The Sermon on the Mount begins with a charter: the eight blessings of the kingdom. That’s followed by a purpose statement: that we might be salt and light. Next comes Jesus’s discourse on the law. He says:
Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. (Matthew 5:17)
Entire theological paradigms are built around that statement, and I’m not going to go deep on them here. But I want to draw out the central point:
Whatever the Law and the Prophets were given to accomplish, Jesus is going to get the job done.
Jesus Fulfills the Law and the Prophets
Some take this verse to mean that Jesus kept the law perfectly, but while that’s true, I think it misses the point. “Fulfill” is a prophecy word and a purpose word, not an obedience word. When I drive 100 kilometres an hour in a 100 km zone, I don’t say I “fulfilled” the speed limit. Jesus didn’t just keep or obey the law and the prophets; he fulfilled them.
Paul later makes it clear that the Law of Moses would have accomplished certain things if it had been able to do so, but it wasn’t able because of our weakness. In other words, the problem wasn’t the law; the problem was our inability to keep it. On a highway, a law that says you may not drive under 60 km an hour is a good law that will accomplish a smooth traffic flow if you can keep it. But if all you’ve got is a bicycle, you’ve got a problem.
So in the final analysis, the law was inadequate to accomplish what it set out to accomplish.
But Jesus is not inadequate. Everything the law and the prophets set out to do, he can do. He picks up where they falter and finishes the job.
The Long Checklist of Jesus’s Life
The list of things the law and the prophets were meant to do is long. In a way you could say it was the checklist of Jesus’s life.
The law was meant to redeem and atone for human souls.
It was meant to set apart a holy people for God.
It was meant to restore relationship with God.
It was meant to create a prophetic people whose lives brought blessing to the world.
It was meant to make people righteous in their actions, words, and even thoughts.
It was meant to bring the rule of heaven to earth (i.e. the kingdom of God).
It was meant to be a channel of blessing and life.
It was meant to be a light to the nations.
(“I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, love the LORD your God, obey Him, and remain faithful to Him. For He is our life.” Deuteronomy 30:20)
The law ultimately failed to do all these things. Some of the goals were partially met, but the ultimate vision remained unfulfilled. The law was broken and forsaken and so it brought a curse. But it had another function: that of a schoolmaster, a temporary tutor to lead the children of God until the fulness of sonship arrived (Galatians 4:1-7).
At that point our allegiance transfers to Jesus, and we swap our bicycle for a Mercedes.
Look to Jesus
Jesus fulfilled the law and the prophets. He accomplished everything the law and the prophets pointed to, taught us about, and attempted to get us to.
He redeemed and atoned for our souls.
He set apart a holy people for God.
He restored relationship with God.
He created us as a prophetic people whose lives bring blessing to the world.
He makes us righteous in our actions, words, and even thoughts.
He brings the rule of heaven to earth (i.e. the kingdom of God).
He is a channel of blessing and life.
He is a light to the nations, inviting all to come up the mountain of God and take their place in the city on a hill.
This is tremendously practical and tremendously wonderful in our lives. It means we cannot and do not have to try to save ourselves, make ourselves righteous, earn holiness, become channels of blessing, etc. If a PERSON has fulfilled the law and accomplished its mission, then our role becomes incredibly relational.
If I am not looking to a system but to an individual to redeem me, atone for me, teach me, shape me, and pour life into and through me, then my life is no longer a burden or a struggle to live up to obligations but instead the greatest relational adventure ever offered.
The law is good, but the law does not know me. The law is good, but the law cannot shape itself to my needs, my heart, and my hurts. The law is good, but the law cannot offer a comforting shoulder to cry on, a deep conversation, or an understanding gaze.
Look to Jesus. Whatever you think a system or law might be able to accomplish in your life, Jesus actually CAN accomplish it.
It Is Finished
As he hung on the cross, Jesus cried out “It is finished!” He had accomplished the greatest mission any human being ever set out to fulfill. He did not do this by destroying or abolishing the law, but by finishing it–by fulfilling and accomplishing what it set out to do.
Coming Next …
In the next section of the Sermon, Jesus casts a vision of human righteousness in heart, action, sexual purity, and word, drawing on the teachings of the law and driving them even deeper. His teachings are profound, challenging, and full of incredible revelation. We’ll start unpacking them next week.
(This is Part 35 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)