Fulfillment

“Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18).

There is much more riding on this declaration by Jesus in Matthew 5:17-18 than perhaps meets the eye.

One can learn a lot about the way people understand the Bible and the relationship between the Old and New Testaments by their understanding of the emphasis of these verses. Many focus on the notion that not one bit of the law will pass away until heaven and earth pass away, and therefore suggest the Law is a binding force until this very day. Jesus said, after all, that He did not come to destroy the Law.

Yet such a view intentionally leaves out Jesus’ contrast: He did not just say that the Law would not pass away until heaven and earth pass away: He said that not one detail of the Law would pass away until all things are accomplished. While He did say that He was not coming to destroy the Law, He did say He came to fulfill it. This provides an entirely different emphasis, focusing on fulfillment and accomplishment, leading into a new covenant (cf. Hebrews 7:1-9:27).

It is easy to pit each emphasis against each other; nevertheless, each emphasis has legitimacy in its proper place. Jesus’ declaration involves both a commentary on the present as well as a key by which we can understand His entire life and ministry.

Jesus emphasizes the fixed nature of the Law for good reason. Deuteronomy 4:2 declares that Israel is not to add or diminish at all from the word which God commanded them. In context, Matthew 5:17-18 begin a new section of what is popularly known as the “Sermon on the Mount”; He has previously presented the beatitudes, finding blessings in the most difficult of situations (Matthew 5:3-12), and established the role and work of the disciple in the world (Matthew 5:13-16). Jesus’ thought in Matthew 5:17-18 continues at least through Matthew 5:19-20 and provides a framework for understanding Matthew 5:21-48. Jesus is both defending Himself against upcoming criticism about the relationship between His work and common perceptions regarding the Law while posing a devastating critique of the supposed “lawful” conduct of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:17-20). Jesus confirms His purpose: He is not coming to destroy the Law or what God has been doing. He affirms powerfully that until everything is accomplished, not one jot or tittle of the Law will change: “until heaven and earth pass away” is a confirmation of the strength of that declaration. Jesus is not imagining that the heavens and the earth will pass away, nor is He suggesting at this point that it will do so anytime soon. Instead, He is affirming that the Law represents God’s Word for Israel. God is the Creator; the heavens and earth can only pass away by His will and word. That Law, at the time of Jesus’ dictate, is as fixed as the heavens and the earth. The conclusion of this reality is found in Matthew 5:19: the one who adds to or diminishes from this Law, in teaching or practice, is the least; the one that does them and teaches them is greatest. Therefore, Jesus affirms the Law; He has not come to destroy it.

Well and good; Jesus did not come to destroy the Law. Yet Jesus does not stop there; He establishes why He has come. He has come to fulfill (Matthew 5:17). Yes, until heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or tittle shall pass from the law, but that is so only until all things are accomplished. Jesus speaks to a major interpretive issue for every disciple: the Bible establishes that the Law could not added to or taken away from, but the beliefs and practices of early Christians were not exact copies of what the Law established. There are significant changes between what we see in the life of Jesus in the Gospels and the message and exhortations of early Christianity after His death and resurrection. Many passages make it clear that Jesus’ death and resurrection meant an end to the Law as a barrier between Jew and Gentile, asserting that the Law was a physical shadow of the spiritual reality which exists in Jesus (Ephesians 2:11-18, Colossians 2:14-17). The whole purpose of the author of the letter to the Hebrews is to demonstrate the existence of a new covenant between God and man through Jesus, its differentiation from the covenant which existed before, and its superiority to the covenant between God and Israel legislated by the Law of Moses. Therefore, it is quite evident that the early Christians perceived the fulfillment of all things regarding the Law through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, something He himself proclaims in Luke 24:25, 44-47 and John 19:30.

It is therefore easy to place emphasis on the distinctions and differences between the old covenant between God and Israel and the new covenant between God and all mankind in Jesus, but we must take care. Jesus did not say He came to abolish or remove; He said that He came to fulfill. Yes, as He says Himself, Jesus fulfills all of the specific prophecies regarding the Messiah as found in the Old Testament (Luke 24:25-27, 44-48). Yet Jesus does not just fulfill specific prophecies; He fulfills God’s intentions for Israel by embodying, within Himself, the story of Israel. As Israel was born in Canaan but was exiled to Egypt, so Jesus was born in Bethlehem and spent time in exile in Egypt (Matthew 2:1-15). As Israel was rescued from Egypt through water and endured temptation in the Wilderness, so Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River and was tempted in the Wilderness (Matthew 3:13-4:11). Israel lived and worked in its land, as did Jesus (Matthew 4:12-25, etc.). As Israel experienced exile from its land, so Jesus experienced death and time in the tomb (Matthew 27:45-66). As Israel returned to the land, so Jesus was raised from the dead (Matthew 28:1-17). Where Israel had been unfaithful, Jesus had proven faithful. Jesus is able to embody everything God intended for His people Israel!

But Jesus’ experience does not end at His resurrection; He ascends to the Father and rules over His Kingdom and will do so until the final day (Matthew 28:18-20, Philippians 2:5-11). All of this was predicted in the prophets: God would restore the fortunes of Israel, and through Israel, be a blessing to other nations and see the ingathering of nations to the God of Jacob. This goal for Israel is found through Jesus; little wonder, then, that Paul finds a way to express his faith and trust in Jesus in terms of the story of Israel and God’s promises to Israel (cf. Acts 26:1-23). Israel’s story does not end with their exile in their own land as they endured it for 500 years: Israel’s story finds its fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth, and the Israel of God will continue on in His Kingdom, making primary the shared faith in God as demonstrated by all of God’s people from Abraham until this very day.

This is why it is good to keep both emphases of Jesus in mind: there is both continuity and discontinuity on the basis of His life, death, and resurrection. The Law has been established, and will remain firm until it has been fulfilled. Through its fulfillment all men will be freed from its yoke; yet, at the same time, its fulfillment represents the manifestation, and thus the continuation, of the promises God made to Israel, now embodied in the Kingdom of Jesus. Let us thank God for the fulfillment of the hope of Israel in Jesus, and let us take our place in the Israel of God by putting our trust in Jesus and participating in His Kingdom!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Fulfillment

The Mark of True Discipleship

“A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; even as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34-35).

What is supposed to define a disciple, or follower, of Christ?

For the better part of 1,750 years, one could be forgiven for thinking the answer involved finding and adhering to the right doctrines regarding Jesus. For most of its history Christianity has seemed to focus on determining the nature of God and Christ, how salvation is accomplished, the relationship between the believer and the church, the church and the state, and a whole host of other matters. Upon these matters most of the written records focus; comparatively precious little is said regarding the practice of the faith. Perhaps the practice of the faith was more strongly emphasized in other contexts; perhaps it went unsaid because there was little disagreement regarding it.

The Bible does insist on a good understanding of God in Christ and the substantive message of the faith and the need to stand firm within it (2 Timothy 2:15, Jude 1:3, 2 John 1:7-11). Yet it is worth noting what Jesus Himself emphasizes as the true mark of His followers. He does not say that all men will know we are His disciples by the doctrines we teach, the truths we uphold, or the persuasive arguments we make. The mark of true disciples of Jesus is their love for one another (John 13:35).

The statement seems so simple, so obvious, and yet it is quite compelling and extraordinarily challenging. It is not as if this is the first time that the disciples have been told to love one another; the Law exhorted them to love their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 19:18), and all Israelites would agree that fellow Israelites were their neighbors (cf. Luke 10:25-29). That aspect of the command is “old,” but Jesus adds a twist which makes it “new”: they are to love one another as He loved them (John 13:34; cf. 1 John 2:7-8). God is love (1 John 4:8); Jesus, God in the flesh, is the embodiment of love (John 1:1, 14, Hebrews 1:3, 1 John 3:16). We can therefore understand the love Christians are to have for one another by understanding the way Jesus conducted Himself among His disciples.

Jesus called His twelve disciples, not because of who they were at the time, but on account of their willingness to follow and because of what Jesus knew they could be (Matthew 10:1-4). He spent a lot of time teaching them; many of Jesus’ teachings were directed to the disciples, even if others were present (e.g. Matthew 5:1-7:28), and would provide further explanation to them in other contexts as well (Mark 4:33-34). Nevertheless, the disciples proved slow to truly perceive and understand what Jesus was saying; He remained patient with them (cf. John 13:36-38, 14:5-8, etc.).

But Jesus went beyond instructing them in word; He also showed them in deed the things He was saying (1 John 3:18). He showed His love for them by serving them, finding no task too humiliating or “beneath” Him (John 13:1-11). He took care of their material needs many times (e.g. Matthew 17:24-27). He prayed to the Father for them (John 17:1-19). In the moment of His greatest need they forsook Him and even denied Him; He loved them anyway, died for them anyway, and welcomed them back joyfully in His resurrection (John 18:1-20:23, 1 John 3:16). Jesus embodied the definition of love toward His disciples: He was patient and kind with them, did not envy or boast, was not arrogant or rude, did not insist on His own way, was not irritable or resentful, did not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoiced with them in the truth, bore their deficiencies and iniquities, continued to believe in them, hoped in them, and endured with them. His love for them never ended (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a).

As we can see, coming to an understanding of the truth of God in Christ Jesus and His Kingdom is part of showing love to one another, but does not and cannot fully embody what it means to love one another. Yes, we are to learn about Jesus, but that learning is not supposed to be merely an intellectual exercise or an end unto itself; we are to learn about Him so that we can be more like Him (Romans 8:29, 1 John 2:6). Doctrine is important: we feel and act based upon what we believe, therefore, we must have the right beliefs if we are going to feel and act as we should. Yet, as Jesus makes abundantly clear, mere intellectual understanding was never the goal; knowledge of God in Christ is designed to inexorably lead to reflecting the characteristics of God in Christ.

Jesus’ phrasing might seem odd to us: how is it that all men will know we are disciples of Jesus by our love for one another? Would they not understand how we are disciples of Jesus by our love for them? It is not as if Christians are to not love those outside the faith (cf. Luke 6:27-36, Galatians 6:10), but Jesus’ emphasis on love toward one another is well-placed and quite poignant. We like to think that people are persuaded to follow Jesus through well-constructed and persuasive arguments. Some are convinced through such apologetics, but God knows us better than we know ourselves, and recognizes that very few people are ever convinced about anything on account of rational argumentation. In the end, God is not interested in just setting up an alternative mental construct through which to see the world; Christianity was never designed to just be the correct philosophy of the world.

The true mark defining a group of disciples is their love for one another. How do they treat each other? If Christians love one another like Jesus has loved them, they will remind each other of the truths of God in Jesus (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-5). But they will also show great concern for one another, making sure that each other’s material needs are met (Galatians 6:10, 1 John 3:17-18). They are patient and kind with one another; if they sin against each other, they forgive each other and bear with one another (Colossians 3:12-14). True followers of Jesus understand that they have all sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God, and feel comfortable enough with one another to open up and confess their sins, faults, and failures, entrusting themselves to one another, even though they will at times hurt each other and betray each other (James 5:16). They love each other anyway. They share with each other anyway. They build each other up anyway.

Where else in the world can such love be found in true community? People in the world crave that kind of love, acceptance, welcome, and openness. People want to be loved; people want others to be patient with them; people want to be treated kindly and considerately; people want to share life together. People want a greater purpose in life and to share in that mission with others, and so it all is supposed to be in Jesus. If Christ’s followers show love to one another as we have described it, others will want to share in that experience, and they will themselves be inspired to follow Jesus (cf. Matthew 5:13-16)!

But what happens when people claim to follow Jesus but do not manifest that love? The history of “Christianity” is full of examples of such failures, and they have given the faith a bad name and have given reason for the nations to blaspheme. Emphasis on right doctrine alone led to wars, death, misery, and pain for untold thousands; to this day, how many people associate Christianity with the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the people on the street spewing forth messages of condemnation? The world is full of different groups of people who only see each other’s failings, show little patience with one another’s faults, constantly nitpick and judge each other with a view of denigrating them, and feel important or special because of their knowledge or means by which they identify themselves. There’s nothing special or attractive about such groups, and if some such groups try to wear the name of Christ, it’s little wonder why they struggle to grow or be effective in any meaningful way.

Followers of Jesus show love to one another in a number of different ways, and they are all important, but only insofar as they point back to Jesus, glorify Him, and are done with a view to reflecting Jesus to one another and our fellow man. Jesus knows what He is doing; He has good reason to make love for one another the clear identifier of His true followers. Any group of people professing to follow Jesus which does not share in love toward each other has not truly understood Jesus. Any group which professes to follow Jesus and to have the love they should have but do not adhere to the truth of God in Jesus Christ has not really understood all that the love of Jesus requires. But it is just as true that anyone who thinks they have understood the true knowledge of God in Christ but does not show true love to His fellow Christians has not really understood the true knowledge of God in Christ and certainly has not perceived the end to which we are to learn of Christ. Instead, let us follow after Jesus the way He intends. Let us come to a better knowledge of Jesus, understanding how He lived and loved, so that we can love each other as Jesus intends!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Mark of True Discipleship