Not to destroy “the Law and the prophets” but to fulfil them (Mt.5:17) 


The Lord Jesus said that he had come not to destroy “the Law and the prophets” but to fulfil them (Mt.5:17). Does this mean that the Law of Moses in its entirety is therefore binding on believers today? First off, let’s note that the Lord doesn’t only talk about the law here- He speaks of “the law and the prophets”. A glance at the uses of pleroo [to fulfil] in Matthew’s gospel leave us with no doubt about the context. Time and again, 13 times in all (the majority of occurrences in Matthew), the word is used about Jesus fulfilling the Old Testament prophets (Mt. 1:22; 2:15,17,23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:54,56; 27:9,35). He said that He came in order to fulfil them- therefore the fulfilment of Law and Prophets was during His first ‘coming’, and not, as some claim, only in the future Kingdom of God.

The Greek for "destroy" here means strictly to unloose or start to disintegrate. He fulfilled the law in his death as the perfect sacrifice on the cross (Col. 2:14-17), but until then he never advocated the unloosing or negating of even the smallest commandment: "One jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all (i.e. of the law) be fulfilled" (Mt. 5:18). However, His speaking of fulfilling the law implies that the Law was a prophecy which he was soon to fulfil. To read Mt. 5:17 as meaning that the Law is unfulfilled and must still be kept would therefore require the keeping of every ‘jot and tittle’, i.e. every part of the Law. Which includes of course sacrifices, a priesthood system, there ‘ceremonial law’, etc. So nobody was free at the time Jesus spoke those words to disobey the Mosaic Law- because the Torah was in force right up until Jesus “took it out of the way” through His death on the cross. Then the “heavens and earth” of the Mosaic system ended. This phrase must be symbolic because the literal earth and heaven will not be destroyed- God will not destroy His own abode, and His eternal Kingdom is prophesied to come here on earth (Ecc. 1:4). If we say that the ceremonial law has been done away but the 10 commandments haven’t been, then by quoting Mt. 5:17 we are forced to assume that “the law” meant only the ten commandments. And yet it is clear from the usages of the phrase “the law” in the New Testament that it clearly refers to the entire law. We’d be forced to conclude that sometimes “the law” refers to the 10 commandments, sometimes to the rest of the Law. How could we decide which definition to apply? There is no Biblical warrant for this. These legalistic distinctions are purely artificial and man-made. They cannot be sustained from the Bible text.

Fulfilling The law

The idea that the Lord Jesus ended the Law of Moses on the cross needs some reflection. That statement only pushes the question back one stage further- how exactly did He ‘end’ the Law there? How did a man dying on a cross actually end the Law? The Lord Jesus, supremely in His death, was “the end of the law” (Rom. 10:4). But the Greek telos [“end”] is elsewhere translated “the goal” (1 Tim. 1:5 NIV). Note that pleroo , translated “fulfil” in Mt. 5:17, is also translated “ended” (e.g. Lk. 7:1 “When He had ended His sayings”, Acts 7:30 “When forty years were ended”, Acts 19:21 “when these things were ended”). The character and person of the Lord Jesus at the end was the goal of the Mosaic law; those 613 commandments, if perfectly obeyed, were intended to give rise to a personality like that of the Lord Jesus. In this sense the sabbath was intended for man, i.e. for man's spiritual development; man wasn't naturally made in a way that automatically kept the sabbath. There's no internal clock within the human body that forcibly makes us stop working every Friday sundown. And the Lord Jesus goes on to describe Himself, in this context, as therefore being "Lord of the sabbath" (Mk. 2:27,28). In His personality and character, the intend effect of the Sabbath legislation had come to its full term.

We’re wrong to see the Law as somehow onerous and purposefully awkward. It was designed to elicit a culture of kindness, thoughtfulness for others, selflessness, justice etc. All the commandments are “briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, You shall love you neighbour as yourself” (Rom. 13:9). When Jesus of Nazareth reached the climax of His personal development and spirituality, in the moment of His death, the Law was “fulfilled”. He taught that He “came” in order to die; and yet He also “came” in order to “fulfil” the Law (Mt. 5:17). And this is why studying, coming to understand, obeying and fulfilling the spirit of the Mosaic Law is not irrelevant for us today- for it still leads us to Christ. A personality like His is the “end” of the Law. This approach would explain the link between Mt. 5:17 and Gal. 5:14: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”. To love our neighbour as ourselves is the end result of the Law; and the death of the cross was the ultimate exemplification of loving our neighbour as ourselves. Quite simply, “he who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8). Greater love had no man than Jesus when He died, and thus His death, a death of love, was the fulfilment of the law in Him. Because “love works no ill to his neighbour, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10). I believe that Paul was constantly alluding to the Lord’s teaching in his writings. He offers another allusion and commentary upon Mt. 5:17 in Rom. 3:31: “Do we then make void [a related Greek word to that translated “destroy” in Mt. 5:17] the law through faith? God forbid; yes, we establish the law”. The life of faith in Christ is not opposed to the Law; in fact, it is an establishment [Gk. ‘to hold up’] of the Law. A life of faith in the Messiah upholds the essence of the Law. The righteousness of the law is “fulfilled in us, who walk… after the spirit” (Rom. 8:4). So we should have no problem in accepting that the Law was fulfilled in Jesus at His first coming. Yet we are only empowered to fulfil the Law because of the condemnation of the power of sin by Jesus in His death- He did and achieved “what the law could not do” (Rom. 8:3). The essence of the Law in this sense will be fulfilled in the future Kingdom of God; but it was supremely fulfilled in the person of Jesus, who in His personality showed what the Law 'ended' in. 'Pleroo' ['fulfil] can also carry the meaning of 'to bring to realization'. If a person were to keep every one of the Mosaic commandments to perfection, that person would've been perfect- for the Law was "holy just and good" and designed to bring about perfection if it were completely obeyed. Hence to disobey just one law was to break it all. Only in the character of Jesus was this 'realized' or fulfilled.