Why Gentiles do not have to comply with the Law of Moses (Matthew 5:19)

This is the third article in the series that explains, if Jesus said, “not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law,” why the church council in Acts 15, a decade or two later, decided that Gentiles do not have to comply with the Law of Moses. The current article discusses Matthew 5:19-20. It is, actually, also part of the series of articles on Galatians, for it uses Galatians to explain the decision of the church council.  The articles in this series are:

1. Jesus came to fulfill the Law.
2. Sermon on the Mount 
3. Not the smallest letter shall pass from the Law. – Current article

MATTHEW 5:19-20

Matthew 5:19 “whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

SUMMARY

Since it was Jesus’ intention to use the Old Testament as the basis for His sermon, He started His sermon by confirming the continued validity of the Old Testament. He said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets” (5:17).

In verse 19, Jesus switches the topic from “the Law” (the Old Testament) to God’s “commandments.” as contained in the Old Testament. For most of the sermon, He then continues to preach on those “commandments.

Since Jesus taught the people what kind of people they must be to receive eternal life, He only spoke about those “commandments” by which people will be judged in the last judgment. He never mentioned the ceremonial rituals of the Old Testament even once.  It is, therefore, not valid to use Matthew 5 to argue that the ceremonial rituals of the Old Testament are applicable to Christians. 

The question in this article series is, if Jesus said, “not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished,” why did the church council in Acts 15, a decade or two later, decide that Gentiles do not have to comply with the Law?

This question is answered above as that there is no requirement in Matthew 5:18 that Christians must abide by the Law of Moses. This verse does not talk about the Old Testament commandments. Rather, Jesus’ point was that He came to put into effect what the Old Testament promised.

PAUL TAUGHT THE AGE OLD GOSPEL.

However, if everything promised in the Old Testament will come to pass, why do Gentile Christians not have to comply with the Law of Moses? 

The answer is that that is what the Old Testament requires.  We can substantiate this conclusion from the Letter to the Galatians, which reflects Paul’s arguments at the Acts 15 Church Council.  In the letter Paul indicates, in a number of ways, that the Old Testament foresaw that Gentiles are to subject to the Law:

The Scripture ‘foresaw’ that God would justify the Gentiles by faith and preached the gospel to Abraham (3:8). Paul claims that he preaches the same age-old gospel. 

Paul argues that people in the Old Testament were also saved by faith. He uses Abraham as an example (Gal 3:6) and quotes from Habakkuk 2:4; “the righteous man shall live by faith” (Gal. 3:11).

The “seed” of Abraham, to whom God gave the promises, is Christ (Gal. 3:16). Paul argues that Gentiles become heirs of the promises in Christ (e.g. Gal 2:17). In other words, their salvation is the blessing which God promised to Abraham.

CONCLUSION

Mankind existed for thousands of years without the Law of Moses. The promises which God made to Abraham existed for hundreds of years without the Law. When God gave the law, it did not invalidate the promises (Gal. 3:17-18).  The Law was only a temporary measure to keep Israel on the right path “until the seed would come” (Gal. 3:19).

The “gospel” which Paul preached was the same gospel which God gave to Abraham. Paul’s gospel, therefore, is not a break with the Old Testament, but a continuation of it.

Since the Law of Moses is no longer relevant, Christ gave us a “new commandment” (e.g. John 13:34), which Paul called the Law of Christ. This is the eternal law as it always existed, as explained by Christ.

 – END OF SUMMARY – 

CONFIRMS THE OLD TESTAMENT

The previous article showed that Christ’s purpose was to teach people what kind of people they must be to receive eternal life. Since it was Jesus’ intention to use the Old Testament as the basis for His teaching, He started His sermon by confirming the continued validity of the Old Testament. He said:

Do not think that I came to abolish
the Law or the Prophets
” (5:17).

On the contrary, He said that He came to fulfill “the Law and the Prophets” (what we today call the Old Testament). This was explained in the first article as meaning that, in Christ, everything that is promised in the Old Testament will come true (5:17-18).

At the end of His sermon, Jesus again confirmed the continued validity of the Old Testament by summarizing His sermon as follows:

In everything, therefore,
treat people the same way you want them to treat you,
for this is the Law and the Prophets
” (Matt. 7:12).

SWITCHES TO THE COMMANDMENTS

Having confirmed the continued validity of the Old Testament in verses 17 and 18, in verse 19 He switches the topic from “the Law” to the “commandments.” In other words, He now shifts His attention from the complete Old Testament to God’s commandments as contained in the Old Testament. He then continued to preach on those “commandments,” referring to them with phrases such as, “the ancients were told …” (5:21) and “you have heard that it was said …” (5:27).

ONLY MORAL COMMANDMENTS

The previous article showed that Jesus taught the people what kind of people they must be to receive eternal life. For that reason, the “commandments” do not include the ceremonial rituals of the Old Testament. He never mentioned them even once.  He only spoke about those “commandments” by which people will be judged in the last judgment, when “the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds” (Rev. 20:12).

This is confirmed by how the word “commandment” is used in the gospels. It is used for instructions given by:

Human beings (Luke 15:25-29; John 11:57);

The Father to Christ specifically (John 15:10), including to lay down His life and “to take it up again” (John 10:17-18) as well as, “the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak” (John 12:49-50);

Christ to His followers (John 14:15, 21; 15:10), including “that you love one another” (John 13:31-34); The article Law of Christ concludes that Christ did more than to merely interpret the Law of Moses; He replaced the Law of Moses with much higher moral standards, which reflects the Father’s perfect heart; the eternal law as it existed from the beginning.  

But when used for God’s commandments in the Old Testament, it always refers to the “commandments” by which people will be judged; never to ceremonial rituals, for example:

The Ten Commandments, such as honor your father and mother, murder, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness and the Sabbath (Matt. 15:3-5; 19:16-19; Mark 7:8-13; 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-20; 23:55)

Other moral laws, such as “love the Lord your God” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 19:16-19; 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-31);

This confirms that the “commandments” in Matthew 5:19 are limited to moral commandments.  It is, therefore, not valid to use Matthew 5 to argue that the ceremonial rituals of the Old Testament are applicable to Christians.

CONCLUSIONS

The question in this article series is, if Jesus said, “Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18), why did the church council in Acts 15, a decade or two later, decide that Gentiles do not have to comply with the Law? This question is answered above as that there is no requirement in Matthew 5:18 that Christians must abide by the Law of Moses:

This verse does not talk about the Old Testament commandments. “The Law” refers to to the entire Old Testament. Verse 19, which introduces the main topic of the sermon, does refer to God’s commandments, but this does not mean that verse 18 also discusses the commandments. It is important to note that verse 18 discusses the Old Testament in general but verse 19 switches the topic to God’s commandments in particular.

Furthermore, Jesus’ point was not that something remains. His point was that something will change, namely, He said that the Old Testament will be “accomplished.” Christ came to “fulfill” “the Law and the Prophets.”  This means that He will put into effect what the Old Testament promised.

However, if Jesus said that He came to put in place what the Old Testament promised, then that does imply continuity. Also the fact that Jesus used the Old Testament commandments as basis for His sermon implies that the new covenant is a continuation of the old covenant. Therefore the question remains, why do Gentile Christians not have to comply with the Law of Moses? 

The reason is that the Old Testament says so.  The fact that the Law of Moses is no longer relevant was foreseen by the Old Testament.  We can substantiate this conclusion from the Letter to the Galatians, as explained in the next section:

PAUL PREACHED ABRAHAM’S GOSPEL.

Paul was the leader of the party at the Acts 15 church council that advocated against the circumcision of Gentiles. The Letter to the Galatians reflects Paul’s arguments at that meeting. See, When was Galatians written? We can, therefore, accept that letter as an explanation of the logic behind the church council’s decision. The following discussion highlights certain verses from that letter that shows that Paul argued that the Old Testament predicted that Gentile Christians will not be subject to the Law of Moses:

THROUGH THE LAW I DIED TO THE LAW (Gal. 1:17)

People sometimes struggle to understand how one can die “to the Law” “through the Law.”  Simple: “Through the Law” means that the Old Testament predicted or foresaw that Christians would die “to the Law.” 

ALL THE NATIONS BLESSED IN YOU (Gal. 3:8)

The following is a key part of Paul’s logic:

Galatians 3:6 … Abraham BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS. 7 Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. 8 The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “ALL THE NATIONS WILL BE BLESSED IN YOU.” 9 So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.

In this section, Paul included two quotes from the Old Testament (shown in capital letters) from which he makes certain conclusions:

3:6 … Abraham “BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.”
This means that Abraham was justified (saved) by faith.

3:7 Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.
Abraham’s true sons are not his physical descendants, but those who believe, including believing Gentiles (cf. verse 29).

3:8 The Scripture
The Scripture is what we today call the Old Testament.

foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham
This is the main point for the purpose of the current article, namely that all of this was predicted by the Old Testament. Note the word “gospel.” Paul was very careful to explain that his gospel is not a break with the Old Testament, but the same old “gospel” (v8; cf. 1:6-7) which God gave to Abraham. 

saying, “ALL THE NATIONS WILL BE BLESSED IN YOU.”
This phrase is explained by the previous phrase. Therefore, to be
Blessed in Abraham is to be Justified by Faith. Verse 9 confirms this point. The blessings which the Gentiles receive, namely justification, is not something new, but it is the blessing that was promised to Abraham.

THE RIGHTEOUS MAN SHALL LIVE BY FAITH (Gal. 3:11)

Paul claimed that the Jews know “that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 2:15), because the Old Testament says so. As mentioned above, he uses Abraham as an example of where the Old Testament reveals this principle, saying, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Gal 3:6). And Paul also frequently quotes from Habakkuk 2:4; “the righteous man shall live by faith” (E.g. Gal. 3:11; Rom. 1:17).

Note how often Paul quotes from the Old Testament in these arguments, as indicated by the capital letters in the NASB. This confirms that Paul was adamant that his gospel is not a break with the “Scriptures.”

ABRAHAM’S SEED (Gal 3:16)

God gave the promises to Abraham and his seed (Gen. 22:17). Paul interprets that “seed” as, essentially, Christ (Gal. 3:16; cf. v19). The Gentiles become heirs of the promises in Christ, which we can understand as through Christ. As stated before, the purpose of the Old Testament is accomplished in Christ. He is the Vehicle through which God saves this world.

THE LAW CAME LATER (Gal. 3:17-18).

In these verses, Paul indicates the following:

The Law of Moses came hundreds of years after God gave these promises to Abraham and did not invalidate the promises (Gal. 3:17-18).  What is really important are the promises which God made to Abraham. The Law was only a temporary measure to keep Israel on the right path “until the seed would come” (Gal. 3:19). The Law does not “impart life” (save to eternal life – 3:21) because everybody has sinned (3:22). “The Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ … But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (3:24-25).

Paul’s argument, that Gentiles do not have to be circumcised was, therefore, based on God’s covenant with Abraham. Paul claimed that he preached the same gospel which God gave to Abraham. The Law of Moses was a later and temporary addition. “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (3:24-25). In other words, the Law is not even relevant to Jews that are “in Christ” and, therefore, most certainly not applicable to Gentile Christians.

LAW OF CHRIST

So, if we are not under the Law of Moses, under what law are we?

Firstly, in the Sermon on the Mount, as discussed in the previous article, Jesus only spoke about the rules for moral behavior by which people will be judged; identified as “commandments” in Matthew 5:19

Secondly, as explained more fully in the article Law of Christ, Christ did more than to merely interpret the Law of Moses; He replaced the Law of Moses with much higher moral standards, which reflects the Father’s perfect heart; the eternal law as it existed from the beginning. People will be judged against these rules; not the moral laws as reflected in the Law of Moses.

ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES

Jesus came to fulfill the Law. – A study of Matthew 5:17-18 – Jesus did not come to abolish but to fulfill the Law and the prophets. What are “the Law and the Prophets” and how did Jesus fulfill them?

Sermon on the Mount – Jesus taught His followers what kind of people they must be to be rewarded with eternal life. Jesus did not believe that people have essential immortality and taught that they will be judged by their deeds.

Not the smallest letter shall pass from the Law.  Jesus said that not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Why then did the Acts 15 Church Council, a decade or two later, decide that Gentiles do not have to comply with the Law? Paul’s letter to the Galatians explains the decision.– Current article

Articles on Galatians – Since Galatians explains the decision of the Church Council, these articles are, in a sense, part of the series on Galatians.

 

 

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