"I Did Not Come to Abolish but to Fulfill"
People who insist that the Old Testament Law is still in force often appeal to Jesus’ statement that He did not come to abolish the Law and Prophets. Think with me about that statement.
Let’s begin by hearing Jesus’ complete statement. It is recorded in Matthew 5:17-19. “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
At first glance, it does sound as if the Law would never be abolished. However, other passages unmistakably teach that it was. Paul wrote that Jesus abolished “in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances” (Ephesians 2:15). He described the Law as a tutor to lead to Christ (Galatians 3:24), then said we are no longer under a tutor (v. 25). The author of Hebrews argued that Jesus priestly service necessitated a change in law (7:11-14) and that “He takes away the first in order to establish the second” (10:9). He also reminds us of Jeremiah’s prophecy that God would make a new covenant with His people (8:7-13; Jeremiah 32:31-34).
Is all this a hopeless contradiction? Not at all. Think further about Jesus’ statement.
The Not/But Contrast
Sometimes, when Bible writers or speakers state a not/but contrast, not is used in an absolute sense, completely eliminating that element altogether. For example, love does not rejoice in unrighteousness but rejoices with the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6). Christians must not return evil for evil but give a blessing instead (1 Peter 3:9).
In other cases, a not/but contrast serves only to de-emphasize the not element. The idea is: not merely, exclusively, or primarily this, but more especially that. For example, when Jesus said, “Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life . . .” (John 6:27), He was not prohibiting working for a living; He was warning against too much focus on the physical and not enough on the spiritual. Likewise, Paul’s statement that “we are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:15) cannot be interpreted to mean we are under no law at all; if that were the case, we could not sin, because sin, by definition, is a violation of God’s law (4:15). We are indeed under law, but more especially, under grace.
Interpreting Jesus’ statement “I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” in the absolute sense makes it contradict the numerous clear references to the Law being abolished. Taking it in the relative sense—not merely to abolish but especially to fulfill—fits perfectly with all other references.
Accomplishing/Fulfilling the Law
Jesus said the Law could not be taken away until all was accomplished, and that He came to fulfill it. How did Jesus fulfill or accomplish the Law? He did so in at least four ways.
First, He fulfilled the Law’s precepts by keeping them perfectly. He lived under the Law (Galatians 4:4) and did so without sin (John 8:46).
Second, He fulfilled the Law’s prophecies. Predictions of what Jesus would do were not just stated in the prophets; they were also symbolized in the Law (e.g., the cities of refuge, the day of atonement, the Passover, redemption, etc.). At the end of His life, Jesus referred back to His word that all things written about Him in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled (Luke 24:44-46).
Third, He fulfilled the Law’s penalty for sin. The Law cursed anyone who did not keep it perfectly (Galatians 3:10; Deuteronomy 27:26; 28:1). Though He was sinless, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having became a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13). This citation is from Deuteronomy 21:22-23. Stoning was the means of execution under the Law. Sometimes, however, a man who was executed because of his sin was subsequently hanged on a tree to heap further humiliation on him; it showed him to be accursed. Jesus died by means of being hanged on a tree so to speak, thereby illustrating the purpose of His death: it was atonement for our sins.
Fourth, He fulfilled the Law’s purpose. The Law was intended to give life (Deuteronomy 30:15-20). It had a major deficiency, however: it did contain a sufficient provision for removing the guilt of anyone who violated it. What the Law could not do, God did through Jesus’ death (Romans 8:3-4). Therefore Paul could say, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). He is the “end,” not just in the sense of cessation but also in the sense of the goal or intent.
Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:17-19 did not preclude His taking away the Law. He fulfilled all that the Law said about Him. Once He had done that, He could and did take it away. Until that occurred, however, He cautioned against neglecting it or tampering with it. While we do not live under the Old Testament Law, while we are “under grace,” we surely need that same careful spirit in our approach to the law of Christ.