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Sunday Study: Did Christ Abolish the Old Testament Law? Part I

May 31st, 2009 by Matt

At the start of the Sermon on the Mount, Christ states,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.[1]

Some commentators suggest that this passage merely teaches that Christ’s life and ministry is the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. This position is based on the first four chapters of Matthew which strongly emphasis this theme. For example, the first chapter of Matthew states that Christ’s birth “took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet:”[2] the text quotes from the LXX version of Isaiah to make the point, “‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means, ‘God with us.’”[3] Moreover, the idea that Christ is the fulfilment of Israel’s history, the person who is the seventh king in Israel’s history, is stressed in the genealogies[4] (seven being a number frequently used in the Hebrew bible for completion or perfection).

The problem with this interpretation, however, is that the immediate context suggests otherwise. Matthew’s theological agenda in the first four chapters of this biography is to portray Christ as a second Moses. Matthew deliberately stresses parallels between Christ’s life to drive this point home. Jesus escaped a plot by a king to kill the first born sons in his area. Jesus went into exile in Egypt; he wandered in the wilderness for 40 days and then he delivered a sermon on ethical injunctions on a mountain to 12 Apostles (Israel had 12 tribes). It is hard to resist the conclusion that Matthew is portraying Christ as the new Moses delivering the law to a reconstituted Israel.

This is further confirmed by the immediately preceding passages. Here Christ alludes to two Old Testament metaphors, that of a city on the hill and a light to the world. In the prophetic literature Israel is portrayed as a city on the hill and a light to the gentiles. The image is further elucidated in terms of the law; that is, the commandments of God being taught to the nations. Moreover, the continual emphasis in this passage is on obedience to and the teaching of God’s commandments. Fulfilling the law and prophets is seen not in terms of prophecy but in terms of faithful obedience and teaching of these commandments. Hence, it seems fair to conclude that Christ is here referring, not to Old Testament prophecy but to the commandments, the law, the moral teaching of the Old Testament.

Christ says three things about the law in this passage. First, he states he has not come to abolish it; the phrase “but to fulfil it” uses the Greek word alla, which is the ‘but’ of strong antithesis. Hence, ‘fulfilling’ is understood as the opposite of abolishing. What abolishing would constitute is clearly spelt out in the passage; abolishing would involve either breaking the commandments or teaching others to do so. Christ places most of the emphasis in the passage on this; one is not to break the “least” of these commandments or teach others to do the same.

Second, Christ elaborates what he has in mind by fulfilling; it involves “practising and teaching these commands.” Christ goes on to say that obedience and teaching of the law are something that applies, “in the kingdom of heaven.” Hence, Christians, New Testament believers, are supposed to both follow and teach the Old Testament commandments of God.

Third, Christ affirms that the Old Testament commandments are not abrogated; using a Semitic hyperbole, Christ states the smallest details remain binding until “everything is accomplished.” Verse 18 tells us things are accomplished when “heaven and earth pass away.” Christ then, in this passage, is commanding his apostles to fulfil Israel’s mandate to be salt and light to the gentiles by obeying and teaching the law better than the Pharisees do.

This raises an immediate problem because it is fairly standard amongst Christians to hold and believe that the New Testament sets aside Old Testament law. In several places in the New Testament, for example in the book of Galatians, it is taught that Christians do not need to be circumcised or to follow Kosher food laws. In other places it appears to teach that the Mosaic law is not binding on New Testament believers; most contemporary evangelicals follow Paul here and do not conform to the 613 laws of Moses.

However, doesn’t this contradict Christ’s teaching? Moreover, don’t these same Christians faithfully follow and defend some of the precepts laid down in the torah, such as commandments against killing or homosexual conduct or bestiality or idolatry? Richard Mohr states,

What does seem clear is that those who regularly cite the Bible to condemn an activity like homosexuality do so by reading it selectively. Do ministers who cite what they take to be condemnations of homosexuality in Leviticus maintain in their lives all the hygienic and dietary laws of Leviticus?[5]

I think Mohr is mistaken and his comments betray a misunderstanding of the teaching of the Old and New Testaments. To elucidate this, however, one needs to examine both the Old and New Testaments more carefully.

The pivotal New Testament passage comes from Acts 10-11:18. In this passage, Luke refers to a gentile, Cornelius, who is “devout and God-fearing” and “gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” This then affirms the existence of righteous gentiles; gentiles who worship God and have evident piety. Cornelius is sent to Peter who, prior to his arrival, has a revelation from God. Peter interprets the revelation to affirm how true it is that, “God does not show favouritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right;” and, “so then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.” God fearing gentiles, then, can be acceptable to God despite not following the Mosaic Law.

This incident is cited again in Acts 15 where the Apostles respond to the claim that, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, [gentiles] cannot be saved.” Following Peters position, they decide that Gentiles do not have to follow the Mosaic Law, instead it is affirmed

It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.

Here the Apostles state that gentiles can be saved and do not have to follow the Mosaic law; however, they are required to abstain from certain practices such as sexual immorality, from idolatry, blood laws and meat of strangled animals.

What is interesting is the rationale for this; it is claimed that Gentiles can be required to abstain from these practises because, “Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” In other words, because the gentiles have heard Moses preached they know they have a duty to abstain from these practices. If a gentile is familiar with Moses then he or she will know that there are some commandments that are binding on him or her, even if he or she does not himself or herself have to follow the law in its entirety. I think this point is the key to understanding much of the Apostles stance on the law of Moses and when it is grasped, it enables us to both see that Paul’s statements are not inconsistent with Jesus’ and that Mohr’s claim of selectivity is unfounded.

In my next Sunday post I will attempt to articulate and expound some of these concepts in more detail.

[1] Matthew 5:17-20.
[2] Matt 1:22.
[3] Matt 1:23.
[4] Matt 2:17,18.
[5] Richard Mohr “Gay Basics: Some Questions, Facts, and Values” in Morality in Practice ed James Sterba (Wadsworth).

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8 responses so far ↓

  • I'll keep an eye out for the rest of this series. This is a very common issue that people bring up to criticise Christians with, and a complicated one to answer. I'll be keen to read your detailed thoughts. Good on you tackling it.

    Recent blog post: Thesis completed!

  • Interesting article Matt. This is an important topic.

    The apostles were talking about being justified by keeping the Law of Moses. The law seems to be useless for that.
    I am not sure that Jesus was talking about justification when he said that the law has not been abrogated.

    What is the purpose of the law?

    Recent blog post: Tens and Hundreds (12) – Modern Society

  • Hi Ron

    I see your distinction between the law being used for justification and Christs comments. Not sure however if it resolves the issue, because the question still remains as to wether we are obligated to follow the law, Christ did appear to say we are required to do this and Paul seems to say that Gentile Christians are not required to follow the Kosher laws.
    I think there is a way of resolving this, but simply noting the law does not justify doesn't seem to be an answer.

    Recent blog post: How to Find the Reported Judicial Decision on the David Bain Re-Trial

  • I see your point about justification, I am not sure however it really resolves the issue. There is still the question of what we are required to do, are we required to obey the law. Jesus seems clearly to say we are, Paul seems to say that we are not, I think this can be resolved once some important distinctions are drawn but I don't know that the justification issue addresses it.

  • Matt
    I agree that justification is just one issue, that does not resolve everything. The problem is that the question "are we required to obey the law" is to vague. I look forward to your "distincions".

    Recent blog post: Tens and Hundreds (14) – by Church

  • Thanks Matt. Made me think.

    Am I required to keep the law?

    Well I have just finished reading
    'A year of living biblically' by AJ Jacobs. He tries and keeps every law in the bible for a year. Very funny, and insightful book about one mans spiritual journey for a year.

    After reading the book, it is a comedy book, I couldn't get out of my head how – when he kept the laws – his faith and spiritual life actually deepened.

    Recent blog post: Procrastination and School Reports

  • Tbis is a quick comment, but you are missing a vital part to the whole message of obedience to the law that is; what law are you talking about??? Is it the law of moses? which are the ceremonial laws, sacrifises, feasts and cermonial days which is writen by the hand of Moses. Or is it the Law if God, ie the Ten Commandments, writen on stone by the finger of God.

    Two very different laws and two very diffent reasons for them. Law of Moses was a Shadow of things to come, each ceremony represents Christ's ministry. And the Ten Commandments representing the Character of God.

    The reason for the need to seperate the two laws is that if you don't the bible contradicts itself for example

    Col 2:14 Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross;

    Rev 22:14 Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.

    so one text says something is nailed to the cross the other says, blessed is they that DO his commandments. Confused? here's a hint, God doens't want you to kill/hate, steal, lie, take another persons wife or to worship another God.

    Can we keep the commandments ourselves?

    Tit 2:11 For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men,
    Tit 2:12 Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world;

    the answer is no, only by the grace of God we can.

    The answers are all in the bible don't need to go anywhere eles, solo scriptura!

  • […] and the food laws became a source of some contention. As I argued in a previous post series Sunday Study: Did Christ Abolish the Old Testament Law? Gentiles were not required to obey the entire law of Moses but were required to follow those laws, […]