7 Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. 19 Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. (Mt. 5:17-20)
Jesus said that He did not come to destroy the law or the prophets, but to fulfill. How are we to understand this, considering that the whole New Testament, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, in scripture verse after scripture verse shows us the following:
- Christians are not under the law (Rom. 6:14).
- The law was removed, nailed to the cross and abolished (Col. 2:14, Eph. 2:15).
- It is now ok to eat pork meat and seafood like shrimp and lobster, which was prohibited by the law of Moses (Mk. 7:14-19).
- Gentile Christians should not be required to keep the law of Moses (Acts chapter 15).
- Paul, who was born a Jew, clearly declared that he wasnot under the law (1 Cor. 9:20). (I mention this since some Christians believe that Jesus-believing Jews are still obligated to follow the law of Moses today.)
- God cancelled the Old Covenant, which was based on the law of Moses, and established the New Covenant (Heb. 8:13, 10:8-9).
Firstly, to understand this correctly, I believe it is necessary to know the purpose behind why the law of Moses was given. It was never given to make anyone righteous or give us eternal life. The law was given to show people that they were sinners, in need of salvation (see Rom. 3:19). Jesus did not come to destroy the function of the law of showing mankind that we all are sinful in ourselves. He came to fulfill what the law could not do: to clean our hearts, to save us, and to make us righteous.
This explains why Jesus said, “unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven”. What kind of righteousness was Jesus talking about? The kind of righteousness that is a free gift, by grace through faith in Him. Jesus’ own righteousness by far exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees, who were the religious elite when it came to keeping every jot and tittle of the law of Moses.
The law could only modify people’s outward behavior but could never purify anyone on the inside. But Jesus cleansed us inside out, and thereby He fulfilled what the law. told us to strive for but could not achieve in us. Jesus accomplished what the law could never do (Rom. 8:3).
Secondly, the law and the prophets, from the beginning to the end, testifies of Jesus and the new order, the New Covenant, He would come to institute. Jesus explained to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus that all Old Testament scriptures point to Him (Lk. 24:27).
When Paul in the book of Romans talks about that the Gospel reveals a righteousness “apart from the law”, he thereafter asks the rhetorical question: “Have we thereby nullified the law? On the contrary, we establish the law” (Rom. 3:31). Paul goes on to explain that the law shows us that Abraham was declared righteous by faith, not through works of the law, and that a time would come when the Gentiles would get full access to God through faith. Paul’s point in the book of Romans, was that the law says concerning itself that it was only going to be valid for a limited time period, until a new order would be instituted in which people would relate to God based on grace and faith, instead of based on how good they have been at keeping the law.
Since the law and the prophets testified about Jesus and predicted that the New Covenant one day would replace the Old Covenant, Jesus did not come to go against the law, but simply to fulfill what the law and the prophets had foreseen.
Although God has replaced the Old Covenant with the New, and although we are not under the law, the whole Old Testament is still inspired by God and to be regarded as “holy scripture”. The law and the prophets are still in our Bible and I absolutely do not say that we should stop reading the Old Testament. What I am saying, is that the Old Testament must be interpreted through the revelation of the finished work of Jesus and the New Covenant. We find in the book of Acts that the first disciples, for natural reasons since the New Testament did not yet exist, used the law and the prophets to preach Jesus. That is precisely how we should be using the Old Testament today.
The Old Testament does not only give us the historical description of how man was created and what happened before Jesus came. It also contains teachings about the life in Christ and prophecies about future events. Jesus himself is the guarantee that everything written (if it hasn’t already been fulfilled through His death and resurrection) will come to pass in the future, because He will reign on earth as King of kings and all scriptures testify of Him. All the promises of God are “yes and amen” in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). Since the whole Old Testament testifies of Jesus, He does not destroy the law. He is the very fulfillment of all that is written!
Thirdly, Jesus took the punishment for our sins upon Himself and thereby He, once and for all, fulfilled the demand of the law that sin must be punished. He lived a totally righteous life and could therefore take our place. As He – just before He died on the cross – said, “it is finished”, He had fulfilled the law. Because of this, the veil in the temple was torn apart and the way into the holy of holies was opened for all mankind. Since Jesus fulfilled the law, nailed it to the cross, and removed it, we are not bound by it today.
If Jesus did not fulfill the law, we are obligated to keep ever jot and tittle of it today! If so, we must immediately cancel our Sunday church services and start celebrating the Sabbath on Saturdays, just like the Jewish people. We cannot eat hotdogs if the sausage contains pork meat. Gone are the days when we can enjoy delicious seafood, like lobster or shrimp. Neither can we wear clothes of two different types of materials at the same time. We also must reinstitute the practice of animal sacrifices, and all the different cleansing rituals prescribed in the law. All the Gentile (i.e. non-Jewish) nations are then still to be regarded as “unclean”, without access to God. Simply put: if we are to follow every jot and tittle of the law, all Christians should convert back to Judaism, but I believe we can agree that this is not what the Bible says, nor what Jesus meant.
If we are not obligated to obey every jot and tittle in the law – what did Jesus mean when He said that “whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven”? The context indicates that He referred to people who say that it is now okay to sin, murder, commit adultery, and live a sinful life, since we are not under the law. In several places in the New Testament, there are scriptures that indicate that some people (probably the so-called Gnostics) perverted the Gospel of grace by teaching such heresy.
What does it mean that we are “not under the law”? Simply that we in the New Covenant do not live in a performance-based relationship with God. Instead, it is based on God’s unconditional love for us. The fact that we are no longer under the law, does not mean that it now is “okay to sin”. On the contrary. We now live in the law of love (Jn. 13:34). Because God has loved us first through Christ, we can love God and our fellow man. If we truly walk with an awareness of God’s love for us, we will not go out and live a life of sin. Instead, we will live more holy than what was ever possible under the law, since God has written His law in our hearts and Jesus Himself is living in us through the Holy Spirit.