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How did Jesus fulfill the law of Moses?

  • By: Scott Stein
  • Aug 17, 2023

“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.”
Matthew 5:17-18

Christians have debated what Jesus meant in this verse for over 2000 years. Too often they land on the extreme of legalistically imposing the law as a condition for following Jesus, or the other extreme of carelessly disposing of the law as distasteful and useless. But neither of these reflects the mind of Jesus.

To avoid the error of extremes then, we need to look carefully at what Jesus said and meant about the law and himself.

Jesus said “fulfill”, not “keep”

To be clear, Jesus kept the whole law. But that wasn’t his reason for coming. He said he came to “fulfill” it, which means “filling up” or “completing”, not “keeping”. So what Jesus is saying isn’t that he’s come to undo or negate God’s law. Rather, he’d come to complete the very thing the law pointed to. In other words, God had given his law to Israel for a purpose, and Jesus had come to fulfill that purpose.

What was God’s purpose for the law?

The “law” consists of 613 specific commands God gave to Israel through Moses. It served as a founding document for the Jews as God’s holy nation which he’d just delivered out of Egypt. This all took place at Mt. Sinai beginning in Exodus 19 where God says:

“Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” (Exodus 19:5-6)

God gave the Jews his law to make them his own. He wanted Israel as his treasure; his priesthood; his own possession. In turn, Israel, as a nation, would be blessed above all nations specifically because God himself would dwell among them. As God says:

“If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands…I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.” (Leviticus 26:3, 12)

So, God’s purpose for the law came from his desire to dwell with a people who belonged to him and to “walk among them.” And it’s worth pointing out that the last time he did so was in the Garden of Eden, right before Adam and Eve fell into sin. (cf. Genesis 3:8)

God Wants to Dwell with Us?

The theme of God dwelling with people who belong to him runs throughout the Bible. Starting in Eden with Adam and Eve until it’s fully accomplished at the end of time in Revelation 21, 22. Everything in between addresses the problem of sin which makes dwelling with God impossible for us.


The law wasn’t given to solve this problem. Paul says: “by the works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16) God’s law wasn’t meant to solve the problem of our sin. It can’t because our sin empties God’s law of its power. (cf. Romans 8:3)

A Necessary Lesson from the Law

The law provided a temporary space where sinful people could draw close enough for God to reveal to them two essential truths. First, the infinite worth of his holiness. And second, the infinite offense and horror of sin. This infinite contrast was illustrated daily for Israel through the provisions for worship given in God’s law.

The sanctuary of Solomon’s temple invoked awe, reverence and wonder at the presence of a holy God. Ornamented with intricate gold-plated carvings depicting a golden, garden paradise. Priestly robes were ornate with jewels and embroidery. It was meant as a model of God’s holy, heavenly dwelling place.

Just outside the door an altar which was the apex of Israel’s sacrificial system was a continuous platform of blood and gore, accommodating the rituals of sacrifice. It showed them their sin was ugly and awful and needed to be atoned for. And it kept them at arm’s length. No one could see God and live.

How Jesus Fulfilled the Law

God created humanity to dwell with him in holiness forever. But sin-corrupted human nature can never unite with God’s holiness. Our greatest need is a way to life in God’s presence. The law could show us the reality of this need, but it could never meet it.

But Jesus could.

Jesus came to do the impossible. He came to achieve the goal that the law clearly pointed toward but could never accomplish. Jesus came to unite human nature with God’s holy nature such that sin could never separate them again. And he did it.

Through Jesus’ incarnation, he united human nature and God’s nature in himself. He is forever the Son of God and the Son of Man.

Through Jesus’ perfect life, he perfected human nature. He became the holy, sinless human that we could never become on our own.

Through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross, he destroyed the barrier created by sin that kept us from God. On the cross he took our sin upon himself, standing in our place. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

Paul summarizes Jesus’ accomplishment in Romans 8:3-4 this way:

“For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

A Good Law Pointing to a Great Saviour

Jesus agreed with the rest of Scripture, affirming the goodness of God’s law. Even today it continues teaching us about God’s infinite holiness and sin’s infinite offense against him.

If you’d like to go a bit deeper into the subject, tune into our podcast episode: “Fulfilling the Law: God’s Purpose in Jesus Explained”.

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