“For truly I say unto you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18; NAS).
What did Jesus mean when he spoke these words? Is it that Christians are expected to keep all the rigid Old Testament laws or is it that He (Jesus) will accomplish the law so that we are no longer required to do so? This may be one of the most difficult problems to reconcile in Christian doctrine. It has grave implications for our soteriology and the practice of Christianity. On the one hand, Christ is supposedly reinforcing the Law and its functions while on the other hand, Paul is purporting that Christ has brought an end to the law (Romans 10:4), cancelling its requirements by death on the cross (Colossians 2:14).
Firstly, in one’s attempts to bring reconciliation to these seemingly contradictory passages, it must be taken for granted that all of scripture is God breathed and therefore inerrant; without error or contradictions and that God’s revelation (His Word) is consistent with whom He is. Consequently, there is no contradiction that appears between what Jesus explained about the fulfillment of the law and what Paul explains in more lucid terms. Jesus Christ has ended the requirements of the law which was meant to bring justification.
Understanding the Law
Additionally, to further engage the argument, it must be understood by all, what is meant by ‘The law’. According to Fee and Stuart (2003, 164), the term Law has multiple connotations when it is used in scripture. One such connotation is that law in the plural form may refer to those more than six hundred specific commandments that the Israelites were expected to follow as a sign of their loyalty to God. In the singular, however, the law can refer to the Pentateuch, i.e. from Genesis to Deuteronomy. It may even refer to, what some writers in the New Testament refer theologically to, the entire Old Testament religious system. Conner (1980, 193) in his book, The Foundations of Christian Doctrine: A Practical Guide to Christian Belief, speaks of a concept of divine law, which he says God gave as a standard of righteousness for all to follow. He goes on to say that without the law there would be no order and everything would be chaos.
However, one must understand that the law is a paradigm. It is hardly a complete list of all the things that one could or should do to please God. The law presents, rather, examples of what it means to be loyal to God by, as Conner puts it, following His standards. The law was mean to lead men to faith in God; it was a guide to salvation. Paul in his letter to the church in Galatia puts it this way, “Therefore, the law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith (Galatians 3:24; NAS). This is why nowhere in the Old Testament is it suggested that anyone was saved by keeping the Law. Rather, the Law was a special gift to Israel, to differentiate them from their pagan neighbours in moral and spiritual conduct but it could not justify them. Again, Paul alludes to this in Galatians 2:16 “…a man is not justified by works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no one will be justified. In other words, we have been vindicated of any charge of sin as it relates to our failure to keep the Law (Ryrie, 1995) because of what Christ has done. This is what is meant by Christ has put an end to the Law.
Christ has ended the Law
Wilkinson and Boa (1983, 395) in their commentary on the book of Galatians, describe the theme and purpose of the book as a corrective teaching on justification by faith apart from works of the Law to counteract the teachings of Jewish legalists who were influencing the believers to trade their freedom in Christ for bondage of the Law. They went further to show how Paul’s discourse in chapters five and six were written to show that liberty from the law does not mean lawlessness as his opponents might have opined. The believer does not need the law to make him righteous he is declared righteous by his faith because Christ fulfilled the requirements of the law, thus, ending it.
Moreover, for us to fully understand what is meant by Christ bringing an end to the law, therefore, justifying us through faith (and not the Law), we will have to understand the concept of justification. The teaching of Romans 3:24 that justification is given or imputed to us, or as we may put it simply, “given a mek up” so that we can be considered righteous before God is a teaching that resonates throughout the teachings of Paul. Paul continually makes the point that this is not a position in Christ that is earned through legalism but one that is accessed by faith. And this faith itself is not of the conscience of man but find its origin in God (Romans 12:3b). Further to, the anonymous writer to the Hebrews, or Pricilla (some scholars have suggested) refusing to reveal her identity, says in 9:12-14 presents Jesus acting as the propitiation or sacrificial lamb, satisfying the penalty for sin, which makes it possible for us to receive righteousness without having to pay or work for it. The righteousness that is revealed is from God not our efforts because again we all stand guilty before God Romans 3:10-18, 23. Speaking of God’s sovereignty in salvation, Paul supports this notion again in Romans 9:16.
According to Wilkinson and Boa, from Romans 1:18-3:20, Paul builds a case for the condemnation of all people, by God. He shows that Jews and Gentiles seek to be in right standing (be justified) by using relative standards not realizing that God’s requirement is absolute perfection. Paul knows, posit Wilkinson and Boa, that the bad news (condemnation) must be understood before the good news (justification) can be appreciated. The passage on justification picks up on man’s need for God’s provision, since man is unable of attaining this perfection on his own. The first 11 verses (Romans 3:21-31) of the discourse reveal that in Christ, God is both Judge and Saviour. The Lord is not unjust when he declares that sinners are in right standing with him because He bases this pronouncement upon the death of Christ on their behalf.
Furthermore, Warren W Wiersbe (1989), in explaining justification as seen in the passage begins by alluding to God’s nature. He says that God is absolute in what He is in Himself and relative in how He relates to men. One of His absolute attributes is love and when he relates that love to us, it becomes mercy and grace. In His mercy God does not give us as we deserve and in His grace, He gives us what we do not deserve. It is, therefore, not difficult to understand God can make us right before Him even if we do not deserve that pronouncement. The Greek word translated freely, can also be translated without cause as seen in John 15:25. We are justified without cause. In other words, there is no cause in us that merit the salvation of God. Justification is being put in right relationship with God by God himself. It finds its origin with God is independent of any human effort. Justification guarantees us peace with God because God’s demand for justice was satisfied in Christ’s death.
In this regard, as we grapple with the notion that Christ is the end of the law, it may augur well for us to think of the liberty that He wrought for us through His death and not necessarily about thoughts of lawlessness. Because even with the law, as Paul asserts, sin increased; there was lawlessness (Romans 5:20). As we encounter Christ in Galatians, we need to understand that He ended the Law in that He freed the believer from bondage to the Law (legalism) and to sin (license) and has placed him or her in a position of liberty (Wilkinson and Boa, 1983; 396).
What, then, did Jesus mean by His statement in Matthew 5:18? According to Ryrie Study Bible (1995) Jesus might have been making reference to the fulfillment of everything in the Old Testament. In the preceding verse Jesus said that he came to fulfil the Law not institute lawlessness and so one gets the Understanding that Jesus was making reference to His purpose in coming and the accomplishment of the cross; pointing to what Paul says in Romans 10:4, that by His death on the Cross, Christ ended our adherence to the Law to be declared righteous. Our righteousness is now dependent on faith in Christ just as Abraham’s was before the Law.
Conner, Kevin J. The Foundations of Christian Doctrine: A Practical Guide to Christian Belief; BT Publishing, Portland, Oregon, USA. 1980.
Fee, Gordon D. and Douglas Stuart: How to Read the Bible for all its Worth. Zondervan Publishing Company; Grand Rapid, Michigan, USA. 2003.
Wiersbe, Warren: The Bible Exposition Commentary. Chariot Victor Publishing, Colorado Springs, Colorado; USA. 1989.
Wilkinson, Bruce and Kenneth Boa: Talk Through the Bible. Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee. 1983.