In Matthew 5:17, Jesus tells his disciples “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” This is a curious passage to many Christians who have received a Christianity which seems to provide freedom from the letter of the law in favor of submission to the law of the Spirit (Rom. 8:2). In what follows I will show that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law, and he is our liberator from slavery to the written law.
While Jesus declares that he did not come to abolish the law, he certainly reinterprets it and engages in creative and unorthodox practices regarding the law. For example, in Matthew 5:21, Jesus takes the command to murder and strengthens it, adding that “if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You Fool,’ you will be liable to hell of fire.” Here Jesus has introduced a harsher requirement than what is in the actual law. In other places, however, Jesus softens the law (much to the chagrin of his Pharisee contemporaries). In Exodus 20:8-10, the Israelites are commanded to “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” The passage continues describing what that should look like: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the LORD your God, in it you shall not do any work…” In Mark 2:23-28, Jesus is walking through the grainfields with his disciples on the Sabbath when some of his followers start to pick the grain and eat. The Pharisees, apparently keeping a watchful eye on this Rabbi who had a tendency to play fast and loose with the law, confront Jesus about the “work” his disciples are doing on the Sabbath. His eloquent reply ends with “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath, so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” In one more instance of Jesus’ subversion of the standard of Sabbath keeping, Mark 3:1-6 tells us that Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. In other instances, Jesus touches lepers, spends quality time with Samaritans and eats with tax collectors and prostitutes. All of these would have been considered anathema for a law abiding Jew.
On the cross Jesus utters these pivotal words before his life is extinguished: “it is finished.” The curious observer will no doubt ask: “what is finished?” I would contend, and Paul makes this case strongly, that what was finished was the whole system between the garden and the cross. That is to say, that in Christ and after the cross, humanity’s separation from God and all that goes with that is put to death with Jesus on the cross. What rises to life on Easter Sunday is a new Adam, a new humanity and a new way of living.
In Romans 5:12-14, Paul writes:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned—sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.
Paul shows here that the law illuminated the sins of humanity which were already rampant from the point of Adam forward. Paul then concludes in Romans 7:7 that “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” Thus, the law makes one aware of their sinfulness and inability to make their own reconciliation with God. Paul does not end there though. While he declares that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good,” he also believes that something has changed with regard to this law. In 8:1, he writes: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” What does it mean to be set free from the law of sin and death? Paul has already identified what the “law of sin and death is,” namely, the law itself (Rom. 7:10).
Paul outlines further what he means in his letter to the Galatians. The Galatians had been led to believe that one needed to follow the law in order to be members of the people of God. In response, Paul writes: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?” (3:1-2). In response to the Judaizers who were teaching Gentile Christians that they must be circumcised and follow the ceremonial food laws, Paul declares that the death of Christ on the cross has set them free from the need to fulfill the law! Indeed he chides Peter and Barnabas for allowing the law to drive a wedge between themselves and the Gentile Christians at Antioch.
We see a similar scene to Paul’s Galatians story played out in Acts 15. Paul and Barnabas had apparently been teaching that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised to become members of the people of God. A believing Jew would have interpreted Paul’s rejection of circumcision as a complete violation of God’s command to Abraham in Genesis 17:9-14, the very foundation of the covenant promises of God, which is exactly what happened. When a group of Judaizers confront Paul and Barnabas about their teachings, they set out to the Jerusalem Council to gain clarity. The Jerusalem council, in stunning fashion, agrees with Paul and Barnabas that Gentile Christians should not be held responsible for keeping the law, except for abstaining from things polluted by idols, fornication, from whatever has been strangled and from blood (Acts 15:20). Peter, as a part of this council meeting, even stands up and delivers the concluding address on behalf of Paul’s missionary message to the Gentiles:
Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are. (Acts 15:7-11)
It is with this affirmation from the Jerusalem Council in hand that Paul declares with authority that “all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse” (Gal. 3:10). Further he states, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’” (3:13). At this point, it is natural to ask again, why the law? Paul is prepared for this question: “It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained through angels by a mediator” (3:19b) … “Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, but now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian” (3:24-25). A key phrase in this passage is “until.” That is, the law was a temporary measure, until the promise was fulfilled in Christ. This is why Paul can say things like: “how can you turn back to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years. I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted” (4:9b – 11). Paul concludes his polemic by declaring that it was “for freedom Christ has set us free” then admonishing the Galatians to “stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery” (5:1). That is, slavery to the law.
How then can a Christian know how to live a life pleasing to God? Paul puts it this way:
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another. (Gal 5:13-26).
So then has the law been abolished? As Paul might say, by no means! It has been fulfilled in Christ, who we are united to through the Spirit (Rom 8:9). The Christian is no longer subject to a law written on paper, but is reunited with God as it was in the beginning. That is not to say that a Christian cannot fall into sin, but rather, the question is how one identifies sin. For Paul the answer is clear. It is not the law that leads us into righteous living but it is the Holy Spirit living in us that guides us. With this new covenant ethic in mind, Paul could declare that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but new creation is everything!” (Gal 6:15). Further, it drives the author of Hebrews to conclude that the former way of legal obedience to the document of the law was abolished in favor of the second, that is the law written on the heart as a result of the finished work of Christ on the cross which leads to the forgiveness of sins, cleansed hearts and a way of life that is driven not by fear of the law but of unwavering belief in God’s covenant faithfulness (Heb. 10:10-24). The great promise to the follower of Jesus is this: while our relationship with him was broken for a time necessitating a mediator between God and man and a measuring stick to guide the path of his people (the law), God has made things right through the life, death and resurrection of his son Jesus. Because of Christ, we are reunited to God as Adam was in the beginning. Through the Spirit, the Christian is united to the very heart of God, through whom all righteousness flows. Thus, the Christian is free from the law of sin and death because we have been recreated in the image of Christ. A new Adam has come who has successfully relived the temptation, the story of Israel, the life of all humanity and he has conquered the powers of sin and vanquished the enemies of his people. Thus, while the law was necessary for a time as a temporary measure, the law of God is now etched on our hearts. The new law of Jesus is summed up thusly: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another (John 13:34). Jesus does not leave us to our own devices to obey his new command though, he promises to send his Holy Spirit who will “teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26b). Even here, Jesus sees beforehand what Paul would proclaim later: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption” (Rom. 8:14-15).