This question has come up in my blog comments: "How did Jesus Fulfill the Law and the Prophets?" This question arises from a specific verse in Matthew:
“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 tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." (Matthew 5:17-18 NIV)
What is the context of this passage? It's Jesus' first recorded teaching, as given to his disciples, an introduction to the New Covenant and the New Testament.
In order to more precisely interpret the intended meaning, it's important to look into the original language of the text.
The word translated as "abolish" is from the Greek kataluo, which means “to loosen down" to "overthrow" to "render vain" and to "invalidate". Jesus did not come to invalidate the law or to overthrow it, but to fulfill the laws purposes and requirements.
1. The law has required ultimate, perfect holiness - In the very same teaching in Matthew, Jesus states, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5.48 NIV). The law doesn't say, "It's OK to have idolatry once in a while." or "You can lie and steal sometimes." The law and the ultimate need for holiness are absolute. Galatians 3.10 affirms, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”
Who can claim that they have always followed the first commandment and have never idolized anything or anyone but have worshipped God alone? Scripture states, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." (Deuteronomy 6.5) - and we all fall short.
2. Christ alone has fulfilled the law's requirement for moral perfection - The only answer and the only hope for our sinful condition is the atoning crucifixion of Christ. Jesus lived a perfect life without sin. (Hebrews 4.15) And, therefore, he was a worthy sacrifice for our sin: "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world." (1 John 2:2 NIV) Through Christ's atonement, we can be made perfect before the Father in Christ's holiness: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God." (Ephesians 2.8 NIV)
3. A major purpose of the law was to point us to Christ - "Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith." (Galatians 3.24 KJV). Christ allowed this purpose of the law to be fulfilled by being faithful to his purpose to die as a sacrifice for our sins.
4. Jesus fulfilled prophecies when he fulfilled his atoning purpose on earth - For example, Daniel 9.26: "And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for Himself;" and Isaiah 53: "But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; he punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all." And Psalm 22: "For dogs have surrounded Me; the congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me. They pierced My hands and My feet; I can count all My bones. They look and stare at Me. They divide My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots." (V 16-18.) For more on this subject, see article, "An
Open Challenge to Bible Critics" as linked.
5. The New Covenant Supersedes the Old Covenant - Jesus did not "abolish" the Old Testament. Rather, it is now meant to be reevaluated and reinterpreted through the lens of the more relational New Covenant, as Jeremiah prophesied,
"this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it ton their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
In order to understand which laws are meant to be guides today, it is necessary to review both the Old and New Testaments together. For example, with regard to eating shellfish. It was considered non-kosher, verboten in the Old Testament. However, it is quite clear in the New Testament that it is morally acceptable to eat shellfish, as noted in Acts 10.9-16. Is there any logical reason why God would have forbidden foods in one generation and permitted them in another?
When Israel was a fledgling nation and when the temple sacrifices were in effect, there were a variety of different circumstances. Many of these laws related to hygiene and were offered in God's wisdom as a means to help Israel survive.
In 1953 Dr. David I. Macht of Johns Hopkins, conducted toxicity tests on many different kinds of animals and fish, and concluded that the toxicity of Levitically "unclean" animals was higher than that of the "clean" animals. Another study published 1993 by Anderson and Rice offered the same kinds of results.
Often people will attempt to fit other subjects into the same type of category as shellfish. While it is a cause for much debate, the plain meaning of both Old Testament and New Testament verses outlines that it is considered immoral in all time periods. That's what the text plainly states. In this case, the legal requirements were neither altered nor abolished.
There have been different laws and different consequences at different periods mainly because many of the more ritualistic type laws served a specific purpose for only a specific time period. However, there are some laws that are considered more timeless and universally applicable as guides, such as the Ten Commandments. Unless a person is willing to become a serious student of the Bible, it will be difficult to interpret and apply the moral truth outlined in scripture. The fact that God offered different laws during different time periods does not necessarily imply that there is no objective basis for morality. On the contrary, only if God exists is there a possible objective basis of morality. For more on this, see article, "If God Exists, Then Objective Morality Exists" as linked.
Tags: Did Jesus fulfill prophecy? Did Jesus abolish the law? Compare Old and New Testament laws