Note: This article was written as a reply to a question posted on my first article dealing with this subject.
When the New Testament says that Christ fulfilled the law, it means a number of things:
- That which has been prophesied about Him has been fulfilled. When Jesus appeared to His disciples after the resurrection in Luke 24:44-47, He showed them that what was said about His death, resurrection and redemption of sinners in the Scriptures (“the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms”) had been fulfilled. The Law in this case could refer to the whole of the Old Testament, as seen in John 15:25 where Jesus quotes Psalm 69:4: “But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.’”
- Christ fulfilled the law of God by giving the ultimate expression to it. The law may be summarised in one word: love. Jesus summarised it as such in Matthew 22:36-40: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Christ fulfilled God’s command to love (He filled it to the full) and thereby created the law of Christ: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). Although the command to love was not new, the command to love like Christ was new: Christ showed us what the law of love should really look like when He gave His life up in our interest.
- Christ fulfilled the law on our behalf when He assumed the responsibility to do what we could not and thereby satisfied the Father’s requirements. The death penalty, which we deserved because of our sins, was enacted on Christ. Romans 8:3-4 puts it this way: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
- Lastly, Christ fulfilled the law by removing our responsibility towards ceremonial laws (those pertaining to gifts, sacrifices, food and drink and various washings and regulations for the body), which had symbolic value as physical examples of what Christ would eventually do for us spiritually (Hebrews 9:9-10).
Now, having established that (1) we do not need to keep the ceremonial law and (2) that Christ has taken the punishment for our transgression of God’s moral law while His obedience was given to us, can this information be interpreted as saying that we are not under the law? The answer to this question could be either yes or no, depending on what we mean by “not under the law.” If we mean that we cannot and should not even attempt to gain God’s favor—and thereby eternal life—by obeying the law, we have to say the answer is a resounding no—we are not under the law” We were saved by grace through faith and not by works, so that no man may boast.
But there is something else we could mean by the phrase “under the law”; namely, do we need to obey God’s good law as an expression of thanks for God’s grace? In this case the answer is yes. We need to obey “the law of Christ” as we find the phrase in Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” To love God and our neighbour is the law, even today:
- “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8).
- “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14).
When Paul speaks about “the law” in the two passages above, he is referring to the Ten Commandments. Barring the Sabbath command, most Christians agree that each of the Ten Commandments are laws of love to God and neighbour, which are still binding today; if we start looking at the individual commandments, it is clear that they all have to do with love and respect. Now let us consider this tricky one: the Sabbath command. In our consideration, we’ll be searching for clarity on two issues: whether the Sabbath command is a ceremonial law or a moral law, and whether or not it can be found in the New Testament.
Firstly, we must recognise that the Sabbath command precedes the ceremonial law by a few thousand years (by “ceremonial law,” we are referring to the laws given to Moses on Mount Sinai). You see, Sinai is not the first place where one comes across Sabbath laws in the Bible. No, the Sabbath command forms part of a number of other commands that mankind received at creation. All of the other creation ordinances are still binding because they relate to how God has designed things to work. The Sabbath command, too, is a “designer specification.” In it, God packaged two commands: work (for six days) and rest (for one day). This is how man is designed to function in order to last; and to use an all too familiar saying, if you break you pay. Clearly, after the fall, man would need rest even more desperately than before, since death had started operating in his body. The Sabbath would later gain much more ceremonial significance, and even later still, it would again lose much of that ceremoniousness (we have no need to put out showbread on a Saturday as the high priest regularly did), but the moral elements remained: We still need to “remember” the day because, by doing so, we remember the Creator who created everything in six days and then rested on the seventh. Additionally, the day should remind us that our Creator is also our Provider, who taught us to ask Him for our daily bread. Additionally, according to the commandment, the Designer’s kindness in giving us rest should also prompt us to extend that same kindness to others: family, workers, animals and strangers (in the context of Old Testament, these strangers included those who did not share the faith, a thought-provoking fact when considered in the light of the Sabbath, shopping and sport).
Now, if the Sabbath day was and is so important for rest and worship, why has it been changed from Saturday, the seventh day of the week, to Sunday, the first day? Note, firstly, that the cycle of six plus one is maintained; the pattern for work and rest is still in place. However, the reason for the switch to the first day is vital: the first day is the day on which Christ rose from the dead. Since Christ arose, our own hope for rising from the dead is confirmed, and our own resurrection will lead us to our final rest. There is therefore so much more to worship about on Sunday than on Saturday. Rest and rejoice!
In Hebrews 4, the writer uses the principle of a weekly rest to point us to the greater rest, but if the principle were useless or invalid his argument would lose its strength. However, this is not the only Sabbath law endorsement to be found in the New Testament. In Mark 2, Jesus confirms God’s design for the Sabbath and His own lordship of the day when He says to the Pharisees (who had perverted the day with ridiculous laws of their own contrivance), “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” God was not trying to ruin our party by giving man a day of rest; rather, He was giving the party! The next statement Jesus makes, in confirmation of His own deity, is (and note the present tense): “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28). Effectively, what He is saying is, “It is I who has given you this great kindness.”