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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8 Responses to Jesus: The Fulfillment of the Law

  • Heb. 7:12. The law of God was changed after Jesus was crucified. A word has been added to the law. “The law was added so that the trespass might increase.” Rom. 5:20

    For “It is NOT those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who OBEY the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13.
    What law?

  • (The following is a response to multiple comments by Theodore on two differing posts, found here and here .)

    I’m trying to follow you, Theodore. But, I just can’t accept the connection I think you are making.

    You note Heb. 7:12, stating, “The law of God was changed after Jesus was crucified. A word has been added to the law.”

    Heb. 7:12 does note, “For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law.” However, this singular sentence is not the full summary of the point. It is rather an important, but short sentence of a much bigger thought. This sentence notes a change of the law – true – but it never asserts your position that “a word” has been added to the law. It says nothing of the sort. Rather, Hebrews 7 details the “normal” course of the priesthood. In particular, it speaks of the succession from Aaron through the tribe of Levi. He then states that Jesus is a new priest in the order of Melchizedek, who was a non-Levite priest. The point is that Jesus is bringing a new tribal line to the priesthood. The very next verse says (13), “he of whom these things are said belonged to a different tribe, and no one from that tribe has ever served at the altar. (14) For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.”
    I agree that the law changed, per Heb. 7:12.

    Yet, that text says absolutely nothing about your postulate that the law changed by “a word” being added to it. The law changed because the priesthood changed. The law of Moses was replaced by the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2). Such is the subject matter of my “The Law and the Believer” series posted here:

    Your next quote, from Rom. 5:20, is “The law was added so that the trespass might increase.” I’m not totally sure why you’re quoting this in your argument, but if you’re attempting to say that this text refers to “an addition” to the law, clearly this is not the case contextually. Romans 5 is a discourse on how Adam brought death and Christ brought life. It says nothing of the nature of “a word” being added to the law. Rather, it speaks of “the law” as that which condemned man’s sin. It was the law which was added that man might be utterly exposed for the sinner that he is. Paul explained the scenario again in Rom. 7:13, “…in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it (the law) produced death in me through what was good, so that throught he commandment sin might become utterly sinful.”

    Lastly, it seems by your quoting of Rom. 2:13, that you are asserting that this new law – (your version, with the mysterious “added word”) – is responsible for one’s salvation. You quote Rom 2:13 as if this law is the source of salvation. Yet, clearly Romans 2:13 is arguing utterly against the premise of one being saved by the law of Moses (which is the law in question). You must read the entire chapter! Focus on Rom. 2:12-16. Paul’s declaration is not that one will be saved by observance of the law, but that one will be judged as guilty by the law. Only by Christ will anyone be judged as righteous by the law- for only Christ fulfilled it. Paul continues his discourse to its climactic resolution in Rom 3-

    Romans 3:21-25 (NIV)
    21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished–

    The righteousness from God is “apart from the law” of Moses. It is a new law of Christ by grace through faith; for Christ had fulfilled the law (Mat. 5:17-18) – and rendered it inoperative for the believer (Rom. 10:4, Gal. 2:15-16, Gal. 3:24-25).

    I’m sorry, but there is not “additional word” added to the law in any of the passages you’re referencing. I encourage you to read from testament to book; from book to chapter, from chapter to paragraph, etc. Context is utterly essential to prevent us from eisegesis (reading into the text), which I believe you have mistakenly done.
    Best wishes-

  • Thankyou so much for this a wareness, it has strengthened my faith. May God keep revealing His intentions more & more to you.

  • Thank you so much for posting this. I needed some sort of basis for explaining Christ’s fulfilment of the Law to my Sunday School class and this will be of much help!

  • I do not understand your thinking of the matter. Messiah came to fulfill the law not to distroy it. There is two parts to this scripture. 1. came to fulfill, this part he came to fulfill the scacrifical part of the law. 2. not to distroy it, as he stated in Matt. 5:18 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. Yes Messiah did say on the cross, “It is finished”. which means that the sacrifical part of the law eas fulfilled. But if you should say that we should by faith through grace, I believe is not enough. Luke 10:25 states Luke 10:25-28 (KJV)
    Lk 10:25 And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?
    26 He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?
    27 And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.
    28 And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. First of all it was a man knowledgable of the Torah. Then he proceeded to ask Messiah “How do I inherit eternal life?”, and Messiah replied. “What is written in the law? how do you read it?” Notice he did not tell him you need to live by grace through faith. All the scriptures that you presented showed the fulfilment of the sacrifical law, but the law of the Torah, still continues to hold true. If the law do not pertain to you, you are lawless and belong the lord of lawlessness. And have no part in the kingdom to come. There are many scriptures that pertain to this issue. And remember Messiah came to represent God, if He did that means that He also taught Torah. he did not come to distroy The law of God.

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