Fulfilling the Law

By Stephen Green

Matt 5:17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. 18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. 19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

The big question is this:  What exactly did Christ mean by this word ‘fulfil?


Christians can so easily suspend logic and reason when trying to answer big questions of faith.  In trying to explain the word ‘fulfil’, someone on an internet forum encapsulated the kind of sloppy thinking into which Christians can so easily fall:  ‘I understand it (‘fulfil’) to mean Christ Himself is the fulfilment of the law. By living the absolutely perfect life in complete accordance with every aspect of the law, He fulfilled it to perfection. So, the Law was fulfilled, or is fulfilled, in Christ.’

Now, if I drive into town, see a double yellow line, and decide to park somewhere else, I haven’t ‘fulfilled’ the law against parking there.  I have observed it.  If I honour my father and my mother, I haven’t ‘fulfilled’ the fifth commandment, I have observed it.  Keeping the law is not fulfilling the law, it is observing it.  We might even say it is respecting it.

Some go further.  They say Christ has kept the law (they mean the moral law and they say this is what ‘fulfil’ means) on our behalf.  Christ has kept the law so we don’t have to, they say.  Some go further still, arguing that we have no ability to keep the law. Some go the whole hog and say we should not even try to keep the law, as that nullifies in some way the grace of God.

The Greek word for ‘law’ is ‘nomos’ and from it we derive the word ‘antinomian’, which means ‘against the law’.   But the Hebrew word for ‘law’ in the context of God’s law is ‘Torah’.  Torah means much more than just ‘law’ as we would understand it.  It brings in the ideas of instruction and teaching as well.   We learn from God’s law as we keep it.

So exactly how does Christ’s great respect for the moral and civil law of God, and his observing it, release Christians from the obligation of a similar duty of respect and observation?  Only by twisting the word ‘fulfil’ to mean what it doesn’t, as we have seen above, is this illogical feat achieved.  So if ‘fulfil’ does not mean ‘observe, respect and keep vicariously’, what does it actually mean?


The Greek word for ‘fulfil’ in Matthew 5:17 is plero’o.  So we need to ask what sort of things are normally ‘fulfilled’?  We can find a strong indication from other uses of the same word in Matthew’s Gospel.  Where the same word is used, we should draw the same conclusions.  And wherever the word plero’o is used elsewhere in the Gospel, the Evangelist consistently refers to an Old Testament prophecy and how it relates to what our Lord did, or had done to him.

Now we can ask what aspects of the Torah given to Moses could possibly have been fulfilled by Christ our Lord in a prophetic sense.  We are not talking of the specific prophecy of Moses of a prophet ‘like unto me’ or the messianic prophecies of the prophets.  We are looking for elements of the law given to Moses and recorded in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy which prophecy Christ and what he came to do.  When looked at in the cool light of day, and without forcing words to mean what they do not, these elements are plainly the Sacrificial ones.  Nothing else makes any sense.

Actually, the prophetic strain started in the Garden of Eden. Christ himself was prophesied specifically:

Genesis 3:15 And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

But his work on the cross was prophesied in God’s redemptive actions:

Genesis 3:21 Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them.

God himself sacrificed animals in the Garden to cover the sin of Adam and Eve when the fig leaves they had made for themselves were found wanting.  So it is today.  Our own efforts to cover our sin are inadequate.  Only Christ’s sacrifice will atone for us.

The prophetic stream continued with the ram caught in the thicket which God provided for Abraham to sacrifice instead of his son Isaac, in Abraham’s own enigmatic words:

Gen 22:8 And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.

It went on with the Passover lamb, slaughtered in Egypt so the Angel of Death would ‘pass over’ the houses of Israel.  That feast became an institution in Israel.  The regular offerings in the Temple about which we read in the Law given to Moses built a whole edifice of worship and sacrifice which would reconcile the people and atone for their sins.  That is, until the advent of God himself, incarnate in Jesus, to be the once for all sacrifice which would bring in a better hope and a better testament:

Hebrews 8:6 But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.


As the Gospel went out into all the world, it went to the Gentiles, a people who had never observed Jewish ceremonial laws of circumcision, ritual cleanliness and dietary distinctions.  Explaining and codifying all of that had of course been the stock in trade of the first-century Scribes and Pharisees.

Those of the Scribes and Pharisees who believed in the Lord could not easily give up such a way of life and argued that Gentiles should become Jewish to be Christian:

Acts 15:1 And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. …  5 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.

The matter blew up and had to be decided.  God had already caused Cornelius to be saved through the ministry of Peter and Paul had begun preaching to the Gentiles in Antioch after the Jews refused to hear.  The Church was called together at the First Council in Jerusalem.  After much discussion, Peter argued that both Jew and Gentile were saved ‘through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ”.  Paul and Barnabas described the miracles and wonders God had done for the Gentile converts.

The great Apostle James then went back to Scripture, to Amos 9:11-12, and ruled that the sense of the meeting and of the Holy Spirit was that the Gentiles did not have the obligation to be circumcised, but that they should keep an abbreviated moral law, attending to particular points at which they were obviously being challenged by the pagan culture of their day.

Acts 15:24 Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment: … 28  For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; 29 That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.

Obviously, James was not saying in this letter that the early Christians could lie, cheat, murder, covet and disrespect their parents.  He was addressing the current dispute.  In subsequent teachings and letters, the Apostles laid out a framework of moral and civil living which Christians should observe, all based, of course, on the moral and civil laws in the Torah.


So we are seeing that Sacrificial laws were fulfilled by Christ and that the Ceremonial laws have no force on Gentile believers.  When we put on one side those parts of the Torah, we are left with the moral and civil laws which form the foundation of the practical living urged by the Apostles.

For some reason, separating out these parts of the law, which was clearly done by the early church, and making a division between sacrificial & ceremonial on the one hand and moral & civil on the other, is deeply opposed by a worrying number of modern Christian teachers.

James (Jim) A Fowler complains in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (p139) about:

‘attempts by theological interpreters to arbitrarily subdivide the Law into ceremonial, civil and moral categories in order to make some requirements applicable to Christians and eliminate others’. He cites an enigmatic verse in Luke as support:

Luke 16:16 The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it.

Fowler maintains that this verse and another for which he does not give a reference ‘explicitly indicate that the behavioural incentives of the Old testament (sic) Law are not applicable to Christians’.

Well, firstly, when the Apostle, in the very same Epistle, tells the Galatians:

Gal 5:14 For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

Where has this command come from, if not from the Old Testament, in fact from Leviticus 19:18?  And when Paul counsels against the ‘works of the flesh’ he does not invent a new set of Pauline edicts, he reiterates commandments from the Old Testament:

Gal 5:19 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, 20 Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, 21 Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

Paul also quotes the famous law of sowing and reaping, which is a Biblical principle going back to the book of Genesis:

Gal 6:7 Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.

Secondly, we are not dividing the law ‘arbitrarily’ but logically.  We are trying to make sense of the Lord Jesus saying that he is not come ‘to destroy the law, or the prophets’ and that he is ‘not come to destroy, but to fulfil’.  We are also trying to work out why the Apostles constantly urged moral living on Gentile believers while telling them not to go to the Temple and that they did not have to be circumcised.

Similarly, Charles Henry Welch, the Christian dispensational theologian, writer and speaker, says this in the Berean Expositor (vol 40, p 119):

‘While it is convenient for students to subdivide the law into several parts, and speak of the moral law, the ceremonial law, etc., we must remember that for the purposes of justification, the law is one. We are either saved by reason of our perfect law‑keeping, or we are saved by grace alone.’

‘… for the purposes of justification, the law is one’?  Where is that statement found in scripture?  The truth is, it isn’t.  No-one was ever justified by not stealing or by respecting his parents.  The sense of the statement is not scriptural at all.  Justification and atonement were in the sacrifices and are now in the blood of Jesus.

At the end of the Epistle to the church in Galatia, where the Apostle is summing up his argument that Christians do not need to be circumcised, he writes:

Gal 5:3 For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.

He means the whole of the Torah.  If you are going to be circumcised, and go back to the Jewish ceremonial, he says, you have to take on the whole package.  Earlier in the Epistle, Paul explains that a Christian’s justification is not in ‘the works of the law’.  The context of the Epistle is against the argued necessity of circumcision.  So that context demands that Paul means the sacrificial and ceremonial elements by ‘the works of the law’, and that he contrasts that with justification by faith in Christ Jesus:

Gal 2:16  Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.

The whole point of the Epistle to the Hebrews is that you don’t have to go to the Temple and perform sacrifices any more, you are justified by the blood of Jesus alone.

Mr Welch also said: ‘We are either saved by reason of our perfect law‑keeping, or we are saved by grace alone.’

That is a false dichotomy.  It is not an ‘either/or’ thing, and keeping God’s commandments is not to be confused with or regarded as opposed to our redemption through Christ’s blood.

We are clearly saved for works of salvation:

Philippians 2:12 Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13 For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.


The author of the Epistle of James is the same Apostle James who gave the ruling in the Council of Jerusalem.  In his Epistle is a passage often used to argue against subdividing the law.  James even uses the expression ‘the whole law’.  But the two examples he gives from ‘the whole law’ are both from the moral & civil law.  The sacrificial and ceremonial figure nowhere in any of his arguments:

James 2:10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. 11 For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.

Going back to what Welch argues, the distinction is not ‘law’ vs ‘grace’.  The opposite of law is not grace.  The opposite of law is lawlessness.  God Almighty clothed Adam and Eve with sacrificial skins through his grace.  It was by his grace that Israel was saved through the intercession of Moses.  It was of the grace of God that the temple sacrifices atoned for sin for a season while prophesying the sacrifice of Christ.  And it was by grace that God offered himself as a sacrifice at Calvary.

The Apostle Paul reinforces the correct distinction between being saved through ‘the works of the law’ (the temple sacrifices) and being saved through faith in Christ, showing that it is faith which is given by the grace of God, as here in Ephesians:

Eph 2:8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.

When speaking of the laws of God, that is, of the Torah, the prophets of God insist they are eternal, unchangeable, abiding for ever.  For example:

Deut 12:28 Observe and hear all these words which I command thee, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee for ever, when thou doest that which is good and right in the sight of the LORD thy God.

Psalm 100:5 For the LORD is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.

Psalm 119:89 For ever, O LORD, thy word is settled in heaven. … 152 Concerning thy testimonies, I have known of old that thou hast founded them for ever. … 160 Thy word is true from the beginning: and every one of thy righteous judgments endureth for ever.

Indeed we can say that even the sacrifices ordained by God to prophesy his work in Jesus on the cross endure in Christ’s finished work.  So I would be careful to say they are not abolished, but fulfilled.  The ceremonial laws are not abolished either.  Some may have been fulfilled in Christ, but others were simply applicable to Israel, either in the land, or in their daily observance.


When asked how many laws of God there are, most people would answer ‘ten’, remembering the Ten Commandments.  But having collected all the commandments from the Pentateuch, that is from the first five books of the Bible, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, the Jewish Rabbis concluded that there are six hundred and thirteen.

We heard above from Christian teachers that the Torah, or ‘the Law’, is indivisible.  Unfortunately for this argument, the Rabbis themselves both maintain its unity and subdivide it.  In Greek philosophical thought those might seem contradictory positions.  With Hebrew thinking it is quite easy to maintain that light is simultaneously a wave and a stream of particles, that Jesus is totally God and totally man or that the Torah is one indivisible whole and divisible into categories.

In showing the reasoning behind the indivisibility of the Torah, when Rabbi Meir came to Rabbi Ishmael (died AD 135) and gave his profession as scribe (of the Torah) the latter required of him the utmost care, ‘for if you leave out a single letter or write a single letter too much, you will be found as one who destroys the whole world.’  This popular Jewish attitude that changing the law in the most minute particular is ‘destroying’ it is behind the words of our Lord:  ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. … Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.’

To show that the law can be subdivided while maintaining its unity, a detailed look at Psalm 119 in www.torahresource.com shows ‘word’ appearing in the singular 21 times and in the plural 5 times.  Commandment is singular (‘mitzvah’) once, emphasising the unity of the Torah, and plural (‘mitzvot’) 21 times, showing the possibility of division.  Decrees, ordinances, precepts and statutes are overwhelmingly in the plural, while Torah itself, in the psalm, is always singular.

Nevertheless, Tim Hegg, in that article, entitled ‘The Unity of the Torah’,  writes:

‘When the Christian theologians sought to divide the Torah into Moral, Civil and Ceremonial categories, they conveniently overlooked the fact that the word of God is a unified whole that cannot be divided.  The reality is this: if any part of God’s word may be set aside as irrelevant, it all may be set aside’.

We agree with that last statement, but we are not settiung aside anything or saying that any part of God’s word is in any way ‘irrelevant’.  Mr Hegg argues from a Messianic viewpoint for a ‘One Torah’ approach but curiously does not seem to address the simple fact that the sacrificial elements of the Torah have clearly been fulfilled in the sacrifice of Christ. So the Torah can be subdivided there, before we even get on to the Ceremonial which he wants to leave in place.

It is instructive to see how the Jewish rabbis subdivide the Torah.  Firstly, the 613 mitzvot (the Hebrew word for ‘commandments’) can be sifted into 248 “positive” mitzvot and 365 “negative” mitzvot.  There are 248 ‘commandments to do’, as in ‘honour thy father and they mother,’ and 365 ‘commandments not to do’, such as the commandment not to murder.

The website www.jewfaq.org explains a different, practical subdivision:

‘Many of these 613 mitzvot cannot be observed at this time for various reasons. For example, a large portion of the laws relate to sacrifices and offerings, which can only be made in the Temple, and which does not exist today. Some of the laws relate to the theocratic state of Israel, its king, its supreme court, and its system of justice, and cannot be observed because the theocratic state of Israel does not exist today. In addition, some laws do not apply to all people or places. Agricultural laws only apply within the state of Israel, and certain laws only apply to kohanim or Levites. The 19th/20th century scholar Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, commonly known as the Chafetz Chayim, identified 77 positive mitzvot and 194 negative mitzvot which can be observed outside of Israel today.’

That makes 271 commandments which the Jews can observe outside Israel out of 613 in all.  Those they can observe still include circumcision and many other ceremonial and dietary mitzvot.

In truth there is a number of ways to subdivide the 613 commandments of the Torah.  One popular route is to divide them into fourteen ‘books’ and then into 75 groups.

Using this method, we can readily see that the Books of Service and Sacrifices are fulfilled and no longer applicable.  Laws of impurity, laws about slaves, laws about redeeming land, laws about garments, blowing trumpets, priestly duties, not eating this and that, are part of the ceremonial law.

To sum up, there are 64 commandments concerning our duty towards God, and I shall argue those apply today.  I calculate perhaps 138 fall into the category of universal civil law and a further 69 are moral in character.  My figures are approximate, but give a rough total of 271 commandments out of which one could begin to determine which of them are incumbent on society and the individual in this time of grace.

On the opposite hand are 35 commandments to do with the temple, 103 concerning sacrifices and an astonishing 204 referring to ceremonial matters, everything from discerning whether an animal is kosher or not to destroying the seven Canaanite nations.  These laws are not binding on Christian people today.

So the majority of the Torah, around 55% of it, is sacrificial and ceremonial without even taking a detailed look at which particular commandments of the remaining 45% should apply to nations and individuals today.

It is very clear that when the Apostle Paul writes about ‘the law’ that sometimes he means the whole of it, sometimes the moral and civil parts, sometimes the sacrificial and sometimes the ceremonial.  It is a challenge sometimes to sort out which he means but it is possible from the context and from a spirit-filled understanding of the God-given distinctions in the Torah.  By recognising that Christ has fulfilled and not destroyed the sacrificial law and that the early church has released us from the ceremonial law, it all falls into place, to the glory of God.

Where does that leave the Christian believer?  It leaves us with an awe for the prophetic purpose of the sacrifices, an interest to see what we can learn from the ceremonial commands to Israel, a renewed confidence in the moral law which is to guide our daily conversation and conduct and a desire to proclaim the civil law which God set up to govern nations.

It gives us back our prophetic heart and our rightful position as examples of Godly living.  It makes us salt and light.  And it shows that logic and reason did not bail out when the Holy Spirit came in.



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