Destroying an Idiom

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.

Matthew 5:17 (KJV)

Destroy/Fulfill – How many times have we heard that because Yeshua fulfilled the law, we don’t have to? Somehow we’ve come to believe that since Yeshua fulfilled the law, it has no purpose for us, or rather that it’s been destroyed. But this is all because we lack the basic cultural understanding of this idiom.

You see, in the Hebrew language, “destroying the law” or “fulfilling the law” are idioms. An idiom is a combination of words that have a figurative meaning familiar within a specific culture. For instance, in English we have a phrase “you’re pulling my leg” which means that someone is joking around with you.  In Russian, this same idiom is literally translated “you’re turning my tail”.  Both mean the same thing, but are expressed as different idioms relating to their own culture. And neither means exactly what it says. So with this in mind, we might realize that we’re destroying an idiom in our interpretations of Matthew 5:17.

“Destroying the law” and “fulfilling the law” were common idioms in the Hebrew culture. They were often used when Rabbis would debate interpretations of the text. One Rabbi might accuse another of destroying the law if he believed the other was misinterpreting it. But if he thought the other Rabbi was giving an accurate interpretation of the law, then he would say that he was fulfilling the law. These idioms are frequently used in Rabbinic literature with these meanings in mind.

So what does this do for us? Well it helps us understand the text culturally and within its proper context. We live in a far removed culture that has a completely different world view, so we end up translating much of the text based on our own interpretations. Translators of the text are always on the look out for these instances and because of this, we end up with two different options. 1. We might receive something like the King James Version Bible which attempts to translate most of the text word for word – a more literal translation called formal equivalence. Here we get the exact idiom, but the meaning is lost. 2. We have the dynamic equivalence which attempts to catch the meaning of the text, but loses the exact words. A translation that does this is the New International Version (NIV). As you can see both have their strengths and weaknesses.

Let’s now look at Matthew 5:17 in light of this new understanding.  It should now read something like this:

Think not that I am come to [misinterpret] the law, or the prophets: I am not come to [misinterpret], but to [interpret correctly].

And what does Yeshua begin to do directly after this statement? He starts going through different laws and teaching their intended meanings.  One by one, He starts off with “You heard that it’s been said…” and then He directs us to what the true intent was of each of those laws.  Right then and there, Yeshua was fulfilling the law for all of us.  Matthew 5:27 isn’t about Him actually completing or doing each law as a fulfillment, but rather bringing us back to each law’s intent. How far have we come from each law’s intent today? Many of us have abandoned them completely, we’re about as far from them as you can get.

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