“Not to Abolish, But to Fulfill”
“Not to Abolish, But to Fulfill”
We just recently finished our Sunday morning Bible class over the Old Testament, and we covered quite a lot of ground, especially considering how fast we had to move! As you may recall, at the beginning of the class, I started by exploring the question, “Why should we study the Old Testament, if we’re under the New Testament now?”
There were several reasons we discussed, but I’d like to return to that subject a little bit this morning and ask a related question: How does the Old Testament relate to the New Testament? Or, perhaps more correctly,
How does the New Testament relate to the Old Testament?
This question was addressed by Jesus during His ministry. His audience was almost entirely Jewish, but He was preparing them to be the leaders of the church He was going to establish (Matt 16:13-20). They needed to understand how the teachings of Jesus related to the Law of Moses.
Turn with me to Matthew 5:17-20.
This passage is from the Sermon on the Mount, which runs from Matthew chapters five through seven, so Jesus is still teaching His disciples—us—about Kingdom righteousness. He’s given us the Beatitudes and exhorted us to shine forth as lights in the darkness of the apathetic world around us.
Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:17-20)
Jesus has already given the disciples instructions that run counter to what they hear daily in the synagogues and from their religious leaders, and He isn’t stopping soon. He anticipates their confusion and prepares to clarify.
As we move through this text, we’re going to spend most of our time on verse 17, so don’t panic if we spend a while there.
Jesus came to complete what the Law was always trying to do.
First, He tells us, He came to “not to abolish the Law or the Prophets…but to fulfill.” The word “abolish” means to destroy or to tear down, usually violently. It’s the same word Jesus uses when predicting the destruction of the Temple: “Not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down” (Matt 24:2).
“Fulfill” means to fill something full, like a glass of water. If I take a 16oz cup and pour an 8oz bottle of water into it, despite what you might say optimistically, it isn’t full—it’s only half full. To fulfill it, I must take another 8oz bottle and pour that in as well. Otherwise, it is incomplete. The cup has not fulfilled its purpose.
Now we return to what Jesus says here.
“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matt 5:17)
In other words, Jesus came to earth, not to tear down the Law of Moses and start all over, but to finish what the Law of Moses had started.
In the rest of Matthew 5, Jesus tells the Jews several times, “You have heard it said, but I say to you….” He’s not tearing the Law down stone by stone, but showing them what it always meant.
There’s a very important follow-up question to what Jesus says here. If Jesus came to complete the goals and purpose of the Law and the Prophets, then the only way we can understand Jesus is to understand the purpose of the Law and the Prophets.
What were they trying to accomplish?
Jesus does not immediately answer this question, but I invite you to consider what Paul says in Romans.
“For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh.” (Rom 8:3)
Whenever Paul speaks of “the Law” without any clarification, he means the Law of Moses. So Paul says the same thing Jesus did, but in different words: the Law of Moses was lacking (due to the weakness of the flesh), but Jesus did what it could not. Then Paul tells us part of what Jesus accomplished: “He condemned sin in the flesh.”
See, the Law of Moses, or the Torah, condemned sin, but only through precept—through Law. It was God telling the children of Israel to live a certain way and to live righteously.
There was a problem, though: we live in the flesh. As we saw from Genesis 3 a couple weeks ago, we all have natural desires that are easily corrupted. We all have sinned, and it seems like maybe it’s impossible to live right.
In fact, most of the denominational world claims this exact thing: that we are unable to even desire to live righteously until God enables us to do so!
So God set out to condemn sin, not just in word, but in the flesh.
By living perfectly within the Law, Jesus proved that the Law was just and fair.
Last week in class, we discussed Jesus’s baptism and its purpose. In Matthew 3:15, Jesus told John,
“Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
It’s not that Jesus was just trying to “fit in” with sinners or that His baptism was because He needed forgiveness, but that He was leading the way. Baptism begins a new stage of life in service to God: this was true for John’s disciples, for Jesus, and for us today.
So Jesus fulfills the Law, and He fulfills its righteousness—to the max. He proves that it was just. He also fulfills it by providing a source of justification, but we’ll look more at that next week.
Jesus also fulfills the Prophets.
As a quick example,
“This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet.” (Matt 4:14)
There are many other times this wording is used as well. When we studied the Old Testament, we saw so many prophecies of Jesus. The purpose of the Law of Moses and of the Prophets was to bring about the Messiah. But I believe the main thing Jesus means in this verse is regarding the Law.
So what happens after Jesus fulfills the Law?
The Law of Moses is obsolete after Christ.
Now we finally move on the next verse!
“For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matt 5:18)
When we put this verse together with the previous, it makes so much more sense now. The key phrase in this verse is, “until all is accomplished.”
Every part of the Law of Moses was to remain until it accomplished what it was intended to do. It doesn’t need to be torn down, because it will pass away naturally when the time comes.
Notice what Paul says in Ephesians:
“For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.” (Eph 2:14-16)
Paul uses the word “abolish,” but it’s a different word. This word means “to nullify” or “to make void.” In other words, it’s obsolete!
Now remember, Jesus is here to fulfill the Law by condemning sin in the flesh. The morals and ethics that have always been right are still right. Notice the change, though.
The ordinances themselves are obsolete, but they are still valuable for our learning. They still teach us how God wants us to live.
“But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.
What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.'” (Rom. 7:6-7)
So then what should be our attitude toward the Old Testament, to the Law of Moses?
The precepts, the letters, have been removed. But we serve “in the spirit,” or according to who God truly is. The Law was to tell us how God would live in the flesh, Jesus shows us by doing it.
Study the principles of the Law.
“Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:19)
What’s Jesus talking about when He talks about the least of one of these commandments? Given that He’s about to start with a series of “You have heard it said…but I say…” statements, I believe Jesus means the principles that undergird the Law, that
If you don’t take the law seriously, and the whole law, you won’t be accepted in the Kingdom. For the Jews, this meant keeping the Law as written, but for us, it means the principles.
We have to read the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus Christ.
We’ll probably have a whole lesson just on this verse later, but for now I want to use it as a conclusion.
“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:20)
The righteousness that Jesus requires of us is not just a bare-bones, minimalistic righteousness.
He tells us that our righteousness must be a surplus of righteousness. If we’re not careful, our misunderstandings will cap our righteousness below the threshold of entering the Kingdom.
“Do not be excessively righteous and do not be overly wise. Why should you ruin yourself? Do not be excessively wicked and do not be a fool. Why should you die before your time?” (Eccl 7:16-17)
This was part of his philosophical journey for the meaning of life. Worldly wisdom does say this, but Jesus tells us the opposite.
Are you living a life of surplus righteousness, or do you find yourself trying to skate by?