Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

What Does Jesus Mean By Fulfilling the Law?

the law

Jared Byas, M.A.

As a former teaching pastor and professor of philosophy and biblical studies, he speaks regularly on the Bible, truth, creativity, wisdom, and the Christian faith. Tweets at @jbyas

Jesus begins his famous Sermon on the Mount with this:

17 “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. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:17-20)

I’ve been puzzling for a while now on what Jesus means here by “fulfill.”

Growing up, I was taught this meant Jesus was urging us to view the rules of the Bible as still valid. See for example this article by Brandon Crowe: “What Did Jesus Mean When He Said, “Not an Iota, Not a Dot.” 

There are four steps to this line of thinking:

1. Jesus Says the Old Testament Law is Still Valid & Binding (this is what it means not to abolish the law)

2. Jesus Obeys All the Law Perfectly (this is what fulfillment means)

3. FREEDOM!* Because of #2, We Don’t Have To Obey the Law Anymore 

4. *Some Restrictions Apply (We Still Have Rules But We Won’t Call Them Rules. Now They Are Renamed “Proper Responses To Grace.”)

There are a lot of problems with this line of thinking but I don’t want to get off track so let’s just go back to the original question: what is fulfillment? 

Here’s an idea: what if the Sermon on the Mount is itself an example of fulfillment?

What if fulfillment is adding creative interpretations onto the Law to keep them alive and relevant in our day? 

This seems to be what Jesus does. As soon as he gives us the preface, he starts into his famous “You Have Heard It Said, But I Say To You” sections. 

He starts with a pretty obvious Law, one of the 10 Commandments.

21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.

It seems like Jesus isn’t just “not murdering people” to fulfill this Law but is actually changing some of the parameters of the Law.

Of course, these are just some initial thinking but what got me on this track was remembering another time Matthew uses this word, “fulfillment,” in his Gospel.

If we look just a few chapters back, in Matthew 2, we can see how Matthew uses “fulfillment.” If you remember, Herod is out killing babies when Jesus is born because he heard that a “New King” was to be born. To protect their son, Mary and Joseph relocate to Egypt and then return when the coast is clear. Matthew ends this episode with this: “this was to fulfill what was written .  . .”

Now, if we take a minute and look at Hosea 11, it’s explicitly not about Jesus. Hosea 11 is clearly about Israel. So in what way does Jesus “fulfill” the prophet’s words?

I really don’t know. What Matthew does might be called “midrash,” an ancient way of interpreting sacred writings in a way that made them contemporary. It seems, whatever Matthew is doing, that fulfillment is a way to update the words of the prophet to better fit the current context.

In what way will the law be “fulfilled” or “accomplished”? I might suggest that Jesus is continuing the rabbinic tradition of his day by offering his own interpretation of the Law and that we too should consider how we update the Bible and offer our own creative interpretations of the Scripture.

Or, to let John Caputo summarize,

“What are we to do about the fact that there are different interpretations of what [Jesus] would do? Is this not a very different time? How can we be sure the “good news” is delivered to or, or arrives at, its destination? Nothing is guaranteed by a literal reproduction of what Jesus did, which would make no sense; we need instead a creative reproduction, a creative repetition, a repetition with a difference.”

In other words, maybe we need to follow Jesus’ example and interpret our Bible the way Jesus did: “You have heard it said, but I say to you.” Not to dismiss or abolish what has come before, but to build on it so that all may be accomplished. 

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