One of the great things that the law (Ten Commandments) has done for us is that it reveals the desires and designs of God. That is to say, the commandments demonstrate God’s definition of what our relationship with him should be, as well as how we should relate to one another. The law encapsulates God’s will for how we should live, defining the difference between righteousness and sin.
Even before the law was given, it was obvious that humanity was by nature, sinful. It is pretty hard to understand the story of Noah and the Ark without understanding the sinfulness of humanity. Even when God gave the law on Sinai, it was apparent that human beings could not fulfill God’s commandments, or there would have been no reason for a sacrificial system of offerings at the temple. It almost makes you wonder why God even bothered to try.
In our text today Matthew records Jesus saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” In the teachings that follow it may seem that he is changing God’s law; he strips away the centuries of commentary and returns to the original meanings of the commandments. The commandment: “Thou shalt not kill,” is interpreted to include hating others. The prohibition on adultery is interpreted to include lust. Jesus sets the record straight by demonstrating that God is concerned about the real relationships and actions of the heart, not just about people avoiding killing or having illicit sex with one another.
The heart of the law is love and mercy lived out in relationships between people, and between them and their God. At the heart of these commandments is a covenant between God and his people. He would be their God, and they would be his people. When the Israelites drifted away from the covenant that God had established with them, he sent prophets to call them back to a right relationship within the covenant. At times it seemed as if a covenantal relationship between God, who is holy, and sinful human beings might not be possible.
Such a relationship calls for humanity to be righteous, and strive though we may, righteousness cannot be achieved. Human attempts at righteousness have always fallen short of the mark. As Isaiah wrote, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” (Isaiah 64:6)
Understanding this, God came in the person of Jesus Christ “to fulfill the law and the prophets.” Jesus came to get at the heart of the matter, by establishing a new covenant. It would take a new covenant to fulfill God’s intentions for a relationship with humanity. We could not become righteous by our failed observance of the law. Jesus however, being totally righteous in his life, offered himself as the sacrifice to atone for our sins. St. Paul wrote, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
As followers of Jesus, his righteousness covers us like a cloak. He has fulfilled God’s intent with the law and the prophets. He has established a new covenant in his blood, which enables us to live in a right relationship with God our Father. It is a relationship made possible not by any works or by our observance of the law, but by God clothing us in the righteousness of Christ Jesus.