Matthew 5:17–18—Did Jesus come to do away with the Law of Moses?

Problem: Jesus said very explicitly, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” However, on one occasion Jesus approved of His disciples when they broke the Jewish law about working on the Sabbath (Mark 2:24), and Jesus Himself apparently did away with the ceremonial law by declaring all meats clean (Mark 7:19). Jesus’ disciples clearly rejected much of the OT law, including circumcision (Acts 15; Gal. 5:6; 6:15). Indeed, Paul declared that “You are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14) and that the Ten Commandments engraved in stone have been “taken away in Christ” (2 Cor. 3:14).

Solution: In the matter of whether the Law of Moses was done away with by Christ, confusion results from failing to distinguish several things.

First of all, there is a confusion of time. During His lifetime, Jesus always kept the Law of Moses Himself, including offering sacrifices to the Jewish priests (Matt. 8:4), attending Jewish festivals (John 7:10), and eating the passover lamb (Matt. 26:19). He did on occasion violate the pharisaical (and false) traditions that had grown up around the Law (cf. Matt. 5:43–44), chiding them, “You have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition” (Matt. 15:6). The verses that indicate the law has been fulfilled refer to after the Cross when there is “neither Jew nor Greek ... for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

Second, there is a confusion of aspect. At least some of the references (if not all) to the Law being done away with in the NT are speaking of OT ceremonies and types. These ceremonial and typological aspects of the OT Law of Moses were clearly done away with when Jesus, our passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7), fulfilled the Law’s types and predictions about His first coming (cf. Heb. 7–10). In this sense, Jesus clearly did away with the ceremonial and typological aspects of the Law, not by destroying the Law, but by fulfilling it.

Finally, there is a confusion about context. Even when the moral dimensions of the law are discussed, there is a confusion. For example, not only did Jesus fulfill the moral demands of the Law for us (Rom. 8:2–3), but the national and theocratic context in which God’s moral principles were expressed in the OT no longer apply to Christians today. For example, we are not under the commands as Moses expressed them for Israel, since, when expressed for them in the Ten Commandments, it had as its reward that the Jews would live “long upon the land [of Palestine] which the Lord your God is giving you [Israelites]” (e.g., Ex. 20:12). When the moral principle expressed in this OT commandment is stated in the NT, it is expressed in a different context, namely, one that is not national or theocratic, but is personal and universal. For all persons who honor their parents, Paul declares that they will “live long on the earth” (Eph. 6:3). Likewise, Christians are no longer under the commandment of Moses to worship on Saturday (Ex. 20:8–11), for, since the Resurrection, appearances, and Ascension (all of which occurred on Sunday), Christians worship on Sunday instead (see Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). Sabbath worship, declared Paul, was only an OT “shadow” of the real substance which was inaugurated by Christ (Col. 2:16–17). Since even the Ten Commandments as such were expressed in a national Jewish, theocratic framework, the NT can speak correctly about that which was “engraved on stones” being “taken away in Christ “ (2 Cor. 3:7, 13–14).

However, this does not mean that the moral principles embodied in the Ten Commandments, that reflect the very nature of an unchanging God, are not still binding on believers today. Indeed, every one of these principles contained in the Ten Commandments is restated in another context in the NT, except of course the command to rest and worship on Saturday.

Christians today are no more under the Ten Commandments as given by Moses to Israel than we are under the Mosaic Law’s requirement to be circumcised (see Acts 15; Gal. 3) or to bring a lamb to the temple in Jerusalem for sacrifice. The fact that we are bound by similar moral laws against adultery, lying, stealing, and murder no more proves we are still under the Ten Commandments than the fact that there are similar traffic laws in North Carolina and Texas proves that a Texan is under the laws of North Carolina. The truth is that when one violates the speed laws in Texas he has not thereby violated a similar law in North Carolina, nor is he thereby bound by the penalties of such laws in North Carolina. In like manner, although both the OT and NT speak against adultery, nevertheless, the penalty was different—capital punishment in the OT (Lev. 20:10) and only excommunication from the church in the NT (1 Cor. 5:1–13), with the hope of restoration upon repentance (cf. 2 Cor. 2:6–8).

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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.