While there is much diversity in the Hebrew Roots Movement, the one thing almost all have in common is the view that the Law of Moses is still fully in effect for all Christians today. This is nuanced among different groups, but what is very common, wherever you look, is the view that Matthew 5:17-20 is clear teaching by Jesus that His coming does not change our obligation to keep the whole law. In this article, I will be addressing this argument, hopefully in such a way as to cover most, if not all, of the various interpretations offered by leaders and popularizers of the Hebrew Roots Movement. First, let’s look at the passage itself:
17 “Do not think that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets. I have not come to destroy them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one tiny letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all takes place. 19 Therefore whoever abolishes one of the least of these commandments and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever keeps them and teaches them, this person will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I say to you that unless your righteousness greatly surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven.
What I intend to do in this series of articles is to show that the way Jesus would have been understood by His hearers, as well as the logic of the passage, actually create a dilemma for the Hebrew Roots apologist that is irreconcilable without major concessions, damnable concessions, in fact. What we will see is that, for Jesus’ words here to mean that we are still subject to the whole law, we must actually reject Jesus as Messiah, which, of course, would render His words in this passage uninspired.
I realize this is a very strong claim, but that is the gravity of the misunderstanding of Jesus’ words here. To see them as requiring continued observance of the whole Law of Moses is to cause them to be self-defeating, or at least contrary to other Scriptures (which is arguably the same thing). This stronger claim I will tackle in the next article. In this one, I will just look at the common argument given from verse 17.
Did Not Come to Abolish, but Fulfill
In verse 17, Jesus says, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill”. It is about as universal a belief among Hebrew Roots folks as you can find that this means Jesus affirmed the obligation to keep the Mosaic Law for His followers. But is this really what’s going on?
To start with, the common argument is to say that if you say that “fulfill” causes any of the laws to no longer be in effect, then you are turning “fulfill” into “abolish”. But is this the case? What exactly is the contrast Jesus is making? The Greek terms used have very clear connotations. Kataluo, which is often translated “abolish” in this verse, is also translated “destroy”, “overthrow”, “throw down”, “dissolve”, etc. It is a term of opposition and destruction. “Fulfill” is Pleroo in the Greek, which means “Fill up”, “complete”, “perfect”, “finish”. We see it used by Jesus to refer to His own baptism being to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). Also, within Matthew, the narrator uses the term multiple times to refer to the fulfillment of prophetic texts, some of which were obvious predictions about the Messiah, and some which were not (1:22, 2:15, 2:23, 4:14, etc.). And of course, sometimes the term is used to speak of finishing a task (Luke 7:1, Acts 19:21).
So both of these Greek terms carry connotations of “ending”. Therefore, the contrast between them cannot be that one means to end and the other does not. This is simply false. Rather, the contrast is found in the type of ending Jesus is talking about. We will see more about this a bit later in the post, but suffice it to say for now, the contrast between the words themselves is an oppositional sort of destruction on the one hand, kataluo, and, on the other hand, a bringing about the intended purpose of something, so as to perfect it or make it complete, pleroo. The contrast is clear, but not in the area that is proposed by those who make this argument. It is simply not the case, grammatically, that to speak of the Law ending is equivalent to saying it is “abolished”.
In addition to the meanings of the words, we also see a contextual reason Jesus cannot intend to say that the whole law must be kept just as it always was. Strictly speaking, Jesus is talking about “the Law and the Prophets”. During the time of the New Testament, Jews referred to the Old Testament a number of ways, as we have recorded in Scripture. The current Jewish way of talking about it is by calling it the “Tanakh”, which is an acronym of “Torah”, “nevi’im”, and “ketuvim”. These are the law, the prophets, and the writings. In Jesus’ day, as we can see in the New Testament, the Old Testament was referred to as the full phrase, or shortened to “the law and the prophets”, or shortened further to just “the law”. We know this last use from those times when someone in the New Testament says, “the Law says”, or, “it is written in the Law”, and then goes on to quote something not in the Torah, such as Psalms or Isaiah (John 10:34, 1 Cor. 14:21).
So, since Jesus is clearly referring to the whole of Scripture, we see that He is saying that He did not come to abolish Scripture, but to fulfill Scripture. That is to say, He has not come against what is written before, but is the fulfillment of all of it. How does Jesus fulfill all the Scriptures? It depends on what parts of Scripture we are talking about. Concerning the prophets, we know Jesus fulfilled the predictive prophecy that concerned Him. We also see examples Jesus gives concerning types of Christ in the Old Testament. A type, as I think is best defined by biblical scholar Dr. Michael Heiser, is a “non-verbal prophecy”. That is to say, there are stories just in the narrative of the Old Testament that point to Jesus without the passages themselves saying so. One well-known example is when Jesus says, “no sign will be given but the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 12:39). Jesus says that, as Jonah was three days and nights in the belly of the fish, He will be three days and nights in the heart of the earth. Now, you can read the book of Jonah beginning to end and never find a clue that this story was meant to point to the coming Messiah. This is how types work. They are stories that point to Jesus by means of similarity to Him and His story. The Hebrew Scriptures are absolutely full of these kinds of stories. Jesus fulfilled them, too.
Jesus also fulfilled the written code, of course, though in some interesting ways. Of course, Scripture is clear that He never sinned (John 8:46, Hebrews 4:15). On the other hand, Jesus kept coming under fire from the Jewish authorities for what they saw as violations of the Sabbath. What is interesting, and beyond the scope of this article, is to review the variety of ways Jesus answered these accusations. It was not always the same. Sometimes, it is argued that Jesus answered that the Pharisees had added traditions to the Sabbath and He was only in violation of those, not the actual law, but in truth, this is never the case. There are three incidents regarding Jesus’ activity on the Sabbath, the case of the disciples eating grain from the field (Matt. 12:1-8), the healing of the man with the withered hand (Matt. 12:9-14), and the healing of the man born lame (John 5:5-18). In every case, Jesus makes an argument about why it is ok to do this work on the Sabbath, based on what is of greater importance than the Sabbath law. He does not defend His actions based on the Pharisees having unbiblical traditions regarding the Sabbath. So we see that Jesus’ understanding of the laws did have a hierarchy of values, but still, it is clear He kept the law insofar as was actually required.
So, Jesus “fulfilled” the laws, the typological stories, and the predictive prophecies of the Scriptures. It should be noted that “types” is extended beyond stories into the laws of the temple, when discussed in Hebrews. Jesus fulfilled all of it. Now, the question is what that means when we talk about the laws versus the other types of Scripture. If we make a rigid argument, like many Hebrew Roots apologists make, that any change or ending means that we are saying something happened equivalent to “abolish”, then we have to be consistent. This means that the rest of the Scriptures Jesus refers to here in Matthew 5 must also continue to be understood in the same way as they always were. But this is obviously impossible. Regarding predictive prophecy that they recognized as such, they looked to it to see what the Messiah would be like, but since He has come, they cannot use it to look forward to anything anymore. Rather, it now stands as a testimony to the faithfulness of God. It has been fulfilled. Notice it has not been abolished. It is still Scripture and it is still valuable, but its purpose has irrevocably changed. This change is even more striking concerning the typology, both of the stories applied to Christ, and the laws applied to Christ. Many of the stories from the Hebrew Scriptures were never seen as Messianic at all, and only have come to be seen that way in hindsight after Jesus has come. Once again, it is impossible for anyone today to ever come to those stories again as they did before Jesus fulfilled them. The same can be said of the temple sacrifices, as they were just types and shadows of the once for all sacrifice of Christ, when He, as our High Priest, went into the heavenly tabernacle and offered Himself (Heb. 9:11-14).
So, in no other kind of fulfillment of Scripture, can we approach the fulfilled Scriptures the same way, now that Jesus has come. When we come to the laws and ordinances, how did Jesus fulfill them and how do we approach them now? This is a much larger question that deserves its own treatment, and since this series is primarily about Matthew 5, I will just say this. What I’ve posted so far clearly establishes the fallaciousness of the argument that any fulfillment that results in an end related to the Law is equivalent to abolishing the Law. This is true based on the other Scriptures Jesus mentions, as well as the meanings of the words.
Suffice it to say at this point that my position on the purpose of the Law today is comprised of several basic beliefs.
- There is a biblical distinction, or at least hierarchy, to the laws. There really are those laws that apply to morals generally (the “weightier” matters Jesus discussed), those laws that applied to Israel to make them unique among the nations, and those laws that were for the purpose of judging and punishing criminals in Israel as a nation.
- Moral Laws reflect a timeless moral code that applies to all people at all times, and can be seen in God’s judgment for violations of them, even before the giving of the Law to Moses (Gen. 4:11, Gen. 6, Gen. 19, Ex. 2:11-15).
- All of the laws given to Moses have been fulfilled, and the Old Covenant, given to Moses, is complete and done away with by virtue of being fulfilled.
- Today, we do not have to follow any laws by virtue of being found in the laws given to Moses. However, those laws that reflected a timeless morality must still be followed by everyone, because they supersede the Mosaic Covenant.
- The civil code gives us insight into God’s standards of justice, and human governments are more just the closer they come to applying these laws to moral law violations.
In the future, I plan to more clearly develop these ideas and demonstrate their foundations in Scripture.