Jesus and the Law of Moses
Peter D. Goodgame
Does Paul teach that followers of Christ remain under the authority of the Law of Moses?
"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. 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 5:17-20, ESV)
"But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 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, that he might create in himself one new man..." (Eph. 2:13-15, ESV)
In the first Scripture above we have Jesus seeming to declare that every jot and tittle of the Law and the Prophets will remain and will not be abolished until "heaven and earth pass away." For a long time this statement by Jesus has always bothered me, and at the beginning of this year I was confronted with it again in a big way, prompting me to get serious about my understanding of the Gospel. There are many believers today, whose numbers are increasing, who have taken these words of Jesus as an emphatic statement that they must embrace the Law of Moses as God's eternal covenant meant to be kept by all who would choose to follow Him. Their reasoning is that Jesus said, "until heaven and earth pass away," and heaven and earth are still here, therefore we must continue to do our best to obey every jot and tittle of the Old Covenant Law.
At a certain point early this year during my studies I reached a place where I was resigned to the possibility that this might be true. If this was truly God's will and the plain meaning of Jesus' words then I wanted to obey my Savior, no matter what the cost. I also have many dear friends who were brought to this place who have taken it beyond a possibility and embraced it as a reality in their lives. They are now Christians who believe they remain under the Law of Moses and they keep the Old Covenant laws to the best of their ability. I know they are sincere in their studies and they have arrived at their decisions with a clean conscience. They are doing their best to obey what they believe are God's commandments for their lives. I have a great deal of respect for them because they are willing to go through the inconveniences that such a change demands, and they are willing to risk and endure the questioning and ridicule that often comes with this change as they begin to actually live out what they believe. As this study progresses I hope to show that I am also sincere and that I also seek only the Truth, and to live my life accordingly with a clean conscience. Our differences will become clear but I pray that we can continue to honor each other in love and with respect and dignity.
What Did Paul Teach About the Old Covenant?
Did Jesus really teach that New Covenant Christians must continue to follow the Law of Moses? The answer that came from the Gentile Church from the very beginning was a flat "No." By what authority and from whose teaching did they come to this conclusion? The answer to this question is the Apostle Paul. Among the Gentile churches in the first century Paul was looked up to as an authoritative representative of the risen Jesus Christ. Paul was the first to specifically target the Gentiles for conversion and he was commissioned for this task by the Holy Spirit in Antioch, according to Acts 13:1-3, which goes on to describe Paul's missionary journeys and the many churches that he established by his preaching.
Setting aside for the moment a discussion of what Jesus Himself taught about the Law of Moses, I want to focus on what the Apostle Paul clearly taught about the Law of Moses. The meaning behind the words of Jesus on this subject in Matt. 5:17-20 is hotly debated, whereas the words of Paul on this matter are very clear and straightforward.
My focus on the Apostle Paul, and indeed my return to focus upon Jesus and His relationship with the Law of Moses, can be traced back to the aftermath of a conference I attended in Dallas back in January of 2013. It was at this time that a long-term acquaintance of mine, (thank you B. Jones), directed my attention to the work of Bible scholar Douglas J. Del Tonto and his book Jesus' Words Only. The subtitle of this book is, Was Paul the Apostle Jesus Condemns in Revelation 2:2? In this book the author presents the case that Paul was a false apostle spreading a heretical version of Christianity and departing from the authentic faith of the Twelve Apostles. The author contends that by preaching against the Law of Moses Paul clearly contradicted the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5:17-20. As the two passages above from Jesus and Paul seem to demonstrate, Jesus said that the law would not be abolished until heaven and earth pass away, whereas Paul taught that the Old Covenant law was abolished. For Del Tonto, a lawyer, this signals "case closed" against Paul.
Del Tonto contends that Paul emerged as an enemy of the Twelve Apostles and that Jesus Himself indicted Paul when Jesus referred to the false apostles tested and rebuked by the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2:2. Del Tonto also contends that Paul's life was played out according to the template of Balaam the false prophet (Revelation 2:14) who became temporarily obedient to God as the result of a supernatural experience (Numbers 22), but who later apostacized and became an enemy of God. The point of all this (Del Tonto's numerous allegations will be addressed later in this series) is that Del Tonto is convinced that Paul clearly taught that the Law of Moses was abolished by the death and resurrection of Jesus. For Del Tonto this makes Paul a false apostle, an apostate, and an enemy of God.
Here in Part One of this series I will not address the allegation that Paul was a false apostle. Instead I want to now turn to the work of another Bible scholar, a theologian by the name of Brian S. Rosner, and his recent book published in 2013 entitled Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God. In contrast to Del Tonto, Rosner is an evangelical Christian who embraces the entire New Testament (including Paul's letters) as inspired by the Holy Spirit. He has no axe to grind against Paul and in his book he simply focuses his attention on trying to understand and explain Paul's personal view of the Old Covenant Law of Moses and its relationship to the New Covenant believer.
For evangelicals the New Covenant is understood as the replacement of the Old Covenant, even though much of the ethics and many of the commandments of the Old can be found within the New. On the other hand Messianic believers tend to believe that the New Covenant includes the Old Covenant, with its Sabbath-keeping, dietary restrictions, Feast Days, etc., which remains in force for believers but is applied differently to Jews and Gentiles. Recognizing this distinction between Evangelicals and Messianics, let's take a look now at Rosner's recent study of what Paul taught.
Did Paul teach that the Old Covenant is abolished by the New Covenant, or did Paul teach that the New Covenant is simply an extension or a re-affirmation of the Old Covenant? Rosner explains that this is a tricky subject to unpack because Paul speaks in various ways about the Law of Moses. Sometimes he speaks negatively and sometimes he speaks positively, but then he often turns to the Old Testament for support in giving instructions for dealing with issues within his congregations. How are we to make sense of this apparent confusion?
Rosner's detailed study of Paul shows that Paul consistently advocates three distinct "moves" towards the Law of Moses. First, he clearly and boldly speaks against the ongoing authority of the Law of Moses as a "law-covenant" which believers in Christ must submit to. This first "move" is one that Rosner names as Polemical Repudiation. Second, Paul consistently identifies the specific teachings of Jesus Christ, and Jesus Himself, as the reality that has replaced the Law of Moses as the authority in the believer's life. This second "move" Rosner names as Radical Replacement. Third, Paul often uses Old Testament Scripture as useful for the New Covenant believer, but useful specifically in two ways: 1) as a source of prophecy that confirms the Gospel, and 2) as a source of wisdom in dealing with ethical questions of daily life. Rosner names this third "move," Reappropriation. Rosner explains:
When describing Paul’s view of the law, too often scholars notice only one or at best two of these impulses and minimize, ignore or deny the other(s). All three moves occupy a vital place in what Paul says about and does with the law.
The three moves are evident in 1 Corinthians.
1. The first move, of repudiation, can be seen in the negation of circumcision in 1 Corinthians 7:19a. Another instance is in 1 Corinthians 9:20, where Paul says simply, ‘I myself am not under the law’.
2. The second, replacement, is evident in 7:19b with the call to keep God’s commandments, that is, apostolic instructions. Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians replacement of the Law of Moses can be seen clearly in 9:21, where Paul says, ‘but am under Christ’s law’.
3a The first form of the third move, the reappropriation of the law as prophecy, as a witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, can be seen in 8:5-6, where the language of Deuteronomy 6:4 governs Paul’s wording and argument. Alluding to Israel’s Shema, Paul reaffirms strict Jewish monotheism along with finding Christ embedded within the very definition of that one God/Lord of Israel. It is also evident in 15:45, where Paul uses Genesis 2:7, ‘the first man, Adam, became a living being’, to point to the significance of Jesus Christ, who is of equally universal bearing as our first ancestor.
3b. The second form of the reappropriation of the law, using the law for questions of conduct, can be seen at various points. For example, Paul closes 1 Corinthians 5 and his call to exclude the incestuous man with the words ‘Expel the wicked person from among you’ (5:13b NIV), a quotation of a frequent expression of the LXX of Deuteronomy, where it is used on six occasions to signal the execution of a variety of offenders (13:5, 17:7, 19:19, 21:21, 22:21, 24:7; cf. Judg. 20:13). In 9:24 Paul asserts that Deuteronomy 25:4, the call not to ‘muzzle the ox’, ‘was written for us’, helping to establish that ministers of the gospel deserve to be supported financially. And in 10:11 Paul asserts that the events of the exodus and the wilderness wanderings ‘were written down as warnings for us’, supporting his warning against sexual immorality and idolatry.
Evidently, Paul does not think his utter repudiation and radical replacement of the Law of Moses entail its complete redundancy. The question to ask in these cases is not which bits of the law are still useful, but in what sense is the law valuable for Christians. In short, Christians are instructed by the law, but not as Jewish law. Instead, Paul models reading the Law of Moses as prophecy and as wisdom." (pp. 39-41, bold emphasis mine)
Paul consistently repeats these three attitudes or "moves" towards the Law of Moses and they are covered in detail in Rosner's book. He spends two chapters on Paul's repudiation of the Law of Moses (both explicit and implicit repudiation); he devotes another chapter to the many instances where Paul advocates Christ's teachings as handed down to the apostles (as well as Christ Himself) as that which replaces the Law of Moses as the "legal" authority in the life of the believer; and Rosner devotes two chapters to the way in which Paul continues to use the Old Covenant as a source of prophecy and wisdom, (even though Paul thoroughly repudiates it as a "law covenant"). The best part of the book is the final chapter in which Rosner pulls all of these strands together and offers a clear summary of Paul's attitude towards the Law of Moses and its relationship to the New Covenant believer (whether Jew or Gentile).
Paul's Three-fold Pattern
On page 42 Rosner includes the following table demonstrating Paul's three-fold pattern of his attitude towards the Law in 1 Corinthians (as discussed by Rosner in the quote above):
Paul and the law in 1 Corinthians
Reappropriation as Prophecy
Reappropriation as Wisdom
7:19 - 'circumcision is nothing'
7:19 - 'Keeping God's commands is what counts' (my tr.)
8:5-6 - Allusions to Deut. 6:4 - 'there is but one Lord' (my tr.), establishing Christ as Lord
5:13b - Words from Deuteronomy quoted to enforce the expulsion of the incestuous man
9:20-21 - 'I am not under the law' (my tr.)
9:20-21 - 'I am under the law of Christ' (my tr.)
15:45 - Use of Gen. 2:7, 'the first Adam became a living being' (my tr.), to underscore the universal significance of Christ
9:9 - Deut. 25:4, 'do not muzzle the ox...' (my tr.), quoted to support the argument for paying ministers
10:11 - The exodus and wilderness wanderings 'were written down for our moral instruction' (my tr.)
Rosner explains that this pattern is not only illustrated in 1 Corinthians, but in fact all three of these moves (Repudiation, Replacement and Reappropriation) are readily apparent in eight of Paul's thirteen letters, with four of his shorter letters containing at least one or two of these moves. Along with the chart for 1 Corinthians Rosner's book also includes charts that detail this same pattern in Romans, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 and 2 Timothy. Rosner writes,
It is also noteworthy that repudiation and replacement appear in the same couple of verses on eight occasions in five letters (Rom. 6:15; 8:1-2; 1 Cor. 7:19; 9:20-21; 2 Cor. 3:6; Gal. 3:23-25; 5:18; Phil. 3:9), giving further confirmation of the polemical thrust of Paul's response to the law: Paul's rejection of the law as law-covenant is impressively vigorous. (pp.209-210, bold emphasis mine)
In his chapter entitled "Under the Law" Rosner explains how Paul uses this specific phrase (pp. 47-48):
Paul uses the phrase ‘under the law’, hypo nomon, eleven times (in eight verses) in Galatians, Romans, and 1 Corinthians… Although the meaning of ‘under the law’ is disputed, context, usage and syntax make clear what Paul meant each time it is used. An initial survey of usage shows that Paul employs the phrase
- six times to indicate that Jews are ‘under the law’ (1 Cor. 9:20 [3x]; Gal. 3:23; 4:4-5);
- three times to affirm that believers are not ‘under the law’ (Rom. 6:14-15; Gal. 5:18);
- once to affirm that he himself is not ‘under the law’ (1 Cor. 9:20); and
- once to address believers who want to be ‘under the law’ (Gal. 4:21).
The passage in 1 Cor. 9:20 is key here because it explains Paul's complicated relationship with Judaism very well: 'To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.' (TNIV). Rosner explains that "Although Paul is a Jew in terms of his ethnicity and heritage, according to 1 Corinthians 9:20 he apparently no longer understands himself to be a full member of Judaism, and does not consider himself a Jew in the sense that such a person understands his or her relationship with God to be based on adherence to the Mosaic covenant."
Paul's stated desire to win Jews for Christ by pretending to be an observant Jew helps to explain why he allowed Timothy to be circumcised in Acts 16:1-3 and why he submitted to Jewish purification rites in Acts 21:20-26. Paul never tried to convince Jews to discard their observance of the Law insofar as it was a part of their cultural and traditional observance but, as Rosner points out, Paul did believe and teach that the commandments of the Law could never again be viewed as a source of salvation for anyone now that Christ has come. Rosner writes,
The verb 'to abolish,' katargeo, is in fact a favorite word for Paul to describe what Christ does to the law. Its strength in this context [within Ephesians 2:14-18] can hardly be missed, as it sits in company with 'tearing down' and 'putting to death'. In 2 Corinthians 3:7 Paul uses it in the passive voice to say that the Law of Moses has been 'set aside', with its 'ministry of death, chiselled in letters on stone tablets'. Similarly, in Romans 7:6 believers have been discharged from the law', just as a wife is 'discharged from the law concerning the husband' when her husband dies (7:2). In each of these uses someone is released from the obligations to obey certain laws and is free from the sanctions of disobedience to those laws...
In what sense then is the law abolished? Paul's positive reference to the law in Ephesians 6:1-2 suggests that it is not in every sense. F. F. Bruce writes that what has been done away with in Christ is not the law 'as a revelation of the character and will of God' but the law 'as a written code, threatening death instead of imparting life'...
The Law of Moses has at its heart the Mosaic covenant, and this covenant is about keeping commandments. Furthermore, that which replaces the Mosaic covenant is the new covenant. The view that the law as law-covenant is that which Paul sets aside complements Paul's negative take on the law as commandments and represents the most comprehensive (and least ambiguous) way of expressing the capacity in which the law has been abolished by Christ. (pp. 77-78)
Paul teaches that the Law of Moses does not save, and by the same token failure to keep the Law of Moses does not condemn. In Paul's theology it is faith in Christ that saves, which leads one to naturally obey "God's commandments" (1 Cor. 7:19). These New Covenant "commandments" are simply the teachings of Christ as handed down to the Apostles (Matt. 28:20), which are equally binding upon Jews and Gentiles. Salvation does not come from "keeping" them, but failure to keep them can assuredly cause one to be condemned as Jesus Himself continually warns throughout His teachings and parables (for instance, John 15:1-17). Holding fast to the teachings of Jesus Christ is simply the evidence that the New Covenant believer is walking in a living faith, and is moving forward on the narrow path towards the final goal of the New Jerusalem. John the Apostle writes,
And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says 'I know him' but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. (1 John 2:3-5)
According to Paul, the rules and regulations of the Old Covenant symbolized by the Ten Commandments "written on stone" have been abolished by the death of Christ. Failure to keep the commandments of Moses no longer brings condemnation. However, failure to hold fast to the specific teachings of Jesus as handed down to the Apostles will bring condemnation. These are the "Kingdom" teachings of Jesus found in the Sermon on the Mount and throughout the Gospels that are part of the foundation (Matt. 7:24) of the New Covenant, which transcend the ethnic and cultural differences between Jews and Gentiles. Furthermore, circumcision as the primary physical marker of God's Old Covenant people is no longer an issue because in Christ all believers become spiritual partakers of the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant. The Old Covenant was all about the Bloodline, whereas the New Covenant is all about the Spiritline.
Rosner ends his chapter on Paul's explicit repudiation of the Law of Moses by paraphrasing Paul's own words:
Unlike Jews, believers in Christ are not under the law, nor are they in the law or from the law. They are not imprisoned and guarded under the law, nor are they subject to the law as to a disciplinarian. Those who are under the law are under a curse and under sin. Even though the law promises life to those who keep it, it is evident that no one keeps the law. Consequently, no one receives life through the law. The law used as law is for the lawless. Christ has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances. (p.81)
Until Heaven and Earth Pass Away...
It is clear from taking a serious look at Paul that he taught that the death of Jesus brought about the end of the Old Covenant that mediated the relationship between God and mankind through Israel. Paul taught that Jesus effectively abolished the Mosaic law. Paul's reasoning was that the covenant between God and Israel can be compared to a marriage covenant which is binding until death, after which the survivor is released from the covenant's obligations. Paul taught that when Jesus died the terms of the Old Covenant passed away with Him. Yet believers in Jesus are not without a covenant because on the night before His death Jesus taught about the New Covenant that would be based upon His shed blood and substitutionary death, which would replace the Old Covenant.
All of this is very clear and straightforward, but it brings with it a challenge as well. The question is, how does this relate to what Jesus Himself meant when He said, "I did not come to abolish... but to fulfill"? What did He mean by saying that every jot and tittle of the Law and the Prophets would remain and would continue to be taught until heaven and earth pass away?
There are many serious Bible scholars within the Messianic and Hebrew Roots movements who are teaching that Jesus Himself upheld the keeping of the Old Covenant law, and therefore if we want to truly obey the "commandments of God" we must keep the Sabbath, eat kosher, observe the feasts, and some are even saying that if we are serious about obeying God, all males must inevitably submit to circumcision! Their entire theology rests upon a very literal and very narrow interpretation of what Jesus said here in Matthew 5:17-20. Furthermore, their theology categorically contradicts the clear teachings of Paul on this very subject.
I want to end the first part of this series with a challenging but clarifying statement: It is absolutely impossible to reconcile the teachings of Paul with a theology that embraces the Mosaic Law and the Old Covenant practices of Sabbath-keeping, kosher diet, observance of feasts, and circumcision as binding upon New Covenant believers. You cannot hold to the teachings of Moses and to the teachings of Paul at the same time. You must choose one or the other. Either embrace Moses and reject Paul as a false apostle, or embrace the teachings of Paul and accept that in Christ the Old Covenant with its commandments and ordinances has passed away.
In Part Two of this series we will begin to examine whether or not we can reconcile the teachings of Jesus with the teachings of Paul. Did Jesus confirm the eternal binding validity of the commandments and ordinances of the Mosaic Law, or did He speak of a new and better covenant that was on its way?
Jesus and the Law of Moses
Part One: Does Paul teach that followers of Christ remain under the authority of the Law of Moses?
Part Two: The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!
Part Three: The Sanctity of Marriage
Part Four: Yeshua the Lawgiver
Part Five: The Eternal Order of Melchizedek
November 23, 2013