How did Jesus fulfill the law? What did Jesus mean when he stated he did not come to abolish but to fulfill the law of the Old Testament? I have heard several times in the past month or two the claims that “Jesus did away with the law,” or “Jesus did away with the Old Testament,” or “We are no longer bound by the Old Testament but only the New.” These statements may be meant well and stated with good intentions, but they are far from the truth. I grant the “good intentions” because it is possible they simply mean that we are not saved by works of the law but by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, to which I give a hearty Amen! But, it seems that many take this to mean the law in totality is abrogated (with the alternative being that Christians are now just to arbitrarily “love,” hence the Hippy Jesus of the movies).
The most cited text for this claim is Matthew 5:17-19 where Jesus says:
“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. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes 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 does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
This is presented as proof by many that Jesus has fulfilled the law (v.17) and that means he did away with it.
Now the word “fulfill” has been interpreted in multiple ways by different people but what it cannot mean in regards to the law is to abrogate, abolish, or finish. Jesus plainly and clearly gives a double negative statement for emphasis, “Do not think I have come to abolish……I have not come to abolish….” Imagine then the verse, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to abolish them.” This is self-contradictory. Feel free to substitute abrogate or finish in this sentence for more strangeness.
Another view is that the word “fulfill” means “completion,” such that Jesus brought all aspects of the OT law to its completion or fullness, thereby releasing us from its binding. It is said that Jesus fulfilled the law in the “same sense that prophecy is fulfilled. Christ was indicating that he is the fulfillment of the law in all aspects” (MacArthur Study Bible).
Now just as a brief side note, not to get off topic, we should all affirm the Biblical truth that the OT types and shadows find its fulfillment in Christ and come to full realization in Christ. Christ has freed us from the curse of the law in His perfect, sinless life, death, resurrection, ascension, and currently intercedes for us before the Father. It is the law that shows us and defines our sin (Romans 7:7; 1 John 3:4), and drives home our need for a Savior as our only righteousness and hope. However, when the Holy Spirit regenerates us and we are no longer enemies, unable to submit to God’s law, then by the Spirit we now are able to, and can find delight in, submitting to his law as our standard of conduct and “training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16; Romans 7:22). As A.A. Hodge states, “While Christ fulfilled the law for us, the Holy Spirit fulfills the law in us, by sanctifying us into complete conformity to it” (The Confession of Faith, p. 251). But Jesus was not speaking here of his own obedience to the law, his behavior or life. The view that the fullness of the OT anticipation is fulfilled or completed in Him is not what Jesus is teaching in this passage. Greg Bahnsen notes about this interpretation,
“Strictly speaking, the object of the “filling” (to remind us of the literal sense of the word) is not Jesus here at all; he is not said to be the filled up, to be the fullness, to be the full measure. Rather, he is the one doing the filling up to full capacity, and the object which is said to be “filled up” is the Old Testament will of God”……”Here it is not Christ who is the filled up fullness, the full measure, or the vessel which is metaphorically implied. Rather Christ gives the full measure to – “fills up” – the vessel of God’s law. Therefore the point Christ is making is about the Old Testament law, not so much about his own life or behavior” (Bahnsen, The Exegesis of Matthew 5:17-19)
I think Bahnsen’s work and conclusion on the word “fulfill” is best:
“…[Jesus] came to confirm and restore the full measure, intent, and purpose of the Older Testamental Law……Because of the distortion of the law at the hand of the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus confirmed the full measure of the law’s demand over against them. Thus I say that the sense of “fulfill” is to make plain (the law’s) full demand, true content, and purpose in contrast to the the Jewish interpreters: such was the effect of Christ’s confirmation of the Older Testament law……Jesus not only supports the validity of the law (confirms it), but gives the law its proper and complete understanding(confirms in full measure). Or to put it another way, Jesus “fulfills” the law (Bahnsen, The Exegesis of Matthew 5:17-19)
Finally, the rest of the passage emphasizes this conclusion: “…until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (v. 18). In other words, his law will abide until the passing away of this world. Therefore, lets be careful in using this passage to “prove” that “Jesus did away with the law.”
“In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome.. (1 John 5:3).