Fulfillment of Law and Prophets

OVERVIEW - In Jesus, “all the promises of God are Yea and Amen,” and the “Law and Prophets” find their fulfillment - Matthew 5:17-21

Raging River - Photo by Jonatan Lewczuk on Unsplash
 and Kingdom are prominent themes in the Gospel of Matthew. With the arrival of the promised Messiah, the season of fulfillment had arrived, all the things anticipated in the “Law and Prophets” began to come to fruition. But what were the implications for the Law given through Moses at Mount Sinai? Fortunately, Jesus provided a direct answer to this question - [Photo by Jonatan Lewczuk on Unsplash].

In his “Sermon on the Mount,” he clarified that his mission was not to adjudicate interpretive disputes between competing Jewish sects over the minutiae of the Law. The issue was not how to keep it blamelessly, or whether to restore it to some pristine condition free of later traditions. Instead, Jesus summed up his messianic mission as one 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 to you, until the heaven and the earth shall pass away, not one least letter or one point will pass away from the law till all be fulfilled. Whosoever, therefore, shall relax one of these commandments, even the least one, and teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of the heavens; but whosoever shall do and teach, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of the heavens. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, in nowise may you enter 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” propagated by the Pharisees, instead, insisting that only what was written in the Torah was authoritative. But Jesus intended something beyond the disputes that raged between the Jewish sects of his day.

His most consistent opponents were the Pharisees, not because he kept the law more scrupulously than they, but because of his looseness to some requirements of the Law, at least, as interpreted by the “traditions of the elder.” And if he came simply to reaffirm the Torah as originally written, why did the Sadducees find it necessary to conspire to deliver him to the Roman governor for execution?

The Messiah did not come to dismantle the “law or the prophets.” When Jesus stated this, he was referring to the entire body of inspired writings that constituted the Hebrew Bible, not just to the Torah itself. In the New Testament, “law and the prophets” is a summary statement for all that God had revealed in the Hebrew scriptures - (Matthew 7:12, 11:13, 22:40, Luke 16:16, Acts 13:15, Romans 3:21).

Fulfill” translates the Greek verb with the sense, “to fulfill, to fill to the full, to make full, to fill up completely” - (pléroō), which is what Jesus did. Furthermore, the Gospel of Matthew presents him as nothing less than the fulfillment of what had been promised in the “law and the prophets.”

This understanding is borne out by the several antitheses that followed his declaration about the “law and prophets.” In each case, Jesus introduced a legal principle, then reinterpreted it ON HIS OWN AUTHORITY, each time beginning with the emphatic Greek 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, Whosoever 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 to you…”
  • (Matthew 5:38) – “You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye… but I, myself, say to you…”
  • (Matthew 5:43) – “You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy… but I, myself, say to you…”

In each case, Jesus went straight to the heart of the matter. It is not enough simply not to kill. A disciple must abstain from hatred and anger, emotions that slip easily into violence and murder. The six antitheses provide real-life examples of what it means to have “righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees.”

Teaching his disciples
The Pharisees were scrupulous in their law-keeping, and taught others to do likewise. Jesus recognized this and told his audience: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat; all, therefore, whatever they bid you observe, that observe and do.” However, there was something deficient in their rigorous law-keeping - (“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 new era inaugurated by Jesus, it is not conformance to the rigorous requirement of the Torah that determines entrance into his kingdom, but whether one does his words, which Jesus invested 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 to 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).

The theme of fulfillment is threaded throughout Matthew. Most often, a citation formula is used to introduce a scriptural passage that has been fulfilled in Jesus, usually employing 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 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 “fulfilled 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). 
  • And this understanding 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.”

Fulfillment in the Son of God does not mean that new revelation in him is unconnected with the old covenant, or that the old scriptures are discarded. He came, not “to pull down the law or the prophets, but to fulfill.”

Matthew commenced with the declaration: “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” The Messiah of Israel was connected by genealogy to the leading figures of Ancient Israel. He was the descendant of its greatest king, David, and of the great Patriarch, Abraham. His birth fulfilled the promise given through the prophet 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).

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

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