7 Nov 2022

Fulfill, Not Abolish: Matthew 5.17 and Dating, Engagement, Marriage and “New” Covenant

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Christian hope, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Matthew, Patternism
Matthew 5.17

Bad biblical interpretation often has a cascade effect. The wrong interpretation of one text is often used as the key to interpret another text, which then too suffers bad interpretation.  Soon it becomes difficult to understand any of the texts in their contexts because now prejudice has been overlaid upon all of them. 

Rarely is this cascading effect of prejudiced bad interpretation on brighter display than when it comes to texts in the “New Testament” about the “Old Testament.”  Texts like 2 Timothy 3.14-17 are hardly mentioned when it comes to the authority of the Hebrew Bible, even though Paul explicitly states it teaches the way of salvation and doctrine and equips believers for every good work. Paul (nor Peter, James, John) approach Scripture (what they call the Hebrew Bible/LXX) as series of moral examples.  Paul gets Gospel, Christology, Ecclesiology, Eschatology … and even Worship … from those Scriptures.  This fact is plainly evident from every epistle in the “New Testament.”

Romans 15.4, “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us” is a textbook case. These were written to “indoctrinate” us!  Often cited to prove one does indeed “believe in” the “Old Testament.”  But why does Paul make that statement at that point in Romans? He is making an ecclesiological point about the unity of Gentiles with Jews. Immediately following that statement Paul “indoctrinates” the Gentile readers of Romans with a whole litany of citations from the Hebrew scriptures showing their connectedness to Israel and Israel’s Messiah, the “root of Jesse” who now “rules over the nations” (Romans 15.12, citing Isaiah 11.10, LXX). This continues Paul’s emphasis (that is so often ignored) that the Gentile believers cannot have Jesus without Israel. 

Nowhere does the apostle’s Paul, Peter, James, John, Jude or the Preacher to the Hebrews believe, much less teach, that the Hebrew Scriptures have been “done away” with, abrogated, tossed out.  This belief is based upon centuries of bad biblical interpretation that has cascaded and mixed with anti-Jewish prejudice that we often simply cannot even see what a text is actually saying. 

We often misunderstand Paul because we take him out of his own historical context. Paul was adamant that Gentiles do not become ethnic Jews thus they are not to be circumcised. But Paul and James are equally adamant that Gentiles are now incorporated – as the nations/gentiles – into Israel. Or as James put it in Acts 15 the coming of the Gentiles means the royal kingdom of David is being restored. But it is the kingdom (house of) of David that is being rebuilt (Acts 15.12-21).

Jesus and “Fulfilment”

The Lord Jesus, as I was raised, sort of pulled a “bait” and “switch” in the Sermon on the Mount. He begins his epic Sermon with these words.

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).

But then we interpret Jesus to say that he really did come to “abolish” the Law and the Prophets. When he “fulfilled” them he did away with them. So he actually did what he said he did not “come to” do.  The Sermon is then read as a series of antitheses that pit Jesus’s words against those of the Hebrew Bible. (Which is bizarre because almost every thing said in the Sermon on the Mount actually comes from the so called ‘Old Testament!’). So the bait and switch interpretation of Matthew 5.17 is on brilliant display in this “exposition.”  

“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 understanding 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.  Jesus did come to destroy the “law and the prophets” according to this writer. 

Fulfill (pleroo) in the Gospel of Matthew

In our convoluted way, we take the word “fulfill” and then we interpret through a bad interpretation 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.  Thus both Matthew 5.17 and Colossians 2.14 are the victims of bad interpretation stacked on top of one another and end up with a diametrically opposite hermeneutical practice as that of Paul, Peter, James, Jude, Hebrews Preacher, and John.

But what if Jesus actually told the truth and meant what he said, he did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets?”  What if “fulfill” really does not mean “abolish” after all?

The Gospel of Matthew, like all the apostolic writings was written in Greek and it is the Greek that is always the final arbiter of the meaning of a term in its context and not English.  The English word “fulfill” has a range of meanings. According to the English dictionary the term has the range of:

to put into effect (execute),
to meet requirements,
to develop the potentialities off.

Each of these ranges of meaning does not imply getting rid of, bring to an end, abolishing, abrogation, etc.

But it is the Greek of Matthew that we need to be concerned with. Matthew uses the term pleroo sixteen times and in not one of them does it mean get rid of, abolish, negate, nail to the cross.  The term needs to be understood within Matthew’s larger fulfillment motif.

Let us look at a couple of examples. In Matthew 1.22-23 we read that “all this took place to fulfill (pleroo) what the Lord had said through the prophet … they will call him Immanuel.” Did Jesus come to get rid of what the prophet said? To negate what the prophet said? To abolish what the prophet said?  Is Jesus not Immanuel still? I suggest that Jesus came to “put into effect” what the prophet said.

In the next example of pleroo we read, “And so was fulfilled (pleroo) what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”  Did Jesus abolish Hosea? Did Jesus’s coming get rid of Hosea? Or did Jesus’s coming live out Hosea? I suggest that Jesus lived out, “to put into effect,” the story of Hosea.

The next example of pleroo is so compelling that it is the one that forced upon me the reality of our cascading of bad interpretations. Jesus came forward in Matthew 3 and met John the Baptizer at the Jordan River. John attempted to negate Jesus’s actions. John attempted to stop Jesus’s desire. John attempted to abolish what Jesus intended to do. But Jesus said he must be baptized by John to “fulfill (pleroo) all righteousness” (3.15).  Was Jesus abolishing righteousness by fulfilling it? Was Jesus nailing righteousness to the cross in his baptism? Did Jesus so “fulfill righteousness” at his baptism that he (to borrow from Wade Webster) “throw [it] down once and for all!?” Or was Jesus living out righteousness? Was Jesus showing us was righteousness actually looks like?  I suggest to you it was the latter and Jesus did not abolish righteousness by fulfilling it. Jesus was “putting into effect” righteousness.

Near the end of Matthew’s Story of Jesus we find a similar pronouncement by Jesus as in 5.17. 

In 26.54 and 56 Jesus’s 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.”

An Analogy on Fulfillment

What if fulfilling the law is more like a man or a woman fulfilling his or her marriage vows? If a man or woman fulfills their marriage covenant that does not imply that now they can suddenly toss their spouse to the side and get a different one.

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 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 appropriate levels of intimacy to dating, engagement and marriage so there are deeper depths as we move into the “new” covenant. Being engaged clearly demands deeper levels of commitment on the part of each partner than merely meeting for coffee or dinner.  In engagement there is a promise of exclusive loyalty for the purpose of the relationship. And the marriage goes even beyond the engagement.  While it is painful (likely) to end an engagement, it is catastrophic to end a marriage. Further the movement of the levels of commitment is actually the fulfillment of the previous level.  It embraces the promise in the previous while enriching and deepening them. But there is no repudiation of anything previous.

Yet just because one can enjoy intercourse in marriage does not mean the couple 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. In fact there is something deeply wrong in that marriage if the levels of intimacy from dating and engagement are not continually expressed and enjoyed in the “new covenant” of marriage.

That period of dating and engagement will have continuing validity precisely because their promise is being “fulfilled” in a marriage covenant. That is, it is being lived out, it is being expressed in flesh and blood.

And just as a marriage counselor will take a troubled 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 to know who we are and what we are to do. 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 Sources

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.

In fact we may find, like the Hebrews Preacher tells that congregation, we see that the Hebrew Scriptures speak to us “Today.” This in fact is what Paul does to his Gentile converts, he places them in the family story of Israel and even tells them they are Gentiles no more but now citizens of Israel (cf. 1 Corinthians 10; 12.2, “when you were Gentiles”; Ephesians 2.11-3.10, ‘fellow citizens with the saints’).

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.  Jesus fulfills by living it out in flesh and blood before his God and ours.

Bad interpretation has cost us a great deal.

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)

4 Responses to “Fulfill, Not Abolish: Matthew 5.17 and Dating, Engagement, Marriage and “New” Covenant”

  1. Richard Says:

    Why then is Sunday the day of worship/rest and not the Sabbath/Saturday?

    • Bobby Valentine Says:

      Richard, I appreciate you reading. I would have liked to see some critique of what was actually written though. But a basic rule of sound biblical interpretation is that dogma is determined by exegesis, exegesis is not dictated by dogma. The issue of Sabbath/”Sunday” has no bearing on what Matthew 5.17 means or does not mean as Jesus spoke it.

      In the NT itself the issue is never either/or that I can tell. What Acts 15 says and Galatians makes clear is that circumcision and observance of days is not a requirement or condition of Gentiles to be citizens of Israel. But it is also clear from Acts and from Romans 14 that disciples of Jesus continued to keep the Sabbath (this includes Paul).

      Historically, throughout the early centuries of the history of Christianity we find disciples that observed both Sabbath and “Sunday” or Lord’s Day. But the function of Sabbath and Lord’s Day are not the same. If a person wishes to observe Sabbath they are free to do so. Most Jewish believers in Jesus keep the Sabbath (again like Paul). No one can really make an issue out of this one way or the other. Disciples are free to observe “days unto the Lord” as Romans 14 makes quite clear. What is forbidden is judging others on the basis of those things.

  2. JT Says:

    Bobby, very nice treatment of Matt. 5.17. Appreciate it very much!

    Perhaps verses 18, 19, & 20 were not within your intended scope for this particular blog. Yet, paying attention to those verses while looking at v.17 helps reinforce what you’ve illustrated – that Jesus himself said he didn’t come to “abolish”. (Unless we improperly interpret “fulfill”as you addressed.) How can anyone argue with the very words of Jesus??!! But even still, here I would note that in v.18 the Lord addresses when the Law & the Prophets will no longer be needed – not “…until heaven and earth pass away.” Obviously this hasn’t happened yet. And, in v. 19 the Lord addresses consequences for those who teach against the Law (“relaxes…and teaches others to do the same”), and, those who do well to teach and obey the Law. In my experience, most CoC preachers when preaching on Jesus’s sermon on the mountain skip right over Matt. 5.17. But when they do note 5.17, they wrongly interpret it… a la points in your blog, and, almost always skip v. 18-20.

    Personally, I thought Richard’s question following your blog relevant and timely in light of Matt. 5.17. 1) historical records pre-dating the Roman Catholic Church indicate a movement away from sabbath-keeping but not due to any change in the law of God; 2) historical records of the Roman Catholic Church are fairly replete indicating the Church, upon it’s own authority and outside of the Bible, made Sunday the official day of worship for the Church. Interestingly, “they” also inform Protestants who claim sola scriptura should then take note there is no scriptural support for the Sabbath being “done away with” and/or Sunday being installed as the replacement.

    So, the literal, minimal if you will, view of observing “sabbath” is ceasing from work, resting. Other “OT” passages reveal the call for a corporate gathering of the saints (worship), and, the natural day for such corporate gathering is the sabbath. This leaves room for the position that any day for worship is permissible.

    Yet, there is at the same time the Torah command to “keep the Sabbath”. It’s not “done away” with by Paul’s words, nor the Catholic Church, or any “NT Church” ideology/doctrine using a few “on the first day of the week” scriptural advancements.

    Romans 14:
    Not enough space here to elaborate and elucidate thoroughly enough but I will say that Romans 14, I believe, has to do with tension within the church between Gentile and Jewish believers, but not anything to do with Torah related Leviticus 23 “clean/unclean” foods, “days” (as in sabbaths or feasts), etc. There is mention of “days”, “foods”, “eating” “drinking”, “meat”, “vegetables” but one should not equate that discussion in Chapter 14 as having anything to do with kashrut, sabbath, appointed times, etc. The reference to “everything is clean” has to be about “ritually clean/unclean” rather than Torah-commanded clean. It has to do with Paul campaigning for unity but not at the expense of violating Torah commands. In fact, within the entire book of Romans there is not mention of “sabbath” or Biblically defined “clean/unclean” foods. Paul gives us a clue relevant to my input here at the beginning in v. 1 when he admonishes not to “quarrel over opinions”. Things “Torah”, that is commands of God, the Law, are not things of “opinion”. A contextual reading of Paul elsewhere besides Romans, a look at koine in Greek so far as things “common”, things unclean for ritual purposes, and things biblically unclean – will illuminate Romans 14.

    Shalom,

    JT

    • Bobby Valentine Says:

      JT,

      Thanks for reading and commenting. On the Sabbath. The NT writings themselves never actually come out and prescribe “Sunday” as “the” day or that it “replaces” the Sabbath. As you note this was a historical process. The roots are in the non-binding of Sabbath upon Gentiles as conditions for membership in God’s Israel. Acts 15, Galatians and Colossians 2.16 certainly make the point. But as Paul noted in Colossians 2.16, don’t judge over kosher diets, New Moons, etc. This “judging” and “disqualifying” is often something that can cut both ways (and we often forget this). Gentiles CONDEMN Jews who do keep these things to God. But this violates both Colossians and Romans 14 which you cite. In the Second and Third Centuries a surge of Anti-Semitic sentiment poisoned a great deal of Christian thought and we have not recovered from it yet. But these texts, read THROUGH those Anti-Jewish lenses can be poison and cause us to fundamentally misread Paul in his first century context. Paul, James, the Jerusalem Church, etc had not the slightest issues with any of these matters and kept them all.

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