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Did Jesus Fulfill the Law?

HomeChristianity and the BibleDid Jesus Fulfill the Law?

A lot of GodWords readers consider themselves “Torah-observant.” They believe that Christians are to live by the same laws given to the ancient Israelites. A primary verse in their argument is Matthew 5:17, where Jesus says that He came not to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them. Are they right? Are Christians under the law?

To find out, we need to understand what Jesus meant in Matthew 5. When we understand what He meant, the appropriate response should be obvious. If Jesus meant that His followers were to follow the laws of the old covenant, we should do that. If Jesus meant something else, we really ought to figure out what He meant.

The Context

To understand any communication, whether it’s in the Bible or anywhere else, we first have to understand the context:

  1. Who said it? (the Author)
  2. To whom did they say it? (the Audience)
  3. Why did they say it? (the Occasion)

If we read a Bible verse out of context, we can easily misunderstand it. Worse, a verse taken out of context can also be used to teach things that the Bible explicitly argues against. Once we understand the context of a passage, we can better understand the content as well.

  1. In this passage, Jesus is speaking.
  2. Matthew wrote that Jesus said these words to “crowds” of people, with His disciples gathered close. Luke records the same event, writing that the crowds were from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and far places like Tyre and Sidon… and that they came to hear Him teach and to have Him heal them from illness and free them from demons.
  3. This verse is part of a larger group of teachings known as ‘the Sermon on the Mount.’ Starting with the Beatitudes, Jesus taught the crowds many things. In Matthew, Jesus teaches from the beginning of chapter 5 to the end of chapter 7.

The Text

Here are Jesus’ words found in Matthew 5:17-20:

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. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

As we read, we keep in mind that these words were said by a Jewish man around 2000 years ago, and not in English. They were said in a specific location, in a specific culture, at a specific time, to certain people. We seek to understand what Jesus meant when He said it. It’s a serious mistake to simply read the words in English and interpret the verse in 21st-century terms. We have to take the time and place and situation into account, or we risk missing the point entirely.

To understand, we need to know some things about what He said. For example, we need to know what was meant by “the law” and “the prophets.” If we assume that Jesus was talking about ANY law, and about ANY prophet, we can miss His point. When Jews of that era used the phrase “the Law and the Prophets,” they were speaking of the entire Hebrew Scriptures… the Old Testament. Sometimes, they would say “the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms.” We see both in Luke 24 (vv. 27 and 44). Speaking of the Scriptures in this way is to speak of all that God had done in the past.

Next, it would be helpful to know what Jesus meant by “abolish” and “fulfill.” Those English words are translations of the Greek katalyō and plēroō, respectively.

Katalyō

The definition of katalyō is what you’d expect from “abolish.” It means to dissolve, to disunite, destroy, demolish, subvert, overthrow, and – interestingly – to lodge, as in lodging during a journey. Here are a few of the ways katalyō is used in the New Testament:

Jesus said that He didn’t come to katalyō the Law and the Prophets… that He didn’t come to destroy, subvert, overthrow, or nullify what God had already done.

Plēroō

The definition of plēroō is to fill something up, to supply liberally, to complete something, or to “realize” something. That “realization” suggests completing a duty or fulfilling a promise… an unfulfilled promise has not yet been ‘made real.’ The imagery is of filling something to the top, so that nothing would be lacking. Here are a few of the ways plēroō is used in the New Testament:

Jesus said that He came to plēroō the Law and the Prophets… that He came to complete them, to finish filling them up.

Putting it Together

Using the definitions of both katalyō and plēroō we can see more clearly what Jesus meant. He did not come to destroy that God had already done, but to fill it to the top… to complete, to finish, to fulfill what God had already done.

The Interpretation

Disputes over passages of Scripture don’t usually arise from what the text says. After all, everyone has access to the same texts, so we can easily agree on the words. Disputes arise over what the text means. Many Christians and non-Christians alike are confused about the relationship between Christians and God’s commands in the Old Testament. It seems wise to make sure we’re interpreting each passage of Scripture in a way that matches what Jesus, or any author, intended to communicate.

Those who claim that Christians should be Torah-observant and those who disagree have two primary interpretations of Matthew 5:17. Let’s compare:

These ideas can’t be combined, of course. Christians either need to live by the commands in the Law or we don’t. How can we know which interpretation matches what Jesus taught? A principle of biblical interpretation is to let clear verses interpret unclear verses. Where we disagree about the interpretation of one verse, other verses can help us clarify its meaning.

The Greater Context

When we disagree on an interpretation, we need more information. We look for more information from other sources. For example:

With these things in mind, let’s look around and see what more we can learn about what Jesus must have meant.

Covenants

The Torah – the Law that God gave Moses – wasn’t simply a set of instructions. The Law was given under very specific circumstances. They were the terms of a covenant.

A covenant is a special kind of agreement. When two people wanted to make a binding commitment to each other, they took part in a process designed to formalize the arrangement. Marriage, as one example, is to be a covenant. It’s more than a friendship, more than a partnership. It’s a binding commitment, like an contract combined with an oath. The process of making a covenant included symbols of their commitment. The two would exchange or combine their names so others would understand they were closely connected. They might exchange wallets or clothing to symbolize their commitment to support each other. The covenant was a promise to take care of each other, to protect one another, to work together for common goals, and so on.

God made a number of covenants with different people. They were one-sided, coming from God’s side only… because we have nothing that He needs. Here are some of the recognized covenants from the Bible:

As we can see, these covenants were sometimes made with a single person, and sometimes with a group of people. Sometimes the promises in a covenant were made to only that person, sometimes to them and their descendants. Each covenant was separate… God’s covenant with Abraham included the promise that God would make Abraham’s name would be great, and that all people would be blessed through him. Those promises include other people, obviously, but the promises were only made to Abraham. The terms of each covenant were unique to the relationship between God and the people involved.

Look at the list of covenants. The last is the “new covenant.” A new covenant implies that there was an old covenant… and there was. In Jeremiah 31, God said that He would make a new covenant with the houses of Israel and Judah. In verse 32, He said that it would not be like the covenant He made after leading the Israelites out of Egypt… that is, the Mosaic covenant.

The Mosaic Covenant

Most of us are familiar with the events at Mount Sinai, where God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and gave Moses the 10 Commandments. He made a covenant with them. The terms of that covenant form the basis of the Torah. The word torah means “law.” It could mean any law, given by anyone. We usually capitalize Torah, and Law, to mean the law given to Moses during the formation of the old covenant.

Simply put, God’s part in the covenant would be taking care of the Israelites. In exchange, they would let Him lead them. These promises were conditional, as we see in Deuteronomy 11:

So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today – to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul – then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.

God then gave them a lot of commands. There are 613 in all. If they “carefully observed” all of those commands, God would bless them. If they disobeyed, He would curse them (vv 26-29). These commands are the Torah… the Law.

These promises weren’t given to everyone. The blessing and the curse weren’t for the Chaldeans, or the Chinese, or the Canadians. Covenants are made in the context of relationship, and the Mosaic Laws are the terms of God’s covenant with the nation of Israel.

The New Covenant

Hundreds of years later, God told Jeremiah that He would make a new covenant with Israel and Judah. Judah is mentioned because, at the time of this promise, the nation of Israel had split in two, with Israel residing in the north and Judah in the south. Both groups, divided by politics and religion, would be included in the new covenant.

This new covenant in Jeremiah 31 didn’t include everyone, though. It was only between God and the descendants of Jacob (Israel). We see this throughout the passage:

God said, in verses 31 and 32, that the new covenant would not be like the covenant He made with their ancestors, when He lead them out of Egypt.

Jesus spoke of the new covenant.

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

Many are familiar with Jesus’ words from Matthew 26 because we quote Him during communion. God’s words to Jeremiah foretold of a new covenant with Israel, and Jesus’ words to His disciples told of its fulfillment. The new covenant would begin with Jesus’ death, when His body was broken and His blood was spilled as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.

Paul refers to this event in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 and wrote that He got his information from Jesus Himself: “… I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me. In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.

The covenant that Jesus established was not a continuation, or an extension, of the old covenant. It was a new covenant, and – as God had promised through Jeremiah – not like the old covenant. We see the contrast between old and new most clearly in Hebrews.

Old Covenant vs New covenant in Hebrews 9

The workings of the tabernacle and temple, as outlined in the Torah, were “external regulations applying until the time of the new order” (v10). They were “copies of heavenly things” (v23). The high priest entered the first sanctuary, which was a copy of a heavenly sanctuaryJesus entered heaven itself (v24)
The high priest entered the Most Holy Place once each year (v7)Jesus entered once (v12)
The high priest brought the blood of animals to offer sacrifices for himself and for the people (v7)Jesus did not, but entered ‘by His own blood’ (v12)
The sacrifices of the old covenant did not clear their consciences (v9)Jesus’ sacrifice cleansed our consciences (v14)
The sacrifices of the old covenant made the people outwardly clean (v13)Jesus’ sacrifice obtained eternal redemption (v12)
The sacrifices of the old covenant made the people outwardly clean (v13)Sins committed under the first covenant were paid for under the new covenant (v15)
Moses proclaimed every command of the Law, then offered sacrifices. He said, “This is the blood of the covenant, which God has commanded you to keep” (Exodus 24:8). These sacrifices were necessary to purify the copies of heavenly things.The heavenly things were purified with a better sacrifice (v23)
The Law of Moses was “the first covenant” (vv 1, 2, 8, 15, 18)Christ is the mediator of a new covenant (v15)

The Law is a shadow, not the reality.

Writers of the New Testament describe the Law – that is, the commands of the Mosaic covenant – as a shadow. This imagery is simple: a shadow is cast by a thing, but the shadow itself is not that thing. These authors also, in calling the things of the Law shadows, note that the shadows were a kind of promise… if you could see the shadow, you could eventually see what cast the shadow.

The writer of Hebrews continued to contrast the old covenant with the new in chapter 10. We see the differences clearly, beginning in the very first verse: “The Law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves. He goes on to say that Jesus set aside sacrifices and offerings in favor of obedience (v9), and quotes the Jeremiah passage about the new covenant (vv16-17).

In Colossians 2:16-17 we see that Paul used the idea of shadows in the same way: “… do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

The Law was temporary.

In Galatians 3:23-25 we see that the Law was never intended to be permanent:

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

The old covenant is obsolete.

In Hebrews 8:13 we see the following: By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear. After writing this, the writer of Hebrews went on to write chapters 9 and 10, where we see the old covenant contrasted with the new as shown above. Both chapters explain the differences between the old and obsolete covenant with the new and permanent covenant. In addition, we see that Jesus’ death is what made this happen.

Jesus set the Law aside, replacing the old covenant.

The Law, with its regulations and commands, foretold the coming of Jesus and the new covenant. It was a shadow, not a reality. The Mosaic covenant was what made the nation of Israel different than the other nations, and this was a source of much conflict in the early church. Jewish Christians sometimes considered themselves better than Gentile converts because they had always considered themselves God’s only chosen people. In spite of the fact that Gentiles had been “grafted into” the new covenant (Romans 11), divisions between Jews and Gentiles had to be addressed multiple times:

This last item is spelled out explicitly in Ephesians 2:14-18.

For he himself [Jesus] is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

‘Setting aside the law with its commands and regulations.’ Through His death, Jesus instituted the new covenant. Through His death, Jesus set aside the Law. Through His death, Jesus destroyed the wall that divided Jew and Gentile… that is, the old covenant.

Conclusion

There are many other passages in the New Testament that tell us that Christians are not included in the old covenant, but these should be sufficient. In every case, Christianity is contrasted with Judaism. The old covenant is described as good but insufficient, contrasted with the better and perfect new covenant. Law is contrasted with grace. Sacrifices are contrasted with obedience. Outward cleanliness is contrasted with inward cleanliness. Words written on stone – the 10 Commandments – are contrasted with God’s commands written on our hearts. The old covenant brought death and condemnation, but the new covenant brings righteousness.

Objections

Are Christians lawless?

No, of course not. Christians are not bound by the Law of Moses, but we are not anti-nomians. The Greek word nomos means “law,” and many confuse its use in the New Testament with references to the Law of Moses. If we don’t live by the Law of Moses, what law do we have? The ancient Israelites had the Law of Moses, but Christians have the Law of Christ.

The term is found in Galatians 6 and 1 Corinthians 9. Christians follow Christ… that is, we live by what He taught. Many consider the Law of Christ to simply be what’s called ‘the Great Commandment,’ which is to love God with your whole being and to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus said that these two commands summarize the Law and the Prophets, so that seems like a good explanation… but He taught a lot of things, and it seems wise to consider everything He said to be a parallel to the Law of Moses. If the 613 commands in the Torah were the binding terms of God’s covenant with Israel, then all that Jesus taught are the binding terms of God’s new covenant with the world.

This is not a burden, but a blessing.


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Comments

3 responses to “Did Jesus Fulfill the Law?”

  1. Trey says:

    Amen. What a wonderful job you have done explaining this most valuable truth. Wonderful job good and faithful servant. Amen

  2. Gerald McDonald says:

    The ten commandments are not the law of Moses. Those were the ceremonial laws. Moses wrote them to paper.
    The ten commandments were written by God with His own finger. He gave them to Moses to give to the people. They were placed in the Ark of the Covenant, in the most Holy place.
    Which is where they are in the Heavenly Sanctuary in Heaven, which was from where the earthly sanctuary was copied from. The earthly temple was destroyed. But, Christ officiates in the Heavenly sanctuary even today.

    • Tony says:

      Gerald:

      First, thanks for your comment. I appreciate your input.

      Was there a difference between the laws that God wrote Himself and the laws that God dictated to Moses? Are the latter somehow less important? You seem to suggest that, but I want to make sure I haven’t misunderstood. The Ten Commandments can be found in Exodus 20. When we get to Exodus 21, we see these words:

      These are the laws you are to set before them:

      God then dictates three whole chapters of instructions. Were those instructions less important than the first ten?

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