Generally, when we think of something as being fulfilled, we think of completion. It has the idea of achievement or realization. For example, one may say, “winning the championship was the fulfillment of a childhood dream.” In Matthew 5, Jesus makes a statement regarding fulfillment. He said,
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
There are a few things to notice here. First, Jesus is referring to the entire Old Testament canon. The phrase, …Law or the Prophets,” was a way of saying the same we thing we say today when we reference the Old Testament. In this statement, He is affirming it as “God-breathed” scripture.
Secondly, Jesus said that the Old Testament is not being abolished. He has no plans to eradicate or do away with that body of scripture. The Old Testament is God’s Word, which God has said will endure forever.
Thirdly, Jesus said that his purpose was to fulfill the scriptures. Notice that He did not say that Christians should fulfill them, but that it was HE who would do it – right down to the smallest detail.
Jesus’ claim is an extraordinarily huge one! He is telling the Jews that they should not think He is getting rid of the Law and Prophets, but on the contrary, He is fulfilling them. In other words, He is proclaiming that the entirety of God’s Word, the laws, the prophecies, the songs, the wisdom, the visions and poems, all point to Him. Everything. He is the main star, the hero of the story.
Andrew Wilson, in his book, ‘Unbreakable: What the Son of God Said About the Word of God,” illustrates Jesus’ meaning this way: “Fulfillment is about bringing a story to its appointed goal. When a couple say their wedding vows, they are fulfilling their engagement. When a ship leaves the dock on its maiden voyage, it is fulfilling its design and construction. Fulfillment doesn’t mean the end of the story – the couple remain together, the ship remains at sea – but it means that the story continues in a different phase, because the whole point of the first part of the story has been achieved.
Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets by bringing them to their intended climax in Himself. He fulfilled and continues to fulfill in Himself all the types and prophecies of the Old Testament that pointed to him.
Jesus made this clear after his resurrection. On the road to Emmaus with two of the disciples, Jesus revealed that everything that had recently happened in Jerusalem was spoken of by the prophets. “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself”(Luke 24:27).
Shortly after that, Jesus appeared to a group of apostles and disciples in Jerusalem. He said to them,
“These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”(Luke 24:44)
This should help in understanding what Jesus meant in the Gospels when He said things like, “You’ve heard that, but I say this.” Again, Wilson asks, “How can He move beyond what Moses said about divorce? How can He pick grain and heal people on the Sabbath, even though the Law says Jews shouldn’t do any work then?”
Grasping this understanding of fulfillment will help you realize that the purpose of the Law is being achieved in these examples. “Moses gave commands about murder, oaths, adultery, divorce and retaliation because he was dealing with a hardhearted nation who needed laws to protect themselves. But he also looked forward to a day when they would receive new hearts, and would obey the law in a far more radical way.
So, just as the ship was made for the ocean and the engagement is always pointing toward the wedding, the Law and Prophets always pointed toward the fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul summed it up in Romans 10:4
“For Christ is the goal (or end, or culmination, telos) of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.