For many years, really until just recently, I have never really quite understood what Jesus meant when he said that he came to fulfill the law. Toward the beginning of the sermon on the mount, here is what he said:
“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. For truly I tell you, 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. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
I just couldn’t put this together in my mind. How is it possible to fulfill the law? What is there to be fulfilled, and what does that even mean?
Recently, I read this scripture with some people that had just begun to follow Jesus. As we were reading it, this question occurred to me:
What is the law actually governing? It is our actions. The law can only really speak to a specific action. For example, we shouldn’t murder, steal, or lie. But those are really just the end result, really the final step in a process that happens from the inside out. First, maybe we have an experience or have something happen to us and that colors the way that we think about an individual, a group of people, or something. As we continue to think about that situation, the resulting feeling grows within us, either positively or negatively. And if that feeling grows enough, we may decide to take action upon it in some way, either positively or negatively.
So the law, whether the law from God or the laws that our governments create, are really just addressing the final step, the resulting action of the what we have been thinking about or mulling over in our hearts for some time.
But Jesus says that he has come to fulfill the law. How can that be the case? I think that Jesus means that he wants to work on the first steps, the issues that are stirring in your heart before you ever act. He wants to cleanse your heart from the sin that is found there so that the law never needs to be invoked. I think Jesus is saying that if you allow him to work on your heart, you will never even have a need for the law because you won’t break the law as you haven’t even considered the action that the law is addressing and telling you not to do.
Jesus goes on within the sermon on the mount to talk about murder, adultery, divorce, and other types of sins. In reading what he was saying, I actually think that many of these are actually examples of what he was saying about fulfilling the law. For example, Jesus first talks about murder and says:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
Jesus then goes on to say that we need to reconcile with others, seeming to say that we need to forgive, and to be forgiven.
Of course, this is a great example because people do not murder others for no reason. If I murder someone, it is because I have built up terrible thoughts and feelings for that other person in my heart. There have likely been several situations and interactions with that other person that have deeply hurt, wounded, or offended me. I have probably thought pretty badly about this other person for quite a while and I certainly haven’t forgiven them. It is probably likely that I haven’t sincerely tried to reconcile with this other person.
So how does Jesus fulfill the law in this case?
Jesus is not trying to just change your action and tell you not to murder another person. That has already been said. Instead, Jesus wants to work much more deeply inside of us. He is working on our hearts. Jesus knows that if he can change your heart, the law becomes unnecessary. In this example, if you don’t think badly of another person, or if you are able to reconcile with that other person, then there is no need to tell someone not to murder because you won’t act upon hurting someone who you have a good relationship with.
So what is the lesson that we can learn from this? How do we apply this to our individual lives?
I think the firsst step is to ask ourselves, “What are the areas in our lives where we repeatedly sin against God? What are the things that we do that we know do not please God?”
When we recognize that we have done something wrong, something that does not please God, we are really just recognizing that we have broken the law. But how can we not only not break the law, but work with Jesus to fulfill it?
The next step is to ask the question, Why? Why am I doing this thing? What is it within my heart that makes me want to do this and disobey God? To have pleasure? To avoid pain? To have something more in our lives such as money, fame, or power? Once we recognize the answer to the question of why we do this, that is actually the part that you want to change.
I have a friend named Tony Ingrassia who taught me something several years ago that I think is applicable in this case. Tony leads a ministry called Power of Purity where he works to address sexual addiction problems, primarily in men, but in women as well. When I was living in the same city as him and helping him, I heard Tony frequently say:
Fruit comes from roots.
What does that mean? Tony uses a metaphor of a tree that is producing a certain kind of fruit. From the outside, what we think of the tree is based on the fruit that it is producing. For example, if an apple tree produces great, juicy apples, then we think it is a healthy tree, but if it is producing bad apples, then we would say that the tree is not yet mature and healthy.
But the story starts much deeper than the fruit. The roots are where the story of that tree begins. The soil, the water, the nutrients that the tree is absorbing through the roots are what is actually determining how healthy the tree is and how good the fruit will ultimately be.
If I apply this to the idea of fulfilling the law, I think that the law would only be addressing the quality of the fruit. But that is only the top level, the surface. It is addressing the outcome, not the actual underlying reason for the action.
The fulfillment of the law addresses the type of soil for the roots, how much water they are getting, etc. The roots are like our hearts, the place where the real work needs to be done, and this is the place that only Jesus can go to address the sin, the pain, and the problems that will eventually come out as the fruit, or your actions, that the law is intended to govern. As a result, we must allow Jesus to work in the depths of our hearts, to cleanse those places, and in that way, the law will be fulfilled within us, just as Jesus said and promised that he would do.