I am working on some text for a possible publishing project coming up soon. I’d like to benefit from some reader response.
This piece is a short explanation of Matthew 5:17. It cannot really be longer or at least not much longer.
I’d be interested in your comments:
1. Does it read well?
2. Could something be said better?
3. Did I miss explaining something you think quite helpful?
4. Do you disagree with something? If so, please give a short rebuttal (100-200 words is plenty). It’s okay if you are coming from a different way of thinking (yes, that includes you, Adam).
Matthew 5:17 has been an easy passage for people to misunderstand. What the passage seems to say is often dismissed because other places in the New Testament seem to disagree. Paul says, “ye are not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14, KJV). The issue of the relationship of the believer to the Law of Moses is a complex one. Many people are content to dismiss the positive statements about the Torah in favor of those which seem to say it no longer matters.
Thus, in order the deal with Matthew 5:17-19, which seem to say the opposite of Paul’s teaching, there is a common understanding that goes as follows. Yeshua said he did not come to abolish the Torah but he came to “fulfill” it (most English translations say “fulfill”). One way of thinking is to assume that fulfill means something very much like abolish. Thus, Yeshua would be saying, I am not contradicting the Torah but bringing it to an end in a way my Father intended.
There are four immediate problems with this sort of interpretation:
1. The word translated fulfill is actually a simple word meaning to fill up. In fact, it may be helpful to remember Yeshua as saying, “Do not think I have come to abolish Torah and the prophets but to fill them full.”
2. The idea that fulfilling the Torah is similar to abolishing it does not fit with 5:18-19. There Yeshua says that not even a stroke will pass from the Torah as long as heaven and earth are here.
3. Nowhere in the Bible does Yeshua’s Father say anything about a time when the Torah will come to an end. Thus, if Yeshua meant to say that he was doing God’s will by bringing Torah to its rightful end, Yeshua would be contradicting the numerous passages of Torah which say it is forever (e.g., Exodus 31:13).
4. The idea that fulfilling Torah means bringing it to an end does not fit what Yeshua goes on to say in the Sermon on the Mount. Rather than bringing the Torah to an end, Yeshua fills it up. For example, in 5:22, Yeshua says the commandment not to murder even means not to hate or nurse anger against someone. In 5:28 he says that looking lustfully violates the commandment against adultery. Yeshua is truly filling up the Torah, not by bringing it to an end, but by giving it the fullest interpretation which judges motives and the heart.
To understand Yeshua’s teaching and Paul’s at the same time is not impossible at all. Paul was a missionary to the Gentiles. Yeshua was teaching Jews. The long-time view of Judaism is that certain Torah commands such as the Sabbath, the dietary laws, circumcision, and several others were not commands to the whole world, but just to Israel. These commands are part of Israel being a people set apart. Thus, in Acts 15, James, Peter, and Paul agreed that non-Jews need not live like Jews to live by faith in Yeshua. Thus, Paul could praise the Torah (Rom. 7:14), keep it himself (Acts 21:20-24), and yet say to his Gentile readers that they should not let anyone compel them to live as Jews (Gal. 5:1).
Properly understood, the Torah is about loving God and not about earning God’s love. Yeshua taught his Jewish disciples in Matthew 5:17-20 that their practice of the Torah should be deeper than even the Pharisees. Yeshua was a Torah-teacher (rabbi) as well as Messiah. And numerous Jewish traditions from the time and in the later rabbis speak of Messiah as one who would show Israel the proper way to keep Torah. (For more, see They Loved the Torah by David Friedman and The Distortion by John and Patrice Fischer).