Most Christians believe that Jesus Christ kept the laws of the Old Testament fully and that the law, therefore, was completed or accomplished—and done away. But is this really what the Bible teaches?
You can find plenty of theological explanations that point out that Jesus Himself said that He came to fulfill the law and the prophets and that many of His actions were done purposely in order to do so. Often cited examples from the book of Zechariah include Christ riding up to Jerusalem on a young donkey or overturning the trader’s tables at the temple.
Did Jesus purposely fulfill these examples to show that His purpose was to wrap up and nullify the whole law and the prophets? He certainly did fulfill prophecies. Had He not we could not believe anything in the Bible. It is crucial that He did so.
Experts Weigh In
One scholar claims that because Jesus was the Word of God, He is the sum of everything written. Therefore, all scripture is fundamentally about Jesus, and all scripture was “unlocked” by his death and resurrection, and therefore became “satisfied” when he came to do his work. Everything changed with the coming of Christ because he “accomplished” what the law required, when nobody else could.
Another author takes a different leap of conjecture: As the writers of the New Testament literature wrestled with the significance of Jesus…. They remembered and knew that everything He said He came to do He did in fact accomplish – before their very eyes. Because of Jesus, what He said and did, the future of God actually now lay behind them, fulfilled and completed. Henceforth the future would hold no surprises, bring no new revelation or new action. The future would merely unveil the new permanent reality. (Behind the Scenes of the New Testament. Barnett, Paul).
So, in essence, what is being said here is that everything stops at Jesus. Whatever was said and done in the past points solely to Him and His coming to earth as a human. And that is key, because once He died on the cross, all that “old stuff” can somehow be claimed to be removed, replaced, or atoned for.
According to this line of reasoning, the Apostles apparently struggled at first, not only because of the Old Testament law-keeping environment they had known all their lives, but because they had just been with Jesus for three and half years, keeping all of these laws. What a shock for them to suddenly realize that the teaching and example set by Jesus was now obsolete. This is truly what the majority of Christians accept.
Law with A Purpose
What is the purpose of the law to begin with? The previous theories don’t view the law as coming from the mind of God Himself or having anything to do with love toward God and man. Perhaps it was just a set of legal requirements meant to test and condemn people? It’s not seen as coming from the same God who is of the same mind past, present, and future, or who has an orderly and ultimate purpose for what He does and sets in motion.
The focus of modern Christianity is on Jesus the person while missing the point of what Christ was actually teaching and pointing to—the Kingdom of God, ruled by the Father. Now we certainly should not minimize what Jesus did, and we know that a future in the Kingdom of God would not be possible for humanity without His sacrifice to pay the penalty for sin. Yet while He came as a representative of that kingdom and showed humanity the nature of God in himself, He came primarily to point people to the Father, and to the purpose of the Father—and not to Himself.
The “laws” that we are speaking of here are the 10 Commandments as well as the precepts that are based on those laws—all of which were in place long before they were written on tablets of stone. However, it is also clearly stated in the New Testament that Jesus’ role as High Priest fulfills many of the “rituals” observed by the ancient Israelites, such as animal sacrifices. The attempt to put everything that was given to Moses in the same basket and call it all the “Old Covenant” is not a correct assessment and was never the intent. Jesus and the early church leaders often took issue with hundreds of additional “laws” added by the Jews, and it is a common mistake to misunderstand which law was being condemned.
Why would Jesus condemn these additional laws if all were to be nailed to the cross? What was “nailed to the cross” was the consequence of broken law—eternal death. That penalty was paid, and it is Christ’s resurrection that opened up the possibility of salvation to all. It was not the immutable laws that define who God is that were nailed to a stake and no amount of law keeping can save anyone. Salvation is a gift, free and undeserved.
With that background in place, let’s take a close look at this concept of the fulfillment of the law—what it does and does not mean.
Jesus Christ is quoted in Matthew 5:17-18 ESV: “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”.
That seems straight forward. Did heaven and earth disappear after Christ’s death? On the other hand, you can see that if the interpretation of that what’s “accomplished” solely refers to Christ himself as human, and not on what He was pointing to, then it’s not a far stretch to rationalize that the law was taken away at his death. It really does come down to Christ’s true overarching purpose, revealing the Father and His coming kingdom or government to all people from all ages. Scripture plainly states that this is what He taught—not just a gospel about himself, but about the coming literal Kingdom of God to a physical earth.
There are some key pieces to help us accurately understand this passage. One of those is found in Isaiah 42:21. In the preceding chapters and verses, Isaiah writes about a difficult time in the history of the nation of Israel. Due to their rampant idolatry and wickedness, which caused them to become useless to God as a model nation, God allowed Israel to be overrun and taken captive. Even though Isaiah knew about the horrors to come, he was also given understanding about the coming Messiah. He would be a faithful servant, in stark contrast to Israel and Judah’s unfaithfulness.
Isaiah 42:21 states “…He will exalt [“magnify” KJV] the law and make it honorable.” Understanding this verse is crucial to understanding Jesus Christ’s relationship to the law. What does it mean to “magnify” the law? The Hebrew word used in Isaiah 42.21, gadal, is used several times in the Old Testament. For example, in 2 Chronicles 1:1, we discover that God magnified, or enlarged the scope of Solomon’s kingdom. So, this word carries the meaning of “making greater in size and importance.”
What about the word “honorable”? The Hebrew word is adhar which means to “make something glorious or more majestic.” In Exodus 15:6, 11, it is used to describe God in the aftermath of the great miracles that He thrust upon Egypt so the Israelites could be released. Through these great events God’s glory became evident for all to see.
So then, Isaiah 42:21 is prophesying what the coming Messiah would do. He would magnify the law to bring to light things previously overlooked or unnoticed. He would reveal its glory and splendor more fully.
Filled to the Full, Not Destroyed
Going back to Matthew 5:17 ESV: “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.”
The Greek word kataluo used for “destroy” (“abolish” ESV) really does mean destroy or cast down. One commentary states the word as meaning “to deny their divine authority; to set men free from the obligation to obey them.” So, Christ did not come to cast down the law or set men free from keeping God’s law. As plain as that may seem, the issue is primarily with the word “fulfill” at the end of the verse.
The word translated “fulfill” in Matthew 5:17 comes from the Greek word pleroo, which can mean to complete, but can also mean “to make full, to fill up.” Thus, “fulfill” can mean to complete or accomplish, but it can also mean to “fill to the full” which is to enlarge or magnify.
Indeed, there are several scriptures using this same word but with these very different meanings. For example, in Matt 2:23 is the statement “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets.” The intent here is the fulfillment of prophecy, so the idea of completion is being conveyed in this instance.
However, in Matthew 15 we read about Jesus feeding a crowd of 4,000 men (not counting women and children). Verse 37 implies a different meaning, “So they all ate and were filled, and they took up seven large baskets full of the fragments that were left” (Matthew 15.37). Just as these baskets were filled to the brim with physical food, so Jesus filled the law to the brim with His teaching and explanation.
To cite Matthew 5:17 as proof that Jesus meant, “I did not come to destroy the law, but to end it by fulfilling it” is inconsistent with His words and makes no sense. However, the meaning “fill to the full” does make clear His intent.
Christ Magnifies by Word and Deed
Both in His life and in His teaching, Jesus fulfilled the law. That is, He did what is implied by the words “fill to the full.” He magnified God’s law by His perfect example and gave it its full meaning. He emphasized its deep underlying principles and the need for total commitment to it rather than mere external acknowledgment and obedience.
The intent of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:17 is more appropriately read as, “I did not come to do away with the Law or the Prophets, but I came to uphold them in everything that I say and do.” He did exactly that, showing the holy, spiritual purpose of God’s law, obeying it perfectly in thought and action, in both the letter and in the intent of heart.
In the ensuing verses of Matthew 5, Jesus began illustrating exactly what He meant by filling up the law. He quoted precepts from the law, including some from the 10 commandments. The audience was familiar with them all, but He revealed concepts they had never before considered. In each case, He filled the law to the full by bringing out its full meaning and implication. For example, hating someone is just as much a sin as murdering them, and lusting is as much a sin as adultery (Matthew 5:18-48).
Clearly, fulfillment of the law has a spiritual intent. One of the reasons that Jesus Christ came was so that the spiritual intent or righteous requirement of God’s law could be fulfilled in us. Christ lived a life of perfect obedience to the Father. As a human being, He set us a perfect example as He fully used the power of God’s Holy Spirit—the same Spirit available to you and me—to completely overcome the pulls of human nature.
The righteous requirement of the law will be fulfilled in us if we walk according to the Spirit rather than the flesh. Romans 5:5 tells us this same Holy Spirit is able to pour out the love of God in our hearts. This love doesn’t somehow replace God’s law, it’s what enables us to fulfill God’s law. “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law (Romans 13:8–10 ESV).
Law of Love
This is not saying the law is replaced by love, but that the law is love, which is its fully realized intent. We are the ones needing to keep it in that intent, not just Jesus Christ. God of course loves each of us, and we are to respond by loving Him and loving others. This love will be demonstrated by our obedience to His commandments, which is how we reverence God and treat other humans.
“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments” (1 John 5:3).
“And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:21).
When Jesus fulfilled the law, He filled up the commandments and precepts that God had previously given, by showing their full scope and intent both through His teaching and His example. We are to mature and develop spiritually, growing toward Christ’s fullness “…until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).
Recapping our ultimate purpose, we read further down in Matthew 5:48, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The ultimate goal of this from-the-heart type of obedience to the law is that we might become just like our Father in heaven. Developing the same kind of mind that is summed up in the law itself. Jesus Christ in no way did away with God’s law, “watered it down,” or kept it so we wouldn’t have to. Rather, He filled up the law by revealing its full magnitude and the underlying purpose for giving it to us. Not only that, but just as He demonstrated the full intent of God’s law by the life He lived on earth, so also will He live that same kind of life in each of us today through the power of the Holy Spirit.