Fulfilling or Completing the Law

The Law

Just the words “the Law” bring many different ideas and images into our minds. Police officers, lawyers, judges, prisons, politicians. And all of these shape our understanding of God as we read and try to understand the Old Testament, especially the Torah, the first five books of the Scriptures.

Our translation of “Law” comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Torah into nomos, which means law. But the Hebrew word Torah is quite different from our western image of law. Torah literally means the teaching or doctrine. So what we translate as the Law of Moses, in Hebrew is understood as the teaching of Moses. And our understanding of the “Law” as something very legalistic is mistaken.

Did Jesus Do Away With The Law?

As believers in Christ we tend to want to separate the Old Testament and the New — Law and Grace. We think Jesus did away with the law, and the need to be obedient to it. And we, at least in practice, ignore his words in Matthew 5:17:

“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.” NIV

Jesus clearly states that he didn’t come to abolish, or to do away with the Law. But He fulfilled the Law, right? He did it and therefore we don’t have to.

Fulfilling The Law

To fulfill, or complete as the Jewish New Testament translates it, does not carry this connotation. Rather, it is the idea of making full. He came to complete our understanding of Torah, or to show us the correct interpretation, how to live Torah correctly. Not to render it obsolete, as Christians so often believe.

Jesus’ Interpretation of the Law

And in the following passages Jesus goes on to fulfill the Law, to interpret Torah and teach his followers how correctly follow the teachings of Moses. He teaches his interpretation of murder in verse 21, adultery in verse 27, divorce in verse 31, taking and breaking oaths in verse 33, how to respond to wrongdoing in verse 38, and loving a neighbor in verse 43. In some of these teaching he is much more lenient than the other torah teachers of his day. In others he is far more strict, such as his teaching on murder, adultery and divorce. Jesus, more strict that some of the Pharisees in his teaching may be hard for some to believe.

But no matter how you interpret his teaching on these topics, it is clear that he is not doing away with the Torah, but encouraging his listeners to interpret it correctly and follow its teachings.

Law and Grace

I hear your questions? “But isn’t it about faith and grace? This sounds like works.” In the Hebrew mind there isn’t that distinction, that is a very western concept. For the Hebrew, faith and obedience cannot be separated.

Jesus said:

“If you love me, you will obey what I command …”  John 14:15

Paul said it like this:

Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law. Romans 3:31″

The Law and Gentiles

This is where we must be careful. Jesus appears to be saying that the teaching of Moses is still applicable. But Jesus is speaking to a Jewish audience. And as we read Torah, and the rest of the Tanakh (Old Testament) we see that certain laws were for the Hebrew people and certain laws are for all people. The New Testament is clear that believers do not have to convert to Judaism in order to follow Messiah, and that not all of the laws that apply to the Hebrews apply to Gentile believers. But whether or not we are held to all the teachings of Torah, having a better, more accurate understanding of those teachings shapes our understanding of God and of how He expects us to live.

When you think of the Law in Scripture, do you think of it as ancient rules that don’t apply today, of do you think of it as the teachings of Moses about how to live a life of peace that is pleasing to God?



Filed under Scripture

4 responses to “Fulfilling or Completing the Law

  1. Jon Hetzel

    Wonderful post, Jeff. Appreciate your insight. Thanks for digging in and sharing your thoughts again on the blog.

    • jeffabel

      Thanks Jon. It has been fun focusing in on the Gospels and wrestling through some familiar passages with new eyes. I’d love to hear your thoughts as well.

  2. Excellent explanation of a truth that many Christians and non-Christians alike misunderstand. Thanks for posting!