HOW DID JESUS FULFILL THE LAW?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, February 10, 2012 at 3:13pm
QUESTION: In Matthew 5:17-18 Jesus says, “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 say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (ESV). It is not too difficult to see how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Prophets, but how did He fulfill the Law?
ANSWER: First we need to determine what is meant here by “Law.” Sometimes “the Law and the Prophets” is a way of referring to the Old Testament in general (Matt. 11:13; 22:40; Rom. 3:21); in John 15:25 “Law” refers to Psalms 35:19. Much of the time, though, when it is referring to something in the OT, it is referring to the Pentateuch, the Law of Moses. That seems to be the case in this context, since the next verse (Matt. 5:19) refers to “commandments,” and vv. 21ff. refer to various commandments from the Law. So the question seems to be, how did Jesus fulfill the Law of Moses? I believe we can identify four ways in which this happened.
First, Jesus fulfilled the prophetic elements of the Law. The Greek word for “fulfilled” is pleroo (pronounced play-RAH-oh). It is often used in the NT to refer to the fact that a prophecy (or Scripture) is being “fulfilled” in Jesus (e.g., Matt. 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; Luke 4:21). I.e., various predictive prophecies pointed ahead to specific things Jesus would be and do; Jesus fulfilled them by actually being and doing these very things.
The fact is that certain elements of the Law likewise pointed ahead to the Messiah and his work. We call them “types,” and we call those future realities to which they point “antitypes.” The antitypes are the fulfillment of the types. An example is the relation between the high priests of the Mosaic Law (the type), and Jesus as our Great High Priest (the antitype, Heb. 7:26 – 8:7). Another example is the relation between the OT sacrifices (the type), and the one final all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus on the cross (the antitype, Heb. 9:11 – 10:14). As such Jesus fulfilled the prophetic typology of the Mosaic Law. These were things written about Jesus that had to be fulfilled (Luke 24:44).
Second, Jesus fulfilled the commandments of the Law. All law includes two main elements: commandments and penalties. The Law of Moses contained (according to the Rabbinic count) 613 distinct commands. Some of these commands applied only to certain groups, such as the priests and the Levites, but most applied to all Jews. Until His death and resurrection Jesus lived his life under the Old Covenant, and thus under the Mosaic Law. Thus He was obligated to obey all the Law’s commands that applied to all Jews in general. This does not mean that he had to keep all the Rabbinic traditions, including the Rabbis’ interpretations of how the Law must be kept.
Did Jesus “fulfill” all the commandments of the Law? Yes. The NT tells us that He “knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21), that he “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). He was “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners” (Heb. 7:26). Sin by definition is lawlessness or transgression of the law (1 John 3:4). That Jesus did not sin means that he kept the Law perfectly.
Third, Jesus fulfilled the purpose of the Law of Moses to be a tutor (guardian, supervisor, disciplinarian) to prepare the nation of Israel to receive the Christ when He came. Speaking of the Jews, Paul says “the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian” (Gal. 3:24-25, ESV). Exactly how the Law functioned in this way is not very clear, but it is clear that living under the Law was supposed to condition the Jews to be ready for the coming of their Messiah and for justification through their faith in Him. Jesus accomplished this with His first coming.
Fourth, we will remember that the Law has two main elements: commands and penalties. It not only requires obedience to its commandments; it also demands that those who disobey be punished. We have already seen how Jesus fulfilled the commands of the Law through His perfect life. But the final and climactic way that He fulfilled the Law was by suffering its penalties on behalf of the entire human race. This applies to any law of God. To break just one commandment of any law of God makes us sinners and thus liable to the punishment of eternity in hell (see James 2:10). This provision is contained in the Law of Moses (Deut. 27:26), as quoted in Gal. 3:10, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’”
A main teaching of Scripture is that all have sinned (Rom. 3:23); thus everyone is under the curse of eternal punishment as required by God’s law. But here is where Jesus Christ fulfills the Law in the most glorious way: He takes the curse of the Law upon Himself, fulfilling its obligation for penalty. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Gal. 3:13). For those of us who have surrendered ourselves to Christ, we do not have to fulfill that requirement of the Law, because Christ has already done it for us. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. . . . By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:1-4).
In terms of Matt. 5:17-18, we can surely say that Christ has already fulfilled the Law of Moses in every respect. How does this relate to his statement that He did not come “to abolish the Law”? The Greek word for abolish is kataluo (pronounced cot-ah-LOU-oh). It can mean “do away with, abolish, annul”; but it can also mean “destroy, demolish, tear down.” The best understanding here is the latter. The translation “abolish” is simply too weak. Rather, Christ did not come to destroy the Mosaic Law, to do violence to it, to demolish it in ruins. But He DID come to bring it to an end or annul it. See Eph. 2:15, which says Christ “abolished” the law of commandments and ordinances. The word here is katargeo (pronounced cot-are-GEH-oh). Here the word means “nullify, make ineffective, abolish, set aside.” Christ did indeed set aside the Law of Moses. How? By fulfilling it.