Matthew 5:17-20 (NIV) “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. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Man people, especially among the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, accused Jesus of trying to abolish the Law and the Prophets, because He did not agree with their interpretation of them. But here He clearly teaches against that possibility. Jesus came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, because all of them ultimately pointed to Him.
Since Jesus’ day many have taught the same thing as the Pharisees and the teachers of the law from the other end: that Jesus abolished the Law and the Prophets by His death and resurrection, so that there are no longer any requirements placed on those who receive Jesus as their Savior.
But this interpretation also flies in the face of Jesus’ clear teaching here. Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them. And until heaven and earth disappear, none of the law, not even the smallest letter or the least stroke of a pen, would disappear until everything is accomplished. Some may point to the last phrase, and say that everything was accomplished by Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, but even Jesus apostles looked further forward, to Jesus ultimate return, and the putting of all things under His feet as a more appropriate point at which they could say that everything was accomplished.
Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them. And He fulfilled them at three levels:
- The prophesies that foretold the coming of the Messiah and all that He would do were fulfilled to the letter in His birth, life ministry, death, and resurrection. These fulfilled prophesies were the proof that He was indeed who He claimed to be. Jesus Himself pointed to some of these prophesies as fulfilled in Himself. (E.g., Luke 4:16-21, pointing to Isaiah 61; and Luke 7:20-23, which pointed back to several prophesies about the things that the Messiah would do.)
- The ceremonial law, which demanded that sacrifices be made at the temple in Jerusalem to pay for sins committed was fulfilled once for all by the death of Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 NIV) All of the sacrifices were now fulfilled. Instead of bringing their own sacrifices for sin to an altar in a temple, now people merely have to accept the one sacrifice made by Jesus on their behalf. Thus the temple and the whole sacrificial system became extraneous, because all had been fulfilled by Jesus.
- Jesus also fulfilled the moral law. He did this first of all by living according to it flawlessly, demonstrating what a life lived according to God’s standards of holiness and righteousness looks like. But He went much further than that. By sending the Holy Spirit into the hearts of those who follow Him, purifying their hearts by faith (cf. Acts 15:8-9), and moving them to follow God’s laws and commands from the inside out (cf. Ezekiel 26:25-27, another fulfilled prophecy!), Jesus made it possible for His disicples in all ages to walk in God’s commands, and to experience real righteousness without legalism.
Father, thank You for the finished work of Jesus – a work that didn’t abolish but fulfilled Your Law in Jesus and in me. Thank You for the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, and for sending the Holy Spirit into our hearts, a gift that enables us as Your people to serve (You) without fear in holiness and righteousness before (You) all our days. (Luke 1:74-75 NIV)