Fulfillment of the Law

It is often wondered what our responsibility to the Old Testament Law is as New Testament believers. The strange part of this question is that the Bible is not at all quiet on the subject. In our last post, we looked at some aspects of the holy requirement placed on the people of God. Within that view, there was already some hint to our answer. We saw how Jesus was outlining in the Sermon on the Mount what he was expecting from the people of God. This list of characteristics and expectations are, in actuality, no different here in Jesus’ revelation than those provided in the Old Testament. Take, for example, the words written to the Hebrews, “apart from us they should not be made perfect.” Or the word of the Lord given by the prophet Hosea, “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings,” or by the prophet Habakkuk, “The just man, by his trustworthiness, shall live.” Whether it be the author of Hebrews pointing back to the salvation of Old Testament saints, or the Old Testament prophets declaring how Israel failed to please God, Jesus creates a nexus that gathers all of God’s revelation together here in the heart of Matthew. With this gathering, Jesus declares his true purpose with respect to the Law.

“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.” That Jesus proceeds from this statement by providing his own authoritative interpretation – although, since he wrote the Law, the word “clarification” may be more accurate – tells us that in fulfilling the Law he is teaching its correct meaning. Now, we find ourselves reaching the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount as a whole. Not only is Jesus giving the holy requirement expected of God’s people, he is demonstrating through proper teaching of the Law that it is impossible to meet such requirements. This demonstration reveals two key things. The first is that if it is impossible to meet the requirement for holiness that God demands, then the Law itself reveals our inadequacy. Second, if Christ is the fulfillment of the Law in Matthew chapter 5, then he was always the fulfillment of the Law throughout all Scripture. Therefore, we can surmise that human effort never could fulfill the holiness required in the Law, and in fact was never supposed to be able to. Nevertheless, the Law demands fulfillment, and so it points to its fulfiller, Jesus Christ.

While the Old Testament is sufficient to support these two points, as Jesus himself claims in John chapter 5 and Luke chapter 24, the various authors of the New Testament have done a large part of the hermeneutics for us. The author of Hebrews tells us that the requirements of the Law were “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things.” In addition, throughout much of his letter to the Roman church, Paul demonstrates the reality of what the Law accomplished. “Now we know that whatever the Law says it speaks to those who are in the judgement of the Law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held guilty to God. For by works of the Law no human flesh will be justified in his sight, since through the Law comes knowledge of sin.” As a result, “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and lack the glory of God, even though having been justified by his grace freely through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God publication put forth as a place of propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” This is in line with Jesus teaching that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” So, it is established that human beings have no capability to meet the requirement of the Law, and so the Law’s demands suggest they must rely on some vehicle outside themselves to fulfill that Law. In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus declares himself the fulfillment of that Law.

Let’s take a moment to retrace our steps. The Law has been given by God as a prescription of holiness required of God. Due to the nature of human flesh, weakened by sin, this requirement is impossible for human beings to meet. Despite this, the Law continues to impose its demands on every soul in expectation of fulfillment. Therefore, the very demands of the Law itself create an expectation of one who will meet those demands. Jesus Christ has declared himself to be that fulfiller and having come in human flesh he alone has been declared righteous. We saw in Romans chapter 3 how that righteousness is then given freely by the grace of God to all those who believe. This righteousness of Christ that is gifted to believers to be righteousness on their behalf is called imputed righteousness. Imputed righteousness, while not being the primary focus of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, is crucial to understanding why Jesus declaring himself the fulfiller of the Law matters for us. Jesus does hint at imputed righteousness previously in the Sermon on the Mount, teaching in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied,” implying that the desired righteousness will come from God. Much more needs said on imputed righteousness, specifically with regards to how that righteousness is imputed to us, but since it is not Jesus’ focus, we will call the current depth to which we have examined it sufficient.

You may be asking yourself about now, “What’s the point, then? Why does Jesus continue to outline the true meaning of the Law, and why is that still expected of me, if Jesus has already fulfilled it and that righteousness has been counted as my own? Why can’t I just do whatever I want?” These are all reasonable and logical questions. We will begin our answer with Jesus’ words, “I have not come to abolish them… For 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.” Paul says it this way, “Do we then overthrow the Law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the Law.” Not only are we told to uphold the Law, Jesus himself gives stricter interpretation of that Law. Through Jesus’ teaching on the Law, we learn that following every command and prohibition to the letter is not enough. There must also be a heart that avoids sin at all cost and pursues God in every effort.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one doing the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” Here, near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, we find some of the most harrowing words in all of Scripture. Jesus moves past simple warnings against hypocrisy and simply says, “That’s not going to work.” This hypocrisy is exposed in Jesus’ stricter teaching of the Law. I can claim that I’ve never murdered. After all, murder is horrible. But when examining the microsecond impulses deep in the recesses of my heart, can I really say I’ve never considered it? I’ve never committed adultery, but lustful thinking is normal, right? I can’t control something that’s natural. Isn’t it enough that I have the self-control not to act on those thoughts? These, and other various forms of self-justification are thin veils over the root issue: hypocrisy.

Therefore, we are not considered righteous, or justified, because of our ability to do the works of the Law. But now that we who are Christians have received the imputed righteousness of Christ, the evidence of this justification is in our upholding of the Law. James tells us that, “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Just as works without faith is a thin veil over hypocrisy, so is a so-called faith without works. According to James, for faith to be genuine, it must be expressed in action. “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” It is in our meditation and pursuit of the Law that Christians prove the verity of their faith. These works are not necessary for salvation, but being saved demands works.

“For it is by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; not from works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Paul’s explanation here in Ephesians 2 is invaluable for shedding light on the Christian’s requirement to do good works. But while it may be clear to us by now that as Christians we have a strong expectation on us to do good works, what exactly does that mean for our relationship to the Law? Earlier we saw how the Old Testament often seems to point as away from the statutes of the Law. “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings,” or from the Psalms, “In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required,” and “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Yet we have seen in the New Testament that we have not ejected good works all together.

To find an application that ties all of this together, it is necessary to use Jesus’ own application from the Sermon on the Mount. “Therefore, whatever you desire that people do to you, do that also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” This single verse has such tremendous application to the Christian’s life, and the more that we look at the Sermon on the Mount the more that we will uncover even more facets of application that this verse holds. To love God and love others remains the application of the whole Law. It is not in sacrifices and statutes that God is pleased, nor in empty claims without base in action. The Law that once proclaimed life to those who lacked the glory of God has become life to those who have the Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul summarizes in Romans chapter 8:

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”

We, Christians, have been set free from the requirement for holiness of the Law and its condemnation for failure to meet that requirement. We have been freed from in through the imputed righteousness of Christ. However, since Christ fulfilled that requirement for holiness, and his righteousness has become our own, Jesus commands us “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And so, we have become bound to the Law of the Spirit of life to do the will of the Father. Now, the Law demands two things of the Christian, which the faith of the Christian makes them happy to do, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Obedience to these demands remains as the proof of genuine faith.

Understanding this, the early church saw no need to impose anything other than what seemed against this law of the Spirit of life: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.” It’s not hard to see how these requirements were to keep them within the will of the Father and away from hypocrisy. How quickly an understanding of Jesus’ teaching on the Law from the Sermon on the Mount puts things into perspective. Christian, the Law is has not been abolished in any way whatsoever, and it is a mistake to think that it does not apply to you. To think so betrays a lack of understanding about what the Law is and what it is meant to do. If indeed you are a Christian, the Law continues to preach the cross to you, and you should love the Law for that. It is true that through the imputed righteousness of Jesus, who fulfilled the requirement of the Law, now given to you through faith, the Law no longer condemns you, but in that freedom you yourself are now able to fulfil its demands through the power of the Spirit of life: to love the Lord your God and love your neighbor.

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