by Lois Tverberg
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 5:17-19
People have scratched their heads over what the phrase “fulfill the Law” means. Some say that when Jesus “fulfilled the Law” he got rid of it, even though twice in this passage Jesus says quite forcefully that this isn’t true. By studying other passages in the New Testament and Jewish sayings from around that time, we can understand more fully.
The Greek word in this passage for fulfill is “plerosai” which means “to complete,” “make full,” or “accomplish.” Often it is used in the sense of Christ fulfilling a prophecy. But when it is used along with the Law, it has the sense of “accomplish a goal.” The same word is used in these passages by Paul:
Romans 13:8: Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.
Galations 5:14: For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
In both places, the idea is the opposite of “getting rid of the law”—it really means to accomplish God’s goal, to obey his will in the best possible way. The word for “law” in Hebrew is “torah,” and it literally means “instruction” or “guidance” and had a very positive connotation. To “fulfill the Torah” was to accomplish God’s will exactly as he would have it. A rabbinic quote helps us understand how it is used:
If one is honest in his business dealings and people esteem him, it is accounted to him as though he had fulfilled the whole Torah. —Mechilta, B’shalach1
In this statement, the idea is that a person who is honest and praiseworthy in all his dealings with others has truly accomplished God’s goal for how he should live. He didn’t cancel the Law, he did it to the utmost!
In Matthew 22:39, Jesus said that the greatest commandment was to “love God and love your neighbor” and said that these summed up all the Law and Prophets. So Paul is saying that when we love our neighbor we are truly hitting the mark, doing exactly what God wants us to do.
1 As quoted in J. Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values, (Bell Tower, New York, 2000), p.4.