“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…” (Matt. 5:17, ESV). When scrutinized in a vacuum, this proclamation of Jesus Christ remains thoroughly ambiguous. Fortunately, Jesus never intended for these words to be self-explanatory; his meaning is embodied by a great compilation of teachings to which Matthew 5:17 is attached. In other words, we cannot rightly interpret the meaning of this verse until we approach it through the broader context in which it resides. By analyzing several excerpts from Matthew Ch. 5, I will demonstrate two different means by which Jesus “fulfills” the law of God almighty: He makes complete those teachings which are incomplete, and he supplants blatant error with illumined truth.
According to Jesus, the righteousness of the Pharisees (conduct according to human law) was insufficient for one who desires redemption. The Jewish law of first-century Palestine was not entirely wayward, but even those laws which had preserved some measure of justice didn’t attain to the full righteousness of God as revealed by Jesus Christ: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…” (Matt. 5:21-22, ESV). And again Jesus calls us to a more exquisite quality of righteousness than the Jewish law ever maintained: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart…” (Matt. 5:27-28, ESV). The end of verse 28 is very distinctive. Formerly, Jews had conceptualized sin only as the perpetration of wrong action, but Jesus reveals that sin arises first within one’s own being; he reveals it to be a presence within the consciousness. In accordance with my antecedent claim, both instances can be recognized as incomplete laws that Jesus made complete.
As the incarnate Word (see The Gospel according to St. John Ch. 1), Jesus Christ represented the cosmic harmony of God. When he spoke about “God’s law”, he made reference to those subtle, universal laws of which he was intimately aware. In the possession of such authority, Jesus exercised the second function of his “fulfillment”: the rejection of erroneous, human laws. These sorts of ideologies existed at large within the Jewish communities of first century Palestine, and Jesus was never abashed about proclaiming the truth: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…” (Matt. 5:38-39, ESV). Never once did Jesus exhibit an allegiance to any human ideology (unless that ideology was in accordance with the truth of his own nature). He spoke about righteousness that even the eloquent psalmists would have blanched at: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust…” (Matt. 5:43-45, ESV). In stark opposition to centuries of Jewish thought, Jesus reveals the love of God to be entirely impartial; and he implores that we alter our conduct in accordance with that revelation. To his first-century audience (the Jews), Jesus fulfilled God’s law by calling them to greater righteousness where a modicum was already present, and proclaiming divine truth where it had never been seen or heard.