Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sermon on the Mount Part 6: Abolish vs. Fulfill

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. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.  (Matthew 5:17-20)

The first sixteen verses of the Sermon focus on what it means to be a disciple.  In this passage, however, Jesus shifts gears for a moment and turns the focus back on himself.  "Do not think..." he begins, and then proceeds to state very clearly a message that flies in the face of an all-too-common teaching today: the idea that Jesus lived according to the Law and this means we no longer need to; or in the more extreme version of this teaching, that we no longer should, that it is somehow sinful even to try to keep God's Law.

"Legalism" is the word most often used to attack those who believe the Law should still be kept.  "Cheap Grace" is the phrase frequently shouted as a counter-attack.  Somewhere in between lies the truth, so let's wave a white flag long enough to go looking for it.

What does it mean to abolish something?  And what does it mean to fulfill something?  Since Jesus said he came to do one and not the other, it's probably a good idea for us to
start by defining those verbs.  Here's what my dictionary has to offer:

Abolish (verb) - formally put an end to (a system, practice, or institution) [from the Latin abolere, "to destroy"] The tax was abolished in 1977.

Fulfill (verb) -  1. bring to completion or reality; achieve or realize (something desired, promised, or predicted) : He wouldn't be able to fulfill his ambition to visit Naples.
• (fulfill oneself) gain happiness or satisfaction by fully developing one's abilities or character.
• archaic: complete (a period of time or piece of work).
2. carry out (a task, duty, or role) as required, pledged, or expected : Some officials were dismissed because they could not fulfill their duties.
• satisfy or meet (a requirement or condition) : Goods must fulfill three basic conditions.

Now, Jesus clearly states that he did NOT come to abolish the Law.  This means he did NOT put an end to it as a system, practice, or institution.

He DID come to fulfill the Law.  He brought it to completion or reality, achieved it; he realized it as God desired, promised, and predicted; he carried out his role: the task--the duty--of keeping the Law as God required and as he had pledged to do; he met and satisfied God's requirements and conditions where the Law was concerned.

What many Christians understand is that Jesus fulfilled the Law.  What many Christians ignore is that he went out of his way to emphasize that he did NOT abolish the Law in the process of fulfilling it.

An example from our culture:

Let's say you want to apply for the job of President of the United States.  There are job requirements outlined in the Constitution.  First, you have to be a native-born citizen.  Second, you have to be thirty-five or older.  Third, you have to be elected by a majority of the electoral college.  Let's say you manage to fulfill all of those requirements and -- voila! -- you become President!  Does this mean that the next person who wants to become President does not have to fulfill the same requirements?  Of course not.  The requirements are spelled out in the Constitution and will never change unless the Constitution is amended.

Jesus said that the Law will never change -- not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen -- until heaven and earth disappear.  Look around.  What do you see?  God's Constitution has not been amended, and according to Jesus, it won't be.  Not until heaven and earth disappear and EVERYTHING is accomplished.  Yes, he fulfilled its requirements. No, he didn't do away with them.

He goes on to say that we are also supposed to live according to the Law.

HOWEVER, before I am accused of being "legalistic," let me dig just a little deeper.  Notice that Jesus says, "Anyone who breaks* the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven"(emphasis added).  Because of Christ's sacrifice, because he fulfilled -- satisfied -- God's expectations, keeping the Law is NOT A SALVATION ISSUE. A person can break the Law and still be in the kingdom.
*SIDE BAR:  About the word "breaks" used here.  The NIV2010 uses a slightly different wording: "sets aside."  This is not merely a matter of disobeying a commandment, but includes ignoring a commandment and teaching that it no longer applies.  Also, when Jesus talks about breaking (or setting aside) the "least" of the commandments, remember what James taught: if you break part of the Law, you are a Lawbreaker (James 2:10).  It's like dropping a Ming vase and just chipping the handle.  It's still broken.
Jesus also promises that those who practice and teach the commandments will be called "great in the kingdom of heaven."  Obviously, this is a problematic verse for people who think keeping the Old Testament Law is a sin. 

I'm going to hit the pause button here and give you a chance to talk to God about this passage for a while.  Next blog, I'll discuss the meaning of the words "Law," "commandments," and "righteousness."  Until then, I wish you a life filled with grace and peace, knowledge and understanding, and the surpassing love of Christ.


  1. Jewish teachers during Jesus’ time would say that one abolished the law by disobeying it and thereby rejecting its authority. This would equate to rejecting God as He was the authority behind the Law. This rejection was considered worse than sin because it was an outright rejection of the Almighty God. It would lead to expulsion from the community.

    Jesus did not oppose God’s Law but opposed the illegitimate interpretation of the Law by the Pharisees who were hypocritical and mandated their regulations versus heartfelt obedience to God’s Laws. Jesus broke away from the religiosity of the Pharisees and to bring the people back to the true Law of God.

    Jesus fulfilled the Law in every manner from the way He was conceived, in the way He lived, and finally in the manner He died.

    How can we fulfill the Law? We can fulfill the Law by allowing the Holy Spirit to guide our hearts. This allows the righteousness of Christ to live in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. We will desire to live sinlessly because our hearts will be guided by the truth of the Spirit.

  2. The law is fulfilled through love.
    Romans 13:8-10
    8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. ESV

    Love flows naturally from genuine faith.
    1 John 4:7
    7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. ESV

    1 Timothy 1:5
    5 The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. ESV

    The Law calls for obedience from faith.
    Romans 9:30-32
    30 What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, ESV

    We are dependent on God’s free grace so we are to follow the OT and NT commands faithfully believing it will bring us the eternal joy He has promised us.
    Romans 8:3; 4
    3 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, 4 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. ESV

    Psalm 19:7-14
    7 The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; ESV