By Shane Kastler
Sometimes in our study of the Scriptures we come upon two passages which might appear to be at odds with one another. Such is the case regarding Christ and the Law of Moses. Did he or did he not abolish the Law? In the famous “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18 NASB) But in Ephesians, the Apostle Paul wrote: “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances...” (Ephesians 2:14-15 NASB)
So who is right, Jesus or Paul? Or are they even at odds with one another? From the perspective of a Biblical Christian that should be an easy answer. If you are of the belief that the Bible is the inspired “Word of God” and inerrant, then it would also follow that there are no inconsistencies in the Scriptures. Jesus and Paul are never at odds with one another because “all Scripture is God-breathed.” (2 Timothy 3:16) And if this is your position, then it is incumbent on us as believers to study and “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) and find the answer (or possible options) to what might appear at first to be a contradiction. In fact, even if you believed that Jesus and Paul were at odds then you would still have to explain what Jesus meant by “fulfillment” of the Law. I'll begin by looking at Jesus' statement.
Many (if not most) theological errors come about when verses are lifted out of their context. When studying the Bible, context is vital in order for proper interpretation to be gained. For example, there is a verse in the Bible that says, “curse God and die.” (Job 2:9) It is a commandment, written in the imperative. So is this verse indeed commanding us to “curse God and die”? Not when you take it in context, for when you read it in context it tells us that righteous Job's wife told him to “curse God and die” and he rebuked her notion as being foolish. A word, or a sentence can mean an entirely different thing when studied in its true context.
Jesus declared that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill. So in what sense does he use the word “abolish”? In the context, Jesus is contrasting the idea of “abolishment” with the idea of “fulfillment.” With this juxtaposition set up by the Lord, he declares that “fulfillment” is the proper way to describe how he handles the Law. The sense in which he uses “abolish” would be defined as a change made to the Law, because it was incorrect. In other words, Jesus was saying that he has not come to declare Moses was wrong and/or evil in giving the Law. In fact the Law was given by God to the nation of Israel. So in that sense Jesus is not abolishing it. But he is “fulfilling” it; which still renders the Law as being no longer in effect and non-binding upon a New Covenant believer.
Here is an example of the difference between “abolish” and “fulfill” as used by Jesus in Matthew 5. When a man gets to the end of his career, he might choose to retire. When he retires he will undoubtedly be replaced by someone else who will take over the job he once did. He will be a different person who does things in a different way. The job will now be his. But retiring is much, much different than being fired. When someone retires, the company says “job well done” now enjoy your leisure. You have earned the right to go aside and relax. But when someone is fired, the thoughts towards them are much different. When someone is fired the company is saying “you were wrong. You were ineffective. You needed replaced because of a deficiency of some kind.” What Jesus is saying is that the Law of Moses was not fired for incompetence, but it was retired because its time had come. Its intent from its inception was temporary in nature (Galatians 2:19) and was given to a specific group of people (the Jews). And even then its purpose was not to justify, but rather to accuse. (John 5:45) It's purpose was to lay the heaviness of sin upon the people in order to drive them to Christ. (Galatians 3:24-25)
Now that Christ has come, the Law of Moses has fulfilled its purpose. In using the word “fulfill” Jesus is clearly stating that completion and “retirement” has come. Not in the sense that the Law was wrong; but in the sense that it's purpose has been served according to God's plan. This is also precisely what the Apostle Paul taught.
In Ephesians 2, Paul is teaching about the peace that believers have in Christ. He tells us about the unity that Christ provides between warring factions within the church; and he tells us of the unity Christ brings by reconciling us to God the Father. The warring factions in the early church were the Jews and Gentiles. Some with Jewish backgrounds, continued to adhere to the Law of Moses and tried to compel Gentile Christians to do the same. The decision of the early church leaders; and the clear teaching of the New Testament is that the Gentiles were not required to keep the Law of Moses. (Acts 15:1-21) And for that matter, neither were the Jews. Paul writes, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4 NASB)
How is one justified before God? Not by keeping the Law, but rather “by grace through faith” in Christ who kept and fulfilled the Law on our behalf. Some would say that though “justification” comes by faith, “sanctification” (or spiritual growth) comes by adhering to the Law. But this idea is also refuted by Paul when he tells the Galatians: So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:5) The Holy Spirit's presence (as He sanctifies the believer) and the working of miracles among them (another work of God) was not accomplished by adherence to the Law, but rather a product of faith, which itself is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8).
Therefore, in Ephesians 2:15, Paul can rightly say that Christ “abolished in his flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances.” The Law is done away with. The Law is completed. Christ is the “end” of the Law for the believer. The Law has been fulfilled by Jesus; and can be said to be “abolished” by Jesus in the context in which Paul uses it. In essence, Paul uses the word “abolish” in the same sense that Jesus uses the word “fulfill” in Matthew 5. With Jesus it was a contrast between “abolish” in the sense of declaring wrong; and “fulfill” in the sense of bringing to a proper end. With Paul “abolish” is simply used in a manner describing the Law as being completed and no longer binding. Jesus and Paul are teaching the very same theological point when both statements are examined in context.
The error for the Jew was found in seeking justification from the Law rather than from Christ. The error for the Gentile would be in embracing the Jewish idea that “the Law” must be the ethical code of their life in order to be accepted by God. And the error for Christians today would be found in not rendering the Law to be “fulfilled” (as Christ used the word) and “abolished” (as Paul used the word) and still binding as the “moral” law or code for believers.
Some believers attempt to explain Jesus and Paul's apparent contradiction by dividing the Law into moral, civil, and ceremonial aspects. But this Jesus never does. This, Paul never does. In fact, this Moses never even does. The Law, in it's entirety has found its fulfillment and completion in Christ. And we as believers now look to Jesus as our Lord, Leader, and Lawgiver. Are there still aspects from the Law of Moses that find some form of application under the New Covenant ethic? Certainly. But even then, our standard for righteous living comes not from a Jewish code given to Moses for the Israelites, but rather from a Christian code given by Jesus to Christians (of both Jewish and Gentile descent). In fact, the very context in which Jesus declares the “fulfillment” of the Law comes in the Sermon on the Mount when he ascends a mountain like Moses did. Then proceeds to quote from the Law of Moses, word for word. Then proceeds to declare his own righteous standard regarding ethical behavior by using the words, “You have heard it said” (in the Law of Moses); “But I say unto you....” Some have erroneously taught that Jesus is simply clarifying rabbinical distortions of Moses. But Jesus doesn't quote rabbis, he quotes Moses. Once again, Jesus is not declaring Moses to be wrong; but rather Moses to be fulfilled and Jesus himself as the ultimate and final dispenser of Law to His people.
END NOTES: To hear the audio from my sermon on Ephesians 2:15 entiled "He Is Our Peace" in which this question was addressed, click here.
Here is a link to my article: "Jesus & Moses: Why Christians Are Not Under The Ten Commandments"
Here is a link to my article: "Free From The Law: How Christians Relate To The Law of Moses"