Fulfilling the Law
by Lois Tverberg

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17-19

Why does Jesus speak about "fulfilling the Law"? He does not mean "annul it" as many have said. The phrase "to fulfill the Law" is used in other places in the New Testament as "doing exactly what God wants." and is used that way in other Jewish sayings too.1

David Bivin says that the word was also a kind of rabbinic idiom that meant to "interpret the Torah correctly." He says that the Hebrew word that Jesus would have used when speaking is kayem (KAI-yem) which means, literally to uphold or establish, as well as fulfill.2 In the Mishnah, it is actually used both ways. It can be used to speak about the teaching of the Torah in the sense of confirming, explaining, or interpreting correctly. But it also can mean to carry out and to obey, to actually do what it says. Sometimes it has both ideas in it - to interpret in order to do correctly. Here are some examples of the variety of usages:

"If this is how you act, you have never in your whole life fulfilled (kayem) the religious requirement of dwelling in a sukkah!'" Sukkot 2:7 (One rabbi is criticising another's interpretation of the Torah, which caused him not to do what it really says.)

R. Yonatan says, "Whoever keeps (kayem) the Torah when poor will in the end keep it in wealth. And whoever treats the Torah as nothing when he is wealthy in the end will treat it as nothing in poverty." Avot 4:9 (Here it means "to obey" - definitely the opposite of "fulfill in order to do away with.")

R. Nehorai says, "Go into exile to a place of Torah, and do not suppose that it will come to you. For your fellow disciples will make it solid (kayem) in your hand. And on your own understanding do not rely." Avot 4:14 (Here it means to explain it and fill it with meaning.)

We can see from the passages from other rabbis that when used of the Torah, the word "fulfill" means to interpret God's word correctly, and also to live it out. This seems to be key to understanding Jesus' words in Matthew 5, and seeing a parallelism between this verse and the next , which says, "...whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. It appears that "fulfill" in vs. 17 is a parallel to both of the two words "practice" and "teach" in vs. 19, which makes sense with how the rabbis used the word. The words "break" and "teaches others to break" is the sense of the word "abolish" in Matthew 5:17

From this we see that Jesus meant that his intention was to explain and obey God's word so that we can understand how God wants us to live, not to undermine it and teach others to do so. His goal is that we imitate him and teaching others to live like him too.

1 See the Water from the Rock article, "Love is the Fulfilment of the Law."

2 David Bivin, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus (En-Gedi, 2005), p 93-94.

     
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