What “Fulfill the Law” Meant in its Jewish Context (1 of 3)

What did Jesus mean when he said that he “came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it”? (Matthew 5:17)

Pastor Andy Stanley recently published an article in Christianity Today called “Jesus Ended the Old Covenant Once and for All” which is based on the idea that to “fulfill the Law” means “to bring it to an end.”1 An honest reader can’t avoid noticing that this interpretation seems strained. In just the next few verses, we find Jesus saying quite forcefully the very opposite. What is going on here?

The key is that the phrase “fulfill the Law” is a rabbinic idiom. It is found several other places in the New Testament and in Jewish sayings too. Hearing it in context will shed light on its true meaning.

 

Torah Reading.

To Fulfill the Torah

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. 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.2

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 only about 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.”

Imagine a pastor preaching that cheating on your taxes is fine, as long as you give the money to the church. He would be “abolishing the Law” – causing people 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.)

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Fulfilling the Law as Obedience

The phrase “fulfill the Law” has another sense, which 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.”)

These two meanings of “fulfill” shed light on Jesus’ words on in Matthew 5:19:

…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.

Here the two actions of “practicing” and “teaching others to do the same” are an exact parallel to the two idiomatic senses of “fulfill.” In contrast, the words “break” and “teach others to break” are the idiomatic senses of “abolish.”

With this in mind, you can see that Matthew 5:19 parallels and expands on Jesus’ words about fulfilling and abolishing the Torah in Matthew 5:17. By understanding this idiom we see that Jesus was emphatically stating that his intention was to explain God’s Word and live it out perfectly, not to undermine or destroy it.

Why was Jesus emphasizing this point? Most likely because the Jewish religious leaders had accused him of undermining the Torah in his preaching. Jesus was responding that he was not misinterpreting God’s law, but bringing it to its best understanding.

Furthermore, if any of his disciples twisted or misinterpreted its least command, they would be considered “least” in his kingdom. Jesus’s entire ministry as a rabbi was devoted to getting to the heart of God’s Torah through what he said and how he lived.

Notice that on at least one occasion, Jesus leveled this same charge against the Pharisees. He accused them of nullifying the law to honor one’s mother and father by saying that possessions declared corban (dedicated to God) could not be released to support one’s elderly parents (Mark 7:11–12).

Certainly Jesus fulfilled the law by obeying it perfectly. But as a rabbi, he also “fulfilled” it by clarifying its meaning and enlightening people about how God truly wanted them to live.

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Read part 2, “What Paul Says about Fulfilling the Law

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1 Andy Stanley elaborates on this interpretation in his new book Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World. (Harper Collins, 2018) His idea is that Christians need to distance themselves from the Old Testament because Jesus came to bring Judaism to an end. (Yes, he really said this.) He tries to soft-pedal this idea by saying that his true purpose is to make the Bible more inviting to seekers. But he uses classic Marcionistic and supercessionistic arguments to make his point, and ignores everything written by New Testament scholars in the past 50 years. This was a truly awful book that was painful to read.

For an alternative perspective on Jesus and the Law, see the chapters 11 and 12 of my book, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus (Zondervan, 2019), pp 154-191.

2 See the chapter “Jesus’ Technical Terms about the Law” (pp. 93-102) in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context, by David Bivin (En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007).

3 Mishnah, Horayot 1:3. The Mishnah is a compendium of Jewish law that contains sayings from 200 BC to 200 AD. This saying was very early, from before 70 AD.

4 Mishnah, Pirke Avot, 4:14.

5 Mishnah, Sukkot 2:7

6 Mishnah, Pirke Avot 4:9

Comments

20 Responses to “What “Fulfill the Law” Meant in its Jewish Context (1 of 3)”

  1. 1
    Jegede Ayomipo|November 8, 2018

    God just sent you my way. This has been a big concern for me and cause serious conflict and damage to Christianity. What people are preaching this days especially this grace message. Hmmmmm. I was reading exactly this chapter of the Bible today.
    You brought lights.
    Thanks.

  2. 2
    Bellyn K Whitteker|November 8, 2018

    I’ve never been one to follow pop culture – Christian or secular. I have heard of Andy Stanley’s “Irresistable” but haven’t read it! Thanks Lois, for exempting me from a painful read.

    In contrast, this post is full of enlightenment, especially about the Torah.
    Bellyn

  3. 3
    Mike Davis|November 8, 2018

    Great article Lois!

    I did a series of messages at our fellowship in response to Andy’s sermon “Ninty” and “Aftermath”. Where he made the same statements.

    I listened to his entire series to make sure I did not take anything Out Of context or misrepresent him.

    I have been shocked and appalled (as have many) at the statements he has made. And I am surprised at how he utterly ignores the New Testament and its quotation of Torah.

    So… great article!!!!

    It is much needed 😊👍

  4. 4
    Deanne Moore|November 9, 2018

    Thank you so much, Lois, for sharing these insights into the deeper meaning of these words and our Rabbi’s heart. Can’t wait to read the next installments.

  5. 5
    Jon Stammers|November 9, 2018

    Thank you for this. This verb “lekayem”, does it occur in the Hebrew Bible at all? I find Matthew’s use of “fulfil” very interesting and the closest equivalent in the OT I find to the way Matthew often uses it is at the very end of Tanakh, 2 Chron 36:22. But there the verb is “lekalot” (from “kalah”)…

  6. 6
    John Shuffle|November 13, 2018

    Many thanks to you, Lois, for bringing out this much and greatly needed response to Andy Stanley’s heresy. It occurs to me that this interpretation conundrum that you are so expertly revealing is so emblematic of the Scripture’s admonitions about the last days… when (paraphrasing!) “mankind will chase after their own selfishly desired ‘truths’ that serve to “tickle” their ears. Your, David’s and others’ attentive uncovering of proper contexts is essential to the Body!

  7. 7
    Rena Monholland|November 20, 2018

    I wish I could explain this as well as you have. I try with many people who say the law is fulfilled and so we aren’t bound to it.

  8. 8
    Russ Constant|December 15, 2018

    Excellent article… Very many thanks… My book ‘Jewish Bread for Gentile beggars’ also weaves this Torah thread throughout.

  9. 9
    Dan Vander Haar|December 15, 2018

    I am greatly enjoying my daily read from my new Complete Jewish Study Bible. It is adding insight to my Biblical understanding of the times, and is pulling me away from our modern interpretations that Christianize everything as Stanley believes. Thus, your article on this was timely.

  10. 10
    Alex|December 15, 2018

    Thanks Lois,

    I am blessed by your biblical expositions. It’s an amazing how the bible becomes alive to me every time I read your articles More

  11. 11
    Marcia Malthus|December 16, 2018

    I agree with you on the use of “fulfill” and “abolish” but I am puzzled as to how this applies to Paul writing that Jesus has “abolished in His flesh the law of commandments and ordinances” Ephesians 2:15. Is this a different word? This is a scripture that is often used to “prove” that the Torah has been done away with.

  12. 12
    Beverly Van Kampen|December 16, 2018

    I loved your explanation of this in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, but you take it even further there. So helpful! Thanks for always taking us to the next level.

  13. 13
    Diane Van Noord|December 16, 2018

    Excellent, Lois. I hope you sent this to Andy Stanley.

  14. 14
    Peter Bissinger|December 17, 2018

    I Kings 1:14
    “Right then, while you are still talking with the king, I will also come in after you and confirm what you are saying.”
    The word confirm here in the LXX Greek translation of the Hebrew is the same Greek word as is used in Matthew 5:17 for fulfill!
    So what Jesus said in Matthew 5:17, was that he “came not to abolish the Law but to confirm it”

    It can also mean to ‘elevate it to a higher level’, and this is exactly what He did, when he said in Matthew 5:28 but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
    He did not do away with the Law (Torah) but confirmed it and even raised the standard.

  15. 15
    Debbie Quire|December 17, 2018

    Thank you for your clear teaching on this subject.I’m loving “Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus”.Perhaps your next book could fully address this common misconception in detail and it could be put to rest.As Rabbi Matt Rosenberg (ShalomSeattle.com) said in in his sermon series “Jesus never said anything new”.

  16. 16
    Joseph Mullet|December 18, 2018

    Thanks Lois, that was a great article, I wonder what these teachers are using to study. Maybe we should sent Andy your books.Keep on pushing in we need to hear it.

  17. 17
    Lois Tverberg|December 20, 2018

    Peter, that’s a good point about the word “lekayem.” It’s based on the verb qum, which means “to stand up.” But it in the hifil (causal) form it denotes an action of causing something to stand – “establishing” or “confirming” something. It has no sense of “getting done with” or “bringing to a close.”

    Jon, lekayem is used in many places in the OT where it is translated “establish,” most often in the sense of God “establishing” a covenant with someone, like Noah and Abraham. It is also used in regard to vows, like that if a woman makes a vow her husband can annul it (“break,” literally) but if he doesn’t, her vow shall stand (lekayem).

    Both of these would be quite the opposite of “bring to an end”!

  18. 18
    Boodram Supersad|December 22, 2018

    I have another interpretation. Just as the Bible says’be careful in nothing, but in everything by prayer and thanksgiving…’, where careful means full of care(worry), the same way fulfill means to fill to its fullest. Jesus came to bring the law to its fullest by adding the spirit to it. Before him ,they had the letter of the law only and depended on the religious Leaders ( sanhedrin) to interpret/make judgements and rulings concerning the law, Jesus takes the law and reveals the spirit of the law. If we understand this then everything will fall into place

  19. 19
    Doreen McCaugherty|December 31, 2018

    Jesus never said anything new. That has opened so much for me to know and understand the more of Him I follow. Still thirsty. I left religion a while back to have a relationship. To fully know Him the way He wants is a promise I made and to share with those who are seeking.

  20. 20
    Jessica Miedema|June 29, 2019

    I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfil the law, if you have full filled the law then the law is completed. In essence could this mean that he has forever perfected us in him. As it has been written, he has forever perfected those who come to Him. Having been perfected we walk in the same spirit as Jesus did.This to me is what my understanding is of this verse. Paul sates that through the law we died to the law, so we now walk in newness of life. This elevates the law as being kept by those who walk in the spirit. Therefore we walk in the law of the spirit, which is a higher law than the law – which Paul warns us not to fall back under. Therefore this higher law is the law of Grace.
    Cheers,
    Jaap

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