A friend of mine and I had a friendly discussion regarding Matthew 5:17-19 where Jesus explains explain how He came to fulfill the law of Moses and not abolish it. The question is then how can we live by grace if Jesus and have freedom in Christ if He did not come to abolish the law? Understanding this is the key to interpreting the Sermon on the Mount and the ministry of Jesus.
17 “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. 18 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. 19 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.
The first thing we should do is have handle on what the word “fulfill” means?
- to carry out, or bring to realization, as a prophecy or promise.
- to perform or do, as duty; obey or follow, as commands
- to satisfy (requirements, obligations, etc.):a book that fulfills a long-felt need.
- to bring to an end; finish or complete, as a period of time: He felt that life was over when one had fulfilled his threescore years
Jesus “fulfills” all of the Old Testament in that it all points to him, not only in its specific predictions of a Messiah, but also in its sacrificial system, which was to be satisfied through the cross. Jesus was also declaring that the Old Testament as a body of “God-breathed” literature would not be set aside or abolished. The questions are then, are we bound to the law and doesn’t this then contradict Paul’s letters in the New Testament?
14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
The key here is verse 16 “reconcile us both to God…through the cross“. Jesus paid the debt of our sin and the requirements of the law through the cross. Jesus didn’t destroy the Law, but satisfied/fulfilled it so we would no longer be bound by it. Let’s take this further by reading what the Bible says about this to help us see the context of this scripture.
No one (except for Jesus) has ever succeeded in keeping the law
10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
It is One Law containing the whole package of rituals and sacrifices as well as the Ten Commandments.
10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—
Our sin was a debt that had to be paid, just as if you had committed a crime. Jesus came, not to destroy the law that you broke, but instead place Himself between you and the law so you would never have to face punishment or serve time to pay for your crimes/sins. The cross pays our debt and reconciles us to God. That is an incredible thing, Jesus became our scapegoat and took our blame so we would never have to deal with keeping the law. This means we are free from works of the law and trying to justify ourselves through self-imposed standards and ordinances because the law cannot bring salvation.
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
Does this mean we are to be lawless and does grace give us the license to sin?
31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
If you stop there, then you miss the context of what Paul is trying to say. He shows that because Abraham had faith in God and believed, he was made righteous by his faith. Paul also warns that basing your Christian walk on law, legalism, and works you make the promise null and void because it all depends on something we can’t hold unto; faith.
14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. 16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all,
Now this still doesn’t quite explain by what Jesus and Paul meant by upholding the law if we are free from the law through the cross, by God’s grace.
If we go back to Matthew 5 we find that Jesus show the problems with the law and why it doesn’t work. Jesus gives the example of being angry enough to murder your brother, but you do not murder, thus keeping the law, however your heart if filled with anger, murder and hate. In God’s eyes you are still sinning. He also gives another example of wanting to commit adultery, but you don’t, thus keeping the law, but you still have lust in your heart and in God’s eyes you commit the sin in your heart.
Jesus wants us to be changed in our hearts and minds by His spirit. He wants us to overcome our sins, rather than avoiding them through laws and standards, for we are to overcome by the blood of the lamb and the promise we have in Jesus. How awesome is our God who took on our debits of sin and paid it for us?