In Matthew 5:17, Jesus tells his disciples “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” This is a curious passage to many Christians who have received a Christianity which seems to provide freedom from the letter of the law in favor of submission to the law of the Spirit (Rom. 8:2). In what follows I will show that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law, and he is our liberator from slavery to the written law.
While Jesus declares that he did not come to abolish the law, he certainly reinterprets it and engages in creative and unorthodox practices regarding the law. For example, in Matthew 5:21, Jesus takes the command to murder and strengthens it, adding that “if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You Fool,’ you will be liable to hell of fire.” Here Jesus has introduced a harsher requirement than what is in the actual law. In other places, however, Jesus softens the law (much to the chagrin of his Pharisee contemporaries). In Exodus 20:8-10, the Israelites are commanded to “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” The passage continues describing what that should look like: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the LORD your God, in it you shall not do any work…” In Mark 2:23-28, Jesus is walking through the grainfields with his disciples on the Sabbath when some of his followers start to pick the grain and eat. The Pharisees, apparently keeping a watchful eye on this Rabbi who had a tendency to play fast and loose with the law, confront Jesus about the “work” his disciples are doing on the Sabbath. His eloquent reply ends with “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath, so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” In one more instance of Jesus’ subversion of the standard of Sabbath keeping, Mark 3:1-6 tells us that Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. In other instances, Jesus touches lepers, spends quality time with Samaritans and eats with tax collectors and prostitutes. All of these would have been considered anathema for a law abiding Jew.