Jesus and Torah: Fulfilling the Law

Jesus and Torah: Fulfilling the Law

Jesus and Torah: Fulfilling the Law.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the Law till all is fulfilled… For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the Kingdom of heaven.”  (read Matthew 5:17-20).

CONTEXT. Jesus had just been touring the entire region in a flurry of teaching, preaching and healing. Huge crowds were following Him from one place to the next. So He decided to take His closest disciples aside to a hilltop near Capernaum for a special word. He had just declared to the people that the Kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matt. 4:17), that it is drawing near, and now He wants to reveal the characteristics of that Kingdom. He has a strong desire to teach His disciples the character traits of the citizens of heaven.

Jesus also wanted to enter a rabbinic debate about the Law and its implications for daily life. He wanted to reveal a fuller understanding of Torah. He wanted to explain the spirit of the Law and its original intent instead of being content with the superficial letter of the Law by the rabbinic authorities. He wanted to broaden the implications of certain Jewish laws, offering His own distinctive interpretation on specific verses. By sharing examples of how He interprets Scripture, Jesus wanted to provide an example of how other verses of the Law could be interpretated. Jesus wanted to show His disciples how to move from ritual obedience of the Law to an inner, heart-felt reverence and faith. Jesus wanted to raise the moral and ethical standards by revealing a righteousness of the heart and not the outward righteousness of mere observation of the commands. Jesus said that disciples must show a greater righteousness than the scribes and Pharisees. The greater righteousness involves a relationship with Christ instead with the dead letter of the Law, and allowing Him to change your heart and life.

When Jesus claimed that He wanted to “fulfill’ the Law, not “abolish” it, Jewish hearers would have understood His terms in a particular way. To “abolish” meant to cancel a law through misinterpretation or by sheer disobedience. To “fulfill” meant to preserve it, to sustain that law by properly interpreting it. So Jesus is engaging in a rabbinic debate about proper interpretation of the Law. Someone had evidently suggested that through His unique interpretation He is in effect canceling the Law, nullifying what has been accepted and in writing for centuries. Jesus disagreed. Hebrew scholar David Bivin paraphrased Jesus’ response this way… “Do not suppose that I have any intention of undermining Scripture by misinterpreting it. My purpose is to establish and maintain the knowledge and observance of God’s word. My intent is not weaken or negate God’s written instruction, but to sustain and establish it through correct interpretation. I would never invalidate the Torah by removing something from it through misinterpretation. Heaven and earth would sooner disappear than something from the Torah.” (Bivin, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus).

For Jesus loved Torah. He was an observant Jew who cherished the Law. He accepted the authority of God’s Word in what we now know as the Old Testament. He felt strongly about the importance and permanence of Torah. He basically said that the Law of Moses would never cease to exist. When Jesus said in M. 5:18, “Truly, assuredly, neither the smallest letter of the alphabet nor the tiniest little mark on one letter would ever be removed from Torah,” He started out with “Amen.” That word that has a root in the word for truth means truly, assuredly, so be it, this is the truth. This was unusual, because most times someone would say Amen at the end of a prayer or special teaching, affirming the truth about what’s been said. But Jesus used Amen before He even said anything. Jesus is revealing His authority to speak the truth, declaring His words to be truthful before He says it. Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Another way to understand Jesus “fulfilling” the Torah is that He is indeed the Living Word. He is the Law. He is the Author of all that is true. He fulfilled Torah by fulfilling the OT prophecies about Him, through His teachings saturated with truth, through His actions performing God’s will. Jesus was the perfect fulfillment of the Law.

In His words that immediately followed His comments on the Torah, Jesus repeatedly used the formula, “But I say to you.” He is declaring something rather outrageous in the eyes of the rabbinic authorities. Jesus is claiming that He has equal authority to the established Law. He is saying, You may have heard the Law means this, but I am here telling you that the Law actually means that. He is declaring total, divine authority. He is claiming that He knows the original intent of the Law, as if He wrote it Himself. He is telling those around Him that He knows why it was written in the first place. I am here to tell you the Word hidden behind the Word, Jesus is saying, the intended meaning that God was thinking about all along. I don’t want to alter the Torah in any way, Jesus declared, I want to reveal the deeper meanings hidden in the legal meaning. I want to clarify the Law so you truly understand what it means. “Like other rabbis and teachers, Jesus developed His own approach within the parameters of ancient Jewish faith and practice. He sought to reform and revitalize, not to destroy or replace. Jesus placed the meaning of Torah on a firmer footing.”  (Dr. Brad Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian).

The scribes and Pharisees have set a low bar in their form of righteousness, Jesus said. I want a righteousness of the heart that doesn’t stop at the merely legal or ritual observance. I want the religious leaders to understand that you can probably accomplish the Law as you understand it by sheer willpower, but no one can truly obey the Law the way I understand it, says Jesus. Your righteousness must depend on me and my power, not your human will.