In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says he didn't come to abolish the law or Prophets but to fulfill them. What does it mean to "fulfill the law"?
Some possible meanings:
- The Old Testament - particularly the legal and sacrificial systems - are types (examples, shadows, mirrors) of Christ. In other words, they point to some aspect of His ministry or work.
- From Paul's writings in Romans, the Law brings death so that we grasp the life found in Christ as both a satisfaction and a contrast.
- The prophets pointed out many key indicators by which the Christ would be recognized or identified.
- Some of Jesus' teachings were directly aimed at wrong practices or wrong interpretations that had accrued within the Jewish system. However, just because someone was using the Law or prophecies incorrectly does not mean that the underlying articles are invalid.
- Possibly, He meant that He would be the only Person throughout history to fully and perfectly keep the Law.
What it means for Jesus to 'fulfill the law' in Matthew 5:17 is what it means in context, nothing more nothing less. I will argue that Matthew is looking forward to the rest of chapter 5 where he expands and explains what he begins to talk about in 5:17:
Matthew 5:17-20 begins a section that ends with the final verse of chapter 5:
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. 18For 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. 19Therefore 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. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
[...] You have heard that it was said [...] (murder v anger)
[...] You have heard that it was said [...] (adultery v lust)
[...] It was also said [...] (divorce)
[...] Again you have heard that it was said [...] (oaths)
[...] You have heard that it was said [...] (an eye for an eye)
[...] You have heard that it was said [...] (hate/love your enemy)
48You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. ESV
Crucial for understanding this section is understanding the contrast that Jesus introduces in verse 20 concerning righteousness and the scribes and Pharisees (highlighted above). What is this contrast? First we need to be clear what it is not: Both Jesus and the pharisees insist that the law is utterly sacred. "not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law" leaves no room for doubt that Jesus has no intention of subverting the law and it's commands. It goes without saying that the scribes and Pharisees essentially shared this view.
The actual contrast is not in the letter of the law, but in the spirit and interpretation of the law. This is evident in each of the examples Jesus gives:
21“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. ESV
This first section refers to the commandment given in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 and probably to the various passages on judgement for murderers such as that in Exodus 21. Jesus logic reveals that the Pharisees have perversely interpreted this to mean that if you do not murder then you are not liable to judgement and this interpretation Jesus flatly contradicts. Rather that setting a behavioral, external, line between righteousness and unrighteousness, Jesus interprets the original command as an indictment of the heart: if the heart inclines you towards murder then you are liable to judgement. There is a line, but it is internal, spiritual and intentional rather than external, physical and behavioral.
27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. ESV
Jesus likewise interprets this commandment on the level of intentions and the heart.
31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. ESV
The Pharisees interpret this command as a permission for divorce but Jesus interprets it as a gracious concession to a sinful humanity that points to the true heart of God's command concerning marriage and faithfulness.
33“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ [...] 37Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. ESV
The scribes and Pharisees insist that formal oaths must be kept faithfully but Jesus interprets the law on oaths to be a law that reaches the heart and the intentions: the line between righteousness and evil is not drawn in terms of the formality and external appearance of the promise, but is drawn inside the heart between the intention to deceive at any time, and the intention to speak truth.
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. ESV
The pattern continues: is the command to be interpreted as a permission for retaliation based on an external measure, or as Jesus insists in total contrast, a limit on justice pointing to the heart of forgiveness.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, ESV
The command to "love your neighbour" is not Jesus' addition to the law, but the perversity of interpreting this command as a permission to hate (or "take vengeance or bear a grudge against") foreigners or enemies completes the pattern of false interpretation. The correct interpretation is to elevate love from the heart, not hate.
The initially shocking demand that entry into the kingdom of heaven is dependent on a righteousness that "exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees" has been explained. Jesus is not commanding righteousness that is 'more perfect' than that of the religious folk of his time, but an entirely different interpretation of what righteousness actually is. The law, correctly interpreted and obeyed, makes a person look like God, and not at all like a Pharisee:
45so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. [...] 48You therefore must be perfect1, as your heavenly Father is perfect. ESV
What does it mean to "fulfill the law"?
To fulfill the law is to interpret it correctly: as concerning the heart; and obey2 it as it was intended to be obeyed: from the heart. Jesus' claim is that he himself does this perfectly.
1 "perfect" here can also carry the sense of 'complete', or 'fulfilled' which makes considerable sense in this context
To fulfill the law means to complete it in every aspect. The Greek word is πληρῶσαι (lexical form πληρόω). Τελειόω is a synonym; it has a sense of bringing something to completeness in its end, in its finality. Πληρόω has the sense of to complete something in fullness. And this sense indeed applies to Jesus' fulfillment of the law: it was not a meager point-by-point legalistic accomplishment. It was a perfect, full, absolute, complete accomplishment.
This fullness of completeness is due to the fundamental nature of the law. Let's stay in the book of Matthew. If we are to talk about what law Jesus fulfilled, we must go to the passage in which he himself expresses what the law is.
“Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?”
Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” —22:36-40
In its most fundamental aspect, then, Jesus' keeping of the law was his perfect, passionate, perpetual love of the Father, and his gracious, humble, compassionate love to sinners. This is certainly played out in a detailed way, as expressed in Galactic Cowboy's answer, but let us not loose sight of the fact that everything Jesus did was out of love for the Father.
I would propose that it means what it says, at face value. Consider the context.
Matthew 5:17-20 are the key passage. The opening verse is the poster's question, and we read on to find the intent.
From the get go, the obvious interpretation of this is the Law of Moses (and prophets). This is the case for the entire passage. We are specifically talking about the Mosaic Law. It is said that this law, the Mosaic Law, will not disappear until all is accomplished.
v19 continues this, with this addition--how one keeps the Law of Moses will determine your status (reward) in heaven. v20 then goes on and says that the old level of righteousness was not enough.
Things to Consider
In the first place, we must determine if everything is "accomplished". You could take a crucifixion or a 70 AD perspective on this, but that does not appear to be in view. Particularly, v19 establishes that it is this law of Moses that determines ones place in heaven, by some means. Additionally, the correlation between the rest of the chapter and and the Law is to be noted, so that even if the Law has passed, it would not matter, since the standard of holiness is greater, besides.
From these, it would seem that the "accomplished" that Jesus is referring to points more likely to the end of the world, and not some already past event.
Second, if we do conclude that the Law has not passed away (keeping in mind the Romans 7 argument--I died to the law to end my marriage to it), we see that Jesus' stipulations are not the Legal code, but appear to represent the heart behind it.
Jesus could not add to the law (Deuteronomy 12:32), so what He is not doing is making the law 'unkeepable'. I believe He was explaining the true intent behind the Law, but the law could only restrain outward behavior, Jesus expressed the Kingdom intent, which was the heart.
Onward to an Answer
So, what if we took Jesus at simply a face-value reading of this text? Where would that leave us?
Particularly, Jesus is saying, He is come both to fulfill the law perfectly Himself, obviously, but more than that, He is come to see the law fulfilled in each one of us, effectively.
But, does this square with the rest of the New Testament?
Consider, no one was keeping the law already. No one was good (Romans 12:3). What Jesus came to do was to see the original Law of Moses, in the original spirit of the law, fulfilled.
But, Galatians 5:16 says that if we live by the Spirit, we will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. Thus, by this way, Jesus fulfills the law two-fold in us.
- He makes us righteous, which was the intent of the Law.
- He enables us to "keep" the law by way of His Spirit.
But, how He enables us to keep the law needs a little more attention. The Law was written by the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16). To live by the Spirit, who is God, is to live in love, which God is. Thus, to live by the Spirit is to live by the law of Love which God is perfectly. But, to live by love, loving God and one's neighbor, one fulfills the very thing upon which the whole of the Law and the Prophets hang.
Hence, if we live by the Spirit, we live in love, and the Holy Spirit does not contradict Himself. Living by the Spirit, we will find ourselves obeying perfectly the "spirit of the Law of Moses", as it was originally meant to be lived, without ever looking at the Law itself.
In the end, what follows after v20 is then the natural progression. We will no longer focus on the outward acts of murder, but we will look at the anger and hostility of the heart. This is the progression of Paul in Colossians 2-3.
You actually never get there by "looking" at the Law, but you end up fulfilling it all the same.
Thus, it appears Jesus meant what it seems like He did--He didn't abolish it (and it isn't), but He has both fulfilled it through us to establish our righteousness as well as living His life through us by His Spirit to work out His Righteousness.
As Jesus said at the end of the passage in Matthew 7:21-23, calling Him Lord is not enough--it requires a life. Granted, for the true believer, this flows from the life of faith and not as a matter of performance, but it is required nevertheless (faith without this is dead).
What Christ could be conceived of as as saying is something like...
The law of Moses, which is hung upon the great commands of Love, is fulfilled in us only when we live in Christ, and by His Spirit.
Firstly, what is the law, and what is its purpose?
The law is a manifestation of the perfect holiness of God, and was given to us (humanity) to show how utterly unable we are to meet God's standard by our own means, strength or works (Romans 7:7). It shows us our sinfulness as a contrast to God's holiness. Old Testament saints who were called righteous relied upon the grace of God for their right standing with God, not their success at keeping the law.
When Jesus is said to have fulfilled the law, it means that He perfectly kept the law of God, and never sinned (1 Peter 2:22). This was therefore a manifestation of and testimony to His deity. Obviously something no other man could possibly do.
He didn't come to abolish the law means that the law remains the law and is (still) perfect (Romans 7:12). Even after we enter the New Pact in Jesus' blood (Mark 14:24), which places believers under grace not under law (Romans 6:15), therefore in a sense abolishing the law for believers, the law remains as a testament of God's holiness and our inability to meet His standard. Something that remains true even after conversion (Romans 7:19).
So, to answer your question:
It meant that He never sinned, and therefore that He is God. As a result of that, it also means His sacrifice was a full (infinite) payment for sin, and therefore that the just punishment for transgression of the law (of all believers) was fulfilled too. He fulfilled the law for us, because we couldn't. He didn't come to abolish the law, because He didn't just say "the law no longer applies", He came to pay the penalty for the breaking of the law.
A good way to understand this is to compare it to the difference between cancelling ("forgiving") a debt, and paying the debt. In one, payment is made which fulfills the obligations of the debt, and in the other payment is withheld and the obligations of the debt are not met. This is an important point because it shows that God's justice is not violated in dispensing mercy and forgiveness to believers. God remains just while at the same time able to show mercy to sinners. Something that is present in no other belief system outside of biblical christianity.
Jesus fulfilled the law, He didn't simply abolish it.
I've always thought "fulfill the Law" referred to the death and resurrection of Christ. In the sense that, it was the Law that condemns us, and it is faith that justifies us. In other words, God had always intended that the Law be perfected/completed/revealed in Christ.
Galatians 3:23-25 But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.
That said, in studying this question I came across a few verses that have me wondering if there is more to what "fulfill the law" means than what I've thought...
Romans 13:8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
Romans 13:10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
Galatians 5:14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
I'll need to chew on that and am looking forward to somebody else shedding light.
Consider Matt 3:15 regarding Jesus's baptism:
But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed Him.
But in no sense was Jesus lacking in righteousness. Instead, he was illustrating righteousness, what his followers should do.
Again, consider Mat 2:15
and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”
This quotation from Hosea is NOT a prophecy but a reference to a past event, the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. However, this is better understood as Israel's exodus illustrates Jesus's exodus, not that a prophecy was fulfilled.
If we takes this same sense of illustration into the passage at hand, written by the same author, we have (Mat 5:17)
Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to illustrate the Law and Prophets.
Jesus illustrates the Law by doing as the real Law requires, in contrast to how many Pharisees were living.strong text
As a side note: You won't see this illustration sense translated, as the historical weight of using the word to indicate fulfillment of prophecy is too great. The prophetic apologetic for Jesus as the Messiah is weakened if the reference to Hosea 2 (out of Egypt) were changed. Unfortunately critics at rationalwiki and others have uncovered this "errant prophecy". The prophecy is not in error, only it is translated erroneously as a prophecy. But once we see Jesus as illustrating prophecy, then it is clear how he also illustrates the law. (To clarify, one can believe in the divinity of Jesus without believing the out of egypt quotation was a fulfilled prophecy.)
"Matthew's" use of πληρόω was translated by the KJV folks as "fulfill" which causes a lot of confusion. One of the glosses the m-w.com provides for "fulfill" is: "to develop the full potentialities of" which I think touches on what Matthew intended. He uses it as the opposite of "denigrate" or "compromise" or "cheapen":
In fact it says:
fulfill implies a complete realization of ends or possibilities
It is kindred to "complete".
Given the context, Jesus is contrasting the way the scribes and pharisees would allegedly parse the Torah into "do this but don't worry about that" and "this is necessary but this is not" and how Jesus insists that the whole of the Torah was to be obeyed fully.
This is based one history and the actual scriptures, so keep an open mind.
The Greek word behind "fulfilled" does mean something that has been filled up to the highest degree. Every year the lamb without spot and blemish was offered on the preparation day of the Passover. Christianity teaches that it was impossible for the blood of animals to wash away the sins of humans and this was instead fulfilled in Jesus's death and resurrection.
Paul claims that 1 Cor. 15 is based on an actual historical event:
The Anointed One died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried; And that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.
All the new testament writings conformed to this basic framework. Paul says the "Anointed One" was man's Passover, and people are unleavened in him because he has been sacrificed for us. And that he was raised up as the first fruits. Paul says he thus fulfilled the whole feast of Unleavened Bread.
We learn from Luke 24:21 where the Greek text literally say that the third day is "from" the day of the Passover offering. That is in accordance with the law that says the first day of unleavened bread starts the day after the Passover sacrifice and the removal of unleavened bread. Hence the days Jesus spent in the tomb and the days of Unleavened Bread is in full agreement. And he was therefore raised the third day of Unleavened Bread. The first fruits has to be reaped during the days of unleavened bread according to law.
So he was offered on the preparation day of the Passover, was entombed before the next day, and remained in tomb until the third day and was resurrected as the first fruits. That's how this is summed up in Christian scripture. He did not only come to fulfill the Prophets and Psalms, but also the Law until the last detail.
This wil not be the most popular answer, but it is purely based on the gospels which are based on historic events, which are according to the gospels and the testimony of the original witnesses.
"The law, having a shadow of the good things coming..." Hebrews 10.1
Without understanding what the shadow of the law is, one is left thinking that fulfillment is simply keeping the law. Fulfillment is not simply keeping the law. Jesus fulfills the prophecies which are hidden in the shadow of the law.
The law says a clean animal is one which ruminates (meditates on the word) and that meditation produces a separated (holy) walk. Jesus is not a clean animal, but fulfills the shadow contained in the law of the clean animal.
Jesus fulfills the prophecy contained in the law of the leper. His Father forsook him (shaved head), his prayer (remove this cup) was not answered (covered lip). He bore our sin completely (leper covered completely with sin) and became our high priest (ceremony of cleansing like the one for priests). Jesus was not a leper, but fulfilled the shadow (hidden prophecy) of the leper.
He fulfills the law of murdering by killing without becoming culpable of murder by fulfilling the shadow prophecy that he would lay down his own life in love for us.
He fulfills all the law of sacrifices since they are all types of his sacrifice. Yet he is not literal all those animals which typify him.
He fulfills the law of lying by lying without becoming culpable of sin by speaking in parables. In the language of the riddles, a parable is not technically and literally true.
He 'does not honor his parents' when he was twelve without sinning by 'being about His Father's business'. Though he did not sin in doing his Father's will, he fulfilled, not only the law concerning parents, but also the hidden prophecy concerning the nine kings of Chedorlaomer.
He comes as the thief in the night.
All the law has a shadow which is fulfilled in Christ.