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.  

Jesus’ teachings replaced the Old Testament commandments.

PURPOSE OF THIS ARTICLE

Ten CommandmentsAccording 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, “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.”

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

All quotes are from the NASB.

THE COMMANDMENTS WILL FALL AWAY.

In Matthew 5, Jesus also said that none of the commandments will ever fall away.  In verse 19, He continues:

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

Some might think that the “commandments” are the same as “the Law” in verse 18 and that verse 19, therefore, confirms that Jesus did not come to abolish the Law of Moses.

However, as discussed in Comments on Matthew 5:17-18, while “the Law” refers to the first five books of the Bible, or to the whole Old Testament, depending on the context, the “commandments” refer specific commandments, such as the Ten Commandments.

For example, the rich young man asked Christ what he must do to obtain eternal life, Christ responded by telling him to keep “the commandments.”  Jesus continued to list five laws from the Ten Commandments, as well as the second-greatest commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 19:16-22; cf. Mt. 22:39).  The word “commandments,” therefore, approximates the meaning of the modern English word “law.”

Different things are, therefore, said in verses 18 and 19:

In verses 17 and 18, the topic is the whole Old Testament; stating that everything in it will be accomplished.

Verse 19 switches the topic more specifically to the “commandments” that are contained in “the Law,” saying that not a single one of these “commandments” will ever be annulled.

Verse 19 functions as the opening phrase for the discussion of the commandments, such as “murder” (5:21-), “adultery” (5:27-) and “false vows” (5:33-) which continues for the remainder of the Sermon on the Mount.

DOES THIS CONTRADICT GALATIANS?

Above we discussed the apparent contradiction between Galatians, which taught that the Law of Moses has been nullified, and Jesus, who said that everything in the Old Testament will be accomplished (Matt. 5:17-18).  We solved that contradiction by concluding that the Old Testament foresaw that the Law of Moses will be nullified.

But verse 19 presents us with another challenge, for Jesus said that none of the Old Testament commandments will be nullified while, compared to Galatians, which claims that the Law of Moses has been nullified.  We can solve this apparent inconsistency as follows:

Galatians focusses 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. That is because Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, substantially increased the standards; 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 Christ’s 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. GALATIANS FOCUSSES ON THE CEREMONIAL RITUALS.

Firstly, the Letter to the Galatians focusses primarily on the ceremonial rituals—saying that Christians are not obliged to comply with them.

CIRCUMCISION

The first indication of this is that the main point of controversy in Galatia and in the Acts 15 Church Council, was circumcision, for example:

Those who … try to compel you to be circumcised” (6:12).

NOT ABOUT IMMORAL DEEDS

A second indication is that the controversy was not over Gentile Christians committing morally wrong deeds.  The context in Galatia was that Jewish Christians came from Jerusalem demanding that the Gentiles must DO CERTAIN THINGS.  To ‘do certain things’ does not refer to moral principles, for moral principles, essentially, are matters of the heart.  The things they wanted the Gentiles to do were, therefore, the visible and external rituals and ceremonies of the Law.

WORKS OF THE LAW

This is confirmed by the fact that the things which the Jewish Christians required the Gentile Christians to do are described as the “works of the Law.” The “party of the circumcision” (2:12) said that Gentiles must be circumcised because “man is … justified by the works of the Law” (2:16, cf. 3:2, 5, 10). This is explained in the article Doers of the Law. That article contrasts the “works of the Law” with “deeds.” Since “the doers of the Law will be justified” (Rom. 2:13), the “deeds” (of the Law) refer to good deeds by which people will be judged. For example:

We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10; cf. Rom. 2:5-6; 8:13; 2 Cor. 5:10; cf. 2 Cor. 11:15; 2 Tim. 4:14).

The “works” are something different. Since the focus in Galatians was specifically on circumcision, and since Paul stated that “man is NOT justified by the works of the Law” (Gal. 2:16), “works” DO NOT REFER TO good deeds but to circumcision and similar external ceremonies and rituals of the Law of Moses.  The Jews believed that these mechanical rituals somehow has the power to save.

PAUL INSTIGATED CHANGE.

As stated above, the church, initially, was a sect of Judaism and all Christians lived according to the Law of Moses. When the first non-Jews accepted Christ, the Jewish Christians attempted to maintain the status quo concerning the Jewish Law by ensuring that these non-Jews comply with the Law.  Paul, on the other hand, sought to change things. However, moral principles, by definition, are eternal and cannot change. It is an essential attribute of the species.  Moral principles keep the species healthy. That which Paul sought to change, and that which the controversy was over, therefore, cannot be moral principles and must be the ceremonial rituals.

THE CHURCH COUNCIL SET NO RULES.

The Acts 15 Church Council set only a very limited number of basic requirements that were, in any case, later repudiated by Paul.  In other words, the council assumed that the moral principles of the Old Testament are eternal and remain valid. James concluded the council with by saying:

Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (Acts 15:21). 

In those very early days, Gentile Christians still attended synagogue meetings on the Sabbath. In the quote above, James said that the Gentiles, in those meetings, would hear and learn the moral principles contained in “Moses.

CONCLUSION

in Galatians, and, therefore, also in the Acts 15 Church Council, the focus was not on the moral requirements of the Law of Moses; the controversy was only about “the works of the Law.” 

2. JESUS DID NOT TALK ABOUT THE CEREMONIAL RITUALS.

Jesus, on the other hand, in the Sermon on the Mount, did not talk about the ceremonial rituals. After Jesus said that not one of the least of “these commandments” will be nullified (Matt. 5:19), He continued to discuss “these commandments.” He mentioned several, such as murder, adultery & divorce, false vows, “an eye for an eye,” love for one’s neighbor, good deeds, prayer and fasting, but NEVER ONCE did He tell His followers, in that sermon at least, to comply with the ceremonies and rituals of the Law of Moses. Jesus ONLY SPOKE ABOUT THE MORAL COMMANDMENTS of the Law of Moses. By implication, the ceremonies and rituals are not included in “these commandments” that will never be annulled.

The apparent contradiction between Galatians and the Sermon on the Mount is therefore partly because the context and primary focus were different. Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians specifically to refute the demand that Gentiles submit to circumcision and comply with the ceremonial rituals of the Law.  In His sermon, Jesus was not concerned with these rituals. 

3. JESUS DID REPLACE THE OT MORAL COMMANDMENTS

However, Paul did not only set the ceremonial rituals aside: As shown above, he set the entire Law of Moses aside. To reconcile this with what Jesus said, namely that not one of the Old Testament commandments will ever be annulled, we will show that Jesus did replace the Old Testament Moral Commandments.

BUT I SAY TO YOU

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 (Matt. 5:43-44; compare with Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28, 33-34, 38-39).

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).

As another example, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies” (Matt. 5:43-44).

One way to explain this is to say that Christ is merely interpreting the Law beyond mere physical obedience, making obedience to those laws a matter of one’s heart, i.e., one’s thoughts, motives, and intent.

However, Jesus explicitly contrasted His own teachings with the Law of Moses and, in practice, replaced the Old Testament moral principles with far higher principles.  Since Christians are subject to what Jesus taught, the Christian ‘laws’ are these heightened standards; not the Old Testament moral commandments. 

JESUS EMPHASIZED HIS COMMANDMENTS

To this, we can add that Jesus emphasized His own commandments as if to say that the Old Testament commandments have been nullified. He said:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another” (John 13:34).

 “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15; cf. 12:21; 15:10, 12).

And His final instructions to His disciples were:

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you (Matt. 28:19-20).

WOMAN CAUGHT IN ADULTERY

The Old Testament prescribes the death penalty for Sabbath-breaking (Ex. 31:14), murder (Ex. 21:12), striking or cursing one’s father or mother (Ex. 21:15; Ex. 21:17), adultery (Lev. 20:10), blaspheming the name of the LORD (Lev. 24:16) and various other transgressions.  But when the Jews brought the woman caught in adultery to Jesus, He merely said to her, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more” (John 8:11). This is another indication that Christ nullified the system of Law in the Old Testament.

Based on these factors I propose that Jesus, through His teachings, in effect, replaced the Law of Moses with something very different.  I do not think that the Scribes and the Pharisees of His day, such as Saul (later Paul), listening to Jesus, would have agreed that He is merely interpreting the Old Testament Commandments.  I think they would say that what Jesus taught is different from the Law.

CHRISTIANS ARE SUBJECT TO MOSES’ LAW.

Jesus did say that none of “these commandments” will ever be annulled (Matt. 5:19). Christians, therefore, are subject to “these (Old Testament) commandments.

For example, when Jesus spoke about the commandment against “murder,” He said that “everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty” (Matt. 5:22). However, murder remains a sin. What Jesus explained about the various Old Testament commandments does not negate or nullify the Old Testament commandments.  However:

      1. This applies only to the moral demands of the Law of Moses for that was what Jesus discussed in the Sermon on the Mount.
      2. Christ increased the standards infinitely. Christians are subject to all that Jesus commanded, which is always more than the moral demands of the Law of Moses; never less.

It is for these reasons that the letter to the Galatians indicates that even the moral commandments of the Old Testament have been nullified and replaced by “the Law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). 

Personally, I keep the Seventh Day Sabbath, but not because it is in the Law of Moses.  The weekly day of rest was instituted at creation and kept by Noah and other fathers before the Law was given at Sinai. The fact that the Sabbath was included in the Ten Commandment with 9 other eternal ethical principles and stored inside “the ark of His covenant,” is additional support for my view. But, by far, the strongest support I have for my view of the Sabbath is what Jesus taught about the Sabbath.