Fulfilling the Law and the Prophets
by David Williams
“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. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes 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 does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:17 – 20
Perhaps one of the most difficult tightropes the devout have to walk is that of weighing tradition with biblical fidelity. One would hope that the two are the same, but most often they are not. Though our Reformed and Confessional distinctive could be seen as a tradition within itself, we hold to practices that are not expressly biblical, yet they can be traced back to the early church which incorporated these as forms of worship. Such things as our Word-centered liturgy, having the scriptures sung, prayed, read, and preached. You won’t find this commanded explicitly anywhere in your Bible, but it is good, safe, and historic. That is, it is useful in keeping the primacy of the Word central to our worship service. In such a manner, tradition is good. But the problem arises when a tradition is developed apart from the scriptures and placed on par with or even elevated above the scriptures where fidelity to the tradition is seen as fidelity to God. At this point, the tradition is no longer the religion of the Bible, but a completely different religion altogether, and this is what we read of in Matthew 5. In this passage, the issue was a conflict between the Word of God and the traditions of men; Christ upheld the Word but disregarded traditions.
Scribes were known for their technically tedious approach to the law, arguing such things as whether or not it was permissible for a person with a wooden leg to wear it on the Sabbath, while the Pharisees were committed to oral traditions passed down. In their thinking, fidelity to oral tradition was fidelity to the scriptures. These two groups used the language of the scriptures and referenced it but had their own private meanings. When a religious Jew of the time would have referred to the scriptures as the Word of God, they did not mean the bible proper, but the scripture as interpreted by generation after generation of rabbis. Though not the intent, what happened was that rabbinical interpretation superseded the Word itself. Rather than going to the text, the Jews would go to the text produced by the rabbis as if it were the scriptures. These rabbinical interpretations of the Bible were eventually collected in written form and published in a vast set of books called the Talmud. Now, I have copies of these volumes, and they’re massive in size. There are two versions – the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud, which was produced while in exile. Regarding the matter of the law, the Jews referenced it in a variety of ways.
First, they had the Moral Law, as summarized in the Ten Commandments - the highest form of the law as far as the Jews were concerned. After all, it was the law written by God’s own hand, delivered to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Sometimes, they spoke of the law as the Pentateuch, or Torah – the five books written by Moses. Further, when we read the term, “the law and the prophets,” this typically signified the entirety of the OT, including the historical books and the poets. The most widely used and most common reference, however, the law in the time of Christ was called the “Oral Law,” which then became the scribal law or rabbinical law. Ultimately, the problem with rabbinical interpretation is that it clouded and misapplied the law, reducing it to a set of petty rules and regulations – none of which could please the Lord, and all of it man-made. It’s obvious that Jesus had absolutely no patience for the oral traditions and disputed their teachings, as we read in Mark 7:5 – 8 (“teaching as doctrine the traditions of men”).
So, what did Jesus mean when He said He came to fulfill the law and the prophets, not abolish them? Here, Jesus is setting Himself in opposition to the Scribes and Pharisees, implying it was they who abolished the law through their tradition. When Jesus said He had come to fulfill, what He didn’t mean is that He came to give us another set of rules apart from the law of God that will assist us in keeping the law. The reality is that He was never a threat to the law of God - He was a threat to the oral traditions. The Jews were guilty, nevertheless, of various kinds of abrogation of the law. The Sadducees destroyed the prophets, the Pharisees the law, the Scribes, in part, both the law and the prophets. But Christ not only preserved the Old Testament in all its entirety but fulfilled it in its deepest meaning. That is, He was the reality of all they had pointed to, not just the type or symbol. He brought doctrine to completion, and He interpreted the scriptures more fully to bring about their true spiritual meaning. In Him, we see the scriptures exhibited perfectly in His life. Christ fulfilled the Moral Law, by perfectly loving the Father as well as His neighbor; He fulfilled the Ceremonial Law by being the sinless priest who offers the unblemished sacrifice, setting His people right with God once and for all, and He fulfills the Civil Law in His public offices of Prophet and King. As Prophet, He revealed the direct, underived Word of God, and as King, He rules over His people, defending them from His and our enemies in perfect justice. 19th-century Anglican theologian Christopher Wordsworth writes,
“Christ fulfilled the law and the prophets by obedience, by accomplishment of types, ceremonies, rites, and prophecies, and by explaining, spiritualizing, elevating, enlarging, and perfecting the moral law, by writing it on the heart, and by giving grace to obey it, as well as an example of obedience, by taking away its curse; and by the doctrine of free justification by faith in Himself, which the law prefigured and anticipated, but could not give.” By contrast, the traditions of the Scribes and Pharisees were an abrogation of the law rather than an adherence. To summarize Paul in Romans three, the law was never intended to be a means of justification, but rather serves to point us to grace. None can keep the law perfectly, for if we break one law, we’ve broken them all. What the law does is reveal to us God’s holy requirements and then expose our utter inability to keep it, thus driving us to Him for mercy. As Augustine writes, “Ante Christi adventum lex jubebat, non juvabat; post, et jubet et juvat.” (“Before the coming of Christ, the law commanded, but did not help; after, He commands and helps.”)
It is not in the attempt to keep the letter of the law that justifies us, but the spirit of the law, which is revealed by the Holy Spirit in the life of Christ. The law commands us to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and strength but does not empower us to do so. That only comes by His Spirit who empowers us. The law commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves, but it does not enable us to do so. That again must come through Christ. The sad part is that even 2,000 years post-Christ, the religious still construct extra-biblical traditions, seeking to justify themselves, and effectively negating the work of Christ. Perhaps the greatest theater of our day in which extra-biblical, self-justifying tradition is on display today is politics. The measure of one’s faith is not determined by one’s commitment to the sinless nature of Christ, His penal, substitutionary atonement, His bodily resurrection, or the inerrancy of scripture. One can subscribe to none of that, and still be considered part of the religious right or the religious left. In the political theater, one’s religious fidelity is based upon where one stands on whatever the hot-button issue of the moment is. Such things as Critical Race Theory, immigration rights, LGBTQ rights, abortion, or gun rights – the list is endless, and ever-evolving. Fidelity to a political issue is not fidelity to the Gospel.
When the church elevates secular tradition and heritage to the same plain as scripture, then what we have unknowingly done is refashioned God’s law into one of our own making that we can keep. Biblical obedience and trusting in Christ do not have a political or secular equivocation, nor is it expressed differently in the world than in the church. The Kingdom of God is sufficient and comprehensive. Our only tradition is fidelity to the teaching of Christ passed down by the Apostles, and that which makes clear the heart of God and His Son, our Lord Christ. When we develop extra-biblical traditions and then base our justification on our adherence to these traditions, then what we’ve shown is that we are thinking like Scribes and acting like Pharisees. Selah.