Torah stands while this world stands
Matthew 5:17-19
Jesus could not have made a stronger statement about the ongoing validity of Torah. Why do we so often doubt his words on this topic?
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Published May 4th, 2016; Updated May 5th, 2016
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Main point summary
Main point summary
Jesus upholds all of Torah until the end of the age, and we are to do the same. If we are Gentiles, we must recognize the ongoing validity of Torah, even as not all of Torah applies to us as it does to Jewish believers. Obviously, this stance may require us to revisit some traditional Christian doctrines and to carefully study what the Word says about the relevant topics. Ultimately, we must hold the Word of God above any theological traditions of man.
Matthew 5:17-19
p “Do not think that I have come to abolish q the Law or the Prophets;
Don't think my coming has nullified Torah or the Prophets;
I have not come to abolish them
Abolishing them is NOT what I came to do
but r to fulfill them.
but I came in order to do what they require fully.
For truly, I say to you,
I say this to you as a promise
s until heaven and earth pass away,
until heaven and earth pass away
not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law
not one requirement of Torah will be removed
until all is accomplished.
until all that must come to pass in this age has happened.
t Therefore whoever relaxes u one of the least of these commandments
Therefore, those who nullify the words of Torah
and teaches others to do the same
and teach others to nullify the words of Torah
will be called least v in the kingdom of heaven,
will find their status lowered in the age to come,
but whoever does them
but those who obey Torah
and teaches them
and those who teach Torah
will be called great v in the kingdom of heaven.
will find their status raised in the age to come.
All has not been accomplished until the heavens and earth pass away - so Torah cannot pass away yet.
Teachers are called to a higher standard (James 3:1) .
Jesus came to uphold the Law and Prophets, and he came to do this because it is required to fulfill their very words. He ties their existence to this present age.
Because Jesus upholds Torah, his disciples must also do this. Jewish disciples of Jesus are called to follow Torah. Gentile disciples are called to observe Torah according to the ruling made in Acts 15.
Torah continues to be fully relevant during this present age, even in the inaugurated New Covenant. It stands because God's word stands forever (Isaiah 40:8). It also stands because it contains commandments whose ongoing existence are required to fulfill all that must be accomplished in this age. Jesus could not have made a stronger statement about the ongoing validity of Torah in its entirety. Those who wish to claim he "fulfilled" the law, thus rendering it obsolete, even in part, do damage to his words in this passage.
Andy Hubert
With all due respect, I could hardly disagree with you more. I think what you present here both contradicts teaching throughout the Scripture (OT and NT) as well as the the teaching of the passage before us. And my challenge of your position has nothing to do with the theological traditions of man, but I will try to demonstrate that it comes out of the text of Scripture itself.

At the end of this comment, you can see links to a paper I have written on this subject, along with a word study of the Greek behind "fulfill" in vs17. Here are a few teasers:

* Note Jesus speaks of the Law and the Prophets in vs17. If he were simply dealing with Torah law here, it makes no sense to mention the Prophets. Rather, Jesus is dealing with the entire Tanach (OT).

* Clearly vs20 goes together with this text. And its contribution is to show that Jesus is driving at our desperation for a righteousness beyond our efforts at the law in this passage.

* What leads you to assume that "heaven and earth pass away" = "until all is accomplished." Is it not also legitimate to understand Jesus to be saying that the Law is permanent (18b) until it is accomplished?

* This passage is the thesis statement of the Sermon on the Mount, and speaks to the purpose for why Jesus has come (17b). Are you really suggesting that it is completely devoid of the gospel purpose for why Jesus came, and rather is simply instructing Jewish believers that they are still under the law even in the New Covenant?

*Speaking of the New Covenant, have you not read that it is NOT like the Old Covenant (Jer 31:32) and that it makes the Old Covenant obsolete in practice (Heb 8:13)?
Peter Kananen
Hi Andy. First of all, I'm very grateful for BibleArc, and for the courses you've taught from which I've benefitted.

Thanks for considering my work and conclusions. My first reaction is that I don't think we're too far apart on our views. Hopefully we find we agree on more than we disagree.

I read your paper on the passage and found it helpful. I found a few points of difference, but generally more points of agreement.

Regarding the word study of πληροω - I find myself agreeing with your conclusion about its intended usage. Jesus came to fulfill all of the prophecies of the Law and Prophets, and he came to fully live out righteousness as required by the Law and Prophets. My paraphrase aligns well with this: "but I came in order to do what they require fully". What do they require? They require fulfilled prophecy, and they require a life of righteousness. Jesus came to do both.

You also highlighted the importance of seeing the unity of the Law and Prophets, and that Jesus views them as united here. I agree with you, but I don't see how this harms my argument. The Tanach is a super-set including Torah, so if he upholds the Tanach, he is also upholding Torah. Moreover, in 18c he specifically highlights the Law and the commandments it contains. Even if we should read this as another reference to the entire Tanach, it doesn't really impact how we should read his point, in my opinion. The inference in 19a strengthens this idea. Jesus says the integrity of the Law/Tanach that must be maintained hangs on even the least important commandment of the entire text.

Regarding the temporality of 18b and 18d, I do believe that Jesus is essentially restating the same condition, although perhaps slightly different aspects. If we attempt to say they are different conditions, it's hard to see how his statement makes sense. Linking two temporal conditions that are mutually exclusive is not a logical statement. I believe the way to read his statement is that all being accomplished is intrinsically tied to the conclusion of this age. Interestingly, this meshes very well with the temporal framework used by the author in Hebrews. I appreciate the reference to Hebrews 8:13. What is growing old and is ready to vanish away? This present age, the conditions for blessing/curses of the Old Covenant, the ongoing struggle with sin, etc. In some ways, the Old Covenant is still in effect. It is the covenant of this present age. In other ways, the New Covenant is in effect; I believe it was inaugurated through the work of Christ on the cross. This tension between the inauguration and fulfillment, as commonly expressed in the "already, not yet" hermeneutic, is woven throughout the NT. Spiritually, the New Covenant is fully here. Physically, the New Covenant has not yet fully arrived or been accomplished. If this was not true, there would be no future eschatological events. In addition, a comparison of the results of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31 with our present state shows it to be plainly true that we await the ultimate fulfillment of the New Covenant. Yes, justification through Christ has been achieved through the cross. Neither Jew nor Gentile is justified through keeping the Law. Yet we still await the eschatological promises that will be accomplished, and we know that these events are tied to the heavens and earth passing away.

I don't pretend my treatment of the covenants above is sufficient to prove that case, but hopefully you can see how it ties back to my understanding of Matthew 5:17-19. In addition, perhaps it may shed light on my agreement with you that this passage is all about the Gospel purpose, and the rest of the SOTM expands on this idea.

I suspect that ultimately the most controversial idea that I have suggested is that not one commandment in Torah is to be disregarded even today. In your paper you stated:

 "In wider biblical context, we observe that certain commandments become impossible or inappropriate for followers of Messiah to uphold. Examples include the many commands regarding the Temple and sacrifices (some which cannot be performed at present due to the absence of the Temple and/or would be inappropriate since the once-for-all sacrifice for sin has been offered). Additionally, we see several passages that dismiss certain dietary and Sabbath laws."

It's beyond the scope of commenting here to fully address these questions. It is certainly true that most Christian theological traditions over the last 2000 years have made similar conclusions. I believed the same for over 20 years in my Christian life. However, the very plain words of Jesus in this passage would cause me to make a similar assertion only with great trepidation. He said every commandment stands until this age passes and all is accomplished. The most common opposition I receive when I say this relates to the temple and animal sacrifice. I agree this is a significant challenge, but Biblically I believe most opposition is based on presuppositions and theological traditions, rather than on strong Biblical arguments. I have written more on this specific topic that I'd be happy to discuss more elsewhere.

Lastly, I believe it's possible that you think I'm saying I believe that Torah stands in order that we can or must achieve justification through acts of the law. I do not believe that is true, and it is an obvious consequence of the gospel. None are saved through acts of the Law. Jesus alone is the source of our justification. Accordingly, the SOTM is all about how to live out Torah in light of the gospel. We live out righteous lives, as verse 20 shows, by empowerment of the Holy Spirit through the saving power of Jesus Christ. In this way, Paul's statement in Romans 10:4 about the end of the law makes perfect sense. The law previously served as something that promised to save, as the Hebrews believed they could do in Exodus 24, but actually only condemns. In Christ, we are now empowered to live out the law as an outflow from our heart. Jeremiah 31 contains the ultimate realization of this truth - in the age to come, the New Covenant will be fully realized, and we will truly have hearts that desire God's law at all times.

Thanks again for taking the time to consider my work. I know it's a challenging position, and there are still questions that need to be answered in order for it to be accepted. But yet I cling to the words of Jesus and trust what he says here.
Andy Hubert
You are correct that we do agree on several important points—most notably to our discussion is that neither Jew nor Gentile is justified by upholding the law.

However, our disagreement is not by any means insignificant. I say this as a person who attends a congregation made up mostly of Jewish believers though with a significant percentage of Gentiles as well. If we were to teach that the Jewish believers among us are obligated to keep the Old Covenant law, it might seem harmless at first...but in the end it would so cloud the gospel that some most certainly would find themselves severed from Christ as through this teaching the gospel would be lost on their hearts. This is serious, and I am not exaggerating, for Paul makes this very point in Galatians to which I will refer later.

But first let me clarify what I am arguing is the biblical position. We are justified by grace alone through faith in Jesus, and in no way by our performance of the law. (With that you agree.) The law was given as a guardian before the establishment of the New Covenant (at the death and resurrection of Christ), so as to restrain sin and more importantly to prepare people for Jesus. It is also the thing that was perfectly performed by Jesus on our behalf. However, with the establishment of the New Covenant, neither Jew nor Gentile is under (i.e. obligated to keep) Old Covenant law, though we most certain learn from it. People might choose to keep aspects of the law for the purpose of evangelism or tradition, but the moment it becomes an obligation in that person's heart or a means to sanctification, it has become a slave-master that threatens the gospel in his/her heart.

Now let me respond to a couple things you said. You say that "if [a person] upholds the Tanach, he is also upholding Torah." That depends. If by "Torah" we mean the Pentateuch, you are right. If we mean Old Covenant law, then this is not correct. Jewish (and non-Jewish) saints who lived prior to Jesus were not justified by the law and demonstrate throughout the Tanach that while they lived under the law, their hope was in God's promise. As an illustration of this, note how Paul quotes from two different places (Lev 18:5 and Deut 30) in the Pentateuch in Romans 10:5-8. All that to say, I think Jesus is speaking of the Pentateuch in 17-18, though I acknowledge he does shift to focus specifically upon the rules contained therein in 19-20. 

Regarding Heb 8:13 you say, "What is growing old and is ready to vanish away? This present age, the conditions for blessing/curses of the Old Covenant, the ongoing struggle with sin, etc." But that is not what the writer says is becoming obsolete and growing old, ready to vanish away! He is speaking of covenants specifically throughout this section and says in the same verse, "In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete." Clearly it is the Old Covenant that is obsolete—and I think I can safely add that this is for both Jew and Gentile.

There is one more important point to respond to in your comment, but first let me say a few words about the book of Galatians. Some will say that Galatians was written to Gentiles and thus is irrelevant to the questions of whether Jewish believers are obligated to keep the law. But certainly this is non-sense. Yes, most of the church there was probably Gentile, but Paul does not talk about a special message to the Gentiles in his letter. He rather emphatically speaks of the one and only gospel message that is relevant both to him (as a Jew), the apostles and the Galatian believers. And when sanctification is made to come via the law for anyone, this is no small thing. It is a way of seeking perfection by the flesh (Gal 3:3) and connects one to a curse. Paul is so clear when he says that "we" (i.e. Jews primarily in mind!) were imprisoned by the law until the coming of faith in Jesus was revealed (Gal 3:23). Again, the law was a guardian until Christ came (Gal 3:24). "But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian" (Gal 3:25). And lest we think this speaks of Gentile believers (which would not make sense any way), Paul clarifies that there is neither Jew nor Gentile in this gospel message (Gal 3:28). 

I could quote much more from Galatians and many other places in Scripture, but I think this until language really hits up the point you are tripping over. You understand the two temporals in vs 18 to be reiterating each other. Grammatically this is certainly possible. However, so too is it possible that they do not reiterate one another. The fact that the second temporal does not immediately follow the first increases this possibility. I might say to my son, "You will never watch the movie until you finish your homework." What do I mean? Does the temporal "never" = the temporal "until you finish your homework"? Of course not. Why can this not be similar to how Jesus is speaking in Matt 5:18? It is how Paul inserts the "until" into this discussion—should we not assume that Paul and Jesus agree?!

In conclusion, of course you ought to cling to Jesus' words here and trust what he says! But that of course does not mean clinging to a particular reading of it if that reading does not fit with the Bible as a whole, nor the logic of verses 17 all the way through 20. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of serious righteousness, driving us to the one fulfilling it on our behalf. This is the message of Jesus' words here. This is the gospel message. This is what we must cling to.
Peter Kananen
Do you believe that the apostle Paul remained fully Torah-observant during his life? Even in the book of Acts, Paul and James had to clarify false teaching that he had forsaken Torah and taught Jewish believers not to follow the law and not to circumcise their children. If that was a misunderstanding then, 2000 years of often anti-Judaic church history have only compounded the possibility for confusion. How do you understand the narrative in Acts 21:17-24?

I'm sure you have a lot of context for varying expressions of Messianic Judaism based on living in Israel. As Willits and Rudolph document in their 'Introduction to Messianic Judaism', there are a variety of perspectives in the Messianic community regarding the role of Torah for believers in the New Covenant, and I think it's important to respect where others are on that spectrum. I'm thoroughly an Acts 15 Gentile, but I cannot support an abrogation of God's calling for Jewish believers based on Biblical evidence. I'm pretty familiar with various readings of Galatians and remain convinced that it poses no conflict for Torah observance when understood properly in its context. I don't think we should get into a debate about how to interpret it here, but I'll just suggest that Paul's life as example (see Acts 21) should temper very heavily any ideas that his teaching suggested Torah was able to be discarded, in part or whole, by Jewish believers. If Paul had suggested such, I do not understand how that would not fit under the warning Jesus provided: "whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same...". Would the disciples of Jesus dare to do such a thing against his clear warning?

I am not driven to debate this issue if it is no longer edifying. I appreciate your replies and perspective, and I have benefitted by your work on this passage. Thanks again and blessings.
Andy Hubert
Good questions.

(1) I am not sure if Paul remained Torah-observant throughout his life—we are not told. But, if he did, he makes clear why he would. "Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats." (Rom 14:20) The same goes for days esteemed as better than others. (Rom 14:5) Festivals (like Passover which I just celebrated recently), Sabbaths and food convictions are great—they are just all shadows and not the substance, says Paul. (Col 2:16-17) Given all this, Paul probably did not always observe the Torah, but happily adjusted his approach to shadows based upon his ministry focus at any given time. It seems to me that this is exactly what 1 Cor 9:19-23 says.

(2) I understand Acts 21:17-24 to be clarifying the fact that Paul is not telling any Jew they need to stop following Torah law. There are three possible positions on the issue: (a) Jewish believers must follow the law (b) Jewish believers must not follow the law (c) Jewish believers are free to follow the law if they like. I understand in this passage that Paul is clarifying that he does not believe (b) as people as presumed, but rather (c). Thus, the second half of vs24 I take to mean "Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also [are happy to] live in observance of the law." Now the "are happy to" part is obviously my interpretation. And I admit that this specific passage does not demand that understanding, though it does allow for it. The reason I interpret it this way is due to the many other places that Paul speaks on this subject, quoted throughout our discussion.

(3) Of course disciples of Jesus would not dare to contradict Jesus' clear warning. But it seems to me that what you understand that clear warning to be is not what they understood. Mark, for example, tells us very clearly what Jesus meant in his teaching regarding non-moral Torah law: "Thus [Jesus] declared all foods clean." (Mark 7:19)

Published Pages were created for serious discussion (and even debate) like this. I am happy for your engagement and do hope that this has edified you, I and readers as well.
Disclaimer: The opinions and conclusions expressed on this page are those of the author and may or may not accord with the positions of Biblearc or Bethlehem College & Seminary.