In Matthew 5:17 Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill the law”. This statement has raised questions as to what He meant about the law and the New Testament, as well as if this statement has significance to the church today. Today on Giving an Answer, Kevin talks about the popular interpretations of this passage, and his own understanding of Jesus’ words to us.
Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:17 has raised questions as to what He meant. Some of the more common interpretations offered include the following:
1. Jesus is correcting the abuses of the religious community by offering a balanced approach to law keeping. 2. Jesus is expanding the law to be more binding than originally presented. 3. Jesus is nullifying the demands given by Moses to God’s people in the Old Covenant. 4. Jesus is replacing the concept of law keeping with a new approach of love and grace. 5. Jesus is using His authority to redefine various aspects of the Old Covenant law for a new generation.
I think that the answer is best represented as a multi-perspectival fulfillment in the way Jesus used the phrase. To start with, Jesus did not come to earth only to die on the cross as the substitute of our just judgment as law breakers. Rather, His life was meritorious for our righteousness as He lived a life of perfect obedience. Jesus lived obligated to the law’s demands and fulfilled the law on our behalf.
In addition to His fulfillment of obedience, the law and the prophets could also be understood as a figure of speech to mean the entirety of the Old Covenant’s promises and types. This is certainly the case in Luke 24:27 as Jesus describes the law and the prophets as speaking to Himself. In this sense, Jesus fulfilled the law and the prophets as the one who was promised to come.
I don’t think that Jesus came in any sense to correct or overthrow the law, as if Moses’ deliverance of God’s precepts to the people of God were incomplete or inaccurate. This view is the essence of antinomianism, claiming that our dispensation under Christ is one of grace- as if grace was absent in the rigid legalism of the Old Covenant. I think this is a misunderstanding of John 1:17 and certainly a misunderstanding of Jesus’ meaning in Matthew 5:17.
The sum of the law is to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbor as ourselves. These two summary statements represent the guiding principle of the Ten Commandments- and the New Testament does not in any way disregard these as no longer binding. Rather, we (1) receive the merit of Jesus’ perfect obedience to these for our righteousness and (2) are given new hearts and empowered by the Holy Spirit to live by this principle for our sanctification and growth in grace.
Since this is true, it can’t mean that Jesus is teaching an overthrow of lawful living, since the opposite of this is lawlessness, which is sin (1 John 3:4).
Therefore, I think it is best to understand Jesus’ words as meaning that He fulfilled the law in its obligations on our behalf, and fulfilled the Old Covenant’s anticipations of a prophet greater than Moses, a priest who intercedes forever and messiah king who is to reign forever with all power and authority.