Jesus and the Law

Matt 5:17-20: [17] Think not that I am come to destroy the law (nomos; Torah), or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. [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.”

Jesus  came to be our example.  He demonstrated to us what a man, in right relationship with God, can accomplish by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, his comments on the law are of the utmost importance.

The word used here for “destroy” is the Greek word “katuloo” (Strong’s #i2647) its meaning is “to loosen down, to disintegrate to demolish, or to halt.” Messiah is telling us here what He has not come to do.  He has not come to loosen down, stop, or disintegrate the Law.  Yet, this is the position that Christianity has taken for thousands of years.  How often have we heard that the “law was done away with.”  This position is totally untenable when we examine what Jesus is saying in this passage.  The first verse totally disengages the church’s position.  The law must have a place in the life of the believer.  For years, theologians and preachers have told us that Jesus fulfilled the law, therefore, it no longer applies to us.  But that is not what Jesus is saying here.  This position is saying thatr by fulfilling the law he abolished the law.  Not so, He is telling us that it has a place.  To further discuss this, let us look at the word for “fulfill.”

The word used for “fulfill” is the Greek word “plerroo” (Strong’s #4137).  It’s meaning, is to “make replete, to fill up,  or to fulfill as in cram to the tap.”  It is the verb that Paul uses regarding the Holy Spirit in Ephesians 5:18 where he states, “be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  This gives us a sense of what the word means. It means that as Christians we should be crammed to the top with the Holy Spirit.  So, what could the  possible meaning be in this context of Matthew 5:17?  “Rather than being destroyed it now existed as God originally intended.  It had come to an end in one form, but continued in another, more perfect form.” (1).  It would appear that Messiah is here restoring the Law to its original intention as a lifestyle of holiness for the priesthood of all believers.  The Law had been perverted into a system of works that became a vehicle of salvation.  Jesus was clarifying that He was the only means of salvation, but this did not destroy the law.  As the IVP commentary states, “Jesus opposed not the law but the illegitimate interpretation of it that stressed regulations more than character.” (2)

If fulfill means “to do away with” then we have Jesus saying one thing (Do not think I have come to abolish the Law) while immediately contradicting Himself (I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.)  “To fulfill” obviously can’t mean “to do away with.”  Jesus reveals the essence of the Law by saying things like “You have heard it said of old that one must not murder, but I say to you that if you hate your brother in your heart that you have already murdered him.”  Jesus was clarifying and amplifying the Commandment (Law) not to murder by showing Israel what the essence of the Commandment is.  He didn’t throw out the commandment not to murder by telling us the essence of the Commandment.  But what He did do was sweep away any thoughts that one could keep that Commandment perfectly, even if one had not literally murdered someone.

In Hebrew terms, Jesus is using rabbinical terms of the time to explain His position.  “Destroy and fulfill are technical terms used in rabbinic argumentation.  When  a 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’ for another.” (3)  Of course, neither rabbi in the argument would ever think of negating any commandments of scripture, they were just technical phrases from rabbinical schools of thought to be seen figuratively and not literally.  The church has taken a literal position and tossed out the Law for the believer.

While many people say that Christ fulfilled the commandments at the cross (therefore we are no longer required to obey them)  we know this cannot be true, as Jesus perfectly fulfilled the Law to love our enemies, but that doesn’t mean we are “free” to hate them because Christ fulfilled the Law for us.  When does He say the Law will pass?  “When Heaven and Earth pass away.”   This has not yet happened.  The Law is still in effect.

An additional Hebrew idiom can be found in phrase, “I have come”.  “When Jesus says “I have come” the English reader immediately pictures Jesus leaving his heavenly throne and, as the Servant of the Lord, coming to the earth.  But “I have come” may often be a Hebrew idiom denoting intention or purpose.” (4)  Thus, we can translate “I have come” to mean something completely different than the incarnation.  My purpose or My task rather than “this is the reason that I left heaven.” With this purpose in mind, John Lightfoot gives us an additional perspective on this verse,  He writes, “It was the opinion of the nation concerning the Messias, that he would bring in a new law, but not at all to the prejudice or damage of Moses and the Prophets:  but that he would advance the Mosaic law to the very highest pitch, and would fulfill those things that were foretold by the prophets, and that according to the letter, even to the greatest pomp.” (5)  Is this not what we see Jesus doing in this entire passage of scripture.  Elevating and establishing the Law, rather than abolishing it.

Jesus tells us that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees.  Our righteousness in keeping the Law must go deeper than the superficial external followings of the Scribes and Pharisees.  Does that mean the Law is done away with?  Well, how did Christ explain this? Rather than telling us not to murder, he tells us not to hate.  Rather than tell us not to commit adultery He tells us not to lust.  The requirements of God through Christ don’t just teach us to follow the Law, they reveal the heart of the Law that one must strive for in Christ.  To not murder is “easy” for most believers.  But to abstain from hate is impossible for most, and that is why we need His blood of forgiveness and His spirit of life, to help us to overcome our carnal nature and receive His nature, so that we can do both the external and internal Law of God.  The Pharisees followed the Laws of God – in their actions.  But their hearts were far from God (Mat 15:8,9; Isaiah 29:13)  Obedience to God is about action (thou shalt not kill) as well as heart (thou shalt not hate.)  Our righteousness must include that of the Pharisees (the external points of the Law) and go beyond it (the heart of the Law, as Jesus revealed it to us.)  Our obedience to God must be an act of the will motivated by a love for God.  Additionally, verse 19 seems to suggest that obedience to the law is a requirement for those who are in the “Kingdom of God.”  In fact, those who support the abolishment of the law are still in the kingdom.  They are called “the least” but they remain in the Kingdom.  Obviously then, obedience to Torah is not a means of salvation.

Let’s close with a lengthy quote from John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible which sums up our position:
“The moralist, the Pharisee, who obeys the Law externally, does not love it, nor delight in it (Romans 7:22) but obeys it from fear of its threatening; and from a desire of popular esteem and from low, selfish views, in order to gain the applause of men and the favor of God.  Only a man restored to God will delight in the law of God, as it is fulfilled by Christ, who has answered all the demands of it.  It is in the hands of Christ, held forth by Him as a rule of holy walk and conversation; and it is written upon man’s heart by the Spirit of God, (Jeremiah 31:33, Heb 8:10) to which the righteous man yields a voluntary and cheerful obedience (Psalm 119).  He serves the Law with his mind, freely, without any constraint but that of love.  He delights in the law, and the delight is mutual and reciprocal: the law delights in him, and he delights in the law; and they both delight in the same things, and particularly in the perfect obedience which the Son of God has yielded to it.”


**All definitions of Greek and Hebrew words are taken from the Strong’s concordance**

**All scripture quotations are taken from the New King James version of the Holy Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishing, Nashville, TN.**

**Much appreciation if given to my wife Rina as the foundation of this article came from her work**

1.  Bivin, David, Blizzard, Roy, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, Destiny Image Publishers, Shippensburg, PA, 1994, page 113

2.  Keener, Craig S., The IVP Bible Backgournd Commentary:  New Testament, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1993, page 57.

3.  Bivin and Blizzard, page114

4.  Ibid, page 92

5.  Lightfoot, John, Commentary on the New Testament form the Talmud and Hebriaca, Hendrickson, Publishers, 2003, page 99.

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