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 wordpleroō, translated “fulfill” in Matthew 5:17. There are several wayspleroō 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.
Michael J. Vlach, Ph.D. (Twitter: @mikevlach) is Professor of Theology at The Master’s Seminary where he has been teaching full time since 2006. Michael specializes in the areas of Systematic Theology, Historical Theology, Apologetics, and World Religions. Dr. Vlach was awarded the “Franz-Delitzsch Prize 2008” for his dissertation, “The Church as a Replacement of Israel: An Analysis of Supersessionism.” He blogs here.