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Just How did Christ "Fulfill" the Law?


The true meaning of the word "fulfilled" as used in the book of Matthew has been a serious point of contention between various churches and individuals over the years, especially within the ranks of the WCG and its offshoots over the past several years.

Those whom we lovingly call the "legalists" are certain that the word "fulfilled" as used in Matthew must mean "to make more binding" the old covenant laws, while those of us who believe that we have been freed from legalism are just as certain that Matthew’s use of "fulfilled" means that Christ in his life, death and resurrection wrapped up the intent and purpose of the old covenant and its laws. Who is right? Can we know for sure?

Understanding this topic is vital to our spiritual health, not to mention our everyday happiness and mental well-being. If the legalists are right, and the law of the old covenant is now even more binding upon us than ever, then the new covenant is basically nothing more than a restatement of the old covenant (without the sacrifices), but now doable since we can now have access to the Holy Spirit.

But if we are right, and the legalists are wrong (as we are about to prove in this article), then it becomes apparent that the old covenant was indeed just a teacher, and was made obsolete at the time of Christ’s death. Right and wrong still exist, but are no longer defined in terms of observing sunset times, eating or not eating pork, voting or not voting, etc. With this understanding, all of a sudden our religion no longer has its focus on rituals, but is lifted to the plain of having a relationship with God.

It has been my experience that those who understand how Christ fulfilled the law also find that they just naturally have a much better understanding of law vs. grace. So if you’ve been struggling with unanswered questions in this area, this just could be the most important article you’ll read this month (or maybe all year)!

"Fulfilled." As mentioned above, some interpret it to mean, as used in Matt 5: 17-19, that Christ fulfilled the law by making it MORE binding. Others believe that Christ fulfilled (or completed) the intent and purpose of the O.C. law, and therefore it is no longer binding upon us. But let’s forget our own biased interpretations and go to the source of understanding. Which interpretation does the Bible ITSELF actually uphold?

Dale Ratzlaf, in Chapter 14 of his book "Sabbath in Crisis" (Jesus: the Law's Fulfillment) does what I consider to be a bang-up job of unearthing the real meaning of the word "fulfill." He states:

"Matthew 5:17-19 has been a very important text to sabbath keepers and others who want to support the continuing nature of the 10 Commandments. These verses deserve our careful study.

Think not that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Mt 5:17-19)

(Mr Ratzlaf continues) The meaning of this text hinges on the meaning of two key words: Law and fulfill. Does "Law" refer to the Ten Commandments? Or, does "Law" refer to the whole covenant? Does "Fulfill" mean "do, and keep on doing" or does it mean "do," in the sense that when it is once done, it is accomplished and no longer needs to be done again? Two widely differing interpretations have been given to these verses.

The first goes something like this: "By this statement, Jesus unmistakably teaches that the Ten Commandments are to continue and will not come to an end. This means that Christians must live in harmony with the Ten Commandment law, which includes Sabbath observance, for not even the smallest letter or stroke is to be removed from this law. Those who teach that the law is abolished are clearly going against the will of Christ."

The second interpretation says that "Jesus clearly teaches that the whole law (including all that is written in the Torah) is to remain in force 'until all is fulfilled.' By His life, death, and resurrection Jesus fulfilled all the old covenant law (and prophecies) so this law is no longer binding on Christians."

To interpret these verses correctly we must first define the meaning of the two key words, "law" and "fulfill." This is best done by comparing all the other passages in the book of Matthew which use these two words and finding the meaning Matthew gives to them in other settings. Then with this information we can interpret these verses accordingly.

Ratzlaf then goes on to show that the use of the word "law" in such places as Mt 7:12, Mt 11:13, Mt 12:5, Mt 22:36-39, Mt 22:40 and Mt 23:23 are used to mean more than the 10 Commandments.

He states: "These are all the passages in the book of Matthew which use "law," other than the use of this term in Matthew 5:17-19. Therefore, unless there are strong contextual reasons for interpreting "law" as the Ten Commandments in Mt 5:17-19, we must understand "law" as referring to the Torah, the books of Moses, because in every other use of the word "law" in the book of Matthew it NEVER ONCE refers to the Ten Commandments alone, but ALWAYS to the whole law, or to portions of the law other than the Ten Commandments.

When we look at the context of Matthew 5:17-19 we immediately recognize Jesus uses "law" with the "prophets." Even the context here leans heavily in favor of understanding "law" to be the Torah. We must, therefore, conclude that the "law" Jesus has reference to is the entire old covenant law, which included the Ten Commandments." [Emphasis mine. This is a very important point that Mr. Ratzlaf makes, as even the strictest legalist will admit that much of the Torah or law is no longer in effect]

Mr. Ratzlaf then proceeds to examine the word "fulfilled" in the same manner. Does Matthew use the word "fulfill" to apply to an event which was done once and needs never to be done again, or does he use "fulfill" with the idea of "do and keep on doing"? He examines Mt 1:22,23; 2:15; 2:17; 2:23; 3:15; 4:14-16; 5:33, 8:17; 12:17-21; 13:14,15; 13:35 21:4,5; 26:54,56; and Mt 27:9,10. In the book of Matthew - with one possible exception (Mt 5:33, where it can also be translated "perform")- every time the word "fulfill" is used, it is employed in connection with the life of Christ, or the events connected with it.

For example, Mt 1:22-23 states, "So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which is translated ‘God with us.’ Christ’s birth to a virgin – was it "done once and never needs to be done again", or was it something that was to be "done, and kept on being done"? The word "fulfilled" here obviously means the former.

Let’s look at the next three usages of "fulfilled" in Matthew, just to further clarify the point. They all occur in Matthew chapter 2 (verses 15, 17 and 23). Let me quote them in order:

(Vs 15) "and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, ‘out of Egypt I called my Son.’

(Vs 17) "Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying (a voice was heard in Ramah…Rachel weeping for her children)."

(Vs 23) "And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene."

In every instance it was one event which "fulfilled" the prophecy. In every instance in Matthew where the word "fulfilled" is used in connection with Christ, Christians are not to participate in any ongoing fulfillment. Take the time to look up all of the uses of the word "fulfilled" in Matthew and you will see, with your own eyes, that this word ALWAYS means, when used in connection with Christ, an event that Christ alone could have completed or fulfilled.

Below I have listed in brief the remaining verses that use the words fulfill and fulfilled in Matthew for quick reference, to aid you in your own personal study:

Mt 3:15 - Jesus answered him, "Allow it for now, because this is the way for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he allowed Him to be baptized.

Mt 4:14 - This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

Mt 5:17 - "Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.’" [This is the usage this whole article is about]

Mt 5:33 - "it has been said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform (some versions say fulfill) your oaths to the Lord.’"

Mt 8:17- so that what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: He Himself took our weaknesses and carried our diseases.

Mt 12:17 - so that what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

Mt 13:14 – In them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: You will listen and listen, yet never understand; and you will look and look, yet never perceive.

Mt 13:35 - so that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled: I will open My mouth in parables; I will declare things kept secret from the foundation of the world.

Mt 21:4 - This took place so that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled:

Mt 26:54 – "How, then, would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen this way?"

Mt 26:56 – But all this has happened so that the prophetic Scriptures would be fulfilled." Then all the disciples deserted Him and ran away.

Mt 27:9 - Then what was spoken through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: They took the 30 pieces of silver, the price of Him whose price was set by the sons of Israel,

In John we read, "After this, Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, in order that Scripture might be FULFILLED, said, 'I am thirsty'" (Jn 19:28-30). This verse is extremely important to a correct understanding of Mt 5: 17-19. Here we find that Jesus had accomplished all but one of the prophecies regarding the life and death of the Messiah. One thing, however, still remained to be fulfilled, so Jesus said, "I thirst," (thus fulfilling Psalm 22:15).

When we let scripture be our interpreter, the meaning of this passage becomes evident. Notice how it fits perfectly into the context. In the book of Matthew we find this passage coming soon after Jesus gives His "blessings" on the mount. It comes just before the 6 times He says, "You have heard...but I say unto you." In the context it is evident that Jesus is taking authority to Himself greater than the old covenant law.

It would be very easy for His listeners to conclude that He was completely doing away with the binding nature of the old covenant. This He will do, but not before He COMPLETELY FULFILLS the prophecies, types and shadows which pointed forward to His work as the Messiah and Savior of the world which are recorded in the law. Therefore, the law must continue UNTIL He has ACCOMPLISHED everything. This happened, according to John, at the death of Jesus.

[For more information on Dale Ratzlaf and his publications, visit www.ratzlaf.com]

Till next time, here’s whistlin’ at ya! ; o)


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