2020 has been so turbulent and horrible that we may be asking what’s the point of Thanksgiving this year. Well yes, with the announcement of an imminent release of a vaccine for Covid-19 – which is an answer to our prayers – there may be light at the end of the tunnel.
That said, dark times can challenge us with the bigger questions of life and whether a good and caring God does exist. Come with me to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”
These are remarkable claims. ‘The law and the prophets’ or, sometimes, ‘the law, the prophets and the writings’ were phrases used to reference our Old Testament. What then did Jesus mean when he says that he has not come to abolish, but rather to fulfill the law and the prophets?
Matthew chapter 1 provides an important clue to Jesus’ meaning. Before Jesus was born, Joseph had a problem. Mary was pregnant and he knew he was not the father. When Joseph planned to divorce Mary quietly, an angel spoke to him pointing out that everything about Jesus’ birth was ‘to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet’.
Furthermore, in Matthew 11:12 we read Jesus’ words: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, … For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John”. Jesus is saying that the prophets pointed to him, and the law pointed to him. He was not working in opposition to the Old Testament. Rather he was bringing everything it said to fruition.
Think of it this way. Imagine all the law and the prophets are like light waves. They are travelling in parallel lines towards the coming of Jesus. As we now look back at his coming, his life and his death and resurrection, we could liken his coming to a lens through which the light waves of the law and prophets are now filtered. Furthermore, the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection are the focal point of the law and the prophets.
Jesus said so himself: In Luke 24:27ff, we read what he said to the two with whom he walked on the road to Emmaus: “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures (our Old Testament).
To return to the imagery of Jesus’ coming being a lens and his death and resurrection the focal point of the law and the prophets let’s tease out some application. Having passed through the lens to the focal point, the light waves of the law and the prophets are now filtered. Some have come to an end; others are given a new shape.
So, for example, the laws concerning sacrifice for sin pointed to the need for a sacrifice that would perfectly satisfy God’s righteous requirements. This is uniquely found in Jesus’ death, so that while the principle of the need for a sacrifice for sin continues, the need for further sacrifices is now over.
Or, to take another example, the Ten Commandments that set out the essentials of our relationship with God and with one another, point to Jesus’ own life and his teaching. Jesus’ life is the perfect exemplar of Godliness and goodness – and not least in the way he honored God by serving us in our deepest need. Furthermore, it is through the lens of Jesus’ teaching that we come to understand more fully the high standards of God’s kingdom.
For in his Sermon, Jesus goes on to speak about the inner meaning of the commands concerning murder, adultery, love and prayer for enemies, prayer and possessions, self-righteousness and hypocrisy.
Jesus commands that his people are to practise and to teach these things. In Matthew 5:19 we read: “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Significantly, we will only ever begin to keep them if we have discovered God’s love for us. For only then will we want to turn to him in honesty and humility, asking for his forgiveness.
We will also want to pray that his Spirit will so change our hearts and his Word so teach our minds, that we will want to honor and serve him with thankfulness in our hearts.
Furthermore, in going on to speak of entering the kingdom of heaven, Jesus is saying there will come the day when everything as we know it will have gone. For that reason it is fitting to consider these words of Revelation 21:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with men and women. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away’ (Revelation 21:1-4).
In Jesus fulfilling the law and the prophets, we see the God who serves – the God to whom we should give our heartfelt thanks, and rejoice.