22 Jul 2008

Of Dating, Engagements, and Fulfilling the Law … Matthew 5.17

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Jesus, Ministry, Preaching
Of Dating, Engagements, and Fulfilling the Law …
In our continuing quest to understand “What value, really, is the ‘Old Testament’” particularly in the Churches of Christ we have looked at some historical and textual concerns. Not long ago we asked What was nailed to the cross in Col 2.14 and concluded the text did not teach that the Old Testament was regardless of the frequent rhetoric of some.
Another horrendously abused text in the restoration hermeneutical tradition is Matthew 5.17. The text reads “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them” (NIV). One recent interpreter understands this text to be such a violent rejection of the Torah that he compared it to Moses coming down from the mountain and smashing the tablets to bits. “Although the commandments were written again, the day came when Jesus would fulfill them and throw them down once and for all (Mt. 5:17). (Wade Webster, “Crucial Questions Concerning the Old Covenant,” Power {June 2008}).
I confess that I find this a shocking reading of what Jesus claims he is doing. If Jesus is “throwing them down once and for all” sounds an awful lot like what Jesus explicitly claimed he was not doing.
In our convoluted way we take the word “fulfill” and then we interpret through a misunderstanding of Colossians 2.14 and then twist it till it has the exact same meaning as “abolish” does which is what Jesus said “do not think” he came to do.
But what if “fulfill” really does not mean abolish? The English word “fulfill” has a range of meanings. According to the dictionary the term has the range of: to put into effect (execute), to meet requirements, to develop the potentialities off. But it is the Greek of Matthew that we need to be concerned with. Matthew uses the term pleroo frequently and needs to be understood with his larger fulfillment motif. For example Matthew says Jesus came to “fulfill all righteousness” (3.15) which clearly does not mean Jesus came to do away with righteousness. In 26. 54 and 56 Jesus’ suffering is seen as “fulfilling {anapleroo} the Scriptures” does not mean doing away with the Scriptures. Matthew’s ten explicit “formula quotations” all use the same term (pleroo) as 5.17 and when Matthew says this was to “fulfill that” he does not mean do away, nail to the cross or abolish or even “throw them down once and for all.”
What if fulfilling the law is more like a man or a woman fulfilling his or her marriage vows? What if the coming of a “new” covenant is more akin to dating, getting engaged and then married than a repudiation or a destruction of the “old”? Does a marriage negate the value of the life shared previous to saying “I do?” Far from it. Instead that period we call “dating” and “engagement” are crucial in the development of a later healthy relationship called marriage. Can you imagine a man sitting down at a table and his wife says to him “do you remember the letter I wrote to when we were dating?” What if that man then said, “No I don’t. That was fulfilled and I smashed it like Moses did the tablets because we now have a ‘new’ relationship. I forgot all those things from before we had our new covenant” Do you think that man would be in the dog house? I do. And rightfully so.
As there are levels of intimacy to dating, engagement and marriage so there are deeper depths as we move into the “new” covenant. Yet just because one can enjoy intercourse in marriage does not mean they cannot retain and enjoy the level of intimacy available to them at engagement. Indeed holding hands and a kiss take on even deeper significance but we don’t reject them.
That period of dating and engagement will have continuing validity precisely because their promise is being “fulfilled” in a marriage covenant. And just as a marriage counselor will take a couple “back to the sources” to help them understand themselves and their circumstances (she does not say ‘oh that died when you said “I do”’) so Christians must return to the sources when they are out of sorts. Just as returning to the sources helps us as humans to refocus, evaluate and understand … indeed to help us live up to and understand the very promises we made so returning to the source will help us as God’s People know who we are and what our task is in this world.
Returning to the source helps us as Christians see when we have polluted our relationship with pagan (Platonic) views of creation and the world. Returning to those early years of engagement helps us weed out neo-gnostic views of spirituality. Remembering the walk with God then helps us reject deistic views of God’s involvement with his world and our lives. Embracing, rather than rejecting, our heritage in the Hebrew Bible calls the bluff of Modernism’s hyper-individualism and loss of communal wisdom. All these egregious “relationship” issues are refocused when we return to the sources. Then when our “wife” (or our God) asks us “do you remember the letter I gave you” … and we say “yes, what a precious gift it has been.” And then our wife (or God) says “what it said can really shed light on where we are right now” we see that in spite of it being shared prior to the “new” covenant of marriage it is rich and has continuing validity. Indeed, it gives the present meaning and validity!
Just perhaps when Jesus said he came to “fulfill” the law rather than “abolish” it he meant something like going from “dating” to being “engaged” and then to “marriage.” He fulfills it by bringing out the promise of relationship and the potential of intimacy showing how it continues to shape God’s People.
Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures—either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground under your feet.” (Mt 5.17f, The Message)
Bobby Valentine

19 Responses to “Of Dating, Engagements, and Fulfilling the Law … Matthew 5.17”

  1. Charles Babb Says:


    Looks pretty self explanatory to me. Jesus came to live out the Law. The New Testament Christians used the Scriptures – or what we call ‘Old Testament’ – for decades and didn’t exactly toss them out of the Bible.

    Some day I’ll put a few thoughts in writing on the subject myself, but A. Campbell’s ‘Sermon on the Law’ was taken waaaay too far.

    I have a feeling he would be horrified considering the time he spent in both the Old and New Testament.

    Blessings to you.

  2. Tim Archer Says:

    Part of why “fulfill” has been used as it has in some interpretations is the KJV’s use of “fulfilled” in verse 18. The idea is that, once Jesus had perfectly fulfilled the Law, the Law could pass away. I’m certainly not arguing this interpretation, just helping to explain where it came from. I’m surprised Mr. Webster didn’t include verse 18 in his reference.

    Grace and peace,

  3. Danny Says:

    Good thought-provoking stuff as usual Bobby.

    Been a while since I checked in- hope things are well with you.

    I appreciate you bro!

  4. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Charles I written a series called “What Value, Really, is the OT?” and I interact with Campbell’s sermon. I suggest that you take a look at it here is a quick address: it will take you to the others. Or just click on Hebrew Bible” tag


    Love to have your take on it.

    Bobby V

  5. johnmarkhicks Says:

    Good analogy, Bobby. The term “fulfill” is the kicker here. Does he fulfill to throw away or does he fulfill to fully enact/embody and ultimately implant in our hearts?

  6. Keith Says:

    Well said as always. Thanks Bobby.

  7. Frank Bellizzi Says:

    Yes, Bobby, thanks for this post as well as the one on Col. 2:14.

    As you know from experience, virtually all of the fulfill-means-destroy people have a hard time being consistent with that.

  8. David Says:

    Nice thought-provoking series of posts. I’m still working through some of these issues, and you give me some stuff to think about.

  9. cwinwc Says:

    Sounds like you were in my inservice today on “Backwards Planning” when it comes to the instruction of educational standards. Start with the goal and plan backwards to get back to the standard.


    what was nailed to the cross,
    the flesh of adam born under the LAW AND CURSED BY GOD.

    Rom 8:4 That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

  11. rich Says:

    To me, i would say,
    do they really!
    and then i would say,
    i am not suprised,
    i went to a unitided church of christ last year.
    they only use the gospels for doctrine’and that “christ does not say anywhere that that being activly gay is wrong, SO gay people are fellowshiped.

    it is all perception..
    and some dosen’t even make for good nonsence.

  12. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    I am lost here. I am not sure I see the relevance of the United Church of Christ’s policy is to our discussion here? Perhaps you could clear that up for me.

    Though I think this is a completely different issue than what Mt 5.17 means … but can we not “fellowship” gay people? Did Jesus hang around prostitutes and sinners and tax collectors … did he eat with the. Is it ok to eat with a prostitute but not a gay person? Should we not be Jesus to these folk?

    And if I cannot “fellowship” gay people then why is it right to fellowship “fat” people? I’m not picking on “fat” people because I am one but the point is made …

    Bobby V

  13. rich Says:

    the point is that it is a shame that the artical must be written.
    but then in the ucofc,they do this.

    me being so far removed from what is “going on” out there
    from my perception and understanding it blows my mind and becomes a non-sequitur.
    1) Any argument that takes the following form is a non sequitur:

    If A is true, then B is true.
    B is stated to be true.
    Therefore, A must be true.

    Rom 3:2 Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God.

    i wonder if the burdon of god
    was dealing with us and being faithful.

  14. Jeanne Says:

    Hey Bobby,

    Your comments remind me of a women’s retreat a year or so ago. The speaker was explaining some things she had learned about first century Jewish wedding tradition that was paralled in some things Jesus did. For example, she said that when a Jewish man was ready to be married, he and his father would meet with the prospective bride’s family. During the discussion, the father would turn over authority to seal the engagement by saying, “This is my beloved son; listen to him.” I have no idea how accurate this is, but she also said part of the ceremony included the hopeful groom offering the girl wine (don’t recall if the bread was part of it too) as a symbol of becoming a part of his family– his blood– and if she took it, she was accepting the engagement.

    Unfortunately, the speaker didn’t offer any historical documentation of these traditions but if they are accurate I think it is pretty intriguing.

  15. Cheryl Russell Says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading these posts about the validity of the OT. I think we really miss out when we don’t acknowledge the inherent value of the OT. Personally, I don’t see that the message is that different from that of NT (aside from selected texts about balding men and bears, and maybe nagging wives). Christ says that the Greatest Commandment is to “Love God. Love Others” (Matthew 22:36-40) abd that ALL of the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments. These two commandments are also seen over and over again in the OT (Deut 6:5, 10:12, Joshua 22:5, to name a few). The Ten Commandments also reflect these two commandments -Love God, Love Others. The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart, that seems to be what God is concerned with in both the Old and New, relationship with Him and relationships with others. Some of the threads that connect the two are just too big and too important to cut.

  16. Bob Bliss Says:

    Bobby,I just did two lessons at the Spiritual Growth Workshop here in Orlando on the Sermon on the Mount. As part of my study I read Charles Talbert’s book on the SOM. What a great find! One of the things he did throughout the SOM was to have the reader think about the context of Matthew, then the NT, and then the whole Bible before making decisions about the full meaning of the text. Taking this tactic one needs to go to Mt.28:19 where Jesus tells the 11 to teach other disciples to obey all that he taught them. Presumably what Matthew recorded about Jesus’ teaching is included. In 7:12 Jesus teaches us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us and this comes from the Law and the prophets. So Jesus says that he came to fulfill the Law and then tells his disciples to keep a principle of the Law. I guess then that fulfilling the Law doesn’t mean it is no longer relevant to the Christian. Then of course there are so many other texts that suggest the Law still speaks to us. Let’s hear it for the Old Testament! 🙂

  17. Joshua L. Pappas Says:

    Thanks Bobby. I hope all is well.

  18. Jeremy Says:

    I like what Dale Martin said about the passage in Matthew — that Jesus is intensifying the Law (link here):

    These antitheses have been read throughout Christian history by many people as implying that Jesus is doing away with this bad, strict, legalism of the Jewish law, and he’s teaching you a law of grace, instead, and forgiveness. That’s not what’s going on here, right? What Jesus has said, he’s not doing away with the Law here, he’s intensifying it. If it’s hard not to commit adultery, and believe me for a lot of people it is hard not to commit adultery, it’s even harder not to lust. If it’s hard not to murder someone, and if you knew some of the people I have to work with around here you’d know that it is hard not to murder someone, it’s even harder not to be angry with them. And if it’s hard not to retaliate when someone knocks you down, it’s even harder to let them knock you down again. Jesus is intensifying the Jewish Torah and making it almost impossible to keep. But he’s still expecting His disciples to keep it. What Matthew presents Jesus is doing is not getting rid, at all, of the Torah, the Jewish law, he’s intensifying it.

  19. JT Says:

    Years ago I used to be puzzled at our CoC treatment(s) of Mt. 5:17. I too noticed sermonizing that, in effect, made “abolish” and “fulfill” both mean the same thing, which normally resulted in a dysfunctional “I did not come to abolish but to abolish” interpretation.

    As the very scripturally astute and mature readership of this blog knows (at least the names of men and women from 14 to 16 years ago that I’ve seen through their various comments) -context is everything. This blog concerned itself here only with v. 17, which is not a problem, that’s the chosen “subject”. But CoC sermons/teachings often neglect the rest of it, thru v. 20, depending on what’s actually the subject.

    Typically ignored, or explained in a very strained way, is v.18, “heaven and earth must pass”. I don’t think that’s happened yet. And, “not an iota or dot will pass from the Law until all is accomplished”. When one’s theology is in concrete and insists that “all accomplished” can only mean “Jesus came and was resurrected to save us from our sins” much inconsistency and hermeneutical chaos follows. Are we content to “spiritualize” the things we don’t understand?

    In tribes I’ve hung with over the years, v.19 gets zero attention. I recommend you just read it and ponder. That sure doesn’t fit anybody within CoC theology so it gets virtually ignored. But this is Yeshua our Messiah speaking. Not Paul, who some actually disagree with, saying he’s “wrong”, he didn’t yet know what he didn’t know”, and the best one – “he sinned”! Many in mainstream Christianity, and I dare say, some within our House, would rather Paul’s epistles not be part of scripture. Has it ever occurred to these folk that it isn’t Paul that had a problem, rather, it must be something they themselves just haven’t yet understood??

    And v.20, why did Yeshua “pick on” the Pharisees? Were they particularly bad people? Nope. None of us, repeat, none of us are “good”. Right? The meaning I take from v.20 is this:
    the Pharisees, the leaders, the lawyers, the teachers (all the same group) KNEW the Law and preached it to the people. Then why this “attack” on them by Messiah? Messiah often came down on them as hypocrites. They preached the law but didn’t obey God’s Law.They also made up their own “law” and Yeshua also called them on that because they put their law over God’s Law. So, the “righteousness” of the Pharisees is not too much more than hypocrisy so Messiah informs “us” that our righteousness should exceed that of the hypocrites (who actually know the law).


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