Does the Sermon on the Mount say we don’t need to keep the law because Jesus fulfilled the law for us—that the law really doesn’t apply to us after all?
In Matthew 5:17 Jesus Christ clearly stated His position on the law of God: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets.”
Unfortunately, many people think He did destroy the law. More precisely, they say that Jesus transformed the law. They claim that by accepting Christ as Savior a Christian is freed from any obligation to obey God’s law. The common explanation is that Christ’s obedience is credited to all who accept Him as their Savior.
Did Jesus keep the 10 Commandments for us?
The reasoning is that believers don’t need to keep the law because Jesus allegedly kept it for us. Let’s break that down so that we understand the consequences of this teaching.
The effect of this reasoning is to conclude that Jesus did in fact destroy the law, in spite of His above statement to the contrary. Is it all right to worship other gods, because Jesus kept the First Commandment? Is it all right to have religious images as part of our worship, because Jesus kept the Second Commandment? Is it permissible to take God’s name in vain, because Jesus kept the Third Commandment? Can one break the Sabbath—the Fourth Commandment—because Jesus kept it?
Because Jesus honored His parents—the Fifth Commandment—are believers permitted to dishonor their parents? Since Jesus did not murder, commit sexual sins, steal, lie or covet anything that belonged to others, are Christians free of any obligation to keep the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and 10th Commandments?
Some say that because the word “destroy” (kataluo in Greek) can mean “to loose or unloose what was before bound” (Spiros Zodhiates, Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible, p. 836), this verse means Christ loosed us from the obligation of the law so that we don’t have to keep it.
Did Jesus destroy the law?
Consider a complete quotation of Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.”
Here we see that Jesus Christ had no intention of destroying the law, and He tells us not to even think such a thing. Nor did He come to set men free from their obligation to the law, according to this statement. In Matthew 5:18 Jesus emphatically tells us, “Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle [the tiniest marks in the Hebrew script] will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.”
Another line of reasoning is that Jesus fulfilled any obligation to keep the first four commandments, but that Christians must still abide by the “social” commandments, the last six. Yet Christ made no such distinction in His clear statement.
What did Jesus mean when He spoke of fulfilling the law?
The Greek word translated “fulfill” in Matthew 5:17 comes from the root word pleroo, which can also mean “to make full, to fill, to fill up … to fill to the full” or “to render full, i.e. to complete” (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Strong’s #4137). Thus, “fulfill” can mean to complete or accomplish, but it can also mean to fill to the full. To cite Matthew 5:17 as proof that Jesus meant, “I did not come to destroy the law, but to end it by fulfilling it” is inconsistent with His words and makes no sense. However, the meaning “fill to the full” does make clear His intent.
Both in His life and in His teaching, Jesus fulfilled the law. That is, He did what is implied by the words “fill to the full.” He magnified God’s law by His perfect example and gave it its full meaning.Both in His life and in His teaching, Jesus fulfilled the law. That is, He did what is implied by the words “fill to the full.” He magnified God’s law by His perfect example and gave it its full meaning. He emphasized its deep underlying principles and the need for total commitment to it rather than mere external acknowledgment and obedience.
The intent of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:17 is, “I did not come to do away with the Law or the Prophets, but I came to uphold them in everything that I say and do.” He did exactly that, showing the holy, spiritual purpose of God’s law, obeying it perfectly in thought and action, in both the letter and in the intent of heart.
However, His being a model Son did not free the rest of God’s children from our responsibilities to our Heavenly Father. By analogy, compare this to a human family. If the oldest sibling in the family of many children was an excellent role model, observing all of the household rules, would his actions free his younger siblings from any obligation to behave? Of course not! So why do people think differently about God’s spiritual family?
Jesus magnified the law
By explaining, expanding and exemplifying God’s law, Jesus fulfilled a prophecy about the Messiah found in Isaiah 42:21: “The LORD is well pleased for His righteousness’ sake; He will exalt the law and make it honorable.”
The Hebrew word gadal, translated “exalt” or “magnify” (King James Version), means “to become strong, grow up, be great or wealthy, evidence oneself as great (magnified), be powerful, significant, or valuable” (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1940, “Magnify”). Jesus Christ did magnify and exalt the law by showing its spiritual intent, or the spirit of the law, demonstrating its true significance and value in the life of a Christian.
“Till all is fulfilled”
Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:18 makes it even clearer that He did not come to destroy or nullify the law: “For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.” Here, Jesus compared the continuance of the law to the permanence of heaven and earth. He is saying that God’s spiritual laws are immutable and indestructible.
The Greek word for “fulfilled” in this verse is ginomai, which means “to become, to take place” (Vine’s, “Fulfill, Fulfilling, Fulfillment”). The Revised Standard Version translates this word “accomplished” in Matthew 5:18. Jesus here explains that until God’s plan to glorify humanity in His Kingdom is completely accomplished, that is, as long as there are still fleshly human beings, the physical codification of God’s law in Scripture is necessary and is as certain to endure as the continued existence of the universe.
The 10 Commandments for Christians today
Jesus concluded His comments about God’s law with a warning to the religious teachers of His day: “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19).
Jesus was clearly talking about God’s spiritual law, the 10 Commandments. He refers in this context to the commands “You shall not murder” (verse 21) and “You shall not commit adultery” (verse 27). Thus, Jesus ratified the 10 Commandments as the basis for Christian behavior. He showed that if a man has hate in his heart or if he even lusts for a woman, he is breaking the spirit of the law and is spiritually committing murder or adultery.
Clearly the Bible does not say that we are free from keeping the law because Jesus fulfilled the law for us. Those who follow Christ and desire to be in His Kingdom are obligated to obey and uphold God’s law.
For answers to other questions related to this subject, we invite you to see the articles in the “Law and Grace” section as well as the articles “Christ Is the End of the Law? How?” and “Jesus and the Law.”