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You have heard it said that Jesus came to fulfill the law, but I tell you that Jesus never made that claim. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says he came to fulfill “the Law and the Prophets,” a traditional phrase that refers to the whole Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). And he’s not talking about simple obedience to the statutes. For Jesus, following the law’s 613 commands matters, but to truly fulfill it, or to “fill it full,” is something more.

So what is Jesus really saying here? What does it mean to fill the Law and the Prophets full? We can tackle the question in two parts.

First, context can show us how Jesus fulfills the law by completing a long story. The Law and the Prophets describe a time when God would start healing all humanity and creation through one key person (and a group of people). Matthew believes Jesus is filling the Law and Prophets full by becoming that key person.

Second, Matthew 5:17 is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), where he is teaching from the Hebrew Bible. Jesus is giving instructions for a specific righteousness—a way of right relating with God and neighbor—that the Law and the Prophets have long described. Following these instructions fills all of Scripture full.

Jesus does obey the Law and the Prophets, but his deeper work is to fulfill them. He and his followers live in a powerful way that the Hebrew Scriptures had been talking about since “In the beginning…” (Gen. 1:1).

Jesus Fulfills the Biblical Story

In the garden of Eden, after humanity’s decision to disobey God’s first instruction (Gen. 3), we read about many like Moses and the people of Israel who try to partner with God but fall short. Jesus accomplishes what these human partners attempted but could not complete, which is one way to understand what it means for Jesus to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. Others partially fulfilled what Jesus entirely fulfills.

Imagine what it might have been like to listen to a skilled orator tell Jesus’ story as a Jewish person during the 1st century. The speaker starts with Jesus’ birth, describing how King Herod’s hatred and jealousy drove him to order the murder of all male infants in the region (Matt. 2). You’re connecting the dots between Herod of Israel and the Pharaoh of Egypt, who also ordered the murder of Israelite male babies in his region (Exod. 1).

Your people’s foundational salvation story seems to be happening again—but in a new way. Moses fled from his home to survive, but he returned to set the people free. The orator says that Jesus and his family also fled to survive, and they also returned (Matt. 2). Moses’ return started an exodus—an escape from slavery into freedom through the waters (Exod. 4-10). Is Jesus a new Moses, starting a new exodus?

You hear about Jesus passing through the Jordan River in his baptism, signaling his intent to lead everyone safely through the waters into a renewed world (Matt. 3), which sounds a lot like Moses leading people through sea waters en route to God’s promised land. And by the time the speaker has finished telling Jesus’ story, you can’t help but see the connections. Jesus is exactly like the anointed one spoken about by the prophets, going through the same kinds of tests that Moses, Israel, and other key Hebrew Bible characters faced (but did not pass).

As a new Israelite leader, Jesus stays true to God through every test, filling the Law and the Prophets full at every turn (Matt. 4). And, interestingly, it’s not only about Jesus. By choosing and guiding an expanding group of people who choose to follow him, Jesus is filling full another part of the story that often gets missed.

We find clarity in his Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus Teaches People How To Fulfill the Law and the Prophets

Matthew captures Jesus’ most poignant teaching in chapters 5-7, often called the Sermon on the Mount. He begins with his vision for human life in the Kingdom of the heavens (Matt. 5:1-12). It’s an upside-down kingdom where the humiliated and afflicted find honor, never to experience poor treatment again. It’s a world where the greatest power is love, not wealth or might. It’s a kingdom where the ways of God and the ways of humankind become united as one.

Life in God’s Kingdom, Jesus says, is about completing (or filling full) one's love for others. By loving God and neighbor, average people join God in the work of establishing his Kingdom (e.g. Matt. 22:37-40; John 13:34-35, 17:20-26). Through their love, people living in Jesus’ way welcome all others to enter his world, where Heaven and Earth meet (see Matt. 5:14-16; cf. Isa. 2).

For example, the command “Do not murder” seems achievable on the surface—just don’t murder people. But Jesus suggests this is not the law’s ultimate goal. Yes, the point was to end human violence, but even more it was to guide people into the attitudes and ways of loving one another.

When we avoid murder, we partly fill the law. When we love, we fill it full.

New Testament scholar R.T. France says Jesus’ teachings deal “not so much with the negative goal of avoidance of the wrong but focuses more on the positive goal of discovering and following what is really the will of God for his people.”(1) The Apostle Paul understands Jesus’ teachings in the same way. “See that no one pays back evil for evil to anyone,” he writes, “but always pursue what is good for one another and for all” (1 Thess. 5:15).

Read on its own, apart from the whole biblical story, biblical law often gets misinterpreted, leading to religious-looking behaviors that still allow space for ongoing contempt and hatred in our hearts. But Jesus and the apostles say that these commandments, taken together with the rest of the Hebrew Bible, are instructions that restore human beings’ love for one another (e.g. Matt. 5:17-19, 7:12, 22:37-40; Gal. 5:14; Rom. 13:8-10; Jas. 2:8).

In this way, love fills full the Law and the Prophets.

The Greatest Two Commandments

“In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets,” Jesus says (Matt. 7:12). At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus also says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Upon these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40).

From the first garden in Eden to the time of the prophets and beyond, God was not only building anticipation for Jesus’ arrival but also working to form humanity into people who want to live and love like Christ. He is God’s promised one who brings new healing to all humanity and creation (see Isa. 50:4, 54:13; Jer. 31:33-34; Ezek. 36:26-28; John 12:32; 2 Cor. 5:19).

To learn and practice Jesus’ way of love is to trust that God is making good on his long-established promises to reunite Heaven and Earth. It’s a life that fills full everything God is doing through the Law and the Prophets.

  1. France, R.T. The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 197.