Matthew 5:17-20: The Law Fulfilled

Read: Matthew 5:17-20

Jesus explicitly proclaims that he did not come to abolish the law, so why is it that Christians are required to give sacrifices at the temple and follow a myriad of other such laws relating to sacrifices, what rituals one should follow to be ceremonially clean, and how the priests were suppose to act? In the same breath, Jesus says that he also came to “fulfill the law”.

So what did Jesus actually fulfill? There aren’t pat answers that can be given to answer this question, but it can be generally addressed by seeing the all the laws in the Old Testament were seen as falling into one or two categories: ceremonially laws and moral laws. Ceremonially laws were seen as those which related to all the ceremonially practices and requirements related to sacrifice, the priesthood, who is and isn’t ceremonially clean, clean and unclean foods, the process for becoming ceremonially clean for various conditions, among many others. The moral laws were those that related to the do’s and don’ts, such as not stealing, not lying, not murdering, and giving the poor, taking care of widows, and being kind for foreigners. All these laws were either dealing with practical and civil relationships between various people or matters of personal holiness. While these two categories exist, there were still some questions lingering in the minds of new believers even after Jesus ascended into heaven. Many new Christians that came out of Judaism, for instance, wanted to maintain portions of the Old Testament law such as circumcision. Large sections of the New Testament, such as much of Galatians, are dedicate to Paul and the other apostles addressing this very issue.

The book of Hebrews unpacks how Jesus fulfills the ceremonially laws by becoming the high priest (Hebrews 7) and being the sacrifice (Hebrews 10:1-18). It also explains how the temple and the tabernacle were “copies” of things in heaven that pointed to the perfect temple and what it contained. Jesus himself is both the priest forever and one and for all sacrifice, so there is no need for daily and yearly sacrifices, priests to offer them, or temple with its altar to offer them on. In doing so, Jesus fulfills the ceremonially law for all times so Christians don’t have to offer sacrifices anymore. With this being fulfilled, what’s left is the moral laws, and the New Testament has many lists of what one might consider moral right or wrong. Even with much of the New Testament dedicated to helping Christians understand what is and isn’t fulfilled in Jesus in the Bible, it’s not always as crystal clear as one would like to it to be. For instance, some Christians object to tattoos on moral grounds while others do not, claiming that the Law forbade tattoos because of the ceremonially law. Some Christians think that others shouldn’t celebrate Christmas because it is rooted in pagan traditions while other Christians don’t have a problem with it. Paul in light of this gives practical advice concerning this conflict in Romans 14, with what has become known as the “principle of conscience”. Paul says to this matter that one should not become a stumbling block to another by trying to impose such morality that isn’t otherwise explicitly addressed on another as being morally binding.

One thing is clear: righteousness does not come from following the law, rather righteousness comes by faith in Jesus. The Pharisees, however, believed that righteousness could come through following the law and made painstaking efforts to abide by the ceremonial law. Their problem was that they were not following the moral laws. Righteousness comes from faith in Jesus, believing that he is the once and for all sacrifice for sin. When one is made clean by Jesus, he or she is freed up to live a life free from the bondage of the Law and bondage to sin and can pursue holiness not as means to obtain righteousness, rather as response to the great love that God has lavished on it all believers. In doing so believers obey the moral laws and love God at the same time!

Lord, you fulfilled the law for me when I could not! All I can do is love your in return!