What did Jesus mean when He said that He came to fulfill the Law?
QUESTION: What did Jesus mean when He said, in Matthew 5:17, that He did not come to destroy the law or the prophets, but that He came to fulfill the Law?
I have encountered many people over the years who have quoted this passage in the Scriptures as if it ends all arguments with respect to their theology. I have yet to find anyone who will sincerely consider this question. Instead, I have found that people would prefer to leave this as an open ended esoteric conclusion. What He meant was very important though, and we should seriously consider the context and His intent in making this statement.
Jesus was speaking to the people during what we consider to be the Sermon on the Mount. The primary message that Jesus was communicating was very well described in Matthew 5:48 when He concluded with the statement, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” He was teaching the law, and teaching it to the fullest of what it demanded. The law demanded perfection, and Jesus was certainly encouraging people to pursue perfection. The Pharisees had been teaching that their additional laws were providing them with a fence around the Law of Moses. They sincerely believed that they could construct a hedge of protection around themselves by living according to a specific lifestyle, based on laws governing every aspect of their life. Jesus told the people that their righteousness had to exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees if they were going to have any hope of entering into the Kingdom of Heaven. He then went on to present additional laws they were to live by that were well beyond what the Scribes and Pharisees required.
Jesus taught the Law, because the New Covenant did not go into effect until after He died and rose from the dead. Jesus was not telling us that we should not live in obedience to the Law. He taught that if we did not live in total obedience to the law, to the extent that we obeyed well beyond those who devoted every aspect of their lives to obedience to the Law, we would not possibly enter the Kingdom of Heaven. He did take several opportunities to proclaim the New Covenant, but He did not really teach it like He taught the Old. When the New Covenant went into effect, the Old Covenant did not cease to be in effect. This is a very important point to understand. The New Covenant did not replace what we understand to be the Old Covenant, the Law of Moses. Some people believe that the New Covenant is a renewed Old Covenant. I sincerely believe that Jeremiah made it clear that the New Covenant was not going to be like the Old Covenant at all (Jer. 31:31-34). The New Covenant addressed issues that were never addressed in the Old Covenant. They were both presented for two completely different purposes. That is why I can say they are able to co-exist together simultaneously. The Old Covenant addressed the concerns of the flesh and the new Covenant addressed the concerns of the spirit. The concerns of the spirit were addressed in the New Covenant through the resurrection of the Messiah, and the presentation of salvation and eternal life to all who would receive the free gift.
The primary purpose of the Old Covenant was to lead us to Christ. This was very well described in Paul’s letter to the Galatians 3:24,25. The Law shows us our inability to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. When we are willing to acknowledge this fundamental truth, we will recognize that the only way we will possibly enter the Kingdom of Heaven is by the mercy and grace of our God. This is one of the ways it is still in effect to this day and has not been destroyed. The Law is still being used to show people their depravity and lead them to Christ. If a person is consumed with their own pride and self righteousness, we should teach them the Law and encourage them more and more to live in obedience to the Law. The hope is that one day they will come to terms with their inability to be obedient, and also recognize that the law does nothing to change their heart or transform who they are. There is nothing wrong with the Law as it was revealed through the Old Covenant. It reveals that there is something wrong with us. Paul described this very well when he wrote 1 Timothy 1:7,8 saying that some were desiring to be teachers of the law but they understood nothing. He said that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, that is for its intended purpose. Otherwise, they are misusing what our God gave us.
Teaching believers in the Lord Jesus who have been born again of the Spirit of God that they are to govern their lives by the Mosaic law, or any other law, is misusing the law for a purpose other than what it was given for. Our lives are to be governed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God who will lead us and guide us in all truth (John 14:17 and 16:13). He died for all of our sins and no longer holds our sins against us (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). If He no longer holds our sins against us, He will never punish us for our sins. If there is no punishment, there is no law (Romans 5:13). This is why our God now completely, fully and unconditionally loves and accepts us. If we are totally loved and accepted by our God, we are to live in response to that truth. We are now to engage our life and the world around us with what we have in our relationship with Him, not with what we hope to obtain in the world, fulfillment for our deepest desires for perfect love and acceptance. We are to live our lives with what we have, not live our lives with hope we will obtain what our God has already given by what we hope to obey but never will.
There are many people today who are trying to use the Law for purposes that the Law was never given for. There was no law given that suggested you would grow in your relationship with God through your obedience. There was no law given that hinted at the notion that you would know your God if you were obedient. These are assumptions that many people are making about the law that have no basis at all in the Scriptures. The most a person could hope for through their pursuit of the Law was what was promised by the Law. The promises were that a person would have plenty of flour in their kneading bowl (Deuteronomy 28:5). Mildew would not overtake them (Deuteronomy 28:22). They would lend and not borrow (Deuteronomy 28:12). All of the blessings promised through a person’s pursuit of the law were oriented towards the flesh. The condition that was given to obtain these blessings was to obey all of the commandments. This requirement is normally overlooked and people assume that it means their reasonable effort. To obtain the full benefit of the law, you must obey the entirety of the law (Deuteronomy 28:15), and the maximum benefit God promised was benefits for your flesh.
The Law expressed two demands. The first demand was total obedience and the second was death, in the event the first demand was not met. We have a sinful nature and will never live in total obedience to the Law as it was presented through Moses. Therefore, if we subject ourselves under the law, with hope that God will also endorse our subjecting ourselves under the law (for it was only given to the nation of Israel before the Messiah), there will only be one possible result. The only possible result is that we will fail to obey all of the commandments and will therefore be under the curses that were described right after the blessings in Deuteronomy 28. This was expressed well in Galatians 3:10, that if you are under the law, you are definitely under a curse, because you will never be obedient enough to be under the blessings.
Jesus fulfilled both demands of the Law. The first demand He fulfilled by living a life in total absolute obedience to the Law. He was God manifested in the flesh, who came to live as a man, and He lived perfectly because there was no sin within Him. In this context Jesus fulfilled the law, by living in obedience to its demands. The Lord Jesus also fulfilled the second demand of the Law by dying for our sins. The law demanded death for anyone who did not live in obedience to it, and He died on behalf of everyone who failed to obey the law. In this context the Lord Jesus also fulfilled the law. When Jesus said that He came to fulfill, uphold and establish the law, He did so by teaching it, living in accordance with its demands, and dying on behalf of all those who failed through their sin.
In addition to fulfilling the demands of the Law, there is a third way that Jesus fulfilled the law that should not be overlooked. The Law had several prophetic inferences embedded within it that revealed a foreshadowing of what the Lord Jesus would do. This was described in Colosians 2:16,17 when Paul spoke of the law as a shadow of things that have now been revealed in the reality of Christ Jesus. The Sabbath law for example was a law that required us to rest in our flesh, and the reality that has now been revealed is that we are to rest in our spirits, in our hearts from working to obtain or sustain our right standing with our God. This was described in Hebrews chapter 3 and 4. The Day of Atonement was a foreshadowing of what the Lord Jesus would accomplish for us once for all in the true Tabernacle in Heaven, described in Hebrews 9:8-12. The Law was given by God to Israel to establish the cultural and religious infrastructure for Jesus to accomplish salvation for humanity in the way that He did.
Another example of how Jesus fulfilled the law was through the foreshadowing of the law of Passover. For example, Jesus was identified as a Passover lamb in 1 Corinthians 5:7. The Passover lamb was selected on the 10th day of the first month and it was observed until the 14th day of the month to ensure the lamb was healthy and had no blemish. On the 14th day of the month the lamb was sacrificed. The Lord Jesus entered Jerusalem on the 10th day of the first month and the people identified Him as their Messiah. He was available to be questioned and observed until the 14th day of the month, which was when He was sacrificed for our sins. This is the reality that we now see and understand that was prophetically foreshadowed in the law of Passover.
When Jesus said that He did not come to destroy the Law and that it would not pass away until all things were fulfilled, He asserted that the Law was going to remain in effect for the purpose of showing people their need for salvation. Jesus said that He came to fulfill the Law, and He did so by living a life in total obedience to the Law, and by dying for us who did not live in total obedience to the Law. In addition to fulfilling the demands of the Law, Jesus fulfilled the prophetic foreshadowings and inferences that were presented in the Law. The Law is still in effect and should be used for its intended purpose. Using it for purposes other than its intended purpose is to distort the intent of the Law and deceive people from the truth of the New Covenant.