III. The True Relationship of Christ to the Law:
To Fulfill and Set Aside
The Mosaic administration of law was sandwiched between the Abrahamic promise and the appearance of Christ in history (Gal. 3:17, 19, 24, 25). In his incarnation, our Lord as the "last Adam" (1 Cor. 15:45) "took on him the seed of Abraham" (Heb. 2:16) and was "born under the law" (Gal. 4:4). Jesus, in terms of outward circumstances, was identified both with Gentile humanity ("Adam," Luke 3:38) and the Jewish nation ("under law"). Abraham stands as a unique individual between Adam and Moses, for he is both the father of a particular nation (Israel) and the recipient of a universal promise ("in you shall all nations be blessed"). The Lord, therefore, was identified as the "seed" of Abraham who was endowed with both particular and universal elements (Gal. 3:8, 16).
How, then, did our Lord stand in relation to the Mosaic economy? This relationship can be subsumed under the two Biblical headings of "fulfillment" (Matt. 5:17-18) and "abolishment" (Eph. 2:15).
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. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, nor the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-19)
In verse 17 Jesus makes it clear that his ministry as the Messiah was in no way opposed to the Old Covenant documents. He had not come to rescind the Old Testament but to fulfill it. Indeed, he was born "under law," and voluntarily made himself subject to all of its righteous requirements. The law's promise of life was predicated on perfect obedience - a condition beyond the reach of Adam's fallen descendants. What elect sinners lacked the power to do their divinely appointed representative did on their behalf. The vicarious death of the "Lamb without blemish" (1 Pet. 1:18-19), in satisfaction of the just demands of the law, provided release from the curse of death that held his people fast. His life of perfect and sinless obedience to the law gave him the right to claim its promise of eternal life for his chosen bride - a claim that required him to fulfill, not "destroy" the law. This is why the word "fulfilled" is used fourteen times in the Gospel of Matthew with reference to various aspects of Jesus' work (1:22; 2:15, 17, 23 etc.).
Fairbairn understands verse 17 as an affirmation by Jesus that the purpose of his ministry was not as much to introduce something totally new as it was to bring to fruition "the proper growth and development of the Old."13 He adds that Christ could never be an enemy of the Old Testament, but rather "stood in a friendly relation to the law and prophets . . . they must find in him only their fulfillment."14
In verse 18 Christ affirms a truth that Peter would later echo. The Old Testament stands as a "sure word of prophecy" (2 Pet. 1:19), speaking of things that must come to pass until the end of the present age. (cf. Acts 2:16-21 where Peter saw Joel's prophecy as extending from the Day of Pentecost to the "great and notable day of the Lord"). Acts 3:21 is another passage that indicates that the Old Testament prophets spoke of things that must be fulfilled during the whole course of history: "whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God has spoken by his holy prophets since the world began."
The message of the Old Testament prophets is not limited to the relatively few years during which our Lord was on earth. All that they spoke concerning things of the future must be fulfilled also. The phrase "shall in no wise pass from the law" also demonstrates the abiding nature of the Old Covenant books. Although the Mosaic Covenant has been abolished by Christ, the inspired documents (Old Testament) continue to stand as a witness to Christ and to many other things which must surely come to pass. What the law and prophets said concerning the Messiah's age must come to pass, for they reflect the predetermining purpose of God in Christ (John 17:12; 19:24; Acts 2:23; Eph. 3:11).
In verse 19, Jesus teaches us that the law and prophets are profitable for ethical behavior in his kingdom. They teach us about righteous living, as is made clear in his exposition in verses 21 - 48. Verses 17-18 are surrounded by the ethical teachings of Christ. Christ is no doubt setting his hearers at ease by making it clear that he is in complete harmony with the law and prophets.15 Chapters 5-7 of Matthew stand as "the chief formal promulgation of the fundamental principles of his kingdom" and this law-giving of Christ is somewhat parallel to the Mosaic law-giving at Sinai.16 Thus, in verse 19, after establishing the fact that his ministry fulfills the law and prophets, Christ indicates that certain Old Covenant commandments are also ethically relevant in his kingdom. Indeed, the "righteousness of the law" will be "fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit" (Rom. 8:4).
Obviously, verses 17-19 cannot be used to prove that the Old Covenant laws, in exhaustive detail, are still "law" for the New Covenant believer.17 The New Covenant revelation makes it clear that many of the binding regulations of the Old Economy are not part of the New Covenant law. All that the law and prophets have spoken concerning Christ must be exhaustively fulfilled in the gospel age (Luke 24:44) but not every detail of the law once binding on those under the law is still binding on the believer's conscience in the new age. The clean/unclean regulations concerning food were uncompromisingly binding on the Old Testament saints, for example, yet in Christ Paul could say, "I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself" (Rom. 14:14). Thus, for Greg Bahnsen to simplistically assert that "if something was sinful in the age of the Old Testament, it is likewise sinful in the age of the New Testament . . . for God's standards are not subject to fluctuation from age to age"18 demonstrates a total insensitivity to the temporary character of the law (Mark 7:19).
Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of two [Jew and Gentile] one new man, so making peace; and that he might reconcile both to God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby. (Ephesians 2:15-16)
The Mosaic Covenant separated Israel from the nations (Eph. 2:12). This created a barrier between the Jews and all other nations. Yet, because salvation for any sinner had to come through the Jews (John 4:22; Rom. 9:4; Eph. 2:12), the estrangement of Gentiles from the covenants of promise put them in the position of being without hope and without God in the world. Thus, the ministry of Christ, in the manifold wisdom of God, both abolished the Mosaic economy and fulfilled the central covenant promise to Abraham, "in you shall all nations be blessed" (Gal. 3:8). In order for the promise of the covenants to come upon the Gentiles, the law covenant had to be taken out of the way (Gal. 3:12, 14). But the abolishment took place in the form of a fulfilling, not in terms of destruction or utter disregard. Fairbairn asserts: "Rightly viewed, the change was more properly a fulfilling than an abrogating; an abrogating, indeed, formally, yet a fulfilling or establishing in reality."19
In order for Jews and Gentiles to be in one body, the Mosaic system had to be abolished. The enmity between Jew and Gentile is graphically outlined in the following description:
The Temple in Jerusalem consisted of a series of courts of increasing holiness and sacredness. The outermost court was the Court of the Gentiles into which any nation might enter. Then came the Court of the Women, beyond which women might not go except to make some stipulated sacrifice. Then there came the Court of the Israelites, beyond which no lay person could go. The innermost court was the Court of the Priests, at the end of which there stood the Temple proper and the Holy Place . . . Between the Court of the Gentiles and the Court of the Women there was quite low balustrade called the chol; and inset into it at intervals there was an inscription: "No person of another race is to enter within the balustrade and embankment around the Holy Place. Whoever is caught so doing will be answerable for his own death, which will follow." Quite literally there was a dividing wall between Jew and Gentile, an absolute separation . . . With the coming of Jesus the wall of separation was broken down.20
It seems to be generally agreed that Eph. 2:15 and Col. 2:14 refer to the entire Mosaic system, not just the ceremonial aspects of the law.21 The work of Christ, therefore, both honored ("fulfilled") and set aside the law (Gal. 3:25). In Eph. 2:11-20 the central thought is that Christ abolished in his flesh the law of commandments contained in ordinances. Through this abolition of the law the middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile was done away.22
There is, therefore, a delicate balance to be maintained between Christ completely honoring the law with his life and yet absolutely setting it aside through his death on the cross. In the gospel age, any law regarded as binding upon believers must be drawn, not from the Old Covenant that Christ fulfilled and therefore abolished, but from the New Covenant he has established and sealed with his own blood (1 Cor. 11:25). We err greatly if we impose as binding laws regulations drawn from a Covenant that is no longer in force. As Neil R. Lightfoot observes in commenting on Heb. 7:12; 18-19:
When the author speaks of an inevitable change in the law, he is speaking of the whole Mosaic arrangement conceived of as sacrificial essence. The law and the Levitical priesthood went together. One was integral to the other because on the basis of the priesthood the law was given . . . The priesthood was to the law what a foundation is to a building. Take away the foundation and the superstructure comes down with it. For the author it was axiomatic that if a new priestly order was established, that involved also a change of the old legal superstructure . . . The term set aside [athetesis], as Deissmann has shown, was a technical term used in legal documents; the verb means "to declare as void," "to invalidate," "to abrogate," or "disannul." Here it is the Mosaic law, called the former commandment, that is cancelled, as sin is cancelled or made void by Christ's sacrifice in 9:26. The fact that it is called a former commandment indicates that at best it was only temporary and provisional.23
13. Patrick Fairbairn, The Revelation of Law in Scripture, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1957, p. 215.
14. Fairbairn, p. 224.
15. John Gill, An Exposition of the New Testament, Vol. 1, London: William Collenridge, 1852, p. 33.
16. Fairbairn, pp. 219-220.
17. Gary Long, Biblical Law and Ethics: Absolute and Covenantal, Rochester, New York: Backus Books, 1981, for an exegetical and historical study of Matthew 5:17-20.
18. Biblical Ethics, 1:3, Nov. 1978.
19. Fairbairn, p. 227.
20. William Barclay, Flesh and Spirit - An Examination of Gal. 5:19-23, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1976, p. 88.
21. Fairbairn, pp. 459, 466; Bolton, p. 31; Gill, Vol. 2, p. 295.
22. Charles Carroll Everett, The Gospel of Paul, New York:Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1893, p. 167.
23. Neil R. Lightfoot, Jesus Christ Today - A Commentary on the Book of Hebrews, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1976, pp. 142-144.
This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him. Jon Zens. Searching Together. Summer-Winter 1997, Vol. 25:1,2,3. Pages 8-11.