Did Jesus abolish the law?

Posted on Apr.18, 2010. Filed in Matthew, Ephesians. 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.

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