“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” (Matthew 5:17-18)
To say that the modern religious world is tragically and pathetically divided is to state the very obvious. What some teach as truth is what others condemn as error. How do we account for this distressing situation?
We would like to humbly suggest that one of the basic causes for this religious division is a tragic failure to distinguish between the Old Testament system of religion and that of the New.
Many people today resort to the Old Testament law to justify such practices as paying and receiving of tithes, using mechanical instrument of music in worship, observance of Sabbath, burning of incense and maintaining a special priestly caste. These and many other doctrines, which we shall very soon see to be false, are taught today by sincere and well-meaning people simply because they do not, and cannot, differentiate between the Law of Moses and the Gospel of Christ.
When the attention of such people is called to facts relating to the need to distinguish between Judaism and Christianity, or rather between the Old Testament system of religion of the Jews (Leviticus 27:34), and that of Christ in the New Testament which is for the whole world (Matthew 28:19), they holler: “but Christ has said He did not come to destroy the law or the prophets!”
What is the import of this statement by our Lord Jesus Christ? What is the nature of the Law of Moses? How can we establish the abrogation of the Old Testament? Finally, what are the consequences of mixing the practices of the Old and the New Testaments? These questions constitute the burden of this write-up.
What Does Jesus Christ Mean In Matthew 5:17?
What does the Lord mean by saying He did not come “to destroy the law or the prophets”? First of all, we need to understand the Lord Jesus used the word destroy in antithesis with fulfil. He did not employ the word “destroy” as an antithesis with perpetuate. Read it again: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil….” (Matthew 5:17). Fulfil is one thing, perpetuate which many erroneously read into the passage, is another. But Christ emphatically said He came to fulfil the law.
“What is the Law or the Prophets?”
In the scriptures, “the law” is sometimes used to refer basically to the Ten Commandments. In Romans 7:7, Paul argues: “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, 'Thou shalt not covet.'” Evidently, the reference here is to the Decalogue (Exodus 20:17).
Sometimes, the word “law” refers to the entire first five books in the Old Testament, namely, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. When Jesus Christ stated in Matthew 12:5: “Or have you not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?...,” He was referring, not just to the Ten Commandments, but to the provisions of the law of Moses in the Pentateuch in Numbers 28, particularly verse 9.
At times, “the law” encapsulates the book of Psalms. The Lord said, “…Is it not written in your law, I said, 'Ye are gods'” (John 10:34). But this passage is an allusion to Psalms 82:6.
The “law” also incorporates the writings of the Old Testament prophets. In John 12:34, we read, “… we have heard out of the law that Christ abideth for ever”? Now a question: Where in the law do we have it stated that “Christ abideth for ever”? This is stated in the writings of the prophets of old in Micah 4:7!!!
From these premises, therefore, it is palpably evident that “the law” includes as well the prophets, the psalms and the entirety of what we consider today as the Old Testament. To underscore this fact, after His resurrection, but shortly before His ascension, the Lord declared to His disciples: “44And he said to them, These are the words which I spoke to you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.” (Luke 24:44).
What Is the Meaning of “Fulfil”?
Jesus said He came to the earth for a specific purpose. That purpose was to fulfil the Law (Matthew 5:17). In this context, to fulfil simply means “to complete, to finish or bring to an end.” This is made clearer when the law is viewed from the perspective of a covenant. Indeed, it is a covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34). It is the first covenant which gave way for the second (Hebrews 8:7-13).
Now what remains after a covenant has been fulfilled? In other words, it is generally understood that the fulfilment of an agreement or a covenant is the end of that particular covenant.
How Did Christ Fulfil the Law?
By fulfilling what the prophets said of Him, Jesus completed the law. There is not one prophecy of the Old Testament that Jesus failed to fulfil. He said, “… all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the Law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning me” (Luke 24:44)
Jesus Christ also fulfilled the Law by living perfectly or sinlessly (1 Peter 2:22; Hebrews 4:15). Under the Law, the only way man could stand justified before God was to keep all of the law, all of the time (Galatians 2:16). From this standpoint, the law could not justify any man because no man could keep all of the law, all of the time. So, “the law made nothing perfect” (Hebrews 7:19). It became a curse because it condemned man (Galatians 3:13).
But again, Jesus fulfilled the law by keeping it. He “committed no sin” (1 Peter 2:22). Satan and the Pharisees and the religious leader of His days used extreme situations to tempt Jesus Christ to sin, but He did not succumb to these temptations.
The sin-less-ness of Christ is underscored by the action and the statement of the one who scourged Him when “he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person” (Matthew 27:24). The one who betrayed Him also declared His innocence: “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” (Matthew 27:4).
By perfectly obeying the law through His sinless life, Jesus Christ honoured and fulfilled the law. Thus, He fulfilled the demands of the law and brought redemption to man (Galatians 4:4-5).
Apart from that, Jesus fulfilled the law by offering His life as a perfect sacrifice for sin. He was “a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:19). He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself (Hebrews 9:26). The death of Christ fulfilled the law by being the perfect sacrifice required for the penalty for our sin. He “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
Therefore, Jesus fulfilled the law and the prophets by fulfilling what the prophet said of Him, by His perfect obedience and by His death on the cross. Against this backdrop, He was able to say, “It is finished” (John 19: 30). His death on the cross, “Wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). Because the law has been fulfilled we are no longer under it (Galatians 3:19, 23-25).
“For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law, till all is fulfilled”
Like the previous verse, some have read into the passage much more than our Lord said. To some people what Jesus is saying is that till heaven and earth pass away, the law will not pass away. That idea betrays a woeful ignorance of logic and grammar.
Consider this illustration: If a labour leader says: “till heaven and earth pass away, workers will not return to work until all our demands are met.” Would anyone understand the labour leader to be saying workers would not return to work until heaven and earth pass away? How does that follow from the premises? Rather, people who understand the use of language know that the labour leader is saying workers would return to work only after their demands are met.
Besides, the word “TILL” implies temporariness. It also denotes a termination point. Jesus is simply saying the law would not pass away TILL all is fulfilled. It logically follows that when it is fulfilled, it would pass away.
Now, the big question is: Has Christ fulfilled the law? He declared He did (Luke 24:44). Because He had fulfilled the law, He took it out of the way and nailed it to His cross (Colossians 2:14).
Having been fulfilled by Christ, they were replaced by the law of Christ - the New Testament. This fulfills the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31-34. Jesus took away the old covenant that He might establish the second (Hebrews 10:9; cf. 8:7-13). He took away the Old Testament and nailed it to His cross (Colossians 2:14-17). The Old Testament law, given by Moses, is done away in Christ (2 Corinthians 3:11-17). Mike Willis summed up this in a very beautiful way when he wrote:
Jesus was to the law what marriage is to an engagement, a flower is to a bud, and a completed picture is to a silhoutte. When an engagement ends in marriage, a bud produces a flower and a silhoutte is finished in a picture; the engagement, bud and a silhoutte are not destroyed. They accomplish their intended purpose and are left behind that the completed form might exist. In a similar way, Christ “is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth” (Rom. 10:4). (Mike Wilis, Guardian of Truth, Oct. 20, 1988).
What Is the Nature Of the Old Testament?
Now, let us shift our focus and beam our searchlight on what the word of God teaches as constituting the nature of the law of Moses and the entire Old Testament system.
1. The Law of Moses Was Weak - “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin, He condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3). The weakness of the law derives from the fact that it demanded that man keep it perfectly; and no man was able to keep it so perfectly.
2. The Old Covenant Was Imperfect - “For if that first covenant had been faultless, then would no place have been sought for the second” (Hebrews 8:7). “For the law made nothing perfect; on the other hand, there is the bringing in of a better hope through which we draw near to God” (Hebrews 7:19).
3. The Law Could Not Provide Justification - “By the works of the law shall no flesh be justified in His sight” (Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:20; Hebrews 10:4).
4. The Law Was Only An Addition - “What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator” (Galatians 3:19).
5. The Law Of Moses Was Given Provisionally Until the Coming of Christ - “It was added because of transgressions till the seed should come ...” (Galatians 3:19). It was to be valid until it is fulfilled (Matthew 5:17-18).
6. The Law Of Moses Was Our Custodian Until Christ Came - “But before faith came, we were kept under the law (of Moses - SA), shut up unto the faith which would afterwards be revealed. Wherefore, the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (Gal. 3: 23-25). The word schoolmaster in King James Version (KJV) is rendered custodian in the Revised Standard Version (RSV). The idea of a schoolmaster or custodian is that of a pedagogue. A pedagogue was an old trusted slave who accompanied minor children to and from school to ensure that they did not loiter along the way. In a sense, a pedagogue supervises the morals and the manners of these children; and conduct them to their teacher. Galatians 3:23-25 teaches that now that faith has come, we are no longer under a pedagogue. Christ is the Teacher, while the law served only as the custodian to bring men to Christ.
From these premises, therefore, it could be palpably seen that the nature of “the law and the prophets” is an eloquent testimony to the fact that the Old Testament in its entirety has been abrogated. As a result of this, the Old Testament ordinances have given way to the New Testament ordinances - the apostles’ doctrine (Colossians 2:14-16; Acts 2:42; 15:23-29). Not only that, the priesthood has also been changed from the Levitical priesthood to the priesthood of Christ (Hebrews 7:11-14). Under the priesthood of Christ, all Christians are priests and Christ is the High Priest (1 Peter 2:5,9; Revelation 1:6; Hebrews 2:17; 3:1; 4:14-16; 5:5, 10). Besides, we no longer need animal sacrifices. We now enjoy the efficacy of the sacrifice of the Son of God. Christ is now, under the New Testament, our Passover (1 Corinthians 5: 7-8; Hebrews 7:26-27; 10:10-18).
Other noticeable change that follows the abrogation of the Old Testament is that of the items of temple worship (Hebrews 9:1-14). The items of worship under the New Testament are listed in Acts 2:42 and Acts 20:7. The Old Testament made provision for the Sabbath day (Saturday) as the day of worship. But the New Testament makes provision for the first day of the week (Sunday) as the day of Christian worship (Exodus 20:8-11; Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2; Revelation 1:10). The Old Testament stipulated that the temple in Jerusalem was the only place where the Jews could offer acceptable worship (John 4:20; Deuteronomy 12:5-11; 2 Chronicles 7:12). But Christians are now free, under the New Testament, to worship God at any place as long as they worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:21-24).
As a corollary to the change of the law, what was binding in the Old Testament as to what animals one could lawfully eat (Leviticus 11:1ff) is no longer binding today under the New Testament. For Christians, “every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving. For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5). “Whatever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake: For the earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof” (1 Corinthians 10:25-26).
What Are the Consequences Of Mixing the Practices of the Old Testament With the New?
Our study so far has led us to the point that whatever is taught and practiced today must be authorized by the New Testament. However, there are millions of religious people today who appeal to the Old Testament to justify their teachings and practices. Most popular among these are paying and receiving of tithes, the use of mechanical instrument of music, observance of Sabbath, special priesthood, burning of incense and candles, observance of Feast of Tabernacle, Feast of Pentecost, Harvest and so on. What are the consequences of teaching and practicing these things under the New Testament dispensation?
1. It means such people are obligated to keep the whole law - “For I testify to every man that is circumcised that he is a debtor to do the whole law” (Galatians 5:3). The law of Moses is structured in such a way that nobody could take one of its provisions and leave the other. “Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them. And all the people shall say, Amen” (Deuteronomy 27:26). This principle is amplified in James 2:10 - “For whosoever shall keep the whole law and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” As a result of this principle, to perform circumcision on the basis of the law of Moses is to be obligated to keep the law in its entirety. Now, nobody really wants to go back to the Old Testament completely. What happens is that when people are so obsessed with an Old Testament teaching or practice like tithing, polygamy, special priesthood, celebration of harvest etc and finding no authority for it in the New Testament, they desperately resort to the Old Testament. In politics, this is a kind of kangaroo arrangement.
2. It means such people are “entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1). Peter declared at the gathering in Jerusalem that the law of Moses was a yoke “which neither our fathers (Jewish fathers-SA) nor we (Jews-SA) were able to bear” (Acts 15:10; vss. 1, 5).
3. It means such people have forfeited the grace that is in Christ - “Behold, I Paul say unto you that if you are circumcised (according to the law of Moses - SA) Christ shall profit you nothing...Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law (of Moses-SA); ye are fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:2, 4).
4. It means such people are committing (spiritual) adultery. “For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then, if while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adultress; but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adultress, though she be married to another man. Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law (of Moses-SA) by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God” (Romans 7:2-4). Just as a woman cannot be married to two men at the same time without committing adultery, just so Christians cannot be amenable to both the Old and the New Testaments at the same time.
5. It is sinful - The sinfulness of mixing the teachings and practices of the two testaments stems from the fact that it involves tempting God. “Now therefore, why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples...” (Acts 15:10). Moreover, it is tantamount to subverting of souls. “Forasmuch as we have heard that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, ‘Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law (of Moses-SA)...” (Acts 15:24). Besides, the sinfulness of mixing the teachings and practices of the Old and New Testaments is underscored by the fact that the apostles “gave no such commandment” (Acts 15:24). To go beyond the teachings of the apostles is to go beyond the teachings of Christ and God (1 Corinthians 2:10-13; 14:37; 2 John 9-11).
Conclusion: The law of Moses has been abrogated, making way for the New Testament (Colossians 2:14-17). God changed the Levitical priesthood to that of Christ. Since the priesthood has been changed, “there is made of necessity a change also of the law” (Hebrews 7:12). The New Testament has better promises (Hebrews 8:6-13). The Old Testament with all its ordinances were only to remain until the time of reformation - the coming of Christ (Hebrews 9: 1-28).
To state these things does not mean Christians are today without law. Indeed, we are under the law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21). “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (John. 1:17).To state these things does not mean we can derive no benefit from a study of the Old Testament. “All scripture is given by the inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. That the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Surely, “whosoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we, through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4). We learn of the patience of Job, the faith of Abraham and the courage of Elijah.
Regarding certain recorded events of the Old Testament, the apostle Paul says, “Now these things happened unto them by way of examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come” (1 Corinthians 10:11).
Keep in mind that the law of Moses had a purpose and this was accomplished in Christ. To that extent, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth” (Romans 10:4). Today, if what you do or practice cannot be found in the law of Christ, please, give it up.
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