How Did Christ Fulfill the Law?

Does Jesus mean that all of God’s laws are abolished, or do we still have to obey the ones we’ve determined still apply? The answer may surprise you.

We don’t typically think about fulfilling the law. More often, we speak of keeping the law. But God’s law must be fulfilled. In some ways, we might compare this to what is necessary to fulfill the requirements of a college degree. You need to take certain classes and complete certain assignments. You must do well enough to pass.

However, God doesn’t just require that we do well enough to pass. He demands that his law be fulfilled perfectly (Matthew 5:48). You cannot break a single commandment. Not even once (James 2:10). We could never live up to these impossible expectations.

Many try to reconcile this problem by either abolishing the law or changing the law’s expectations. Those who believe that Jesus abolished the law treat grace as a license to sin. They throw caution to the wind and live reckless lives insisting the law no longer applies. But this implies that God can make rules only to change his mind later. We’d never be certain about his expectations. Thankfully, since God does not change (Malachi 3:6), he’s removed any uncertainty.

Others delicately dance between which laws still apply and which don’t. For example, Are we still forbidden from doing any work on the Sabbath? Will the food or drinks I avoid make me more worthy? This approach creates confusion about which laws we must keep. It also sets people up for failure. “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Jesus is not saying try harder. He’s saying you can never become right with God by attempting to fulfill the law (Romans 3:20).

So, are all of God’s laws abolished, or do we still have to obey the ones we’ve determined still apply? The answer may surprise you: Neither is correct.

What is the Purpose of the Law?

These two perspectives are rooted in a misunderstanding of the purpose of God’s law. Those who suggest God has changed his mind about the law underestimate God’s holiness and perfect demands. God does not sweep any of his laws under the rug. Those who think they can become right with God through their attempts to fulfill the law overestimate themselves. A try your best approach will never be good enough. So, what then is the purpose of the law?

The law doesn’t show us how good we are. No one is good. (Romans 3:12). Instead, like a mirror, the law makes us aware of just how much sin we really have (Romans 3:20). It does this not to drive us to despair, but to drive us to Christ (Galatians 3:24).

Look at Jesus’ record. He was tempted, yet never sinned (Hebrews 4:15). Not even once. What is more, he never left a commandment undone. Perfect love in action. In Jesus, we see the fulfillment of the law the world had been waiting for.

Which Laws Are Fulfilled?

In the Old Testament, God’s people were still waiting for that fulfillment. They repeatedly made animal sacrifices. But these sacrifices could never remove God’s wrath for sin (Hebrews 10:1–4). They were a shadow pointing ahead to the “one sacrifice for sins for ever” (Hebrews 10:12): Jesus. Christians today no longer make animal sacrifices because Jesus has fulfilled that command.

Consider other Old Testament commands which pointed to Christ. They had foods they were to avoid, which Christians now eat. There were Old Testament festivals Christians no longer observed. A Christian’s approach to the Sabbath is now entirely different. Paul described this: “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ” (Colossians 2:16–17). All those shadows find their reality in Christ.

However, this is not only true of laws in the Old Testament. Christ fulfilled all of God’s laws, including those reaffirmed in the New Testament. He kept the Ten Commandments perfectly. Jesus was content (Hebrews 13:5). He never worried (Matthew 6:25).

“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”

Matthew 5:17-18, emphasis ours

Every law finds its fulfillment in Christ.

What Then Remains for Us?

Since Christ fulfilled the law perfectly, our approach to God completely changes. Previously, our orientation to God was through the old covenant. It was a two-sided agreement that said God would do his part if we did ours, i.e., fulfilled the law. Since we could never do our part, Jesus came as our substitute to fulfill the law for us. This means the old covenant, i.e. the law, is no longer the way we approach God. Now we approach him by means of a one-sided new covenant: fulfillment in Jesus.

“In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.”

Hebrews 8:13

Live in the Freedom

God’s laws are not abolished. Nor do we pick and choose which still applies. Instead, they are all fulfilled in Christ. That fulfillment becomes yours personally through faith in Christ alone. He now calls us to live in that freedom (Galatians 5:1).

A story is told that Abraham Lincoln went to a slave market and placed a bid on a young black girl. He won the bid and was given his “property.” There was an angry expression on the girl’s face because she expected he would abuse her like previous masters. Instead, Lincoln said, “You are free.” She asked for clarification. “It means you’re free to be what you want to be, say what you want to say, and go where you want to go.” The girl responded, “Then, I’ll go with you.” She spent her days serving him in love rather than out of fear or obligation.

How can we thank God for freedom from the curse of the law? Live by the Spirit. Only now, we approach the law from an entirely different perspective. We are not afraid of what will happen if we fail. Christ has fulfilled the law for us! We can use our freedom to express love for God and others.

“But if ye be led by the Spirit, ye are not under the law.”

Galatians 5:18

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