Q. In what way did Jesus fulfill the law?
A. Jesus' last words on the Cross were, "It is finished" (see John 19:30). He had done everything His Father had sent Him to do (see John 17:4). One of things He had come to do is found in Matthew: "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil" (Matthew 5:17). So, one of the things Jesus had come to do was to fulfill—not destroy, but fulfill—the law. Obviously, then, by the time He said, "It is finished," He had done this. But the question is, in what way did He "fulfill" the law? What did He mean by "fulfill"?
People have differing opinions, and I won’t take the time to list them all. I will mention, however, that one of the most common ideas is that “fulfill” in this verse means that Jesus came to fill the law to the full, fill the law to the brim, or magnify it. This opinion is held by a wide spectrum of people ranging from the followers of Worldwide Church of God founder Herbert W. Armstrong to Puritans to those who claim to be Particular Baptists.1
But the question still remains, what does the Bible say Jesus meant by fulfill? Did He mean "fill to the full?"
In Matthew 5:17, the Greek word translated “fulfill” is plēroō. What does the Bible say this word means?
Can plēroō mean “fill to the full,” that is, to fill something as one would fill a glass of water? Yes. In fact, it often means this in the Bible. But the meaning is always natural and obvious from the context. Thus, the Bible speaks of being filled with wisdom (Luke 2:40), valleys being filled (Luke 3:5), a house being filled with an odor (John 12:3), sorrow filling hearts (John 16:6), and so on. Similarly, we also read of a net being full (Matthew 13:48) and several times of joy being full (John 15:11; 16:24; 1 John 1:4; 2 John 1:12).
There are also some Scriptures where time is fulfilled, obedience is fulfilled, etc., where someone might argue that plēroō could be translated “filled to the full.”
On the other hand, I want to point out that in every case where plēroō is used in connection with the coming about of what was written or spoken in the law, or the prophets, or a prophet, or the Scriptures, or what Jesus had said earlier and so on, the meaning is always clearly “fulfill” as meaning to satisfy what was spoken or written so as to complete it.
1. Worldwide Church of God founder, Herbert W. Armstrong (along with those who continue to teach his doctrine), believed that Jesus meant that He had come to fill the law to the brim, to magnify it. Notice, for example, what Armstrong disciple Roderick C. Meredith, head of the Living Church of God, writes of Matthew 5:17-19: "'Fulfill' here means 'to fill to the full.' Jesus Christ came to magnify the Law. Isaiah 42:21 tells us that Christ was sent to 'magnify the Law and make it holy.' Did you ever put a magnifying glass on something? Magnifying does not destroy it, it simply makes it far bigger, and far more meaningful. You can see it all in its intricate parts. Jesus did that. He magnified God's Law. He showed the spiritual intent, the great spiritual purpose and the attitude in which we ought to keep it—not doing away with it all, but making it all the more binding…. Every human being will have to learn to keep God's Law, or they won't be in God's Kingdom” ("The Gospel of Matthew – Program 32").
The Puritan Matthew Henry says while commenting on this verse: “Let none suppose that Christ allows his people to trifle with any commands of God's holy law.” I want to respond to this by saying that it does not really even address the verse. Jesus isn’t saying anything about what He will allow His people to do or not do. He is saying what He will not do (destroy the law) and what He will do (fulfill). All Henry is doing in his comment is setting up a straw man and then knocking it down. It is completely unhelpful and misleading.
The Protestant Jameison-Faussett-Brown Commentary states: “I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil—Not to subvert, abrogate, or annul, but to establish the law and the prophets—to unfold them, to embody them in living form, and to enshrine them in the reverence, affection, and character of men, am I come.”
from Particular Baptist, Dr. C. Matthew McMahon: “Jesus came to fill up
the Law and complete it in our stead. This does not mean He has done
away with it, or made it void. That is not the meaning of the word used.
In Matthew 5:18, one verse later, He states, ‘For verily I say unto you,
till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no way pass
from the Law, till all be fulfilled.’ Not only does Jesus not nullify
the Law for us, but rather He does just the opposite: that in view of
His work to fulfill it, not one jot or tittle shall be removed. Jesus
has given Christians the ability in salvation, because of His work as
the sinless Savior, to make moral choices once again on behalf of the
Law. He kept the Law so we could keep it as well. Jesus' work enables us
to run the race in a way worthy to win the prize. He does not invalidate
the Law, but places it before us knowing that He will be working through
us to keep it. And though we stumble in keeping it, He is ever working
in us to overcome the stumbling blocks” (“What is the Difference between
Legalism and Obedience?”— emphasis his). What is stunning about this teaching, which comes from
someone who professes to be a Particular Baptist, is that it is classic
Armstrongism. I don’t mean that the writer is consciously teaching
Armstrongism, but that, for anyone such as myself who worked for Herbert
W. Armstrong, the similarity between McMahon’s teaching and even jargon
here and that of Armstrongism is shocking. This is not the place to
detail all of this, but when I read such phrases as “Jesus came to fill
up the Law,” “He kept the Law so we could keep it as well,” “Jesus' work
enables us to run the race in a way worthy to win the prize,” and “He
will be working through us to keep it,” I can’t help but picture
Armstrong thumping his Bible. Notice also that McMahon has interpreted
Jesus’ statement that “one jot or one tittle shall in no way pass from
the Law, till all be fulfilled” to mean “that in view of His work to
fulfill it, not one jot or tittle shall be removed.” This is a complete
reworking of what Jesus said and changes the meaning altogether.
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