Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Meaning of Matthew 5:17-19, Part 3: The Meaning of “Abolish”

by Michael J. Vlach

Below is Part 3 of an ongoing series on “The Meaning of 
Matthew 5:17-19.”

With my last post, I argued that “the Law or the Prophets” and “Law” in Matthew 5:17-18 referred to the Old Testament in its entirety. This is contrary to the popular idea that Jesus was addressing the Mosaic Law only, especially with Matthew 5:18. The purpose of this post is to examine the term, “abolish,” in 5:17. What did Jesus mean when He said that He did not come to “abolish” the Law or the Prophets?

A Word about Word Studies
This study and the one after this will focus on the meanings of the terms “abolish” and “fulfill” in Matthew 5:17-18. But first a note about words and word studies is appropriate.

As with all words, there is usually a range of meaning for a term depending on how it is used. If used extensively, most words have two or more meanings. That is how language usually works. For example, the Greek term pneuma in the New Testament, often translated “spirit,” can refer to the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13), wind (John 3:8), breath (2 Thess. 2:8), the immaterial part of a person (Luke 8:55; Acts 7:59), angels (Heb. 1:14), demons (Matt. 8:16), and other things. Context will decide which sense was in the author’s mind.

Obviously when Jesus said, “The wind [pneuma] blows where it wishes” in John 3:8 we are not free to plug in any of the options we want. “Wind” is the clear meaning here based on the context. Jesus did not mean “demons” or the “immaterial part of a person.” So while consulting dictionaries and lexicons for meanings of words is definitely helpful, ultimately the meaning of a word must be determined by the context in which it is used.

This point will be particularly significant when we look at the word pleroō, translated “fulfill” in Matthew 5:17. There are several ways pleroō is used in Matthew’s gospel and the New Testament. So we have to balance two things with word studies. First, we pay close attention to how a word is used in Scripture. But two, ultimately meaning is determined with the immediate context. This warning is not that big of an issue with the word “abolish,” since the meaning of this term is quite obvious in Matthew 5:17. But it will be more of an issue with “fulfill” since there are several different views of what this term means in 5:17.

Meaning of “Abolish” (kataluō)
The word “abolish,” which is used twice in Matthew 5:17, is the Greek term kataluō. In 5:17 the term is an infinitive verb, katalusai:

 “Do not think that I came to abolish (katalusai) the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish (katalusai) but to fulfill.” 

Kataluō is found 15 times outside of Matthew 5:17. Eight of these involve the idea of “destroy” or “demolish” concerning a temple. For example, Acts 6:13-14 states:

They put forward false witnesses who said, “This man [Stephen] incessantly speaks against this holy place and the Law; for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy [katalusei] this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:13-14).

Concerning the Jerusalem temple in Matthew 24:2, Jesus said:

And He said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down [kataluthēsetai].”

We are accurate to conclude that the idea of “destroy,” “demolish,” “overthrow,” “abolish,” and “tear down” is the meaning of katalusai in Matthew 5:17. The NASB, ESV, and NIV all interpret katalusai as “to abolish.” The HCSB translates it “to destroy.” Any of these descriptions works. This is a case where the term in Matthew 5:17 fits very closely with most uses of this term in the New Testament.

In order for Jesus to makes such a statement there must have been an accusation that He sought the destruction of the Law and the Prophets. But Jesus combats this idea. He did not come to abolish, destroy, or tear down the Law or the Prophets. He came to fulfill them.

In sum, when we combine the meaning of “abolish” with “the Law or the Prophets” in 5:17 the idea is this: Contrary to what some of His opponents asserted, Jesus did not come to abolish, destroy, or tear down the Law or the Prophets (i.e. the Hebrew Scriptures).

With my next post I will explain what it means for Jesus to “fulfill” the Law or the Prophets. Concerning this term much more debate exists.

Monday, March 18, 2019

The Meaning of Matthew 5:17-19, Part 2: Understanding “the Law or the Prophets”

by Michael J. Vlach

In Part 1, I mentioned that a decision must be made concerning what Jesus meant by “the Law or the Prophets” in Matthew 5:17 and “Law” in 5:18. While this issue might not seem that significant at first glance, it is important for a correct understanding of Matthew 5:17-19. The purpose of this post is to survey the issues here and comment on what I think is the best understanding.

Before we start, though, I understand that the issues we are beginning to discuss are heavily debated And reasonable people can disagree with my findings.

To begin, note Jesus' words in Matthew 5:17-18:

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” 

Meaning of “the Law or the Prophets” in 5:17
Ten other times, “Law” and “Prophets” are coupled in the New Testament—Matthew 7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Luke 16:16; 24:44; John 1:45; Acts 13:15; 24:14; 28:23; and Romans 3:21. The joining of “the Law” and “the Prophets” together refers to the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures, i.e. the Old Testament. The “Law” in this context refers to the Torah or first five books of the Bible. And “Prophets” refers to the rest of the Old Testament books. As Grant Osborne observes, “‘The law or the prophets’ means the whole of Scripture” (Matthew, 181).

Jesus’ mention of “or” (ē) instead of the usual “and” (kai) when connecting “the Law” with “the Prophets” does not change this reality. The point is that Jesus did not come to abolish “the Law” as part of God’s Word “or” “the Prophets” as part of God’s word. Together, there are no parts of the Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus came to abolish. In sum, we are on solid ground to view “the Law or the Prophets” in 5:17 as referencing the entirety of the Old Testament.

Meaning of “Law” in 5:18
But determining what Jesus meant by “Law” in Matthew 5:18 is more challenging and debated:

For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished (emphasis mine).

Here Jesus mentioned “Law” but not “Prophets.” What should we conclude from this? Is Jesus drawing specific attention to the Mosaic Law commandments only? This is the majority view among commentators. Or is He using “Law” here as shorthand for “the Law” and “the Prophets” just mentioned in 5:17? With this understanding, this second use of “Law” also refers to the Hebrew Scriptures as a whole.

Three arguments exist for the ‘Mosaic Law only’ view. First, Jesus just mentions “Law.” By leaving out “Prophets” here He is focused solely on the Mosaic commands. Second, the context indicates He is focused on Mosaic Law commands. In verse 19, Jesus will mention “these commandments.” And in verse 20, He will discuss a righteousness needed to enter God’s kingdom. Then with Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus will bring up six Mosaic commandments showing that the Law was His emphasis. Third, most uses of “Law” in the New Testament focus on Mosaic Law commandments.

On the other hand, some believe “Law” in 5:18 is shorthand for the entire Hebrew Scriptures. So the Old Testament as a whole is in view, not just Mosaic Law commands. Several arguments exist for this view. First, since Jesus just mentioned “the Law or the Prophets” in 5:17 it seems unlikely that He would exclude “the Prophets” in 5:18. Second, the conjunction “for” (gar) connects the “Law” and “Prophets” of 5:17 with 5:18. So the message of 5:18 seems to be an explanation of what was stated in 5:17. This would have to include Hebrew Scriptures outside just the Mosaic commands. Third, with 5:17 Jesus speaks of fulfilling the Law and the Prophets, and in 5:18 He speaks of accomplishing all the details of the Law. It seems odd that the accomplishing of 5:18 would be distinct from the fulfilling of Matthew 5:17. Fourth, while it is true that “Law” most often refers to Mosaic commandments, it is not uncommon for “Law” to be used of the Old Testament as a whole. As Schreiner observes:

In some texts “Law” alone seems to refer broadly to the Old Testament Scriptures (Matt. 22:36; Luke 10:26; John 7:49; 10:34; 12:34; 15:25; 1 Cor. 9:8-9; 14:21, 34; Gal. 4:21), though in some of these texts a particular precept from the Mosaic law may be in view as well (John 7:49; 1 Cor. 9:8-9; 14:34) (Schreiner, 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law, 21).

Fifth, in the only other case where the three elements of Mosaic Law, Prophets, and “fulfill” occur, the emphasis is on prophecies of the Old Testament being fulfilled, not just Mosaic Law fulfillment:

Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”

In looking at the two views, I think the second view is more convincing and is more likely to be accurate. It seems best to view “Law” in 5:18 as shorthand for “Law” and “Prophets” and to see Jesus as including the entire Old Testament corpus with His second use of “Law.” With 5:17-18 Jesus addressed more than Mosaic Law commands. He made a statement about the fulfillment of the entire Hebrew Scriptures. Perhaps Jesus includes the prophecies, covenants, messianic predictions, and principles of the entire Old Testament. With Luke 24:44 we know that He included prophecies about his death and resurrection.

But what about the argument that the context of Matthew 5:17-48 is focused on the Mosaic Law commandments? There are several responses. First, the broader view of “Law” does not exclude the possibility that Jesus could make statements about the Mosaic Law. A statement about the “Law” does not mean the “Prophets” are excluded from the discussion. Second, as will be shown in a later post, “these commandments” in 5:19 might not refer to Mosaic Law commands. A reasonable case could be made that “these “commandments” refers to the entirety of the Old Testament instruction. Or, “these commandments” could refer to Jesus’ authoritative words in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). At the end of the Sermon, Jesus draws attention to “these words of Mine” (Matt. 7:24, 26). Also, while Jesus will bring up six Mosaic commands in 5:21-48, He could be doing so to contrast Mosaic Law instruction with the New covenant instruction He is now offering. The main point here is that it cannot be assumed that the context of Matthew 5 demands that “Law” in Matthew 5:18 means only the Mosaic Law.  

The Debate on This Issue
This debate concerning what Jesus meant by “the Law or the Prophets” and second use of “Law” in 5:18 was tackled by the contributors in the book, The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian. Taking the broader view that Jesus was referring to the entire Old Testament Wayne Strickland stated:

In Matthew, the phrase “the Law and the Prophets” refers not simply to the Mosaic law, but to the entire Old Testament (cf. 7:12; 11:13; 22:40). Thus the term “law” in the following verse [5:18] is an abbreviated way of referring to the same Old Testament. It should also be noted that the explicit reference to “Prophets” indicates that the author is speaking of prophecy. That fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament is in view is signaled by the phrase “until everything is accomplished” in verse 18. (p. 258)

Douglas Moo pushed back on Strickland’s understanding saying Strickland’s view “skews not only the meaning of this passage but one’s general theological synthesis” (p. 313). Moo says the phrase, “the Law and the Prophets” “focuses not on the prophecies of the Old Testament but on the legal, or commanding, aspects of the Old Testament” (p. 314). Thus, Moo thinks the context supports a narrower understanding concerning Mosaic commands.

But if “Prophets” are in the near context of Jesus’ discussion in 5:17 it makes sense that Jesus includes the Prophets in 5:18. That is hardly a skewed understanding, but a contextual one. Also, I am not sure how a statement that the Old Testament Scriptures must be fulfilled in their entirety is a threat to a “general theological synthesis.”

In sum, I believe “the Law or the Prophets” in 5:17 and “Law” in 5:18 refer to the Old Testament as a whole. I would not say this understanding is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt or that reasonable people cannot disagree. But I think this understanding is more likely than not, even probable. I certainly think it is reasonable and worthy of consideration. On the other hand, I think the Mosaic Law-only view is harder to prove. I also would be cautious of any theological system or view that bases the weight of its validity on a narrower understanding of “Law” in Matthew 5:18.

My next post we will look at the meaning of “abolish” and “fulfill” in Matthew 5:17-18 and how these terms relate to “the Law or the Prophets.”

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Meaning of Matthew 5:17-19: Part 1

by Michael J. Vlach 

I have had a desire for some time to write on the meaning of Matthew 5:17-19. As I began to construct a blog post, it quickly became clear that a one-part entry would not be sufficient. So I am addressing this passage in a series, with this being Part 1. 

The purpose of this post is to introduce Matthew 5:17-19, and point out five key interpretive decisions that must be made here.  

For clarification, I am not offering a comprehensive biblical theology or systematic treatment of the Law of God in the Bible. That would take a large book. Nor is this a comprehensive examination of every view of Matthew 5:17-19, although I will mention some of the various views later. My goal primarily is to understand what Jesus meant in Matthew 5:17-19. We must let an accurate understanding of Matthew 5:17-19 inform our understanding of the Law and not force a predetermined view on this text.

Let us begin by reciting the text:

Matthew 5:17-19
 In Matthew 5:17-19, Jesus states:

17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven (NASB).

Jesus’ words here reveal His understanding of the “Law or the Prophets” and His relationship to them.  

5 Major Interpretive issues

There are five parts of Matthew 5:17-19 where a significant interpretive decision must be made. How one decides on these will influence how one views this passage as a whole. Also, a wrong move on any of these five areas could mean an incorrect understanding of the passage. Precision of interpretation is crucial here.

First, what does Jesus mean by “the Law or the Prophets” in 5:17? Is Jesus singling out the Mosaic Law code for a specific explanation? Or is He referring to the entire Hebrew Scriptures, what Christians often call the Old Testament? This issue is very strategic for understanding what Jesus is doing.

Second, what does Jesus mean by “Law” in 5:18? Does He mean the same thing as “the Law or the Prophets” in 5:17 (i.e. the Hebrew Scriptures) or is He specifically focused on the Mosaic Law code here? 

Third, what does Jesus mean by “abolish” in 5:17? He uses this term twice, but what does this term mean?

Fourth, what does Jesus mean by the term “fulfill” in 5:17? Does he mean “establish” or “uphold”? Does He mean “deepen” or “extend”? Does He mean “fulfill” in the sense of finding completion in Him? Or does He mean that a literal fulfillment of what was stated must be accomplished? Grasping the meaning of plerōsai here is very important for an accurate understanding.

Fifth, what does Jesus mean by “these commandments” in 5:19?  Why does Jesus shift from nomos (“Law”) to entole (“commandments” or “instructions”)? Are these terms parallel in meaning or different? Does “these commandments” refer to the commandments of the Mosaic Law legal code? Or does it refer to the instructions of the entire Old Testament? Or does it refer to the words of Jesus from 5:21 through chapter 7? Again, the implications of this issue are significant.

My next post will start addressing these questions and issues.