Jesus: The Fulfillment of the Law

This entry is part 11 of 13 in the series Pastoral Soteriology

Understanding the substitutionary nature of Old Testament atonement is perhaps the single most important revelation concerning the work Christ accomplished on the cross on our behalf.  While such knowledge of the Old Testament system is certainly not a prerequisite for one’s salvation, it is the very foundation by which one may truly comprehend the work of the cross.  Jesus took great care to present the manner of his work as something which built upon that which God had already revealed.  He continually quoted the Law and the Prophets.  He made examples of the men of faith who had forged the work of the Kingdom in the Old Testament.  Salvation by grace through faith is not something new, but rather something which utterly permeated the scriptures prior to the time of Christ.  What became new was that the substance of such faith was finally revealed and fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.  Jesus explained,

Matthew 5:17-18 (NIV)
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

While the common sentiment for believers in Christ today is to focus their discipleship journey on the New Testament, one must never forget that the New Testament is not something which is entirely “new,” but rather the completion of that which had been shadowed and typed from the very beginning.  It is no coincidence that a lamb was to be slaughtered by the Israelites in Egypt in order that the death angel may pass them by.  It was no paradox that Jesus was crucified during Passover, participating in the Feast of Unleavened Bread the night before he suffered (Matthew 26:17) or that John the Baptist introduced him to Israel with the seemingly strange announcement, “behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).”  Indeed, the biggest mistake one can make in one’s journey to understand the doctrines of salvation is to understand them as something which were thrust upon history uniquely in the first century.  Substitutionary atonement had been revealed, defined and practiced – albeit in imperfection – long before Jesus arrived to fulfill and complete the work which God had prescribed via the bloodshed of the Law.

When Jesus said that he had come “to fulfill” the Law and the Prophets, that is precisely what he meant. 

The law stipulated that sin could be cleansed solely by sacrificial blood.  Jesus spilt the blood which would once and for all complete the work of God’s legal requirements in the matter.  The law stated the nature of the sacrifice; a male without blemish or defect.  Christ alone lived such a life among men that he may be such a satisfactory offering. 

The prophets noted two general veins of revelation concerning Christ.  One set of prophecies concerning him was that he would serve as a substitutionary atonement, thus fulfilling the law (Isaiah 53).  Another set of prophesies revealed his second coming as King.  His coming as King involves prophesies which remain yet to be fulfilled in completion.  Yet, his coming as a substitutionary atonement was utterly realized on the cross.  The Law and the Prophets foretold the mission and nature of Christ’s work.  Christ declared the Law and his first-advent prophecies fulfilled in his final words, “it is finished” (Mark 13:26).  He will fulfill the second-advent prophecies upon his return (Heb. 9:28).

While Christ’s fulfillment of such prophecy is a concern of many other posts on this site, it is his fulfillment of the Law – which is very much completed – that one must comprehend in order to have a healthy understanding of the atonement he afforded in his death.  Concerning that status, the book of Hebrews has much to say of Christ’s finishing work of the Law.

A preliminary proclamation from the book of Hebrews sets the table perfectly for such understanding to take root.  In chapter ten, the author heartily proclaims the utter inability for the work of redemption to have been completed by the Law outside of Christ’s “finishing” work.  He states,

Hebrews 10:1-4 (NIV)
1 The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming–not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. 2 If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. 3 But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, 4 because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

Articulating a wonderfully simple question, he deduces that “if” the sacrifices of the Law could have made “perfect those who draw near to worship” then “would they not have stopped being offered?”  Obviously, the sacrifices of the law were not the reality of atonement, but “an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”  This “shadow” of the Law prepared man for the reality which would be revealed in Christ; a blood sacrifice which would permanently apply for sins, never to be repeated.

Hebrews 9:11-12 (NIV)
11 When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.

Fulfilling in every way the foreshadowing sacrifices of the Law, Jesus “obtained eternal redemption” as the reality to which the shadow pointed.  Even the tabernacle itself was a mere sketch of what was permanently enduring; a “greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made.” 

Hebrews 8:1-2 (NIV)
1 The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, 2 and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man.

Hebrews 9:24-25 (NIV)
24 For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. 25 Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own.

The result of such a transaction was that the full and singular atonement for sin – which the shadow of the law had pointed to – was now applied before the very throne of God; in full manifest glory in the heavenly temple.  As the high priest offered the blood of bulls and goats for sins, even he was a shadow of a priest to come.  In the presentation of himself, Jesus became the tangible fulfillment of both priest and offering.

Hebrews 9:12 (NIV)
12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.

Hebrews 9:15 (NIV)
15 For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance–now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.

Several important realizations should consume the grateful hearts of those who have been reunited to God in Christ based on this revelation of Hebrews. 

First, one should be articulately aware of the price of redemption.  The penalty of sin, required from the very beginning -“the day you eat of it you will surely die” – has been paid.  Never again must blood be spilt. Never again should one consider oneself in need of reparations for sin.  That price is paid.  Any attempt at adding to the work of the perfect sacrifice of Christ only serves to diminish its value.  This is not to say that “good works” are not to be engaged by the faithful believer, but that such works are the rightful response to salvation in light of his mercy (Rom. 12:1-2) – they in no way contribute to the substance of atonement.  Sadly, entire subcultures remain – even in the church itself – which believe that such good works will acquire themselves an inheritance in the Kingdom of God.  Yet, only one work was sufficient to fulfill the law; and it was the law which needed settlement that one not be judged by it.

Hebrews 10:11-14 (NIV)
11 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. 13 Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, 14 because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

Secondly, the argument should be settled in permanence that Christ’s work of atonement is undeniably substitutionary by nature.  The Old Testament legal system was unconditionally substitutionary – by God’s own Word:  

Leviticus 17:11 (NIV)
11 For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.

Christ noted specifically his task to fulfill this law, rendering the shadowy picture it portrayed into the reality of his own righteous blood being offered before God in the heavenly tabernacle.  Thus, if the law was substitutionary, and Christ fulfilled the law, Christ’s atonement was itself substitutionary.  No other theory of atonement comes even close to adequately representing the scriptural testimony concerning this work.  Yet, increasingly are those who decry that atonement was merely exemplary or mystical in nature.  Even worse are those who attempt to give God’s glory to his enemy as they warp scripture to reduce atonement to a ransom with Satan himself.  God gave the law.  God provided the shadowy and temporary substitutionary system which pointed men rightly to understand that which was to come as its fulfillment.  God provided the perfect and eternal reality of Christ which completed the promise to its fullest end.

Hebrews 10:19-22 (NIV)
19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

While many doctrines may be considered debatable and non-essential, it is of the utmost importance that one not fall victim to the many heresies which exist in modern Christendom concerning the nature of atonement.  This is the one doctrine no person can afford to get wrong.

Hebrews 10:28-31 (NIV)
28 Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

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