Does Jesus bind his followers to keep the law?
The question of the applicability of the Mosaic law in all its forms to the Christian life is a perennial one. Discussions never get very far before someone will quote Matthew 5:17-18 as a proof for the continuing authority of the law for us. But they do so without considering where this would lead. The passage reads:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
This is usually put forth with a certain finality. “See? That settles it! Jesus said the law remains.”
But think through the assumptions behind such a claim, as well as the implications of it. One of these assumptions is that Christians do not keep the so-called civil or ceremonial law. The sacrificial system that Israel was under is gone, as are the various laws governing their lives. We can eat shellfish or eel if we want to, even though Leviticus 11:10-11 says this:
“But anything in the seas or the rivers that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is detestable to you. You shall regard them as detestable; you shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall detest their carcasses.”
Don’t these laws represent iotas and dots, the smallest parts of the law? Don’t they form part of the “all” Jesus spoke of? If you set them aside, aren’t you doing exactly what Jesus said NOT to do? So those who insist what Jesus says here in Matthew 5 is that we must continue to keep the law scrupulously must admit that they aren’t doing it, that they have in fact done the very thing Jesus said they must not.
Secondly, consider the verbs here: abolish and fulfill. Abolish means to destroy, to remove, and to fulfill is to complete, to bring to an end. This informs what Jesus himself did with the law. He fulfilled it in all that he did, not transgressing it. People sometimes speak of this as the precept side of the law—what it commands. But more importantly, he fulfilled the penalty side of the law—his death absorbed and emptied the curse of the law. In speaking of the death of Jesus, Paul quoted Deuteronomy 21:23 to the Galatians. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” Paul also notes in Ephesians 2:14-15, “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.” Jesus, through his death, abolished the requirement of law for those who trust in him.
This is where I ask a question of those citing Matthew 5:17-18 as a proof that Christians must still keep the Ten Commandments. What part of the law did Jesus not fulfill? What part did he leave undone that we are yet bound to do? The implication that there remains anything of the law for us to complete or do is to suggest that Jesus left something undone in his death on the cross. I am sure those quoting these verses don’t mean that, but only because they haven’t thought through the implications of what they are saying.
If we were to go on to Matthew 5:19, it introduces a great difficulty for those insisting on an obligation to the law for Christians.
“Therefore whoever relaxes 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 does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
In the category of those who relax the least of these commandments, we have to put the apostle Peter. When the question arose of whether Gentiles must obey the law of Moses, he asked in the midst of the Jerusalem assembly, “Why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” Acts 15:10. The Jerusalem assembly goes on to rule that Gentiles who come to faith in Christ do not need to keep the law of Moses.
Paul, too, falls into this category, for wrote to the Timothy of those whose consciences are seared and who “require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving.” 1 Tim. 4:2 In other words, you can eat shellfish, despite what Leviticus 11 says!
How, then, can we make sense of this? Are Peter and Paul disobedient disciples of Jesus in what they teach? Recall that Jesus said “until all is accomplished.” The important thing to keep in mind in what Matthew records is we are moving from Old Covenant to New. What God had given to the nation of Israel at Sinai governed life among his covenant people at that time, but in the New Covenant, it does not. Paul makes this explicit in 2 Cor 3, saying
“Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.” 2 Cor 3:7-11.
In other words, because all is accomplished in the death of Christ, all is fulfilled, we are free from any of the law’s demands. Paul contrasts the law—which he calls the ministry of death—with the ministry of the Spirit. He says it is being brought to an end, and indeed in Romans 10:4 says that Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to all who believe.
Seeing these truths in no way undermines the law. It recognizes that the death of Jesus fulfills the law in every possible way. Having fulfilled it, he brought any obligation to an end. This means we are free to serve him in the new way of the Spirit and free from the mastery of sin.