The Law according to Jesus and Paul

The astute blog reader and student of Romans probably will have noticed that my last post begs the question: what is “the law” for those under the New Covenant? So I thought it would be good to briefly lay out what I believe the New Testament says on this. First, however, I have to address a pet peeve of mine which explains why I approach the subject the way I do.

Because of the significant place Paul had in the Protestant Reformation, much post-Reformation Protestant theology has been formed with what is, in my opinion, an unbalanced favoritism toward his letters – specifically toward Galatians and the first eight chapters of Romans. Sometimes this isn’t an issue, since Paul’s letters form the majority of the New Testament and contain much more pointed theology than, say, the Gospels. And yet, while the sayings of Jesus’ aren’t near as systematic as Paul’s letters (being, as they are, surrounded by narrative), that doesn’t mean Jesus is always silent on matters of theology. Especially when it comes to the law, his words are numerous and straightforward. And if Jesus has something to say, those words should be our starting point. Wherever we go after should be understood in their light. We should not read Paul into Jesus, we should read Jesus into Paul.

So then, seeing that it would be out of order for us to form our theology any other way, let’s start with Jesus:

“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:17-19, NKJV

The “law” Jesus refers to here is most definitely the Mosaic Law, or Torah, since he couples it with the OT Prophets. But what does our Lord mean when he says he came to “fulfill” (pleroo) Torah? Some have interpreted this Greek verb as meaning complete or finish so that the sentence becomes semantics, as if Christ were a crooked politician looking for votes from religious first-century Jews: “I didn’t come to destroy the law, just to put it out of commission.” But this rendering is untenable since Jesus’ conclusion in v. 19 is that everyone in his kingdom has to keep the whole of the law, and indeed all of what follows in chapter 5 is itself an exegesis of the law. It is best, therefore, to let “fulfill” be interpreted by what follows in v. 19: whoever does and teaches Torah fulfills Torah.

A huge stumbling block now stands in our path. If Jesus affirmed the whole of the Mosaic Law down to every last “jot and tittle,” what are we supposed to do with all of those dietary restrictions and the like that Paul clearly rejects in his Epistles? Are Jesus and Paul at odds with one another? Most adamantly, no! We are reminded that Jesus’ affirmation of the authority of Torah was in response to the Pharisees accusation that he denied it, for he had previously allowed his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath and had himself on the same day healed people of their diseases, which in the Pharisees eyes was a direct affront to Moses (Matt 12:1-14). It’s obvious that he had a radically different interpretational approach to the law than most Second Temple Jews. Conversely, it is quite a mistake to say that Paul had an overall negative perception of the law, for he spends a good portion of his argument in Romans praising the intrinsic goodness of the law (Rom 7:7-25). And besides his explicit approval in Romans, Paul reiterates and confirms much of the Mosaic Law in the ethical portions of his epistles. It is therefore most likely that Jesus and Paul were on the same page in how they related to Moses. So then, the question isn’t whether or not they affirmed Torah, but, knowing that they both affirmed it, how did they interpret it? Indeed, how are we supposed to interpret it?

God did not give His law in a vacuum to all peoples of all times; He gave it in a narrative, in context to a young nation coming out of slavery and learning how to live. Thus, much of what we sometimes comprehensively refer to under the banner of “the law” (e.g. dietary restrictions) is actually not the law at all, but application or case studies of the law given to the nation of Israel when they were in the wilderness and called to be separate from the nations. We have to be careful in our reading of the Old Testament that we don’t mistake time-specific applications of the law for the law itself. By the time of our Lord’s coming Israel had by and large taken those case studies (much of them being time sensitive and therefore no longer applicable) and made strict and timeless laws out of them. Instead of coming to terms with the reason for the law and the inward standard of holiness that God desired for relationship with them, they bypassed His heart and turned the Torah into a stark and rigid terms of agreement, as if the Living God were only a landlord who comes around once a month to collect rent.

Far from putting an end to the moral law, through Christ’s death and resurrection God has made a way for His people to express the righteousness that was His original intent when giving it on Mt. Sinai (Rom 8:3-4). The Sermon on the Mount is not a new and fresh law set in place of the old and out of date one; it is the true interpretation of the old law – which never changes – over and against the distorted interpretations of it. There is continuity between the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament moral law is the transcript of His holiness; it reveals His nature and character and how we need to live in order to participate with Him. The Ten Commandments, far from being merely a set of moral codes, are birthed from the heart of God and reveal the burning light of His truth and purity. We are meant to relate to Him through these commandments. That is where Israel first went wrong; they took His commands in isolation from His character, making them a purposeless list of do’s and don’ts. Jesus, on the other hand, interpreted them through the lens that God intended, the lens of relationship (e.g. Matt 5:9, 43-48).

What Jesus and Paul sought was not to reject or replace Torah with a so-called “greater” law, labeled by Paul the Law of faith. Rather, what they both sought to do was radically redefine and reinterpret Torah through a relational hermeneutic, maintaining that the whole of Torah was summed up in the command to love God and others (e.g. Matt 7:12; 12:7; 22:37-40; Luke 6:36; Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14). They further argued that the Old Covenant, though good, was terribly inadequate, that Torah could not be fulfilled through Torah itself because it could not produce the obedience it demanded, and that another law – that is, another principle – was therefore necessary in coming along side Torah to produce obedience. That principle is the Law of faith. Faith does not usurp the law in Paul’s mind; on the contrary it establishes the law so that what was previously impossible is now possible; what was before a heavy burden and a futile grasping at the wind is now a short reach and a light load (Rom 3:31; 8:3-4). The self-proclaimed purpose of Paul’s Gospel was to produce, through faith, that which the ambitious observance of Torah could never by itself produce, namely obedience (Rom 1:5; 15:18).

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2 Responses to The Law according to Jesus and Paul

  1. danielgodsey says:

    Very good post.
    In light of prophecies like Ezekiel 40-48 I think we will live according to the Law in the next age, not as a means for righteousness, but because it is perfect and the embodiment of all truth.
    Its like a father giving his kids a checkbook at 6 to see how impossible it is for the to run their lives correctly, then taking it back and waiting until they are mature enough to give it back again.
    God gave Israel the Torah to lock them under the truth of their own inadequacy, then gave us His Spirit in the New Covenant. Eventually we will be mature enough (in resurrected bodies) to follow the Law perfectly and relationally as Jesus did.

  2. You can see my position has changed somewhat since writing this post. ;)

    Your checkbook analogy is interesting, but I’d say the law is less like a checkbook and more like the restrictions put on the account, or like a child-safety lock in the back seat of a car. Or better still, the law is like a tutor or guardian which God gave to his people to keep them until the Messiah’s coming. As Paul says in Galatians 3, now that the Messiah has come we are no longer under the tutelage of the law. It doesn’t make any sense, once someone has reached maturity and left their guardian, for them to eventually return to that guardian.

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