Fulfill not Destroy
I find Matthew 5:17 to be a fascinating passage, especially because I have often had people quote it to me and proceed to interpret “fulfill” to mean what in a practical sense is incredibly similar to “destroy.” I have often heard some version of, “don’t worry about the law, Jesus fulfilled it.”
Though the idea that “to fulfill” could practically mean the same as “to destroy” always seemed odd to me I thought maybe it had to do with my preconceived notions. After all, as much as I would love to approach the Bible from a completely unbiased perspective, I must admit that it is simply impossible. The next best thing, at least in my mind, is to be aware of my biases and theological leanings. I approach the Bible as a Seventh-day Adventist and my interpretation of the Bible will be influenced by my Adventist background. Being aware of this I decided to do a deeper study in this passage, and to focus especially on the meaning of the word “fulfill.”
I wish to take you through the journey I embarked on in an attempt to equip you to do the same whenever you desire to do a deeper study of a Bible passage.
When studying any biblical passage, context is your best friend. I will talk about context later on even though that is whee you ought to always begin since it will help you interpret all the information you will discover. Suffice to say for now that the context is Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount.
Whenever you want to study one specific verse I recommend looking at how it is translated in different versions of the Bible. When a passage is challenging you will notice greater variation between the translations and when a passage is fairly straight forward you will notice greater uniformity in the translations. One easy way is to type the passage into Biblehub.com which will give you a list with several translations available at the same time.
In case you have a specific word you want to look up a free tool you can use is BlueLetterBible.com. There you can use several study tools and the one I often use is the interlinear Bible which will give you the translation word by word allowing you to click on any specific word for a deeper study. In the case of Matthew 5:17 the word I was interested in was "fulfill." Below is what I found.
The Greek word, here translated as fulfill is πληρόω (plēroō) which means to make full, to fill up, i.e. to fill to the full
to cause to abound, to furnish or supply liberally
I abound, I am liberally supplied
to render full, i.e. to complete
to fill to the top: so that nothing shall be wanting to full measure, fill to the brim
to consummate: a number
to make complete in every particular, to render perfect
to carry through to the end, to accomplish, carry out, (some undertaking)
to carry into effect, bring to realization, realize
of matters of duty: to perform, execute
of sayings, promises, prophecies, to bring to pass, ratify, accomplish
to fulfill, i.e. to cause God's will (as made known in the law) to be obeyed as it should be, and God's promises (given through the prophets) to receive fulfillment.
(for a deeper study click here.)
If you click the link above you can see a list of passages where this same word is used.
All these tools, the different translations and a closer study of the word itself gives you a better idea of how this word was used and interpreted.
Next, both the websites mentioned above make available some Bible commentaries for free. Some are more helpful than others, but they help you become aware of how others have interpreted the passage.
The explanations I had heard of this passage fit with what I learned in this study, that Jesus gave people a fuller understanding of the law and the prophets. The context supports this because Jesus goes on to talk about how the law says you should not murder, but you should not even say to your brother “you fool” (Matthew 5:21-22). Jesus then talks about how it's not enough to not commit adultery, but you should not even entertain any lustful thoughts (vv.27-30). So Jesus is not telling people to go ahead and disregard the law, but rather teaching that obedience to the law goes beyond simply obeying the letter of the law.
Both the study of the context as well as of the meaning of the original Greek word used all point to the word fulfill meaning expanding the meaning of the law, making it more full. Jesus taught how to fully obey the law in a practical sense, and what God desires of us.
Here are a few snippets from some of the commentaries available at Biblehub.com.
Not . . . to destroy, but to fulfil.--Explained by the immediate context, the words would seem to point chiefly to our Lord's work as a teacher. He came to fill up what was lacking, to develop hints and germs of truth, to turn rules into principles. Interpreted on a wider scale, He came to "fulfil the Law and prophets," as He came "to fulfil all righteousness" (3:15) by a perfect obedience to its precepts, to fulfil whatever in it was typical of Himself and His work by presenting the realities. (Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers https://biblehub.com/matthew/5-17.htm)
The Phrase,'" the law and the prophets," is sometimes used as practically equivalent to the whole of the Old Testament (Matthew 7:12; John 1:45; Romans 3:21; cf. Matthew 11:13; Matthew 22:40; Acts 24:14) …
But to fulfil. By establishing the absolute and final meaning of the Law and the Prophets. Christ came not to abrogate the Law or the Prophets, but to satisfy them - to bring about in his own Person, and ultimately in the persons of his followers, that righteousness of life which, however limited by the historical conditions under which the Divine oracles had been delivered, was the sum and substance of their teaching. (Pulpit Commentary https://biblehub.com/matthew/5-17.htm)
However, I would also argue, and this is my personal take on this, that Jesus also fulfilled the requirement of blood. The penalty of sin is death (Romans 6:23, James 1:16, Genesis 2:17, Genesis 3:3, Romans 5:12.) and someone had to die. The sacrificial lamb ultimately pointed to Jesus (John 1:29, Genesis 22:8). Once Jesus died, He fulfilled that requirement of the law, the veil on the temple was split from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51) signifying the end of the sacrificial system.
My understanding is that God made it very clear that when Jesus died on the cross there was no longer a need for the earthly temple or the sacrificial system. The veil was ripped from top to bottom. No human could have accomplished this. The Lamb of God has been slain. The animal sacrifices, the sin offerings, told people that one day someOne would come and die for their sins (someOne is coming). Therefore there is no need for a Christian to keep any of the feasts or the aspects of the law that were connected to the sacrificial system and sanctuary. The aspect of the law related to sacrifices and the earthly sanctuary have been fulfilled in Christ when He died on the cross.
However, not all the law was connected to the sacrificial system. The ten commandments, for example, continue to be valid. Killing, lying, adultery, worshiping false gods, creating images of god and worshiping them, failing to honor your parents, all continue to be a sin.
When the law changed God was very clear, the veil on the temple was split. There was no longer a need for the sacrifice and for an earthly priest. It is the blood of Jesus that matters and He is our high priest. We believe in His death and resurrection and we celebrate Jesus’ sacrifice for us through communion. Jesus established the communion service and commanded us to do it in remembrance of Him (Matthew 26:17-30, Mark 14:12-25, Luke 22:7-20, John 13:21-30, 1 Corinthians 11:23-32). The Passover was replaced with the communion service. The Passover pointed forward to the death of the Messiah, the communion service looks back on the death of the Messiah.
Ultimately, we are saved by grace through faith. Before Jesus’ birth followers of God believed that one day the Messiah would come. Since Jesus’ death on the cross, we believe the Messiah did come and eagerly expect His soon return. As I mentioned on a my post entitled Spiritual or Religious, religious practices, offering sacrifices or partaking of communion, are only valuable so long as they point us toward a spiritual truth, thus fostering spiritual growth. The truth is God’s sacrificial love for us personified and demonstrated most clearly in the life of Jesus.
I bring up this point of fulfilled vs destroyed simply to highlight that God does not change. There was always only one way of salvation, always by grace, always through faith, always completely dependent on the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The fact that God does not change (James 1:17, Hebrews 13:8, Malachi 3:6) makes Him worthy of our complete trust. His law is a reflection of His character, His values, His will for our lives. It is our joy and privilege to order our lives according to His will (Romans 7:22, Romans 3:31, Psalm 1:1-2). Trusting in His promises to provide and deliver (Philippians 4:19, Psalm 50:15) and ultimately to come again!
Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.