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Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil

May 11, 2014

Christ_Agia_SophiaFor the Church Fathers, the relationship between the Gospel of Christ and the Law of Moses could be likened to the distinction between the work of a trainer or a pedagogue on the one hand and the work of someone who initiates someone into a mystery or a mystagogue on the other. The first directs the body to do this or that. The second illumines the mind to see clearly what was formerly hidden. Thus, Saint Basil the Great would say that “as the law forbids evil deeds, the Gospel does so with well hidden passions” (Initium Morialum, PG 31.761). If we were to put it in contemporary language, we could say the law concentrates on modifying behavior for a God-pleasing way of life, whereas the Gospel focuses on cognition as behavior’s source. In this psychological context of behavior and cognition or patristic perspective of action and vision, Christ’s own words in the Sermon on the Mount become crystal clear. The Lord proclaims that He does not come to abolish the Law of God given to Moses on Mount Sinai but to fulfill the Law and the prophets by deepening them and establishing a new spiritual covenant that is inward, intimate, illumined, and wise. It’s not that the law or behavior is rejected or set aside. It’s not an either-or situation, but a both-and reality that has a certain order or sequence that aligns the soul with the image of God. Before Christ and after Christ, people act and behave and that action and behavior is of great importance for a good life, for a moral life, and for a spiritual life. The law is not abolished, but it is fulfilled, meaning that action is illumined not blind, foreseen, not haphazard, and blossoms as the fruit of love, not as the consequence of restraint.

In his commentary on this passage from Saint Matthew’s Gospel, Saint John Chrysostom broadens our understanding beyond the behavioral-cognitive framework of contemporary culture. He writes, “And how, one may ask, did He not destroy it? In what way did He rather fulfill either the law or the prophets? He fulfilled the prophets inasmuch as He confirmed by His actions all that had been said concerning Him. Thus, the evangelist also used to say in each case, “That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet.” Both when He was born, (Matthew 1:22-23) and when the children sung that wondrous hymn to Him, and when He sat on the ass, (Matthew 21:5-16) and in very many more instances He worked this same fulfillment: all which things must have been unfulfilled, if He had not come” (Homily 16 on Matthew). In other words, Christ fulfills the law in His very person, in the details of His life, in His actions, and in the reactions of others to Him. In Christ, the law is not a text that can be read and implemented, but a living Person Whose touch heals, Whose look is compassionate, and Whose example elevates the children of earth to the heights of heaven. This establishes another principle. The details of our lives, the choices that guide our actions, and the reactions of others to us are significant and become meaningful to the extent that we can connect them to the law, to the prophets, and above all to the Person of Christ. This emphasis on history that opens up into eternity is a fulfillment beyond simply making the behavioral cognitive-behavioral.

The golden-tongued Archbishop of Constantinople continues, “But He fulfilled the law not only in one way only, but also in a second way and even a third. He fulfilled it by transgressing none of the precepts of the law, for listen to what He says to John, “For thus it becomes us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15), to the Jews “which of you convinces me of sin” (John 8:46), and to His disciples, “The prince of this world comes, and finds nothing in me,” (John 14:30), and even to the prophet beforehand who said “He did no sin” (Isaiah 53:9). This then was one sense in which He fulfilled it. Another way He fulfills it is through us, for this is the marvel, that He not only Himself fulfilled it, but He granted that we might fulfill it as well. Paul also declaring this when he said, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believes” (Romans 10:4)… And he also said also, “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid! Yea, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31), for since the law was laboring at this, to make man righteous, but had not power, He came and brought in the way of righteousness by faith, and so established that which the law desired: and what the law could not by letters, this He accomplished by faith. On this account He says, “I am not come to destroy the law” (Homily 16 on Matthew).

These final comments by Saint John Chrysostom are truly wonderful. Not only has Christ not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it. We have entered into this world not to destroy the law by sinful actions, but to fulfill it by faith in Christ made manifest by works. The law was a helper and remains a great helper. The prophets encourage us and continue to encourage us. But Christ the fulfillment of both not only transforms our behavior, not only elevates our thoughts, but initiates us into a new way of being in this world and in the next. He teaches us to fulfill the law by watching over not only our actions, but also our thoughts. He teaches us to fulfill the law by turning our minds not simply to what we are doing, but to look to our neighbor with compassion and to our God with love. Fulfillment, not destruction, should characterize our lives and this is possible through our Lord who fulfilled the law through His incarnation, through His life, through His teaching, through His death, through His resurrection, and through His ascension. And that fulfillment will be ours as Christ’s life becomes incarnate in our own, as our cross becomes united to the Cross of our Savior, and as His glorious resurrection becomes our resurrection unto life eternal.

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