reason for living

The fulfilment of the law

What does the word “fulfil” mean and does the law of Moses still apply to Christians?

Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them."

The good news according to Matthew, chapter 5, verse 17.

This document was originally written on 27th October 1999 because Peter Njoroge asked a question.


One day while he was sitting on a hill called “The mount of Olives” Jesus (who some people call Isa or Yeshua) was teaching a group of people who had gathered around.  Because the hill was near a city called Jerusalem in the land of Palestine, most of the people in the group would have been Jews.  While Jesus was teaching these people he made some references to the Jewish religious teachers, the prophets, of long ago and to the law that Moses (some people call him Musa) had given to the Israelites.

This what Jesus said about the prophets and the law of Moses:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.

The good news according to Matthew, chapter 5, verse 17.

So Jesus was making it clear to those listening to him that his teaching did not cancel the teaching of what had been taught before.  Now this might seem quite arrogant — after all, why should anybody even begin to think that Jesus might have come to abolish the teachings of the ancient prophets or to cancel the law that Moses had given?  How could he possibly have had any right to do so?  If the law was given to Moses by God and if the prophets were sent by God then surely it is obvious to everyone that no mortal had any right to set them aside!  Only somebody with a very high opinion of their own “greatness” would even begin to think that other people would think them equal with God.  So why did Jesus find it necessary to tell those who listened that he was not going to abolish the law of Moses or the teachings of the prophets?

We might be inclined to just overlook this apparent arrogance and move on because, after all, he said clearly that he wasn't going to abolish or cancel the former things.  In that case, why should we not give him the benefit of the doubt as regards his apparent arrogance and listen instead to what he was going to do about these ancient Jewish teachings?

But what do we find?  Jesus next words tell us that he has come to fulfil them.  If the first part of his statement was apparently arrogant then this is surely worse!  This man, Jesus, who says he has come to fulfil the law and the teachings of the prophets is either slightly crazy or he is filled with a self-importance that is so enormous it is almost too big to measure.  But what if Jesus was neither crazy or staggeringly self-important?  What if he was actually telling the truth and just stating a simple fact? 

Now at this point some people reading this will be wondering just what all the fuss is about.  Why should this statement about fulfilment of the law of Moses and the Jewish prophets be a reason to gasp!  To understand the significance of what Jesus said to those sitting around him on the hill, we need to be sure we properly understand the words.  So what, exactly, does the word “fulfil” mean? 

The nature of agreements

To find the right sense of what Jesus was saying we have to look at the nature of agreements that people might make between themselves.  These are some examples of agreements that men and women might make between one another:

In each case the form is very similar — if you do this then I'll do that. 

Now in most cultures around the world, once two people make an agreement they are both expected to keep to it.  In other words people are expected to do what they agreed to do.  With every agreement there is, therefore, an obligation.  We are obliged to do what we have agreed to do.

Once an agreement has been made it remains in force until something ends it.  An agreement can end in various ways.  Let us look at some examples of how an agreement might come to an end:

In each of the examples above, when the agreement ended then the obligations that the agreement imposed were cancelled so that neither of the people making the agreement owed the other person anything.  All of the obligations of the above agreements ended with the abolishment of the agreement.

Now there is one other way for an agreement to end.  Although all of the agreements in the examples above ended unsuccessfully, an agreement can also end successfully if each person actually does what they agreed to do.  Let us look at an example of a successful ending for an agreement:

Now in the above example the agreement obliged the labourer to dig the farmer's field and it obliged to farmer to pay the labourer some wages and provide a meal.  When they had both done all these things their respective obligations were ended.  In legal language we would say that, their obligations were discharged by performance.  This is called “fulfilment”; they have fulfilled their oblications to one another.

So far so good.  However, although people are often quick to make agreements they are not always so quick about keeping them.  Many disputes arise in the world because somebody doesn't do exactly what they agreed to do.  Because disputes about agreements are so very, very common most societies or nations have special laws for resolving these disputes.  In England, for example, these laws are collectively known as the “law of contract”.  Also, to encourage both sides to perform their obligations properly it is common for agreements to include “penalty clauses” so that the form of the agreement includes a conditional part.  These are some examples:

Even when an agreement does not include a penalty clause the person who thinks that they have been cheated or wronged can often go to the courts or local government and ask to have a penalty imposed on the person who has broken the agreement.

So, in this section we have learned that

A covenant agreement given to Moses

Let us look again at what Jesus said while he was sitting on the hill and see if we can understand it better. 

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.

The good news according to Matthew, chapter 5, verse 17.

Now that we have learned what abolishment means and what fulfilment means we could rewrite this statement to put it into plainer language.  If we do this we find that Jesus was saying was something like this:

“I have not come to cancel the obligations that the law imposed and the prophets explained but instead I have come to end those obligations by doing everything that the law requires.”

If we are not familiar with the law that Moses gave or if we do not know the teachings of the prophets then we might still not quite understand the significance of what Jesus said.  However the law that God gave to the Israelites through Moses was given in the form of an agreement.  Most people will have seen or heard something similar.  The law of Moses basically said

“if you (the Israelites) do these good things and do not do these wicked things then I (God) will bless you with life and health and freedom.  BUT IF (this is the penalty clause) you (the Israelites) do not do the good things or if you (the Israelites) do do the wicked things then I (God) will destroy your crops, send sickness and enemies and take away your freedom, your lives and your pleasures.”

Now, we have to learn a little bit more legal language.  This agreement, the law given by Moses, was made as a covenant agreement.  So what exactly is a covenant agreement?  The answer, very simply, is that a covenant agreement is a special form of agreement that is made by one person only.  Here is an example:

Now clearly such an agreement is not made in the usual way because the grandchild is not yet born (and might not even be conceived and might not ever be born) and even if the child is born the old person might die before the child is able to do what the agreement requires.  So although the old person wants to make an agreement they cannot actually do so unless they somehow make the agreement by themselves — which would normally be a contradiction.  In other words the old person has to make a covenant agreement with the child.  In many human societies we have created laws that allow us to make these covenant agreements in those special circumstances where one of the people is either not yet alive (unborn) or one of the people is not lawfully allowed to actively make an agreement (perhaps because they are too young) or one of the people might die before the agreement can be fulfilled.

The law that God gave to the Israelites through Moses was given in this way.  It was given as a covenant agreement.  It was an agreement made by God, by himself.

A covenant agreement imposes obligations just as the ordinary agreement does.  In our example, the old person is obliged to give the child the land if the child performs the obligations that the agreement specifies.  But if the child does not do what the covenant agreement specifies then they will not receive the land.

So Jesus, as he sat on the hill called the "mount of Olives" was telling the people around him that he had come to perform the obligations that were imposed by the covenant agreement that God enacted through the law.  This was the law that God gave to Moses and that was taught and explained by the prophets.  “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.”

His implied suggestion that he might have the authority to abolish the law was audacious but his claim that he is actually going to fulfil it is the claim of a man who is either very foolish or who is not a man like other men.  His claim that he will fulfil the law is of massive significance because, if the law is fulfilled, then the obligations of the law will all cease.  Remember that, as we saw earlier, a fulfilled agreement has no further obligations.

So where do we go from here?

Was this man Jesus simply a crazy, self-important man who entertained people with wild and foolish stories while sitting on hillsides or was he actually telling the truth?  If he was just crazy then there is nothing more to be said and we can stop here and now.

But what if he was telling the truth?  What if he really did have the authority and capability to discharge the obligations of the covenant agreement that God himself made?  Who is he?  Did he do what he said he would do?  And what are the implications for us? 

There is one thing that we can be sure of:  Jesus was certainly not just a good man or a great moral teacher.  When he claimed that he came to fulfil the law of Moses he was either telling a crazy story (and hence was not a great moral teacher) or he was lying (and hence not a good man) or he was telling the truth.  If he was telling the truth then he had to be something more than and greater than any other man because no mere mortal man could ever fully discharge the obligations of that law.

The only person capable of fulfilling God's law had to be someone who was both human and divine, hence Jesus had to actually be the God who came among people.  One of the names that the scriptures told us to call this man was “Immanuel”, which means “God with us”.  The Hebrew name “Yeshua” (the original form of Jesus) means “the Lord saves”. 

The significance for humans is that if Jesus fulfilled the law then all of the obligations of the law are ended.  This, in turn, means that one of the main obstacles between humans and God is removed because nobody who had broken the law could come near to God without paying the penalty and the penalty was too big to be paid by any ordinary person.  Now, if the obligations of the law are gone then our relationship with God does not need to be based on any legalistic, ritualistic ceremonies or rule-keeping.  We no longer need to be perfect before coming to God but instead we can come as we are and our relationship can be based on friendship rather than on formality.

This is part of the “good news” (which is what the word “gospel” means) that Jesus came to announce to people.

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