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Question: What did Jesus mean when he said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill?” If Jesus has fulfilled the law, why do some Christians think they should still follow some of its teachings?
You’ve asked a great question! Its answer certainly counts as “meat” and not “milk” (Heb. 5:12). Let’s start by looking at the context of Matthew 5:17. This verse is Jesus’ introduction to his discussion of key misunderstandings of the Law (Matt. 5:20-48).
Apparently, Jesus expected his audience to think that he was dismissing or getting rid of the law and the prophets. But that wasn’t what he came to do. In fact, to drive his point home, he says that the smallest part of the law will not pass away until all of it is accomplished (Matt. 5:18). Then he pronounces a blessing on those who obey and teach others to obey the least of the commandments: they shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:19).
From the context, we can conclude that when Jesus said he came to “fulfill” the law, he didn’t mean that he was abolishing it, causing it to pass away, or giving a reason to ignore its commands. In fact, the Holy Spirit inspired the apostle Paul to say that “All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for doctrine, for correction, for reproof, and for instruction in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16).
Whatever Jesus meant by “fulfill,” the law is still profitable for all these purposes.
So, then, what did Jesus mean by “fulfill?” If you study the word “fulfilled” in the NT, you’ll find at least two main ways this word is used in reference to Scripture:
- what was prophesied about the future happened as predicted and
- a command or requirement of Scripture was obeyed.
The first sense of “fulfilled”—a prediction coming true—is what we normally think of, and there are plenty of examples. Jesus settled in Capernaum of Galilee to fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 9:1-2, “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles–the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned” (Matt. 4:14-16).
Jesus healed the sick and cast out demons to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 53:4, “he himself took our infirmities and bore our diseases” (Matt. 8:17). Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey” (Matt. 21:3-5).
Sometimes, Jesus fulfilled his own prophecies. For example, in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus said, “let [my disciples] go their way,” to fulfill the word which He spoke, “Of those whom You have given Me I lost not one” (John 18:8-9).
The second sense of “fulfilled” is obeying the commands of Scripture. Jesus told John the Baptist to baptize him because it was necessary for him to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). Paul says that “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8), and “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:14).
Jesus fulfilled the law in both of these senses. All it predicted about him happened, and all it required of him he did. Scripture does not expect us to fulfill the law’s predictions, but it does expect us to fulfill the law’s commands by loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Christ’s fulfillment of the commands of the law means that in Him we are enabled by the Spirit to love God and love others, thus fulfilling the law’s righteous requirements.
In fact, this is the “law of Christ” we fulfill when we bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2).According to Romans 8:4 the righteousness of the law is “fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” The beautiful truth is that Christ’s fulfillment of the commands of the law means that in Him we are enabled by the Spirit to love God and love others, thus fulfilling the law’s righteous requirements.
Originally published in God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.