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.  

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