Yeshua "Fulfilled the Law"? (Mt. 5:17)
James Scott Trimm
Often when I share with Christians that the Torah is everlasting, for all generations, they respond by saying, "But Jesus Fulfilled the Law." By this they allude to an antinomian Christian theology that teaches that "Jesus fulfilled the law in our place, so we don't have to."
But is this what "fulfilled the Law" really means?
The reference is actually drawn from the words of Yeshua in the Book of Matthew:
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets:
I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
(Matt. 5:17 KJV)
To begin with it should be known that this reference to "fulfilling" the Torah vs. "destroying" the Torah is actually a common use of a Hebrew idiom still used by Rabbis today in the Yeshivas. To "fulfill" the Torah is an idiom meaning "to teach the meaning of the Torah and observe it correctly," that is to fulfill its true meaning. While to "destroy" the Torah is an idiom meaning "to incorrectly teach the meaning of the Torah and/or to violate the Toarh," That is to destroy the true meaning of the Torah. Even today in the Yeshivas and the Beit Midrashes Rabbis will get in heated debates with one another, poinding a fist on a table and declaring "you have destroyed the Torah", or give another Rabbi a compliment saying "you have fulfilled the Torah." It bears noting that in the next several verses Yeshua weighs in on controversies over the interpretation of various commandments in the Torah and gives us their true and correct meaning, so Yeshua's use of the term "fulfill the law" vs. "destroy" the Law is totally in keeping with the normal idim of the Hebrew language for these terms.
Of course the concept that Yeshua fulfilled the law in our place so that we no longer need to observe the Torah ourselves has a number of basic problems.
To begin with the logic itself is faulty. To "fulfill" something means "to fill it until it is full," However if I fill my gas tank until it is full, do I then throw the gas Tank away as if I no longer need it? It seems to fill something up and to throw something away are two very different things.
Moreover there are serious problems with any logic which says that Yeshua fulfilled the law for me, so I no longer need to observe the Torah." Yeshua did not keep the whole Torah. Now before you get all upset, please understand that Yeshua never violated a single precept of the Torah, but there were still many precepts that did not apply to him, and therefore that he could not and did not keep. Certain commandments apply only to lepers, or only to Levitical Priests or even to the Levitical High Priest, Yeshua did not keep these commandments. Also there are many commandments that apply only to women, like going to be washed after a menstration period. Yeshua never kepts these commandments either.
This means that a woman cannot, for example, say "Yeshua was washed after menstruation periods for me, so I do not have to be washed after my menstruation period." And therefore the entire framework of pseudo-logic which claims that Yeshua fulfilled the law so we do no longer need to observe Torah collapses upon itself. It is simply a false theology.
Now let us look at Matthew 5:16-20 in context:
16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20 For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
(Matt. 5:16-20 KJV)
While anti-nomians have attempted to isolate the phrase "I am come... to fulfil [the law]" out of context of the surrounding material, when read in context of the surrounding verses it is clear that the passage does not in any way mean that the Torah should no longer be kept.
In verse 16 the subject is introduced as relating to letting our light shine before men that they may see our good works. Verse 17 then emphasizes that Yeshua did not come to destroy (this word could also be translated "abolish") the law. Verse 18 emphasizes that not one letter of the Torah will pass away. Verse 19 emphasizes the importance of keeping the commandments and teaching others to do so (and conversely criticizes violating the commandments and teaching others to violate them). Verse 20 emphasizes that that we must be even more righteous than the Scribes and Pharisees. Finally in verses 21-48 Yeshua addresses specific commandments of the Torah and elaborates on their meaning, interpreting many of them in the broadest possible manner.
When Yeshua said he came to "fulfil" the Torah in Matthew 5:17 he was not saying that he had come to keep the Torah so that we somehow would no longer need to do so ourselves. In reality Yeshua was saying that he came to fulfil the Torah and not to destroy the Torah, he is using a common Hebrew idiom to tell us that he came to teach the true and correct meaning of the Torah and to properly observe it, and that he did not come to abolish the Torah, teach its meaning incorrectly or violate it.
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