How Did Jesus Fulfill the Law and the Prophets?
When Jesus said (in Mt. 5:17) he came not to destroy the law and the prophets but to fulfill them, what did that mean? Before that, the early chapters of Matthew have emphasized that the coming of Jesus fulfills the words of the prophets. And the fulfillment even exceeds the expectations of the prophets.
Just before Mt. 5:17 Jesus tells his disciples they are the light of the world (5:14) and commands them to let their light shine before the “people” (of the world, Gentiles as well as Jews) (5:16)–just as Jesus himself is a light shining in “Galilee of the Gentiles,” fulfilling Isa. 9:1-2 (Mt. 4:15-16). While the disciples’ scriptures, the law and the prophets, focus on the kingdom of Israel, Jesus’ focus is on a new international kingdom of disciples. The crowd that now surrounds Jesus and his disciples–as he teaches them on the mountain–includes Gentiles from Syria, the Decapolis, and the other side of the Jordan (4:24-5:1). Is Jesus now doing away with the law and the prophets? Jesus clarifies that he is not destroying, but fulfilling, the law and the prophets. Yet his fulfillment is on a higher level than anyone expects.
In Mt. 1:18-23 Jesus is not only born of the virgin and called Emmanuel (fulfilling Isa. 7:14); he is conceived by the heavenly Spirit and called Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. His people turn out to be “his disciples,” as in Mt. 5:1, in contrast to the majority of the Jews, in “their synagogues” (4:23). In Mt. 2:15 the prophecy of Hos. 11:1 (about Israel being God’s son called out of Egypt) is fulfilled by God’s son Jesus, who would come out of Egypt. In Mt. 3:2-3 the prophecy of Isa. 40:3 (about preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness for the return of the kingdom of Israel from exile) is fulfilled by the kingdom of heaven that is at hand. When Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptized by John (who wants to be baptized by the powerful Messiah), he tells John they will fulfill all righteousness (3:15). So Jesus and his new kingdom of heaven fulfill the prophets on a whole new level, beyond what the prophets expected or even wanted to happen. The fulfillment transforms, and replaces, what was expected.
Later, in Mt. 11:14, one of the final Old Testament prophecies (from Mal. 4:5), about the coming of Elijah before the great day of the Lord comes, is fulfilled by the coming of John, according to Jesus. All the prophets and the law prophesied until John, the final (great) prophet of the kingdom of Israel (11:13). Now that the kingdom of heaven and its new king have arrived, a greater era in history has begun; now even the least (disciple) in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John, who was the greatest in the kingdom of Israel (11:11). The time of the law and prophets and John in the kingdom of Israel is now fulfilled, and replaced, by the greater time of Jesus and his disciples in the kingdom of heaven.
(The next post will discuss Mt. 5:18, and the post after that Mt. 5:19.)