How did Jesus "fulfill" the Law? (Matt. 5:17-19)

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Sermon on the Mount

Quick answer: Jesus, by the word "fulfill," meant that he would confirm and complete the prophetic and typological parts of the Law and Prophets. Therefore, (as most Christians will admit) some jots and tittles of the law have passed away -- but by no means all of the law. Jesus came neither to abolish the law, nor to preserve every jot of it unchanged until the end of time.


Most Christians are familiar with Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. But they often do not realize the importance of Jesus' introductory words:

Bible17 "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. 18 For truly, I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not even one jot or one tittle shall in any way pass away from the law, until all things are accomplished. 19 Whoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments, and teach others to do so, shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven..." (Matt. 5:17-19)

Jesus was making it clear at the beginning of his sermon: nothing he was about to say should be interpreted as setting aside or abolishing the law. He said "I did not come to abolish [the law]...". This statement was necessary, because Jews in the first century, who had only heard the false teachings of the Pharisees (based upon the so-called "Oral law"), might think that Jesus was somehow making void God's written law. But he was only making void the Pharisees' false manipulations of the law (e.g. Matt. 15:3ff).

Greg Bahnsen wrote an entire chapter in his book Theonomy in Christian Ethics on the above scripture passage. The chapter was titled: "The Abiding Validity of the Law in Exhaustive Detail (Matthew 5:17-19)." (Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 41) There is a lot of value in Dr. Bahnsen's discussion of the passage, and it is definitely worth reading. Dr. Bahnsen summarized the various approaches to the word "fulfill" as follows:

Greg Bahnsen (image courtesy WhiteKnight138 CC-BY-SA 4.0)There have been a variety of suggested senses for "fulfill" in this passage. Does it indicate that Jesus puts an end to,45 replaces,46 supplements (adds to),47 intends to actively obey,48 enforce,49 or confirms and restores the law? (Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 54-55)

Dr. Bahnsen discussed each of these options in detail. Ultimately, he argued that "fulfill" should be understood as meaning both "confirm" and "establish" (in direct antithesis to the word "abolish" earlier in the verse).(Bahnsen, 68-73) One of the implications of Dr. Bahnsen's view is that the law remains binding -- even in the New Covenant -- in "exhaustive detail" (thus his chapter title). He wrote:

Greg Bahnsen (image courtesy WhiteKnight138 CC-BY-SA 4.0)It is hard to imagine how Jesus could have more intensely affirmed that every bit of the law remains binding in the gospel age. (Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 76)

According to Dr. Bahnsen, the jots and tittles of the law remain binding until the end of the "physical universe":

Greg Bahnsen (image courtesy WhiteKnight138 CC-BY-SA 4.0)Christ ... states that the law will remain valid at least as long as the physical universe lasts, that is, until the end of the age or world. ... [W]hen we do take into account the actual ending of heaven and earth we see that Scripture teaches it to be at the return of Christ .... At least until that point the details of the law will remain. ... Παρέλθῃ is used twice in this verse: first of the physical universe, and second of the smallest details of God's law. (Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 79-80)

I will offer a different understanding of Jesus' word "fulfill" than Dr. Bahnsen. To keep this essay manageably short, I will interact only minimally with what he wrote. I will show that Jesus, by the word "fulfill," meant that he would confirm and complete the prophetic and typological parts of the law and prophets. Therefore, some jots and tittles of the law have passed away -- but by no means all. Jesus came neither to abolish the law, nor to preserve every typological jot of it until the end of time.

Jesus confirmed and completed the Law and Prophets

Jesus says that he came to fulfill two things: the Law and the Prophets. Most people who have read Matthew's gospel understand what Jesus meant when he said "fulfill" "the Prophets." In fact, this is a recurring "fulfillment" theme in the gospel of Matthew:

Bible15 and he was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled the thing having been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, "Out of Egypt I called My Son." (Matt. 2:15)

Jesus' mission as Messiah fulfilled many Old Testament prophecies, and Matthew is constantly pointing out when this happened (Matt. 1:22; 2:17,23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:54,56; 27:9). As Jesus fulfilled these prophecies, he accomplished two additional things:

  1. He confirmed that the prophecy was true. [See, for example, Luke 24:25-26.]
  2. He completed the prophecy.

With respect to number 2 above: by completing the prophecy, Jesus also ensured that it never needed to be fulfilled again. So, for example, once we recognize that the branch from the root of Jesse has already come (see Isaiah 11:1-10, quoted in Rom. 15:12), we do not continue examining the future generations of Jesse for additional branches. The prophecy accomplished God's purpose and is now complete.

What about the law, though? Did Jesus "complete" the Law in the same way, ensuring that it would never need to be fulfilled again?

Yes -- but only parts of the Law. There are two major ways in which Jesus "fulfilled" the Law:

  1. Jesus confirmed and completed certain specific prophecies in the Law by causing them to come true.
  2. Jesus confirmed and completed the typology embedded within certain parts of the law (e.g. sacrificial), manifesting himself as the "body"/antitype to which the "shadow"/type of the law was pointing.

Let's take a closer look at these two aspects.

Jesus completed specific prophecies in the Law

Fortunately for interpreters of Matt. 5:17, Jesus told his disciples (and us) exactly how he meant the word fulfill:

Bible44 and [Jesus] said to them, "These are the words which I spoke to you, being yet with you, that it is necessary to be fulfilled all the things having been written in the Law of Moses, and the Prophets, and Psalms, concerning me." (Luke 24:44)

"All of the things written in the Law of Moses ... concerning me" refers to specific prophecies (and prophetic typologies, as I show in the next section) that were embedded in "the Law of Moses" (the phrase references Joshua 8:34, and means the Torah of Genesis through Deuteronomy) which predicted the person and work of the coming Messiah.

D. A. Carson, commenting on Matt. 5:17-19, writes:

The best interpretation of these difficult verses says that Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets in that they point to him, and he is their fulfillment… Therefore we give pleroo (‘fulfill’) exactly the same meaning as in the formula quotations, which in the prologue (Matt 1-2) have already laid great stress on the prophetic nature of the OT and the way it points to Jesus. Even OT events have this prophetic significance (see on 2:15). A little later Jesus insists that ‘all the Prophets and the Law prophesied’ (11:13). The manner of the prophetic foreshadowing varies. The Exodus, Matthew argues (2:15), foreshadows the calling out of Egypt of God’s ‘son.’ (Carson, Matthew [Expositors Bible Commentary])

Jesus was telling people that he came to "fulfill" (as in "accomplish what was prophesied") all the unfulfilled prophesies which were in both "the Law and the Prophets." Christians don't often think about "the Law" as a textual genre that contains prophecy, but there is lots of prophecy in the Law, not just "the Prophets." Here are three important prophecies from the Law which Jesus fulfilled.

1. Jesus was the prophet like Moses

The apostle Peter, speaking before the people in Acts 3, quoted from a prophecy in Deut. 18:18-19:

Bible20 and [YHWH] may send the one having been foreappointed to you, Christ Jesus, 21 whom it is necessary for heaven, indeed, to receive -- up to times of a restoration of all things, of which God spoke through the mouth of all his holy prophets from the age. 22 For Moses, indeed, said to the fathers -- the Lord our God will raise up a prophet to you from among your brothers, like to me; you will hear him according to all things, as many as he may speak to you; 23 and it will be, every soul that may not hear that prophet will be utterly destroyed from among the people; (Acts 3:20-23)

2. Jesus was the promised "seed" of Abraham

Right after Peter spoke the above, he said:

Bible25 You are the sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God covenanted with our fathers, saying to Abraham: "And in your seed will be blessed all the families of the earth;" 26 God, having raised up his child Jesus, sent him to you first, blessing you, in the turning away of each one from your evil ways. (Acts 3:25-26)

The apostle Paul also confirmed that this was the proper interpretation of that promise:

Bible16 And to Abraham were the promises spoken, and to his seed; he doesn't say, "And to seeds," as of many, but as of one, "And to your seed," which is Christ; (Gal. 3:16)

3. Jesus was the lion of the tribe of Judah

Bible2 and I saw a strong angel proclaiming in a loud voice, "Who is worthy to open the scroll and to loose the seals of it?" 3 and no one was able in the heaven above, nor upon the earth, nor under the earth, to open the scroll, nor to behold it. 4 And I was weeping much, because no one was found worthy to open the scroll, nor to behold it. 5 And one of the elders says to me, "Do not weep; behold, the Lion, the one from the tribe of Judah, the root of David, did conquer, the one opening the scroll, and the seven seals of it." (Rev. 5:2-5)

The above is a reference to the following prophecy in the Law:

Bible9 Judah is a lion's cub. From the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down, he crouched as a lion, as a lioness. Who will rouse him up? 10 The scepter will not depart from Judah, Nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes. To him will the obedience of the peoples be. (Deut. 49:9-10)

There are many of other prophecies in the Law which Jesus fulfilled (such as the Song of Moses), but the three above are enough to establish the point.

Jesus completed the typology of the law

Certain Sinai Covenant laws (e.g. the sacrificial ones) prefigured the work of Christ. This function of prefiguring is called "typology." In theological study, the word "type" (Greek: τύπος -- often translated "pattern") is a label for something which is an abstracted (simplified) representation of the real thing (which comes later). The real thing which comes later is labeled the "antitype" (Greek: ἀντίτυπος, see 1 Pet. 3:21). You might also have heard these called "shadows," as the apostle Paul does in Col. 2:17. The type corresponds to the antitype, just as a shadow cast by someone's body is an abstracted representation of that body. Thus, Paul says "the body is of Christ" (Col. 2:17). This metaphorical "shadow" of Christ is cast back into many parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, and we see it most often in the sacrificial laws.

For example, the apostle Paul wrote:

Bible7 cleanse out the old leaven, in order that you may be a new lump, according as you are unleavened. For also our Passover, Christ, was sacrificed on our behalf, 8 so that we may keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of evil and wickedness, but with unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor. 5:7-8)

Jesus was the antitype to which the type of the Passover lamb pointed. On this understanding, once the reality (Christ and his once-for-all sacrifice) has been accomplished, the original type/pattern/shadow either no longer exists, or -- if it does still exist -- its original function is no longer necessary; thus, we must treat the type/pattern/shadow differently than we did before. We no longer sacrifice a lamb on Passover as the law required (Num. 9:1-3).

When the apostle Paul wrote the following:

Bible4 For Christ is the end (τέλος) of the law for righteousness to everyone believing, (Rom. 10:4)

Paul was not suggesting (contrary to Jesus' own words in Matt. 5:17) that Christ "ended" (as in abolished) the whole law. The Greek word which Paul used is telos, (from which we get our term "teleology"). It can mean either "temporal end" or "goal." No matter which of these translation options we take, it fits with Jesus' purpose of fulfilling the law by completing its typological/didactic purpose:

  1. Christ was the temporal end of many of the sacrificial laws which foreshadowed his once-for-all sacrifice. These laws were covenantally-bound, and are no longer binding.
  2. Christ was the final goal of the law, which pointed towards his finished work in many ways.

As another example, Jesus' own priesthood abolished the laws which related to the Levitical priests. There are no Levitical priests in the New Covenant. When the Sinai Covenant ended in A.D. 70, the Levitical priest regulations were abolished with it.

The typological goal of the law is what Paul was referring to when he wrote:

Bible23 And before the coming of the faith, we were being guarded under law, having been shut up to the faith about to be unveiled, 24 so that the law became our child-tutor -- to Christ, in order that by faith we may be declared-righteous, 25 and the faith having come, we are no longer under a child-tutor; (Gal. 3:23-25)

As a tutor, the typological law led God's people toward a goal, preparing them for the coming final work of the Messiah. The tutorial laws which Paul says "we are no longer under" are the covenantally-bound laws (like the typological laws), because Jesus completed them and made them obsolete.

All things are accomplished?

Once we have established what Jesus meant by "fulfill," we can understand what he meant by a particular clause in the next verse (18): "until all things are accomplished." Notice that the exact same phrase is used in the following verse:

Biblethis generation will not pass away until all things are accomplished. (Luke 21:32)

This verse in Luke is a parallel verse to Matt. 24:34.

Without going too much into the eschatology (which others, such as Gary Demar, have already written extensively on), I will merely assert that the words "this generation," in the Gospels, always means the generation of people to whom Jesus was speaking. These are the people who were alive circa A.D. 30. This is a mainstream preterist interpretation, which you can find in many commentaries.

Therefore, we can know with certainty that "all things" (whatever that phrase specifically refers to) would be "accomplished" by the end of the first century. Jesus was evidently not saying "until all things that will ever happen are accomplished." He clearly intended the phrase "all things" to have a scope of meaning limited to the first century "generation."

We know that Jesus came to fulfill/complete many Old Testament prophecies and to fulfill/complete certain laws by means of his final, finished sacrifice. Therefore, when he says "until all things are accomplished" (v. 18) in the context of "fulfilling" the Law and the Prophets, we can reasonably limit the reference of this phase to: "until all things prophesied or foreshadowed in both the Law and the Prophets are accomplished."

A chiasm of fulfillment

But if Jesus did cause some of the laws to "pass away," then what are we to make of that other part of his claim: "until heaven and earth pass away, ..."? All of these phrases must be treated together, because they form an interlocking chiasm of meaning:

A   until the heaven and the earth pass away,
B         one jot or one tittle may by no means pass from the law
A'  until all things are accomplished.

[A chiasm is a common Biblical literary structure which uses forms of repetition and structural reversal for emphasis.]

Clearly, the central clause (B) of this chiasm is dependent upon both the first (A) and third (A') clauses. Dr. Bahnsen himself made this point:

Greg Bahnsen (image courtesy WhiteKnight138 CC-BY-SA 4.0)Ηως ἂν πάντα γένηται states unconditionally "until all things have taken place (are past)." Thus this phrase is functionally equivalent to "until heaven and earth pass away." These two ἕως clauses parallel (a common literary device) and explain each other. (Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 83)

I completely agree with Dr. Bahnsen's claim above. We must allow these ἕως clauses each to inform and explain our interpretation of the other. I have already made the case that the second clause ought to be interpreted in the light of how Jesus used these words in Luke 21:32. If "all things" (which Jesus was intending to fulfill) were going to be fulfilled before that generation passed away, then how do we understand "heaven and earth"?

Let's work backwards, using logic. Here is a syllogism:

  1. No jots and tittles of the law will pass away before heaven and earth pass away.
  2. Some jots and tittles of the law have passed away.
  3. Therefore, heaven and earth have passed away.

The above syllogism is logically valid. Premise #1 is scripturally certain (rephrased from Matt. 5:18). What about premise #2?

Jots and tittles have passed away

We all recognize that certain jots and tittles of the law have passed away. No Christian should dispute this fact. For example:

  1. We do not circumcise our male babies on the 8th day of life, as the law required: Lev. 12:3.
  2. We do not consider ourselves to be unclean when we eat pork: Lev. 11:7-8.
  3. We do not search for a Levitical priest (or any kind of priest) to determine whether an ulceration on our skin requires us to be quarantined: Lev. 13:2-3.
  4. We do not teach women that they should consider themselves to be ritually "unclean" for 80 days after birthing a girl: Lev. 12:5.

Most Christians neither observe nor teach others to observe these laws, because they were bound to the Sinai Covenant and have now passed away. In Theonomy In Christian Ethics, Dr. Bahnsen himself discusses a law which was "annulled" by the New Covenant:

Greg Bahnsen (image courtesy WhiteKnight138 CC-BY-SA 4.0)The Levitical priesthood, representing the Mosaic system of ceremonial redemption, could not bring perfection and so was intended to be superseded (Heb. 7:11 f., 28). ... when Jesus instituted a change in the priesthood (for He was of the tribe of Judah, not Levi) the ceremonial principle was altered as well.... The former commandment with reference to ceremonial matters was set aside, then, in order that God's people might have a better hope.... The commandment which was anulled was "a commandment with respect to the flesh" (i.e. concerning external qualification of physical descent of the priests....). (Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 206).

Of course, Dr. Bahnsen suggests that this "anulling" of priestly qualification was "implied in Psalm 110:1,4," therefore he does not consider it to be a contradiction with his interpretation of Matt. 5:17f (Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 206-207). But this "fulfillment" of the law is exactly what Jesus was talking about in Matt. 5:17-19. The changeover to the New Covenant required a change in the covenantally-bound portions of the law, just as the author of Hebrews wrote in Heb. 7:11.

In a book on theonomy published later, Dr. Bahnsen again admitted that "parts of the law have been laid aside or altered":

Greg Bahnsen (image courtesy WhiteKnight138 CC-BY-SA 4.0)Jesus is the one who spoke about categorical and exhaustive support for the law - down to the least commandment. It is also the word of Jesus elsewhere which gives us our theological justification for saying parts of the law have been laid aside or altered. There is nothing illegitimate or unique about our Lord teaching by means of sweeping declarations which are given particular qualifications later. (Bahnsen, No Other Standard, 324n37)

It is therefore evident from "later" scripture that Jesus fulfilled the law by confirming and completing certain parts. When these parts were complete, they were "laid aside." We are not bound to do the parts of the law which have been "anulled" and "laid aside" (using Dr. Bahnsen's terms). We are not to teach them as being binding. These laws are the jots and tittles which have passed away.

Heaven and earth passed away?

What about #3 above (the conclusion of our syllogism)? How can "heaven and earth" have passed away? First, we should note that this is not a figure of speech meaning "never." Jesus himself affirmed:

Bible34 Truly I say to you, this generation may by no means pass away till all these things are accomplished. 35 The heaven and the earth will pass away, but my words may by no means pass away. (Matt. 24:34-35)

So we know that "heaven and earth" could (and would) pass away. We also know that our syllogism above is logically valid. We know that the first two premises are true. Therefore the truth of the conclusion is logically necessary. But in what sense have "heaven and earth passed away"?

The answer is that Jesus was using symbolic language (as he sometimes did), and he was referring to the destruction of the Second Temple and the abolishment of the Sinai Covenant in A.D. 70 (before that generation passed away). This is where it helps to know something about Second Temple Jewish terminology, and the historian Josephus is our best reference for this. It turns out that Jews of that time actually used the phrase "heaven and earth" to refer to the structure of the tabernacle (and later the temple). Josephus wrote:

Josephusthis proportion of the measures of the tabernacle proved to be an imitation of the system of the world; for that third part thereof which was within the four pillars, to which the priests where not admitted, is, as it were, a heaven peculiar to God. But the space of the twenty cubits is, as it were, land [ge, also translatable as 'earth'] and sea, on which men live, and so this part is peculiar to the priests only....When Moses distinguished the tabernacle into three parts, and allowed two of them to the priests, as a place accessible and common, he denoted the land and the sea, these being of general access to all; but he set apart the third division for God, because heaven is inaccessible to men." (Jewish Antiquities, 3.6.4[123], 3.7.7[181])

[Other contemporary references are listed in (Fletcher-Louis, "Jesus, the Temple and the Dissolution of Heaven and Earth", 126)]

Crispin Fletcher-Louis writes:

In the last 20 years there has been widespread recognition that in both the biblical and post-biblical periods the Temple is invested with a set of cosmological meanings: the Temple stands at the centre of the universe; it is the place from which creation began; it is the meeting point of heaven and earth -- the 'Gate of Heaven'; it is the place where, at the end of days, as at the dawn of creation, the forces of chaos would be defeated and, most importantly for our purposes, it is a miniature version of the whole universe -- a microcosm of heaven and earth. (Fletcher-Louis, "Jesus, the Temple and the Dissolution of Heaven and Earth", Apocalyptic in History and Tradition, 123)

Fletcher-Louis also relates Matt. 5:18 to Matt. 24:35 in the following way:

There are, I suggest, three interlocking referents in the expression 'until heaven and earth pass away' at 5:18d: (1) the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70 confirming the obsolescence of the Old Covenant; (2) Jesus' death and resurrection confirming the institution of the New Covenant and its messianic Torah; (3) Jesus' life, ministry and teaching as the embodiment of the new creation and the setting-up of the messianic Torah which His new community follows.
...
It seems now that when the close parallel to Matthew 5:18 at 24:35 refers to the passing away of heaven and earth and endurance of Jesus' words, the first of the three referents in the former text is to the forefront. With the temple cult gone, Jewish Christians should not feel its loss since they still had Jesus' teaching. (Fletcher-Louis, "The destruction of the temple and the relativization of the Old Covenant", `The reader must understand': Eschatology in Bible and theology, 163)

It is reasonable to conclude that Jesus was speaking using the symbolic terms in use at that time: that when he said "heaven and earth" he was speaking of the temple, and using it as a metonym for the Sinai Covenant (of which the temple was the central feature).

This identification between the phrase "heaven and earth" and the Sinai Covenant is not a modern theological novelty. For example, here is what the Puritan theologian John Owen wrote about this phrase, as used by Peter in 2 Peter 3:

John OwenOn this foundation I affirm, that the heavens and earth here intended in this prophecy of Peter, the coming of the Lord, the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men, mentioned in the destruction of that heaven and earth, do all of them relate, not to the last and final judgment of the world, but to that utter desolation and destruction that was to be made of the Judaical church and state. (Owen, Works, vol. 9, p. 134)

Notice the following parallel between Matt. 5:18 and Jesus prophesying the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem in Mark 13 (parallels in Matt. 24 and Luke 21):

  Matthew 5:18 Mark 13:30-31
Bible "truly I say to you, until the heaven and the earth pass away, one jot or one tittle may by no means pass away from the law, until all things are accomplished." "Truly I say to you, that this generation may by no means pass away till all these things are accomplished; the heaven and the earth will pass away, but my words may by no means pass away."

 

Jesus affirmed that "the heaven and the earth will pass away" in the same context as the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem. Some commentators want to split these verses into the "already" and "not yet", because they are presupposing that Jesus must be talking about the literal, physical "heaven and earth." But if he was just using a standard Jewish symbolic term for the temple ("heaven and earth") as a metonym for the Sinai Covenant, then everything else fits perfectly with Matt. 5:17-19.

We can thus conclude that Jesus:

  1. fulfilled (confirmed and completed) all of the typologies and prophecies in the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 5:18)
  2. made provision for Israel's remnant and the gentiles in the New Covenant (Luke 22:20)
  3. returned in judgment of Israel in A.D. 70, causing the Second Temple to be destroyed (Matt. 24:2), and thus
  4. abolished the Sinai Covenant (Heb. 8:13), without abolishing the law completely (Matt. 5:17)
  5. accomplished all this within the lives of "that generation" (exactly as he prophesied in Luke 21:32, Mark 13:30, Matt. 24:34).

New heavens and earth means "new creation." In other words:

Bible17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new. (2 Cor. 5:17)

John Owen also understood the "new heavens and new earth" to be fulfilled right now. He wrote:

John OwenNow, when shall this be that God will create these “new heavens and new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness?” Saith Peter, "It shall be after the coming of the Lord, after that judgment and destruction of ungodly men, who obey not the gospel, that I foretell." But now it is evident, from this place of Isaiah, with chapter 66:21–22, that this is a prophecy of gospel times only; and that the planting of these new heavens is nothing but the creation of gospel ordinances, to endure for ever. The same thing is so expressed in Hebrews 12:26–28." (Owen, Works, vol. 9, p. 135)

The "New Creation" is already here. Jesus is our current, reigning King (just as prophesied in Dan. 2:44); the laws which weren't covenantally-bound continue to be binding, just as God intended; and we have two simultaneous, ongoing commissions: to subdue the earth (Gen. 1:28), and to preach the Gospel of the current Kingdom (Matt. 28:18).