“I have come not to abolish but to fulfill”

Just what did Jesus mean when He said He came to “fulfill the law”? To learn that, we read Matthew 5:17-19.

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter
will pass from the law,
until all things have taken place.
Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments
and teaches others to do so
will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven.
But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments
will be called greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.”

I have often wondered what Jesus meant when He used the word “fulfill”, so I did some research. In the context of this passage from Matthew, there are a couple of different interpretations. One is that Jesus came to enforce the laws of Moses. Another is that He came to explain and teach, in a broadening interpretation. When you look beyond this shorter excerpt from chapter 5 of Matthew, you will find that Jesus expands on the Commandments, and so we might look to the latter interpretation.

Here is the thrust of what I learned in my research: Some use this passage as a way of binding us all to the Old Testament rules and laws of the Torah. But the early Church said that we aren’t bound by the rules. For instance, men aren’t required to be circumcised, as proscribed in the Torah, to be Christians. Other examples include, we are allowed to eat shellfish and pork.  But as you read farther into chapter 5 of Matthew, Jesus picks out specific commandments (of the Ten Commandments) we are expected to live by and expands on what they mean in the way we are to live. For instance, we have all heard of the law against adultery; Jesus says if you lust after another person you have committed adultery in your heart. For another example, we have all heard of the law against murder; Jesus says if you are angry against your neighbor you are equally liable. He also speaks to the law on bearing witness, saying not to swear an oath on anything but to speaking truthfully, meaning yes when you say yes and meaning no when you say no — don’t lie or mislead.

What Jesus is saying here is that He didn’t come to obfuscate the law; He came to clarify it. He came to teach us how to live by the laws God gave us to live rightly. Now, maybe we aren’t subject to all the rules of the Torah, but we are subject to the Commandments, and while we are subject to even the smallest letters of those laws (the words of the laws), what Jesus is saying is that we are even more subject to the heart (or intended meaning) of those laws.

Interestingly, one of the articles I read talked about one aspect of Jesus fulfilling the Commandments, which was that He wrapped them all up into the greatest laws: to love God with all of our heart, all of our mind, and all of our soul and to love one another as ourselves. When we do that, we can observe all the other Commandments as well, said the writer. That was Jesus’ ultimate teaching or fulfillment of the law of all. As such, He didn’t “abolish” anything but brought everything together as one.

So how does this apply to us? We should seek to keep the Commandments, which begins with loving God and loving one another. When we truly do that, the rest will follow.

Now, in this shorter version of chapter 5, Jesus does go on to say that “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do so, will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven.” And “whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.” So the commandments are important, as is how we address them. But if we truly love God and one another that shouldn’t be a problem.

(Note: I haven’t published in a while because I have worked so hard to get this one right; it could be so easy to get it wrong. I apologize for not posting for a while.)

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