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:
There are two opposite errors that people sometimes make, when they react to God's law: Judaizing and Nullifying.
Judaizing is the belief that everything from the Old Covenant still applies (in some way) and that we must do our best to follow everything in the Old Covenant law. I think this comes mostly from a faulty reading of Matt. 5:17-19, but we can examine that elsewhere. Paul and the early church were constantly dealing with this error (Gal. 2:14).
A big problem among Christians today is the distortion of Jesus' message. Christian teachers and preachers spread a lot of misinformation (pastorisms, if you want to use a mild word). The average Christian doesn't know enough about their own king to correct the falsehoods being spread. We are trying, through this site, to encourage you to represent him accurately. The more you understand Jesus' own value system, the better your decision-making will be, and the better you will be as a Kingdom ambassador and an example.
Have you ever hear any of the following phrases:
"Jesus says 'Judge not...'"
"Who am I to judge?"
"Who are you to judge?"
"Are you the sinless one who will cast the first stone?" (referring to the passage in John 8 about the adulterous woman)
Now most of the time when you hear these phrases, it wasn't because you were literally stooping to pick up a stone. Usually, the people who make these statements are trying to silence an uncomfortable truth. They have ears, but they don't want to hear. "Stoning" is their preferred metaphor for speaking "judgmental words." Well, since none of us are "sinless," I guess that means that Jesus wants us to say nothing, right?
Let's examine this claim.
Here's the passage:
Does this mean that we should never discuss interpretations of the law? Does this mean that differing interpretations of the law should never cause Christian brothers to separate from one another? I will show that both answers are "no." What does Paul mean, then?
Divisions in the early church
Paul was in a difficult position as an early church leader. Most of the early converts to Christianity were Jews. Their entire worldview was shaped by a group of Biblical laws which we'll call "Jew/Gentile separation laws." These included circumcision requirements, prohibitions on intermarriage, food laws, ritual "cleanness" laws, and some others. These laws had an important purpose in Israelite history, which was to prevent God's people from syncretizing (mixing culturally/religiously) with the surrounding Gentile nations. God made this purpose clear in the law; for example:
Subversive Civics: 101
To put things in proper perspective, let's talk about something more controversial. Did you know that there are many minority religious/cultural groups (such as the Basques) who want political self-determination and autonomy? Consider these two questions:
- Do you oppose giving the right of political self-determination to minority cultural/religious groups? If so, on what transcendent moral basis do you do so?
- Do you support giving political self-determination to minority cultural/religious groups? When is the last time you told anyone else that? In other words, have you ever promoted this idea to anyone?
These questions are guaranteed to do at least three things:
Almost every culture believes that murder is wrong. But modern civil governments have different laws specifying what to do when an act of murder is proven. How do these compare with Biblical law?
I'll start with a definition:
Notice that this definition of murder uses the word "unlawful". This means that there are "lawful" types of intentional killing. Biblical law allows, for example, killing in self-defense and defense of others (Exod.22:2, Num. 35:11, Neh. 4:13-14). It also allows for killing in war (Deut. 23:9), which is (ethically) the same as self-defense/defense of others (as long as the war in question is actually a defensive war -- many wars are not). According to Biblical law, these types of intentional killing are not "unlawful," therefore they cannot be labeled "murder," and they cannot be punished (justly) by civil government.
The "hard sayings" of scripture are often the ones that we learn the most from. They break us out of our cultural preconceptions. They cause us to see the world through a different value-system. Since Biblical law is the written reflection of God's character, "hard sayings in Biblical law" are the ones that can teach us the most about God's character. It is God's value-system that we must internalize, throwing out anything in our own value-system which conflicts.
We begin with Matthew 15, where the scribes (who were the "law-experts" of the first century) had traveled from Jerusalem to Gennesaret (a region near Galilee). This shows how significantly they treated Jesus. No scribe is going to leave Jerusalem to go nit-pick your average street-preacher. This would be like a New York lawyer traveling to Smalltown, USA. They obviously considered Jesus a threat.
Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to his disciples, saying, "The scribes and the Pharisees sat on Moses' seat. Therefore, all things whatsoever they tell you to observe, observe and do, but do not do their works; for they say, and do not do." — Matt. 23:1-3
Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in the "Hebrew roots" of Christianity. Perhaps because modern Christianity has gotten so far from Biblical culture and ethics, people are looking for a corrective, and they see something valuable in modern, observant Jewish culture (and there is definitely value there!). Maybe Christians have seen the church de-value Biblical law for so long, that their consciences have been pricked and they are trying to recapture what has been lost. Whatever the reason, "Hebrew roots" interest is something that ought to teach Christians that they have gone far off track from the culture and values that Jesus promoted.
This important question gets to the heart of the relationship between law and covenant. Many Christians dislike (what they consider to be) the "harshness" and detailed nature of YHWH's judicial law revealed to Moses. These Christians adopt a theological position which essentially conflates the concepts of law and covenant. They will assert either:
- that the concepts "law" and "covenant" are identical, or
- that they are ontologically inseparable
By adopting this conceptual conflation, these Christians believe they have an argument that denies the binding nature of YHWH's judicial laws in the New Covenant. They reason: if all of these laws were covenantally-bound, then -- unless the laws/penalties were explicitly restated in the New Covenant -- they have been abolished along with the defunct Sinai Covenant.
However, this argument based upon conflation fails, because it leads to a contradiction with Jesus' own words. Here's why.
That's literally what scripture says. This is not a claim about the nature/ontology of the laws. It is a claim about the function that YHWH's good laws had upon sinners. Let's look at the verse in context, and it will make sense. YHWH (through Ezekiel) was speaking about the Israelite generation that was condemned to die in the wilderness: