Did Jesus Come to Fulfill the Law or to Abolish the Law?

“We were held in custody under the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law became our guardian to lead us to Christ….”

Much confusion in the early church arose out of the relationship of the Law to the “good news” that we now call the Gospel (which means good news). The confusion continues today. I continue to wrestle with the tension, myself.

Two passages come to mind that seem to be directly counter to each other. They establish a paradox – a seeming inconsistency – that needs to be resolved. Compare what Jesus said as recorded by Matthew, to the instruction of Paul to the Ephesians:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill themFor 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. (Matthew 5:17-20)

“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 the two one and has torn down the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing in His flesh the law of commandments and decrees.” (Ephesians. 2:13-14)

In one place, Jesus said he did not come to abolish the law; and, in the other place, Paul says Jesus abolished the law. Which is it?

The answer is both. If we view this apparent dichotomy as a paradox, rather than a contradiction, we can make some sense of it.

First of all, we need to consider the context. When Jesus said he did not come to abolish the law, he was talking about his coming in the flesh. Jesus was God who became incarnate. Jesus was God who emptied Himself of all that separated Himself from His creation and became part of it in the form of a human being. (Phil. 2:5-8) Thus, when God became man and came to us, He did not come to abolish the law.

We also need to look at the larger context of the Law. The Law was a covenant (an agreement) with Israel. It was given to Moses for the descendants of Abraham after He brought them out of slavery in Egypt. God was faithful to this covenant, but the people were no. They filed at every turn.

This was a problem, because God promised to bless the people based on them holding up their part of the bargain, but they failed to do that. God was true to keep His part of the bargain, but He could not be true to keep His promise to bless them because they did not keep their part of the bargain.

When Jesus made the statement that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it, he was putting that statement into the context of time and purpose. He was saying that the purpose for which he came was to fulfill the law, and now was the time.

Jesus came to fulfill the Law in the flesh as a man. When he said on the cross, “It is finished”, he was proclaiming that he had finished accomplishing the fulfillment of the Law in his human body. He lived it out perfectly. He was obedient to it unto death.

Jesus did what no man had done. God became a man so that he could keep man’s part of the bargain, and that enabled God to keep His promise to bless mankind. God, in a sense, carried out the terms and fulfilled both sides of the covenant.

But that is not the end of the story.

Jesus said, in the same context, “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”

So, even though he fulfilled the Law by His perfect life and sacrificial death on the cross, the Law continues until “all is accomplished” and heaven and earth pass away. That means the Law is still in effect today.

To drive the point home, Jesus warned against relaxing even the least of the commandments and teaching others to do so. As if that were not enough, he said, “[U]nless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Clear as mud, right?

Paul helps us clear up the confusion when he says the law God gave Moses was a guardian intended to lead us to (make us ready for) Christ.

“[W]e were held in custody under the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law became our guardian to lead us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian….” (Gal. 3:23-24)

Paul explains to the Romans that the Law does that by making us conscious of our sin. (Rom. 7:7) Our inability to satisfy the law is what leads us to Christ and our need for his sacrificial gift of grace. (Rom. 8:3)

To understand this more fully, though, we need to back up a bit.

We need to go back to Abraham, who was the father of the descendants to whom God gave the Law. God’s initial promise (covenant) was given to Abraham, and He said He would bless to all the nations through this covenant.

God first made a covenant to Abraham, but it was a different covenant. The covenant God gave to Abraham was on the basis of faith – trust in God – for which God attributed to Abraham God’s own righteousness.

This is hard for us to understand for us. The understanding is conveyed in the story of the instruction God gave to Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac – one of the most misunderstood passages in the Bible.

Child sacrifice was common in the time in which Abraham lived. Abraham would have been intimately familiar with the practice, which was intended to appease the gods who were thought to be arbitrary, demanding and capricious.

Thus, when Abraham understood God to be telling him to sacrifice Isaac – even though God previously promised to fill the whole earth with his descendants, and even though Isaac was his only son – Abraham obeyed.

People didn’t refuse the gods!

Abraham was doing what any god-fearing person in his time would do.

But this was meant to be an object lesson – introducing a paradigm shift. Just when Abraham was ready to carry out the deed, God drew his attention to a goat caught in the nearby thicket. The point of the story is that God provided a sacrifice for Abraham in lieu of the sacrifice of Abraham’s son that he was directed (or felt compelled) to give.

Abraham perceived this paradigm shift by faith, and we are told God ascribed righteousness to Abraham because of that faith. It wasn’t the sacrifice that earned Abraham God’s favor; it was his faith – his willingness to listen and trust – that God rewarded. God was revealing Himself to a man (and his descendants) who was willing to follow God’s lead and to grasp the difference between God and all the gods of the surrounding nations.

The covenant of the Law was given to Moses 430 years after the covenant of faith by which God attributed righteousness to Abraham (and said he would bless all the nations). They were told they would be blessed if they kept it, but they couldn’t keep it. They always failed.

.Paul says God’s plan was to lead us from faith to faith. (Rom. 1:17) The covenant by faith came first. (Rom. 4) Then the Law came, which Paul says was a guardian to lead us to Christ (Ga. 3:23) We receive Christ by faith. (Eph. 2:8). Thus, the progression of God’s plan is from faith to faith.

No one is justified by the Law; we are justified only by faith. (Gal. 2:16)

That doesn’t mean the Law is meaningless or of no account. The Law is a necessary vehicle to get us where God wanted to take us. Thus, Paul said to the Galatians that the Law was given to us as a “guardian to lead us to Christ”.

The word translated “guardian, is paidagógos in the Greek. It literally means “a trainer of boys, a tutor”. It’s common meaning in the context of the First Century Greco-Roman world is “a boy’s guardian or tutor, a slave who had charge of the life and morals of the boys of a family….”

The word comes from the root word, país, which means “a child under development by strict instruction”. A paidagógos was a strict taskmaster, someone whose role was to be strict in moral instruction. A father was often lenient, but a paidagógos was unwavering in the requirements of moral instruction, because that was his role.

Thus, Paul says, the Law was a paidagōgos to lead us to – prepare us for – Christ. Specifically, it was intended to arouse in us the consciousness of sin – the fact that we are out of step, out of relationship with – God.

Thus, the sacrifices that we can give are not what God wants. He doesn’t want people who think they can justify themselves to Him like the Pharisee who boasts in how righteous he is. God wants us to come to Him humbly in trust and faith and to receive the sacrifice He provided for us – Himself. He wants a relationship with us as Children – not as workers who demand their wages.

When Paul says Christ abolished in his flesh the law of commandments and decrees, he was alluding to the object lesson God provided through Abraham’s story. God provided the sacrifice we could not give – because we fail and fall short. He provided a better sacrifice for us by becoming one of us and fulfilling all the Law requires in His own flesh, even to the point of death of the cross.

The word used by Paul that is translated “abolish” is kataluó. It means, literally, “to destroy, overthrow” and to unyoke or unharness, among other things. The word used by Jesus that is also translated “abolish” is actually a different word. It is katargeó. It means, literally, “to render inoperative, abolish”; “make of no effect, annul, abolish, bring to naught”.

This is an example where Geek words lose something in the translation. A more compete treatment of the word Jesus used is the following: “rendering something inert (‘completely inoperative’); i.e. being of no effect (totally without force, completely brought down); done away with, cause to cease and therefore abolish; make invalid, abrogate (bring to naught); ‘to make idle or inactive'”; and “‘to make completely inoperative’ or ‘to put out of use'”.

Thus, Jesus is saying that he is not coming to make the Law of no effect, to make it invalid, to abrogate it or to put it out of use. In fact, the Law is still necessary to make people conscious of sin (as long as salvation is offered to people – until the heavens and earth pass away) so that people will understand their need for the sacrificial gift God offers us in Christ.

The context of the statement made by Jesus was during his life, looking forward to the fulfillment of the Law by his death. Paul, on the other hand, is speaking after Jesus accomplished the fulfillment of the Law, making available the gift of grace that God offers us through that sacrificial offering He made on our behalf.

Having been tutored by the Law to understand the depravity and hopelessness of our condition, we are ready to receive the gift God offers by faith.

One commentator observes that kataluó is used by Paul in various places to mean superseding by something better than itself. Thus, we exchange our attempt at righteousness (by following the Law and all of its commandments and ordinances) for the gift of righteousness that comes by grace through faith:

“[B]y grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God….” (Eph. 2:8)

Paul says elsewhere, “Do we make void the Law? God forbid! Yea, we establish the Law.” (Romans 3:31) Thus, Paul is is agreeing with Jesus that the Law has not been abolished. It is still in effect. It is still doing its job of making people conscious of their sin so that they might perceive their need for the gift God offers us by grace through faith.

But there is more to it than that. The Law is not just meant to motivate us to want the free gift God offers us. It is meant to instruct us, also, like a guardian or a tutor. It is meant to instruct us in the character of God.

The Law is not abrogated by Jesus; rather, Jesus is the reality of which the Law is only a signpost. Some commentators explain that Paul only means to say that the Law is abolished as a law in the sense of ordinances – the letter of the law. It is replaced by the spirit of the law – the reality of which the Law is only a shadow.

Paul reproves the Colossians for subjecting themselves to “ordinances, which are but a shadow of things to come”; while “the body,” the true substance, “is Christ.” (See Ephesians 2:16-17; Ephesians 2:20-21) What Paul seems to be saying is that we who have received the gift of grace through faith are to stop attempting to follow the letter of the Law and to begin to live according to the spirit of the Law that God begins to write on our hearts when we submit to Him (abandon our own attempt to be righteous for the righteousness he offers by grace).

The Law is only “a shadow of the things to come”; the reality is in Christ. (Col 2:17) The Law is a shadow, not the reality. (Heb. 10:1) Jesus introduced “a better hope” (Heb. 7:9), the hope that was intended first (before Moses) and by which the Law of Moses was meant lead us like a tutor to Christ.

God ultimately wants people who are circumcised in their hearts. (Rom. 2:29) Not mere followers of the law. God wants us to worship Him in spirit and truth (John 4:24), not by following the letter of the Law, but out of a relational, position of love, not seeking to justify ourselves by our own efforts, but accepting the justification by faith and allowing God to work within us to will and act according to His purpose. (Phil. 2:13)

By the letter of the Law no one us justified. (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:11) If we are counting on earning our way by keeping the Law, we are nothing but workers seeking to obtain what we deserve. (Rom. 4:4) If, however, we receive righteousness as God’s gift, we are receiving it as His heirs, not for what we deserve, but simply because of our relationship to Him and His desire to bless us. (Rom. 4:16-17)

God desires to write the “law” on our hearts so that we are no longer following written rules, like a servant, but following the example of a parent willingly like a child.

The ultimate goal of this Law that is written on our hearts is for us to become like God in character. Thus, Paul says,

“[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal. 5:23)

It isn’t that we should do whatever we want to do. Having received the gift of God by faith, we have become God’s children, and we have begun to let God have His way in us – by His Holy Spirit who comes to reside in us – so that we are being conformed to His image – to His character – from within. This is the end goal: for us to be like God who made us in His image and calls us into authentic relationship with Him. (Rom. 8:29)

He wants is to walk in the spirit (not in obedience to written decrees) led by the Spirit (not by the letter of the law). (Gal. 5:7) So that we know what this looks like, Jesus emphasized that the commandments are summed up in the phrase,

“Love your neighbor as yourself…. therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom. 13:9-10)

Love is, in essence, the spirit of the Law.

God is love (1 John 4:7), and Jesus is the “fullness” of God the Father in a human body. (Col. 2:9) Jesus is our example. How Jesus lived is our example to follow.

Jesus showed us the substance of which the Law is only a shadow. It is the spirit of the Law, and not the letter, that we must grasp hold of. It isn’t an abolishment of the Law; the spirit of the Law is the fulfilment of it – it is that to which the Law points.

The Law continues as the great Standard until the end, and it’s purpose is to 1) make people conscious of their sins so that we are prepared to receive the gift of God in Christ and 2) to point us toward the character of God (but only in the sense of a shadow, which is an outline of the light that shines on it).

At the same time, for those who have come to Christ (who came to fulfill the Law for us) and who have received the free gift of grace through faith, the letter of the Law is now abolished. We are no longer to live a life following decrees, but we must learn to live guided by the law of liberty. (James 2:12) This is the “new” law that Jesus announced:

“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” (John 13:34)

It isn’t really new, of course, it was the reality to which the Law pointed all along. Paul says:

“The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” (1 Tim. 1:5)

The command Paul gave was not the Law, but to refrain from focusing on “myths and endless genealogies” and “controversial speculations”. It is consistent with the idea of focusing on the end of the Law, which is love (and not getting caught up in the minute details of things that are of lesser importance).

The end of all this is God’s desire to “write” His law on our hearts so that we begin to live our lives being molded by His Spirit in relation to Him, becoming his children, having His spiritual DNA and being conformed to His image. Thus, Paul says:

“[I]f you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

“I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” (Galatians 3:29-4:7)

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