Jesus did not come to abolish but to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17).

PURPOSE

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law” (Matthew 5:17-18). Given this, the purpose of this article series is to explain why the church council in Acts 15, a decade or two later, decided that Gentiles do not have to comply with the Law.  The articles in this series are:

1. Jesus came to fulfill the Law. – Current article
2. Sermon on the Mount 
3. Not the smallest letter shall pass from the Law.

Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are from the NASB.

SUMMARY

ACTS 15 CHURCH COUNCIL

Some Jewish Christians taught that, unless Gentile Christians are circumcised, they cannot be saved. Paul and Barnabas disagreed passionately, causing a huge argument. The apostles and the elders then convened in Jerusalem to discuss this question.

After some discussions, Peter stood up and pointed out that God gave the Holy Spirit to uncircumcised Gentiles, just as to circumcised Jews at Pentecost. God made no distinction between Jew and Gentile. Peter said that God saves both groups by faith through grace. Gentiles, therefore, do not need to be circumcised.

To conclude the meeting, James summarized the consensus of the meeting as that “we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:19). In other words, Gentiles do not have to be circumcised and they, consequently, do not have to abide by the Law of Moses.

DID NOT COME TO ABOLISH THE LAW (v17)

Jesus said that He did not come “to abolish the Law or the Prophets” (Matthew 5:17).

The Law and the Prophets” was a term that the Jews used to refer to the entire Old Testament. “The Law” in verse 18 does not refer to God’s commandments per se.  HELPS Word-studies explains “the Law” ‘as Scripture, with emphasis on the first five books of Scripture’. Since verse 18 explains Matthew 5:17, and since the context in verse 17 is the whole Old Testament, “the Law” in verse 18 also refers to the whole Old Testament.

CAME TO FULFILL THE LAW (Matthew 5:17)

Jesus added that He came to “fulfill” “the Law and the Prophets.”

The Greek word pléroó, which is translated as “fulfill” in this verse, is explained by Strong’s Concordance as “to make full, to complete.” “Fulfill,” therefore, is an action that completes something that previously was not complete. What did Jesus mean when He said that He came to complete the Old Testament?

Matthew uses pléroó seventeen times, and in fifteen of them it clearly refers to prophecy being fulfilled or coming to pass through some event. “Fulfill,” therefore, is used in Matthew 5:17 to say that Jesus came to make true what was prophesied in the Old Testament, for example:

… that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).

Jesus did not come to fulfill a few isolated predictions in the Old Testament. Rather, the Old Testament is essentially about Jesus. As Jesus said:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me” (John 5:39).

UNTIL ALL IS ACCOMPLISHED (v18)

Verse 18 confirms the conclusion that pléroó means that Jesus came to put in effect what the Old Testament promised. This verse explains the ‘I came to fulfill’ statement in Matthew 5:17 and uses “accomplished” as a synonym for “fulfill.”

Since “the Law” refers to the Old Testament, the statement “not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (verse 18) does not mean that all of God’s commandments, as recorded in the Old Testament will always remain applicable. It, rather, means that everything that is promised or predicted in the Old Testament will come true through Christ.

 – END OF SUMMARY – 

THE ACTS 15 CHURCH COUNCIL

Some Jewish Christians came from Judea to Antioch and taught:

Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 14:26; 15:1). 

All Jewish Christian males were already circumcised. These Jewish Christians demanded that Gentile Christians also be circumcised. Paul and Barnabas passionately disagreed with them, resulting in a huge debate (Acts 15:2). The church in Antioch then sent Paul and Barnabas and some others up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders to get finality on this matter (v2). When they arrived in Jerusalem, some Pharisees, who have become Christians, repeated their stance:

It is necessary to circumcise them and
to direct them to observe the Law of Moses
” (v4-5).

PETER’S TESTIMONY

The apostles and the elders met to discuss this matter. There was much debate. Eventually, Peter stood up and said that God, “in the early days,” choose him (Peter) to preach the gospel to Gentiles. He continued:

God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” (Acts 15:6-11)

His point is that it was not necessary to circumcise the Gentiles because God gave the Holy Spirit to the uncircumcised Gentiles in exactly the same way as He gave the Spirit to the circumcised Jews on Pentecost. God “made no distinction.” 

While some Christian Pharisees claimed, “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 14:26), Peter said that Jews and Gentiles are all saved by grace through faith; a point which Paul also emphasizes in his letters. In other words, it is not necessary to circumcise the Gentile believers.

Gentiles were always allowed to convert to Judaism through circumcision. What these Christian Pharisees actually sought was that Gentile Christians also convert to Judaism. Consequently, what Peter argued was that one does not have to become a Jew to be saved.  God, “who knows the heart,” accepted the Gentiles without circumcision.

Then everybody kept silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told them what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles (Acts 15:12).

JAMES’ CONCLUSION

James, who apparently chaired the meeting, then summarized the consensus of the meeting as follows:

It is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:19).

The council then agreed to send men with a message to Antioch, saying that the men who previously came from Judea to Antioch had no mandate from the church leaders in Jerusalem (v24). The message asked the Gentile Christians to refrain from some things that were particularly repulsive to Jews, but the main point is that Gentiles do not have to be circumcised or adopt a Jewish lifestyle (v28).

THE LAW WILL NOT PASS AWAY.

However, a decade or two earlier, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said,

Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law” (Matt. 5:18).

The purpose of this article is to ask, if the smallest letter of the Law will remain “until heaven and earth pass away,” why do Gentiles not have to comply with the Law?

MATTHEW 5:17-19

Let us read Jesus’ words in more detail. He said:

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets;
I did not come to abolish but to fulfill
“ (v17).

For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (v18).

The four phrases in bold are explained below.

THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS (Matt. 5:17)

The Law and the Prophets” was a term which the Jews used to refer to the entire Old Testament, for example:

On these two commandments (love for God and love for your neighbor) depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:40).

After the reading of the Law and the Prophets the synagogue officials sent to them, saying …” (Acts 13:15).

Treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12; cf. Luke 16:16; John 1:45).

In Matthew 5:17, quoted above, Jesus said that He came to “fulfill” the Law and the Prophets. He later said:

How then will the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must happen this way?” (Matt. 26:54)

Here He used the word “Scriptures,” rather than “Law and the Prophets” together with “fulfill.” Since the “Scriptures” are the Old Testament, this again confirms that the “Law and the Prophets” refers to the entire Old Testament.

THE LAW (v18)

The “Law” in the phrase “the Law or the Prophets” (v17) refers to the first five books of the Bible, namely the books that were written by Moses:

The Greek word is nomos. Strong’s defines it as: “that which is assigned, usage, law.”

HELPS Word-studies explains nomos as:
1. the Law (Scripture), with emphasis on the first five books of Scripture; or
2. any system of religious thinking (theology)

The Law” in verse 18, therefore, does not specifically refer to God’s commandments. It is a name for the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  

Furthermore, verse 18 explains verse 17. Since verse 17 refers to “the Law and the Prophets,” “the Law” in verse 18 is an abbreviation for “the Law and the Prophets” and, therefore, also speaks of the entire Old Testament.

FULFILL (V17)

TO MAKE FULL, TO COMPLETE

The word “fulfill” is translated from the Greek word pléroó (Strong’s 4137). Strong’s Concordance defines this word as “to make full, to complete.” 

Pléroó, therefore, does not mean ‘do away with’.  That is also quite clear from Jesus’ statement, “I did not come to abolish” (v17).

The following are instances in Matthew where pléroó is used in the sense of “to make full, to complete:”

It is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).

Jesus told a parable of “a dragnet cast into the sea, and gathering fish of every kind; and when it was filled” (Matt. 13:47-48)

Jesus said to the “scribes and Pharisees,” “Fill up, then, the measure of the guilt of your fathers” (Mt. 23:29, 32).

Fulfill,” therefore, is an action that fills up something that previously was not full; in these instances, righteousness, a dragnet and guilt. In what sense did Jesus fill up or complete the Old Testament?

DEMONSTRATE THE PURPOSE OF THE LAW

This is sometimes explained as that Jesus came to show the true purpose of the law; to show how God intended a human being to be; that Jesus showed us, through His life and death, what a person is like who loves God with his whole heart and his neighbors as himself. 

TO FULFILL OLD TESTAMENT PROPHECY

However, Matthew uses this word pléroó seventeen times, and in fifteen of them, it clearly refers to prophecy being fulfilled or coming to pass through some event. For example:

All this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet” (Matt. 1:22).

This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet” (Matt. 4:14).

Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled” (Mt. 2:17).

As another example, when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, and one of the disciples cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave with his sword, Jesus told His disciple to put his sword away, saying, “How then will the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must happen this way?” (Matt. 26:54).

Other such examples can be found in Matthew 2:14, 23; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 26:56; 27:9).  [Incidentally, note again in these quotes the references to “the Scriptures,” “the prophet,” and the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. This confirms that the phrase “the Law and the Prophets” refers to the Old Testament.]

Since “fulfill” is mostly used in Matthew to describe things done to Christ or by Christ to make true what was prophesied in the Old Testament, we conclude that “fulfill” in 2:17 also has that meaning. As Jesus stated in Luke 24:44:

All things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).

TESTIFY ABOUT ME

This conclusion is explained by other statements that do not use the word pléroó (fulfill) but that express the same concept in different words, for example:

After His resurrection, Jesus met two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus and, “beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27; cf. v32).

To the Pharisees, Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me” (John 5:39).

Jesus did not come to fulfill a few isolated predictions in the Old Testament. Rather, the Old Testament is essentially about Jesus. He is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). The Old Testament promised Christ as the Savior of the world and He came to convert promise into reality.

UNTIL ALL IS ACCOMPLISHED (v18)

This conclusion, that Jesus came to put in effect what the Old Testament promised, is also confirmed by verse 18. Note that this verse explains the ‘I came to fulfill’ statement in verse 17 and uses “accomplished” as a synonym for “fulfill:”

Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

Accomplished” is not translated from a different Greek word. Other translations rnder this word as follows:

      • Till all is fulfilled” (NKJV).
      • Until everything is accomplished” (NIV)
      • Till all come to pass” (DNT)
      • Before everything has come true” (GWT)
      • Until everything has happened” (NCV)

In all these translations the meaning is that everything that is predicted will certainly happen.

Since “the Law” refers to the entire Old Testament, the statement “not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (verse 18) does not mean that all of God’s commandments, as recorded in the Old Testament will always remain applicable. It, rather, means that everything that is predicted in the Old Testament will come true. This confirms the interpretation above of “fulfill.”

If Jesus made the Old Testament come true, does that mean that the Old Testament is now done away with?  Obviously not. Everything in the Old Testament must come true, including the promised end-time events, such as the “new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17). But all things will become true “In Christ.”

ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES

Jesus came to fulfill the Law. – A study of Matthew 5:17-18 – Jesus did not come to abolish but to fulfill the Law and the prophets. What are “the Law and the Prophets” and how did Jesus fulfill them?

Sermon on the Mount – Jesus taught His followers what kind of people they must be to be rewarded with eternal life. Jesus did not believe that people have essential immortality and taught that they will be judged by their deeds.

Not the smallest letter shall pass from the Law.  Jesus said that not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Why then did the Acts 15 Church Council, a decade or two later, decide that Gentiles do not have to comply with the Law? Paul’s letter to the Galatians explains the decision.

Articles on Galatians – Since Galatians explains the decision of the Church Council, these articles are, in a sense, part of the series on Galatians.

One Reply to “Jesus did not come to abolish but to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17).”

  1. DEFINITION OF NOMOS

    The fact that HELPS Word-studies claims that nomos—law—refers to the whole OT is not sufficient. I have seen a number of Bible study tools that are guided by commonly held Christian beliefs rather than the actual Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic words on the page.

    I would be interested to have anyone provide any examples from the NT of nomos being used unambiguously to refer to the whole OT.

    in Mt. 5:17, Jesus doesn’t just say nomos to refer to the OT; He refers to the Law and the Prophets. Had nomos been sufficient to refer to the whole OT, then Jesus wouldn’t have added the Prophets.

    THE LAW REMAINS IN EFFECT

    Jesus said that the entire Law is to remain in effect until heaven and earth are gone.

    More than 20 years after Jesus said He did not come to abolish the Torah but to fulfill it, the Church Council was still discussing the Law’s applicability to gentiles.

    The four things in Acts 15:20 that the apostles and elders and the Holy Spirit agreed that non-Jews must do, involve numerous laws.

    The verse that will be skipped or glossed over in every church teaching or sermon on this is the next one, Acts. 15:21: For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.

    In this verse, the apostles, elders, and the Holy Spirit are instructing non-Jews coming to faith in Christ to attend synagogue and to do so on the Sabbath, which was still the seventh day and has never changed. This means that the Law remains in effect and is for all people.

    Furthermore, the Church Council told non-Jews to keep these four laws… BECAUSE they will be attending synagogue… on the Sabbath… to learn the rest of what Moses wrote—the Law.

    You argue that, because it is not necessary for adult male converts to Christianity to be circumcised, that includes the whole Law as being inapplicable.

    When you get to Peter’s testimony, you set up a straw man argument, in essence claiming that one advocating in favor of keeping God’s Law also believes that salvation is contingent on doing so. I am a Torah-observant believer in the Messiah and not one of us believes that salvation is contingent on keeping God’s Law.

    If Jesus taught against the Law, then the Jews are right and He is not the Messiah, and we are dead in our sins and without hope.

    As Christians, we have to ask ourselves an important question—Why did Christ live one way but we live so differently? Christ kept the Law perfectly, and we are to walk as He walked; He is our example.

    This is a summary of a long comment which Thomas posted. For the full comment, with comments added to his comments, see Comments on Matthew 5:17-18.

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