Matthew 5:17 – Why not let the text answer the question?

A traditional hand-written Torah scroll

One of the most discussed passages in the Brit Chadasha (New Covenant) is Matthew 5:17. I have heard and read so many opinions on what Yeshua (Jesus) meant when He spoke those words over 2000 years ago. Looking at the words themselves seems reasonably straightforward. 

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Torah or the Prophets! I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”

Clearly, the intent of the statement is to contrast the words “abolish” and “fulfill.” So, any reading of the text that would conclude with the understanding that Yeshua was doing away with the Torah and Prophets (another way of saying Tanakh or Old Testament) would be doing exactly the opposite of what the intent of the verse actually says. So, if Yeshua is not abolishing the Torah with this statement, what is He doing?

In order for us to understand this verse, we must first employ a primary rule of Biblical study and that is to keep the text in context. Anytime one removes text from the context it is within, we will always end up with a faulty understanding of the intention of the writer. 

In order to understand the context of these words, one has to read what event is taking place and what was said previous to and following verse 17. Yeshua is on the mountain preaching to His disciples. He begins to give what has become known as the Beatitudes in verses 1-12 and then continues in verse 13-16 with: 

“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt should lose its flavor, how shall it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on a lampstand so it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men so they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” 

Yeshua’s instructions are for His followers to become world changers and shine their light within the world so their good works would glorify the Father. Immediately after these words are spoken, Yeshua says the words we find in verse 17. The statement that He did not come to abolish the Torah and Prophets is directly linked to the instruction to shine, do good works and glorify the Father. It is clear in context that Yeshua’s intent was to reaffirm the instructions of Torah to His disciples, not as a means for justification or redemption. Rather, it was as a means to glorify the Father by demonstrating good works and letting their lights shine. 

Looking forward, we find that not only does verse 17 continue the thought and instructions starting in verse 1, but the rest of the chapter continues to provide insight into what is meant by the words “but to fulfill.”

Yeshua continued speaking in verse 18-20:

“Amen, I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or serif shall ever pass away from the Torah until all things come to pass. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever keeps and teaches them, this one shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and Torah scholars, you shall never enter the kingdom of heaven!”

I think that we can all agree that heaven and earth have not yet passed away and also that all of the prophecies prophesied in the Torah and Tanakh have not yet come to pass. So, clearly Yeshua is still not abolishing Torah with these words. As a matter of fact, if one reads these words they appear to call for an even greater adherence to Torah, exceeding the righteousness of the Pharisees and Torah scholars. The answer to understanding these difficult words and statements comes into clearer focus starting in verse 21 through 26:

“You have heard it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever commits murder shall be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca’ shall be subject to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be subject to fiery Gehenna. “Therefore if you are presenting your offering upon the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. “Make friends quickly with your opponent while you are with him on the way. Otherwise, your opponent may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the assistant, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I tell you, you will never get out of there until you have paid back the last penny!”

Notice that Yeshua speaks in verse 21 with a Torah commandment, “You shall not murder.” He then goes on to “bring fullness” in the next few verses by explaining to His disciples that in order to let their light shine and glorify the Father they must obey the fullness of the commandment as expressed in verses 22-26. We find this same “bringing to fullness” demonstrated in verses 27-32 speaking of divorce, verses 33-37 concerning swearing, and verses 38-47 admonishing about how to treat others. Each of these are examples of how Yeshua brought a fullness not only to the understanding of the commandments, but instructed us on how walking out our faith in the fullness of the commandments allows us to be a light to the world and by doing so we are able to, as it says in the closing verse of Matthew chapter 5, “Therefore be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”