Messiah’s famous words about Torah declare, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Mat 5:17 NASB) This verse has been explained countless times in church sermons, academic lectures, and scholarly commentaries. What can I possibly add to this ancient conversation? There are many angles from which to approach this topic but I will focus on one, by asking a simple question: How, exactly, and in which way, did Jesus “fulfill” the Torah in Matthew’s gospel?
It is common for modern followers of Jesus to imagine that there is some sort of a celestial checklist that the Messiah had to complete. Many modern Jews think this way as well. Indeed, Matthew uses the Greek verb πληρόω (plerao), “fulfill,” in what looks like a “list” of messianic prophecies. According to Matthew 1-2, Yeshua was born was to fulfill Isaiah 7:14 – “a virgin shall conceive…” (Matt 1:22-23); the Bethlehem birth was to fulfill Micah 5:2: “and you, Bethlehem…” (Matt 2:5-6); Yeshua’s presence in Egypt was to fulfill Hos 11:1: “out of Egypt I called my son” (Matt 2:15); Herod slaughtered children to fulfill Jer. 31:15: “a voice was heard in Ramah…” (Matt 2:17-18); Jesus went to live in Nazareth to fulfill: “he will be called a Nazarene”(Matt 2:23). A common notion that this list of prophetic passages awaited future “fulfillments” to be checked off the list may be quite far from what Matthew actually meant to convey. All of his Scripture citations are recollections of past, rather than “predictions” of the future.
According to Matthew, Yeshua repeats, relives, and reenacts Israel’s experiences described in Scripture. Like Israel, Yeshua came out of Egypt, wandered the wilderness, and was tempted. He went through the waters of the Jordan River to enter a new stage of life. What happened to Israel happened to Yeshua. The Aramaic equivalent of Greek πληρόω (plerao) is קִיֵּם (qiyem), which means “to establish,” “to uphold,” or “to stand upright.” Likewise, קְיָים (qiyam) and קְיָימָא (qiyama) mean something firm — like a law, vow, or covenant. In Hebrew קִיֵּם (qiyem) is “to fulfil” or “to perform” (Ps 119:28) but also “raise up” and “build up” (Isa 44:26; 58:12; 61:4) and “validate” or “confirm” (Ruth 4:7; Est 9:29).
This is the way in which Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets: the Messiah’s life mirrored all these events in Israel’s long journey as a people. Everything Yeshua did, established, confirmed, and validated is how God led his people through the pages of history.