Fulfillment is a prominent theme in Matthew’s gospel – with the arrival of the Messiah, the time of fulfillment has arrived. All that was anticipated in the Hebrew Bible began to come to fruition. But with his advent, what are the implications for the Law?
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus provides clear answers and examples of just what he means. He did not come to adjudicate the interpretive disputes between competing Jewish sects over the details of the Law or to validate which oral traditions were correct.
In the discourse, his focus is not on how to keep the Law perfectly to achieve righteousness, or whether it must be restored to some pristine state free of later traditions. Instead, Jesus sums up his mission as one of fulfillment.
And, if anything, his authoritative declarations on the requirements of the Law go far beyond the regulations and expectations of what is found in the written codes of the Torah.
Indeed, Jesus teaches HIS followers how to the kind of “righteousness” that exceeds that of the most scrupulous interpreters of the Mosaic Law. He is the lawgiver Greater than even Moses.
- (Matthew 5:17-20) – “Do not think that I came to pull down the law or the prophets, I came not to pull down, but to fulfill. For verily I say to you until the heaven and the earth shall pass away, not one least letter or one point will pass away from the law till all be fulfilled. Whosoever, therefore, shall relax one of these commandments, even the least one, and teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of the heavens, but whosoever shall do and teach, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of the heavens. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, in nowise may you enter the kingdom of the heavens.”
The Pharisees keep the law meticulously, having hedged it about with a myriad of oral traditions. As for the Sadducees, they reject the “oral law” so valued by the Pharisees. Instead, they insist on adhering to what is written in the Torah itself without additions. But Jesus represents something far beyond the debates between these two sects.
SCRIBES AND PHARISEES
In Matthew, his most consistent opponents are the Pharisees, not because he keeps the law more scrupulously than they do, but because of his looseness to some of the requirements of the Law as interpreted by the “traditions of the elder.”
Moreover, if he came simply to reaffirm the Torah as it was originally written, why do the Sadducees find it necessary to plot his betrayal and death?
Certainly, Jesus did not come to dismantle the “law or the prophets.” And when he states this, he is referring to the entire body of the inspired writings that constitute the Hebrew Bible, not just its first five books or the Torah itself.
In the New Testament, this is a summary statement for all that God has revealed in the Hebrews scriptures, and not just for the five books of Moses – (Matthew 7:12, 11:13, 22:40, Luke 16:16, Acts 13:15, Romans 3:21).
And Jesus demonstrates that he is no rigorist when it comes to the minutiae of the legal code, especially in his attitude toward Sabbath-keeping and dietary restrictions. The “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” a perspective that the strict legalist could never endorse.
JOT OR TITTLE
His claim that neither “one jot nor one tittle” of the Law will pass away is a colorful way of describing the unchangeable nature of the expressed will of God since the written word represents both His will and nature.
However, that does not mean God’s past revelations reveal everything about Him, or that it is His final word on every matter. And if it is His final and absolute word, why does He now send His Son to bring new teachings that go even further than the statutes and regulations provided to Israel through Moses?
Similarly, the author of the letter to the Hebrews begins by stressing the supreme “word” of the Son, one that surpasses all previous “words” given “in the prophets.” In the past, God spoke “in many ways” and in “many parts,” but the decisive “word” has been “spoken in His Son,” the one who “achieved the purification of sins” – (Hebrews 1:1-4).
The very fact that the Levitical system of priests and sacrifices proved incapable of dealing permanently with sin or cleansing anyone’s “conscience from dead works to serve the living God” proves the old legislation was provisional and incomplete.
And this change was anticipated by the prophets themselves when they predicted the coming “new covenant,” one of a different order than the Mosaic legislation – (Jeremiah 31:31, Hebrews 8:6-13).
FULL TO THE BRIM
In the passage in Matthew, “fulfill” translates the Greek verb with the sense “fill to the full, to make full, to fill up completely” (pléroō). And this is precisely the point and exactly what Jesus does – fulfill the Law AND the Prophets.
Moreover, Matthew presents Jesus as nothing less than the fulfillment of what was promised in the Hebrew Bible. And this understanding is borne out by the several antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount that follow his declaration about “fulfilling the law and prophets.”
In each case, Jesus introduces a legal principle, then reinterprets it on his own authority. And each time, he begins with the emphatic Greek pronoun egō or “I, myself…” – (Matthew 5:21, 5:27, 5:31, 5:33, 5:38, 5:43).
In doing so, Jesus goes to the heart of each issue. For example, it is not enough simply not to kill. HIS disciple must abstain from all hatred and anger, even against an enemy, emotions that slip easily into violence and murder.
And the six antitheses provide real-life examples of what it means to have “righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees,” and how to see the “law and prophets” fulfilled in the disciple’s life.
And this is demonstrated especially in his explanation of how HIS disciple “loves his neighbor as himself.” With their rigorist mindset, the “Scribes and Pharisees” interpret the commandment to mean they owe love only to their immediate “neighbor” but not to their enemy. Jesus expounds the true meaning by pointing to the nature of God Himself.
If Yahweh sends rain upon the just and the unjust, who are we to withhold love and mercy from our “enemies”? Above all else, by doing acts of kindness to our sworn “enemy” we emulate God and become “perfect as He is.”
Doing good to one’s “enemy” is the highest expression of the love commandment, and the ultimate demonstration of that divine statute is the sacrificial death of the Son of God who gave his life to reconcile men to his Father when they were yet His “enemies.”
In the new messianic era, it is not rigorous obedience to the detailed requirements of the Torah that determine entrance into the kingdom of God, but whether one obeys the words of Jesus, including his interpretations of the Law, words that Jesus invests with ultimate authority:
- “Not every person that says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven… whoever hears these sayings of mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man, who built his house upon a rock; and the rain descended and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house; and it fell not, for it was founded upon a rock. And every person that hears these sayings of mine and does them not shall be likened to a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand; and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7:22-27).
Even if the disciple avoids committing acts of murder and adultery, as stipulated in the Law, if he harbors hatred or lust, he fails to keep the words of Jesus and may very well find himself rejected on the day when it matters the most.
Thus, the standard of righteousness demanded by the Messiah of Israel goes far beyond anything written in the Torah or added in the later “traditions of the elders.”
The theme of fulfillment is threaded throughout the gospel of Matthew. Most often, a citation formula is used to introduce a scriptural passage that is fulfilled in Jesus, usually employing the Greek verb meaning “fulfill” (pléroō), and this understanding originates with Jesus himself:
- (Matthew 3:15 – “It is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Compare Matthew 1:22, 2:15, 4:14, 8:17, 12:16-21. Also, Luke 24:44 – “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled”).
Fulfillment does not mean the new revelation is unconnected with the old system, or that the Hebrew scriptures have been discarded. Jesus came, not “to pull down the law or the prophets, but to fulfill.”
Thus, what was germinal in the old covenant comes to fruition in the new one inaugurated by Jesus. In him, “all the promises of God are Yea, wherefore also through him, Amen.”
Jesus of Nazareth is “the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” And he himself is the ultimate fulfillment of every “jot and tittle” found in the “law and prophets.” To daily take up the cross, emulating his actions and teachings, is the only way for HIS disciple to achieve “righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.”
One thought on “The Law & Prophets”
The law and the prophets is complete and perfect- and needs no modification at all, there never change. In ancient, what makes the administration and operation of the law and the prophets seems imperfect isn’t because of the content- the form and substance- of the law, rather is because of the person who administers and carries out the instructions. Hence, the appointed priest then, first performs purification for self before others. This is so due to the means by which these priests were born. Now, the writing of the law and prophets in our heart didn’t change in content from that administers and operated by those priests as instructed. Hence, the distinction between the old and the new is a matter of who operates and administers the order. In the old was man based on God instructions. In the new is God Himself carrying out the instructions in our heart. Because God is perfect, now through the Holy Spirit helps us to attain same perfection. The ancient priests following the nature of nature birth is imperfect, attempt to help mankind attain perfection as the law is, fails due to its imperfect state and nature. This imperfection has nothing to do with the content of the law that is perfect. Jesus Christ accomplishes the law perfection and fulfilment, first taking the place of the Lamb and lastly, of the Priest appointed. The administration and operation of the law content remains same, therefore perfect and unchanged.