Did Jesus Destroy the Law?

If you asked most Christians to list their relationship to the laws of the Old Testament the way they do on social media, some might fall under the category “In a relationship.” Others might describe the relationship as “Separated.” But the most accurate—even if it’s the most uncomfortable—would have to be “It’s complicated.”

Many Christians imagine that Jesus offers complete freedom from the restrictive laws of Old Testament faith, and that’s true to some extent. Jesus broke the religious laws of his day over and over again. He allowed his hungry disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath. He didn’t observe the ritual hand washing that the Law required. He healed on the Sabbath, even though that was against the Law.

So it comes as a surprise to many of us when Jesus doubles down on the Law, saying “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). Why does Jesus sound less like a rebel and more like a rule follower? Why is Jesus warning us that not one letter, not even one stroke of a letter, will pass away from the law?

One of the most helpful things we can do when we try to answer big questions like this is to consider the context of these words. We have to remember that Jesus was a first century Jewish Rabbi speaking to first century Jews living in first century Palestine. So when we hear the expression “the Law,” it helps to understand Jesus’ words in their original context before we apply them in ours. When a first century Jewish teacher like Jesus used the expression “the Law,” it could mean a few different things: the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), the first five books of the Bible (Torah), the 613 commandments (mitzvot) found in the Torah, the Law and the Prophets (the Christian Old Testament), or the scribal law. This last understanding of the Law was an added layer of interpretation, application and clarification from later generations of Rabbis.

The oral tradition of scribal law was still being composed in Jesus’ day, and he is weighing in on a heated debate between religious and legal scholars. Some say all of the Law is binding, including the scribal law, while others want to go back to basics. Jesus falls into the radical center, the extremely moderate position that respects the Law and faithfully tries to discern when it is and is not binding on the believer.

Faithful Christians then and now have struggled with the meaning of Jesus’ words. They have tried to figure out what it means that he fulfilled the Law, and many times they are looking for a checklist or a recipe for salvation. But Jesus offers something more difficult, but also more rewarding. He says, “It’s complicated.”

A pastor for the early church named Augustine summarized the Law this way: “Love God, and do what you like.” Far from granting permission to do anything and everything, his words instruct Christ’s followers to follow God’s will. Because when we love God with all that we are, then what we like to do will be in line with God’s law, God’s will and God’s instruction.

The Law is ultimately a call to love. In saying that he has fulfilled the Law, Jesus hands each of his followers a blank sheet of paper and asks us a few simple questions. He asks if we will reject evil and repent of our sins. He asks if we will accept the freedom and power from God to resist evil, injustice and oppression. And he asks if we will confess Jesus as our Savior and follow him as our Lord. Listen to the sermon, “Did Jesus Destroy the Law?”

Pastor Matt Potter