In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says that He is the fulfillment of the law. He said “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.”
Okay. Uh. Ok. I get the feeling that this is a big deal, but I must ask: what does that mean?
In fact, I want to ask 4 questions of the text:
– What Law?
– Why does it matter that Jesus fulfills the Law (and the Prophets)
– How does He do this?
– So What?
Question 1: What law?
When Jesus says that He has come to fulfill the law, what law is he talking about?
Back when I was doing radio for part of my living, I would sometimes bring up bizarre laws that are technically still in force yet hillarious and ridiculous. These state laws are strange, weird, yet entirely enforceable. For example, did you know that Michigan law states that:
– Snoring is prohibited unless all bedroom windows are closed and securely locked
– Gorillas are not allowed in the back seat of any car
– In Kalamazoo (local city code) it is against the law to serenade your girlfriend
Hilarious, right? This is the stuff of historical novels and Grandpa’s off-the-wall stories. Can you imagine him saying “why, I remember one time, when I serenaded your Grandmother, I spent three days in the hoosegow! Bu HAHAHA Oh Doggie!”
Michigan is actually a good state with a good legislative system (I guess — I really don’t know). We have laws about traffic, theft, blackmail, and a bunch more about gorillas and snoring and snoring gorillas. It’s all there at your local district library. Check it out!™
Jesus didn’t come to fulfill these laws, to sneak into our rooms while we’re asleep and shut the windows in case we snore, or to miraculously move that gorilla to the front seat before getting pulled over. I actually think he’d be okay with serenading, but maybe your wife and not your girlfriend. The right kind of serenade, and things can get a little out of hand.
No, Jesus came to fulfill the Law of the Old Testament, spoken by the Prophets and authors of the bible. Whether we’re talking about the Old Testament or Michigan law, the same intent is conveyed: these are the rules we’re all going to agree to live by, ok? The Old Testament had Laws, not because God is all about ruining our fun and being the man, but because we need regulations to keep us on the right track. God’s intent with the Old Testament Law was to keep His people consecrated to Himself. A holy God wants His people to live holy lives. This may sound rather intrusive on His part (why is that HIS business?) but we must remember that we were originally created to be in harmony with Him. Our sin — our offense, our breaking of just one rule — broke our relationship with Him. The human heart is prone to pull away from God, and, thusly, from God’s ways, which are good, right, and holy.
As I’m writing this, I realize how difficult it is to explain the role of Old Testament Law in the 21st century. Why are we talking about this? Because this is the law that Jesus came to fulfill. What can we infer? We can infer that God gave laws to live by and that people did not obey. For thousands of years, people disobeyed God.
Classic example: the 10 Commandments, with all the thou shalts and shalt notiths. I think we agree that most of these are a good idea — Don’t murder, don’t worship stuff that’s at your level, don’t lie, etc. Many of our civic laws today stem from this way of living, yet we break these laws without even trying that hard. God gave them to keep us aligned with Him. Jesus, as the son of God in the flesh, came to fulfill this law.
When is the law fulfilled? The law is fulfilled when it’s not needed anymore because of how the people carry themselves. In other words, the only reason warning labels exist is because people do foolish things. There is a grocery store by my house that uses one of those fancy revolving doors. After some field testing, combined with some trial and error, it was discovered that I can fit simultaneously with one of my sons but not two. Three Davidsons create human log jam. There is only so much room in the compartments of a revolving door. My favorite part, though, is the sign that says “PLEASE DO NOT BRING CARTS THROUGH REVOLVING DOOR. That sticker exists because 1) someone once tried it and 2) people kept trying it and 3) it kept jamming people and carts. This is almost as silly as my fatherly attempts to fit myself and my two sons in at the same time. Don’t worry… he’s fine.
We don’t have time to get into all the nitty gritty of the Old Testament Law. The big point, though, is that it came from the goodness and Holiness of God, it existed for our own good (safety, protection, peace) and yet we could not keep it. The signs were up, it was well known, functional yet unfulfilled, and it stayed that way for generations.
Question 2: Why does this matter?
Jesus was talking to people who were big into keeping the law. They were going for high scores (like flappy bird, but even harder) each day, thinking that someday, if every person obeyed the law, God would do something amazing. When Jesus said “I came to fulfill the law”, He was basically saying that His arrival as the Messiah meant that the law was going to be seen in a totally different light. Rule-keepers and pious perfectionists who looked down their crooked noses at people who weren’t as good as them were suddenly busted down a few notches.
For the Pharisee, this was bad news, because their existence was based on how well they followed the law. They made their living helping people interpret the law of the Old Testament, and were bringing in some good coin when it came to sacrifices for sin, too.
For the typical person, this is good news. It means that Jesus does what we cannot do, which is to perfectly obey the Law on our behalf. Jesus did what we could never do, which is to live a sinless life. The fact that Jesus reframes the law in this way is either very good news or very bad news. It is good if you realize how broken you are, and bad if you think you’re a good person. If Jesus fulfills the law, you no longer have the ability to please God by your own behavior, and I happen to know that this is a common practice in humanity, even after someone becomes a Christian.
(This, by the way, is why Christians need to hear the Gospel again and again and again…)
It matters, too, because Jesus didn’t just cancel out the law because it was mean or oppressive. We need the Law because we need to know what’s right. Jesus, in His grace, doesn’t just rip up the law and say “oh, don’t worry — I got this.” It is the Law that makes His sinless death a requirement. In fact, Jesus says that the Law doesn’t disappear until “everything is accomplished” (which I interpret as the final culmination of the Kingdom).
Question 3: How does Jesus Fulfill the Law?
Jesus fulfills the law by living a sinless life and dying a sinners death. He fulfills the righteous requirement of the Law by becoming a sacrifice for us. His sacrifice is complete and all-sufficient.
in the Old Testament, priests would sacrifice animals as part of the Levitical practice of worship in the temple. The shed blood of innocent animals brought atonement with God. Sin is powerful — it always has been — and cannot be dismissed by the wave of your hand. Something drastic has to be done with sin because sin has lasting effects on our relationship with God, with others, with creation, and even within ourselves. Lambs were slaughtered and doves were split in two. This is how life rolled in the OT.
John the Baptist calls Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” for good reason — Jesus would be the Old Testament lamb. What’s different is that Jesus upheld the law throughout His human existence on earth. That’s how Jesus fulfills the law. He was without sin as a human, and, as God, He had the ability to become sin for us.
This is a mystery, no doubt. I am continually surprised by just what, exactly, this all means.
Question 4: So What?
For the non-Christian, it means that Jesus has fulfilled the law for you.
I want you to think carefully about how you talk about your moral code and your goodness as a person. If you find yourself saying “I try to be a good person”, then you’ve hit on something: you know you want to be a good person, and, at the same time, you know how difficult it is to be a good person (“I try…”). You know that you actually have to work hard to be a good person, and that it’s not easy. God wants you to have perfectly fulfilled the law; He also knows that you can’t do it. Jesus comes and does that for you, not because you’re a good person but because you’re a sinner of great value. “Not I”, you might say — “I try to be a good person…” and there it is again: try. You’re like me. You’ve tried to be a good person and didn’t make it. We all have bad days, yes: but, if the standard is perfection, what are you going to do with a bad day? Enter Jesus: he fulfills the law by living the perfect sinless life. The goal is not to be a good person but realize that we are by nature objects of wrath, and that we need to be rescued. The gospel is the best news in the world, because it’s not about your level of goodness. It’s about the goodness of Jesus, and the grace and love He has for us in our badness.
For the Christian, it means that Jesus fulfills the law for you.
I want you to think carefully about how you talk about your moral code and goodness as a person. “I’m a Christian, so It ry to be a good person.” You don’t get it. You can’t try to be a good person.
“Well, I’m not perfect, just forgiven”. Is that the extent of your relationship with Jesus, an endless cycle of recurring sin and forgiveness? He can and will forgive again and again, yes, but what about growth? No, you’re not perfect, but what if I told you that Jesus expects you to be perfect (Matthew 5:48)?
“I’ve done this same sin again and again, breaking the law countless times — Jesus is fed up with me, and I’m no good.” If you’re no good, why did Jesus die for you in the first place? He must believe in His own power enough to actually expect that you can become a different person, even after making the same mistake again and again. Jesus believes in His own Spirit’s power to transform you. Remember, it’s not about your goodness, it’s about His. BUT: really following Jesus will have a corollary effect on how you live.
This, friends, is where the idea that we are Salt and Light starts to click. Jesus said “You are the salt of the earth”. Salt is used to preserve and light shines in the darkness. Jesus says that we are. You see? It’s not that we try to be salt or try to be light. It’s that we, the redeemed, are now salt and light. Our “trying” is really just aligning ourselves with how God is shaping us. And, when we’re off, we know that Jesus fulfills the Law and that we have yet one more time to be thankful for His mercy.
Don’t try to be a good person. Become Salt and Light. Then, when that happens, work hard (in great freedom) to preserve and illuminate. THIS is the good person you long to be, and it’s by His work and your faith.
Ah. That’s much easier and far more joyful.