Jesus, the One Who Embodies the Law
If we look at the sermon through the lens of David, a few passages that might seem confusing at first come into more clarity. In Matthew 5:17-18, Jesus’ statement about fulfilling the law has been the subject of much debate. In what way does he fulfill the law? By extending it? By showing its true intention? By bringing it to its end?
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 say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. –– Matthew 5:17–18
Clarity emerges here if we see Jesus not just as the prophet but as the King who fulfills the law by “living it” as the ideal king. As the king, he embodies the law, he meets its demands and thereby fulfills it. While Leon Morris is right that “we must bear in mind that ‘fulfil’ does not mean the same as ‘keep’; Jesus is speaking of more than obedience to regulations,” it is also true that it does not mean “less.” To understand what “fulfill the law” means from a monarchial perspective, one must put themselves into the first century context and the common notion about kings.
Both Hellenistic and Old Testament kingship discourse assert virtuous kings submit to the law and thereby internalize them. In the Neo-Pythagorean essays “On Kingship,” the Archytas presents the good king as the animate law.
Law are of two kinds, the animate law, which is the king, and the inanimate, the written law. So law is primary; for with reference to it the king is lawful, the rulership is fitting, the ruled are free, the whole community happy . . . . So it is proper for the better to rule, for the worse to be ruled . . . . The best ruler would be the one who is closest to the law.
According to this text, the wise king is the one who embodies the law, who rules in accordance with the law. He is the animate law to be imitated by his subjects. In a similar way, Plutarch says the king shapes his character by the laws so that his subjects fit his pattern. The just king obeys the law and becomes a wise copy of these things the law commands. While the Old Testament does not use the language of “living law” to describe Israel’s ideal king, it does speak of the task of Israel’s ruler; he is to write out, read, and obey the Torah.
And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.” –– Deuteronomy 17:18–20
Jesus is thus not only the new Moses going up on the mountain to give the law; he is the new King fulfilling the demands of the law by instructing the people how to imitate him in living in harmony to the law.