What did Jesus mean when He said He came to fulfill the law?
Fulfill Which Law?
What law was Jesus’ speaking about when He said, “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” (Matt 5:17)? In fact, He went on to say, “until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:18). Was it the Mosaic Law or the Ten Commandments or some other Old Testament laws Jesus was speaking about? Jesus said that the law will be “not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” What was it that He would accomplish and what law was Jesus speaking of? It seems evident that this is not referring to the Ten Commandments but the old Mosaic Laws of sacrifices, oblations, washings, and other such rituals that the Old Testament Mosaic Law required and were but a shadow of the reality to come in Jesus Christ. The author of Hebrews tells us that “under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:22), so they were to cover their sins, but they could never take them away since they had to be repeated over and over again because humanity sins over and over again. This is the very essence of the atonement as God says, “the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life” (Lev 17:11).
The Mosaic Law’s Purpose
As I touched on in the above paragraph, the sacrificial system was to remind the people that sin is costly. It requires blood to cover sins, however the “gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper” (Heb 9:9), but “when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come” (Heb 9:11a), “he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb 9:12). Though the Old Testament sacrifices covered sin, they were only temporary, so “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb 9:14). This is why Jesus is “the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant” (Heb 9:15). The priests could only cover sins and even their own sins needed repeated sacrifices, but now, “Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Heb 9:24). This is the reason Jesus “has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb 9:26).
Old Testament Laws
Why did Jesus say that He didn’t come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it? How did Jesus Christ fulfil the Law? Did He fulfill the Old Testament laws? Yes and He did so perfectly. Some of the laws concerned the ceremonial washings and such things as these, but the Jews had added hundreds of other requirements that were not written in the Old Testament, so when the highly legalistic Pharisees asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands” (Mark 7:5), He rebuked them by saying, ”Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Mark 7:6), and “in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7). Regarding the dietary laws of clean and unclean foods, Jesus told them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean)” (Mark 7:18-20). Some churches still teach these Old Testament laws as required, and so they too are “without understanding.” He reminds them, and also all churches who still teach that these Old Testament dietary laws are still in effect, that it is “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:20-23). In fact, the Pharisees never kept the Old Testament laws (Mark 7:9-13), because it’s not humanly possible to keep them all. And I think that’s the main point, as we shall read.
Fulfilling the Law
Jesus because a curse for us so that we wouldn’t have to bear the curse for eternity, but “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” (Gal 3:10). Back in the early 1980’s, I attended a church that kept the holy days, observed the dietary laws, and the Sabbath. They believed that all other churches were apostate and were all destined for hell, but who can possibly ever keep the law? Does the law save anyone? Absolutely not (Eph 2:8). An important point is that these laws were written for a specific people or nation, which was ancient Israel, so that’s the audience to whom these laws were written. This old church of mine (which I quickly left) still taught these Old Testament laws were valid, but they left out the fact that these were preceded by words, “Speak to the children of Israel, and thou shalt say to them” (Ex 13:13), but never, “Say to the nations.” I am not an orthodox Jew. Besides, there is no way I could ever keep the Law perfectly anyway. And, were all guilty anyway, because sin is the transgression of the law of God, so “sin is lawlessness” (1st John 3:4b), and we know that “the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression” (Rom 4:15), however the law was necessary in that it shows us what sin is (Rom 7:7). The Ten Commandments were written by the finger of God on tablets of stone, indicating their permanence and their authorship, but even these we can’t keep perfectly, but that doesn’t mean we should strive to do so, and the Ten Commandments came before the Mosaic Laws, and so this is not the law that the Apostle Paul is writing about in Galatians 3. Paul never teaches the abolishment of the Ten Commandments, and neither does Jesus or any of the other Apostles in Scripture.
I am just thankful to God that even though I was found guilty under the law, as we all have, because “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me” (Rom 7:10), however, “it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith” (Gal 3:11), and this is only possible because “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3:13b), so “the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24), “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal 3:25-26). Jesus fulfilled the requirements of the law but also the requirements of a perfect sacrifice because He lived a sinless life, kept the law, suffered and died, and was raised on the third day, and at the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
Article by Jack Wellman
Jack Wellman is Pastor of the Mulvane Brethren Church in Mulvane Kansas. Jack is also the Senior Writer at What Christians Want To Know whose mission is to equip, encourage, and energize Christians and to address questions about the believer’s daily walk with God and the Bible. You can follow Jack on Google Plus or check out his book Teaching Children the Gospel available on Amazon.