. Isaiah prophesied that the lands of the Zebulun and Naphtali, the "first [to be] degraded," would be the first to see the light of God’s salvation. And it’s not coincidental that Matthew has chosen to draw from a section of Isaiah that foretells the birth of the Messiah - a child who would liberate the captives, restore to unity the scattered tribes, and assume his seat on "David’s throne and over his kingdom" (see Isaiah 8:23, 9:1,5-6).

What Matthew is doing is identifying Jesus’ actions - moving to Galilee and Capernaum - as the beginning of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Capernaum, where Jesus will live, is situated in between the tribal territories of Zebulun and Naphtali. Matthew seems to be saying - as Isaiah said - that where the kingdom first began to crumble, God will begin its rebuilding and restoration. Is it any wonder that immediately after that quote from Isaiah, Jesus begins preaching that "the kingdom…is at hand" (see Matthew 4:17)?

All of this will be reinforced later in the Gospel by Jesus’ focus on "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (see Matthew 10:5-6; 15:24; 19:28; compare Revelation 7:4-8). But, we will see the significance, too, of Matthew’s reference to "Galilee of the Gentiles" (see Matthew 4:15). The kingdom that Jesus announces is going to bust open the doors of the house of Israel to welcome not only the twelve scattered tribes but all the peoples of the world (seeMatthew 8:10-11; 21:43; 28:19).

III. New Covenant Blessings

A. Blessed Are…

By his narrative in the first "book" of his Gospel, Matthew sets the stage for the giving of the new law by the new Moses. This new law is delivered in the discourse that concludes this book - the Sermon on the Mount.

As Moses climbed a mountain and brought the people the Law of the Old Covenant (seeExodus 24:12-18), Jesus too goes up to a mountain and begins to teach. But unlike Moses, Jesus doesn’t bring to the people a Law written by God. He is more than a new covenant-mediator and a new law-bringer. Jesus is the New Covenant (see Isaiah 42:6) and the new Law - in Him we will see modeled perfectly the commandments of God, the words that He preaches.

There are many ways to study the Sermon on the Mount, which is the magna carta of Christian freedom and the heart of the teaching of Jesus.

For instance, St. Augustine was among the first to notice that the Beatitudes correspond to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit identified by the prophet Isaiah (see Isaiah 11:2-3). It’s also been noted by scholars that the seven Beatitudes line up with the seven petitions of the "Our Father" (see Matthew 6:9-13). Connections have also been noted between the Beatitudes and the series of seven "woes" that Jesus directs at the scribes and Pharisees later in the Gospel (see Matthew 23:13-36). There also appears to be a connection between the Beatitudes and the Messianic mission outlined in Isaiah 61 (compare Matthew 5:3/Isaiah 61:1; Matthew 5:4/Isaiah 61:2; Matthew 5:5/Isaiah 61:1,7; Matthew 5:6/Isaiah 61:6; Matthew 5:10/Isaiah 61:3,8,11; Matthew 5:11-12/Isaiah 61:10-11).

We’re going to continue to focus on our theme - Matthew’s use of the Old Testament. We’ll sketch a few of the Old Testament references and assumptions in the Sermon on the Mount, and pay close attention to the "Beatitudes" that Jesus begins with (see Matthew 5:3-11). In the context of Matthew’s theme of the fulfillment of Old Testament salvation history in Jesus, the Beatitudes emerge as the promised blessings of the New Covenant, the new Kingdom of God.

The blessings promised in God’s covenants of old - with Noah, Abraham, Moses and David - were earthly and territorial; the covenants of old promised land, prosperity, earthly dominion, and the like. In the Beatitudes of the New Covenant, we see that the "promised land" is really the Kingdom of Heaven. The blessings of the New Covenant orient us toward possession of a heavenly Kingdom.

God had promised Abraham that through his descendants, all the nations of the world would receive His divine blessings (see Genesis 22:17-18). And in the Beatitudes, Jesus, "the son of Abraham" (see Matthew 1:1), delivers those blessings, fulfills the promise made to Abraham.

The blessings He brings are the blessings of divine sonship and divine life. That’s why you’ll notice that the word "Father" is used 17 times in these three chapters. The Beatitudes are the blessings of divine sonship, revealed by the beloved and perfect Son of God, and offered to each of us, who will be taught to call upon God as "our Father" (see Matthew 6:9). As the Law of Moses was to be the pillar of the life of the people of Israel, the Sermon on the Mount is the law of life and love for the new family of God.

B. Salt and Light

Like Israel of the Old Covenant, the children of the New Covenant are given a mission, a vocation, a divine calling. And in describing this calling, Matthew again resorts to Old Testament allusions with deep spiritual and historic resonance.

Jesus says the children of the New Covenant are to be "the salt of the earth" (see Matthew 5:13).

In the world of the Old Testament, salt was a symbol of the necessity of food (see Ezra 4:14). It was added to sacrifices and offerings as a sign of purification and permanence. To partake of the same salt in common was to render an agreement unbreakable. That’s why, for instance, in the Book of Numbers the phrase translated "inviolable covenant" literally reads "a covenant of salt" (see Numbers 18:19; Leviticus 2:13). Salt seals the deal, makes the pact everlasting.

Perhaps Matthew intends us to hear here an echo of the words of Abijah, in which he reminded Israel of God’s everlasting covenant with David - "Do you not know that the Lord, the God of Israel, has given the kingdom of Israel to David forever, to him and to his sons, by a covenant made in salt?" (2 Chronicles 13:5).

Matthew also says the new people of God are to be "the light of the world" and a "city set on a mountain" (see Matthew 5:14). Each is a reference to the historic vocation given by God to Israel. Israel was to be a "light to the nations" (see Isaiah 42:6; 49:6). Jerusalem, the city on the holy mountain, Zion, was to be the seat of wisdom for all nations. "In days to come," Isaiah said, "the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain…All nations shall stream toward it…For from Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem" (see Isaiah 2:2-3; 11:9).

Matthew seems to be saying that the long-awaited "days to come" have arrived.

C. Not to Abolish, But Fulfill

Jesus then pronounces some of the most crucial words in Matthew’s Gospel: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill" (see Matthew 5:17).

When Jesus refers to "the law and the prophets," it’s a kind of shorthand for the entire Old Testament (see 2 Maccabees 15:9; 1 Maccabees 12:9). The Greek word translated "fulfill" (pleromai) means to fill-up or to expand, to cause to reach fullness or perfection.

Matthew is showing us that the new Law of the new Moses does not replace the Old Law given after the Exodus. Rather, the new Law brings the Old Law to its perfection, to its fullness and completion - to the end for which it was promulgated by God in the first place.

Jesus reveals the original divine purpose of the Law through a series of what scholars call "six antitheses." He speaks with all authority, as One not only fit to comment on the Law, but as the only divinely inspired interpreter, the only One capable of explaining the meaning intended by God.

Using a solemn formula: "You have heard that it was said to your ancestors…But I say to you…." Jesus examines key moral codes of the old Law - those regarding murder, adultery, divorce, oath swearing, retaliation and love of neighbor.

In each area, He reveals the values and motives hidden in the Law, values that make the Law even more radically demanding upon the whole person. Again, He does not abolish the Law but brings it to its natural fulfillment. In this, He reveals that the new Law transcends the old Law. No longer is the Law of God’s people to be a simple prescription for external behavior. It is now an interior law, to be written in the hearts of believers.

We see this most vividly in Jesus’ commentaries on anger (see Matthew 5:21) and lust (seeMatthew 5:28). But in every case, Jesus teaches that the external commandments, stated negatively in the old Law were intended to be "internalized" - to shape our inner lives, attitudes and desires.

This was what the prophet Jeremiah had said would define the character of the New Covenant. Incidentally, the following passage from Jeremiah marks the only place in the Old Testament where the phrase "new covenant" is used:

"The days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers the day I took them by the hand to lead them forth from the land of Egypt," the Lord spoke through Jeremiah. "For they broke my covenant and I had to show Myself their Master. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel….I will place My Law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (seeJeremiah 31:31-33).

In Jesus - who passed through the waters and the temptations and lived up to all the obligations of the Old Covenant - God delivers us His new covenant Law.

In the Sermon on the Mount, He gives us not written commandments, but His Law to be written in our hearts. God will no longer be our "Master" but our Father. And His New Covenant is given with the gift of His grace which will enable us to aspire to the perfect imitation of our heavenly Father - to forgive our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and give alms with generosity worthy of God (see Matthew 5:48).

"I have come not to abolish but to fulfill." This is a critical line for understanding Matthew’s use of the Old Testament throughout His Gospel. It could even stand as a summary of the message that Matthew wants to get across through His careful deployment of Old Testament materials.

As we’ve seen already and will see even more clearly in future lessons, Matthew’s use of the Old Testament is not merely a literary or artistic device. His use of the Old Testament serves his primary religious and theological purposes - to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah and to reveal that in Him all the promises of the Scriptures of old - the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms - are not abolished but fulfilled.

IV. Study Questions

1. In what ways does Matthew evoke John the Baptist as a figure of Elijah the prophet? What is the Old Testament background to this portrayal?

2. How is Jesus depicted as a "new Israel" and a "new Moses" in Matthew’s story of His baptism and temptation?

3. Explain the statement: "I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. These words could stand as a summary of the message that Matthew wants to get across through His careful deployment of Old Testament materials."

For prayer and reflection:

Read and pray over the Liturgy of the Word for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (Cycle A). Pray and reflect on the way the images and promises of the Old Testament materials are fulfilled in the readings from the New Testament, especially the Gospel passage from Matthew. Use the Opening Prayer for the feast as your prayer:

"Almighty, eternal God,
when the Spirit descended upon Jesus
at His Baptism in the Jordan, 
You revealed Him as Your own beloved Son. 
Keep us, Your children born of water and the Spirit,
faithful to our calling.

We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever."

The readings are: 
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
Psalm 29:1-4, 9-10
Acts 10:34-48
Matthew 3:13-17

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