The Fulfillment of the Law
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 verse puzzles many Christians; or more likely, it puzzles those who have read it and tried to understand it. Yet it gives us the most important reason include the Old Testament in our Bible. If Christ had come to announce an utterly new covenant of salvation with mankind, our interest in the Old Testament would be merely historical, or contextual. It would have no real application to our lives.
But the New Testament, and the new covenant of Christ, was not given to us in a vacuum. To use a nice lawyer term, it “incorporates by reference” the Law of Moses and the words of the prophets. In other words, except where Christ changes it, the law of the Old Testament remains in full effect.
Anyone who has read the Pauline epistles knows that the primary purpose of the Law was not to set forth a moral code, but rather, to show us that we are not moral. By our actions, which inevitably transgress the will of God, we die.
Nevertheless, nothing could be clearer from reading the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) than this: Christ expects us to follow the moral code of the Old Testament, not simply in our actions, but in our hearts.
This does form something of a self-contradiction, because God knows we will fail to live in perfect righteousness. He expects us to follow the law, yet He knows we will fail.
But it is critical to know that he expects us to follow it, because most people don’t like what the Law tells them. We want the forgiveness that Jesus brings, and we want the comfort of His love, but we don't want to hear that we cannot have sex with someone, or that we cannot strive for enormous riches and lust for big houses, that our goal in life cannot be to enrich ourselves and make ourselves famous. By nature, we want to be rich celebrities. We want to wield power. We want to satiate our appetites.
We can't have our cake and eat it, too; we cannot have the grace of God without first having the Law of God. If we tell ourselves that we may do whatever we want, because the only prohibition is part of the “Old Testament,” we ignore Christ’s words. The Old Testament is alive. Any prohibition in it applies to us, unless it was modified by Christ. And pretty much the only modifications made by Christ were formal; the substance or “spirit” of the Law of Moses remains intact. (The great exception is that He took away human judgment and punishment, reserving them to Himself alone.)
Lord, let me never pretend that I may ignore Your commandments. Amen.
~ Mason Barge
Editor, Daily Prayer