Jesus vs. Paul (see the intro here)
Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
So begins the Declaration of Independence.
On July 4th, 1776, the document was signed by 56 representatives from the American colonies, to explain to the King of England and indeed the world why exactly English rule was no longer acceptable.The Declaration lists all the grievances of the Colonists with their government, and tells the reader why independence from England was the chosen course of action. While this might be informative for the people living in the colonies, the intended audience is the rest of the world.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The U.S. Constitution is a much different document. Written to delineate the powers and roles of the new government, it starts out with “We the People” and speaks of “ourselves and our Posterity.” Although it might be informative for the rest of the world, the intended audience is the populace of the United States.
The intended audience matters, and changes how we talk about a given subject.
The question was raised: Did Jesus change or get rid of the Law of Moses?
Are Christians free from following all 613 of its commandments?
Doesn’t Jesus clearly command obedience of the Law?
17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20 NASB)
First, consider the audience and the timing here. Jesus is speaking to a crowd of Jews who have been taught the Law all their lives. He is talking to people who live under the authority of the Law. And He is talking prior to finishing the work He came to do–fulfilling the Law.
This is very different from Paul addressing Gentiles and Jewish believers after the cross and the resurrection of Christ. Just like the Declaration and the Constitution are written to address different groups of people for very different reasons, Jesus and Paul are addressing people in very different conditions.
Early on in His most famous message, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to make it very clear that the Law is meant for us to follow. It has a purpose, and not a single bit of that Law is going away until the purpose is accomplished.
But then Jesus goes on to explain what that means. He begins a series of statements in this formula:
“You’ve heard that it is written X, but I say to you Y.”
And Y is always more stringent than X. And Y is always an internal issue of the heart, not just an external action.
“Do not commit murder” becomes do not be angry or hate your brother because that will send you to hell.
“Do not commit adultery” becomes do not lust, because lust will send you to hell.
“A certificate of divorce makes divorce ok” changes so that it’s only acceptable if a spouse commits adultery–not just for any reason, like tradition had taught.
“Make no false vows, and fulfill your oaths to the Lord” becomes “don’t make oaths; tell the truth all the time.”
The “Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” standard of justice and repayment becomes “accept harm and allow yourself to be wronged; be generous.”
“Love your neighbor and hate your enemy” changes to “love your enemy.”
And at the end of this, Jesus tells them, “Be perfect as your Father is perfect.”
It’s a tall order. It’s impossible, in fact.
And that’s the point.
Several times, we see Jesus ignoring the mandate of the Law and instead preaching something different.
For example, He encounters a woman in John 4 and engages in a religious discussion. That in itself is a violation of social norms, and given the sort of woman she is, she is unclean under the Law.
She is a Samaritan, and they believe that a particular mountain is the “right” place of worship instead of the Temple in Jerusalem. Note that the Temple is a necessary location for the Jews, as many of the mandated sacrifices and ceremonies in the Law can only be conducted by having either the Temple or the Tabernacle available.
It’s the center of worship under the Law.
And Jesus doesn’t seem to care.
21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.”
Not worshiping in Jerusalem at the Temple means not fulfilling the Law. Yet that’s what Jesus says here.
Elsewhere, a “sinful” woman comes to Jesus weeping. She washes His feet with tears and dries them with her hair. The religious leaders present judge Him for allowing an unclean woman to touch Him in such an unacceptable manner. And He praises her act of worship instead.
Later, in Matthew 12, Jesus’ disciples are strolling along behind him on the Sabbath day of rest, and they decide to grab some grain to eat as they walk. The religious leaders jump on this as a violation of God’s Law, and Jesus confronts them about the purpose of the Sabbath. “Was the Sabbath made for man, or man for the Sabbath?” He asks. He also points out violations of the Law in the Old Testament and shows that God was less concerned about the rule and more concerned about the heart.
Immediately after this, He finds a man who has a deformed hand, and He pushes the issue again. “It’s unlawful to work on the Sabbath,” the Pharisees would say. And yet Jesus heals the man, in defiance of the religious anger of the Pharisees.
Jesus went about preaching that His followers should eat His flesh and drink His blood in John 6. Of course, most Protestants call this symbolic, and Catholics believe it is literal, and this leads to debate about the Eucharist. But that’s beside the point of this discussion. The key point right now is to note that cannibalism is portrayed in the Law as a horrible barbarism, a potential consequence of disobedience.
The story at the beginning of John 8 is not found in the earliest New Testament manuscripts available, but it matches up with the compassion and grace Jesus becomes known for. When a woman is caught in the act of adultery, the religious leaders know that the penalty under the Law is death. But they hope to trap Jesus, and so they ask, “What do you think we should do?”
“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
In spite of what the Law clearly stipulated, Jesus chose to focus on forgiveness and mercy.
He did not strictly follow the Law, so it’s hard to believe that His intention was to teach that we should strictly follow the Law.
We see a few places where He distills the message of the Law and the Prophets into vague but powerful standards:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (Matthew 7:12)
Love God with all you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:36-40)
He says that these “fulfill the Law and Prophets.”
That’s a lot different than a list of 613 rules.
And Jesus’ disciples bear witness to this lack of emphasis on the Law. In Acts 10 and 11, we see the Apostle Peter experiencing a vision from God, in which Peter is told that all manner of creatures are acceptable as food. Peter counters, “No, I’ve never eaten anything unclean.” In other words, I haven’t violated the Law.
And he is told, “Do not call unclean what I have made clean.”
Shortly after that, Peter finds himself sharing the message of Jesus with a bunch of Gentiles–pretty much all those NOT-Jews in the world. And not long after that, Paul goes out preaching to the Gentiles throughout the known world.
After Paul’s first missionary journey, a dispute comes up in the early church about just how much of the Law should the Gentiles follow:
Acts 15:5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”
The apostles go off to discuss this. Keep in mind that this is the collection of guys who walked with Jesus and learned directly from Him for three years. One might hope that they would know pretty well what Jesus meant by some of His comments about the Law.
Peter concludes that enforcing the Law of Moses on the Gentiles is a mistake:
10 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? 11 But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”
Discussion continues, and instead of 613 rules, the apostles come up with a few essentials to pass on to the Gentile believers:
28 “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: 29 that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; [p]if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.”
The guys who lived night-and-day with Jesus somehow got the point that Jesus was not requiring absolute obedience to every stipulation of the Law of Moses. It’s hard to believe that we have a better insight into what Jesus taught than they had.
Not surprisingly, Paul agrees that the focus needs to be taken off of external actions like circumcision and obedience to the Law.
6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love… 14 For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “ You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:6, 14 NASB)
10 For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “ Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.” 11 Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “The righteous man shall live by faith.” 12 However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “ He who practices them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “ Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— 14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
Just as the Constitution lays out powers and responsibilities of government, the Law of Moses lays out a list of commands and expectations placed upon God’s people, the Jews. Jesus naturally referred to this often while addressing the Jews who were under that system.
And just as the Declaration of Independence served to point out to the world everything that was wrong with England’s governance over the colonies, Paul’s epistles go into great detail explaining the role of the Law- especially everything the Law couldn’t do – in order to express our liberty and freedom from the Law as a result of all Christ accomplished.
The two documents in American history do not contradict each other; they just serve different purposes. Likewise, the two perspectives presented by Jesus and Paul are complementary even if they appear quite different at a glance.
Peanut butter is different from jelly, too. But no one complains.
You put them together, make a sandwich, and are satisfied.