Bible Study Tools / Jesus Christ

What Do You Mean, "Fulfill"?

by Anthony Wasilkoff

At the Feast of Tabernacles some years ago, the visiting speaker posed what was then a very new and intriguing question. He asked the audience in Spokane, "How much of the Old Covenant do you believe is still applicable to us today?" He paused to allow people time to think about his puzzling query. Then he provided the answer by waving his arms and proclaiming dynamically, "None of it, none of it, none of it." People were taken aback.

He then proceeded to pose another question, "How much of the Old Testament do you believe is applicable for us today? How much of it is still profitable for doctrine, reproof and instruction in righteousness?" After a suitable pause he again waved his arms and emphatically remonstrated, "All of it, all of it, all of it."

The distinction between the Old Covenant and the Old Testament was an issue that the Church of God addressed off-and-on through the years. It is not merely a recent discovery. Yet it continues to create confusion in the minds of not a few. The Spokane visiting speaker explained the difference between the two in very clear and scripturally correct terms.

A favourite text we often see appealed to is Matthew 5:17 in which Christ said, "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill." Some interpret this verse to mean that Jesus came to abolish the law by fulfilling it. Thus, the law is done away. Or they state that Jesus fulfilled the law by keeping it on our behalf and so we do not have to keep it today ourselves.

Could the above be true at all? Is that what Matthew 5:17 means? Was Mr. Armstrong wrong to teach that "fulfill" means to fill full, that Christ came to fill the law to the full? Does the word "fulfill" mean "abolish"? Would Matthew 5:17 make much sense if it read, "Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish but to abolish"?

A prophecy that used to be so familiar to us was Isaiah 42:21. It still reads, "He will magnify the law and make it honourable." That does not sound like the mission of the Son of God was to in any way diminish His Father's law. For its footnote on Matthew 5:17 the NIV Study Bible adds, "Jesus fulfilled the Law in the sense that he gave it its full meaning. He emphasized its deep, underlying principles and total commitment to it rather than mere external acknowledgment and obedience."

Confusion has arisen over legalism. Is legalism obedience to Old Testament laws, especially to the law of Moses? Or is legalism simply the wrong approach to obeying any of God's laws? Here is what the NIV Study Bible has for its Matthew 5:18-20 footnote: "Jesus is not speaking against observing all the requirements of the Law, but against hypocritical, Pharisaical legalism. Such legalism was not the keeping of all details of the Law, but the hollow sham of keeping laws externally, to gain merit before God, while breaking them inwardly. It was following the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit."

The above is consistent with what the Church of God has taught through the years. The law of God has never been done away though the Old Covenant has been abolished. The Old Testament and all of its laws are still very much "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness."

For its Matthew 5:17 entry, the Jewish New Testament Commentary states: "Yeshua (Jesus) did not come to abolish but 'to make full' the meaning of what the Torah and the ethical demands of the Prophets require. Thus he came to complete our understanding of the Torah and the Prophets, so that we can try more effectively to be and do what they say to be and do."

The author of the same commentary includes a quotation from the Anglican Christian writer Brigid Younghughes which reads as follows: " ...'I came not to destroy, but to fulfil.' And surely 'to fulfil' means to complete, in the sense of bringing to perfection, not, as Christians have all too often interpreted it, to render obsolete; to fulfil in such a way as to perfect a foundation on which to build further."

It is significant to note that the same word is used in Romans 8:4. The passage says, "that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." This verse tells us a lot, doesn't it? Do not forget that the writer of this book was Paul himself. The law is not done away. It still exercises a requirement and furthermore, that requirement is righteous. We are obligated, by Christ's power and strength (see the previous three verses) to obey it - that is to keep it as intended, both in the letter and the spirit. The law is to be definitely fulfilled in us and not merely in Jesus.

Through His Son, the Father has mercifully given us freedom from the terrible penalty and insidious power of sin. Although God does not require us to be perfect in this life, He does demand a very high standard of righteousness from us. That standard can only be attained by the power of the Holy Spirit as we seek to "fulfill" the scripture the same way Jesus Christ himself "fulfilled" it.

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