What Does it Mean to Fulfill the Law?

Article by Matthew Holmes 

In Jesus’ masterful teaching, he often answers a question with another question.  In an attempt to follow his footsteps, to answer the question, “What does it mean to fulfill the Law?,” a helpful aid to that answer may be the question, “What does it mean to be the people of God?”

Jesus, the Messiah, says in regards to the Law and the Prophets that he has come to fulfill them.  But before we get to the text, it will be helpful for us to address some background. 

Torah

The Torah, or Pentateuch, is the first five books of the Bible.  The word, “torah,” is rendered in English as “law.” This can be a little misleading though when referring to the first five books of the Bible.  The word, “torah,” from its Hebrew root can also be understood as “guide” or “instruction.”

In the Jewish tradition, the books of the Prophets are seen as the continuation of the narrative from the Torah.  As noted, the word “law” can be misleading while deriving connotations simply of a list of statutes, or “do’s” and “don’ts.”  Rather, the Torah is a narrative, which consists of 613 commands, or decrees from God, telling the story of God’s love and relationship with humanity.  As he says, Jesus came to fulfill both the Law and the Prophets. Today we refer to this section of Scripture more broadly as the Old Testament.

To Fulfill  

When we come across any piece of text or teaching, it is helpful to identify what we bring to a reading or hearing (and an awareness that we are interpreting everything through certain lenses).  Context matters and shapes our understanding from single words to overall meaning.

The word “fulfill” means to bring something to completion.  We live in a very “task” driven culture, where productivity is seen predominantly as “task completion.”  How satisfying is it to cross something off on your to-do list? When you have crossed off every item, you have completed it, or fulfilled it.  And when you complete it, in this case, you no longer need it. But there is also a second definition of the word, “fulfill,” meaning to, “carry out (a duty or role) as required, promised, or expected” (Oxford Dictionary).   More times than not, we may find ourselves holding to the first definition when hearing Jesus’ words, rather than the second.  

Jesus’ Words

“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” (Matt. 5:17).

These are the words of Jesus.  And we believe, Jesus did come and fulfill the Law and the Prophets.  This is a powerful, rich, and meaning-loaded statement, if you know the Law and the Prophets.  

In Jesus’ ancient Near-East, Jewish world, existence was defined by function.  In other words, something’s “beingness” is derived from its purpose. This is the same with law.  Law exists because it serves a specific function.  Consequently, what is meant by “to abolish” the law in Jesus’ context, was understood as to disregard or disobey the law, stripping it of its purpose.  When you do not obey the law, you abolish it.  Today we think more so of abolishing the law as annulling, or eliminating it.  Conversely, “to fulfill” something means to understand and live out its function.  To obey the law is to fulfill the law.  From the Talmud, a rabbinic idiom explains that to fulfill the Torah means “to establish, to make clean, to make obedience obvious.”  Jesus carried out his role and perfectly lived out the Law as given by the Father.

To fulfill the Law is to interpret it and to live it out perfectly.  This is what Jesus has done for us.  And he has given us the Spirit so that we can begin to, also, in his footsteps.

So what is the purpose of the Law?  To understand the purpose of the Law and its interpretation, we look to Jesus’ teaching from Matthew 22:36-40.  Jesus was asked (put to the test by an expert in the law) which is the greatest commandment in the Law.  He responded: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:37-40).  Jesus has given us two simple commands to understand.  Two commands from the Torah.  Love God and love your neighbor.  When you come to know these you come to know the heart of the Law.  All other commands reflect the purpose of these “weightiest” commands.

It should be noted that when you read the Torah there are many different kinds of commands and not all are to be observed today.  Some are not to be observed directly in a “letter of the law” way and others are simply just not possible to carry out today.  That is why we need to look to Jesus to help us interpret the Law and to properly engage with it today.  

“For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18).

It is pretty clear by now that the Law and the Prophets are important to Jesus.  These words show Jesus to be adamant that he has not come to modify or replace God’s Word in any way, preserving every “iota and dot” (the smallest markings of the Hebrew script), from the Law to the Prophets.  Jesus came to uphold it, teach it, and live it without error. Rather than being replaced or done away with, the Law is being used by God until the end of the age to bring about His purpose.

Today we can find it tempting to think that the New Testament has replaced the Old Testament when interacting with the Bible.  Even if we don’t believe or think this, in practice this is often how we read our Bibles. We start to ignore most, if not the whole, of the Old Testament, or ⅔ of our Bible.  But in accordance with Jesus’ teaching, when the Apostle Paul writes his second epistle to his disciple, Timothy, he reminds us that the entirety of Scripture is “God-breathed” and “useful.”  This not only includes the Old Testament, but was penned at a time when we did not have the New Testament as we know it today.

In its essence, Scripture is a story about Jesus.  A story that begins with God’s instruction, the Torah, in which it points towards the Messiah, Jesus, and is fulfilled by Jesus.  The Gospel accounts and the rest of the New Testament is a continuation of God’s one story that begins with Genesis.  Instead of Jesus coming to correct any of the “shortcomings” of the Law that have been “abolished” through disobedience to it, he came to manifest it, to fulfill it the way God has always intended.  The Law was not the problem, rather it was the hearts of man.

“Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19-20).  

Like many other teachings of Jesus, these can be hard words to hear and understand.  But, here again we see that Jesus is serious about taking Scripture, God’s Word, wholeheartedly.  He is not interested simply in behavioral change, or outward appearance, like that of the accused Pharisees and teachers of the law.  He is interested in us taking God’s Word to heart.  To by grace be transformed in who we are, and not just what we do.  Jesus has come to give us a “new heart.” 

Love

There is much more to say, but the hope is not to find complete understanding, rather to spark a desire to ask the questions and to engage with God’s instruction.  When we better know the Law, we better know God’s heart.  And God’s heart is one of love.  In the words of Paul, “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).  

We know that salvation does not come from keeping the law.  Praise God that salvation comes by grace through faith, a faith that has been passed on through generations from Abraham apart from the law.  Jesus has fulfilled the law for us.  

Jesus also said elsewhere, “If you love me, keep my commands.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth” (John 14:15-16).  Jesus has much to say about the Law and commands in the Gospel accounts.  Spend time with Jesus and see how he gives us the fullest expression of the Law, to see God’s heart in what He cares about and how He cares about it.  And be encouraged: we can be reassured that his commands are not burdensome (1 John 5:3), and more so that Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to help us respond out of obedience to his perfect love.

So what does it mean to be the people of God?  Look to the Torah and the Prophets and see the person of Jesus more clearly; Jesus shows us perfectly.  Love God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.  In so doing you fulfill the law.  


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