Those who are committed to the integrity of Scripture (particularly the fact that it does not contradict itself) must understand why there is such an obvious change in the way the people of God in the New Testament understand and apply Old Testament Law.
Prior to the coming of Christ, those who believed in God related to Him on the basis of Old Testament Scriptures (Deuteronomy 8:1-5; Ps. 119; 2 Timothy 3:15-16). With the coming of Christ, however, something changed regarding the way God’s people related to Old Testament revelation.
In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus said, “…not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” This is the harmonizing principle for understanding the change. The Old Testament Scriptures point toward and anticipate fulfillment in the Christ event.
Jesus taught an “anticipatory-fulfillment” view of Old Testament Scripture. In the present age, we look to Jesus and through Him for our understanding and application of the Old Testament. Take some time to understand this rich truth about Scripture.
Although Jesus was “born under the law” (Galatians 4:4) and “fulfilled all righteousness” (Matthew 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 indicated that He clearly knew he was, “the end (telos) of the law…” (Romans 10:4).
Jesus opened his public ministry saying, “the time is fulfilled…” (Mark 1:15). Expressions attached to the first coming of Christ indicate a significant change (e. g. ”the fullness of time,” Galatians 4:4, or “the consummation of the ages” Hebrews 9:26). In these last days, God has spoken to us by his Son (Hebrews 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…” (Hebrews 10:1). The earthly priesthood, temple and sacrifices were “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Hebrews 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” (Luke 24:44).
When preaching to Cornelius, Peter 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…” (2 Corinthians 1:20).
Jesus taught an anticipatory and prophetic view of Old Testament Scriptures as they point toward, look to, and anticipate fulfillment in the Christ event.
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, “until all be fulfilled.” Jesus viewed the Old Testament revelation as “provisional” based on a principle of fulfillment.
In keeping with the testimony of the whole New Testament, Jesus presented Himself as the one who fulfills the Old Testament. The harmonizing principle, therefore, that enables us to understand the obvious change of relationship with the Old Testament law (observed in the early church) is the Christ event in its totality. It includes His incarnation, life, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, second coming and glorious reign.
None of this is intended 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 read in the context of Matthew 5:17.
It’s of interest that although Jesus did not always follow the common Rabbinic practice of substantiating ethical demands with quotations from Old Testament Scriptures, He did continue to quote the Scriptures. 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; I Tim 1:8-9). Jesus set the example for us in his use of the Old Testament.
Again, 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).