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The Meaning of “To Fulfill”
In my previous post I addressed the meaning of “to abolish” in Matthew 5:17. Now I interpret the meaning of “to fulfill” in 5:17 with a view to understanding what Jesus meant when He said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (emphases mine throughout).
What Jesus meant by “to fulfill” has been the subject of much debate with several differing views offered. At first, I considered discussing the various views and then presenting my particular understanding all in one post. But that is far too much for one entry. So my purpose here is to positively present the view I think is accurate.
Pleroō in the New Testament
The Greek term for “to fulfill” in Matthew 5:17 is plērōsai, coming from the verb, pleroō. A form of pleroō occurs 90 times in the New Testament. There are several ways the word is used (list is not exhaustive):
- To fill up
- To fill to the full or top
- To complete or accomplish
- To carry through to the end
- To make complete or perfect
- To show a correspondence with heightening
- To realize or bring something to realization
Because the term is used 90 times, sometimes in differing contexts, the interpreter must determine which sense of pleroō is the precise meaning in any given example.
More narrowly, pleroō is found sixteen times in Matthew outside of 5:17. Within Matthew the term is used in four senses:
- the literal accomplishment of an Old Testament prophecy (Matt. 1:22; 2:23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:54, 56; 27:9, 35);
- a correspondence with heightening between an event in Israel’s history and an event in Jesus’ life to connect Israel with Jesus (Matt. 2:15, 17);
- the bringing to fruition of something or making something happen (Matt. 3:15);
- a filling to the top or making full (Matt. 13:48; 23:32).
The most dominant use in Matthew is the first option mentioned above concerning the accomplishment of Old Testament prophecy. But what does Jesus mean by plērōsai (“to fulfill”) in Matthew 5:17? That is the main issue before us.
We do know that plērōsai is an active infinitive verb, indicating that Jesus actively takes it upon himself to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (i.e. the Old Testament). He is not passive, but active in this process.
The Meaning of “Fulfill” in Matthew 5:17
With Part 2 I argued that “Law or the Prophets” in 5:17 and “Law” in 5:18 refer to the Old Testament in its entirety. Thus, I think “to fulfill” in 5:17 relates to the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures as a whole. Remembering this point is important since many assume that Jesus is only referring to Mosaic Law commands. But Jesus is referring to the entire Old Testament Scriptures with His “to fulfill” claim in 5:17.
Before getting into the details, I state my view upfront:
I believe “to fulfill” in Matthew 5:17 means “to complete,” “to come to pass,” or “to accomplish.” In this context, Jesus declared that everything stated, promised, and predicted in the Old Testament Scriptures must come to pass or be accomplished in all its details because He takes it upon himself to bring these to completion. I call this view the “Everything written in the Old Testament must happen because of Jesus” view. There is no matter too small that will not occur.
By stating “everything” in the Old Testament must happen, this seems to include the following:
- all messianic prophecies about Jesus in the Old Testament
- all prophecies and eschatological details in the Old Testament, including Day of the Lord and Kingdom predictions.
- all aspects of the covenants of promises (Abrahamic/Davidic/New) in the Old Testament. (This includes the promise that the New covenant would supersede the Mosaic covenant (Jer. 31:31-34))
Of the three categories mentioned above, the first—all messianic prophecies about Jesus—could be primary. Note the similarity between Matthew 5:17 and Luke 24:44 below:
Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.
Luke 24:44: “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Mein the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
These two verses above are the only cases where “Law,” “Prophets,” and “fulfill” are mentioned together, and with Luke 24:44 Jesus’ emphasis is on the fulfillment of messianic prophecies about himself.
With Luke 24:25-27 Jesus stated that messianic prophecies about His suffering and glory were predicted by “Moses” and “all the prophets”:
And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.
Again, when it comes to what Moses and the prophets predicted, Jesus emphasized the fulfillment of messianic prophecies. A similar statement is found in Luke 18:31:
Then He [Jesus] took the twelve aside and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things which are written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished.”
Here Jesus actively takes it upon himself to go to Jerusalem and accomplish what was predicted by the prophets.
Also, when it comes to Jesus and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies about His sufferings, note Acts 3:18 and Peter’s words:
But the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled.
I am not saying that only messianic prophecies are in view with “to fulfill” in Matthew 5:17. As mentioned earlier, there are other matters that must be fulfilled as well. But so much emphasis in the New Testament is given to the fulfilling of messianic prophecies, it is difficult not to see this category as being a major part of Jesus’ meaning in Matthew 5:17, especially when He mentions messianic prophecies about himself on several other occasions.
Matthew 5:18 as the Explanation of 5:17
Matthew 5:18 is a major reason why I believe “to fulfill” means the accomplishing of all things stated in the Old Testament. To know what “fulfill” means in 5:17 we need to grasp what verse 18 means, especially the word “accomplished.” The conjunction “for” (gar) early in verse 18 connects the word “fulfill” with what Jesus means by “fulfill”:
Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For [gar] truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
Why do I mention that verse 18 is the explanation of verse 17? In my opinion, discussions of “to fulfill” in Matthew 5:17 often miss this point. Sometimes when I read scholars comment on “to fulfill” in 5:17 they appeal to the various nuances of pleroō found in lexicons or dictionaries. Or they offer broad theological statements on what they think it means for Jesus to fulfill the Law. Now, I’m certainly not against looking at lexicons or engaging in broader discussions of Jesus and the Law. But the immediate context is the most important factor here. We can look at Jesus’ explanation in 5:18 to know what He meant in 5:17.
Jesus’ point in Matthew 5:18 is that every part of the Old Testament must come to pass as stated. This involves “the smallest letter or stroke.” In fact, the universe cannot pass away until everything stated in the Old Testament happens.
Note that there is a close connection between “fulfill” in 5:17 and “accomplished” in 5:18. So much so, that I think “accomplished” is the explanation of “fulfill.” As we discover what “accomplished” means in verse 18, we can understand what “fulfill” means in 5:17. As I will assert below, when “accomplished” is linked with prophets or prophecies by Jesus, the meaning involves the completion or coming to pass of prophetic and eschatological details.
“Accomplished” in Matthew 5:18 is the Greek verb, genetai, coming from ginomai. Forms of ginomai occur around 460 times in the New Testament, and 75 times in Matthew. In Matthew 1:22, ginomai andpleroō are used together concerning the messianic prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 concerning Jesus’ virgin birth:
Now all this took place [ginomai] to fulfill [pleroō] what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us” (Matt. 1:22-23).
When dealing with the details of prophecies or events, the wordginomai often has the idea of “come to pass” “happen” or “take place” concerning these details (Matt. 21:21; 24:6; 26:56). In the great prophetic message of the Olivet Discourse Jesus declared:
You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place [genesthai]. (Matt. 24:6)
Here Jesus says eschatological details must happen. When discussing detailed eschatological events in Luke 21:32 Jesus said:
Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all things take place [genetai].
Again, Jesus used ginomai to indicate fulfillment of all prophetic details in His discourse.
Significant for our purposes is this—when ginomai is used by Jesus in reference to prophets or prophecies, the literal accomplishment of prophetic details is often on His mind. And that is what we see in Matthew 5:17-18 where Jesus explicitly mentioned “the prophets” (5:17) and then referred to “accomplished” (5:18).
Again, I am not limiting “fulfill” or “accomplished” to just prophecies. But the idea of fulfillment of prophecies seems to fit well in Matthew 5:17-18. In the book, The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian (Zondervan, 1993), Wayne Strickland observed, “That fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament is in view is signaled by the phrase, ‘until everything is accomplished’ in verse 18” (258). I agree with Strickland.
At this point, I anticipate the objection that the Mosaic Law, not prophecy, is in view in Matthew 5:17-18. In the same book mentioned above, Greg Bahnsen mocked Strickland for claiming that Jesus included prophecies in 5:17-18:
But the alert reader must cry out: “Where is there any mention or discussion of Old Testament prophecies in this passage or its local context?” The fact is that there is not so much as a word about Old Testament prophecies to be found. Strickland fabricates that this is the subject under discussion and then imports it into the passage from the outside. Any reader can see that Christ is not discussing prophecy but ethics, at this particular point—indeed, extending up to the end of the sermon (emphases in original; 299-300).
Also disagreeing with Strickland, in the same book, Moo said the Golden Rule of Matthew 7:12 and Jesus’ statement that love of God and people is linked with the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 22:40) shows that that “Law” and “the Prophets” is focused on commands and not Old Testament prophecies (Moo, 314). Moo also claimed that Matthew 5:21-48 revealed that Jesus’ emphasis was on commands (314).
My response to these objections is twofold. First, as we have seen, when Jesus mentions “Law” and “Prophets” together, He often does so with messianic prophecies about himself in mind. That He also does so in Matthew 5:17-18 is likely. Note that Jesus mentioned “prophets” in 5:17, so the prophets are in the context, contrary to what Bahnsen claimed above. Perhaps the question could be asked back to critics: “If Jesus mentioned ‘Prophets’ in 5:17, why would we not believe prophecies were on His mind, especially when He does this on other occasions where the Law or Moses are mentioned too?” Second, we must remember that the books of Moses also contain major prophecies and prophetic details, some of which are messianic such as Genesis 49:8-12; Numbers 24:17-19; and Deuteronomy 18:15-18.
Also, this idea that pleroō is linked with the literal accomplishment of messianic prophecies fits well with the dominant use of the term in Matthew. As mentioned earlier, pleroō in Matthew often refers to the accomplishment of prophetic predictions concerning Jesus (see Matt. 1:22; 2:23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:54, 56; 27:9, 35). So for messianic prophecies to be part of the meaning of “to fulfill” in Matthew 5:17 makes sense.
In sum, my view of “to fulfill” in Matthew 5:17 is that “everything written in the Old Testament must happen because of Jesus.” While not exhausting the meaning of “fulfill,” this primarily involves messianic prophecies about Jesus. I think this understanding can be defended from the immediate context of Matthew 5:17-18, and it can be supported by other passages in which Jesus and others link messianic prophecies with the Law and Prophets.
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.