Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17–19
The Christian life, as we have seen, is revolutionary. It calls us to a holy standard of living that is totally distinct from the world. But even as He preached the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus knew that none of us could live out His teaching without help. Before He went further, Jesus needed to explain a few things.
By this time in Jesus’ ministry, the Jewish religious leaders had begun to regard Him as a destructive iconoclast. They told the people that Jesus was trying to do away with the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets and set up new ideas. But the scribes and Pharisees were dead wrong.
Jesus clarified to His listeners that the righteousness He was proclaiming was not new but in complete harmony with the Law and the Prophets. He said to these men, “Don’t listen to what you’re hearing. I have not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come to fulfill them” (see 5:17).
Aspects of the Law
In speaking of the Law and the Prophets, Jesus was referring to the Old Testament. Some people are confused about the role of the Old Testament in the believer’s life, but the Old Testament is every bit the Word of God that the New Testament is. Certain aspects of it do not apply to us today, but the Old Testament, or the old covenant, is not old in the sense that it’s irrelevant. It’s very relevant.
The law has several aspects to it: civil, ceremonial, and moral. The civil aspect regarded the rules by which Israel conducted itself as a nation. The ceremonial aspect had to do with the Jewish priesthood and sacrificial system. These two aspects of the law are, practically speaking, irrelevant to us today; they were not given to the Gentile nations but strictly to Israel. But the moral aspect of the law, or the Ten Commandments, is binding upon us as believers because it is reiterated for us in the New Testament.
The problem is, we can’t keep it perfectly. That’s the whole point made in Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews. But Paul gives us good news: “What the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son” (Rom. 8:3). In other words, Jesus kept the law for us. This is what Jesus meant when He said that He came to fulfill the law. He did this by keeping the law perfectly, which no other man could do, and then by becoming the ultimate sacrifice that the sacrificial system pointed to. To drive His point home, Jesus told the people, “Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle [one dot of an i or cross of a t] will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (5:18).
Sometimes we become anxious over our failure to keep the law, but Jesus knew all along that we couldn’t keep it. I baptized a precious lady once who was deeply distressed. She was confused, feeling like a failure because of her inability to keep God’s law. She was a believer, but she didn’t fully understand that Jesus had already done the work and that she simply needed to enter into it. I shared with her Ephesians 1:6 and said, “Listen, Paul said right here that God ‘made us accepted in the Beloved.’” We are fully accepted before God in Christ.
Fulfilling the Law
In no way was Jesus trying to do away with the law. In fact, He said, “whoever does and teaches [these commandments], he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (5:19). Rather, He was calling us to keep the law—but in the right way. We can’t do it ourselves. Jesus had to keep the law for us and then credited His righteousness to our account. That gospel (good news) was what the Law and the Prophets pointed to. When we believe in Jesus, we fulfill the law.
The law was never meant to save us but to show us we needed a Savior. Jesus is that Savior; He fulfilled the Law and the Prophets and calls us to simply put our trust in Him. As we do that, we can rest in His accomplishments on our behalf.