What Did Jesus Do to the Law?
We are no longer under the guardianship of the Law, but rather are made-right with God by faith, through love, working (Galatians 3:24-25):
“So the Law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.”
Some people, however, would like it if we as Christians are still under the guardianship of the Law.
- Christians who would like to selectively cite Leviticus so that they can cudgel other people with judgment.
- Anti-Christians (people who go after Christianity as false and bad) who want to claim that Christians don’t take their religion seriously and/or are bound to follow Laws that no longer make sense in our cultural context (indeed, many of those Laws we’d call rather bizarre and unacceptable, requiring faith in a ‘time-and-culture-limited’ ancillary context).
- … And some other folks.
By far the most popular passage cited in support of this is Matthew 5:17-20:
“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 tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The incorrect reading of this passage often employed by anti-Christians will contradict Paul’s statements about no longer being a slave to the Law, especially in Galatians and Romans.
Anti-Christians have an explanation ready for this: “Yes, Paul contradicts Jesus.”
This rides along with a popular “Pauline conspiracy theory” meme, which claims Paul hijacked Christianity from the original Apostles and changed it considerably from the original teachings of Jesus.
The text, especially when primed with the idea that Jesus is talking about maintaining the guardianship of the Law, very easily yields that incorrect reading if we’re not careful to answer the following 2 questions:
- (A) What did “fulfill” mean?
- (B) Why did Jesus go out of his way to say this? What was his intent?
The word for “fulfill” here is pleroma.
Pleroma means absolute filling-up to completion, even to excess, such that it was sometimes used as an idiom for patched clothing.
It is one of the most theologically significant words in Christianity, leveraged in assertions about God’s sovereignty, Jesus Christ’s Godhood, and God’s ultimate plan in Romans ch. 11.
Jesus came, therefore, to absolutely complete the Law.
Imagine the Law as a cup that demands to be filled; Jesus came to fill it up, up, up, right up to the brim, and even spilling over.
And what is the means by which Jesus would do that?
By instituting a moral reformation, restructured entirely upon love (Galatians 5:6,14):
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith, through love, working (pistis di agapes energoumene). … For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
In other words, through Christ, the entirety of the Law can be satisfied/completed/pleroma’d just by loving others, and doing so passionately, wisely, genuinely, patiently, mercifully, and self-sacrificially.
This is the means by which “your righteousness can surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law.” Faithful love “practices” all of its commands, so to speak. Teaching faithful love “teaches” all of these commands, so to speak.
Notice “so to speak.” A flat, surface reading really does seem like Jesus is not fulfilling the Law, but holding us to fulfill it ourselves, as before. And yet, he says he came to fulfill the Law!
The resolution here is this “so to speak” replacement of how fulfillment of the Law — down to the tiniest command — “works” under the New Covenant.
It’s a bit confusing, to be sure. This article wouldn’t exist if such confusion didn’t exist. Indeed, many things Jesus said were confusing, and interpretations of his teachings and parables are debated among Christians to this day.
Given this confusion, we wonder, “Why did Jesus say this, then? Why did he put it this way?”
The answer is that the Law stands to convict us as sinners who fall short, in a general and broad sense. Jesus wanted everyone to feel convicted. He wanted people to marvel at the impossibility of fulfilling the Law themselves.
Jesus wanted to provoke this: “How could my righteousness surpass even that of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law!?”
Which, of course, is a great question.
This is also why he kept hammering on keeping the “tiniest command.” Many of the religious elite who antagonized Jesus — frequently Pharisees and teachers of the Law — saw themselves as having fulfilled the Law themselves. But they had a tiny problem: Many had unjustly divorced and remarried, and were adulturers under the Law. As such, “the Law stands to convict” was the means by which Jesus could tell them and convict them, “You are Lawbreakers, too. You, too, need what I’ve come to offer.”
(A) + (B) = Correct Reading
When we answer those two questions, we can finally read this passage correctly, and understand that we can bear the Law’s burden — an otherwise astronomical impossibility — by taking advantage of what Christ offered:
- Through Christ, the Law is completely satisfied, completely taught, and completely practiced, down to the tiniest command, by faithfully loving others.
It can seem a bit strange that you could get credit for various commands you’re only doing “by love-proxy.”
But that’s the correct reading, as the next section will help make very obvious.
Rebuttal of “Pauline Conspiracy Theories”
Since Paul most clearly articulates in what ways the Law lingers (and in what ways it doesn’t) under the New Covenant, Paul is “inconvenient” for those who’d prefer the incorrect reading, insofar as the incorrect reading would be very problematic for Christianity.
As such, these folks often argue that Paul is radically out-of-sync with Jesus and the original Apostles — that he “hijacked” Christianity and changed it.
This assertion requires imaginative fantasy about first century church history, but more humorously, requires simply not reading the Bible, where the correct reading is supported by Jesus elsewhere and by epistles from the original Apostles, including James, John, and Peter.
Jesus taught that all the Law and Prophets “hung on” loving others (God and neighbor) (Matthew 22:36-40):
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Jesus made it clear that the Law stopped being proclaimed with John the Baptist, because the imminent Kingdom of God (under the New Covenant) was the new paradigm. But Law would continue as a convicter, especially against the self-righteous who were technically adulturers according to the Law (Luke 16:16-18):
[Jesus spoke to the Pharisees and teachers of the Law sneering at Jesus, saying,] “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it.
It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law: ‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.'”
Jesus made similar remarks, later, to the chief priests and elders at the Temple (Matthew 21:31b):
“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors [known as grifters in that culture] and the prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you. For John [the Baptist] came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”
John, one of the original Apostles, made sure we understood the love-based architecture of the New Covenant (1 John 4:7-8, 18):
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. … There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
Peter, Jesus’s prime Apostle, supported Paul as a brother and explicitly endorsed Paul’s articulation of the New Covenant (2 Peter 2:15-16):
“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”
James “home-runs” — or “touchdowns,” or whatever sports analogy you please — the proclamation of the Law’s fulfillment in love (James 2:8-10, 12-13):
“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. … Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
That “Royal Law of Freedom” is love, and its power — through Christ — to completely fulfill the Law in teaching and practice, every jot and tittle, up to the brim, and overflowing it.
This is why we listen to Paul: Because Paul was just conveying, explicitly and eloquently, what Jesus taught and the original Apostles reiterated, and the exciting, beautiful, brilliant New Covenant that Christ instituted (Romans 13:8-10):
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law.”
Additional Note, August 7, 2020
It’s important to point out that the Epistle of James was written to professing believers who were failing to love.
Professing believers who fail to love others are not justified before God; they have lost their rightstanding.
For example, those who show cruel dispassion for the widow and orphan, or who exalt the rich and show snide contempt for the poor, are failing to love others in this way.
Let’s read together from James chs. 1 and 2:
“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. … Whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom [‘love others’], and continues in it — not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it — they will be blessed in what they do.
Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become wickedly judgmental?
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor! Is it not the rich who are exploiting you?
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. … Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom [‘love others’], because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but doesn’t act on it? Can such faith save them?”
People who call themselves believers but wallow in hypocritical judgmentalism do not have saving faith. Their religion is worthless. God’s wrath looms for them and he will repay them according to what they have done (Romans ch. 2):
“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.
Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? … You are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.
God will repay each person according to what they have done.”
To avoid self-satisfied judgmentalism and hypocrisy, to avoid that star-struck temptation to show favoritism to the wealthy, powerful, famous, influential charlatans of the world, to avoid conflating worldly success (whether in business, or politics, or religious leadership) with piety and glory, to avoid “punching down” upon the downtrodden and putting the poor “by our feet” (often by focusing exclusively on what they did or failed to do that resulted in their situation), we must come to understand a weird neurobiological problem we have when Speaking Truth in Love.
One aspect of the Torah that we can’t ignore is how it is wrapped up in Jewish identity – Paul in Romans 11:27-28 tells us that Jewish covenantal calling, witness, and identity in keeping the Law is irrevocable. The issue, which Paul addresses earlier in Romans 9:30-33, is that the foundation of keeping the Law must be faith, not legalism.
We must be careful not to give the impression that Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law equals the *abrogation* of the Law. After all, one of the terms of the New Covenant that God made with the Jewish people is that He would write Torah on their hearts! (Jeremiah 31:31-33)
Keep up the great work.
Correction… the Romans 11 reference I meant is Romans 11:25-29.
Have you read much Kierkegaard? This reminds me of his view of human life-stages.
That was a worthwhile read, Stan. If I’m interpreting your beliefs correctly, do you believe that the Reformers were in error about their “Doctrines of Grace?” I too think when a believer fails to have the fruit of the Spirit (“love” in ref. to Galatians 5), they are not in right standing with God. However, I would distinguish Paul’s understanding of “works“ and James’ understanding of “works.” “Works” for Paul were the legalistic adherence to the Mosaic Law as you not earlier in the post. “Works” for James are simply actions or responses to God’s commands (James 2).
Thanks, Andrew. I only share certain views with Reformed folks and disagree on other bits.
I share your understanding of Paul’s use of “works” vs. that of James.