Does Galatians contradict Jesus with respect to the Law of Moses?

PURPOSE OF THIS ARTICLE SERIES

According to Galatians and the Acts 15 Church Council, the Law of Moses has been nullified and replaced by “the Law of Christ.” However, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets … until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments … shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”

The purpose of this article series is to explain this apparent contradiction.

All quotes are from the NASB.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

For some years after Christ’s death, the church consisted only of Jews and the church was a sect of Judaism. Like all other Jews of their time, these Jewish Christians believed that uncircumcised people are unclean and that Jews will be contaminated if they come in contact with such people.

But after some years, as recorded in Acts 10, God gave the Holy Spirit also to uncircumcised people; just as to the Jews at Pentecost. At the same time, God gave Peter the dream of unclean animals. Non-Jews were always allowed to convert to Judaism, but on condition that they are circumcised and comply with the Law of Moses. By the events of Acts 10, God indicated to the Jewish Christians that they must accept non-Jews into the Church without circumcision and without conversion to Judaism.

However, this caused the Jewish Christians to be persecuted, for the Jewish communities regarded the Jewish Christians as contaminated through their contact with uncircumcised people.  For that reason, some Jewish Christians avoided the Gentiles. Particularly Pharisees that became Christians even put pressure on the non-Jewish Christians to accept circumcision.

But circumcision was the door into Judaism. Once a person accepts circumcision, that person is obliged to also comply with all other requirements of the Law of Moses.

THE LAW OF MOSES HAS BEEN NULLIFIED.

Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians to resist the attempts to circumcise non-Jewish Christians.  He wrote that God’s people (both Jews and non-Jews) are no longer under (subject to) the Law of Moses. Paul described the law as Israel’s “tutor” and says, “we are no longer under a tutor.” 

Since God gave the Law to Moses more than 400 years after God made the covenant with Abraham, the covenant is permanent.  But the Law of Moses was temporarily “added because of transgressionsuntil the seed (Christ) would come” (3:19).  God made the covenant with Abraham before his grandson Israel moved to Egypt. During the long years as slaves in Egypt, Israel had forgotten the God of Abraham and has grown accustomed to idol worship. Therefore, after God brought them out of Egypt, He gave them His law in a form that was ‘perfect’ for their weakened spiritual condition of the time.

The Church Council in Acts 15 assembled to settle the Galatian controversy. It agreed with Paul that Gentile Christians do not have to be circumcised. However, that Council only concluded on the requirements for non-Jewish Christians. Unfortunately, this made a distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish Christians. Jewish Christians continued to live according to the Law of Moses.

THE LAW OF CHRIST REPLACED THE LAW OF MOSES.

While the earlier chapters of Galatians argue against the Law of Moses, the later chapters introduce the concept of “the Law of Christ,” expressed as to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). Given the nature of the controversy which Galatians deals with, the mention of “the law of Christ” implies that it comes in the place of the frequently mentioned “Law” (of Moses).

1 Corinthians 9:20-21 confirms that “the law of Christ” came in the place of the “law of Moses.” This is the only place, apart from Galatians, where Paul explicitly mentions the “Law of Christ.” In those verses, Paul states that he (and, therefore, all Christians) is NOT under the Law of Moses but “under the law of Christ.”

EVERYTHING IN THE OLD TESTAMENT WILL COME TO PASS.

Jesus, on the other hand, in the Sermon on the Mount, taught that everything in the Old Testament will come true.

In verse 17, Jesus said that He did not come “to abolish the Law or the Prophets.” “The Law or the Prophets” is the term that the Jews used for what is known today as the Old Testament.  Jesus continued, “I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” “Fulfill” does not mean that the OT was done away with. In this verse “fulfill” means that Jesus came to put into effect what the Old Testament promised. 

In verse 18, Jesus said, “until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Given the context of verse 17, “the Law” refers to the whole Old Testament.

Verse 18, therefore, confirms verse 17. While verse 17 speaks of Jesus’s mission specifically, saying that He came to put the Old Testament into effect, verse 18 is about the Old Testament more generally, saying everything in it will be accomplished. 

THE OLD TESTAMENT FORESAW THAT THE LAW OF MOSES WILL FALL AWAY.

This leaves us with an apparent contradiction.  Galatians explains that “the Law” is no longer relevant to God’s people. How do we reconcile this with Jesus’ statement that nothing in the Old Testament will fall away “until all is accomplished?”

The answer is that THE OLD TESTAMENT TAUGHT that the Law of Moses was a temporary addition that would be nullified when the Christ comes.  Consequently, to teach that the Law of Moses fell away is not a deviation from the Old Testament but is derived from the Old Testament.  For example:

The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith (rather than through the Law) …” (Gal. 3:8).

NO COMMANDMENT WILL FALL AWAY.

In Matthew 5:19 Jesus continued to say that none of “these commandments” will ever fall away. While “the Law” in verse 18 refers to the first five books of the Bible, the “commandments” refer to specific commandments, such as the Ten Commandments. Different things are, therefore, said in verses 18 and 19:

In verses 17 and 18, the topic is the whole Old Testament; saying that everything in it will come to pass.

Verse 19 switches the topic more specifically to the “commandments,” stating that not a single one of them will ever be annulled.

Galatians teaches that the Law of Moses has been nullified. But Jesus said that everything in the Old Testament will come to pass. We solved that apparent contradiction by showing that the Old Testament foresaw that the Law of Moses would be nullified.

But verse 19 presents us with another apparent anomaly, for Jesus said that not one of the Old Testament commandments will fall away. That can also be solved:

The focus in Galatians is on the ceremonial rituals while Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, spoke only about moral commandments.  Galatians, essentially, teaches that Christians are NOT obliged to comply with the ceremonial rituals while Jesus said that the Old Testament moral principles are eternal.

However, Galatians does teach that THE WHOLE Law of Moses has been replaced by the Law of Christ. Galatians does this because Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, increased the standards. He said, for example, love your enemy. He did not do away with any of the Old Testament moral commandments but He increased the standards so much that, in effect, His teachings came in the place of the moral commandments of the Law of Moses.  Therefore, Paul refers to His teachings as the “Law of Christ.

To validate these assertions, we will now continue to show that:

      1. The focus in Galatians is on the ceremonial rituals.
      2. Jesus did not talk about ceremonial rituals.
      3. Jesus did replace the Law of Moses with His teachings.

1. THE FOCUS IN GALATIANS IS ON THE CEREMONIAL RITUALS.

Firstly, Galatians focuses primarily on the ceremonial rituals of the Law. This is indicated by the following:

Firstly, the main point of controversy was circumcision.

Secondly, the controversy was NOT over Gentiles doing morally wrong things.

Thirdly, the things which the Jewish Christians required the Gentile Christians to do are described as the “works of the Law.” The article Doers of the Law explains the “works of the Law” as circumcision and similar external ceremonies and rituals required by the Law of Moses. 

Fourthly, as stated above in the historical context, it was Paul who was changing church practice (not the Jewish Christians), and since moral principles, by definition, never change, the things that Paul changed, and that which the controversy was over, were the ceremonial rituals.

Fifthly, the Acts 15 Church Council set only a very limited number of basic requirements.  In other words, the council assumed that the moral principles of the Old Testament are eternal and remain valid.

2. JESUS DID NOT TALK ABOUT CEREMONIAL RITUALS.

Jesus, on the other hand, did not talk about the ceremonial rituals. He mentioned several commandments, such as murder, adultery & divorce, false vows, “an eye for an eye,” and love for one’s neighbor, but NEVER ONCE did He tell His followers, to comply with the ceremonial rituals. By implication, the ceremonies and rituals are not included in “these commandments” that will never be annulled.

3. JESUS DID REPLACE THE OT MORAL COMMANDMENTS.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus mentioned several Old Testament commandments and, for each one, said, “but I say to you” and then gave moral commandments at a much higher moral level.

For example, God gave to Moses the rule “AN EYE FOR AN EYE, and a tooth for a tooth” (Matt. 5:38), but Christ continued, “but I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matt. 5:39).

The words, “but I say to you” explicitly contrast Jesus’ teachings with the Law of Moses and replace the Old Testament moral principles with far higher principles.  Christians are subject to what Jesus taught. The Christian ‘laws’, therefore, are these higher standards; not merely the Old Testament moral commandments. Effectively, He replaced the moral commandments of the Old Testament with His teachings.

This is confirmed by the emphasis which Jesus put on His own commandments as if to say that the Old Testament commandments have been nullified. He said, for example, “a new commandment I give to you ….”

It is for these reasons that Galatians claims that even the moral commandments of the Old Testament had been nullified and replaced by “the Law of Christ.

THE LAW OF CHRIST

Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Matthew 19 helps to explain the distinction between the Law of Moses and the Law of Christ:

He indicated that divorce was not allowed “from the beginning,” which refers to the creation.  This implies that Christ derived “the Law of Christ” from the way that things were created to be.  

Jesus said that Moses allowed them to divorce “because of your hardness of heart.”  This confirms that the Law of Moses was an adaptation of God’s law to fit Israel’s weakened spiritual condition

He added, “what therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” This serves as an example of how Christ canceled the Law of Moses and reverted to God’s eternal law. 

Jesus’ final words to His disciples were, “make disciples of all the nations … teaching them all that I commanded you.” “The Law of Christ,” therefore, refers to the collection of all of Christ’s teachings. 

In His teachings, He condensed the moral laws of the Old Testament into one single rule, namely love for one’s fellow human beings:

In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

Because this was Christ’s command, Paul, in Galatians 6:2, refers to it as “the law of Christ”  and beautifully interprets that commandment as “bear one another’s burdens.” The “Law of Christ,” therefore, is essentially simply ‘love for one another’, which is only possible if we love God.

The Ten Commandments translate God’s eternal principle of love in terms of the practical realities of a world controlled by evil.  Christ brought us back to God’s fundamental and eternal rule for eternal life on this planet; love for one another.  

According to Galatians, the Law of Christ replaced the Law of Moses.

PURPOSE OF THIS ARTICLE SERIES

ACTS 15 CHURCH COUNCIL

According to Galatians and the Acts 15 Church Council, the Law of Christ has been nullified and replaced by “the Law of Christ.” However, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments … shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”

The purpose of this article series is to explain this apparent contradiction. 

All quotes are from the NASB.

GALATIANS; HISTORICAL CONTEXT

This section provides the historical context of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

SECT OF JUDAISM

At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit fell only on Jews. For some years, the church consisted only of Jews and the church was a sect of Judaism. (See Jerusalem Phase of the Early Church.)  Like all other Jews, these Jewish Christians believed that uncircumcised people are unclean (Acts 10:8-9, 28; 11:3) and that Jews will be contaminated if they have social contact with such people. It is for that reason that Peter said:

You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him” (Acts 10:28; cf. 10:14-15; 11:34-35).

FIRST GENTILE CHRISTIANS

But, some years after Christ died—after Israel forfeited its final opportunity to accept Christ (See Seven Last Years.)—God gave the Holy Spirit also to uncircumcised people just like to the Jews at Pentecost (Acts 10:44-45; 11:17). At the same time, God gave Peter the dream of the unclean animals (Acts 10). God did this to indicate to the Jewish Christians that non-Jews are not unclean (Acts 11:9) and must be accepted into the church (Acts 11:12). For example, Peter interpreted his dream as follows:

God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean” (Acts 10:28).

And, later, Peter explained the events of Acts 10 that God “made no distinction between us and them” (15:9), referring to the uncircumcised people as “them.” 

Non-Jews were always allowed to convert to Judaism, but on condition that they allow circumcision and comply with the requirements of the Law of Moses.  The events of Acts 10 meant that non-Jews must be accepted as Christians without circumcision and without conversion to Judaism. 

CHRISTIAN JEWS PERSECUTED

However, this caused the Jewish Christians to be persecuted.  Almost all Christians at the time were Jews and their Jewish relatives and friends persecuted them; firstly, because they believe in Christ as the Messiah, but they also regarded these Christian Jews as ‘contaminated’ through their association with uncircumcised people:

Those … try to compel you to be circumcised, simply so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ” (Gal. 6:12).

DEMAND GENTILE CIRCUMCISION

For that reason, some Jewish Christians put pressure on the Gentiles Christians to accept circumcision.  One technique was to avoid the Gentiles, even by shutting uncircumcised Gentiles out from their worship meetings:

They wish to shut you out so that you will seek them” (Gal. 4:17; cf. 2:12).

To justify their demand that the Gentiles be circumcised, particularly some Jewish Pharisees, who have become Christians (Acts 15:6) claimed that Gentile Christians cannot be saved unless they comply with the Law. This means that they had to convert to Judaism through circumcision (Acts 15:5). 

CIRCUMCISION WAS THE DOOR INTO JUDAISM

In Galatians, Paul explicitly wrote against circumcision (6:12) but also warned that “every man who receives circumcision … he is under obligation to keep the whole Law” (5:3).  The battle was fought on the circumcision front, but circumcision functioned as a sign that a person has converted to Judaism (effectively, has become a Jew).  Circumcision, therefore, was a sign, but what these Christian Pharisees demanded was that the Gentiles Christians become as “zealous for the (whole) Law” as the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were (Acts 21:20).

GALATIANS – LAW OF MOSES NULLIFIED

Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians to resist this pressure on the Gentiles to be circumcised, arguing that “man is not justified by the works of the Law” (Gal. 2:16).  Given this early church context, Galatians is possibly the earliest of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. 

NO LONGER UNDER THE LAW OF MOSES

Paul wrote that God’s people (both Jews and non-Jews) are now no longer under (subject to) the Law of Moses. For example, he stated, “I died to the Law” (Gal. 2:19) and “the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Gal. 3:24-25).  

The allegory in Galatians 4 is painfully clear on this matter. It describes the Law of Moses (symbolized by Mount Sinai) as “slavery” (Gal. 4:24, 25) and concludes:

It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1)

Since the Law of Moses was added more than 400 years after God made the covenant with Abraham (3:17), Paul argues that that covenant is permanent while the Law of Moses was a temporary addition “until the seed would come” (Gal. 3:19). The “seed” (of Abraham) is Christ (3:16):

For this reason, Paul based his theology on God’s covenant with Abraham, which he interpreted as justification by faith.

THE LAW WAS ISRAEL GUARDIAN.

Why did God give a perfect law to Israel; only to abolish it later?  Paul explains:

Why the Law then?
It was added because of transgressions
” (Gal. 3:19).

The Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ” (3:24)

In other words, due to their “transgressions” (v19), Israel needed a “tutor” (v24).

The Law of Moses “was added” to the covenant with Abraham.  God made the covenant with Abraham before his grandson Israel moved to Egypt. During the long years as slaves in Egypt, Israel had forgotten the God of Abraham and has grown accustomed to idol worship. Therefore, after God brought them out of Egypt, He gave them His law in a form that was ‘perfect’ for their weakened spiritual condition of the time, given God’s purpose with Israel, for that nation was to be the conduit of God’s word to the world and to serve as a cradle to receive the Son of God.

ISRAEL NEEDED A LIST OF RULES.

In Galatians 4:1-3, Paul compares the Israelites to children; “held in bondage under the elemental things of the world” (4:3).  In his letter to the Colossians, Paul described these “elemental things” as “decrees, such as, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch’” (Col. 2:20-21). In other words, the “elemental things” are a list of things that must be done and not be done. Due to their weak spiritual condition, this is what Israel needed and this is what God gave them in the form of the Law of Moses.

Since the Law was added to the covenant thousands of years after Adam and hundreds of years after Abraham, the Law of Moses was not the form in which God gave His ‘law’ to Abraham or Adam. Nor was it the form in which God gives His eternal law to angels, for their desires are different.

Galatians is therefore quite clear that the Law of Moses is no longer applicable to God’s people.

NO LONGER LIVED LIKE JEWS.

Consequently, Christians Jews such as Peter and Paul no longer lived like Jews:

Before the party of the circumcision arrived, Peter lived “like the Gentiles and not like the Jews” (Gal. 2:14; cf. v12).

Paul referred to his opponents as, “those who are circumcised do not even keep the Law themselves” (6:13).

Paul begged to Galatians, “become as I am, for I also have become as you are” (4:12). In other words, Paul already lived like a non-Jew.

ACTS 15 CHURCH COUNCIL

The Church Council in Acts 15 was called to bring resolution in the Galatian controversy (See When was Galatians written?).  It agreed with Paul that Gentile Christians do not have to be circumcised (15:1, 5), which also means that they are not subject to the Law of Moses (15:5, 10). For further discussions of this, see also Comments on Matthew 5:17-18.

Acts 21:17-26 shows the consequences of that decision. It tells how Paul went into the lion’s den (Jerusalem), where thousands of Jews have become Christians, “and they are all zealous for the Law” (v20). They were concerned that Paul was teaching “the Jews” “to forsake Moses” (v21). They were quite happy that Paul taught the non-Jews not to observe the Mosaic Law because that was what the Acts 15 Church Council decided (Verse 25; cf. Acts 15:28). As explained in the article on the Acts 15 Church Council, the council made an unfortunate distinction between Jewish and Gentile Christians concerning the Law of Moses.  Jewish Christians continued to live according to the Law of Moses.

LAW OF CHRIST

While the earlier chapters of Galatians argue against the Law of Moses, the later chapters introduce the concept of “the Law of Christ.”

In chapter 5 of Galatians, Paul emphasizes that, although the Law of Moses has been nullified, that does not mean we are free to sin.  There still are norms of good and bad. He lists “deeds of the flesh” and “the fruit of the Spirit” (5:13-26) and said:

You were called to freedom (from the Law of Moses – see Gal. 4:24) … only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13).

He concludes:

Bear one another’s burdens,
and thereby fulfill the law of Christ
” (Gal. 6:2).

Given the nature of the controversy which Galatians deals with, the mention of “the law of Christ” implies that it comes in the place of the frequently mentioned “Law” (of Moses). See the article Law of Christ for further information.

THE LORD’S COMMANDMENT

1 Corinthians 14:37 refers to the Law of Christ as “the Lord’s commandment.” Paul wrote:

The things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment.”

The Lord” does not refer to God, the Father.  In First Corinthians consistently makes a distinction between “God” and “the Lord” (1:3-4, 9; 6:14; and 8:6). These verses identify the Father alone is as “God” while they refer to Christ as “Lord.”  In several verses, that letter identifies “the Lord” specifically as Jesus Christ, for example, “call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2; cf. 7, 8, 10; 5:4, 5; 9:1; 11:23; 12:3; 15:31, 57). In other instances, the context identifies “the Lord” as Christ, for example, “they … crucified the Lord of glory” (2:8; cf. 4:5; 7:10; 11:20, 26, 27). These examples show that “the Lord,” in First Corinthians, consistently refers to Jesus Christ. “The Lord’s commandment,” therefore, are Christ’s teachings; also described as “the law of Christ.” 

1 CORINTHIANS 9

1 Corinthians 9 confirms that “the law of Christ” came in the place of the “law of Moses.” This is the only place, apart from Galatians, where Paul explicitly mentions the “Law of Christ.”

NOT UNDER THE LAW OF MOSES

First, verse 20 contrasts Paul with the Jews. The Jews are “under the Law” but Paul Himself is not “under the Law” (of Moses):

20 To the Jews I became as a Jew,
so that I might win Jews; 
to those who are under the Law,
as under the Law
though not being myself under the Law,
so that I might win those who are under the Law;

In other words, when he was with Jews, he behaved like a Jew; as if he was subject to the Law of Moses. But the important point is that Paul explicitly states that he is not under the Law of Moses.

UNDER THE LAW OF CHRIST

The next verse contrasts Paul with the non-Jews.
They are “without law” (the law of Moses):

21 to those who are without law,
(I became) as without law,
though not being without the law of God but
under the law of Christ,
so that I might win those who are without law.

This means that, when he was with non-Jews, he lived like a non-Jew.  As stated above, Paul wrote to the Galatian Gentiles, “I also have become as you are” (4:12).

According to verse 21, Paul is under “the Law of Christ” but not without “the Law of God.” That means that “the Law of Christ” is “the Law of God.” The Law of Moses is also the Law of God, but, as argued above, it is an adaption of God’s law to fit the needs of one specific nation at one specific point in history.

SUMMARY

Paul wrote that he (and, therefore, all Christians) is NOTunder (subject to) the Law” but “under the law of Christ.” This sets a clear contrast between these two laws and implies that the Law of Christ replaced the Law of Moses. This also applies to Jews, for Paul himself was a Jew, and even he was not “under the Law.