Do not think that I have come to
abolish the Law or the Prophets;
I have not come to abolish them
but to fulfill them.
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
In Matthew 5:17, Jesus offers an interpretative key that explains how to understand both his ministry on earth and his words in the Beatitudes. When Jesus said that he came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, he means that he came to fulfill all of Old Testament scripture. In Jewish thinking, the term “law” brings to mind the first five books in the Old Testament—the Books of the Law (or the Pentateuch): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The term “prophets” loosely refers to the remainder of the Old Testament. The implication is that Jesus’ own words have meaning in the context of scripture because they extend it.
The Books of the Law
The Hebrew word for poor in spirit (לְבַשֵּׂר עֲנָוִים; “lebaser anavim”) also translates as: poor, afflicted, humble, or meek (BDB, 7237). In the singular (“ana”) appears in the Books of the Law only in Numbers 12:3 which reads: “Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.” (Num 12:3). Only Moses is described as meek and Moses’ relationship with God is described as exceeding that of a typical Old Testament prophet (Num 12:6-8).
“Ana” invites two important observations. First, being poor in spirit draws us closer to God—Moses close. God spoke to Moses directly, face to face, not in riddles or dreams (Num 12:6–8) which is intimacy with God rarely seen scripture since Abraham, who was described as a friend of God (Jas 2:23).
Second, if Jesus spoke Hebrew in delivering the Sermon on the Mount, then the first three Beatitudes could have been expressed in the same word, “ana”, which would be an emphatic statement of humility. The blessing associated with poor in spirit was to receive the kingdom of heaven while the blessing for meek was to inherit the earth. Taken together, being poor in spirit (or meek) in God’s eye gets you both heaven and earth, reminding us of creation (Gen 1:1) and meaning: everything.
The Books of the Prophet
“Ana” also appears in Isaiah 61:1–3, cited earlier. While the Books of the Prophet make many references to the poor, Isaiah 61 is quoted almost verbatim in Jesus’ call sermon in Luke 4:18–19 and stands out for at least two other reasons. The first reason is that the word, anointed, marks this passage as a messianic prophecy. While priests, prophets, and kings were all anointed as messiahs in the Old Testament, God himself does the anointing here. The second reason is that the phrase, “broken-hearted” (Isa 61:1), is a better analogy to “poor in spirit” than “poor” and it provides another reason to prefer “poor in spirit” over simply “poor” in interpreting this Beatitude.
Jesus’ interpretative key is the verb, fulfill (πληρόω; “plero”), which generally translates as:
to bring to a designed end, fulfill a prophecy, an obligation, a promise, a law, a request, a purpose, a desire, a hope, a duty, a fate, a destiny (BDAG 5981, 4b).
In Matthew 5:17, fulfill is set in opposition to the verb, “destroy”, which is usually rendered as abolish. This verbal opposition is helpful because it underscores the dynamic element in fulfill—one abolishes something static simply by replacing it with a new item. Fulfilment clearly has an expectational element (or forward drift—τέλος in Greek). To fulfill the law is, not to replace it, but to extend it.
This idea of extending the law was new which is perhaps why Matthew offered more explanation and uses the word, fulfill, more than the other Gospel writers. In Jesus’ day, for example, Rabbi’s preached from the Law using the Prophets to interpret its meaning. This tradition might lead someone to say, perhaps, that the law had been “fulfilled” by correctly complying with it. However, the Gospel of Matthew sees prophecy fulfilled in the sense of living it out or taking the next step rather than the merely honoring the boundaries of existing law (Guelich 1982, 163).
In the Law and the Prophets, we find Jesus anchored in God’s creation and promises. In the word, fulfill, we find Jesus focused on the future giving Jesus’ mission both continuity and purpose.
BibleWorks. 2011. Norfolk, VA: BibleWorks, LLC. <BibleWorks v.9>. Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius (BDB). 1905. Hebrew-English Lexicon, unabridged. Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.
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