Matthew 5:17 – “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.”
Jesus said He came to fulfill [plērōsai] the Law and the Prophets. It is often taught that “fulfill” means to bring to an end. That interpretation is largely based on an English translation that fails to express the full nuance of the greek word. It also creates some problems.
If fulfill is intended to mean bring to an end, then Jesus would be saying, “I have not come to abolish them but to bring them to an end.” Since abolish and end have overlapping meanings, His statement could be considered self contradictory.
In this verse, Jesus also spoke of the prophets. If interpreted to mean an end of the law, one must also explain why not-yet-fulfilled prophecy can remain the hope of Christians.
“John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill [plērōsai] all righteousness.” Then he consented.” (Matthew 3:14-15)
Did Jesus mean it was fitting for them to bring all righteousness to a conclusion? No, rather he was acting in perfect obedience without overlooking a single detail of righteousness. He was obeying fully.
“May the God of hope fill [plērōsai] you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” (Romans 15:13)
There’s no variation of end that can make sense if plugged into Romans 15:13. Again, we see a sense of making full.
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully [plērōsai] known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.” (Colossians 1:25)
Did Paul end making known the word of God in this statement? No, rather he revealed a mystery of the ages so that the word of God would no longer be hidden. Instead it would be known in a greater way described as “fully”.
Here are a couple additional examples using the most common form, plērōthē | πληρωθῇ.
“But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled [plērōthē | πληρωθῇ]: ‘They hated me without a cause.’” (John 15:25)
Here’s a case where it means to bring something to pass. I’ll concede that this isn’t the best example for the case I’m arguing. It’s ambiguous. There are people alive today that hate Christ without a cause, so it would be difficult to argue it was a once-ever-in-history fulfillment of prophecy in the same way that Jesus’ birth was. But here’s another use of the exact same word in the same chapter.
“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” [plērōthē | πληρωθῇ] (John 15:11)
In this verse, the English translation actually helps. The intent of plērōthē is clearly the opposite of bringing joy to an end. Rather it means to maximize joy.
While the English word ‘fulfill’ carries a sense of ‘final satisfaction’ to English-speaking minds, the greek word plērōsai typically means to make full, to fill, to fill up, to abound, to richly furnish and to pervade. My paraphrase of Matthew 5:17 would be, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to maximize them.” We see this interpretation supported in the next two verses.
If the intent of ‘fulfill’ meant to bring the law to an end, the next words spoken by Jesus (vs 18 and 19) would not make any sense.
“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. 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 5:18-19)
Heaven and earth have not yet passed away so all has not yet been accomplished. Jesus then emphasized his point by specifying who would be called least or great in the kingdom of Heaven.
- To be least in the kingdom of heaven, relax one of the least of the commandments and teach others to do the same.
- To be great in the kingdom of heaven, do and teach the commandments right down to the least of them.
Then Jesus immediately begins to cite and interpret the law of God. Not only did he *not* tell the listeners it no longer mattered, he expounded on the full meaning. He vivified it. He came to fully explain and demonstrate how to keep it.
Finally, if ‘fulfill’ meant to bring the law to an end, the final words of the whole sermon would introduce a contradiction. Notice how these words describe a time involving the law that remains in the future.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” (Matthew 7:21-27)
“I never knew you” is said to “workers of lawlessness”. Since Jesus’ sermon was explaining how to fully keep the law and then he spoke these words in the concluding crescendo, it wouldn’t be reasonable to believe he meant violating the law of the United States or China. Being a worker of lawlessness must have to do with trespassing against the law of God.
- Jesus said he didn’t come to abolish the law. Instead, he came to fulfill it. If ‘fulfill’ meant to ‘bring to an end’ and ‘abolish’ means kind of the same thing, was Jesus contradicting himself in the same sentence?
- Jesus said, “the law or the prophets”. If the law was brought to an end, can a Christian still bank on prophecies that haven’t yet been fulfilled?
- All instances of the Greek word plērōsai (translated ‘fulfill’) mean to make full in a sense of maximizing.
- Jesus specifically stated, “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. 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 5:18-19)
- At the end of the sermon, “I never knew you” is said to “workers of lawlessness”.
The theory that the law was brought to an end introduces contradictions within the sermon and sometimes within the same sentence. But if there is an ongoing expectation of obedience to God’s law, there are no contradictions.
That said, Jesus DID abolish something. He abolished the penalty for breaking God’s law.
“…and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,…” (2 Timothy 1:10)