Fulfilling the Law

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.

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  1. I think it’s important to see the once for all, one time only nature of Chrsit’s fulfilmment of the law. We don’t deny our agency and pretend that God is now fullfilling the law in us. Rather, we glory in the cross, where Christ satisfied the law and brought in righteousness for the elect.

    Smeaton, Apostles Doctrine of the Atonement, p178–”Romans 8:4–That the righteousness of the law would be fulfilled in us. That is so like another expression of the same apostle, that the two passages might fitly be compared for mutual elucidation (II Cor 5:21). This expression cannot be referred to any inward work of renovation; for no work or attainment of ours can with any propriety of language be designated a “fulfillment of the righteousness of the law”.

    The words, “the righteousness of the law,” are descriptive of Christ’s obedience as the work of one for many (Romans 5:18). This result is delineated as the end contemplated by Christ’s incarnation and atonement, and intimates that as He was made a sin-offering, so are we regarded as full-fillers of the law…”

    Moo, though he wavers in his two other commentaries on Romans, writes on 8:4 in NICNT, p482—”Some think that Christians, with the Spirit empowering within, fulfill the demand of the law by righteous living. However, while it is true that God’s act in Christ has as one of its intents that we produce fruit, we do not think that this is what Paul is saying here.

    First, the passive verb “be fulfilled” points not to something that we are to do but to something that is done in and for us. Second, the always imperfect obedience of the law by Christians does not satisfy what is demanded by the logic of this text. The fulfilling of the “just decree of the law” must answer to that inability of the law with which Paul began this sentence. “What the law could not do” is to free people from “the law of sin and death”–to procure righteousness and life. And it could not do this because the “flesh” prevented people from obeying its precepts.

    The removal of this barrier consists not in the actions of believers, for our obedience always falls short of that perfect obedience required by the law. As Calvin puts it, “the faithful, while they sojourn in this world, never make such a proficiency, as that the justification of the law becomes in them full or complete. This must be applied to forgiveness; for when the obedience of Christ is accepted for us, the law is satisfied, so that we are counted just.”

    If then the inability of the law is to be overcome without an arbitrary cancellation of the law, it can only happen through a perfect obedience of the law’s demands. See Romans 2:13 and our comments there.

    In the last part of Romans 8:4, the participial clause modifying “us” is not instrumental—”the just decree of the law is fulfilled in us BY our walking not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit”–but descriptive, characterizing those in whom the just decree of the law as ‘those WHO walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Paul does not separate the “fulfillment” of the law from the lifestyle of Christians. But this does not mean that Christian behavior is how the law is fulfilled….”

    Steele and Thomas, Romans: an interpretative outline: “In order to free believers from the guilt or condemnation of sin, God sent His own Son into the world (in a nature like man’s sinful nature, but not itself sinful. See Heb. 2:14-18; 4:15). Christ gave Himself as a sacrifice for sin, and thereby legally put sin away and thus freed His people from its guilt. As a result of Christ’s sacrificial work, the just requirement (demand) of the law has been fulfilled (fully met) in those who are joined to Him. This of course is because of the fact that what Christ did, He did as their substitute or representative, and it is therefore counted (imputed) to them as if they themselves did it. (8:4)

    Charles Hodge: one’s interpretation of Romans 8 verse 4 is determined by the view taken of Romans 8:3. If that verse means that God, by sending His Son, destroyed sin in us, then, of course, this verse must mean, “He destroyed sin in order that we should fulfill the law” — that is, so that we should be holy (sanctification). But if Romans 8:3 refers to the sacrificial death of Christ and to the condemnation of sin in Him as the sinners’ substitute, then this verse must refer to justification and not sanctification.”

    John Gill: “internal holiness can never be reckoned the whole righteousness of the law: and though it is a fruit of Christ’s death, it is the work of the Spirit, and is neither the whole, nor any part of our justification: but this is to be understood of the righteousness of the law fulfilled by Christ, and imputed to us; Christ has fulfilled the whole righteousness of the law, all the requirements of it; this he has done in the room and stead of his people; and is imputed to them, by virtue of a federal union between him and them, he being the head, and they his members; and the law being fulfilled by him, it is reckoned all one as it was fulfilled in, or if by them; and hence they are personally, perfectly, and legally justified; and this is the end of Christ’s being sent, of sin being laid on him, and condemned in him. The descriptive character of the persons in Roman 8:4 is the same with that in Romans 8:1.”

  2. do i know kc?

    Tullian T
    John 8.11. Once the accusers of the adulterous women left, Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Depart. From now on, sin no more.” Does this final imperative disqualify the words of mercy? Is this a commandment with a condition? No! Otherwise Jesus would have instead said, “If you go and sin no more, then neither will I condemn you.” But Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” The command is not a condition.

    “Neither do I condemn you” is categorical, it comes with no strings attached. “Neither do I condemn you” creates an unconditional context within which “go and sin no more” is not an “if.” The only “if” the gospel knows is this: “if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous” (1 John 2.1).

    The reason Paul says that Christ is the end of this law is that in the gospel God unconditionally gives the righteousness that the law demands conditionally. So Christ kicks the law out of the conscience by overcoming the voice of condemnation produced by the condition of the law. The unconditional voice of the gospel says “It is finished.

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