Christ The Fulfiller Matthew 5:17

Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfil. - Matthew 5:17

Continuity with the old is part of Christ's teaching. He came to conserve. But He came to do more than that - infinitely more than that. He came also to fulfil. "To fulfil." Do we not often limit the idea of "fulfilment" to what are called the typical and prophetic parts of the Old Testament, and regard the fulfilment as just the counterpart of the type or prediction, as the reality of which only the reflection had hitherto been visible? But "fulfilment" is far more than this. It is the completion of what was before imperfect; it is the realization of what was shadowy; it is the development of what was rudimentary; it is the union and reconciliation of what was isolated and disconnected; it is the full growth from the antecedent germ.

1. Christ fulfilled the law. - The law (νόμος) is not to be restricted here to the Decalogue; it is to be taken in its more extended signification as denoting the entire law. The moral law was an expression of the mind of God, of God's moral nature - a revelation, or rather expansion, of the law of nature which He originally wrote in the heart of man. Sin blinded men to such an extent that it was necessary to have the law promulgated; hence God wrote it on two tables of stone. And it stood as a public warning against sin, and as a standard of moral duty. It disclosed wants that it was incapable of satisfying, it aggravated the evil it could not heal; and, compelling men to see their own weakness, it taught them to look forward to One who would be capable of fulfilling all its demands. This is the "fulfilling" of which Christ speaks, the completion of that which for two thousand years had been imperfect and ineffectual. "Christ fulfilled the law and the prophets," says Bishop Wordsworth, "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."

Let us look shortly at three main ways in which Christ fulfilled the law.

(1) Christ fulfilled the law by meeting its requirements. - From first to last the life of our Lord was the fulfilment, in spirit and letter, of the ancient ritual. As a son of the law, He obeyed the initial rite of Judaism on the eighth day after birth, and there was no item of the law, even to the dots of the i's or the crossing of the t's, which He omitted or slurred. He died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures. What could be only partially true of His Apostle was literally true of the Lord: as touching the righteousness which is of the law, He was found blameless. Our Lord fulfilled the ceremonial law and fulfilled the moral law, since He was Jesus Christ "the Righteous." He honoured the law by His obedience "even to death," atoning for its breach and violation by mankind, and giving, through His unknown sufferings an answer to its just dues and demands, such as could not have been afforded though the whole race had been mulcted to the uttermost farthing of penal consequences. His fulfilment, therefore, was not for Himself alone, but as the second Adam, the representative man, and for us all.

(2) Christ fulfilled the law by spiritualizing it. - Were we to enter a room in the early morning where a company were sitting or drowsing, with sickly hue, by the dull glimmer of candles, which never had given a sufficient light, and were now guttering, neglected, and burning down to the socket, we would not think we were destroying the light by flinging open the casement, and letting in the clear sunshine upon them. We would, on the contrary, feel that by this process alone could they get the full light which they needed. Now, much in the same way the Lord Jesus came into the world, and found there, as it were, the old seven-branched candlestick of the tabernacle still burning, though dim and low, for it was not well trimmed in those neglectful years; found there the old law of Moses, moral, ceremonial, and judicial, still recognized, though a good deal obscured by traditions; and what He did was to purify and spiritualize the law. He opened upon it the windows of His spirit, illumining its every part, showing its perfection and comprehensiveness. Other teachers had taken the law, the law as it stood, and had so dealt with it as to present it in all its bareness and outwardness, its narrowness and burdensomeness; Jesus Christ took the same law, the law as it stood, but He so dealt with it as to present it in all its fulness and inwardness, its breadth and goodness.

(3) Christ fulfilled the law by generalizing it. - He broke down all class distinctions in morality. Heathenism divided mankind into two classes, the learned and the ignorant, and between these two it erected a high partition wall. These distinctions, though discountenanced in Jewish law, were admitted in Jewish practice. "This people who knoweth not the law are cursed." Christ boldly demolished the wall of partition built high and broad between the cultured and the illiterate. He entered the granary of Divine truth, took out the golden grain, and scattered it broadcast on the face of the common earth. The truths of the favoured few He made the common property of the uncultured many. He alone of all His contemporaries or predecessors perceived the intrinsic worth and vast possibilities of the human soul.

Christ also broke down all national distinctions in morality. The intense nationalism of the Jews in the time of the Saviour is proverbial; they surrounded sea and land to make one proselyte. Instead of trying to make Judaism commensurate with the world, they tried to make the world commensurate with Judaism. However, Jewish morality here, as in every other instance, was superior to contemporaneous pagan morality. Notwithstanding its intense nationalism, Judaism always inculcated kindness to strangers. "The stranger within thy gates" - the recurrence of that phrase in the Mosaic ethics lifts them above all other ancient ethics whatever. What Moses only began, Jesus Christ beautifully perfected. He made morality absolutely human. It is no longer Greek under obligation to Greek, but man under obligation to man. What the Greek poet only momentarily conceived, Jesus Christ has converted into a powerful element in modern civilization - "I also am a man, and nothing human is foreign to me."

Jesus felt Himself called of God to a lot within the chosen people, because He was Himself the culmination of the revelation made to them in the past. As that revelation had been through a special nation, so it had to complete itself there. That He Himself lived within the limits of Judaism was not a confession that He was merely the crown of a national or racial faith, but rather the vindication of the older religion as an inherent part of a world-revelation. It was not the lowering of His message to the particularism of the Jewish religion, but the elevation of the latter into a universal significance first fully revealed in Him. The problem which Jesus had to solve was not the destruction of Judaism, but its consummation, the liberation of its spiritual content from the restrictions of its form. That He should have indicated the supersession of Jewish privilege is not at all unlikely; but manifestly this could not be His usual or characteristic tone, if He were to implant in Jewish minds the germs of His wider faith. He had largely to put Himself in their place, and work through the forms of their thought. Primarily, therefore, His universalism had to be implicit. He did not so much give them new religious terms as fill the old terms with a new meaning and reference. Hence it was only after He had at least partly accomplished this in the case of a chosen circle of followers, and attached them unalterably to Himself, that He spoke openly and frequently of the larger issues of His gospel, and the ingathering of the "nations." Jesus saw that if He were to conserve the eternal element in the Jewish religion, He must work within its lines. He broke, indeed, with the existing authorities, but only because He maintained that they misrepresented it. The principle on which He acted, as regards both the teaching of His ministry and the subsequent development of His Church, was to sow germinal truths which could come to maturity only through the reaction of individual thought, and the enlarging of experience. Therefore, while He did not leave the disciples wholly without plain announcements of the universality of His mission, He did not so emphasize this as to impair their confidence in the unity and continuity of the old and the new faiths.1 [Note: D. W. Forrest, The Christ of History and of Experience, 418.]

2. Christ fulfilled the prophets. - We are familiar with the idea of the "fulfilment" of prophecy, though that idea is often unduly limited. Prophecy is not "inverted history": it was not a reflection beforehand by which men could foreknow what was to come: it was but as the seed out of which plant and flower and fruit were to be developed. Prophecy kept men's eyes fixed upon the future; it created a sense of need, it stirred deep and earnest longings; it stimulated hope. And then the fulfilment gathered into one unimagined reality all the various lines of thought and longing and hope, in a completeness far transcending all anticipation. The fulfilment could not have been conjectured from the prophecy, but it answers to it, and shows the working of the one Divine purpose, unhasting, unresting, to its final goal of man's redemption.

The prophets' great teachings were all centred round the figure of the Deliverer of the future. There were three things concerning the person and work of this Messiah upon which they laid special emphasis.

(1) The Messiah was to be humble in the circumstances of His life. - His birthplace, His lowly outward condition, His having no visible grandeur to attract the world's eye, had all been noted by the pen of inspiration. If He had been born in any other place than Bethlehem, if He had appeared as a rich Prince instead of being the son of a poor family, there would have been reason to say that the words of Scripture were against Him; for it was prophesied regarding Him, "Thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting."

Christian religion beginneth not at the highest, as other religions do, but at the lowest. It will have us to climb up by Jacob's ladder, whereupon God Himself leaneth, whose feet touch the very earth, hard by the head of Jacob. Run straight to the manger, and embrace this Infant, the Virgin's little babe, in thine arms; and behold Him as He was born, nursed, grew up, was conversant amongst men; teaching; dying; rising again; ascending up above all the heavens, and having power over all things. This sight and contemplation will keep thee in the right way, that thou mayest follow whither Christ hath gone.1 [Note: Luther, Commentary on the Galatians, 102.]

(2) But the Messiah was to be great in His person. - He was to be of high origin, though He was to take up a lowly position on earth. It was said of Him by one of the prophets, His "goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting." These words intimated that He who was afterwards to appear in human nature for the deliverance of His people had lived from the beginning, from eternity. The prophet Isaiah had also said with reference to Him, "Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace."

The Jews took great offence, we read, because Jesus, being a man, called Himself the Son of God. But did not the Scriptures, which they professed to follow, speak of the Messiah as both God and man? If He had claimed less He would not have been the Deliverer promised to their fathers. And were the actions of Jesus inconsistent with His high claim? When He gave sight to the blind, and hearing to the deaf, and speech to the dumb, and life to the dead by a word, did He not show that He indeed was what the prophet Isaiah had said the Messiah at His coming should be, "The Mighty God"?1 [Note: G. S. Smith, Victory Over Sin and Death, 21.]

(3) He was also to accomplish a matchless work. - He was to bruise the head of the serpent; or, as this first announcement is explained again and again in the prophecies which follow, and particularly in the prophecies of Daniel, He was "to finish transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness." He was to take away the sins of men which separated them from God, to put an end to the commission of sin, and to bring in the reign of righteousness for ever. He was in consequence called by the prophets in other places "the Lord our righteousness." Jesus declared when He was upon the earth that this was to be the great purpose of His mission. "The Son of man," He said, "came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." He came to take away all burdens and all troubles by taking away sin, which is the cause of them all. "Come unto me," He said, "all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." And with reference to all that come unto Him, He says, "I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any pluck them out of my hand."

In St. Paul, Christ is the Deliverer from sins in the past; He is the Defender against sins in the future. God's love in Christ is emphatically that which delivers the wretched man, beaten in all his endeavours to free himself from the body of this death of sin: it is that which has done through Christ what the law could not do, enabled the righteousness of the law to be fulfilled in His redeemed. Over St. Paul's mind there ever seems to be resting the shadow of the memory of the past; he remembers how wrong he once went, what a terrible mistake he made. And he remembers how, not by any reflection, not by any study of his own, but by the direct influence of Christ Himself, he first learned how fearfully wrong he was. Hence throughout his life there is present to him a sense of his own weakness. Yet while these thoughts sometimes come across him, and make him more eagerly watchful over all that he does, nothing can shake his firm persuasion that "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord." To him Christ is emphatically the power which wipes out the past, and which upholds the soul, the power which alone can preserve us blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose strength is made perfect in our weakness, who shall one day "change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself."1 [Note: Archbishop Temple.]