What does it mean to fulfill the Law?
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.“Matthew 5:17-19
This is another one of those passages where what it means can change depending on how you approach it.
Option 1: Sinners Cannot Fulfill the Law
I used to believe it is impossible for you and I to fulfill the Law. That is what happens when you believe people are nothing but poor and deprived sinners. However, Jesus, as the perfect Son of God, did have the ability to fulfill the Law. So when I read these words I heard Jesus say, “I am here to fulfill the Law for you.” He would accomplish a Law I could not, and then die in my place, so I could be with God. It tied a nice bow on my self-loathing approach to life.
But that only works if you read the first two sentences. If we keep reading, things get a bit uncomfortable. After all, Jesus goes on to say that even breaking the smallest commandment, or teaching someone else to do the same, makes you least in the kingdom of heaven. Suddenly, the onus for obedience is back on us. Maybe if Jesus opened with that line and then said that he came to fulfill the Law it could work, but not in the order offered.
Option 2: Limiting the Law
So we know that somehow, you and I have to fulfill the Law, too. Now, with the exception of one break where the people make and worship a Golden Calf, the Law given by Moses is everything from Exodus 20 to Numbers 9:14. If you ever read that part of the Bible, you know it is really tedious. When you just read it, it is hard not to come up with a checklist theology. I mean, I really get why the religious leaders in Jesus’ day dedicated 22% of the Mishnah to external purity rules.
I also get why Christians dating back to the first few centuries, sought to temper the requirements of the Law. The most popular way of doing this was to divide it up between the civil, ceremonial, and moral laws. The first two, deemed exclusive to Israel, focus on the Israel’s worship and social order. However, they argue that the moral law is timeless and applies to all people. So this narrowed down version of the Law becomes what we need to fulfill.
But there two problems here. First, these categories of Laws are not part of Israel’s tradition. The Bible does not distinguish between civil, ceremonial, and moral laws. It just offers the Law. These categories did not come along until Christians started wrestling with what it means to follow Jesus. Moreover, Jesus never narrows down the Law. Rather, he says we cannot remove even a part of a letter from the Law. We cannot narrow down the Law. We must fulfill it. So how do we make sense of what Jesus is saying here?
Option 3: The Heart of the Law
Our answer begins when we remember that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches what is at the heart of God’s Law. He does not repeat what Moses taught, rather, he focuses on the kind of life faith produces. Could it be that the Law, as delivered by Moses aimed to do the same thing? God’s intended that following all of the rites and rituals would cultivate the kind of life expressed in the Beatitudes. God designed all of the sacrifices and patterns for living to transform hearts from stone to flesh.
No doubt the notion that wearing certain clothes and killing certain animals as a path to transformation sounds strange to us today. The same with following an archaic code when it comes to women and diseases. However, we need to remember that the people of Israel lived in a very different time and place. What seems disastrously regressive to us was radically progressive to them.
Spiral Dynamics & Fulfilling the Law
One tool I find helpful when it comes to making sense of different ways people can see the world is the theory of spiral dynamics. It is a model of individual, organizational, and societal development where each stage in the model seeks to resolve the issues created in the previous stage.
As an example, I would argue that ancient Israel lived in the purple stage. Here people think in terms of allegiance to clan. There is also a need to obey your clan’s deity. So to that world God offers the Law in the form delivered by Moses knowing that, as archaic as it might seem to future generations, it would move the people of Israel one step closer to God’s desired end. It is a layer of development that moves towards the revelation of the final picture.
This means that, even if Israel completely obeyed the letter of the Law, they would not be fulfilling it. Rather they would simply be getting a step closer towards its fulfillment. That fulfillment is people embodying the Beatitudes. In the language of Abundance Reconstructed, that fulfillment is people living by soul in a spirit of love. When everybody does that, then we will fulfill the Law.
This post is part of an ongoing series. Link here for a list of every episode in this series.