A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 5: 17-20. A Christian’s righteousness. Christ, the Christian and the Law (continued).
People are still asking today, though in different ways, about the relation between Jesus and Moses, the New Testament and the Old. Since Jesus grasped the nettle and declared himself plainly on the issue, we should not be shy of following suit. He had come (notice in passing his awareness that he had come into the world on a mission) neither to *abolish* the law and the prophets, setting them aside or abrogating them, nor even just to endorse them in a dead and literalistic way, but to *fulfil* them.
The verb translated ‘to fulfil’ (*plerosai*) means literally ‘to fill’ and indicates, as Chrysostom expressed it, that ‘his (sc. Christ’s) sayings were no repeal of the former, but a drawing out and filling up of them’. In order to grasp the far-reaching implications of this, we need to recall that ‘the law and the prophets’, namely the Old testament, contain various kinds of teaching. The relation of Jesus Christ to these differs, but the word ‘fulfilment’ covers them all.
First, the Old Testament contains *doctrinal teaching*. ‘Torah’, usually translated ‘law’, really means ‘revealed instruction’; and the Old Testament does indeed instruct us about God and man and salvation, etc. All the great biblical doctrines are there. Yet it was only a partial revelation. Jesus ‘fulfilled’ it all in the sense of bringing it to completion by his person, his teaching and his work. (Cf. Heb.1:1, 2). Bishop Ryle summed it up like this; ‘The Old Testament is the Gospel in the bud, the New Testament is the Gospel in full flower. The Old Testament is the Gospel in the blade; the New Testament is the Gospel in full ear.’
Second, the Old Testament contains *predictive prophecy*. Much of it looks forward to the days of the Messiah, and either foretells him in word or foreshadows him in type. Yet this was only anticipation. Jesus ‘fulfilled’ it all the sense that what was predicted came to pass in him. The first statement of his public ministry was, ‘Fulfilled is the time …’ (Mk. 1:14). His very words here, *I have come*, imply the same truth. Again and again he claimed that the Scriptures bore witness to him, and Matthew emphasizes this more than any other evangelist by his repeated formula, ‘All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet …’ (Matt. 1:22; cf. 2:23; 3:3; 4:14 etc. Cf. 11:13 where it is said that the law as well as the prophets ‘prophesied until John’. Both pointed forward to Christ, and both were fulfilled in him). The climax was his death on the cross in which the whole ceremonial system of the Old Testament, both priesthood and sacrifice, found its perfect fulfilment. Then the ceremonies ceased. Yet, as Calvin rightly comments, ‘It was only the use of them that was abolished, for their meaning was more fully confirmed.’ (cf. Lk.22:16). They were but a ‘shadow’ of what was to come; the ‘substance’ belonged to Christ (Col.2:17).
Third, the Old Testament contains *ethical precepts*, or the moral law of God. Yet they were often misunderstood and even more often disobeyed. Jesus ‘fulfilled’ them in the first instance by obeying them, for he was ‘born under the law’ and was determined (as he had already told John the Baptist) ‘to fulfil all righteousness’. (Gal.4:4; Matt. 3:15). He has in fact nothing to add to the commandments of God,’ wrote Bonhoeffer, ‘except this, that he keeps them.’ He does more than obey them himself; he explains what obedience will involve for his disciples. He rejects the superficial interpretation of the law given by the scribes; he himself supplies the true interpretation. His purpose is not to change the law, still less to annul it, but ‘to reveal the full depth of meaning that it was intended to hold’. So then he fulfils it by declaring the radical demands of the righteousness of God’. This is what he stresses in the rest of Matthew 5 by giving examples, as we shall see.
Tomorrow: A Christian’s righteousness. Christ, the Christian and the Law (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.