Matthew 5:17-18 – What does it mean to fulfill the Law?

Matthew 5:17-18

by Kelly McDonald, Jr.

In Matthew 5:17-18, Jesus said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (KJV).

Common Arguments: Many have misunderstood these words to mean that Christ has fulfilled the law by obeying it, therefore it is done away with and has no relevance for Christians today.

Think It Through: If Christ obeying the law negated its importance, then Christ contradicted His own words. He said He came not to destroy or remove it. Whatever ‘fulfill’ means, it cannot mean negate. This kind of reasoning would also create no moral standard for Christians to follow. Consider the following: if Christ’s sexual purity negated our need to be sexually pure, then adultery cannot be condemned in the rest of the New Testament. Obviously the meaning cannot negate obedience to God’s commandments.

What did Jesus really mean?

Short Answer: To fulfill means to give full meaning; it does not mean to cancel out. Christ obeyed to show us the full meaning of what God intended. All Ten Commandments are mentioned in the New Testament before and after the resurrection (CLICK HERE to see an article on this subject).

Longer Answer: The Greek word translated as destroy in these verses is katalysai, and it means to dissolve, disunite, or to loosen something that has been joined together. By the time Christ came, the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders had loosened the Law’s requirements. Matthew chapter 23 is a great example; widows and orphans were mistreated. In other words, reverence for God had been loosened by them. Christ’s words oppose such laxity. Instead of catering to them, Christ proclaimed that He came to fill the law’s meaning to the full or tighten its requirements.

Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 5 and His entire life are a fulfillment of Isaiah 42:21: “The LORD is well pleased for his righteousness’ sake; he will magnify the law, and make it honourable” (KJV).

In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus gave an entire chapter about how He magnifies the Law or tightens its requirements. For instance, Christ magnified “Do not commit adultery” by revealing to us that we should not even lust in our heart or mind. Thus, the inward component brings a full meaning to the outward requirement. One of the Ten Commandments is that we should not steal. In Christ, this is magnified so that we should also labor and give to others (Eph. 4:28). We also learn in the New Testament that Christ is Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27-28). This means Christ is not disassociated or loosened from it, but eternally connected to it.

But there are people who have used Matthew 5:17-18 to propose that the entire law of God is fulfilled with the implication that it is negated. These claims are inconsistent with other verses.

For instance, when speaking about Passover, Jesus said, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer, for I tell you, I will no longer by any means eat of it until it is fulfilled in God’s Kingdom?” (Luke 22:15-16). From these precious words, we learn that Passover will not be completely fulfilled until the Kingdom of God comes. Elements of Passover have certainly been fulfilled, but not the entire commemoration.

No Israelite king fulfilled every word of Deuteronomy 17:14-20. Christ is coming to rule the earth for 1,000 years. At that time, He will fulfill those verses with righteousness and justice. Other festival days, such as the Feasts of Trumpets, Atonement, Tabernacles, and the Last Great Day (and perhaps Pentecost) are also partially or completely unfulfilled.

Ultimately, the point is that the law of God is not completely fulfilled. Christ came to fulfill it, but we forget that Christ’s coming happens in two stages. The first was His coming to earth to die as the sacrifice for our sins; the second was to come as the conquering King. In each return, elements will be fulfilled. But this simply means that He can to give it the full meaning, not to negate or destroy it.

There are also those who claim that Christ’s fulfillment of the law on earth led to its complete abrogation or negation. By extension, they also claim that Christians do not have to follow any of it.

First of all, this explanation contradicts the obvious words of Christ, which plainly state that HE did NOT come to abolish it.
Secondly, most people with this viewpoint usually do not consistently apply it.

If the assertion that Christ’s obedience to the Law of God fulfills it and voids Christian expectation to obey any part of it, then the following items are now acceptable: murder, sexual immorality, theft, idolatry, etc. It also means tithing is void (but somehow they find a way to keep that one).

This interpretation leads to the law being loosened, which is contrary to Christ’s words in Matthew. The logic of this viewpoint cannot be consistently applied to the New Testament, since Christ and the early Apostles held the standard of God’s commandments in the early church (see I Cor. 6:9-10, Eph. 6:2, Rev 21:8 for some examples). The Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament after the resurrection  (CLICK HERE to see an article on this subject).

As we think about Matthew 5:17-20, let us consider how God’s commandments have a fuller, more meaningful application in Christ (not a loosened meaning). As Jesus said, we have to stop using carnal reasoning to get around God’s expectations for our lives; we have to trust that God’s Word is true.

Kelly McDonald, Jr.

BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org


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