In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus makes a profound statement that has intrigued and puzzled many throughout history: “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.” (Matthew 5:17) This declaration raises questions about the relationship between Jesus’ ministry and the Old Testament scriptures, commonly referred to as the Law and the Prophets. To understand Jesus’ words, we must explore the historical, theological, and cultural context in which he spoke.
- Historical Context:
Jesus lived in a time when Judaism, with its adherence to the Law of Moses, was the dominant religious framework. The Law, consisting of the commandments and regulations found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, formed the foundation of Jewish religious and societal life. The Prophets referred to the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible, which provided moral and spiritual guidance to the people.
- Jesus’ Fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets:
When Jesus declares that he has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, he is not implying that he has come to abolish them. Rather, he is affirming their significance and pointing to himself as their ultimate fulfillment. Throughout his ministry, Jesus consistently referred to the Law and the Prophets to validate his teachings and actions.
Jesus fulfilled the Law by embodying its moral and ethical principles perfectly. He emphasized the two greatest commandments: to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Matthew 22:37-40). Jesus demonstrated love, compassion, and mercy in his interactions with others, showing the true intent behind the commandments. He also fulfilled the numerous prophecies in the Old Testament that foretold the coming of the Messiah, the promised Savior.
- A Correct Understanding of the Law:
Jesus’ words challenged common misconceptions about the Law held by some religious leaders of his time. They had reduced the Law to a set of external rituals and legalistic observances, often neglecting its underlying principles of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Jesus aimed to restore the proper understanding of the Law by emphasizing its spiritual and moral dimensions.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addressed various aspects of the Law, giving them a deeper and more comprehensive interpretation. He spoke about anger, adultery, divorce, oaths, and retaliation, providing teachings that went beyond mere adherence to the letter of the Law. Jesus emphasized the transformation of the heart, calling his followers to a higher standard of righteousness.
- The New Covenant:
Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets was intimately connected to the inauguration of the New Covenant. Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection ushered in a new era, where forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God would be offered to all who put their faith in him. The New Covenant, prophesied by the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:31-34), marked a shift from the external obedience to the Law to an internal transformation of the heart through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
In this new covenantal relationship with God, the believers are guided by the Holy Spirit to live in accordance with the principles and teachings of Jesus. While the Law and the Prophets retain their significance as part of God’s revelation, they are now seen through the lens of Jesus’ fulfillment and the new covenantal framework.
In conclusion, Jesus’ statement that he did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them highlights his role as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and the embodiment of the Law’s true intent. Jesus’ teachings and actions demonstrated a correct understanding of the Law, emphasizing love, compassion, and a transformation of the heart. Through his sacrificial death and resurrection, Jesus inaugurated the New Covenant, in which believers are guided by the Holy Spirit to live in accordance with the principles of the Law, as interpreted and embodied by Jesus himself.