Did Jesus abolish the law?

Posted on Apr.18, 2010. Filed in Ephesians, Matthew. Average rating: 4.2 / 10 (Rate It).

One difficulty of Christian theology is that of explaining the role of the Jewish law under the new covenant. Among the mixed messages that we get on this topic are two apparently contradictory statements about whether Jesus abolished the law.

Jesus himself described his mission as fulfilling the law, but not abolishing it:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. [Matthew 5:17, NRSV]

However, Ephesians says that Jesus abolished the law:

He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances… [Ephesians 2:15a, NRSV]

So did Jesus abolish the law or not?

N.B. All posts are written in a style sympathetic to the claim of Biblical error, even in cases where the author ("Errancy") disagrees with the claim. See the About page for the site's philosophy.

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  1. 1

    In the Greek, this isn’t the clear contradiction that it appears to be in English: in the two verses in question “abolish” is used to translate two different verbs (in Matthew, the verb is καταλυω, whereas in Ephesians the verb is καταργεω). Focusing on this difference might be one way to approach harmonising the verses.

  2. 2

    “Jesus himself described his mission as fulfilling the law, but not abolishing it”

    Strictly, you should say that Matthew, or rather the author of Matthew, said that Jesus said this. :)

  3. 3

    Abolish / destroy / nullify – I’m not sure it’s going to matter.

    “Paul [or the author of Ephesians] didn’t say Jesus abolished the law, merely that he nullified it” or any sort of similar argument isn’t going to be very convincing, or so I suspect.

    Isn’t the standard answer that Jesus abolished certain aspects of the law (i.e. the Jewish customs of diet etc) but not others?

  4. 4

    Actually (and in opposition to what I wrote above) I have encountered the view that “Paul” is not saying that Jesus abolished the law, but rather is saying that he removed the enmity created between God and man caused by the law.

    You might need to include v14-16 for context.

  5. 5

    Also in opposition to what I wrote in #3, Matthew 5:18 says “not one iota of the law” will be abolished. Though on the other hand, Matthew 15 seems to give the opposite idea.

  6. 6

    Jesus himself often uses equivocal and seemingly contradictory language, such as in John 9:39 (‘for judgment I came into this world’ [ESV]) and John 12:47 (I did not come to judge the world but to save the world’ [ESV])(you might want a page on that by the way).

    Just as it is possible for these quotes to be referring to different kinds of judgement, so may Matthew and Ephesians be referring to two different kinds of abolishment. A likely possibility would be that the author of Ephesians (in the Pauline tradition) is talking about abolishing the legalistic Pharisaic perspective on the Law, whereas Jesus is referring to the words of the Old Testament alone.

    Alternatively (and in my opinion more likely), the errantist point of view could be correct – Ephesians could simply reflect Paul’s rather… strong… opinions on Jewish law, and Matthew the author’s opposite perspective. You can’t forget the politics of the Early Church. The issue of the Law is very interesting, and there are quite a few possible inconsistencies in the Bible which arise upon analysis.

  7. 7

    It’s my understanding now that neither Jesus nor Paul abolished the Law. Numerous are Jesus’ comments that uphold it, and much plainer than those of Paul. The New Perspective on Paul holds that he was Torah-observant. The language he uses in Ephesians and Galatians seems to negate it, but that is due, I think, to an amalgamation of our bias against it; his valid criticisms of it; the fact that his letters are responses and addresses, not dialogues; and difficulties with cultural/translational/march-of-time paradigms.

    1. Jesus upholding the Law is plain to me. 2. If we go to something simpler that Paul said, he said that “Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us.” That to me means that the sins and penalties of the Law still apply or are with us, but that Jesus took the death penalty for (instead of) us on the cross.

  8. 8

    Both. The Law is still in affect for the unsaved. For the saved, being under the Law, the Law is abolished. See Galatians. That is how I have understood this. It has never seemed to be a problem to me.

  9. 9

    I don’t see this as an issue at all. The Greek for “abolish” in Ephesians is a different word, and means “to render useless” or “put away”.

    MT. 5:17 in the AV,

    “…I am come not to DESTROY, but to fulfill.”

    Thr Greek here is a stronger word meaning

    “to demolish, destroy, or overthrow”.

    Jesus fulfilled the law covenant with his life and work, culminating in his death (under the law) and resurrection.

    Paul is writing post-resurrection. Since Christ fulfilled the law covenant, it’s usefulness and purpose has ended, and it is therefore abolished.

  10. 10

    Paul had to sell his religion to the gentiles. He knew that they would not behave like Jews. The laws had to go, and most of them did. Modern Christians may talk about keeping the Sabbath, for example, but their Sabbath is not the Jewish Sabbath.

  11. 11
    Leon B. Joseph

    This can be a somewhat confusing issue, especially for many who are taught to believe certain things in a certain manner. I will try to explain it simply, but forgive me if I do not do the explanation justification. Here goes.

    Eph 2:15 is not dealing with SALVATION. Paul has already dealt with that issue earlier on in chapter 2. Eph 2:8;9 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.

    Now take note of what he says in verse 10.
    For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.

    Thus the The Law, Commandments etc. before ordained in the Old Testament (Torah) have not been abolished. There are simply not the means by which ones attains salvation. Turning from breaking God’s Laws and Commandments to keeping them SHOULD be the result of one who has attained salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. This perfectly corresponds to Romans 3:31.

    What Paul is talking about from Eph 2:10-19, is the act of RECONCILIATION. In essence what Paul is saying is a gentile no longer has to go through the full conversion process including circumcision etc. (and trust me there was then and is today a lot more to it) to be reconciled to God, and have communal fellowship with Jewish believers. He/she does not have to go through the legal process of full conversion which was a type of wall (symbolically and actually) for converts. There was even a wall in the outer court of the temple in Jerusalem which kept uncircumcised gentiles, who wanted to partake of temple activities, separate from Jews and Gentiles that had gone through the full conversion process to be accepted into Judaism.

    Going beyond that wall for an uncirmcised non-converted gentile was a death sentence, enforced by the Romans themselves even against a Roman citizen. In 1871 an excavation found one of the stones of this outer wall with the inscription on it written in Greek, “NO FOREIGNER IS TO GO BEYOND THE BALUSTRADE AND THE PLAZA OF THE TEMPLE ZONE WHOEVER IS CAUGHT DOING SO WILL HAVE HIMSELF TO BLAME FOR HIS DEATH WHICH WILL FOLLOW” Josephus says it was also written in latin.

    The first non-Jews to hear the gospel and believe were given the same gift (Acts 10:46)as the apostles received in the upper room on the day of Shavuot (Pentecost)Acts 2:1-4. Peter along with James and the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:13-21), determined that this was a sign from God that gentiles were now to be welcomed into the community (commonwealth)of Israel, without first having to go through a legalistic and often lengthy conversion process as was required prior to the death of the Christ Jesus (The Anointed One, God’s Salvation). Gentiles who heard and believed the Gospel, should now be welcomed as fellow citizens in the Kingdom of God, after which the Holy Spirit would guide them how to walk (Eph. 2:10)as befitting those who love and worship the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob.

    There is no contradiction if one follows the whole teaching of St. Paul in Ephesians chapter 2, keeping the context of WHAT he uses the term “prescriptions” (works or LAW contained in commandments) in relation to, in verses 10 (and Romans 3:31) and 15. In the first instance he is using it as to how it applies to a believer after he/she obtains SALVATION through GRACE, while in the latter case St. Paul is using it relative to Gentile obligatory requirements for fellowship into the community of God. Prior to Christ’s death and resurrection, Gentile acceptance by the Jewish community (see Acts 10:28) was connected to a legal conversion process of adoption into Israel. The translators actually did a very good job in their chapter division of Ephesians 2, as they do through most of the Bible. Paul’s letters are hard to understand as even St. Peter acknowledges (2Peter 3:16). Yet there is no contradiction, when one rightly understand how to rightly divide the word of truth.

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