The three distinctives of the Jewish people were their land, their temple, and their Law; so when they lost the first two during the exile, the Law became increasingly important. Consequently the role of the scribes, the scholars of Israel, expanded due to the need for additional regulations. It was understood that these additional directives were necessary to keep the people from breaking the Mosaic law. So when Jesus appeared on the scene, breaking the Sabbath, failing to perform all the required religious rituals, it appeared that he held a lower view of the Law. Thus at the beginning of his public ministry it was necessary for him to identify the relationship between his message and the Law. This he did as recorded in Matt. 5:17-20.
“Don’t imagine that I have come to do away with the Law of Moses, or the teaching of the prophets. I‘ve not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
Properly understood, the Law is the outward expression of the nature of God. How could Jesus ever minimize that? The Law sets forth the kind of life that is consistent with the nature of God. One way to understand the word “fulfill” is to take it in the sense of “fill full.” Christ had come to explain in the language of his day what the Law had always intended. Religion had taken truth and distorted it by elevating practice over principle. Jesus explains (in the rest of chapter 5 of Matthew) the inner meaning of that which the scribes had emasculated with endless regulations. What is of supreme importance is the goal of a regulation, not the way it is stated.
Jesus goes on to say that not even the smallest letter in the alphabet or some decorative stroke connected with it will ever disappear. It is without end, just as God is. Anyone who would set aside even the smallest part of the Law will be least in the Kingdom of heaven. What Jesus did was not breaking the Law but revealing the kind of life it intended for the church. What this means is spelled out in the same chapter of Matthew. I can hear Jesus teaching something as follows:
“To not murder is not enough, the motivation is wrong (vv. 21-22)
“To not commit adultery is not enough, get that lustful look out of your eye (vv. 27-28)
“To not hate your enemy is not enough, love them (vv. 43- 44), etc.
“You seem to think that by observing all those little secondary rules you’ll make it into heaven. I’ll tell you something; unless your performance in keeping the Law is better than the scribes and Pharisees you’ll never make it into the kingdom of heaven. I’ll teach you how to keep the intent of the Law so that by allowing its real meaning to flood your inner self and draw you into a closer relationship to God. The Law is holy because the Law is the explanation of the nature of God. I have not come to do away with it but to show you the kind of life it was intended to produce. The Law continues central.