Matthew 5:17-20 is a central text for our consideration in this article, with the emphasis on the believer’s relationship to the Torah in the light of Yeshua’s view of Torah. It is a text over which much debate has arisen, and is a kind of touchstone for one’s views of the Torah in general. By way of overview, the issues of these words of Yeshua revolve around the meaning of several key terms, primarily the terms “abolish”, “fulfill”, “accomplished”, “annuls”, “least / great” and “surpass”.
The New American Standard Bible translates the text as: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Torah 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 away from the Torah, until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, 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. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
“Do not think I came to abolish… ”
The word translated “abolish” by most of the English versions is the Greek kataluo. It is found three times in Matthew in addition to our text. These are Matthew 24:2; 26:61; 27:40, all of which interestingly enough refer to the Temple. For example: “Truly I say to you, not one stone here shall be left upon another, which will not be torn down” (Matthew 24:2).
It seems clear that for Matthew the term ‘kataluo’ means ‘to tear down,’ ‘demolish,’ ‘do away with’ as the term was used in the 1st century C.E. in connection with the demolition of buildings as well as the nullifying or replacing of laws and constitutions. This Yeshua explicitly says is not the mission of His incarnation as regards the Torah. Most modern scholars believe that such a strong statement of Yeshua on the issue of the Torah is proof that to one extent or another His teachings were being misinterpreted by His opponents, and He therefore takes strong measures to make Himself clear. The subsequent debates amongst believers as to the role of the Torah (as in the Jerusalem counsel of Acts 15) show clearly that the issues of how the Torah was to be lived out among the disciples of Yeshua were not universally settled.
“I came to fulfill… ”
“Fulfill” in this context answers to the Aramaic or Hebrew qum which means ‘to stand,’ ‘establish,’ or ‘confirm.’ With this understanding the words of Yeshua are interpreted to mean that He did not come to abolish the Torah but to confirm it and establish it. Another meaning of “fulfill” is ‘to fill up’ in the sense that Yeshua brings to the Torah and the Prophets their completion by providing its full, intended meaning. To put it simply, this view considers that Yeshua replaces the host of commandments with the two commandments to love G-d and one’s neighbor. While certain aspects of this sense ring true with other teachings of the Apostles, such a meaning here is dubious on account of the “jot and tittle” phrase in verse 18 which focuses attention on the written Torah as a unified whole which, according to Yeshua, must abide. It is highly unlikely that He is teaching that the “jot and tittle” abides in His “deeper” teaching that does away with the Torah.
Not against Torah at all
A further meaning of “fulfill” in this context means ‘to fill up,’ in the sense that Yeshua fulfills the Torah and the Prophets in that they point to Him, and He is their fulfillment. This explanation is, in one respect or another, accepted by all believers in Yeshua, who believe that He is the goal to which the Torah and the Prophets always pointed.  On the one hand, if Yeshua is answering the accusations that He was teaching the abolishment of the Torah, this explanation could seem to confirm His accusers’ case. However, the text
taken as a whole certainly stresses His insistence that any one accusing Him of being against the Torah was simply wrong.
Finally, “fulfill” in this context means ‘to deepen’ or ‘extend’ in the sense that Yeshua takes the Torah and carries it a step further. For example, adultery is taken from a merely physical act to one of the heart, as is murder. This deepening or extending is generally considered as moving the Torah from being external to the deeper reality of the internal. The internalization of the Torah as promised in the New Covenant  gives this explanation a certain level of acceptability. One difficulty with this explanation, however, is that there is every indication in the Tanach that the faithful of Israel did indeed internalize the Torah, and that it was written on their hearts. The contrast between the Tanach and the ministry of Yeshua (made popular by certain segments of the Christian church) as being one of external verses internal is artificial and biblically unsubstantiated. 
The four suggestions given above for the meaning “fulfill” in Matthew 5:17 each contribute something, but no single one adequately satisfies the context of this passage. It remains to explore further definitions of the word within the context of Yeshua’s statement about the Torah and the Prophets.
“Fulfill” in Matthew
The verb “fulfill” is used 16 times in Matthew. Of the 13 times where the word is used in the passive voice, 12 are used in expressing the ‘fulfillment’ of prophecy, and one relates to a boat being filled with fish (13:48). Prophecy is viewed as being fulfilled (passive) by the active hand of G-d in the events of history.
In contrast the word is used three times in the active voice. In 5:17 the active voice stresses the activity of Yeshua in keeping or observing the commandments. If Yeshua had intended His words to be understood as parallel to the fulfillment formulae prevalent in His day, and especially employed by Matthew, then we would expect a passive voice here as well, something like: “ I did not come to abolish, but that the Torah and Prophets might be fulfilled.”
Perhaps the best clue to the meaning of “fulfill” in this saying of Messiah is the parallelism that goes on in verse 19. In the first clause the verbs “annuls” (loose, destroy) and “teaches” (instructs) are paralleled in the second clause by the verbs “does” and “teaches”.
- Whoever then annuls one of the least of the commandments
and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.
- but whoever does (them)
and teaches (others to do them), he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
What seems apparent in this parallel structure is the simple definition (in terms of opposites) of ‘annul’ as ‘not doing’. Conversely, to ‘do’ the commandments (and thus to teach others to do them too) would be the opposite of ‘annulling’ them and would thus be to ‘fulfill’ them. It would seem probable from this analogy that what Yeshua is indicating in His words of verse 17 is simply that He did not come to destroy the commandments but rather to do them. Thus, Yeshua was asking His disciples to understand that one of
His purposes in coming as the Messiah was to expound the Torah and the Prophets both by His words and (especially) by His deeds. He came to explain how one could actually do the Torah, and what the purpose of doing the Torah was.
“Until all is accomplished… ”
The normal English translations give a passive sense to this phrase, which is misleading. The Greek is active, and perhaps ‘until everything happens’ is the more literal sense. The emphasis, then, from this phrase is that G-d is working His immutable plan, a plan centered in redemption (the central issue of the Tanach) and that nothing will stand in the way of each aspect coming to happen in the course of time. But more specific to this context is the emphasis that the Torah has, at least for Yeshua, a continuing part to play in the plan of G-d, and that therefore it is wrong to attempt to “abolish” the Torah in an effort to further the redemptive work of G-d.
“Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments” The Greek word translated ‘least’ is elaxistos, which is the superlative form of micros, meaning ‘least, smallest; very little, insignificant’. The meaning of the word itself is obvious, whether used of the smallest tribe of Israel (Matthew 2:6, quoting Micah 5:1) or of Paul, as the least of the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:9).
In our present text, does the word indicate that in Yeshua’s view some commandments rank higher than others? It would appear so. Note the words of Yeshua at Matthew 23:23, where the tithing of one’s own herbs while neglecting justice, mercy and faithfulness, is described as “neglecting the weightier provisions of the Torah.” Certainly, the Rabbis themselves agreed that there was a hierarchical structure in the Torah, the preservation of life being at the highest, or, to use Yeshua’s terms, being the ‘heaviest’ of all the commandments. The Rabbis were clear, however, that even the least commandment was important and not to be neglected. It seems probable that Yeshua here employs hyperbole in order to reinforce His main point–that He does not support any notion of the abolishment of the Torah. The entirety of the Torah is maintained by Yeshua, so that at no point is He willing to admit even the abolishment of one commandment, not even one of the least.
“And so teaches others… ”
The primary emphasis is directed to the teachers of the communities–those who would influence the community in regard to the mitzvoth (commandments). Apparently Yeshua was being accused by His opponents of teaching the abrogation of the Torah, or at least of some of the commandments. He not only exposes such a rumor, but announces His own position regarding any who would teach such a thing. “…shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven… shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
The penalty for any disregard of the Torah and the Prophets is for one to be called “least in the kingdom of heaven.” ‘Kingdom of heaven’ as a set term is found only in Matthew and must certainly be understood as equal to ‘Kingdom of G-d’. Apparently, one who annuls the commandments and teaches others to follow in his path is punished only by having an inferior rank in the kingdom. Yet in the very next statement of Yeshua, exclusion from the kingdom is promised to any who do not themselves exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees! To put it plainly, to disregard the Torah and the Prophets, and to teach others likewise to disregard them, is to assure one’s exclusion from the kingdom of G-d. For, apart from a keeping the commandments, and a teaching others to keep them, it would be impossible to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.
This explanation is difficult in the face of Yeshua’s regularly using “least in the kingdom” to denote an attitude of servanthood and humility. For instance, 18:1ff compares this attitude of humility to becoming like a child. Further, Matthew 23:11–12 makes it clear that the greatest (Greek / meizon) among the disciples would be the one who was a servant. Thus, the greatest is the one who considers himself the least.
It is, however, one thing to consider oneself the least, that is, to have a genuinely humble view of oneself. But it is an entirely different matter to have G-d declare a person to be the least. This distinction is all important. And in our present text, it is G-d making the judgment–to neglect the commands is to run the risk of being declared least in the kingdom. It is a later theological perspective that emphasizes that the “least in the kingdom” is still in the kingdom! This cannot be the point. The least position in the kingdom is a place no genuine son who loved his Father would want to fill. “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees…”
Change of heart
The central issue of Yeshua’s conclusion, what constitutes a true ‘keeping’ or ‘doing’ of the Torah, focuses upon the scribes and Pharisees. Since the Pharisaic sect was taken up with maintaining the written Torah as well as the Oral Torah, it was only natural that they would be linked with the scribes. But what they both had in common for certain was their scrupulous maintenance to the letter of the Torah in the outward performance of it. What many lacked was the true, spiritual sense of the heart of the Torah, that is, justice,
mercy, and faithfulness. As such, their righteousness was primarily that of performance and not from the heart.
While Yeshua emphasized the utter necessity of heart obedience if one intended to keep the commandments, He did not in any way negate the requirement of outward performance. That is to say, one surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees not by neglecting the outward performance of the mitzvot, but by performing them as the fruit of a heart given over to the true worship of G-d. Another way of saying it is this: if the commandments are received as purely obligation, it would be naturally impossible to keep them. But if they are received rather as divine blessing and privilege, then the keeping of them is pure delight. Only the heart filled with faith in G-d is able to so receive the commandments as blessing, and it is this kind of ‘keeping’ which Yeshua teaches His disciples.
It is interesting that Yeshua puts this Torah-oriented righteousness on equal footing with the humble heart of faith (18:3), for without this He likewise states that one will not enter the kingdom of heaven. In similar fashion, what is impossible for man (in the sense of entering into the kingdom of heaven) is possible with G-d (19:23,24). The same phraseology is used by Yeshua as recorded by John (3:5), that apart from being born of “water and the Spirit,” one cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven. Certainly the traditional Christian church has put far more emphasis upon John 3:5 than upon Matthew 5:20! The focus, however, must be the heart change that comes as a result of faith. Only as our love for G-d enables us to understand the commandments as a blessing from Him, will we be enabled to keep them as G-d intended.
1. Romans 10:4; Luke 24:27
2. Jeremiah 31:33; II Corinthians 3
3. The very fact that David is referred to as “a man after G-d’s own heart” shows clearly that obedience was viewed as an inner, heart issue. The prophets teach this explicitly (Micah 6:8; Isaiah 1:17-18) as do the
psalmists (Psalms 51:16, 17; 119:9-11) as well as the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4; 10:6). In G-d’s eyes
obedience begins with the heart.
FFOZ (First Fruits of Zion) ©