“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)
The question of what Jesus thought of the law is not easily answered, for he seemed to say both yes and no to it. “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets,” he said, “I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). On the other hand, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say unto you . . .” (v. 38). Indeed, they had heard it said, over and over: in Exodus (21:24), Leviticus (24:20), and in Deuteronomy (19:21)! And this was not a ceremonial or merely a civic law. This was moral.
In what sense, then, did he fulfill the law, and in what sense did he set it aside? Fulfill translates a rich word, used of fulfilling predictions, of completing or bringing to maturity or perfection, and of obeying.
- Jesus fulfilled the moral law by obeying it. He obeyed the moral requirements of the law without fail. (Luke 23:41; 2 Corinthians 5:21) Thus he became the basic working model for Christian behavior.
God’s will for man has ever been likeness to himself. But what is he like? For centuries God sent prophets to tell us. But in the end, he himself came to show us by living example. “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9ff.). How blessed we are in the age of grace—we can see God in Jesus Christ. This does not mean that we can be right with God by imitating his Son. No, salvation is a free gift of his rightness to replace my wrongness. We are justified only by faith in Christ. But we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:10), and he has clearly demonstrated that life since he came to do the will of the Father (John 4:34; 14:31; 15:10). In his faithful reproduction of the character of the Father, he is our sure and certain example.
- Jesus fulfilled the law by fulfilling the prophecies contained in the law. His birth, life, and ministry had been predicted in great detail, and these prophecies he fulfilled. Among them all, the great central event in history was his death, by which he simultaneously brought the law to completion and abolished it. He brought it to completion by becoming the sacrificial lamb to satisfy the demands of the law once for all. He “abolished” it by destroying the power of the law to condemn. By enacting the reality foreshadowed in the symbolism of the ceremonial laws, he brought them to an end (Hebrews 7:26-28; 9:1,9-10, 23-27).
Jesus Christ fulfilled the entire system of ceremonial laws and thus set them aside. This explanation of the meaning of Christ’s death after he accomplished it fits perfectly with the pattern of his life and teaching. He consistently affirmed the authority of the “law,” but his teaching was ever centered in the moral law. He never affirmed the ceremonial elements of the law. In fact, he rather did the opposite on occasion. For example, he “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19) even before the Cross, thus setting aside all the dietary regulations.
But his death was more than the fulfillment of the law in the sense of paying the penalty demanded by the law. It is also our example of supreme godlikeness. In fact, he put on display the highest form of love —complete sacrifice of self, even for one’s enemy (Romans 5:8). Never had the world even imagined such love. And it became the foundation for Christian behavior as well as the source of Christian life.
- Jesus fulfilled the law by affirming and explaining it. He fulfilled the law by “completing it” in the sense of bringing out its perfect, ultimate meaning: Murder is wrong, to be sure, but so is hatred (Matthew 5:21 ff.). Adultery is sinful, but so is lust (v. 27). He gave the essence, the inner meaning of the law; he radicalized it, raising it to the highest. He gave the positive stimulus of love as well as the negative prohibitions. Throughout his ministry, he consistently affirmed the Old Testament as the authoritative Word of God (e.g., Matthew 5:17-19; 23:23). Jesus, then, catches up all the enduring truth about the character of God and his will for man revealed in the Old Testament and clarifies it, extends it, deepens it.
- He fulfilled the law by being the real substance of which the law was only a shadow. He accomplished what the law promised; he became the sacrifice that did what the law of animal sacrifice could never accomplish. In this he established the validity of the ceremonial law, becoming what it pointed toward, but he also established the validity of the moral law. He demonstrated just how holy God really is, just how terrible sin really is in the sight of God.
The Cross of Christ is indeed the supreme fulfilling of the demands of the law. And by this he simultaneously proved the righteousness of God, who forgave sin long before the sacrifice had been made (Romans 3:21-31). Indeed, Jesus the Messiah came to fulfill the law!
What does this mean for us? He is our example. How to love. What sacrifice is needed. What the moral law requires. He became the basic working model for our Christian behavior. What or who will you follow today?