Jesus Came to Fulfill the Law – What Does that Mean?

by | Nov 9, 2021 | Hermeneutics, Law, New Testament

Recently I had the privilege of teaching at a Pastors’ Conference the organizers of which asked that we should focus our preaching on the Sermon on the Mount. I chose to expound what I take to be the pivotal passage and crux of that great sermon, Matthew 5:17-20. It seemed to me, and it still seems to me, that the meaning of this passage is central to the interpretation of the entirety of Matthew 5-7. It also seems to me that there is such confusion about the meaning and significance of those key chapters of Scripture that I wanted to make my views of them the subject of several blogs.

Matthew 5:17-20 reads as follows:

17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

In this first post my goal is to give a …

General Introduction to the Passage

Three things are crucial to such an introduction.

 

The Doctrinal Significance of the Passage

Confessional Reformed Baptists have in the last 40 years been fighting a two-front doctrinal war over the law of God. Ground zero in this war has been the passage above. Let me explain what I mean.  The Confession at chapter 19 and paragraph 5 speaks of the perpetuity of the moral law.

The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof, and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it; neither doth Christ in the gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.

Prominent among the prooftexts cited in the 1689 for this statement is Matthew 5:17-19.

New Covenant theology has responded with an interpretation which denies the perpetuity of the moral law and the relevance of this passage to such perpetuity. Often cited by them is an exegesis of this passage offered by Don Carson his book entitled, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

On the other hand, Theonomy or Christian Reconstructionism has responded by adopting an interpretation which propounds “the abiding validity of the law of Moses in exhaustive detail.” Greg Bahnsen adopts Matthew 5:17 and his interpretation of “fulfill” in that verse as the central foundation for his volume entitled, Theonomy in Christian Ethics.

Both New Covenant Theology and Theonomy commit the same doctrinal error. Both deny the threefold division of the law. They draw, however, opposite conclusions from that error. They see the Old Testament law as a seamless garment. It must be discarded completely as New Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism in fact do. Or they see it as something that must be put on as a whole as Theonomy does.

In contrast to such interpretations, Reformed theology generally and Confessional Reformed Baptists specifically have interpreted Matthew 5:17 against the backdrop of the threefold division of the law into moral, judicial, and ceremonial divisions. In light of this distinction and these divisions they have seen the passage as a prooftext for the perpetuity of the moral law and the authority of that law as recorded in the Old Testament for the Christian. This approach is embodied in the great messages preached on this passage by one of the progenitors of the contemporary Reformed movement, Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Cf. his Studies on the Sermon on the Mount.

These are the issues that must be squarely faced in any approach to Matthew 5:17-19. When we arrive at Matthew 5:20, a second, though related, set of doctrinal issues must be addressed. Though different, these issues are just as consequential.

 

The Specific Theme of the Passage

In order to discern the theme of the passage, three questions must be addressed.

What does the Lord mean by “the law or the prophets” in verse 17?

This phrase refers to the Old Testament Scriptures. References to Moses and the prophets or the law and the prophets in the New Testament are simply comprehensive ways of referring to the Old Testament canon. {Moses and the prophets is used in Luke 16:29, 31, and 24:44. Cf. also similar phrases in Luke 24:27, 44, John 1:45, Acts 26:22, and Acts 28:23.} The Old Testament is referred to as the law and the prophets ten times in rest of the New Testament. Our Lord is speaking of the Old Testament, then, in the words, the law or the prophets.

Sometimes also the whole Old Testament can be referred to as simply the law. This is what happens in verse 18 in our passage. The law there is simply a shorthand equivalent for the law and the prophets or the whole Old Testament. This is clearly the way “law” is used, for instance, in John 10:34. There Jesus says: “Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I SAID, YOU ARE GODS ‘?” But Jesus is not citing the Pentateuch here when he refers to the law. He is citing the Psalms and specifically Psalm 82:6. Similarly in Matthew 5:18 law is a brief of referring to the Old Testament. Let me bend this nail over further from the comments of William Hendriksen in his commentary on Matthew:

Similar to this is “your law,” which, in John 10:34, though it covers as much territory as do the preceding designations, refers directly to Ps. 82:6. In 1 Cor. 14:21 “the law” refers to Isa. 28:11f. And in Rom. 3:19 the reference is to an entire series of quotations from the Psalms and prophets. These facts prove that the term “law” is used at times where we would say “The Old Testament.”

 

The next question regarding verse 17 and the theme of this passage is this:

What does the Lord, then, mean by abolishing the law or the prophets?

He means to say that He has not come to destroy their authority. The word used here is used three other times in Matthew and each time with reference to destroying the Temple. The usage found in Matthew 24:2 is typical. There Jesus, speaking of the Temple, says: “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down.” Cf. also Matthew 26:61 and 27:40. That is, He has not come to contradict, undermine, and cause the authority of the Old Testament to be broken or nullified. To borrow the language of John 10:35 where Jesus asserts “the Scripture cannot be broken,” we may say that here Jesus asserts that He has not come to break the authority of Scripture.

This is, by the way, the reason for the peculiar phraseology of verse 17, “the law or the prophets.” This is the only place where this exact phrase, the law or the prophets, is used in the New Testament. Jesus uses the “or” here to emphasize that He has not come to undermine and nullify either the law or the prophets.

 

But a third and crucial question must now be considered …

What does the Lord mean when he says that He came to fulfill the law?

I have three things to say about this.

First, he does not mean that He came to confirm or establish the law. This is the meaning Greg Bahnsen attributes to “fulfill” in Theonomy in Christian Ethics. Jeff Smith of Coconut Creek, Florida recently delivered lectures on Matthew 5:17-20. His outline of the possible meanings of “fulfill” in Matthew 5:17 is both correct and helpful. Rejecting Bahnsen and Theonomy’s understanding of the word to mean “confirm or establish,” he says:

“Some have argued that the word should be understood here to mean confirm or establish. Christ is doing nothing more here than establishing the law as valid. The word “fulfill” is interpreted as meaning “to confirm,” “to confirm the law” in the sense of establishing its abiding validity. This is apparently the way some Christian Reconstructionists or Theonomists like to interpret the word.   Jesus here is simply saying that he came to confirm the abiding validity of the Mosaic law. There are several problems with that interpretation. For one thing, there’s no lexical evidence for that meaning ever being attached to the word and the word is never used that way anywhere else in the book of Matthew, though Matthew uses this word often. Furthermore, and more importantly, to interpret the word “fulfill” to mean nothing more than to confirm or to establish as valid misses the dimension of movement that’s in this word.” 

  • Second, he does not merely mean that Christ came to obey the law. Sometimes we put an equal sign between the word fulfill in verse 17 and the word obey in our minds. That is, we think that Jesus fulfilling the law equates to Jesus obeying the law. I certainly do not want to deny that His obeying the moral law of God is involved in His fulfillment of the law. “Fulfill” may in some places come close to the idea of obeying. I do not think, however, that this is the precise idea conveyed by the word fulfill. Nor does it adequately bring out the full significance of this word. I say that because of my third assertion about the word fulfill. 
  • Third, Jesus does mean that He came to bring to its predetermined goal or destination the Scriptures. Why do I say that? Why am I confident that this is its meaning? 

First, this word is used massively and predominantly in Matthew to speak of the fulfillment of the prophecies of Scripture by the life of Christ. In Matthew this word, fulfill, is almost always used of the fulfillment of prophecy. It speaks of the fulfillment of the Old Testament as a prophetic Word. You can see this characteristic use in the very first of its occurrences in Matthew. Matthew 1:22, speaking of the birth of Jesus, says: “Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet …”  Besides our text, the verb meaning to fulfill occurs 15 times in Matthew. 12 of those other 15 times it has the meaning of fulfilling the prophecies of Scripture. Since it is the law and the prophets or Scripture which is being fulfilled in Matthew 5:17, this is clearly its primary meaning in our text. When Jesus speaks of fulfilling the law and the prophets, he is speaking of bringing to fulfillment both the prophecies of Scripture and Scripture as a whole by His coming and His ministry. By so doing—far from destroying scriptural authority—He manifests the perfect veracity and divine authority of the Old Testament.

Second, this meaning of bring to fulfillment or to the goal accords with the idea of movement toward a destination which is actually suggested by Matthew 5:17-18. In my quotation from Jeff Smith you heard him say that the idea of movement is in the word, fulfill. Before reading his notes, that is exactly the word that had occurred to me to describe the view of Scripture presented here. That is what I think the passage suggests with regard to the connotation of this word.

This idea of movement toward a goal is in verse 17’s reference to the Old Testament as “the law or the prophets.” The Old Testament is in no small measure prophecy and prediction. It, thus, moves toward a goal to be fulfilled in history. It is, in the language of 2 Peter 1:19 “a word of prophecy.”

This idea of movement toward a goal is even more clear in verse 18: “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” The word accomplished here is not the same as the “fulfill” of verse 18. It is actually the verb which means to become. There is a “becoming” embedded in the Old Testament Scriptures. There is a destined goal to be accomplished which characterizes the Old Testament. Listen to Jeff Smith again.

“… to fill up or complete with reference to purpose or goal. Matthew 20:21, “So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet.” What the prophet predicted was brought to its intended purpose, in other words it came to pass. It was fulfilled in that sense. We can say that Jesus came to bring the O.T., including the O.T. moral law, to its intended goal or purpose or to cause it to be done as God intended. Which of these is the way the word is used here in our text? All of them have an element of truth in them.  But I believe this last usage fits best here. i.e. to fill up or to complete with reference to purpose or goal, to cause to happen or to be done.”

Third, another thing that commends this meaning of fulfillment or accomplishment as the right one is that it provides a meaning that is broad enough to encompass several different ways in which the Old Testament reaches its goal. It is less restrictive than the meaning “confirm” or “obey.” Here is something about which I do agree with Don Carson in his otherwise deeply flawed book on the Sermon on the Mount. He says: “In Matthew 5:17f., therefore, we must rid ourselves of conceptions of fulfillment which are too narrow.” The fact is that implicit in the traditional, Reformed interpretation and use of this passage is that there are multiple ways in which Jesus brings to fulfillment the Old Testament. He fulfills the ceremonial, the judicial, and the moral law, but in different ways.

Let me bring this discussion of the specific theme of the passage to a close. We have asked three questions:

What does the Lord mean by “the law or the prophets” in verse 17?

What does the Lord, then, mean by abolishing the law or the prophets?

What does the Lord mean when he says that He came to fulfill the law?

We are now in a position to answer with confidence the question, What is the underlying theme of this passage? It concerns Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament Scriptures. Those Scriptures are described in the way typical of the New Testament as the law and the prophets. Jesus’ relation to them is described both negatively and positively. It is not to abolish but to fulfill them. Jesus comes to bring the Scriptures to their intended goal or predestined destination. This relationship of Jesus to the Old Testament is the underlying theme of the entirety of verses 17-20.

But a last point of general introduction must now be addressed …

 

The Overall Development of the Passage

In these verses Jesus speaks of His relationship to the Scriptures in four ways. There is …

  1. The Necessary Admonition about This Relationship: Verse 17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.
  2. The Doctrinal Confirmation of This Relationship: Verse 18 “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
  3. The Practical Application of This Relationship: Verse 19 “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
  4. The Serious Implication of This Relationship: Verse 20 “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

In the second post we will examine the first three of these points and their application to ourselves. I will reserve verse 20 and the fourth point for a third post.

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Implications of Jesus’ Relationship to the Law

Implications of Jesus’ Relationship to the Law

You remember that we are working through Matthew 5:17-20 under the theme we determined at the beginning of this blog series. That theme concerns Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament Scriptures. Those Scriptures are described in the way typical of the New Testament as the law and the prophets. Jesus’ relation to them is described both negatively and positively. It is not to abolish but to fulfill them. Jesus comes to bring the Scriptures to their intended goal or predestined destination. This relationship of Jesus to the Old Testament is the underlying theme of the entirety of verses 17-20.

The Perpetuity of the Law

The Perpetuity of the Law

This, then, is why Jesus feels the need to issue this warning. A new time—the time of the kingdom—has come. What will this mean for the law and the prophets? Does it mean that their time is over and that their authority has been overthrown? To this Jesus gives an emphatic answer. It does not! He does not overthrow their authority. Rather, the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures remains and must remain inviolate forever. It is not their abolition, but their fulfillment which Jesus brings.

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