What Does It Mean to "Fulfill the Law"?

 by Lois Tverberg

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. Matthew 5:17 (NASB)   

A difficult passage for many Christians is Jesus' saying in Matthew 5:17 that he "came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it." A traditional way of interpreting it is to say that when Jesus "fulfilled the Law" he brought it to an end, even though in the next several verses, Jesus says quite forcefully that this isn't true. The key is that the phrase "fulfill the Law" is an idiom, and found several other places in the New Testament and in Jewish sayings from Jesus' time. By studying these passages we can understand the saying more fully. Moreover, we can read Paul's important writings about "fulfilling the law," and see what they mean for us.

"Fulfill the Law" as a Rabbinic Idiom

It will help us greatly to know that the phrase "fulfill the Torah" is a rabbinic idiom that is still in use even today. The word we read as "law" is torah in Hebrew, and its main sense is teaching, guidance and instruction, rather than legal regulation. It is God's instructions for living, and because of God's great authority, it demands obedience and therefore takes on the sense of "law." The Torah is often understood to mean the first five books of the Bible, but also refers to the Scriptures in general. In Jesus' time, and among Jews today, this is a very positive thing - that the God who made us would give us instructions for how to live.1 The rabbis made it their goal to understand these instructions fully and teach people how to live by it.

The translation of "to fulfill" is lekayem in Hebrew (le-KAI-yem), which means to uphold or establish, as well as to fulfill, complete or accomplish.2 David Bivin has pointed out that the phrase "fulfill the Law" is often used as an idiom to mean to properly interpret the Torah so that people can obey it as God really intends. The word "abolish" was likely either levatel, to nullify, or la'akor, to uproot, which meant to undermine the Torah by misinterpreting it. For example, the law against adultery could be interpreted as specifically against cheating on one's spouse, but not about pornography. When Jesus declared that lust also was a violation of the commandment, he was clarifying the true intent of that law, so in rabbinic parlance he was "fulfilling the Law." In contrast, if a pastor told his congregation that watching x-rated videos was fine, he would be "abolishing the Law" - causing them to not live as God wants them to live. Here are a couple examples of this usage from around Jesus' time:

 If the Sanhedrin gives a decision to abolish (uproot, la'akor) a law, by saying for instance, that the Torah does not include the laws of Sabbath or idolatry, the members of the court are free from a sin offering if they obey them; but if the Sanhedrin abolishes (la'akor) only one part of a law but fulfills (lekayem) the other part, they are liable. 3

Go away to a place of study of the Torah, and do not suppose that it will come to you. For your fellow disciples will fulfill it (lekayem) in your hand. And on your own understanding do not rely. 4 (Here "fulfill" means to explain and interpret the Scripture.)

Fulfilling the Law as Obedience

There is another sense of the phrase "fulfill the Law", and it is to carry out a law - to actually do what it says. In Jewish sayings from near Jesus' time, we see many examples of this second usage as well, including the following:

If this is how you act, you have never in your whole life fulfilled the requirement of dwelling in a sukkah! 5 (One rabbi is criticizing another's interpretation of the Torah, which caused him not to do what it really intends.)

Whoever fulfills the Torah when poor will in the end fulfill it in wealth. And whoever treats the Torah as nothing when he is wealthy in the end will treat it as nothing in poverty. 6 (Here it means "to obey" - definitely the opposite of "fulfill in order to do away with.")

Interestingly, these two usages of "fulfill" seem to be key to understanding Jesus' words in the passage in Matthew 5 that begins with him speaking about "fulfilling the law."

...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. (Matt. 5:19)

Here the two actions of "practicing" and "teaching others to do the same" are an exact parallel to the two idiomatic senses of "fulfill," while the words "break" and "teach others to break" are the idiomatic senses of "abolish." So, Jesus' statement about fulfilling and abolishing the Torah is a parallel to this sentence. Parallelism was a very common way of emphasizing an idea in the Bible, and especially for Jesus.7 By understanding the idiom we see that Jesus was emphatically stating his intention, which was to explain God's word and live by it, and not to undermine it.

What does this mean for us?

In the past, the idea that "Christ brought the Law to an end by fulfilling it" has been the traditional rationale of why Christians are not obligated to keep the laws of the Old Testament. We overlook the fact that in Acts 15, the early church declared that Gentiles were not obligated to convert to Judaism by being circumcised and taking on the covenant of Torah that was given to Israel. They are told instead that they must simply observe the three most basic laws against idolatry, sexual immorality and murder, the minimal observance required of Gentile God-fearers.8 The reason Christians have not been required to observe the Torah was not because it has ended, but because we are Gentiles.

Paul, of course was zealous in saying that Gentiles were not required to observe the Torah, when some were insisting that they become circumcised and take on other observances. He himself still observed the Torah, and proved it to James when asked to do so in Acts 21:24-26, but he still maintained that Gentiles were saved apart from observing it. He supported this by pointing out that they were filled with the Holy Spirit when they first believed in Christ, not after they had become more observant of the Torah (Gal. 3:2-5). He also used the example of Abraham, who also was a Gentile who never observed the laws of the Torah that were given 400 years later, but was justified because of his faith. (Gal. 3:6-9) 9

Paul's use of "Fulfill the Law"

The question then becomes, if the Torah is God's instructions for how to live, then are Gentiles entirely excluded from its wonderful truths? Surprisingly, in both Romans and Galatians, after Paul has spent a lot of time arguing against their need to observe the Torah, he actually answers this question by speaking about how they can "fulfill the Law." He says:

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Rom. 13:8-10) 

For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Gal. 5:14; NASB)

If Paul is using first idiomatic sense of "fulfill the Torah" discussed above, he is saying that love is the supreme interpretation of the Torah - the ultimate summation of everything that God has taught in the Scriptures. He is reiterating Jesus' key teaching about loving God and neighbor that says "All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matt. 22:40). The two laws about love are not just more important than the rest, they are actually the grand summation of it all. A later rabbi put it this way: "Love your neighbor as yourself - this is the very essence (klal gadol) of the Torah." 8 Love is the overriding principle that shapes how all laws should be obeyed.

Love as Fulfilling the Torah

Paul also seems to be using the second idiomatic sense of "fulfill the Torah" to say that loving your neighbor is actually the living out of the Torah. When we love our neighbor, it is as if we have done everything God has asked of us. A Jewish saying from near that time has a similar style:

If one is honest in his business dealings and people esteem him, it is accounted to him as though he had fulfilled the whole Torah. 9

The point of the saying above is that a person who is honest and praiseworthy in all his dealings with others has truly hit God's goal for how he should live. He didn't cancel the Law, he did it to the utmost! Similarly, Paul is saying that when we love our neighbor, we have truly achieved the goal of all the commandments. So instead of saying that the Gentiles are without the law altogether, he says that they are doing everything it requires when they obey the "Law of Christ," which is to love one another. For him, the command to love is the great equalizer between the Jew who observes the Torah, and Gentile who does not, but who both believe in Christ. Paul says,

"For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." (Gal. 5:6)

Other New Testament writers also highlight it the commandment to love as the central law that all must follow. James says, If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing right (James 2:8). And finally, John sums up everything in terms of love:

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.  1 John 4:7-12


1 See Listening to the Language of the Bible by Tverberg & Okkema (published by En-Gedi, 2004) pp. 9-10.

2 See New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context, by David Bivin, (En-Gedi, 2005) pp. 93-94, and notes on p.101 for other examples of this idiomatic usage.

3 Mishnah, Horayot 1:3. The Mishnah is a compendium of Jewish law that contains sayings from 200 BC to 200 AD. This saying would have been from before the Temple fell in 70 AD, because it is talking about Temple sacrifices.

4 Mishnah, Pirke Avot, 4:14.

5 Mishnah, Sukkot 2:7

6 Mishnah, Pirke Avot 4:9

7 For instance, many times Jesus gives two parables to prove a point, like the "Lost Coin" and the "Lost Sheep." Many of his teachings are parallelisms too: "Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned..." (Luke 6:37) Also, in the poetry of the Old Testament, parallel phrases are are ubiquitous.

8 This idea is discussed much more thoroughly in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context, by David Bivin, in the chapter called "Requirements for Gentiles," pp. 141-144.

9 See the article "Being a Part of Abraham's Family" at www.egrc.net.

10 Rabbi Akiva, (who lived between about 50-135 AD); B. Talmud, Bava Metzia (62a).

11 Mekhilta, B'shalach 1 (written between 200-300 AD).

©2006 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All rights reserved. This article is copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.

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