A couple days ago a friend of mine asked me, “What did Jesus mean when he said that he didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it?”
I gave my initial thoughts, but decided to sit down and study this passage and related passages. The question began to gnaw at me some, and lead me to sit at my kitchen table, with two Bibles (easier to cross reference that way), Calvin, and Matthew Henry for seven hours. It was a great deal of fun. Tish, I think, was a bit worried about me. She had left the house around 5:30 and came home at 10:00 to find that I hadn’t moved. Below are some of my thoughts, and I welcome the comments of others.
1. First, we must define what Jesus meant by “the Law” and “the Prophets.” If you asked a Jew in the first century what he meant by the Law, I imagine the answer would include the moral, dietary, and ceremonial law, encompassing even the Temple economy. By the prophets, a contemporary of Jesus would understand that to mean essentially what we would understand---those men who both commented on the Law and applied it to the people of their particular times, generally threatening judgment for Israel’s transgression thereof.
2. Abolish, of course, means to annul. Fulfill, as used by Jesus, would mean to satisfy.
3. How then, is the Law fulfilled? How is it that I can eat fried catfish if the Law is not abolished? We interpret Scripture with Scripture and find that “fulfillment” of the Law is in part what enables Gentiles to be part of the commonwealth of Israel, as Paul says that the Law put the two at enmity. We see also that Paul describes the Law as a tutor, and further as a guardian or manager of a youth until the fullness of time has come. From this last statement (found at the end of Gal 3 and the beginning of Gal 4) we note that the purpose of the Law changes over time. What then are some examples of the fulfillment of the Law?
4. Dietary: Peter’s vision of scrumptious pork chops comes to mind, as does Paul’s discussion to the Corinthians of meat sacrificed to idols, and Paul’s letter to the Roman church about matters of conscience with regard to certain foods.
5. Circumcision: Circumcision, of course, precedes the Law, but Paul goes to great lengths to describe that circumcision is not necessary to set apart God’s people from the world. Rom. 2:25-29; Gal. 3 (discussion contrasting the child of the bondwoman to the child of promise); Eph. 2.
6. Sacrifices: No better place can one go for a discussion on what Christ’s sacrifice means for the Temple economy than Hebrews 8 and 9. There we read about the impotence of the blood of bulls and goats, and the power of the blood of Christ. No more sacrifices are needed because Christ died once, bearing the sins of many.
So whatever Christ meant by his statement, fulfillment must result in us no longer having to adhere to dietary and ceremonial laws. Theologically, this seems to be because such laws were provided as types and shadows, fulfilled in Christ. Now that Christ has come, there is no need to preoccupy ourselves with shadowy images when we have the resplendent beauty of Christ. This view is bolstered by:
7. Christ’s statement regarding abolish/fulfill is in the Sermon on the Mount, and must be read in context. The laws discussed immediately following this statement include laws about murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, turning the other cheek, and loving your enemies. Unlike the ceremonial and dietary laws which no longer need to be observed (in fact doing so would be an offense!) the moral laws outlined by Christ are each stricter than the Law of Moses. Now we must not only avoid murder, but unjust anger. Not only is adultery forbidden, but also lust (note the “eye” and “hand” language in that context and chew on it a bit). The divorce laws from Moses is narrowed. (The original law being a divine solution to a human problem---God creating a civil means of dealing with the fallen people who were abandoning their wives.) The same with oaths, etc. Thereby, we may view Christ’s statement regarding “fulfilling” the Law as twofold with regard to moral law: (1) Christ would live a perfect life, and (2) the Law is not only satisfied by Christ but also completed, by more fully describing the spirit of the Law. I would add a third meaning---the first of two eschatological observations----that while Christ fulfilled the Law there is an already/not yet aspect to this fulfillment in that God’s people await a time where they will fully abide by the spirit of the Law in glory.
8. The giving of the Law must be viewed in light of redemptive history. Paul points out that the promise preceded the Law by 430 years. The question, then, is not whether the gospel abolished the Law, but whether the Law annulled the promise. The answer is clearly no; rather, the Law was given, as previously stated, as a tutor or guardian until the fullness of time.
9. Now, historically speaking, the Law has been fulfilled, and adherence to dietary and ceremonial laws is not only misplaced and misguided, but blasphemous as it rejoices in the type over that what was typified. This is partly what Paul has in mind when he says, in the context of his discussion of Abraham being justified by faith, that the Law is thus established. This brings me to my second eschatological observation---the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD in part because sacrifices of goats became an abomination to God, a strange fire offered to the Lord, you might say. (I’m not preterist, by the way.)
10. While dietary and ceremonial laws are types and shadows, the moral law of God displays God’s attributes, characteristics which we as his children should possess. These are eternal, and we should bear fruit to that end, culminating in us eternally keeping God’s law in heaven.
11. The moral law of God, of course, cannot be met by us in this life. Therefore, the first covenant is obsolete. (Heb. 8). While the first covenant is obsolete, the Law is not obsolete, but fulfilled in Christ.
12. Here is pretty much what I got out of the commentaries: the Law was a vessel partly filled or a picture roughly painted, and Christ completed the filling of the vessel and painting of the picture. I like those metaphors.