A Harmonizing principle
Those who are committed to the integrity of scripture (particularly the fact that it does not contradict itself) must understand the harmonizing principle for explaining the obvious change of relationship to Old Testament Law for the people of God in the New Testament. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus provided this principle but we must first establish the setting for understanding it.
Prior to the coming of Christ, those who believed in God related to Him on the basis of Old Testament Scriptures (Dt. 8:1-5; Ps. 119; 2 Tim 3:15-16). With the coming of Christ, however, something changed regarding the way God’s people related to Old Testament revelation itself.
The apostle Paul and the Law
It is quite evident for example that the apostle Paul (after his conversion to Christ) did not continue to relate to the Old Testament in the same way as that expected of an Old Testament believers. Paul was circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. Yet he did not see himself (for example) as bound to abide by Sabbath and ceremonial laws.
Jesus and the Law
Even in the life, ministry and teaching of our Lord, changes are easily recognizable.
Contrary to established Old Testament dietary laws, Jesus “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19)
Jesus identified himself as one greater than the temple (Jn. 2:13-22 Mk. 14:58; Mt 26:61). The gospel accounts indicate, “what is confirmed in the book of Hebrews that what the temple stood for in symbol is to be superseded by what Jesus is in reality.” (A. Nixon, p.53, “Law, Morality and the Bible, B. Kaye, and G. Wenham.”)
Jesus declared Lordship over the Sabbath (Mk. 2:28, Mt. 12:6). Concerning the Sabbath, Jesus “takes a position about [the Sabbath] so that it is incorporated into an entirely new framework and viewed from a quite different perspective. As a result, what is acceptable or unacceptable in the way of conduct upon it is defined in relation to an altogether new reference point– Christ’s estimate of the situation.” (D. A. Carson, From Sabbath to the Lord’s day, pp. 75-76.”).
Jesus’ independent authority
Jesus did not restrict himself to expounding the Law. Like no prophet before him, He used the authoritative formula, “I say unto you.” He placed His demands beside the law with full authority. Functioning as a lawgiver he said: ” A new commandment I give to you” (Jn. 13:35); He required “keeping of His commands.” He invited people to “take His yoke upon them and learn from Him.” At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, he said, “He who hears these words of mine and acts upon them may be compared to a wise man.” (7:24). In His final commission, His followers are told to: “Make disciples of all nations teaching them all things that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20).
Jesus – the fulfillment of God’s revelation
Although Jesus himself was “born under the law” (Gal.4:4) and “fulfilled all righteousness” (Matt.3:15), in his person and work, He “wrapped up” that era of biblical history where the law regulated the covenant relationship of the people of God. Jesus is the new locus of authority for God’s people. He determines for us what is pleasing to God. And the entire tone of Jesus ministry indicates that He clearly knew he was, “the end (telos) of the law…” (Ro 10:4).
Jesus opened his public ministry with the words, “the time is fulfilled…” (Mk. 1:15). Expressions attached to the first coming of Jesus indicate a significant change (e. g. “the fullness of time,” Gal. 4:4, or “the consummation of the ages” Heb. 9:26). In these last days, God has spoken to us by his Son (Heb. 1:1-2). All the Old Testament prophecies, promises and laws came to their full and final meaning in Jesus. Food laws, festivities and special days were “a shadow of what is to come but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:17).
“The law was only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very image…” (Heb. 10:1). The earthly priesthood, temple and sacrifices were “a copy and shadow of he heavenly things.” (Heb. 8). All these things come to their full and final meaning in Christ. Jesus said “…all things written about me in the law of Moses, and the prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Lk. 24:44).
Peter, preaching to Cornelius, said with reference to Christ, “Of Him all the prophets bear witness” (Acts 10:43). The Apostle Paul, referring to Jesus, makes this great statement, , He writes: “For as many as may be the promises of God, in Him they are yes…” 2Cor. 1:20
“The grand consummating affirmative to all the promises of God is in Christ!” (LK. 1:68-70; Gal 3:16; Col 1:19; 1Cor 1:30) (P. Hughes, p.36. N.I.C.N.T. Second Corinthians)
Jesus declared: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:13). The old Hymn echoes this theme, “In the cross of Christ I glory gathering over the wrecks of time. All the light of sacred story gathers round it’s head sublime!”
The principle of fulfillment
In Matthew 5:17, Jesus averted potential misunderstanding when he said, ” Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” In referring to the impact of his coming on the Old Testament, His contrast is not between: “Abolishing” and “preserving” the Old Testament in its same form. It is between “abolishing” and “fulfilling.” In keeping with all the above scriptures, Jesus advocates an anticipatory and prophetic view of Old Testament scriptures. They point to, look to, and anticipate fulfillment.
In Matthew 5:18 Jesus taught his exhaustive commitment to the enduring integrity of scripture down to the smallest letter and marking of the Hebrew alphabet. But even in this, he adds, “till all be fulfilled.” Jesus viewed the Old Testament revelation as “provisional” based on a principle of fulfillment.
In keeping with the testimony of the entire New Testament, He presented Himself as the one who fulfills the Old Testament. The harmonizing principle that enables us to understand the obvious change of relationship with the Old Testament law observed in the early church is the totality of the Christ event. It includes his incarnation, life, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, second coming and glorious reign. This is not to advocate the cessation of the application of the Old Testament to our lives, it simply means that obedience to and teaching of the least commandment must be in keeping with the one who is himself the fulfillment of these scriptures. Matthew 5:18-19 must be approached in the context of Matthew 5:17)
It is of interest to notice that although Jesus did not feel the common necessity to substantiate his ethical demands with Old Testament scriptures, He did continue to use the scripture. Most notable is his threefold quotation of the Old Testament to counter the attack of Satan (Matthew 4:1-11). Another significant use is in the account of the rich young ruler who asked Jesus about obtaining eternal life (Lk. 18:18-23; Gal. 3:24; 1Tim 1:8-9).
The most important look at Jesus treatment of the law lies before us in Matthew 5:21-48. Jesus called for an even deeper obedience to the intention of the law than taught by the religious leaders. It was an intention that was always required by the holiness of God.
More responsible to the OT
In the present age, we look to Jesus and through Jesus for our understanding and application of the Old Testament. If someone asked me if I considered myself directly under the Old Testament law, I would answer: “Not in the same way Old Testament believers were under it. Yet I do consider myself even more responsible to the Old Testament revelation because I stand on the side of fulfillment. We enjoy a greater privilege being on the fulfillment side of the Old Testament but with that privilege comes greater responsibility and the demand for more careful attention. There is also the threat of a greater judgment if we carelessly disregard the revelation of God in Christ (Hebrews 2:1-4; 10:26-31; 12:18-29).
“If disregard for the Mosaic law was appropriately punished, unconcern for the gospel must inevitably be catastrophic!” (William Lane, Hebrews, WBC, vol. I, II)
The transfiguration of Jesus Christ
“After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There He was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.) Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: ‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’ Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Mark 9:2-9; Matthew 17:1-3; Luke 9:28-36).