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Matthew 5:17-20
A Midrash on Torah Observance
Last Updated 6/14/00

NOTE: This section of Scripture, Matthew 5:17-20, is pivotal to understanding the relationship of Messiah to the Torah, and therefore of the believer to the Torah. Thus, we have given it a section of its own.

CHAPTER 5:17-20 TEXT:

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

5:17 the "Law"

Christian Bibles consistently refer to "the Law," meaning the Law of Moses, as given in the first five books of the Bible. The Hebrew term for this is the Torah. However, the correct translation of "Torah," is not "law" (not in the western legal sense of the word). Rather, Torah is correctly translated as revelation or instruction from God.

When understood in its proper Hebrew context, here is some of what the "New Testament" says about Torah:

  • Faith does not abolish any part of the Torah as a whole (Matthew 5:17-20, James 2:10)
  • Keeping the Torah is part of the faith that gets you to heaven (Matthew 19:17; Revelation 12:17; 14:12; 22:14)
  • You will abide in Yeshua's love, if you keep Torah (John 14:15-23) as He abided in the Father's love by keeping Torah (John 15:10; Hebrews 2:17-18, 4:15)
  • Faith in Yeshua does not cancel out what the Torah says, it establishes it (Romans 3:31)
  • Torah is itself "liberty" and the standard we are to judge ourselves by (James 1:22-25)
  • It is those of the flesh who are not subject to the Torah (Romans 8:5-8)
  • If you say you know Him, and ignore His Torah, you are a liar (1 John 2:3-7)
  • It does not matter if you are a Jew or a gentile, what matters is keeping God's Torah (1 Cor. 7:19)
  • The "law of love" is that we keep his Torah - which is by no means a "burden" (1 John 5:3; 2 John 1:6; Matt. 11:29,30)

These "New Testament" references to Torah might at first confuse people, as they aren't used to thinking in these terms. However, when the Hebrew New Testament authors, and Yeshua Himself, spoke of law/commandments in their first century Jewish religious context, it must be interpreted as "Torah," unless there is a clear reason to do otherwise, as this was what it meant to them.

5:17 Destroy ... Fulfill

First, a brief look at two of the Greek words behind the King James text in verse 17:

Destroy = kataluo, meaning "to overthrow completely" or "abolish"
Fulfill = plerosai, meaning "to fill" or "to complete."

The second half of verse 17 is used by some people to support a doctrine that says the believer in Messiah is now "not under the Law." Some claim that by "fulfilling the Law," Messiah did away with it, and the believer no longer has a relationship to it.

Although we will address this in detail thoughout this and our other online studies, one need not look further than this verse itself to see that such an interpretation is incorrect, as:

  1. The word plerosai (fulfill) DOES NOT mean to "do away with" or to "overthrow."
  2. The word kataluo (destroy) DOES mean to "do away with" or to "overthrow," and Yeshua said He did NOT come to do that. (1)

Furthermore, Yeshua then goes on to emphasize in verse 18, that not even the tiniest part of the Torah (the "Law")  is done away with, and won't be until the heavens and the earth are no more.

He then takes it even further, and issues a warning to anyone who "breaks" any of the Torah, or teaches anyone to do the same. The Greek word for "break" is luo, meaning; "to infringe upon, loosen the force of, or render not binding." (1) Hence, Yeshua is teaching that His work in no way diminishes the authority or continuation of the Torah.

Verses 17-20 set the theme and agenda for the entire "Sermon on the Mount." Yeshua the Messiah makes fuller the understanding of his disciples concerning the Torah and Prophets, so they can more fully express what being God’s people is all about. This is consistent with Judaism, as one of the Messiah's main functions would be to complete our understanding of the Torah & Prophets. The "evidence" for Yeshua being the true Messiah is that He meet the criteria set forth in the Tenakh (Old Testament), which in turn says the Torah is eternal.

Much of the remainder of chapters 5-7 give specific cases where Yeshua explains the fuller meaning of the Torah -- teaching the people to not only keep the Law, but to go beyond the "letter of the Law - understanding the Godly principles behind the commandments, as this is how we come to know God, which is His desire for us all.

The Talmud agrees with this and even states that Jerusalem was destroyed for not following what Yeshua taught:

Babylonian Talmud - Bava Mezia 30b - "...R. Yohanan said: 'Yerushalayim would not have been destroyed, save that they judged Din Torah (by the Law of the Torah).' Should they have judged by the brutal laws?--rather, they insisted upon the law, and did not practice Lifnim miShurat haDin (beyond the letter of the law).

5:20 - the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees

Yeshua never criticized the scribes and Pharisees for carrying out the Torah. In fact he told the people to follow their example (Matthew 23:1-3 ).


1. Vines Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words.

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