Jesus Fulfilled the Torah - What Does That Mean?

Author: David Wilber

During His famous sermon on the mount, Yeshua (Jesus) made it very clear to His audience what He was doing with regard to the Torah (Law) and Prophets. He told them not to think that He came to abolish them, but to fulfill them. What does that mean?

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

In this passage we see that Yeshua was compelled to set the record straight. He said, "Do not think." He didn’t want there to be the slightest misunderstanding about His intentions. Indeed, we are not to even think that He came to abolish the Torah!

What does it mean to abolish the Torah?

In Greek, the word for "abolish" is kataluo, which means to "abrogate, destroy, nullify." It is often used to describe tearing down or smashing physical objects. Yeshua used this word when He prophesied the destruction of the Temple (see Matthew 24:2). The word is also used in a figurative way to mean "render useless" (see Acts 5:38). So we are not to think that Yeshua came to destroy the Torah or render it useless.

What does it mean to fulfill the Torah?

First, let’s discuss what fulfilling the Torah doesn’t mean. Obviously, it can’t mean to "abrogate, destroy, nullify," because that’s what "abolish" means. However, some understand this part of Yeshua’s statement to mean that He "completed" the Torah and Prophets in such a way that parts of the Torah—like the Sabbath, feasts, and dietary instructions—no longer have a literal application in the lives of Christians, which we’re told is somehow different than abolishing them. But this idea poses several problems.

First of all, Yeshua exhorts His followers to "do" and "teach" the commandments of the Torah:

Therefore, whoever relaxes 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 does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)

It wouldn’t make sense for Yeshua to exhort Christians to do and teach the commandments of the Torah in this passage if He voided parts of it by fulfilling it!

Second, Yeshua’s mission to fulfill refers not only to the Torah, but also the Prophets. So if we’re going to say that the Torah no longer applies to our lives, we must say the same about the words of the Prophets. But that would be absurd.

And last, the very next verse says that not an iota or dot—that is, the smallest letter or stroke—will pass from the Torah until heaven and earth pass away and all is accomplished:

For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matthew 5:18)

Yeshua appeals to the created universe as a standard for the ongoing validity of Torah. The tanakh (Old Testament) often uses the created universe in the same way to demonstrate the validity of God’s Word and promises (Psalm 89:36-37; Jeremiah 31:35-36; 33:20-21). Thus, the created universe confirms the validity of even the smallest letter of the Torah. Yeshua makes a similar statement in the Gospel of Luke:

It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void. (Luke 16:17)

Scholars have suggested that heaven and earth passing away refers to the close of our present age. In the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Dr. David L. Turner puts it this way:

The phrases "until heaven and earth disappear" and "until its purpose is achieved" [until all is accomplished, ESV] refer to the end of the present world and the beginning of the eschaton. Until that time the law is valid. Matthew 5:19 goes on to infer from 5:18’s statement of the perpetual authority of the law that it had better be obeyed and taught by disciples of the Kingdom. It would be hard to make a stronger statement of the ongoing authority of the Torah than is made in 5:18.

Interestingly, Revelation 21:1ff speaks of the day when heaven and earth will indeed pass away and all will be accomplished—that is, the close of our present age—and a new heaven and earth will be established. The passing of heaven and earth coincides with the end of crying, mourning, pain, and death (Revelation 21:4). Since crying, mourning, pain, and death still exist in our current age, it follows that nothing from the Torah has passed away.

So then what does Yeshua mean when He says He came to fulfill the Torah? In Greek, the word for "fulfill" is pleroo. Many commentators have pointed out that the New Testament often uses this verb in Old Testament introductory formulas. It is said that Yeshua fulfills the Torah and Prophets in that they point to Him. Thus, since Yeshua—the one to whom the Torah and Prophets point—has arrived, it is said that some Torah commandments no longer literally apply to believers. While it’s true that Yeshua fulfilled many of the prophetic symbols and expectations of the Torah and Prophets (there is still more that He will fulfill at His Second Coming), that doesn’t appear to be the author’s aim in this passage. As Tim Hegg explains in his Matthew commentary:

To understand "fulfill" in our verse as entirely enveloped in the work of Yeshua Himself does not fit with the following context. For there He admonishes His talmidim both "to do" and "to teach" the Torah, meaning that His having come to "fulfill" the Torah is seen in the way the Torah would be active in their lives and the lives of those they would teach.

In another commentary on this passage, Hegg goes further:

The verb πληρόω ("fulfill") is used 16 times in Matthew. 13 times the word is found in the passive and 3 times in the active voice. The active voice occurrences are 3:15; 5:17; 23:32. Of the 13 times where the passive is used, 12 are used in the quotation formula expressing the "fulfillment" of prophecy, and 1 relates to a boat being filled with fish (13:48). Whenever the word is used in the quotation formula, it is found in the passive. Prophecy is viewed as being fulfilled (passive) by the active hand of God in the events of history.
In contrast is the active voice in 5:17. The active voice stresses the activity of Yeshua in keeping or observing the commandments. If the meaning in 5:17 were to be understood on the analogy of fulfillment of prophecy, then it seems reasonable that the passive would have been used and would have read something like this: "...I did not come to abolish, but that the Law and Prophets might be fulfilled." If Yeshua had intended His words to be understood as parallel to the fulfillment formulae prevalent in His day, and especially employed by Matthew, then we would expect a passive here as well.

In looking at the overall context, some commentators have suggested that "fulfill" in this passage means to establish or confirm. A plain reading of the text certainly favors this interpretation. Yeshua came to fulfill the Torah and Prophets (5:17); The Torah is valid and not a single part of it will pass away until the created universe passes away (5:18); Yeshua’s followers will do and teach even the least of the commandments in the Torah (5:19); and members of the kingdom of heaven are identified by their righteousness, which is according to the Torah and Prophets (5:20). Thus, the concept of fulfilling the Torah and Prophets is unpacked in the following verses to include doing and teaching the commandments. Furthermore, the scribes and Pharisees are given as the standard of righteousness that disciples of Yeshua must surpass. Why? Because they are known for their observance of the least of the Torah commandments.

In addition, several places in the Greek Septuagint in which the Hebrew word is translated with pleroo (mala’) reflect the meaning of "establish, confirm" (Jeremiah 44:25, 1 Kings 1:14). Since this meaning of pleroo best fits the context of Matthew 5:17-20, it should be preferred. Thus, Yeshua did not come to render the Torah useless, but to fully do and teach the Torah and establish it in the lives of His followers. J.K. McKee puts it well:

When Yeshua came to "fulfill the Law," it was with the expressed intention to demonstrate how valuable the Torah is for the instruction of the faithful, because His very sermon on the Mount is predicated upon the validity of Moses’ Teaching […] Yeshua the Messiah, as the Word of God made manifest in the flesh (John 1:1), came to fulfill the Torah for humanity by embodying it to its fullest extent in His teachings, actions, and deeds.

In conclusion, Yeshua lived and taught the Torah, and He instructed His followers to do the same. His statement in Matthew 5:17 is an affirmation of the authoritative nature of the Torah and its direct application to the lives of His followers. He said He came to do the opposite of rendering the commands of the Torah and Prophets void. He confirmed and established them by living them out to their fullest extent and teaching them to His followers. Indeed, the text does not indicate anywhere that Yeshua intended to nullify any of the commands of Torah by fulfilling them.

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