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17 March 2019

Jesus, Fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets

SynopsisIt is in Jesus that “All the promises of God are Yea and Amen,” not in Moses or the Torah (Matthew 5:17).

The Sermon on the Mount
Fulfillment and Kingdom are prominent themes in the gospel of Matthew. With the arrival of Jesus, the long-awaited season of fulfillment had arrived, and the promised kingdom of God was imminent.

Jesus did not say he came simply to keep the law or to reaffirm it. His mission was not to adjudicate interpretive disputes between Pharisees and Sadducees over the minutiae of the Torah. The issue was not how to keep it blamelessly or whether to restore it to some pristine condition free of later traditions. Jesus summed up his mission of fulfillment at the start of his Sermon on the Mount:

(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 shall pass away, one least letter or one point may in nowise pass away from the law till all be accomplished. Whosoever, therefore, shall relax one of these commandments, the least, 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 unto you, that unless your righteousness exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees, in nowise may ye enter into the kingdom of the heavens” [The Emphasized Bible].

The Pharisees kept the law scrupulously, having hedged it about with a myriad of oral traditions to keep the law applicable to life’s ever-changing situations. The Sadducees rejected the later “oral law” and insisted that only what was written in the Torah was authoritative. The Apostle Paul later attested that in his previous life he was a Pharisee and “regarding the righteousness that is in law, blameless” (Philippians 3:4-6). No, Jesus intended something beyond the understandings and disputes of the Jewish authorities of his day.

Christ’s most consistent opponents were the Pharisees. They did not oppose him out of jealousy that he kept the law more scrupulously than they.  If anything, they objected to his looseness to some of the law’s requirements, especially, Sabbath-keeping and dietary restrictions. And if he came simply to reaffirm the written Torah, why did the Sadducees find it necessary to conspire to cause his death?

Jesus declared that he did not come to dismantle the “law or the prophets.” He was speaking not just of the Law of Moses but the entire body of inspired writings that today constitute the Hebrew Old Testament. The “law and the prophets” is a summary statement in the New Testament for all that God revealed in the Hebrew Scripture (Matthew 7:12, 11:13, 22:40, Luke 16:16, Acts 13:15, Romans 3:21).

Jesus did not come simply to do or to reaffirm the validity of the Torah but to fulfill the “law and the prophets.”  “Fulfill” translates a Greek verb with the sense, “to fulfill, to fill to the full, to make full, to fill up completely” (pléroō). This is what he came to do. Further, Matthew presents Jesus as nothing less than the fulfillment of what had been promised in “law and the prophets”; to bring to fruition all of Yahweh’s promises recorded in “law and the prophets.”

This understanding is borne out in the several antitheses that follow (Matthew 5:21-48). In each case, Christ introduces a legal principle and reinterprets it on his own authority. He cites a principle and interprets it, each time beginning with the emphatic pronoun egō or “I, myself…” Note this repeated use in the six antitheses: 
  1. (Matthew 5:21) – “You have heard that it was said, you shall not kill… but I, myself, say to you…
  2. (Matthew 5:27) – “You have heard that it was said, you shall not commit adultery…but I, myself,  say to you…”
  3. (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…”
  4. (Matthew 5:33) – “You have heard that it was said, you shall not forswear yourself…but I, myself, say unto you…”
  5. (Matthew 5:38) – “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye…but I, myself, say unto you…”
  6. (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…”
In each example, Jesus drills down behind the written text to the heart of the matter. It is not enough simply not to kill. A disciple must abstain from hatred and anger, emotions that lead easily to violence and murder. Anyone who desires to become “perfect” like the Father must love neighbor and enemy and do good to “enemies.” The six antitheses are examples of what it means to have “righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees.”

The Pharisees were scrupulous in their law-keeping and taught others to do so. Jesus recognized this and told his audience that “the scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat; all therefore whatever they bid you observe, that observe and do.” But there was something deficient in their law-keeping despite their detailed observations of even the minutest parts of the Mosaic regulations (“do not after their works, for they say and do not”). They were hypocrites of the worst kind, for “you 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 state of affairs ushered in by Jesus, it is not conformance to Torah that determines entrance into God’s kingdom, but whether one responds to and does the words of Jesus. His words now have 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 every one 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 in Jesus is threaded throughout the gospel of Matthew. Most often Matthew uses a citation formula to introduce a scriptural passage that is now fulfilled in Jesus by using the verb “fulfill” (pléroō). Note the following:

(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 the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises in Jesus originated with him. He declared, “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).  “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).

The gospel of John declares, “The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came to be through Jesus Christ…He who is in the bosom of the Father, He has interpreted Him” (John 1:16-18).

The theme of fulfillment does not mean that the new revelation is unconnected with the old, or that the old is completely discarded. Jesus came not “to pull down the law or the prophets, but to fulfill.” Matthew opens with the declaration, “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1).

Jesus is connected by genealogy to leading figures from the history of Israel; he is from the tribe of Judah and a descendant of its greatest king, David. He is a descendant of Abraham, the one to whom the original covenant promises were made. The birth of Jesus fulfills 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 1:22Isaiah 7:14).

Under the old covenant, God revealed Himself “in many parts and many ways in the prophets”; His revelation was partial and periodic.  But now, “upon these last days, he has spoken and continues to speak to us in a Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2).

What was germinal in 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” (Romans 10:4).

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