How Did Jesus Fulfill the Law?

Jesus said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” (Matthew 5:17, 3 Nephi 12:17). Here are three different ways He fulfilled the law:

1. Performances and Ordinances

The law of Moses prescribed some worship activities which prefigured the life of Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice. When He completed His mission, those activities, which Nephi called “performances and ordinances,” became unnecessary. Shortly after His death, He instructed the Nephites and the Lamanites, “Ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings” (3 Nephi 9:19). And Mormon tells us that after the Savior’s ministry on the American continent, the people “did not walk any more after the performances and ordinances of the law of Moses.” Instead, they followed a new set of instructions they had received from Him, including fasting, praying, and meeting together often (4 Nephi 1:12).

So one way the Savior fulfilled the law was by completing His mission, and rendering the anticipatory religious observances of the law of Moses obsolete. Here’s a blog post on this topic: Performances and Ordinances.

2. The Scriptures

A second way that the Savior fulfilled the law is much simpler. When Jesus uses the term “the law” or “the law and the prophets,” He is referring to the scriptures. Strictly speaking, “the law” referred to the Torah, or the first five books of the Old Testament. “The prophets” referred to books written by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others, most of which are found at the end of the Old Testament. But sometimes, when Jesus says “the law,” He means the scriptures generally. So when He says, “This cometh to pass, that the word might be fulfilled that is written in their law, They hated me without a cause” (John 15:25), He is actually referencing a prophecy in the book of Psalms, not the Torah. (See Psalm 69:4.) And when He says, “All things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me” (Luke 24:44), He is clearly referring to prophecies which appear in all of those books of scripture. So in one sense, fulfilling the law is synonymous with fulfilling prophecy. It just means that scriptural passages about His life became reality. (See 3 Nephi 9:16-17.) See this blog post: All the Prophets.

3. The Essence of the Law

In the Sermon on the Mount, after stating that He was fulfilling, not destroying, the law, Jesus goes on to make a number of dramatic contrasts which might have easily been misunderstood as canceling prior commandments. Five times, He introduces a commonly accepted standard of behavior, and then apparently replaces it with a different one. Here is a list of those standards and their replacements:

“Ye have heard…”“But I say unto you…”
“Thou shalt not kill.” (See Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:17, Mosiah 13:21.)Don’t be angry. Don’t say unkind things. Repair broken relationships quickly.
“Thou shalt not commit adultery.” (See Exodus 20:14, Deuteronomy 5:18, Mosiah 13:22.)Don’t lust. Don’t allow inappropriate thoughts into your heart.
If you get divorced, make it official and legally binding. (See Deuteronomy 24:1-4.)Don’t get divorced.
Keep your promises. Don’t swear falsely. (See Leviticus 19:12, Deuteronomy 23:21-23.)Don’t make lots of promises. You won’t be able to keep them all.
“An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” (See Exodus 21:24-25, Leviticus 24:20, Deuteronomy 19:21.)Be a giver, not a matcher.
“Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.” (See Leviticus 19:18.)“Love your enemies.”
(Matthew 5:21-47, 3 Nephi 12:21-47, see also Luke 6:27-35)

So why did He introduce these contrasts by telling us that He’s fulfilling rather than destroying the law? Here are a few observations:

  1. The existing laws establish minimum standards of conduct, not descriptions of ideal conduct. “Thou shalt not kill” doesn’t mean, “It’s okay to hurt people as long as they don’t die.” It means, “Don’t hurt people.” Similarly, “Love thy neighbor” wasn’t intended as license to hate people you don’t consider your neighbors. (The phrase “hate thine enemy” is not in the original commandment.) And just because divorce should be handled respectfully and formally doesn’t mean that respectful and formal divorces are the goal.
  2. The old commandments don’t disappear when you raise the bar. It’s still true that God doesn’t want us to kill, commit adultery, leave our spouses thoughtlessly, break sacred promises, or be unfair. All of these commandments remain in force. The new expectations are an elevated version of the old ones.
  3. One difference between the original commandments and the new laws is enforceability. You can hold someone accountable for murder or adultery. Anger and lust, on the other hand, require self-management. Jesus is instructing His disciples to be self-governing, not merely constrained by external forces.

Ultimately, Jesus’ additional instructions could be viewed as an answer to the question, “Why did God give this law in the first place? What was He trying to teach?” In that sense, Jesus fulfilled the law by helping us follow it more fully, by helping us understand its essential purpose. In that sense, this list of higher standards mirrors the declaration of Paul: “All the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Galatians 5:14; see also Galatians 6:2, Romans 13:8-10). When you understand the purpose of a law and you fulfill that purpose, you have fulfilled the law.

Today, I will remember all the ways that Jesus fulfilled the law. I will participate in religious practices to remember His life, even as people looked forward to His life in other ways. I will be grateful for the prophecies which were fulfilled by His coming. And I will strive to internalize the essence of God’s laws and to live them fully.

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