MATTHEW 5:17b (part one)
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 5:17b (part one) “. . .I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.”
One of the basic beliefs of Christianity is that the whole Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God. Any who reject this premise pursue an aberration from the true “faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3).
Prechristians are often more keenly aware of this than Christians are. When deciding whether or not to accept Christianity, nonbelievers usually are pondering the real thing as revealed in Scripture. If they want an alternative to that, they look elsewhere, in the occult, new age, or other expressions of faith. Thus, liberalism, the denial of absolute Biblical authority, has in itself its own seeds of destruction.
Basic and essential Christianity entails a commitment to the Bible as authoritative in matters of faith and practice. Once this premise is accepted, the next concern is to make sure the authoritative Word is interpreted correctly. Paul admonished Timothy to be one “handling accurately the word of truth” (2 TM 2:15). This implies it is possible to handle it inaccurately. Jesus helps us at this point.
The Bible conveys the Father’s essence in written form, Jesus conveyed the same Father’s essence in human form. Thus, the Bible and Jesus go hand in hand in aiding our understanding of God. Scripture explains God and His expectations in words, but people can twist words and make them mean what they want them to mean. A living, incarnated example clarifies the definition of words. Thus our “Baptist Faith and Message” declares, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.” He is the key, the only key, which unlocks the Scriptures.
This is the truth Jesus sought to convey in our text. Through His words and deeds, Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament. He clarified the full and exact meaning of its teachings. To interpret and apply the Old Testament laws properly, we must view them all–ceremonial, judicial, and moral laws–through the lens of His life.
Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial laws, the rituals connected with worship. The ceremonies were “a shadow of good things to come” (HB 10:1). Jesus Himself was that good thing. We no longer offer sacrifices, need an earthly high priest, or keep the meticulous dietary and Sabbath regulations, but neither do we “destroy” the ceremonial laws. We dare not cast them off or never read them. They remain lovely pictures and symbols which help explain the roles Jesus filled.
Jesus fulfilled the judicial laws, those civil laws given to establish the nation of Israel as a political entity. These laws were a precious gift. They taught people how to interact, to live peacefully with one another, in society. Jesus fulfilled these laws by declaring an end to the political nature of the kingdom of God. He told the Jews, “The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof” (MT 21:43). Peter made it crystal clear, believers now constitute the “holy nation” (1 P 2:9). There is no longer a theocratic, political nation.
Does this mean we should “destroy” the Old Testament’s judicial laws and totally ignore them? No, they continue to be the basis of the most stable and secure governments in the world. We seek not to impose the absolute letter of all the Old Testament judicial laws, but do find in them timeless principles, eternal wisdom which continues to inspire this world’s highest and best legislation.
For example, Exodus 21:15 commands, “He that smiteth (or curseth, 21:17) his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death.” Do we advocate capital punishment for children who hit or curse a parent? No, but a vital principle nevertheless remains. For a society to do well, children must respect and obey their parents.
Exodus 22:18 commands, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Do we believe people in the occult, astrologers, palm readers, etc., should be killed? No, but the principle still applies–these activities undermine the stability of a nation.
Leviticus 20:13 commands, “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death.” Do we think homosexuals and lesbians should be executed? No, but a true principle is still at work here–any society which yields itself wholesale to this type of behavior is condoning an abomination to God, and well on its way to dissolution.
A nation will seek to “destroy” Old Testament judicial laws at its own risk. Our forebears knew this. Our U.S. Constitution refers to handling cases “according to the rules of the common law” (amendment seven). Common law was defined as Bible laws applied by judges and courts to local situations. Hundreds of years of such cases have resulted in legal precedents which form the basis of western civilization. We dispense with this Biblical underpinning at our own peril.
Jesus fulfilled the moral laws, those rules laid down once and for all time for our individual lives. The message of Jesus is not one of immoral indulgence. Do not be deluded. We cannot indulge ourselves in immorality and yet legitimately claim to serve Jesus. His promises are secure only to those following His precepts.
Jesus fulfilled the moral law in two ways: He obeyed it perfectly, and died to pay its penalty. Our Lord meticulously obeyed Old Testament law. He never stole, lied, took God’s name in vain, or profaned the Sabbath, always honored His parents, was sexually pure. He was so circumspect in perfectly obeying the law that no one could bring a legitimate charge of wrong-doing against Him, though He defied His detractors to do so, saying, “Which of you convicts me of sin?” (JN 8:46a NAS).
His enemies could produce no evidence of sin in His life. Pilate said at least thrice, “I find no fault in Him” (JN 18:38; 19:4,6), and finally washed his hands, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just person” (MT 27:24). Herod found no wrong in Him (LK 23:15). Even Judas cried out, “I have betrayed the innocent blood” (MT 27:4). Jesus was absolutely perfect, and because of this flawlessness, He had in Himself a surplus of goodness which enabled Him to pay our sin debt.
All others break the law, and have no excess of goodness out of which to pay their own, much less anyone else’s, spiritual debt. Jesus, though, was perfect, and God made Him “who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf” (2 C 5:21 NAS). “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (GL 3:13).
In utter humility He who was God consented to obey the law’s every command, and to pay its every penalty. Maybe the most wonderful thing ever said about Old Testament law is that the Father put the Son under it. God sent His Son, “born of a woman, born under the law” (GL 4:4 NAS). Nothing could ever more dramaticly show how divine the Old Testament is. Since Jesus was willing to live under the Old Testament laws, we should be, too, and not grudgingly, but joyfully.
The law is God’s present to us, given to help us know how to live. Four hundred and thirty years after the promise was given to Abraham, the law “was added because of transgressions” (GL 3:19 NAS). People were trying to serve God, but did not adequately know how. They were fumbling and stumbling in the dark.
God kindly gave us His laws to reveal His own expectations, and to help us do well in life. His laws have made wise the simple (PS 19:7), enlightened the eyes (PS 19:8), and are more to be desired than gold (PS 19:10). “By them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward” (PS 19:11).