In Matt 5:17 we read that Jesus did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. How does this fit with the many events in which he taught and acted contrary to the Law of Moses? What does this mean for our understanding of the Law and Scripture?
The Law of Moses is clear: whoever commits adultery must be stoned (Lev 20:10; Dt 17:7; Dt 22:22; Ex 20:14; Dt 5:18). No other interpretation is possible here; the Scriptures are clear. God has revealed it this way, this is His expressed will. Whoever wants to be obedient to God must kill adulterers. This was the understanding of the Jews at the time of Jesus.
How many things in the Bible are crystal clear to us? It is written that way, so it must be God’s will.
Jesus fulfilled the law of Moses. But he did not fulfill it by stoning the adulteress. On the contrary! He did not do what was clearly commanded by God, but the opposite: He let the adulteress go without punishment (!!!). He was disobedient to the law, at least as the Pharisees and scribes interpreted it, and yet he fulfilled the law.
In the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7), Jesus radically reinterpreted the Law. So radically that he was aware that he would be accused of not taking the law seriously. Before his reinterpretation of the law, we find the following in Mt 5:17:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them.” (NET)
Jesus radically reinterpreted the law and thereby fulfilled it. This is beautifully illustrated in the story of the adulteress. The Jews were certain that sin deserved punishment. The punishment for adultery was death, which was God’s revealed will in the Old Testament. But Jesus fulfilled the law by letting the adulteress go unpunished and protecting her from her accusers. Jesus thereby revealed a God in whom grace triumphs over law and justice as the Pharisees understood it. Nevertheless, Jesus does not trivialize sin. He knows that sin is life-destroying and always destructive. That is why he says to the woman, “Sin no more from now on.” (John 8:11). Jesus radically reinterpreted the law, the holy scriptures. When he is asked what is the most important thing in the law, his answer is, “Love God and your neighbor.” (Mt 22:37-40). In Jesus’ eyes, the law has only one goal: it leads to love. Where it does not do that it is misunderstood or twisted.
Although the story of the adulteress is most likely historical, it was probably inserted into John’s Gospel several hundred years later. Why? We don’t know for sure. But could it be that Jesus’ radical love for sinners was too extreme? After all, God is just and needs to punish sin, right? Was the message of the story too contrary to the image of God at that time?
Jesus fulfilled the law by living a life of mercy and love. He unconditionally accepted the outsiders, the least and the despised, showed them appreciation, and restored their dignity. He has presented God to us as a loving Father, not as a punishing and distant tyrant.
He does not reveal God to us as a God who is separated from people because of their sins. He revealed God to us as a God who welcomes sinners with open arms, forgives and accepts them just like that, without sacrifice or intervention on the sinner’s part (Luke 5:20-23, 30-32; 7:36-50; 18:9-14), without undermining the seriousness of sin.
What does this mean for how we deal with Bible verses that seem to be crystal clear but contradict how Jesus revealed God to us? On the basis of what do we decide how to interpret Bible passages and how relevant they are? Are we the Pharisees who clearly know how to interpret God’s Word and insist that “God’s will” be done, no matter how brutal and inhumane? Or do we follow Jesus’ example and fulfill the law by loving, showing mercy, being compassionate, radically forgiving, and siding with the oppressed and outsiders?