“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 say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
Had he not been able to say that, Jesus would have stood in quite precarious position. The Law of which he spoke includes this:
If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, Let us go after other gods, which you have not known, and let us serve them, you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul…. But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God…. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
Jesus was a prophet giving signs and wonders. If he had been turning the people away from their God, he would have stood condemned for it. Indeed, he was killed on account of his claims.
Let’s back up a moment, though, and consider just that one statement of his, that he had come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, what Christians refer to as the Old Testament. Judaism in Jesus’ day was thoroughly imbued with these writings, along with a considerable body of rabbinical commentary. The Jews of the time were as monotheistic as any culture in history. Several hundred years prior, they had suffered exile for their idolatry and chasing after pagan Gods. The exile cured them: they never fell into sin of that sort again. Still, they knew their Scriptures said it would be hard to follow their God; that they would have to fall on his mercy, for they could not claim any personal righteousness before him.
In the midst of this milieu, then, Jesus says he has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. He meant it in two senses. First, that he would follow their commands fully; second, that he would complete them.
The audacity of the claim is astonishing. He said he would live the way no one had lived–not Moses, not Joseph, not Daniel, not Esther, not any of the best examples of Hebrew saints. Maybe you would like to try this: walk up to any strongly religious person and say that you expect to perfectly live out their religion’s tenets. See what kind of reaction you get! The crowds who heard him “were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”
Jesus’ fulfilling of the Law and Prophets is explained most fully in the New Testament book of Hebrews. There had been an elaborate sacrificial system in the Hebrew religion. Animals were slaughtered in huge numbers daily for the sins of the people. Hebrews says all of this was a foreshadowing of Christ. When he died on the cross, his death was sufficient to cover what virtually infinite numbers of animals could not–the guilt of all the people. He finished the sacrifices, by his one sufficient sacrifice.
There was yet another sense in which Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets: he literally fulfilled prophecy. The two most striking sources were Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53, both of which describe his crucifixion; but there were hundreds more besides. (I’ve made
It was an incredibly audacious claim that he made. Who could say such a thing? In the context of the day, it was more than unthinkable, and it was unthinkable still for decades following, which is one reason I can’t give much credence to claims that early Christians invented sayings like these.
So what can we conclude about Jesus from this one statement? He was wrong or he was right. If he was wrong, he would have surely been found out. Trust me–I had a blowup in the office this morning myself–it’s hard to pretend you’re perfect when you’re around people for very long. Yet the people who knew him best were his most ardent followers. Certainly this speaks to the truth of Christianity.
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