Fulfilling the Law (Matthew 5:17)

One of the more controversial verses in the apostles’ writings is Matthew 5:17:

Do not thing that I came to abolish [kataluo: to dissolve, disunite, destroy, demolish, overthrow, render vain, bring to naught, subvert] the Law or the prophets. I did not come to destroy [kataluo], but to fulfill [pleroo: to make full, to fill up, to fill to the full, to complete]

What did Jesus mean by this?

We really don’t have to wonder. He told us!

Except for verses 18-20, which complete the statement, the rest of Matthew 5 is spent explaining Matthew 5:17. What did Jesus mean by fulfilling—or better, “filling up”—the Law? He meant that we should not just avoid murder, but even hate. We should not just love our neighbors, but also our enemies. We should not just fulfill our vows, but fulfill every word that comes out of our mouth.

We don’t like the idea that Jesus brought a new law, but the Scripture says that he did:

For the priesthood being changed, there is of necessity a change of law. (Heb. 7:12)

The early Christians used the term “new law” regularly. A search of the first volume of The Ante-Nicene Fathers shows that it is used 5 times. Interesting usages!

  • [God] has revealed to us by all the prophets that he needs neither sacrifices nor burnt offerings nor oblations, saying, ” … I am full of burnt offerings and do not desire the fat of lambs … for who has required these things from your hands? Do not tread my courts anymore … Incense is a vain abomination to me, and your new moons and Sabbaths I cannot endure” [Isa. 1:11-14] He has therefore abolished these things so that the new law of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is without the yoke of necessity, might have a human oblation. (<a href="http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.vi.ii.ii.html&quot; target="_blank"Letter of Barnabas 2)
  • If … God proclaimed a new covenant which was to be instituted, and that for a light of the nations, we see and are persuaded that men approach God, leaving their idols and other unrighteousness, through the name of him who was crucified, Jesus Christ, and remain in their confession until death and maintain godliness. Moreover, by the works and attendant miracles, it is possible for all to understand that he is the new law, the new covenant, and the expectation of those who out of every people wait for good things from God. (Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew 12)
  • The Lawgiver is present, yet you do not see him. To the poor the Gospel is preached, the blind see, yet you do not understand [Isa. 61:1; Matt. 11:5; Luke 4:18; 7:22]. You now have need of a second circumcision, though you glory greatly in the flesh. The new law requires you to keep perpetual Sabbath, and you, because you are idle for one day, suppose that you are godly, not understanding why this has been commanded to you. If you eat unleavened bread, you say the will of God has been fulfilled. The Lord our God does not take pleasure in such observances. If there is any perjured person or thief among you, let him cease to be so; if any adulterer, let him repent. Then he has kept the sweet and true sabbaths of God. (Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew 12)
  • If we patiently endure all things contrived against us by wicked men and demons, so that even amid cruelties unutterable, death, and torments, we pray for the mercy for those who inflict such things upon us … even as the new Lawgiver commanded us, then how is it, Trypho, that we would not observe those rites that do not harm us—I speak of fleshly circumcision, Sabbaths, and feasts. (Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew 18)
  • For where it is said, “The Law of the Lord is perfect” [Ps 19:7] you do not understand it of the law which was to be after Moses, but of the law which was given by Moses, although God declared that he would establish a new law and a new covenant. (Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew 34)

Abolishing the Law

Jesus said in Matthew 5:17 that he did not come to abolish the Law. Yet these early Christians spoke of it being abolished: “He has therefore abolished these things” (Letter of Barnabs quote above).

It is not just those in the apostles’ churches who speak of the Law being abolished. It is in the Scriptures:

In that he says, “a new,” he has made the first old. Now that which decays and grows old is ready to disappear [aphanismos: disappearance, destruction]. (Heb. 8:13)

Okay, admittedly it’s not the exact same word that is used, but there is no doubt that the idea is the same. What Jesus said he did not come to do, the writer of Hebrews says is happening in his time.

What’s the problem? Is there a contradiction here?

Not at all. Jesus is speaking of the old and new law together. He did not come to simply throw the old law out. He came to fill up—or expand—it into what it was originally intended to be. Thus it did not actually disappear, except to our eyes. Instead, it grew up into something else, leaving its old form behind to decay, grow old, and disappear.

There are those today, necrophiliacs of the old law, that mourn over the decay and disappearance of the old, dead form. They want fleshly circumcision, and an idle seventh day. They reject the new law of our Lord Jesus Christ, the new Priest and new priesthood, which calls us to a spiritual and perpetual rest (one that we must labor to enter into—Heb. 4:11); they reject the words of Paul who told us not to let ourselves be judged concerning Sabbaths, new moons, and festivals, which are a mere shadow of Christ rather than Christ himself.

Jesus made himself clear. Those who want the commands of the Law of Moses to be forgotten and left behind will be called least in the kingdom of God (Matt. 5:19), but those who reject the new law, clinging to “you have heard it said” rather than to “but I say to you” are described as foolish and warned that the fall of their house will be great (Matt. 7:26-27).

We don’t have to wonder what Matthew 5:17-20 and the filling up of the Law of Moses means. Jesus told us in the rest of Matthew 5. Therefore, let us neither be necrophiliacs of the old form, living in commands meant for unregenerate citizens of a fleshly kingdom, nor let us be those who break the commands of God and teach others the same, ignorant of the fullness of the new law of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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