17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20 “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Connecting the Beatitudes to the Law
This is a really important paragraph in the sermon on the mount. It is key to understanding the relationship between the beatitudes and the exposition of the Mosaic law that follows.
The way things played out in real life with all the sinners and prostitutes and tax-gatherers following Jesus around, we can see that by saying that the “poor in spirit” were to be given the kingdom, He meant the people who were terrible at keeping the law — the spiritually sick who need a physician. He came for the people who were terrible at keeping the law, in order to give them the kingdom. This was clear to His listeners in that day, and the people who were free to acknowledge that they were terrible at keeping the law flocked to Him. He says this explicitly in John 3:16,17.
This posed a problem, if we are to say that He did not come to abolish the Law. It does make it seem like He is abolishing the law, if we can approach God despite our inability to keep the law. I think that we introduce this problem because we interpret the passage in our minds like this:
“Don’t think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to demand that you obey.”
Fulfilling the Law
You have to admit that His use of the word “fulfill” is a very odd turn of phrase here. Let’s be very careful to observe what He is saying exactly. He is saying, that He came to fulfill. According to my Strong’s lexicon, the word “fulfill” is the Greek word “pleroo” which means “to fill to the top: so that nothing shall be wanting to full measure, fill to the brim” or “to make complete in every particular, to render perfect”.
Later in the sermon on the mount, we find Jesus saying that we should fulfill our vows (Matthew 5:33), but this is a different word, “apodidomi”, which means “to pay off, discharge what is due”. This is not to mention that the actual injunction here is to avoid making vows which require the need for such fulfillment.
Who is the Fulfiller?
What’s the point? Do we really think we have the slightest hope of personally fulfilling the law which Jesus is about to expound upon, in the sense of filling it to the brim or making in complete in every particular? If you think about it, if Jesus meant that He came to demand that we obey, knowing full well that we would not, it would be a bad way to accomplish it. Fulfillment would require perfection:
“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48 (NASB)
So, it means that Jesus fulfills the law on our behalf. He lived perfectly. He obeyed perfectly. He died in our place to fulfill the ultimate consequences of our injustices. You may think that is nutty, but consider the alternative. Can you claim to be perfect? I’m not asking if you can hope to be perfect in the future, but if you can claim to truly be perfect. If you want God to bless you and accept you based on what you hope to be in the future, and to ignore your past failures, you are asking God to bless selfishness, hatred, and sin. You are asking God to be imperfect.
So, you may think it is a nutty way to read this, but it isn’t nutty. Jesus is the One who in His person fulfills the law and the prophets. Ironically, if you read this as Jesus demanding that we fulfill the law, then inasmuch as you ever do the slightest thing that isn’t from self-sacrificing love and assume it is unimportant, you annul some jot or tittle of the law. It is only through faith in the power of Christ’s propitiatory blood that you can hope to keep from abolishing the law. Your repentance and promise to transform or change your ways is not going to fly. If you teach others that the degree and success of their sanctification informs or supports their justification, you teach others to annul the law. In your efforts to make the law practicable and doable, rather than crushing and impossible, you assume that some letter or stroke of the law doesn’t apply (not really), and so teach others. You must seek first His kingdom and His righteousness if you want to have a righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees. You must emphasize that nothing short of of perfect love, perfect justice, perfect obedience, and perfect holiness is enough, if you want to avoid annulling the law. You can only do that if you believe in the power of substitution – that Christ fulfills the law on our behalf. Only He does so, and this is the specific wording He uses here. This is the right understanding of this paragraph, and this is the right light in which to read the whole rest of the sermon on the mount.