“Yeshua came to fulfill the law”—what does this really mean?

Matthew 5:17, The law and the prophets. Yeshua mentions two of the three subdivisions of the Hebrew Scriptures in this passage: the Law or Torah and the Prophets or Neviim. The Jews have traditionally subdivided the Hebrew Scriptures into three sections: the Torah, Prophets and the Writings. We see Yeshua referring to this threefold subdivision in Luke 24:44. In fact, the Jews of today do not refer to their Hebrew Scriptures by the Christian term of “Old Testament,” but rather by the Hebrew word TaNaKh, which is an acronym representing this threefold division. The T in Tanakh stands for the Torah or the first five books of the Bible, the N stands for Neviim or the prophetic writings in the Hebrew Scriptures, while the K stands for the Hebrew word Ketuvim, which means Writings and includes the book Psalms, Proverbs, Job and others.

I came to…fulfill [the law]. Yeshua came to fulfill the law so that the law might be fulfilled in us, not so that we can continue breaking it without suffering the consequences. He came to save us from the consequences of breaking the law, not from the law itself. He came to set us an example of how to fulfill not only the letter, but the spirit of the law and to empower us through his Spirit to live in up to the law’s standards of righteousness.

How many times have you heard someone say, “Jesus came to fulfill the law [in our place], so that we don’t have to keep the law ourselves.” Many people just repeat this church-system mantra without really stopping and thinking about it. But what do they really mean when they say this? Do they even know? Have they thought about the implications of simply repeating this oft-quoted religious cliche?

Let’s think about this for a moment. If Yeshua’s fulfilling Elohim’s law (also known as the law of Moses)means that he did it so that we don’t have to, does this mean that since Yeshua didn’t murder, commit adultery, lie, steal, worship other gods, dishonor his parents, take God’s name in vain or covet it’s now all right for us to do so, since he did it in our place? When a Sunday Christian is presented with this line of reasoning, he’s usually hard-pressed to come up with a logical response, since his initial assertion has been proven to be illogical. The basic tenets of Christianity assert that such behavior is sin.

Now if you ask a clergyman the same question, he’ll often answer you in one of two ways. He’ll either tell you that we only have to do the laws that Jesus or the New Testament authors specifically enumerated. Or he’ll tell you that Christians are obligated to keep the moral law, but not the ceremonial laws of which the Sabbath, biblical feasts and dietary laws are a part.

To start with, let’s deal with the first answer. If Christians only have to follow the laws that Yeshua and the New Testament writers specifically mention, then is it all right to have sex with animals, since this law is specifically stated in the Old Testament Torah, but not in the New Testament? What’s more, why do many churches teach the tithing principle, which is a law found in the Torah, but not in the New Testament if we only have to follow the New Testament laws? Do you now see the speciousness of the argument that we only have to keep the Old Testament laws that are specifically mentioned in the New Testament?

The next argument involves dividing Elohim’s Torah-laws into two categories: the moral and the ceremonial laws. The problem with this argument is that neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament make such delineations. The law of Elohim is law of Elohim. It all stands or falls together. James, for example, speaks about the whole law and says that when one violates one of Elohim’s laws, one violates them all (Jas 2:10). He calls the same law “the royal law” in a singular sense with no artificial subdivisions (verse 8). Similarly, Paul sums up the law of Elohim by one word: love (Rom 13:8). Yeshua and the apostolic writers in numerous places speaks about the law (e.g. Matt 5:17–19; Mark 12:28–31; Rom 3:31; 7:12, 14; 8:7) and makes no distinctions between moral and ceremonial. 

What’s more, the same Bible teachers will assert that the Ten Commandments are part of the “moral law” with the exception of the Sabbath commandment. They’ll also add the biblical dietary laws to the list of ceremonial laws. The problem here is that the Sabbath and the dietary laws predate YHVH’s giving of these commands to the children of Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai. YHVH gave the former command (by his own example) to Adam and Eve, and the latter to Noah who made a distinction between clean and unclean animals. These laws were never part of the Levitical, sacrificial or temple system, since the long predated these. These laws are simply laws of righteous living and involve holiness issues —becoming holy (or set-apart) as YHVH is holy!

Moreover, the often-parroted notion that Yeshua fulfiled the Torah-law so that we wouldn’t have to is a weak argument. Ask yourself this: If by fulfill you meankeep,” then did Yeshua keep every Torah command there ever was — all 613 of them? Was Yeshua farmer and did he keep all the Torah-laws that apply to farmers? Was he a Levitical priest, a woman, a parent and so on, and did he keep all the laws that applied to all segments of Israelite society? Of course not. He was the perfect sin-free Messiah because he didn’t break any of the laws, not because he kept each and everyone of them — an impossibility. Therefore, the idea that Yeshua kept all the Torah-laws — each and every one of them perfectly, so that we wouldn’t have to — is another specious argument.

If Yeshua’s saying that he came to fulfill the Torah (and the Prophets) doesn’t mean he came to do every one of them so that we wouldn’t have to, what does it mean? That question is answered directly below in what did Yeshua mean when we spoke of “not destroying, but fulfilling the law.”

Destroy…fulfill. Yeshua mentions two of the three subdivisions of the Hebrew Scriptures in this passage: the Law or Torah and the Prophets or Neviim. The Jews have traditionally subdivided the Hebrew Scriptures into three sections: the Torah, Prophets and the Writings. We see Yeshua referring to this threefold subdivision in Luke 24:44. In fact, the Jews of today do not refer to their Hebrew Scriptures by the Christian term of “Old Testament,” but rather by the Hebrew word TaNaKh, which is an acronym representing this threefold division. The T in Tanakh stands for the Torah or the first five books of the Bible, the N stands for Neviim or the prophetic writings in the Hebrew Scriptures, while the K stands for the Hebrew word Ketuvim, which means Writings and includes the book Psalms, Proverbs, Job and others.

Next let us note that Yeshua says, using the imperative or command verbal form, “Think not that I am come to destroy the Torah-law … ” (emphasis added). It should stand to reason that when the Son of Elohim himself, the one who was with Elohim in the beginning, who was Elohim, and who was the Word of Elohim made flesh ( John 1:1,14) commanded us to “Think not …” that we should take notice of what he was commanding us to “think not” about. He said, “Think not that I came to destroy [throw down, bring to naught, to dissolve, to sub- vert or overthrow] the Torah.” Yes, this is exactly what the word “destroy” means. Do not take our word for it, but look it up for yourself. It is Strong’s Concordance Greek dictionary number 2647. Any Greek lexicon, concordance or word dictionary will verify the meaning of this word. Yeshua said, “Think not that he came to abolish or to do away with the Torah-law,” yet this is exactly what most Bible teachers proclaim, and what most Christians believe; that Yeshua came to free Believers from the Torah-law, and to replace it with grace. After all, how many times have you heard it said, “We’re not under the law anymore … that’s been done away with. It was nailed to the cross. It is for the Jews, not for the Christians, etc.” It seems that many have not heeded Yeshua’s words to, “think not that he came to do away with the Torah.” In fact, it could be viewed that Yeshua was uttering prophetic words here. He could foresee the day when religious men would indeed attempt, through cleaver theological arguments, to abrogate YHVH’s Torah by proclaiming it to be uniquely Jewish property, and by consigning it to dim antiquity claiming that it is irrelevant for Believers today.

In reality, when Yeshua said in Matthew 5:17 to, “Think not that I am come to destroy the Torah-law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil,” he was using a particular kind of Hebrew idiomatic expression that does not transmit through from Hebrew to English. An example of an idiomatic expression that does not translate from English into, say, French would be the following: If I were to tell you that, “I am in a pickle,” you would immediately know what I mean because you are an English speaking American and you know that I am not literally inside of a pickle, but that I am facing some sort of difficulty in my life. However, if I were to translate this idiomatic phrase into French for example and say, literally, “Je suis dans un cornichon,” a French person would think I was crazy, since in French there is not an equivalent phrase for this American expression.

So what are the idiomatic expressions in Matthew 5:17 that we need to define in light of Hebraic thought? In the verse under consideration, we find two Hebraic idioms that are untranslatable into the English. The first one is Yeshua’s statement, “I am come …” According to Hebraic Christian Scholars David Bivin and Roy Blizzard, this phrase is a Hebrew idiom denoting intention and purpose.1 When Yeshua said, “Think not that I am come …” he is really saying, “Think not that my purpose or intent is to destroy the Torah-law.”

So what about the second Hebrew idiom (or Hebraism) in this passage, “destroy the Torah-law” and “fulfill the Torah-law”? What do these phrases mean in Hebraic thought? Again, according to Hebrew linguists and language professor, Biven, “destroy and fulfill are technical terms used in rabbinic argumentation. When a [ Jewish] sage felt that a colleague had misinterpreted a passage of Scripture, he would say, ‘You are destroying the Law!’ Needless to say, in most cases his colleague strongly disagreed. What was ‘destroying the Law’ for one sage, was ‘fulfilling the Law’ (correctly interpreting Scripture) for another.

Biven continues, What we see in Matthew 5:17ff is a rabbinic discussion. Someone has accused Yeshua of ‘destroying’ the Torah Law. Of course, neither Yeshua nor his accuser would ever think of literally destroying the Torah Law. Furthermore, it would never enter the accuser’s mind to charge Yeshua with intent to abolish part or all of the Mosaic Law. What is called into question is Yeshua’s interpretation, or the way he interpreted Scripture.

“When accused [of destroying the Torah], [Yeshua] strongly denies that his method of interpreting Scripture ‘destroys’ or weakens its meaning. He claims, on the contrary, to be more orthodox than his accuser. For [Yeshua], a ‘light’ commandment (‘Do not bear hatred in your heart’) is as important as a ‘heavy’ commandment (‘Do not murder’). And a disciple who breaks even a ‘light’ commandment will be considered ‘light’ (or have an inferior position [or be least]) in [Yeshua’s kingdom] (Matt 5:19).”2

Though Biven gives no historical documentation for his interpretation of Matthew 5:17, some background in- formation about Professor Biven may help to give weight to his claims. Biven is one of the leaders of the Jerusalem School, which is comprised of both noted Christian and Jewish scholars whose goal is to understand the Gospels in light of first century Jewish context. Taken into consideration are linguistics, Jewish literature, history, religion and culture. “The Jerusalem School’s approach to the Gospel texts is a painstakingly careful attempt to examine [Yeshua’s] words in their original context. This is a unique cooperative effort, which marks the first time in history that Christian scholars, fluent in the Hebrew language and living in Israel, have collaborated with Jewish scholars in Gospel studies.”3

In his book, Dr. William Bean quotes a teaching article from the Jerusalem School where they discuss their approach to interpreting difficult to understand gospel text such as Matthew 5:17,

A Hebrew translation is prepared in two stages. First, an examination is undertaken to de-termine the usual Hebrew equivalent in the Septuagint for each Greek work in the passage. The Septuagint is the second-century b.c.e. Greek version of the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha. It is used as a touchstone because it strongly influenced Hebrew-to-Greek translators of succeeding generations. Second, post-biblical material such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and rabbinic literature is examined to determine whether there are alternate Hebrew equivalents for Gospel words. This is necessary because there occasionally developed different ways of expressing certain words in Hebrew (ibid. p. 164 quoting “Translating the Gospels to Hebrew,” The Jerusalem Perspective, December, 1987, by David Biven).

Bean then writes, “A discussion of Matthew 5:17 exemplifies the process. First mentioned is the literal translation of the Greek. ‘Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fill or fulfill.’ The Hebrew word behind “to fulfill” is ki-YEM. One nuance of ki-YEM is to show that the text is given in agreement with your teaching. The verb is based on the idea that the test of any teaching is whether you can give full effect to ‘uphold’ every word of the Law. The basis idea is: ‘to establish the full meaning.’ The article concludes with the dynamic translation of the Hebrew reconstruction. ‘Do not suppose that I have any intention of under- mining Scripture by misinterpreting it. My purpose is to establish and maintain the knowledge and observance of God’s Word, not undermine it’” (Bean, p. 164).

Additionally, it is possible that Yeshua, in speaking the phrase under scrutiny (Matt 5:17), he may have had in view the Torah’s admonition recorded in Deuteronomy 4:2 and repeated in 12:32,

You shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall you diminish aught from it, that you may keep the commandments of YHVH your Elohim which I command you.

Matthew 5:18, Did Yeshua annul or abrogate the Torah? If, as traditional Christian theology teaches regarding Matthew 5:17, Yeshua came to annul the Torah-law by living it out perfectly, thus fulfilling it, and thus freeing Christians from having to live it (in essence, therefore, freeing them to violate the Torah-law without the repercussions of its penalties), then why, we must ask, would Yeshua in the very next verse make the point so forcefully about the permanent nature of the Torah? What is the point of his statement if it has no relevance upon his disciples? In response to this question, we are obliged to ask the following question: Who is correct here? The literal words of Yeshua, or traditional Christian interpretation, which flies in the face of Yeshua’s straightforward statement that “till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the Torah-law till all be fulfilled”? You be the honest judge of the truth in this case, but as us, we will choose Yeshua over the traditions of men, which make of non-effect the Word of Elohim (Matt 15:6).

What is Yeshua really saying about the Torah in Matthew 5:18? Simply stated, if heaven and earth are still in existence, than the Torah is still binding upon the people of Elohim. In fact, to emphasize the inviolate and immutable nature of the Torah of Elohim he makes the following point: “one jot or tittle will in no wise pass from the Torah-law till all be fulfilled.” The word “fulfil” in verse 17 and the word “fulfilled” in verse 18, though the same words in English, are two different words in Greek. So “fulfilled” in verse 18 does not relate back “to fulfil” in verse 17. The word “fulfilled” in our present verse is the Greek word ginomai4 meaning “to be, come to pass, be made or to be done.” Simply stated, the Torah-law will not pass until we see the demise of heaven and earth come to pass. The fact that you are reading this right now is proof that heaven and earth are still in existence and that Torah is still binding upon us today.

Now what are a jot and a tittle, one might rightly ask? A “jot” is actually the anglicized version of the yud, which is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet. A “tittle” is a small pen stroke, flourish, or overhang that exist on some Hebrew letters to distinguish one letter from another. What Yeshua is saying here is that the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, even down to the smallest pen stroke is vitally important, is inspired of YHVH Elohim and will not pass away! Are we twisting the words of Yeshua to come up with this explanation for this verse? Again, let the reader be the judge, but what else could he mean if we take his words at face value?

 

5 thoughts on ““Yeshua came to fulfill the law”—what does this really mean?

  1. When I share this kind of message with people, all I get back is ‘well, that’s just your interpretation’. How do you counter that ‘argument’?

    • At this point, there’s usually not much you can say, since their mind is closed and they’re not open digging into the Bible and learning truth. It’s too intimidating for these folks, since they might actually have to change and bring their minds, hearts and lives into alignment with the Word of Elohim, which is a painful thing to do. I tell people that my interpretation means nothing, rather what does the Word of Elohim say? That’s all that matters, since it’s the Word by which we will be judged, and I leave them with that to ponder on, and then I walk away.

  2. Scripture is of no “private” =idios or idiotic interpretation. He did not write the ten commandments in stone for nothing! How many times have you heard someone say, “it’s not written in stone?” Well guess what-the law is!

    • Interestingly, the Greek word idiotes (meaning ignorant or unlearned—from where our word idiot derives) is a direct cognate of idios. The implications are obvious. Make of it what you will.

  3. In Leviticus 11:44, Elohim explains why we shouldn’t eat certain creatures. Elohim wants us to be holy as He is holy. To me, that doesn’t sound like a ceremonial law; we are to set ourselves apart from the world as YHVH is. Most Christians do not know what the word holy actually means and nor did I for a long time.
    Shalom to all,
    Sonja

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