Not Abolition, But Fulfillment: Reading Everything in the Light of Christ

The Sermon on the Mount (ca. 1481-2), by Cosimo Roselli (From Wikimedia Commons)
The Sermon on the Mount (ca. 1481-2), by Cosimo Roselli
(From Wikimedia Commons)

Fathers of the 4th Ecumenical Council, July 19, 2015
Titus 3:8-15; Matthew 5:14-19
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

I would like us to hear the short text of today’s Gospel again, because this is what we will speak on today. These are the words of the Lord Jesus to His disciples:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father Who is in heaven. Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

At first blush, this passage would seem to be two almost unrelated themes. First, we have Jesus saying, “You are the light of the world,” and He enjoins His disciples to let the light of their good works “shine before men.” But then He says, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets.” First, He encourages them not to hide the goodness of the works that bring glory to God, and then He seems to change the subject and starts to talk about the Law of Moses.

What’s going on here? How do these two things go together?

We need to back up a little bit to understand what’s happening. First, we have to note that these six verses from the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel are part of a much larger discourse called the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with chapter five and extends through chapter seven. It is the longest discourse from Jesus in the Scriptures, and it contains numerous familiar passages and sayings, such as the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” etc.) and most of the central tenets of Christian discipleship.

The Sermon on the Mount is all set against the backdrop of the opposition of the Pharisees to Jesus and His followers. And if you read it that way, it begins to make much more sense. The Pharisees were the arbiters of the Law of Moses in the time of Jesus. They were the experts on what it meant to live as a good Jew. If you opposed them, or if they opposed you, your credibility as a Jewish teacher was very much in question.

So when Jesus talks about good works, the good works that His disciples have to “let… shine before men,” this command from Him is a rebuke to the Pharisees. How so? It is because the Pharisees’ accusation against Jesus was that He was a sinner against the Law of Moses, that He wanted to get rid of the Law and was teaching others not to follow it.

So He emphasizes here that He is not in the least telling anyone not to do good works. Indeed, do them so that the whole world can see them. Do them as the “light of the world.” Do them as a “city set on a hill.” Right before today’s passage, He also tells His disciples that they are the “salt of the earth.” Light on a lampstand, a city on a hill, and the salt in one’s food—these are all images of things that are obvious and out in the forefront of our experience. So He is making it very clear that the good works of His disciples should be obvious to everyone.

But He also says that that obviousness is not for their glory, but so that the world “may see your good works and give glory to your Father Who is in heaven.” So, yes, good works should be accessible to the world, but they are for God’s glory, not their own. But He’s not telling them not to do good works. The Pharisees are wrong about that.

So that’s why what He says next makes perfect sense: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets.” He’s not coming to get rid of what Jewish tradition had received from God through Moses and all the prophets. And not only is He not getting rid of all that, but He is very clearly encouraging His disciples to do their good works out in front of everyone. So, no, Pharisees, He hasn’t come to abolish the Law and the prophets.

But He still has something up His sleeve. Here’s what He says next: “I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them.”

And with that one sentence, Jesus opens up the way not only to understand all the changes that are made from what it means to be a good Jew to what it means to be a good Christian, but He also sets up the basic dynamic of how Christians read the Old Testament.

Let’s talk about those changes first.

So Jesus says that He’s not abolishing the Law, yet nevertheless there are a lot of changes made by Jesus and His Apostles for Christians. Christians do not, for instance, keep the kosher laws. We also don’t follow the intricate system of ritual purity that Jews did. Nor do we observe the Jewish feast days. And so on.

But the changes are not just about things we don’t do, but they are also about things we’ve taken to another level. For instance, Christian morality is higher than Jewish—later on in this sermon, Jesus says, for instance, that it was previously forbidden to commit adultery, but He raises the moral stakes and says that you can’t even look upon someone with lust in your heart (Matt. 5:28). Ever heard anyone say, “You can look, but you can’t touch”? Well, Jesus says you shouldn’t even look, because the whole dynamic of looking without touching is about lust. And He says that the spiritual effect of lust in the heart is the same thing as touching.

And no longer do we circumcise. Instead, we baptize. And no longer do we offer up animal sacrifices in Jerusalem. But instead we offer up the one sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ on altars everywhere in the world. And we offer up our own bodies as a “living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1). So there are lots of changes.

But what makes these changes make sense is what Jesus gives us in terms of how we read the Old Testament. If He has come not to abolish the Law and the prophets but to fulfill them, what does that say about the Law and the prophets? It says that the life and work of Jesus was the whole point of the Law and the prophets to begin with! Jesus is Himself the fulfillment of everything that came before Him.

So that means when we read the Old Testament, we look for Jesus. Even when we read all the complicated kosher and sacrificial laws in Leviticus and elsewhere in the Old Testament, all those things the Pharisees loved so much, we read them in the light of the coming of the Son of God into the world. He was the point all along.

That’s why the changes make sense—the Law was never an end unto itself. Its purpose was always to point us to Jesus Christ.

This is true for everything we experience, not just how we as Christians read the Old Testament. We read our own lives as Christians. We read our experiences in terms of how they direct us to Jesus Christ. Just as Christ did not come to abolish the Law and the prophets but to fulfill them, He did not come to abolish anything that has happened to you in your life but to fulfill it.

Even your pain and your suffering can be fulfilled in Christ, if He is the principle by which everything is interpreted. As Christians, everything that happens to us is for that one purpose. Everything is finally meaningful and beautiful in Christ. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father Who is in heaven.”

To our Lord Jesus Christ, the Fulfillment of all things, be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.


  1. I have seen so many people who contend with Christians with statements such as, “you need to keep all of the Old Testament laws if the you say that the Old Testament is Holy Scripture or you need to just admit it isn’t true”. It always amazes me that people do not understand that Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Thank you for this message, Father. Glory to God!

    1. A well articulated article. Thank you Father the post. But i have one question. If christ is the fulfillment of the law and not came to abolish the law, why does the Apostle Paul use a language of abolishment in his epistles?

      1. I wouldn’t describe his language that way, but they’re talking in two different ways — Paul is seeking to emphasize that one does not have to become a Jew first in order to be Christian and also that the Law does not save, and He also says that the Law led us to Christ (Rom. 20:4, Gal. 3:24). When Christ speaks here of fulfilling the Law rather than abolishing it, He is making the same point Paul does about the Law’s purpose.

  2. Thank you Father for your Response. in relation to this, i have a problem in understanding the meaning of the works of the law that don’t save. some writers say it refers only ceremonial laws and others say it refers to the whole old testament law including the ten commandments and they provide the commentaries of St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and John Chrysostom. Moreover, they say that the term fulfillment must be seen in relation to the term abolishment and hence claim that Christians are not under the old laws including the ten commandments but the new testament incorporates the fundamental principles. they further say that any principles which is not incorporated in the new testament is not obligatory though it is found in the old testament. what does it mean Christ is the end of the law? does it means Christians are no longer required to be bound by the old testament as a legal code? Please i want to know your answers. kind regards.

    1. The key it’s not to try to sort out the details on one’s own. The Church has determined what needs to be kept and what can be set aside, reinterpreted, etc. We live the life as the Church directs. What has largely been kept from the OT are its moral prescriptions.

  3. So… in one sentence you say that the laws are not abolished. Then in the next, you say that we don’t keep the kosher laws.

    Before, the kosher laws were required, now they are not. That is called abolishing.

    Insisting that they are somehow fulfilled, not abolishes, does not change that.

    1. Abolition is simple cancellation, whereas fulfillment involves transformation. So, no, just because a law was once required and now is not required does not mean that it was abolished. Things are more complex than that.

      Just as sacrifice of animals is now fulfilled in the one sacrifice Christ does not mean that sacrifice has been abolished, the kosher laws have been fulfilled and therefore transformed by a much more thoroughgoing way of living in holiness.

      1. “the kosher laws have been fulfilled and therefore transformed by a much more thoroughgoing way of living in holiness”

        And this is the kicker. You can get rid of any law by saying, it’s been fulfilled in a higher, more exalted, more thorough living way of life. That doesn’t mean anything concrete.

        Circumcison cannot be changed into baptism. They are different. Sabbath cannot be turned into Kyriake. They are different. Kosher laws cannot be transformed into… what exactly? A more thoroughgoing way of holiness?

        As a previous commenter mentioned, different Orthodox sources do say different things about the 10 commandments. Many (go ex Chrysostom) specifically state that the Sabbath was not meant to be enduring. I find this ironic since it is the only teaching in the Decalogue which God specifically says is perpetual (almost in anticipation of those who make such an argument).

        To me it seems that this line of thought has more to do with the fact that most of the Church has always been Gentile and therefore not “under the law”, and less with learning from the Bible.

        1. To be honest, I’m not sure what position you’re arguing from. In any event, the language of “I come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it” is directly from Jesus Himself. If you believe that He is the Son of God, God Himself incarnate, and you believe that His Apostles really were given authority by Him to further the Church which He Himself is building, then that means that you have to deal with this issue of what fulfillment without abolition means. It’s not cut and dry, of course, but it’s not like the Church just engaged in a bunch of hand-waving to get out from under Jewish law. This is an actual theological point that’s being made. And the ascetical traditions of the Church, if followed, are pretty rigorous, too, so this isn’t the invention of lazy people who just didn’t want to watch their food choices and preparation any more.

          Of course, if one rejects the divinity of Jesus, the authority of His Apostles, etc., then your points make total sense. Christianity would therefore be a big joke. The cynical approach you suggest here would also make the most sense. You may imagine that I very much disagree, though.

          That said, even before the advent of Christ, there were Jews (especially those living in Hellenic culture) who were already reinterpreting Jewish law in a “spiritualized” way. Philo of Alexandria is probably the most famous of these, and he talks specifically about kosher, too. So the idea of finding a deeper spiritual meaning that isn’t simply about following rules was already present in Judaism even before the Incarnation.

          1. I disagree with the idea that Christianity would be a big joke. As of course you’re aware the Council in Acts specifically addressed the question of whether Gentiles have to keep the Torah commandments just as the Jewish Christians did. Therefore the notion that “fulfillment” requires abrogration is not true. Furthermore, we know from the Apostolic Constitutions that in the community which produced them, resting on Sabbath in accordance with Jewish Law continued.

            I agree that we have to understand what Jesus is saying, but that doesn’t make the interpretation valid.

            Also, your point about Philo and Hellenized Jews is I think misleading; both Hellenized and non-Hellenized Jews of course believed in a mystical interpretation of the Torah, but they saw did not see that as separable from the plain meaning of the text.

            So… here is the point I am arguing from. I have been wrestling with this for several years. I think that accepting the interpretation you are
            espousing demands that we essentially reject the plain meaning of the language of the Torah. The Sabbath commandment and circumcision are given, according to the Bible, as eternal commandments (unto ages of ages). The first Christians continued to observe the commandments and the only question was which ones needed to be observed by Gentiles. The implication is clear that they understood that the commandments were, as God says in the Torah, an eternally binding part of the covenant, and that they were forbidden from adding to or subtracting from them. I really don’t think the interpretation that you’ve given does justice to this historical fact or to the demanding nature of the language given in the Torah.

          2. I think that accepting the interpretation you are espousing demands that we essentially reject the plain meaning of the language of the Torah.

            Yes, I get that you think that. The question for me is why I should accept your interpretation rather than the interpretation of the Orthodox Church, which I believe to be the true Church of Jesus Christ. (And which is, incidentally, roughly the interpretation of almost all Christians throughout time.) I am always suspicious of any appeal to the “plain language” of Scripture which is contrary to the patristic interpretation. It is not as though the Fathers didn’t actually read the Scriptural text.

  4. As a related note, concerning your point about hand waving; I agree that the Church isn’t trying to hand wave these commandments away, but we should be forthcoming about the fact that there was definitely a very strong anti-Judaic bent in the early Gentile Church (for example one early Church writer, not Marcion, believed that Deuteronomy wasn’t actually inspired).

  5. I would like to propose an alternative understanding of fulfilled, not abolished. I think a reasonable explanation of that Jesus is saying that He did not come to abolish the Torah (which would include not only commandments, but the”whole package”), but to fulfill it, I.e He came to accomplish the Messianic mission which is promised and yearned for in the Torah.

    I think this interpretation succeeds more effectively in also accounting for Jesus’ follow-up words that anyone who neglects even the least of the commandments (for example, Kashrut) or teaches others to do so is under condemnation.

    1. I very much agree that it is the whole of the Torah that Jesus is speaking about. The question is what exactly it means for Christians to follow the commandments. Should we accept a Judaizing view of what means, or should we accept the interpretation of the Church?

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