The Jewish community of the First Century didn't quite know what to make of Jesus Christ and his teachings, but most of them clearly understood that he was teaching things about God's Law that were radically different from what they had been hearing from their religious leaders prior to his arrival. In similar fashion, Justice Potter Stewart of the U.S. Supreme Court once famously acknowledged his inability to define pornography, and yet he went on to say that "I know it when I see it." (Jacobellis v. Ohio, http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com) Indeed, the Gospel accounts make clear that the religious elite of that time couldn't seem to nail down exactly how Christ was contradicting their Law; but they were sure that he was somehow doing just that. It sounded like defiance, ridicule and blasphemy to their ears!
That is one of the reasons why Christ said what he did during his "Sermon on the Mount." After delivering "The Beatitudes" and reminding his followers to set a good example for others, he said: "Don't misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God's law will disappear until its purpose is achieved. So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God's laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. But I warn you - unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!" (Matthew 5:17-20, NLT)
Notice that Christ is 1)denying that he came to the earth to abolish the Law or prophets, and 2) affirming that he came here to "accomplish their purpose" (or as the KJV renders it to "fulfill" them). According to Blue Letter Bible, the Hebrew word translated into English as fulfill means "to render full, i.e. to complete." It goes on to clarify the sense that it is used in Scripture by adding: 1)"to fill to the top: so that nothing shall be wanting to full measure, fill to the brim;" 2)"to consummate," and "to carry through to the end, to accomplish, carry out, (some undertaking);" and 3)"to carry into effect, bring to realization, realize." (http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/Lexicon/Lexicon.cfm?strongs=G4137&t=KJV) In other words, Christ is saying that he came to this earth to fully, completely and perfectly obey the Mosaic Law.
As Peter characterized it, Christ had to be "a lamb without blemish and without spot." (I Peter 1:19) He had to be completely innocent before the Law so that he could be sacrificed for the sins of humanity. Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would be "wounded for our transgressions" and "bruised for our iniquities." (Isaiah 53:5) He went on to say that the Messiah would himself be innocent of any wrongdoing and characterized him as God's "righteous servant." (Isaiah 53:9-11) In short, Christ had to obey the Law of Moses to be able to pay the penalty for everyone who had broken it or would brake it at some point in the future. As the psalmist wrote: "The Lord looks down from heaven on the entire human race; he looks to see if anyone is truly wise, if anyone seeks God. But no, all have turned away; and have become corrupt. No one does good, not a single one." (Psalm 14:2-3)
But how can someone who is not an Israelite (a party to the covenant) be held responsible for their lack of obedience to God's Law? When Jesus Christ traveled through Samaria, he met a woman who had had five husbands (John 4:1-18). She went on to tell him that her ancestors had worshipped God at Samaria, but that the Jews insisted (as required by the Law of Moses) that the only appropriate place to worship God was at Jerusalem (verses 19-20). Christ then explained to her that the time was approaching when worship would no longer be tied to a specific place (verse 21). He concluded with: "Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." (verses 22-24) Remember what Christ had said in his "Sermon on the Mount" - That his followers' righteousness would have to be better than that of the Jewish religious elite?
What was Christ talking about? In the next installment, we'll take a closer look at Christ's attitude toward the Mosaic Law. Did he somehow modify or change that Law? Were the Jewish suspicions about his teachings regarding the Mosaic Law well founded after all?