This question is based on a statement that Jesus makes in Matthew 5:17; the interesting thing about this statement is that it has two perspectives that need to be considered to understand its full meaning. Although many in the church understand this statement from one perspective, there’s another perspective that’s not understood by many in the church. And the reason for this is that we have traditionally removed Jesus (Yeshua) from His Jewish context, and we look at Him and His teachings from the perspective of our Christian denominations.
First of all, let’s look at the passage in question:
Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. (New American Standard Bible, Matthew 5:17)
On one level, Jesus (Yeshua) is telling the crowd that He did not come to abolish (or do away with) the Law or the Prophets, but He came to fulfill them. What does He mean by the word “fulfill”? The Greek word that’s used here is the word plerôsai, which means “to fill up or complete.” And indeed, Jesus (Yeshua) has through His life, teachings, death, burial and resurrection, He has “filled up” and “made to the full” the meaning of the Torah and its teachings. For example, after the resurrection, we see Jesus (Yeshua) revealing Himself to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus through the Scriptures:
And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, He [Jesus] expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)
And in the book of Acts, we see the Apostle Paul doing the same thing while he was under house arrest in Rome awaiting his trial:
And when they [the Jewish leaders in Rome] had appointed him [Paul] a day, there came many to him into his lodging; to whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses [Torah], and out of the prophets, from morning til evening. (Acts 28:23)
But in Jesus (Yeshua) saying that He came to “fulfill” the Law, to make its meaning “full” and “complete,” does that mean that people today do not have to observe it? In Christianity, there’s a division on how this question should be answered. Some qualify it by saying “some parts we continue to obey, and some parts we don’t,” and another group says, “we should not obey the law at all.” But when we examine Jesus’ (Yeshua’s) statement from another perspective, we discover problems with both positions.
In order to understand this statement from the other perspective, we have to put Jesus (Yeshua) back into context as an Orthodox proto-rabbi from the Galilee speaking to other Orthodox Jews about the Torah. In essence, the other level comes when we put Jesus (Yeshua) and His teachings back into a 2nd Temple Jewish context, so that we can understand this statement from this additional perspective, because it will resolve the question of how we should properly understand what He has said.
In a Jewish context, which this is, if a Jew believes that you have in some way misinterpreted or misapplied the teachings of the Torah, he will say, “You are abolishing the Law!” On the other hand, if a Jew feels you have properly interpreted and applied the teachings of the Torah, he will say, “You have fulfilled the Law!” Consequently, someone in the crowd has accused Jesus (Yeshua) of misinterpreting or misapplying the teachings of the Scriptures. Jesus (Yeshua), therefore, responds to this accusation by saying:
Do not think that I have come to abolish [misinterpret or misapply] the teachings of the Law (Torah) or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish [misinterpret or misapply] them, but to fulfill [accurately interpret, strengthen and apply] them. (Matthew 5:17)
In fact, shortly after Jesus (Yeshua) makes this statement, he begins correcting previous interpretations and applications of the Torah that others had taught before Him, or that was presently being taught. He says, “You have heard…but I say.” Jesus (Yeshua) here is not changing or correcting the Scriptures, but commonly held interpretations and/or applications of the Scriptures. And to correct a commonly held interpretation is by no means the same thing as correcting or changing Scripture.
But why is this important and why does the “Sermon on the Mount” take such a prominent place in the Gospel of Matthew? It is because it was commonly believed and taught in Judaism (and still is) that when the Messiah comes, He will correct any misinterpretations or misapplications of the Torah that was being taught or practiced, and so by Jesus (Yeshua) doing this, He is, in actuality, demonstrating to the crowd through His teachings and His corrections of these various interpretations that He is, in fact, the promised Messiah, which is why this sermon plays such an important part in Matthew’s Gospel.
A MESSAGE FOR US CHRISTIANS
Now before saying what I need to say next, let me say, that I am a Christian, and that I love the church, because if not for the church, I would never have come to know Christ (Messiah) or the Scriptures. The church has blessed me and my family in so many different ways. However, I do believe that when it comes to the Law (or more accurately the Torah), we have on several levels misunderstood its purpose and role in the Scriptures and in the life of believers, then and now. The Torah (Law) has never been about salvation, not in the Old Testament (Tanakh), and certainly not today. When God gave the Torah to His people, they were already in a relationship with Him, so obviously the commandments that God gave to Moses did not create that relationship since it was already in existence. In fact, in the footnotes for Exodus 20:1-17 in the Apologetics Study Bible, it states the following:
God and Moses perceived obedience to the laws, not as a way of or precondition to salvation, but as the grateful response of those who had already been saved. God did not reveal the law to the Israelites in Egypt and then tell them that as soon as they had measured up to this standard He would rescue them. On the contrary, by grace alone, through faith they crossed the Red Sea to freedom. All that was required was faith in God’s promise that He would hold up the walls of water on either side and see them safely through to the other shore. The Decalogue (Ten Commandments) begins, not with the first commandment, but with a preamble: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery” (v.2; Deut. 5:6). Obedience to the Decalogue or any other law has never been intended as the way of salvation but as the appropriate response to salvation already received.
As Christians, this should speak loudly to all of us for the following reasons:
- God has never, ever saved anyone because of their obedience to the law. Why? Because the purpose of the commandments has never been about salvation; they were given to disciple and to sanctify (or set apart) Israel for God’s use. And, therefore, for us to teach that in the Old Testament (Tanakh), “people were saved by the Law” is a complete misrepresentation and distortion of the teachings of the Old Testament (Tanakh), because that was certainly not the case.
- We should obey God’s commandments — not to save us — but because we are so grateful that God has saved us. In other words, our obedience to God should flow out of our hearts because we are so thankful for what He has done to set us free. In many ways, the commandments serve as a thermostat that God uses to measure our passion and love for Him. This is what Jesus (Yeshua) meant when He taught Judas and the rest of His disciples at His final seder:
If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and make Our abode with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words, and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father’s who sent Me. (John 14:23-24)
Consequently, our obedience to God’s commandments should be the natural result of our
salvation, and they are the thermostat that God uses to measure our love and passion for Him. Some may question that by pointing out that one could simply go through the appearance of obedience, but with God, true obedience only happens when it comes from the heart.
In addition, I think as Christians we need to pay attention to what Jesus (Yeshua) also teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, especially in what Jesus (Yeshua) says in the verses following the verse we’ve already discussed (verse 17);
For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called “least” in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called “great” in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:18-20)
I have heard numerous ministers teach that either the whole Law does not apply to us today, or parts of the Law does not apply. However, this contradicts this teaching of Jesus (Yeshua). Jesus (Yeshua) said, that until the time period when the heavens and the earth will pass away (see Revelation 21-22), not the smallest letter or the smallest stroke of the pen that distinguishes the different letters, would pass away from the Law, “until all is accomplished.”
The problem is that the church has traditionally taught that “all was accomplished” at the cross, and this is what Jesus (Yeshua) was alluding to here; however, the structure of the statement does not support that interpretation. Although Jesus (Yeshua) does discuss His death, burial and resurrection in other portions of the Scriptures later in His ministry, He’s not discussing, or even alluding to that, in this passage. The first and last line of verse 18 make up a parallel statement. Hebrew parallelism is commonly seen throughout the Scriptures, including the Gospels, since Jesus (Yeshua) would’ve taught this in Hebrew (and then it was later translated into Greek). As an example of Hebrew parallelism, let’s look at Psalm 103:1,
Bless the LORD, O my soul
and all that is within me, bless His holy name.
In the first line, “Bless the LORD” is being equated with the phrase “bless His holy name” in the second line. And the word “soul” in the first line is being equated with (or defined) as “all that is within me” in the second line. So in Hebrew parallelism, what’s said in one line explains, expounds upon, or further defines what is said in another line. So now that we understand the basic concept of Hebrew parallelism, let’s look at what is being equated in the parallel structure that Jesus is using.
For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished.
Notice in verse 18 that the statements that are in parallel both begin with the word “until.” “Until heaven and earth pass away” is parallel or being equated with the statement “until all is accomplished.” In other words, “all will be accomplished” when “heaven and earth pass away” (see Revelation 21-22). Consequently, for us to teach that any aspect of the Torah (or the Law of God) “has been done away with” or “annulled” or “no longer valid for believers today” is in direct contradiction to this statement made by Messiah in this passage.
THE TWO WITNESSES
And so why is it that “not the smallest letter or even the stroke a pen shall pass away from the Torah (Law)” “until heaven and earth pass away”? Because “heaven and earth” were the two witnesses to the covenant that God made with Israel at Mount Siani. For example,
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day,… (Deuteronomy 4:26a)
I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live: that you may love the LORD your God, and that you may obey His voice, and that you may cleave unto Him: for He is your life, and the length of your days: that you may dwell in the land which the LORD sware unto your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)
And then in the writings of the Prophets, we see God addressing these two witnesses– “heaven and earth” — in discussing Israel’s continual disobedience to the covenant. For example,
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the LORD has spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me. (Isaiah 1:2)
Hear ye, O mountains (which are up in the heavens, and therefore, a substitute image of them), the LORD’s controversy and you strong foundations of the earth: for the LORD has a controversy with His people, and He will plead with Israel. (Micah 6:2)
So as long as the two witnesses of the covenant (“heaven and earth”) exist, Jesus (Yeshua) taught “not the smallest letter or the distinguishing mark caused by the stroke of a pen” can be taken away from the covenant that God made with His people Israel at Siani. For God is a covenant-keeping God, as He says in Deuteronomy 7:9,
Know therefore that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God, which keeps covenant and mercy (Heb. chesed) with them that love Him and keep His commandments to a thousand generations;
So again, for us to teach that the Torah (Law of God), or any aspect of it, has been “done away with,” “annulled,” or “not for us today,” is in direct contradiction to the teachings of the Scriptures.
ANOTHER PROBLEM WITH CHRISTIANITY’S VIEW OF THE LAW
Another problem with Christianity’s traditional view of the Law is that it is inconsistent with the teachings found in both Testaments, including the teachings of the prophets regarding the future Millennial reign of Christ (Messiah). Our traditional approach to the Scriptures is to look back to the cross (which we should), but it does not look forward in time to the period of the coming Kingdom, and as a result, our view of the Torah (Law) is in contradiction to the Scriptures, particularly those that deal with the future kingdom. It is my hope that we, as the universal body of Christ (Messiah), can begin to reconsider our traditional approach and position, so that we can re-align our beliefs so that they are consistent with the whole spectrum of time, from what we see in the Old Testament (Tanakh) through the cross to what the prophets reveal about the future kingdom age when Jesus (Yeshua) will be ruling and reigning on earth over Israel and the other nations of the world.
“THE LEAST” AND “THE GREATEST”
Something else that we should consider is what Jesus teaches in Matthew 5, verses 19-20:
Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called “least” in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called “great” in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:18-20)
In verse 19, Jesus (Yeshua) teaches us that our obedience to the commandments is not what’s used to determine whether or not we will be allowed into the kingdom. For the one who annuls (or doesn’t practice) “the least of these commandments” and teaches others to do the same is in the kingdom, as well as the one who “keeps and teaches” even “the least of the commandments.” So we see both ends of the spectrum in the kingdom, and by implication, everyone else who fits in between these two ends of the spectrum would, likewise, be in the kingdom.
However, we should likewise note what Jesus (Yeshua) is teaching here, and that is our level of observance to God’s commandments will be used to determine our status within His kingdom. Those who annul (or don’t practice) “the least of the commandments,” and teach others to do the same, will be called “the least in the kingdom of heaven,” and those who keep even “the least of the commandments,” and teaches others to do the same, will be called “great in the kingdom of heaven.” This is a truth that is often overlooked (or not even discussed) in many churches.
By the way, what did Jesus (Yeshua) mean by “the least of the commandments”? This phrase actually refers to a particular set of commandments in Deuteronomy 22:
If you happen to come upon a bird’s nest along the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young: you shall certainly let the mother go, but the young you may take for yourself, in order that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days. (New American Standard Bible, Deuteronomy 22:6-7)
Growing up in the church, I’ve heard several times ministers teach that if we obey our parents, God promises us a long life (see Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16; Ephesians 6:1-3), but I’ve never heard anyone teach this commandment, “the least of the commandments,” or its promise that if we obey it, God will “prolong” or lengthen our days.
THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS
Finally, In Matthew 5:20, Jesus (Yeshua) teaches us that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” This might be interpreted in two different ways:
- Later on in the book of Matthew, Jesus (Yeshua) instructs the crowds that the scribes and pharisees “say things, [but] do not do them.” In other words, the “righteousness of the scribes and pharisees” is in appearance only. It doesn’t really exist, because although the appearance of obeying God, they actually don’t. So in one sense, a person could surpass the righteousness of the scribes and pharisees simply by actually obeying God’s Word.
- Although the first interpretation is true, I do believe there’s another factor that needs to be considered. Since in verse 19, Jesus (Yeshua) makes it clear that our level of obedience to the commandments is not what gets us into the kingdom, then the factor we need to consider is this question: “What ‘righteousness’ is Jesus (Yeshua) referring to here that must ‘surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees” in order for us to “enter the kingdom of heaven”? Jesus (Yeshua) provides us with this answer in the following teachings:
For Christ is the end (goal, purpose, or aim) of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (Romans 10:4)
Search the Scriptures; for in them you think you have eternal life: and they are they which
testify of Me. And you [His Jewish opponents] will not come to Me, that you might have life. (John 5:39-40)
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved. He [or she] who believes on Him is not condemned: but he [or she] that believes not is condemned already, because he [or she] has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:16-18)
The goal, purpose or aim of the law (Heb. Torah) is to both to bring us to Jesus (Torah), as well as to give us a written description of Jesus (Yeshua; see FAQ: “Isn’t Christ ‘the end of the law’?”). Why? Because Jesus (Yeshua) Himself is our righteousness (see Jeremiah 23:6). He told the religious leaders that they believed that through their study the Scriptures, they would find “eternal life,” however, Jesus (Yeshua) points out, it is they that point Him, and yet they refuse to come to Him so that they could receive the life that He has for them and for us. All we have to do is come, confess our sins, and surrender ourselves to Him. Jesus (Yeshua) is waiting for you, so that He can give you His life, His peace and His joy that you didn’t think was even possible. Even if you think that you’ve sinned too much for God to forgive you, the Scriptures promise us that
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (I John 1:9)
Therefore if any man [or woman] be in Christ, he [or she] is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself by Jesus Christ, and has given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses (sins) to them; and has committed unto us the word of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:17-19)
“WHAT ABOUT YOU?”
God sees you as being so valuable that He sent His Son to die for you. He wants an intimate relationship with you, even when you don’t feel good about yourself. In addition, He has a plan for you, and a part to play in His kingdom and in His ministry. The only question is, “Will you come and receive His life that He wants to give to you?” He, as He said, is the One who Moses wrote about. You cannot earn or pay for His righteousness. Jesus (Yeshua) has already paid the price of your freedom by giving all that He had, His life, and in response, all we have to do in return is to surrender all that we are and have to Christ (Messiah), and He will free us from sin and give to us His life and righteousness, and on top of that, He will also live His life through us.
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
Christ (Messiah) makes us a wonderful promise if we come and surrender ourselves to Him:
Come unto Me [Jesus], all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest unto your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light. (Matthew ll:28-30)
So will you come? He wants to free you from sin and give you His life, His rest and His peace. All you have to do is come and surrender your life to Him. And it is my prayer that if you have not surrendered your life to Him, you will today.