"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter
will pass from the law,
until all things have taken place.”
To understand what Jesus means by the “law” and “the prophets,” one must consider their origins and context. The law refers to the commandments listed in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, which Moses gave to the Israelites. The prophets that Jesus mentions would eventually take these commandments and paraphrase them for the people – there were, after all, over 600 of them. Together, the law and the prophets make up the majority of the Old Testament and give an idea of provide a framework of what worshiping the one true God actually entailed.
Neither Jesus nor Paul dismissed the Old Testament outright. They both recognize what it did for the Jewish people. God gave these commandments to His people with the intention of establishing a kingdom. Considering that Moses’s people started with no land, no rights, no education, no power, and hardly any experience with civilized life since most of them were slaves, God’s commandments held enormous importance. With His commandments, God essentially created society out of nothing.
When the Israelite kingdom later disintegrated under the corrupt descendants of Solomon and finally fell under the conquest of the Babylonians, many prophets forewarned such a disaster. Through these holy men, God tried to warn His people to follow His commandments; to do otherwise would destabilize their society and have them regress once more to the status of slaves. Prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Elijah often castigated the Israelites for their infidelity and their sinfulness. However, almost as a kind of consolation, they would also foretell of a messiah who would reestablish God’s kingdom and restore His people. A great many Jews kept looking for this Messiah as they tried their best to keep the commandments. The two books of the Maccabees offer a glimpse of this history between Babylonian captivity and the time of Roman occupation in the gospels.
Interestingly, the Sadducees and Pharisees were divided on the validity of the Law and Prophets. The Sadducees, a politically connected party of affluent Israelites, believed only in the Law, but not the prophets, and had a strictly materialist understanding of life, rejecting the notions of a resurrection, angels, or the soul’s immortality. The Pharisees believed in the tradition of the prophets in addition to the law and in the spiritual realm. While not as connected or wealthy as the Sadducees, they were respected and supported by the common people.
Despite their differences, what united these two parties was a desire for statehood. Both of them wanted to usher in a golden age for Israel, one that would rival that of King David. Hence, they both looked at the law as a means of making this happen. Instead of hoping in God or themselves, they hoped in this set of rules which they had come to associate with greatness; it is not an overstatement to say that they made the mistake of idolizing the commandments. Elevating the prophets to a place of honor did not necessarily save the Pharisees from this error. They only pursued their idol with more zeal and violence than the other party.
Jesus and His disciples have the challenge of confronting this fanatical legalism. They do this by acknowledging the Law’s benefits as well as its limits. Jesus has a bigger goal in mind than rebuilding some worldly kingdom, and He has a more ambitious desire than creating an upstanding law-abiding people. He wants to establish a spiritual kingdom of all kinds of people, and He wants the denizens of this kingdom to be saints. The time had come for transcendence, for heroism, for God Himself.
In His miracles, His teaching, His sacrifice and resurrection, Jesus completes, or “fulfills,” what God’s Law promised: a heavenly kingdom with heavenly inhabitants. He liberates the individual from a pattern of sin and death. Furthermore, He does this for all mankind, not just the Israelite people. What happened on the earthly plane of the Old Testament, Jesus brings to the spiritual plan in the New Testament. This change challenges disciples even more than before, but they will receive an infinitely greater reward and have God’s help “until all things have taken place.”