“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” Matthew 5:17
Perhaps one of the most widespread controversies about the teachings of Y’shua concern His attitude toward the laws of YHWH recorded in the Old Testament. The approach of most churches and denominations regarding Y’shua is that He brought a new teaching differing considerably from the instructions of the Old Testament. The common view is that the teachings of Y’shua in the New Testament annulled and replaced the teachings of the Old Testament. But do they?
It doesn’t ultimately matter what people say about Him. Nor does it matter what interpretations they give of what He said. What truly matters is what He said, and whether we’re going to believe and accept what He said.
Clear Statements in the Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon on the Mount is a good place to begin. Since this is the longest recorded statement of Y’shua’s teachings, we should expect to find in it His view toward the laws of YHWH as recorded in the Old Testament. And indeed we do.
One of the reasons for some of Y’shua’s statements in the Sermon on the Mount is that—because His teaching was so different from that of the Pharisees and Sadducees—some people believed His intention was to subvert the authority of YHWH’s Word and substitute His own in its place. His real intention was to demonstrate that many of the things the Pharisees and Sadducees taught were contrary to the original teachings of the Torah (or Law) given through Moses, the first five books of the Bible. Y’shua refuted the erroneous ideas people had formed regarding Him with three emphatic declarations about the law. Let’s look at them.
“I Did Not Come to Destroy but to Fulfill”
Y’shua explains His view of the law very early in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).
So immediately we see that Y’shua had no intention of destroying the law. He even tells us to not even think such a thing. Far from being antagonistic to the Old Testament Scriptures, He said He had come to fulfill “the Law and the Prophets” and proceeded to confirm their authority. “The Law and the Prophets” was a term commonly used for the Old Testament Scriptures (compare Matthew 7:12).
“The Law” referred to the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses in which YHWH’s laws were written down. “The Prophets” referred not only to the writings of the biblical prophets but also to the historical books of what came to be known as the Old Testament.
What Did Y’shua Mean When He Spoke of Fulfilling the Law?
Regrettably, the meaning of “fulfilling the law” has been twisted by many who claim the name of Y’shua but don’t understand what He taught. They say that since Y’shua said He would fulfill the law, we no longer need to keep it. Another view of “fulfilling the law” is that Y’shua “filled full” what was lacking in the law—that is, He completed it, partly canceling it and partly adding to it, forming what is sometimes referred to as “Christ’s law” or “New Testament teaching.”
The implication of this view is that the New Testament brought a change in the requirements for salvation and that the laws given in the Old Testament are obsolete. But do either of these views accurately reflect what Y’shua meant?
Y’shua’s View of Fulfilling the Law
The Greek word pleroo translated “fulfill” in Matthew 5:17, means “to make full, to fill, to fill up . . . to fill to the full” or “to render full, i.e. to complete” (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 2002, Strong’s number 4137).
In other words, Y’shua said He came to complete the law and make it perfect. How? By showing the spiritual intent and application of YHWH’s law. His meaning is clear from the remainder of the chapter, where He showed the spiritual intent of specific commandments.
Some distort the meaning of “fulfill” to have Y’shua saying, “I did not come to destroy the law, but to end it by fulfilling it.” This is inconsistent with His own words. Through the remainder of the chapter, He showed that the spiritual intent of the law made it more broadly applicable, not that it was annulled or no longer necessary.
Y’shua, by explaining, expanding and exemplifying YHWH’s Torah, fulfilled a prophecy of the Messiah found in Isaiah 42:21:
“The LORD is well pleased for His righteousness’ sake; He will exalt the law, and make it honorable.” The Hebrew word gadal, translated “exalt” or “magnify” literally means “to be or become great.”
Y’shua did exactly that, showing the holy, spiritual intent, purpose and scope of YHWH’s Torah through His teachings and manner of life. He met the Torah’s requirements by obeying it perfectly in thought and deed, both in the letter and the intent of the heart.
“All Will Be Fulfilled”
The second major statement given by Y’shua in the Sermon on the Mount, in the exact same context, makes it even clearer that He did not come to destroy, rescind, nullify or abrogate the law:
“For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” Matthew 5:18
With these words, Y’shua likened the continuance of the law to the permanence of heaven and earth. He is saying that YHWH’s spiritual laws are immutable, inviolable and indestructible. They can only be fulfilled, never abrogated.
We should note that in this verse a different Greek word is used for “fulfilled”: ginomai, meaning “to become, i.e. to come into existence . . . to come to pass, happen” or “to be made, done, finished” (Thayer’s, Strong’s number 1096).
Until the ultimate completion of YHWH’s plan to glorify humanity in His Kingdom comes to pass—that is, as long as there are still fleshly human beings—the physical codification of YHWH’s law in Scripture is necessary. This, Y’shua explained, is as certain as the continued existence of the universe.
“His Servants Must Keep the Law”
The third statement of Y’shua, quoted earlier in chapter 2, pronounces that our fate rests on our attitude toward and treatment of YHWH’s Torah. Again, “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least [by those] in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great [by those] in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19).
The “by those” are added for clarification, since, as explained in other passages, those who persist in law-breaking and teach others to break YHWH’s law will not themselves be in the Kingdom at all.
Y’shua makes it very clear that those who follow Him and aspire to His Kingdom have a perpetual obligation to obey and uphold YHWH’s Torah. He is saying that we cannot diminish the law of YHWH by even a jot or tittle—the equivalent in our modern alphabet of the crossing of a “t” or the dotting of an “i.”
The value He places on the commandments of YHWH is also unmistakable—as well as the high esteem toward the Torah He requires from all those who teach in His name. His disapproval falls on those who slight the least of YHWH’s commandments, and His honor will be bestowed on those who teach and obey YHWH’s commandments.
Since Y’shua obeyed the commandments of YHWH, it follows that His servants, too, must keep the same commandments and teach others to do the same (1 John 2:2-6). It is in this way that the true ministers of Y’shua are identified—by their following the example He set for them (John 13:15).
“Must Exceed the Scribes and Pharisees”
With the next statement in the Sermon on the Mount, Y’shua leaves no doubt as to what He meant in the previous three declarations. He meant without question for His disciples to obey YHWH’s Torah—and He was requiring them to obey according to a standard that went beyond anything they’d heard before.
“For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” Matthew 5:20
Who were the scribes and Pharisees? The scribes were the most renowned teachers of the Torah—the interpreters of the law, the learned men, the experts. The Pharisees, a related group, were commonly viewed as the most exemplary models of Judaism. They formed a sect of Judaism that established a code of morals and rituals more rigid than that spelled out in the Torah, basing much of their practices on years of traditions. The scribes and Pharisees were both highly strict and highly respected in Judaism (Acts 26:5).
While the scribes were the experts, the Pharisees professed the purest practice of righteousness. So when Y’shua stated that one’s righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, this was a startling declaration!
The Pharisees were looked up to as those who had attained the very pinnacle of personal righteousness, and the common people supposed that such heights of spirituality were far beyond their reach. But Y’shua asserted that the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees wasn’t enough to entitle them to enter the Kingdom of which He spoke! What hope, then, did others have?
In Fulfill or Abolish Part 2 we pick up right where we are leaving off and examine Y’shua’s feelings towards religious hypocrisy.