Fulfillment of Law and Prophets

OVERVIEW  Jesus came to fulfill the “Law and Prophets,” the entire Old Testament revelation that prepared the way for Israel’s Messiah - Matthew 5:17-21

Flower Sunrise - Photo by Zack Dowdy on Unsplash
The theme of 
fulfillment is pronounced in the gospel of Matthew. With the arrival of the Messiah, the age of fulfillment had arrived, the “kingdom of God” had commenced its “invasion” of the old fallen age. But what were the implications for the Law provided by Yahweh at Mount Sinai? Rather than simply reaffirm the Law, Jesus declared that all the “law and prophets” would be fulfilled. - [Photo by Zack Dowdy on Unsplash].

In his “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus made it clear that his mission was not to adjudicate interpretive disputes between the Pharisees and the Sadducees over the minutiae of the Law. Nor did he come to restore the Law to a pristine condition free of the oral traditions added later by the “elders.” Instead, his was a mission of fulfillment:
  • (Matthew 5:17-20) - “Do not think that I came to pull down the law or the prophets, I came not to pull down, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, until the heaven and the earth pass away, not one least letter or one point will pass away from the law, until all be accomplished. Whoever shall relax one of these commandments, even the least one, and teach men so, will be called least in the kingdom of the heavens; but whoever will do and teach, he will be called great in the kingdom of the heavens. For I say to you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, in no way may you enter into the kingdom of the heavens.”
The Pharisees kept the law scrupulously, having hedged it about with a myriad of oral traditions. The Sadducees rejected the later “oral law” promoted by the Pharisees. For them, only what was written in the Torah was authoritative. In contrast, Jesus intended something beyond the disputes that raged between the various Jewish sects.

The most persistent opponents of Jesus were the Pharisees. They did not oppose him out of jealousy that he kept the law more carefully than they did.  If anything, they objected to his looseness to some of its requirements, including the regulations for the Sabbath and food. And if Jesus came simply to reaffirm the written Torah, why did the Sadducees find it necessary to conspire in his death?

He did not come to dismantle the “law or the prophets.” In this passage, Jesus was speaking not just about the Torah, but instead, referred to the entire body of inspired writings that constituted the Hebrew Bible. In the New Testament, “law and prophets” is a summary statement for all that God revealed in the writings of the Old Testament - (Matthew 7:12, 11:13, 22:40, Luke 16:16, Acts 13:15, Romans 3:21).

Fulfill” translates the Greek verb with the sense “fulfill, to fill to the full, to make full, to fill up completely” - (pléroō) - That is what Jesus came to do. Furthermore, the gospel of Matthew presents him as nothing less than the fulfillment of what was promised in the “law and prophets” - To bring to fruition all of Yahweh’s promises recorded in the Scriptures.

This understanding is borne out in the several antitheses that follow in the “Sermon on the Mount.” In each instance, Jesus introduced a legal principle, then reinterpreted it on his own authority, using the emphatic pronoun egō or “I, myself…”:
  • (Matthew 5:21) – “You have heard that it was said, you shall not kill… but I, myself, say to you…
  • (Matthew 5:27) – “You have heard that it was said, you shall not commit adultery…but I, myself,  say to you…”
  • (Matthew 5:31) – “It was said also, Whoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a decree of divorcement…but I, myself, say to you…”
  • (Matthew 5:33) – “You have heard that it was said, you shall not forswear yourself…but I, myself, say unto you…”
  • (Matthew 5:38) – “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye…but I, myself, say unto you…”
  • (Matthew 5:43) – “You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy… but I, myself, say unto you…”
Each time, Jesus drilled down to the heart of the matter and illustrated how God requires much more than the letters of the written Law. It was not enough simply to refuse to kill. His disciple must abstain from hatred and anger, emotions that lead easily to violence, retaliation, and murder. The six antitheses provided examples of what it means to have “righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees.”

Jesus silences the Pharisees
The Pharisees were meticulous in their law-keeping and taught others to do likewise. Jesus recognized this and told his audience - “
The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat; all therefore they bid you to observe, that observe and do.” But there was something deficient in their rigorous application of the Law - (“Do not after their works, for they say and do not”). They were hypocrites of the worst kind, for they “tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and omit the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith” - (Matthew 23:1-3, 23).

In the “kingdom of God” announced by Jesus, it was not conformance to the details of the Torah that determined entrance, but whether one did the words of Jesus - Words vested by him with ultimate authority:
  • Not everyone that says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven…whoever hears these sayings of mine and does them, I will liken him unto a wise man who built his house upon a rock; and the rain descended and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house; and it fell not, for it was founded upon a rock. And everyone that hears these sayings of mine and does them not, shall be likened to a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand; and the rain descended and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it” - (Matthew 7:22-27).
Matthew threaded the theme of fulfillment throughout his gospel. Most often, he provided citation formulas to introduce scriptural passages that were fulfilled in Jesus, usually using the verb “fulfill” (pléroō), for example:
  • (Matthew 1:22) - “All this took place to fulfill (pléroōwhat the Lord had spoken by the prophet” - (Isaiah 7:14).
  • (Matthew 2:15) - Jesus’ family remained in Egypt until the death of Herod “to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” - (Hosea 11:1).
  • (Matthew 2:17) - The murder of the children of Bethlehem “fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah” - (Jeremiah 31:15).
  • (Matthew 2:23) - Jesus dwelt in Nazareth so that “what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’”
  • (Matthew 4:14) – Jesus ministered in Galilee and thus the words “spoken by the prophet Isaiah were fulfilled” - (Isaiah 9:1-2).
  • (Matthew 8:17) – The healing activities of Jesus were “to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah” - (Isaiah 53:4).
  • (Matthew 12:16-21) - Jesus charged his followers to not make him known. “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah” - (Isaiah 42:1-4).
  • (Matthew 13:35) - Jesus spoke in parables “to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet” - (Psalm 78:2).
  • (Matthew 21:4) – The entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem was “to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet” - (Zechariah 9:9).
This understanding of fulfillment in Jesus originated with him:
  • (Matthew 3:15) - “It is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.
  • (Luke 24:44) - “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.”
This understanding does not mean the new revelation is unconnected with the old, or that the old is discarded completely. Jesus came, not “to pull down the law or the prophets, but to fulfill.”

The gospel of Matthew opens with the declaration - “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Jesus was connected by genealogy to the leading figures from the history of Israel - He was from the tribe of Judah, a descendant of its greatest king, David, as well as the patriarch, Abraham. His birth fulfilled the promise given through Isaiah - “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel; which is, being interpreted, God with us” - (Matthew 1:1-22Isaiah 7:14).

What was germinal under the Old Covenant comes to fruition in the New. It is in Jesus that “all the promises of God are Yea, wherefore also through him, Amen,” not in Moses or the Torah. He is “the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” In him, God has “spoken” with great finality and fullness - (Romans 10:4, Hebrews 1:1-3).


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