“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)
So the other day I was browsing through some YouTube comments when I came across an atheist using this verse to browbeat some Christian believers. The Christians were arguing that as believers in Jesus Christ they were not responsible for following the Old Testament law, but this atheist was arguing that Jesus said they were responsible for every jot and tittle. Who was correct?
In order to interpret the Bible correctly, one must understand the context in which a speaker is speaking. In this passage, Jesus is speaking to a crowd while sitting on the mountainside. The crowd has seen many signs and now they seek to understand what Jesus is teaching. How are we supposed to behave? How do we please God? How do we get to heaven? So in this passage Jesus is making a very careful distinction. He is telling them that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it? What is the difference?
If Jesus had abolished the law, that would have meant that everyone was freed from the requirements of the law from that time forward. You don’t have to believe in Jesus, you don’t have to do anything. The law is abolished and no longer in force. But Jesus did not come to abolish the law, he came to fulfill the law on our behalf. Everyone who believes in him is given the white robes of righteousness denoting perfect obedience to the law as a free gift.
What Jesus is telling this crowd, therefore, is that they have a choice. They can reject him and fulfill the law on their own in which case they need to be more righteous than the Pharisees or they can believe in him and he will fulfill the law on their behalf. Now, of course, Christian believers are not to “continue in sin that grace might increase” (Romans 6:1 ) but we are to behave as those who are grateful for God’s gift. We are not responsible for every jot and tittle of the law, but we should love God enough to seek to behave in a way that is in accordance with his character.