“Jesus Came to Fulfill the Law”: The Deadly Misunderstanding of the Pharisees and Penal Substitution

Legal theories of the atonement, such as satisfaction theories or penal substitution, not only preserve violent notions of God and allow for human violence (as in just war, capital punishment, self-defense, etc. etc.) but keep alive Zionist notions of Israel and nationalism (e.g., the United States is a Christian nation etc.) through preserving the primacy of the law given to Israel. Not only the violence of God, the violence of humanity, and violent nationalism, are preserved but the cancer afflicting the depths of human interiority are unaddressed in legal theories of the atonement. This conception leaves human desire, rivalry, jealousy, anger and need for violence, undisturbed. Worse, legal theories, such as penal substitution, serve to aggravate self-punishing oppression, as it is presumed human conscience is the voice of God. If God would torture and kill his Son, no wonder that this violent force is unleashed in self-apprehension.

Whether or not the interior and exterior can be separated, what is clear is that legal theories, in preserving the primacy of the law, leave the human disease (exterior and interior) untouched. The war rages within and without and the predominant understanding of the cross adds fuel to the fire – providing a religious confirmation for the worst forms of evil. This dark prognosis is evident at a time when some of the worst actors on the national and world stage are evangelical Christians (e.g., with the promotion of ethnic cleansing in Gaza, the denial of the environmental crisis, the promotion of right-wing racism around the world, and the looming crisis for democracy in the United States).

The New Testament converges on the human predicament, the war within and the war without, in what it does with the law – but it is not that Jesus satisfies the law, affirms and maintains the law, or confirms the eternal purposes of the law. Jesus introduces something new. Which brings us to the exegetical contention over what it means, in Matthew 5:17, that Jesus came to fulfill the law.

Doesn’t this mean, as many contend, that Jesus is the correct interpreter, putting the final exclamation point on the commandments, forever confirming the validity of the law – and isn’t this what it means that he fulfilled it and did not abolish it? Afterall, doesn’t Jesus go on to affirm that every “jot and tittle” – the “smallest letter and stroke” – must be preserved? It all has to be “accomplished” and this accomplishment will mark those who enter in to the kingdom Jesus is proclaiming. It is clear in Matthew 5, the law is not fulfilled and its purpose is not accomplished apart from the person and teaching of Christ, who does not simply confirm the law, but brings forth something new. This new order and new kingdom Jesus describes (throughout chapter 5), was promised and anticipated by the law, but it was not contained in the law. The law of love, or Jesus statement of a new ethical order, is not a restatement of the Mosaic law, but an abrogation, deepening, redirection, and contradiction of the law, all of which is aimed at Jesus and the new kingdom he is ushering in.

Perhaps the most telling point, indicating Jesus’ intent, is the final verse of this thought: “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:21). Apparently, those most attached to law-keeping have not achieved the righteousness for which the law was intended and toward which it pointed. This indicates that “fulfill” cannot simply mean that Jesus fulfills the law as in accomplishing what it foretold (as what is missing is righteousness). Certainly, he fulfilled certain predictions and filled out certain typologies, but this verse speaks of “fulfilling all righteousness.” He is ushering in a righteousness which the law could not accomplish and which the harshest advocates of the law completely missed. How did they fail and what did the miss? What is the substance of the righteousness which they could not grasp? Is it that Jews could not keep the law, and Jesus succeeds (as in legal theories of atonement), or is it that they have missed the significance of Jesus?

It is not simply that the scribes and Pharisees fail to obey the law as their problem is more serious: “For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in” (Matt. 23:13). In this passage, Jesus lays at their feet, in their attitude toward him, the history of murder: “So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets” (Matt. 23:31). They would murder the Messiah, just as their fathers did the prophets. Their problem is more serious than hypocritical showmanship or a legalistic failure. In their clinging to the retributive system of the law (which seems to promote hypocrisy), they reject and kill the Messiah. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling” (Matt. 23:37). They have stumbled over Christ, rejecting him and in so doing imagining that they were thus upholding the law and the temple.

If we imagine their problem was primarily the law, the danger is we commit the same error. In penal substitution, it is taught they could not perform the law adequately and Jesus performs it and thus fulfills it. But what this misses, is that the law always pointed beyond itself, to Jesus. Just as Jesus is the point of the temple, the sacrifices, and the priesthood, so too he is the point of torah. The scribes and Pharisees were pretty good at understanding and doing law, but what they missed was Jesus. They did not stumble over the law; they stumbled over Jesus. They clung to the sign and missed what it signified, but so too modern Christians who imagine that penal substitution – Jesus’ performance of the law and his bearing its penalty – is his fulfillment of the law.

Israel, the law, the temple, all looked forward to what they did not contain – a living temple, a peaceable kingdom, a new creation, a new birth, and a new form of humanity. As Jesus indicates, the purpose for which he came was to fulfill the law; that is to usher in righteousness and the kingdom of righteousness. In this kingdom it is not simply murder, but murderous anger that is outlawed; it is not simply adultery, but adulterous thoughts that are to be brought under control; it is not simply false promises but the very need for swearing, selfishness, or revenge that are precluded. In the bluntest manner, Jesus abrogates the law, setting forth its inherent inadequacy as an end in itself.

Throughout the passage (Matt. 5), Jesus is making direct reference to torah. “But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Ex. 21:23–25). His summary of the lex talionas (“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”) is not a gloss, interpretation, or oral tradition. Jesus is referencing the heart of the law. “You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matt. 5:38–39). The law is specific and Jesus quite specifically overturns it.

The law allows for and calls for vengeance, but in the kingdom of God there is no retribution. Jesus references the decalogue and the Mosaic law some six times only to overturn it each time. This is brought out in Jesus’ sharpest example, the passage from hatred to love: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:43-33). As David VanDrunen argues, “Many claim that ‘hate your enemy’ is a clear example of an oral tradition or contemporary teaching that illegitimately added something to the Mosaic law. On the contrary, ‘hate your enemy’ summarizes a line of Old Testament teaching. In fact, ‘hate your enemy’ was such an important part of the Mosaic legal order that no one could be a faithful Israelite without doing it.”[1]

While fellow Israelites were to receive special consideration, certain alien persons were to be hated, obliterated and shown “no favor” (no compassion, mercy or love, Deut. 7:1-2). “Do I not hate those who hate You, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with the utmost hatred; They have become my enemies” (Ps. 13921-22). Jesus is not saying they have heard wrong (when he says, “you have heard it said”), he is saying you have heard it read from the law, but I am saying something different (Matthew 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44). “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (5:45). Keeping the law, by definition, is to fall short of the kingdom of God ushered in by Jesus.

Jesus does not question the interpretation of the law given by the scribes and Pharisees. It is true, as the Pharisees point out, one should not normally associate with sinners (Psalm 1:1), one should normally obey the rules regarding fasting, and one should not work on the Sabbath – this is all according to the law. What the Pharisees failed to recognize is Jesus as the purpose, fulfillment and accomplishment of the law. Jesus’ purpose was to heal the sick and to save sinners: “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt. 9:12). He is the bridegroom and “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?” (9:15). The Pharisees lack mercy and demand strict adherence to the law, and in so doing they break the law and miss its purpose: “Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent? But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT A SACRIFICE,’ you would not have condemned the innocent” (Matt. 12:5–7). Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath (12:8), he is greater than the temple (12:6), and he is greater than Moses and the law (Heb. 3:3-4), but all of these are indicators of who he is.

Jesus’ fulfillment or accomplishing of the law is no simple confirmation, nor is it simply a tighter or inward confirmation rather, Jesus sets up a direct antithesis between his teaching, his kingdom, and his law of love, and the Mosaic law. It is not that the Mosaic law is abolished, but its significance is now apprehended through Christ. Just as the temple and its sacrifices take on their fulfilled meaning in Jesus as true temple and true atonement, so too all of the Mosaic law is significant in its bearing witness to Christ. The Mosaic law remains significant, as it points to this new ethic and new kingdom, with its more fulsome commandments and holistic fulfillment in Christ.

This is not an ethic for worldly kingdoms (such as Israel), grounded as they are in retribution, but the “heavenly kingdom.” Jesus came announcing this kingdom at the beginning of his public ministry, and the beatitudes (meekness, peace, love, going the second mile, etc.) mark the righteous nature of this kingdom’s citizens. It is not that these kingdom members accomplish this apart from Christ, but this is what it means that he would save his people from their sins. This kingdom ethic flows from its founder, creating a new people. Jesus is the fulfillment of all righteousness and being incorporated into his kingdom means embracing his eschatological and cosmic fulness. The law is not accomplished or fulfilled in perfect performance of its strictures, but in the appearance of its purpose.

If the scribes and Pharisees can be said to have missed Jesus by clinging to the law, so too legal theories of the atonement make the same mistake. They both miss how it is that Jesus “will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). They miss the very meaning of his name (the name “Jesus” or “Joshua” derives from Hebrew roots meaning “the Lord is salvation”) and they miss the fact that Jesus is the salvific point of the law, and the law has no point (no salvation) without him.


[1] David VanDrunen Jesus Came “Not to Abolish the Law but to Fulfill It”: The Sermon on the Mount and Its Implications for Contemporary Law, 47 Pepp. L. Rev. 523 (2020) Available at: https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/plr/vol47/iss2/17

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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