You don’t have to read far into Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount to hear this astounding claim by Jesus:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matt 5:17-18)
Jesus’ warning that follows is just as astounding:
Therefore, whoever 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 does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:19)
It’s no wonder many Christians have insisted that we must obey the Old Testament Law. These are strong words!
But what did Jesus mean when he says, “I did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it?”
We get an answer by following the most basic principle of good interpretation: Keep reading.
When we keep reading, for instance, we discover that Jesus can’t mean we’re supposed to literally obey every commandment in the Law. How do we know this? Because immediately after this Jesus reinterprets some Old Testament laws, and even outright overturns some of them.
I’m talking about all the “You’ve heard it said…but I say to you” teachings that follow in Matthew 5. The “you’ve heard it said” each time is a reference to an Old Testament command; the “but I say to you” is Jesus’ new interpretation of that command.
So, for example, the Law of Moses says: “You shall not murder.” But Jesus says: “Do not even harbor anger in your heart against another person.”
Or, the Law of Moses says: “You shall not commit adultery.” But Jesus says: “Do not even nurture lust for another woman in your heart.”
And on it goes, until we get to the last two. The Law of Moses commanded a form of retributive justice, a principle of “proportional retaliation,” for any violent act committed: whatever the offender did to someone, they were to have that very thing done to them. The full commandment in Deuteronomy 19 is this: “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (19:21).
And, while the Law of Moses in fact commands kindness for one’s everyday enemies, it does direct the Israelites more than once to annihilate their enemies in battle. The promise of Leviticus 26:7 sums this up: “You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword.”
These commands of the Law, Jesus doesn’t just reinterpret. Jesus outright overturns them. No retribution of any kind is allowed. No violence of any kind is permitted. “Do not retaliate against an evil person,” Jesus says. “Love your enemies.”
If we keep reading some more, all the way through Matthew’s Gospel, we also find that this isn’t the only place that Jesus talks about “the Law and the Prophets.” That’s a clue, by the way. Jesus doesn’t just fulfill the Law, but the Law and the Prophets. All the Jewish Scriptures find their completion in Jesus. All the biblical threads of God’s ways in the world and God’s will for us, all these are woven together in Jesus.
The next reference to “the Law and the Prophets” is also in the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, the Sermon is framed by these two uses of “the Law and the Prophets”: our passage near the beginning, introducing the main part of the Sermon, and the next one near the end, as the Sermon is wrapping up.
And what is this summing-up reference to “the Law and the Prophets”? It’s something we all know, the famous Golden Rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12).
Doing for others what you would like done for you is the Law and the Prophets—it’s what the Bible is all about. Turning outside of ourselves and looking to others, treating others with the same respect, compassion, kindness, and care that we would like to receive—this fulfills all our obligations under God.
If we keep reading through Matthew’s Gospel, we come to another significant time Jesus talks about “the Law and the Prophets.” It’s in Matthew 22, Jesus’ response to the question, “Teacher, which commandment in the Law is the greatest?”
We all know Jesus’ answer—it’s the Great Commandments:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. (Matt 22:36-40)
Love—devoted love for God and others—is what the Law and the Prophets are all about. Everything—all God’s ways in the world, all God’s will for us—hangs on these two commandments: love God and love others.
Or, in other words, love is the fulfillment of the Law.
Other early Christians got the message. The Apostle Paul sums this up as neatly as any of them, in Romans 13:8-10:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the Law. 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, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the Law.
Jesus oriented his life around love—not holiness, not purity, not strength or power, not truth or even wisdom, not even justice or peace. He oriented his life around love: devoted love for God and devoted love for others. And in doing so, Jesus demonstrated true holiness and purity, he showed true strength and power, he revealed true wisdom, he carved out the path toward true justice and peace.
In other words, all the things the Law pointed to—holiness, purity, wisdom, truth, mercy, justice, peace—Jesus fulfilled them all in love.
And likewise, when we orient our life around love, we too fulfill the Law. If we orient our life around striving for holiness or spotless purity, we will miss the fullness of God’s will for us. If we orient our life around some pure search for truth, we will miss the fullness of God’s will for us. If we orient our life around a relentless quest for justice, or even peace, we will miss the fullness of God’s will for us.
But when we orient our life around love in the way of Jesus—devoted love for God expressed in devoted love for others—then we discover true holiness and purity, true strength and wisdom, true justice and peace along the way.
I know, I know. Love can seem like a pretty flimsy foundation for a life of holiness, or for the pursuit of truth, or for producing peaceful and just societies. But this is what Jesus teaches, and the rest of the New Testament confirms it for us.
The question is, do we really believe it? Are we willing to put it into practice? Relentlessly, persistently, above all else, seeking to love God and others?
Adapted from a sermon given at Morden Mennonite Church on January 7, 2018.
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Matthew 5:18 – Heaven and earth are still here… Please see “Examining the Scriptures” and “Paul Commands Us to Uphold the Law” at https://apaulogetic.com/
Amen to Matt 5:18! And the rest of my blog post describes how I think this works, with a special focus on Matthew’s account of this.
It’s important to keep in mind that even within Judaism in Jesus’ day there were variations and disputes about what constituted proper Torah observance. Jesus’ Torah observance, as I’ve described it, fits within that context. In other words, you might think that the way I’ve described things means I think Jesus wasn’t a Torah-observant Jew, but that’s not the case. Jesus believed himself to be Torah-observant, as Paul also believed himself to be Torah-observant, but as is apparent from both the Gospel traditions and Paul’s writings, not all Jews in their day agreed with their self-assessments.