So today I would like for us to talk about Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish law. It’s a core theological concept in Christianity and one that does not have a standard agreed upon definition. The word fulfillment itself means to complete something – to make it full and finished. Many people have many ideas as to what this means in relation to the Jewish law. The idea of fulfilling the law comes from the sermon on the mount, here is a section from Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus said:
“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. 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. 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. 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.”
Let’s start by pointing out a couple key aspects of what he said there, because it’s super dense and hard to wrap your head around, even for seasoned theologians. One thing to note is that he refers to the law and the prophets together. Some people like to think this passage refers to the 10 commandments but it really is much broader than that – Jesus gives six examples after this taken from Jewish law and the examples he gives come from all 5 books of the Torah.
Another detail to look at is that Jesus says not a single letter of the law will be abolished until heaven and earth disappear and everything is accomplished. That is a wonderfully vague phrase. What needs to be accomplished, he doesn’t actually say. Some people say that he is referring to his death and resurrection, but that doesn’t explain why he says when heaven and earth disappear. It sounds much more likely to me that he is talking about the apocalypse, which fits well into the theme of Matthew’s teaching but doesn’t match what most of the rest of the New Testament says.
Another detail that is important to consider is that Jesus says that anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. Some scholars believe he is referring to the instructions he is about to give, others think he is referring to all 613 Jewish laws. Even though it makes things more complicated I do believe that he is referring to the entire law of Moses and the prophets, as he mentioned at the beginning. So what does all this mean? That’s a really good question. The meaning of this passage is disputed and you are free to try and figure the answers out for yourself, but, I’m going to present you with three different possible interpretations in this brief little blog post.
The first one is probably the most familiar. It is a very common interpretation, especially amongst more traditional or evangelical churches. It goes like this – Because of the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden humanity was lost and so God gave people the law of Moses to help them avoid sin and be good people. This didn’t work out as planned and people became legalistic and lost sight of God in the process. So, God sent his son to die on the cross as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of humanity. When Jesus did that we no longer needed the law because our sins had been forgiven. In this world view Jesus fulfilled the law by completing it’s purpose. He destroyed sin and death and gave us faith and the Holy Spirit in place of the law. Jesus completed the law by accomplishing what it could not, the salvation of the fallen human race, and he did this by becoming a blood sacrifice in the same way lambs were sacrificed to atone for sin the temple. This would mean that the law of Moses, including the 10 commandments, would no longer apply because there is a new covenant sealed in Christ’s blood.
The second interpretation I would like to give you is more of a Jewish one, which remember is what the audience hearing this sermon would be familiar with. One could easily read this passage and think Jesus is instructing his followers to keep the full Jewish law including food restrictions and circumcision. There are 613 Jewish laws which would be included in this with a wide range of content. Everything from not eating shellfish to not wearing clothes made of mixed fiber to rules about ritual washing after being in the presence of a dead body. We obviously don’t follow all of these laws today and neither do most Jews, but at the time of Jesus the option of keeping the law of Moses would not have seemed as radical as it does to us today – most, if not all, of his followers would have grown up keeping the full Jewish law.
In fact not following the law would have been the strange radical idea. This interpretation does not seem to jive with all the things Paul has to say in the New Testament about the subject, but there are, of course, different ways of interpreting what Paul says as well. There is a movement that started in the last century called Messianic Judaism which follows the food and circumcision laws while still believing Jesus is the messiah. They are Jewish Christians and likely have a great deal in common with many of Jesus’s early followers. They may observe the law of Moses but they teach that the law itself does not bring salvation, it is faith in Jesus as the messiah which saves. In this Messianic Jewish way of looking at it, Christ dying on the cross makes the law complete but does not abolish it. We are still meant to follow the law but we also need the saving power of Christ, the law on its own is not enough.
The third interpretation I would like to present to you is a broader one. It takes what Jesus says about the law and applies it to laws in general instead of only to the Jewish religious laws. The Mosaic laws are social and religious codes designed to help individuals and all of society live in peace and justice with one another and to please God and earn his favour. The core intention is fine, we should live justly with one another and we should try to please God. That’s why Jesus says that the whole law can be summed up as “love God and love your neighbour”. Jesus is speaking broadly about respecting tradition while trying to find the meaning behind it. This interpretation doesn’t really concern itself with whether you follow the 613 laws of Torah or not but is about engaging with your own tradition.
Jesus is saying that we should not throw out the baby with the bath water but that we should re-evaluate our tradition and work within it to keep it from going off track. Jesus being the fulfillment of the law could mean that religious practices and traditions are only complete when they remain focused on God and not on themselves. This third interpretation is mine. I believe that Jesus is trying to avoid extremes in how we relate to our tradition. I hear him saying that we should neither blindly follow our religious tradition nor rashly throw the whole thing out. He is clearly calling tradition into question but also makes it very clear that he does not want to abolish it altogether.
The Jewish laws seemed rigorous but they had really grown stagnant. What once had served to bring people closer to God had been slowly eroded by sinful human nature and had instead become a way of proving superiority, controlling people, and patting the egos of those who followed them. Jesus tried to show us how the intention behind these religious practices had been lost. He tried to bring a rigorous internal component back to it, but people only wanted external change they didn’t want to have to look within. They were happy simply not to murder without delving into the depths of their souls to address the anger they carried inside. The laws had been meant to change people for the better but they had regressed into something which merely controlled social interaction.
This pattern was not unique to the Jews, anyone with a critical eye can see it playing out all throughout Christian history as well. It is a human tendency and one that requires constant vigilance and occasional reformation to mitigate. I would like to give you an example of this from secular law and western history. The history of wealth distribution in western society over the last 500 years can show us some of this tendency as well. We operated out of a feudal system for quite some time – an economic system based in the monarchies of the day. It was a complex and intricate system and I won’t do it justice in this extremely brief explanation, but the general gist was this: the king owned the country and all the people in it. Everything which people produced was used by the king as the king saw fit.
There were Lords and other royals who owned the land under the king’s authority and managed the common people and their labour. The common people were allowed to actually own very little and had no say in the shaping of national politics. With the colonization of the new world things began to change and a new system was put into place. Instead of monarchy there was democracy and instead of feudalism there was capitalism. This was an attempt to make laws which would prevent oligarchies from forming. The basic principle of capitalism is that what you produce you own and can do what you like with. Democracy was put in place to protect capitalism from the greedy hands of royals.
It was a revolution by the people for the people. But, as time went by, the greedy and powerful began to influence politics and economics and slowly took the framework which was meant to create a fair and just society and managed to turn it back into an oligarchy. Today capitalism has corrupted democracy and large corporations are accumulating mass wealth at the expense of the common people. The framework has changed but the end result is the same in capitalism as it was in feudalism. A select group of people are very rich at the expense of everyone else. Now, I don’t want to get into too much politics but I hope this illustrates my point. The same thing had happened to the Jewish religious institution of Jesus’ time and its law no longer served its original purpose.
Without internal change things will never be any different. Every political system, from monarchy to democracy, from communism to dictatorship, will fall victim to the sin of corruption and greed until we start transforming the hearts of the people involved. And the same is true of religious systems. Until we start looking at who we are and what is going on inside our hearts and minds no amount of religious law or tradition will ever change anything. The outward expression will change but the condition of the people will not. Laws about murder are all well and good but until we eradicate anger the laws will be changed and manipulated to express that anger.
So what Jesus was talking about in his sermon on the mount still applies today. Jesus wasn’t talking only about his time and place but all of human experience. I believe it is essential that we be firmly rooted in our tradition while still bring critical of it. We need to refresh our laws periodically in order to weed out the inevitable human corruption which seeps into it. And we need to make internal change the primary focus of our religious systems. Otherwise we get where we are today, the church has become the same as the Pharisees just with different doctrines and excuses for what it does. The church has become a legalistic framework for people to pat their own egos and justify oppression. History is there to prove this and we never really heard what Jesus was saying. Outward acts of devotion and strict adherence to the law are meaningless if we do not change within.
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