Fulfillment in the Gospel of Matthew: Theonomy and Matthew 5:17–20

Summer 2000

Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.

It is no secret that Matthew 5:17 has become the locus classicus of that stripe of Reformed thinking known generally as 'theonomy.' (Theonomy is a minority view defended in the Reformed camp. Its basic thesis is that unless stated otherwise in the New Testament, the various laws of Moses remain binding in the new covenant era. Most distinctively, theonomists posit continuity for the civil penalties prescribed by Moses, such as death for kidnapping, homosexuality, adultery, etc.) This is particularly the case with reference to Greg Bahnsen, probably the ablest defender of the view. His magnum opus, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, was fairly squarely centred around this text.

What is remarkable is that opponents of theonomy have often failed to deal with this passage. Most notably, the faculty of Westminster Seminary assembled a host of scholars in Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, yet failed to handle this central passage. In other cases, the passage has been discussed, but inadequately.

The present writer has come through the path of Bahnsen and company. Indeed, I essentially adopted a theonomic position prior to studying its proponents, and this shift was very much on the basis of the passage in question. Reading Bahnsen sharpened my theonomic viewpoint, but I did not first of all owe it to him.

It was several years later that I began to question Bahnsen's central thesis regarding Matthew 5:17, namely, that the Greek word pleroo, usually translated fulfill, is best understood as confirm, establish. As will be shown presently, this is an inadequate evaluation of what is at stake in Matthew 5:17, both linguistically and at a broader hermeneutical level.

Nonetheless, the definitive break with theonomy came with an intensive study of the Pauline epistles, Galatians in particular. I eventually was led to the conclusion that the epistles did not line up with my previous reading of Matthew 5:17-20, and I was thus forced to revisit it. When I did so, I was surprised at both how vulnerable my earlier position had been, as well as the relative simplicity of the proper solution.

The aim of this particular paper is to determine the meaning of 'fulfill' (pleroo). To that end, I will consider the other appearances outside of 5:17. Then I will revisit the basic claim that pleroo can legitimately be translated 'confirm.' (At some point, I hope to treat an actual exposition of 5:17-20 in a second paper.)

Fulfill in Matthew's Gospel

The Gospel of Matthew employs pleroo often - no less than sixteen times. Moreover, this usage is not merely casual, thus accounting for its frequency. Rather, pleroo in connection with the person and work of Christ are key components in the message of the book. (It should be noted that the concept is even more frequent than the word.)

What do the other appearances of pleroo communicate, then? In Matthew, the word is found in 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 3:15; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35, 48; 21:4; 23:32; 26:54, 56; 27:9, as well as in our present text. Of these, only two occasions do not have direct reference to Christ and His work (13:48 and 23:32). The first of these simply refers to the filling of a fish net (in the parable of the dragnet); the latter is in Christ's 'invitation' to the scribes and Pharisees to fill up the measure of their fathers' guilt - their fathers, who had killed the prophets. Even this appearance stands in strong continuity to the other 14, as I will argue presently.

Setting aside consideration of 5:17, of the remaining appearances of pleroo, only 3:15 is not directly connected, in a verbal manner, to the fulfillment of 'prophecy' (we will discuss momentarily the nature of such prophecy and how it is fulfilled). Matthew 3:15 is undoubtedly also prophetic, but the verbal connection is not explicit: when John hesitates to baptize Jesus, the latter responds, "Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."

By far the preponderance of the appearances of pleroo are 'eschatological.' By this I mean, not that they have reference to the Second Coming, but that from the Old Testament perspective they represent a future work of God tied to a particular age (i.e. the new covenant). The fulfillment has to do with how the (old covenant) prophetic word is taken up in the person and work of Christ. This is why I affirm that 3:15 is also prophetic: it was not 'righteousness-in-general' that required Jesus to be baptized, but a righteousness required by this particular eschatological moment.

To get an overall picture of this eschatological fulfillment program, let's run very quickly through the appearances of this word. This will not, admittedly, be a thoroughgoing exegetical exercise, but simply an attempt to provide an overall flavour and shape to how the idea of fulfillment is functioning in Matthew.

Matthew 1:22-23

"So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, 'Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel.'" Obviously, the context here is the virgin-conception of Christ. Matthew appeals to Isaiah 7:14 to show that Christ's coming has fulfilled prophecy. Regrettably, the arguments concerning Isaiah are too multiplex for us to consider in detail here. Many (probably most) commentators think that the original referent of 'virgin' in Isaiah 7:14 was not to Mary, but to a contemporary of Isaiah himself, perhaps a concubine of King Ahaz, or Isaiah's own wife. I disagree, but as will be seen, such a differing immediate referent would fit very well into my own understanding of fulfillment in Matthew. For our purposes, however, let us simply note that the birth of Christ fulfills Isaiah 7:14.

Matthew 2:14-15

"When [Joseph] arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, 'Out of Egypt I called My Son.'" It is with this fulfillment in particular that we catch a glimpse of Matthew's vision with regard to the profound nature of Christ's fulfillment of prophecy. Those familiar with Scripture will recognize this as a quotation from Hosea 11:1. Matthew has often been accused by critics of appropriating Scripture with no regard for its original context, not least with reference to this particular verse. The reason is that God in Hosea is not apparently engaging in predictive prophecy, but rather looking back to the deliverance of Israel from Egypt: "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son." The context immediately following reminisces about how God cared for Israel, despite her repeated unfaithfulness to Him.

Such being the case, how can it be said that Jesus' temporary stay in Egypt sets up a fulfillment of prophecy? Here we must go beyond the critics. They consider Matthew as arbitrary because their thinking is too small. We should not think that Matthew did not realize (or that he simply ignored) the fact that Hosea 11 was speaking of Israel. Rather the opposite, he realized that full well, and that is why this event fit. The fulfillment that Jesus accomplishes is much larger than simply acting out a few predictive prophecies.

Rather, Christ fulfills the history and calling of Israel. He takes up the old covenant revelation into Himself, and real-izes it in a new and profound way. When Israel came up out of Egypt and entered covenant with God at Sinai, the result was abject failure on her part. That is why she suffered decimation and exile. Even at the time of Christ's birth, the effects of exile were still being felt. (Note well: although Matthew's genealogy of Jesus makes the departure into exile a significant marker in its structure, 1:11-12, the return from exile is not mentioned at all.) Although there had indeed been a 'return' from Babylon under e.g. Ezra, the fact remained that most Israelites still did not live in Canaan. Moreover, those that did still lived under the conditions of curse: they were ruled over by the Romans, from a distance, and near at hand they were ruled over by the Herods, who bore no resemblance to the Davidic norm.

Matthew's employment of Hosea 11, in other words, presupposes that there needs to be a 'new Israel,' and that Christ is it. He relives Israel's history, but He is the One who will not fail the covenant.

Matthew 2:16-18

"Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceeding angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: 'A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more." This is a quotation from Jeremiah 31:15, which in its original context apparently refers to the great destruction laid upon the covenant people by the Babylonians. The passage in Jeremiah itself picks up from the language of Genesis 30:1: Rachel wept in envy to Jacob her husband, because she had no children, while Jacob had fathered a number of children through her sister Leah.

Why does Matthew pick up on this reference? It should be noted that the Jeremiah context is an announcement that Judah will be restored, that the exile will not be forever. There will be a glorious redemption of Jacob, when God will gather scattered Israel and make them rejoice rather than grieve (Jer. 31:10-14). Therefore, Rachel's weeping voice should be restrained and her tears dried, in view of the hope before her (31:16-17). Ephraim has been chastised, but God's heart still yearns for him, and He will have mercy on him (31:18-20).

This usage of Jeremiah 31:15, then, confirms what was suggested earlier: Judah still languishes under exilic (read: accursed) conditions.

Matthew 2:23

"And [Joseph] came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, 'He shall be called a Nazarene.'" The original reference here is not entirely clear. Commentators usually suppose that Matthew is playing on Nazaritic birth prophecies, such as 13:5, although this is not obvious. (Jesus certainly was not a Nazarite; He drank wine, which was forbidden to Nazarites: see Num. 6:3. He also touched lepers and dead bodies for the purpose of healing and resurrection; cf. Num. 6:6-7. His cousin John the Baptist, on the other hand, may well have been a Nazarite, cf. Lk. 1:15; 7:33.)

In fulfillment citations, a direct quote from the Old Testament is not necessary. It may be that this is a general reference to the contempt in which Christ would be held: people from Nazareth were not held in high esteem (see e.g. Jn. 1:46). "He was despised, and we did not esteem Him" (Isaiah 53:3). Jesus is not only born into the shameful conditions of curse and exile, He is raised in a despised part of Canaan, severed from Judea (cf. Is. 9:1-2, to which Matthew appeals in 4:14-16, discussed immediately below).

Matthew 4:13-16

And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: "The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned."

Here we are reminded that Galilee was in some way seen as 'the region and shadow of death.' It was overrun with Gentiles (Jews were probably outnumbered there), and geographically, despised Samaria intervened between Judea and Galilee. Out of Galilee, it was thought, comes no prophet (Jn. 7:52). That Jesus is perceived as being a Galilean is one of the occasioning factors in having the Jews stumble over Him as being the Christ (Jn. 7:40-42).

But Jesus' role here is not simply negative (that men stumble over Him) but positive: He is light to those in the region of darkness. Even the darkest recesses of Israel are enlightened by His glory: this points to His Messiahship. He is not a partial deliver who can merely save the strong, but rather focuses upon the weak, even as He had done in delivering Israel from slavery in Egypt.

Matthew 8:16-17

"When evening had come, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed. And He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: 'He Himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses.'" Interestingly, this quotation from Isaiah 53:4 in its original context is not speaking of physical sickness (indeed, this is the case with all of the references to healing in Isaiah). Yet again Matthew sees fulfillment in Jesus' ministry of physical healing. Why?

In this case, the move is quite understandable in terms of Old Testament revelation. The curses of Deuteronomy 28, such as barrenness, starvation and exile, also included the plagues of Egypt and other diseases (Dt. 28:58-61). Such curses reflect God's anger against Israel for not walking in "all the words of this law" (Dt. 28:58). From the beginning, it is presupposed that Israel will fall under these curses (Dt. 30:1). It is only later, when Israel returns to God, that He will show her compassion, bring her back from her exilic misery and circumcise the hearts of His people (Dt. 30:2-6). This call for return is reflected in the work of John the Baptist, the 'Elijah to come' (cf. Mal. 3:4-6). He cries in the wilderness for Israel to prepare the way for Yahweh who is coming (Matt. 3:1-3; cf. Is. 40:3). Thus it becomes clear that now, with the coming of Christ (who, incidentally, is thereby portrayed in the role of Yahweh, with His divinity therefore implied), is the time for this divine compassion and removal of the curse to take effect.

It should not be supposed that all sickness was construed as 'Deuteronomic curse' (that would be the error of Job's comforters). Nonetheless, such sickness did typify clearly the estrangement from God under which first century Israel suffered. (Consider that even though the temple had been rebuilt under Zerubbabel and Nehemiah, the Shekinah glory had never returned to dwell in it, as had been the case in the old temple. Moreover, ever since the ascendance of the Hasmoneans [Maccabees], the high priests had not been Zadokites, as was necessary by divine prescription.) The forgiveness of sins was not merely individual, but corporate - and eschatological. Israel could not see herself forgiven until the Lord acted. This is why, in context of speaking of the new covenant, God promises that then He "will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more" (Jer. 31:34).

Thus, Christ's healing ministry is not merely a show to impress doubters, nor even a generalized pity for sick people. It is a demonstration of the new covenant, in which forgiveness and restoration are found.

Matthew 12:15b-21

And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them all. Yet He warned them not to make Him known, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: "Behold! My Servant whom I have chosen, My Beloved in whom My soul is well pleased! I will put My Spirit upon Him, and He will declare justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel nor cry out, nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets. A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench, till He sends forth justice to victory; and in His name Gentiles will trust."

Here the quotation is from Isaiah 42:1-4. This One will be a covenant to the people who will open blind eyes (Is. 40:6-7).

Here Jesus shows Himself to be the Servant of the Lord, who dominates Isaiah 40-55. Interestingly, in the original context this figure apparently alternates between the individual and the corporate: sometimes the Servant appears to refer to Israel as a whole (e.g. Is. 44:1-5), while at others it is clearly an individual, presumably the Messiah (e.g. in 49:5-6, the Servant restores the tribes of Jacob, and so is not literally himself to be viewed as the whole people; for more on this dynamic between nation and individual, see my paper on Galatians 3:16 and 'identity interchange').

The characteristics made note of in Matthew 12 point to the somewhat anomalous nature of Jesus' ministry: it seems both grandiose and yet unassuming. On the one hand, He presents Himself as the One who follows Elijah the prophet (John), and on the other, He does not broadcast Himself. His work is one of servanthood and humility. This contrasts to contemporary Israel, which was deeply rooted in revolutionary spirit (see the quite thorough study in Wright 1992:145-338). Again the implicit story shows itself: Jesus alone is equipped to be this Servant; He must fulfill the calling of His people.

Matthew 13:34-35

All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: "I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things kept secret from the foundation of the world."

Here Matthew is picking up on Psalm 78:2. Again the original context is not visibly 'prophetic' in a predictive sense. The psalmist is declaring that he will stand in the line of the covenant tradition, passing on to the next generation the record of the mighty deeds of the Lord, "His strength and His wonderful works that He has done" (Ps. 78:4).

The context in Psalm 78 is highly sober: it recalls how again and again God delivered His people, and then they turned away from Him in rebellion and unbelief. Again and again He judged them, cursed them, abhorred them, but always showed Himself to be Redeemer whenever they turned to Him. The Psalm climaxes with the choosing of the tribe of Judah, and more particularly, David, who would shepherd Israel "according to the integrity of his heart" and "the skillfulness of his hands" (Ps. 78:72).

The context in Matthew 13 is also highly sober. Jesus speaks in parables for a twofold purpose: so His own disciples will understand (because to know the mysteries of the kingdom has been given to them), and so that the general multitude will continue in blindness. This is a judgment: "For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him." Israel in general fulfills (anapleroo) the word of Isaiah: "Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive; for the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them" (Mt. 13:14-15, from Is. 6:9-10).

Like the psalmist, Jesus is conveying the mighty works of God. But His parables are not about the exodus from Egypt or other ancient works. They are about Himself. Thus there is a new sense to the idea of "things kept secret from the foundation of the world." He fills up the meaning of Psalm 78:2 in an unprecedented way. His wisdom is that of His own law (cf. Ps. 78:1), rather than mere repetition of what has been heard and known, that the fathers have told (Ps. 78:3).

Matthew 21:1-5

Now when they drew near Jerusalem, and came to Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Loose them and bring them to Me. And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, 'The Lord has need of them,' and immediately he will send them." All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: "Tell the daughter of Zion, 'Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly, and sitting on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.'"

This quotation is taken from Zechariah 9:9. Interestingly, the verse following is highly suggestive of the style of Jesus' own ministry: "I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the horse from Jerusalem; the battle bow shall be cut off. He shall speak peace to the nations; His dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth" (Zech. 9:10, which itself picks up on Ps. 72:8).

Unlike many of Matthew's other references, this passage is a fairly 'direct' prophecy, and quite recognizably messianic. It confirms the lowliness of Christ; His rule will be unusual. Rather than building up arms, He will cut them off. Under His reign, God's people will lay down their weapons, and His voice will convey peace across the world.

Matthew 26:47-56

And while He was still speaking, behold, Judas, one of the twelve, with a great multitude with swords and clubs, came from the chief priests and elders of the people. Now His betrayer had given them a sign, saying, "Whomever I kiss, He is the One; seize Him." Immediately he went up to Jesus and said, "Greetings, Rabbi!" and kissed Him. But Jesus said to him, "Friend, why have you come?" Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and took Him. And suddenly, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword, struck the servant of the high priest, and cut off his ear. But Jesus said to him, "Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels? How then could the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must happen thus?" In that hour Jesus said to the multitudes, "Have you come out, as against a robber, with swords and clubs to take Me? I sat daily with you, teaching in the temple, and you did not seize Me. But all this was done that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled." Then all the disciples forsook Him and fled.

In this case, it is difficult to ascertain whether Jesus had a specific Scripture in mind, so we can only speculate whether the fulfillment He refers to is direct or not. Perhaps He was thinking of Isaiah 53, but there was certainly a great number of passages He could have had in view (e.g. Ps. 22).

Matthew 27:3-10

Then Judas, His betrayer, seeing that He had been condemned, was remorseful and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, "I have sinned by betraying innocent blood." And they said, "What is that to us? You see to it!" Then he threw down the pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself. But the chief priests took the silver pieces and said, "It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, because they are the price of blood." And they consulted together and bought with them the potter's field, to bury strangers in. Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, "And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the value of Him who was priced, whom they of the children of Israel priced, and gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord directed me."

This is the final appearance of pleroo in Matthew. As was quite common during the first century, Matthew actually draws on more than one passage here, while only specifically making reference to Jeremiah (see 32:6-9).

The Jeremiah 32 passage refers to the Lord's instruction to Jeremiah to buy a field in Anathoth, despite the prophetic assurance that the Lord was about to carry Judah away to Babylon. This was intended to declare God's intention to bring the nation back from captivity.

However we may understand Matthew to be employing the Old Testament in this passage, one thing is clear. The fulfillment formula here is not based upon a transparently 'predictive' prophecy.

General Analysis

In his Gospel, Matthew does quote other Old Testament passages, clearly with the intention of ascribing their fulfillment to Christ (see e.g. Matt. 26:31). But even in limiting our discussion to his explicit uses of pleroo, we can readily see the breadth of the concept.

The general meaning of pleroo is to fill, and thereby can have related meanings such as to complete. It can also refer to the making good on a promise (it will be noted that this still carries the notion of completion). This latter idea is how we generally take the fulfillment passages in the New Testament. But the trouble is, as we have seen, many of the fulfillment passages in Matthew are not based on Old Testament 'promises' as such. How then does Christ 'fill' the passages which Matthew has cited with reference to Him?

I suggest that Christ's fulfillment of the Old Testament goes beyond fulfilling specific and explicit predictive promises. It also goes beyond the limits many interpreters place upon typology. Many biblical scholars claim typology must be based upon something that was already symbolic in its original form. A typical statement can be found in Sidney Greidanus 1999:257: "determine the symbolic meaning of the person, institution, or event in Old Testament times. If it has no symbolic meaning in Old Testament times, it cannot be a type." Greidanus appeals to the well-respected Geerhardus Vos for support. For an example of this ready-made symbolism, the sacrifices are typological of Christ's atoning work, because they were first symbolic of expiation, etc. According to the common view, this is the only valid route for typology.

But careful attention to Matthew's program shows that not only does Christ do more than take up propositional predictions, He transcends recognized symbolic types as defined by such criteria. Think in particular of Matthew's use of Hosea 11:1: even if interpreters do see symbolic Old Testament significance in the removal of Israel from Egypt, how many of them would associate this with the event Matthew does? The principles of Greidanus and others would not allow them to, not least since they claim that typology should not be sought in details but general principles (idem.). Yet in Matthew 2:15; 27:9-10 and elsewhere it is precisely in the details that Matthew finds the analogy.

Not that Matthew ignores the broader strokes either. In the fulfillment program of Matthew, the detailed strokes serve the big picture. The proper conclusion that we must draw from the idea of fulfillment in Matthew is that Christ takes up, not only explicit promises, but also a whole range of Old Testament data, and in His person and work glorifies it, fills it with a fuller meaning than could have been given to it by anyone else. He 'embodies' Israel, becomes a summary of the prophets and re-enacts previous sacred history.

Given the climactic nature of fulfill in these passages, I also view 23:32 along these same lines. There, after indicting them as being true children of their fathers, who had killed the prophets, Jesus challenges the Jewish leaders, "Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers' guilt!" Because this is the climactic moment of Israel's history, the killing of Christ will be the fulfilling and climactic death of all. For He is much more than a prophet. He is the Messiah, and indeed the very Son of God. The martyrdoms of the prophets stand in continuity to what He will presently undergo, and yet His own death transforms the nature of such encounters. They died as witness-bearers, but His will truly be an effectual sacrificial death. Because of who He is, the actions of others in relation to Him take on a whole new colour and significance.

The Proper Translation of pleroo

We have looked briefly at the other appearances of pleroo in Matthew's Gospel. Methodologically, it could be argued that this is a mistake. It is unwarranted to read a host of meanings elsewhere (even in the same writer), and pour that whole content into a particular appearance.

Bahnsen is especially forceful on this point, since, in his view, Matthew 5 is an ethical/moral context, while the passages we have cited are generally prophetic.

A few things need to be observed in response, however. First is the very nature of the word in question. While in general it is true that one must be careful of not importing too much semantic content into a given appearance of a word, the character of pleroo in connection with the wording of Matthew 5:17 suggests we rather ought to avoid minimization. Pleroo is a rich word. It is already clear from our brief look at the other appearances in Matthew that pleroo has a certain allusive quality in many contexts. Granted, it can simply mean, in the barest sense, fill, as in 13:48 (the filling of the dragnet). But in our verse we are confronted with Jesus' eschatological activity: the purpose and/or result of His coming. When the remainder of the book expounds the richness of that purpose, precisely in terms of fulfillment, it does not seem exegetically responsible to offer up a minimalist reading in 5:17.

Second, and in connection with the preceding point, despite Bahnsen's contextual appeal, we must not overlook the fact that in 5:17 Jesus says He has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. It is true that Bahnsen points to 7:12 and 22:40 to demonstrate that 'the Law and the Prophets' can refer to the Old Testament in its ethical function, and not intend to address what we more typically would identify as 'prophetic' (i.e. predictive) issues. I can counter-appeal to 11:13 ("all the prophets and the law prophesied until John"), which appears in a context of the superiority of the new covenant ('the kingdom of heaven') to the old (see esp. 11:11). But my response is actually more ambitious: I simply respond that the ethical issues do bring up the whole work of Christ, because it was precisely the ethical issues that exposed the bankruptcy of Israel. Moreover, it must not be ignored that 5:17 appears early on in the very first discourse of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Given the prominence of the fulfillment-theme in this Gospel, it is highly unlikely that the appearance here is not programmatic, i.e. that it does not summarize the fulfillment program which Matthew expounds throughout the book.

I could make further comments regarding the context of the Sermon on the Mount, but that would take us too far afield, especially since I hope to provide an exposition of 5:17-20 in another paper. At this point, I simply wish to deny that pleroo ought ever be translated as confirm. If I can show this, the whole theonomic appeal to Matthew 5:17 will be thoroughly crippled (the extent of this crippling will be shown in the article on 5:17-20).

It is true that Bahnsen is not alone in attributing a meaning such as confirm to pleroo in Matthew 5:17. In truth, he adduces a rather impressive array of witnesses, including John Murray, Calvin, Hendriksen, Ridderbos, Ladd, and others (see 1991:318-320). It should be noted, however, that in many of these cases, the interpreter is not claiming that pleroo itself has a semantic content of confirm, but merely claiming that confirmation is an exegetical implication of pleroo.

True, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology does assert that pleroo can mean 'confirming the words of someone else,' and occasionally other reference works provide confirm as a possible rendering in a handful of cases. Nonetheless, a great many (and probably most) standard works do not offer a meaning of confirm for pleroo. Bahnsen cites the reputable Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich, but that work does not present confirm as a genuine possibility, although it does reference Dalman's work, which makes the claim. Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament specifically denies a meaning of confirm for pleroo.

It must be observed that even reference works are not infallible. Lexicographers do not create word meanings; they must determine such meanings the same way everyone else does: by doing exegesis and seeing how a word is functioning in its particular context. Moreover, a standard rule is that if a known meaning fits a given context, you cannot appeal to another possible one. It is precisely here where pleroo has not been handled properly by Bahnsen and company.

The only passage Bahnsen cites which gives some appearance of complete amenability to confirm is 1 Kings 1:14. However, as it turns out, this appearance too is better understood as a case of the more usual complete (despite the fact that the NKJV and other versions render the word confirm). It should be noted that the Hebrew word underlying the pleroo in the Greek text (LXX) is ml', which like pleroo means fill, complete. The passage concerns Adonijah's self-proclamation of his kingship. The prophet Nathan has warned Solomon's mother, Bathsheba, of this turn of events, and has instructed her to go speak to King David. In verse 14, Nathan continues, "Then, while you are still talking there with the king, I also will come in after you and _____ your words." This is precisely what Nathan did: while Bathsheba was still talking, he came in to see the king as well (1:22). Note very clearly: Nathan's entrance and speech do not follow a complete appeal by Bathsheba. The whole plan is for him to complete her words. Therefore, at 1:14 pleroo ought to be translated complete, not confirm. No new meaning is necessary.

The other passages to which Bahnsen appeals in Theonomy in Christian Ethics (1984:67-70) as instances of a meaning of confirm for pleroo are even less compelling. The weakness of his case may be missed by the casual reader, since Bahnsen in this context is primarily arguing that pleroo does not mean obey but confirm. Since pleroo means obey only occasionally (i.e. by way of fill/complete), confirm may indeed sound more plausible in some contexts. But as soon as the proper semantic range of fill/complete/fulfill is in view, the supposed need for a meaning of confirm thoroughly disappears.

For example, Bahnsen appeals to 4 Maccabees 12:14: certain Jews "confirmed their righteousness before God" by their martyrdom, he claims. Clearly, they did not obey their righteousness before God, he writes (68). But this is a false dilemma: neither translation is correct. Suffering and martyrdom are commonly seen as providing a completion of righteousness in Hebrew thought (cf. Col. 1:24).

Nor does Bahnsen's appeal to the New Testament fare any better. For example, he takes James 2:23 as an instance of confirm. This verse is discussing Abraham's offering up of Isaac. "And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.'" As Bahnsen notes, James is referring to Genesis 15:6. Abraham's activity, Bahnsen writes, "does not fulfill a prophecy, for the statement in Genesis 15:6 is an assertion, not a prediction. What James tells us, therefore, is that Abraham confirmed his imputed righteousness by obedience to God" (69).

Here again Bahnsen has made his case sound better by being selective with what meaning of pleroo he is going to enter dialogue with. The truth is, the idea of a completing of righteousness is common (as we have just noted), and in this case the context makes this explicit: the immediately preceding verse explains that faith was working together with Abraham's works, and by works faith was made perfect (teleioo). Since to complete is one of the principal meanings of to make perfect, the idea of completion in verse 23 is readily accessible. Now, it is true enough that Abraham's righteous deed at Mount Moriah confirmed his prior justification, and one could draw such an implication from this passage. But that meaning cannot be attributed to pleroo. An unusual or new meaning should not be introduced where a received one works just fine.

In connection with this, Bahnsen has another line of defense. He claims that even when pleroo does not mean confirm, it often carries that connotation (e.g. 1984:69; 1991:321). For example, when prophecies were fulfilled, this confirmed the messenger and the prophecy itself. However, this is neither denotation nor even true connotation. It is rather a mere exegetical implication. It falls far short of Bahnsen's point. For implications require exegetical defense; they are not really linguistic arguments at all. The fact that in some places pleroo implies a confirmation of something does not mean that confirmation is applied in any other given text. (For a more thorough study on whether pleroo ever means confirm, see Poythress, 1991:363-377. Bahnsen's response to this in 1991:317-325 conveys a failure fully to understand Poythress' argument.)


It must be readily conceded that 'fulfillment' presupposes a great deal of continuity. Bahnsen's whole case, of course, is aimed at proving continuity. However, the kind of continuity he must demonstrate in order to prove theonomy is not of the same nature as that assumed by pleroo. Fulfillment does not mean absolute continuity, which may be the idea we could get from a notion of confirm or establish, Bahnsen's two most favoured terms. The continuity of fulfillment is different in kind, made evident (e.g.) in Jesus' fulfillment of the Passover by offering up His own body. Just as the oak stands in continuity with the acorn, so too the ministry of Christ stands in continuity with the Law and the Prophets. It is true that the new covenant is not less demanding than the old (an aspect of what Bahnsen is after), but that does not mean that any part of it is precisely the same. That which was empty, sketchy, has become filled up, filled out, and thereby glorified.


Bahnsen, Greg L. No Other Standard: Theonomy and its Critics. Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991.

__________. Theonomy in Christian Ethics. Expanded ed. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1984.

Barker, William S. and W. Robert Godfrey, eds. Theonomy: A Reformed Critique. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990.

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Poythress, Vern. The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses. Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991.

Strickland, Wayne G., ed. The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian: Five Views. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993.

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Vos, Geerhardus. Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991 (1948).

Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 2. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.

__________. The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992

— Tim Gallant

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