Getting Matthew 5:17-20 Right

One of the blind spots in historic Christian theology is the ongoing significance of the Law of Moses. Early on, in an environment of anti-Semitism that is well-documented, church fathers decided both that Israel had been replaced in God’s promises by the Church and that the Law was a temporary, inferior, nearly graceless revelation of God due to be replaced by the new permanent, superior, and grace-filled canon of the apostles.

I’m including below a commentary I wrote yesterday for those who are on my Daily D’var email list (daily commentary on the daily Torah and gospel readings). I will put my commentary in bold and in italics add some explanation.

I was particularly motivated to post this when I read with utter frustration the commentary by R.T. France in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series. I could not believe such a thoughtful scholar would make such incongruous statements, defying logic and the normal rules of interpretation to avoid the plain meaning in favor of a doctrine. Why is it so difficult for some scholars to see past the errors of the past generations? France’s frustrating comments include the following. My commentary is past the jump.

. . . the interpreter must face the fact that this teaching is out of step with the overall thrust of NT Christianity and with the almost universal consensus of Christians ever since. . .

Paul . . . uses language about freedom from the law . . . which sits very uncomfortably with a view that Torah observance is unchanged since the coming of the Messiah. Under his and Peter’s guidance the NT church found it necessary to abandon the OT food laws as binding on all Christians (Acts 11:2-10; Rom 14:14).

In 15:11 Jesus will make a pronouncement which in effect undercuts the whole complex of Levitical laws of purity . . .

They [the Law and prophets] remain the authoritative word of God. But their role will no longer be the same, now that what they pointed forward to has come . . .

. . . a ‘greater righteousness’ which Jesus has brought into being and which supersedes the old type of lawkeeping.

Who supposed that Yeshua was relaxing or abolishing the Torah of Moses? Some have argued that this must be Matthew’s community dealing with debates between the law-keeping church and the Pauline (allegedly) anti-Torah church. But there is enough evidence of a clash between Yeshua and the scribes and Pharisees to suppose that he might have been accused in his lifetime of relaxing the Torah.
In other words, is 5:17 like something Yeshua really would have said referring to the situation in his time, or are these words put into Yeshua’s mouth a generation or two later by Matthew, dealing with disputes in Matthew’s time between lawkeeping and law-free Yeshua-followers? I argue that there is good enough reason to affirm Yeshua would have been accused in his own generation of undermining the law. I reject the assertion that Matthew represents the Judaizing church in conflict the anti-Torah Pauline church, a view of early church history that is unrealistic and which has been abandoned by many scholars.

What does Yeshua mean by “I have come to fill up the Torah”? The best answer comes from the context. In 5:21-47 we have six examples of Yeshua filling up the Torah. He interprets Torah in its fullest sense, as requiring total righteousness (as opposed to a loophole or evasive approach to Torah, looking for ways to excuse unrighteous motives).
Many have understood the words “fill up” as “fulfill,” the usual translation. Further, they have assumed that “fulfill” means “abolish by bringing something old and outdated to its completion in the new era.” I am arguing that Yeshua demonstrated in the near context what he meant by “fill up” in vss. 21-47 where he gives thoroughgoing application to various issues of the Torah. I am also saying that Yeshua viewed the Pharisees as lax in their Torah-observance, and not as commendable in their integrity.

The idea that Yeshua meant “I did not come to abolish Torah by calling it obsolete but to bring and end to Torah observance by declaring a new era of law-free gospel” is the common reading, but one which does not integrate with biblical theology or the life and culture of Yeshua at all.
I’ve written elsewhere about some of the problems of interpreting Yeshua as overturning the Torah of Moses. First, this would pit the Son against the Father, as if the Father gave a bad law and now the Son has come to do away with it. This does not fit the submission of the Son to the Father. Second, it would assume that God gave a deficient and inferior revelation which needed to be left behind when the better and late revelation of Yeshua and grace came to the world. This view of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is the shame of Christian bibliology. How Christian theologians can say at once that the Bible is God’s self-disclosure to bring redemption to the world and out of the other side say that 80% of that self-disclosure is inferior and carnal is beyond me.

It would seem rather that Yeshua is saying, “I did not come to oppose the Torah, but to fill it to its full meaning and to reveal that meaning to you.”
This is vital. We should see Yeshua’s saying as affirming the Torah and calling for a higher, messianic keeping of Torah, rather than overturning the revealed will of the Father. I will address below the question of gentile relationship to Torah, which is not the issue here in this speech to Jewish disciples.

Vs. 19 gives the lie to the idea that only a universal moral law derived from the Torah has ongoing authority.
Compare vs. 19’s emphasis on the least commandment to Matthew 23:23-24 in which he says little commandments should be kept, but greater commandments of love, justice, and mercy should get priority and emphasis. In other words, keep all the commandments, but major on the majors. Those who major on tithing dill and neglect love will be judged. But those who major on love and neglect tithing dill have also failed to completely obey.

Vs. 20 is Yeshua’s major point. It should be understood in this sense, “I expect of my disciples a complete observance of the Torah according to my teaching and not the evasive, lax practice of the scribes and Pharisees.”
There is a myth that the Pharisees were the strictest lawkeepers. Yeshua frequently criticizes the Pharisees for laxity in keeping laws and for finding loopholes. The Essenes referred to the Pharisees as “seekers of smooth things.” The rabbis of later generations were critical of the hypocrisy of some kinds of Pharisees. None of these internal Jewish debates are anti-Semitic. We might compare them to Catholics denouncing laxity in Catholicism or evangelical Christians criticizing their own community from within.

Much of Christianity’s confusion about this passage could be clarified by realizing Matthew assumes, without saying it, that the apostolic teaching of Acts 15 is in force. The full Torah is being required by Yeshua from his Jewish disciples, but gentiles are not bound by the covenantal signs such as circumcision, Sabbath, and dietary law.
Christianity forgot its Jewish roots and read the book of Acts poorly, skipping over the devout Torah-observance of Paul and the apostles. Confusing gentile freedom from the Torah’s covenantal signs, the Church historically has assigned blame to the Torah and relegated Israel to the status of a has-been people. But if the fathers had understood that Torah’s full observance continued for Jews and that the Church’s way of living derived from the universal principles in Torah, much evil would have been avoided through the centuries. The New Perspective on Paul and the historical Jesus research of recent decades is bringing about a reading of these issues which is Jewish-friendly (at last!).

Vss. 21-47 go on to give examples of Yeshua filling the Torah with its deepest meaning, which he said in vs. 17 was his way.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christian, Gentiles, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Torah. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Getting Matthew 5:17-20 Right

  1. It is a very good article. Thank you, Derek. We teach about this in Ukraine too.

  2. jgj84la says:

    Reading commentaries like this is frustrating. It’s more frustrating to hear people regurgitate them.

    When people tell me that they want to go to seminary I cringe because I can help but think that they will be studying under teachers like Mr. France.

    Christians sit in pews listening to messages like this for years. It is going to take us just as much time to help them to see the real Jewish Messiah.

  3. Pingback: Getting Matthew 5:17-20 Right (via Messianic Jewish Musings) | Midnight Approaches

  4. newtothiskim says:

    Help. It is amazing how under the radar this Messianic Judiasm/Hebraic Christian movement is. It took total exasperation with being in a Baptist church for 20 years and searching out other alternatives — deeper meaning to Scripture, if you will to find all of you. We have been soaking all this up since July. Unfortunately, there isn’t a congregation within 100 miles of us and we live in a town of 150k. Any ideas of how to get like minded folks together? Or how to convince people of the truth? I have a blog at I could use some advice. Love your site…

  5. beanzer80 says:

    [15] We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; [16] yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law(given to Moses) but through faith in Yeshua our Messiah, so we also have believed in Messiah Yeshua, in order to be justified by faith in the Messiah and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
    (Galatians 2:15-16)
    My view is that Jesus fulfilled the requirements of the law of Moses, keeping them fully and then dying on the cross becoming the perfect sacrifice and the passover lamb. He made a new covenant with us on the passover night and done away with the old one, brought in a new one. Thats my view, I’ve also heard Arnold Fruchtenbaum view on this issue and agreed with what he said.

  6. Reggie King says:

    I Very much understand what Yeshua was saying in Matthew 5:17-20 and his whole message through out the NT. I didn’t always understand it because I never before had thought of perfect obedience and what it would look like. Yeshua was perfect obedience he preached perfect obedience and recognized that all men had been disobedient but if they repent and turn from disobedience and follow his way of perfect obedience in Loving God the Father and Loving one another and doing what God had originally commanded and keep the order and observing the days and customs God had commanded them to do then God will forgive their sins and the sins of the Gentiles that came to convert and keep the commandments as well. God allows for free will but not utter disobedience. Yeshua says in Matthew 5 19 that anyone (JEW or Gentile or Christian) who doesn’t keep the Law (Torah) will be least in the kingdom of heaven and who ever keep them will be great in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 20 warrens: who ever righteousness (behavior or actions)is not greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees (the ones that are hypocrites ) , then you shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. God sent us his word of perfection and allowed it to be flesh and blood so that it could be spilled as a sacrifice (sin offering) to forgive the disobedience of Jews that would believe that Yeshua spirit was from heaven and had authority on Earth. If Gentiles heard, believed, repented, convert (to the Law or Torah) and keep the commandments of God then they also would be forgiven and receive the kingdom of heaven. But if anyone (Jew or Gentile)do not repent and be obedient to GODs word(Law) or Yeshua (something because He spoke GODs word to perfect obedience) then they will not be forgiven EVER neither in this life or the life to come. Matthew 5:48 You be therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

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