When Jesus talks about the Law, sometimes we are left feeling more confused than before he spoke. Jesus seems to be enigmatic when he refers to the Laws followed by the first century Jews. In many ways, we know Jesus followed the Law. He goes off and prays, he goes to Temple, etc. We also can conclude this because when he chooses to deviate from the commonly practiced laws of the day, the Pharisees seem to make a big deal about it.
However, Jesus also makes incredibly audacious claim about the Law. He tells his followers the he has fulfilled the Law. What did he mean by this? Does he abolish it? Nullify? Re-interpret? Intensify? Or some of those? Or none of those? We must look carefully at his teachings, specifically those found in the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew to help us understand this statement.
I think we can start off by negating any idea that Jesus nullifies or abolishes the Law, mainly because Jesus straight up tells us he doesn’t. Early on in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us he hasn’t come to abolish but rather fulfill (Matt. 5:17). Obvious, but important. Often we read this statement, agree with it, and then go right on living our lives as if Jesus actually did abolish any sort of concept of moral law or rules.
Things get more interesting the further we go into the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:21-37). Jesus begins to seemingly clarify, or qualify, the Law. He defines adultery, murder, and oaths in a new way. He makes them not just outward or physical offenses, but also offenses of the mind and heart. I believe that no one has read these passages and has been able, in good conscience, to convince themselves they have not committed the listed sins. Yet, Jesus still chooses to challenge us with these statements.
But Jesus is not done. In Matthew 12:1-14 and 15:1-20 we see a different approach to the Law. Here Jesus has let his disciples and himself off the hook when it comes to observance of the Law in matters of the Sabbath and defiled food. Each time, when challenged, Jesus turns the tables on the accusers, pointing out the flaws in their logic when it comes to the Law. Jesus is pointing out the ridiculousness of the laws, and how whether they are broken or not depend on a point of view more than anything else (Maybe Obi Wan was on to something?).
And then we have Matthew 17:24-27. The riddle of the Temple tax. Here Jesus tells Peter to pay the tax to the temple, something set down in the time of Leviticus, and commands him to follow the Law so as “not to cause offense (NIV).” Here we see Jesus almost towing the line. He seems to be following the law, even if he does not respect it.
So where do all of these stories get us? Jesus obeys the Laws most of the time. But other times he seems to clarify, or one could even argue intensify, them. Or he re-interprets them. Or he submits to them so as not to “cause offense.” Which one of these approaches answers the question: What did Jesus mean by fulfill?
My conclusion: All of them. Jesus’ act of fulfillment includes clarification when they are vague or being sidestepped. He re-interprets when they have been over-interpreted to help remind the people of the original intent of the specific law. And he obeys the ones because he is not here to upset, overthrow, or claim any certain kind of earthly power. All of these approaches are ways of fulfillment.
To help understand this, it is important to go back and remember the original purpose of the Law in Jewish world. For the Israelites, the Law was not something that was followed so much, but rather something you were under. The Law was a physical manifestation of the covenant made by God to the Israelites. Those who were circumcised and a part of the covenant followed the Law not because it determined their in or out-ness, but because following the Law kept them close to God. They were a nation not just set apart from the world, but also to God. The Law was an integral part of that.
Paul helps us understand this in his letter to the Ephesians. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Eph. 2:13 NIV).” Here Paul is speaking to the Gentiles, who were originally not under the Law, but now, through Christ, have been “brought near.” The purpose of the Law, originally, was about keeping the Jews close to God.
However, when Christ comes, that all changes. Suddenly, Christ is now on earth. People shake his hand, hug him, kiss him, and even spit on him. Suddenly, God is near no matter what. And with the coming of the Spirit, he stays near. We use phrases like “Jesus lives in my heart” because now he is always near. In the past, God existed in the temple and to enter the temple you had to be clean. No so now. The curtain has been torn and now nothing physical separates us from God. (This is not an argument for penal substitution atonement, by the way. However, one can’t deny that in Jewish temple practice, God was clearly given a physical location in the Temple and the Most Holy of Holies).
So if we are physically near God, what can set us apart? Our hearts and our minds. That is why Jesus teaches the law through interpretation, clarification, and submission. The purpose of the Law, to keep us close to God, hasn’t changed, but the landscape surely has. Christ knows the things that will keep us from following him: Adulterous and murderous thoughts, blind submission to rules rather than remembering them for their original purposes, distractions of the earthly commitments and pleasures, or even rejection of the laws due to pride or self-righteousness. All these things can keep us from a focused life on Christ.