Friday, July 17, 2015

"Not to abolish, but to fulfill"

There are few Scripture passages that elicit as much confusion as our Lord's words in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew concerning the Law and its fulfillment by Christ. Let us review our Lord's teaching, as found in the Douay-Rheims version of the New Testament:

"Do not think that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For amen I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot, or one tittle shall not pass of the law, till all be fulfilled" (Matt. 5:17-18).

Other translations will use the word "abolish" in place of destroy, but the meaning remains the same. Thus our Lord Jesus seemingly teaches that He has not overturned the Law of Moses. In fact, He seems to say that the Law shall remain in force "until heaven and earth pass away." At face value, this would suggest that the Law of Moses was permanently binding in all its rigor. Our Lord makes it explicitly clear that "not one jot or one tittle" shall pass away from the Law, "till all be fulfilled."

Confusion arises because our Lord's words seem to conflict with the constant teaching of the New Testament, which is emphatic that Christians are not under the Law of Moses and that the Law of Moses has in fact been superseded by the Gospel. For example:

" are not under the law, but under grace" (Rom. 6:14).
"You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace" (Gal. 5:4).
"Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian" (Gal. 3:23-25).
"In speaking of a new covenant, he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear" (Heb. 8:13).

These teachings of St. Paul are fairly straightforward; the text of Hebrews 8:13, which says that the Old Covenant is "obsolete" and will "soon disappear" should be especially bookmarked by those who errantly assert that there is a permanent validity to the Old Covenant. Of course, this passage is not cited at all in the 2002 USCCB document "Reflections on Covenant and Mission."

Let us remind our readers of what exactly the Law of Moses consists of. Obviously, the Law refers to the series of commands and prohibitions given by God in the Old Testament that was to guide the life of the ancient Israelites, specifically those dictates found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Some of these laws are ceremonial, like proscriptions for certain Feast days. Some are dietary; some concern various liturgical rituals, others concern purity. Still others dictate norms for civil society and have the character of civil law. All of these aspects of the Law center around core which is moral - the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments. The moral law gives meaning to the rest of the ceremonial laws. Some of the Law was merely provisional (the dietary law, rules for purity, etc) but the moral core of the Law abides forever because it reflects the natural law. This is a source of confusion for people; it means certain aspects of the Law of Moses are superseded by the New Testament but others are not.

This comes into play when comparing our Lord's statement that He did not come to abolish the Law to St. Paul's teaching that the Law is not obligatory. How can these passages be reconciled?

The most common approach to this is for people to simply play one passage off the others. For example, so-called "Messianic Christians" and "Messianic Jews" will tend to emphasize our Lord's words in Matthew while shrugging off St. Paul's teaching, thus asserting that the Law (or certain provisions of it) is still binding on Christians and offering various explanations to wiggle out of St. Paul's teachings. On the other hand, many Catholics will stand firm on St. Paul's teaching while scratching their head's as Jesus' words.

The answer is fairly simple, and hinges upon what it means to "fulfill" something.

Jesus notes that He did not come to earth to abolish the Law. Rather, the Law will be kept to its last jot and tittle "till all be fulfilled." This clause is critical.

Jesus says He has not come to "destroy" the Law; nothing will pass from the Law until it is "fulfilled." The implication, then, is that the "fulfillment" of the Law will bring about its "passing away." 

What we are looking at is a situation in which a single end can be brought about in two different ways. The end result is the "passing away" of the Law, there are two ways this can be brought about - "destroying" it, and "fulfilling" it. This is important to understand; our Lord does not teach that the Law will not pass away, only that it will not pass away by being destroyed. Those who misinterpret this passage typically miss this point.

Let us put forward an example to help exemplify this. The Law of Moses consists in a series of obligations binding upon its adherents. It is like a debt. To use this metaphor, suppose we incur a debt from the bank. The debt has certainly obligations, payment schedules, etc.

Now, how can I make my debt payments go away? There are two ways to get out of paying. First, I can simply repudiate the debt. I can just stop paying and default. Maybe I declare bankruptcy and have the court discharge the debt in some settlement. This would be sloppy, yes, and have other consequences, but I would make my monthly payments go away. This could be called getting out of the payments by destroying the relationship with the bank, the terms of the loan, etc.

Of course, there is another way to get out of my debt payments. I can make every debt payment down to the last penny and fulfill all the obligations of my loan to the letter. When the terms of the loan are fulfilled, the debt payments will go away. This could be seen as getting out of the payments by fulfilling the obligations of the loan down to the last jot and tittle.

Hopefully you can see the distinction and the solution to this problem. The Law of Moses had certain obligations: sacrifices, rituals, dietary code, festivals, etc. It also contained within it, because of its divine origin, various prophecies and fore-shadowing (such as Deut. 18:15, "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; him you shall obey").

When Jesus came, the Pharisees saw many of His actions and words as in contradiction to that Law. They accused Him of trying to overthrow the Law of Moses. Of course, they did not understand the provisional nature of the Law; that it was, as St. Paul says, meant as a "custodian" until the age of grace. Our Lord emphasizes that He has not come to overthrow or destroy the Law. His actions are actually in continuity with the Law, insofar as the Law itself was meant to be fulfilled by the Messiah. Hence, when He reaches out and touches the leper to heal Him, in a certain sense, He seems to break the Law by touching an unclean man (cf. Matt. 8:3, Lev. 13:45-46). One who touches a leper contracts his uncleanliness. But in another sense, since Jesus is divine, He cannot become "unclean." The situation the Law was meant to prohibit (contracting uncleanliness) does not apply to Jesus because in His divinity He is the giver of the Law. He does not become unclean. Rather, He transmits His cleanliness to the leper, thus healing Him. Similarly, He cannot break the Law of the Sabbath because He is the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28).Jesus does not "break" the Law; He is the incarnation of the Law. He fulfills it, exemplifies it, perfects it.

Jesus did not come to destroy the Law. He came to fulfill its precepts, obligations and prophecies to the last letter. He fulfills the function of all the sacrifices, He lives a perfect life and keeps the essence of its commandments flawlessly, and brings to fulfillment all its prophecies - the greatest being His atoning death on the cross, which ushers in the New Covenant prophesied by Jeremiah 31 and brings the Old Law to its natural conclusion.

Yes, the Old Law is obsolete and has passed away. No, our Lord did not "destroy" it or "abolish" it; rather, like so much else of the Old Testament, He took it up, transfigured it, ennobled it, and fulfilled it.

Related: The Transitory Nature of the Mosaic Law

Email: uscatholicam[at]
Follow on Facebook


Anonymous said...

I'm still not quite clear.

"At face value, this would suggest that the Law of Moses was permanently binding in all its rigor. Our Lord makes it explicitly clear that "not one jot or one tittle" shall pass away from the Law, "till all be fulfilled.""

I think there needs to be more a distinction regarding exactly what the "Law" is in order to understand both how the Law is obsolete and has passed and yet how not one jot or tittle shall pass away.

How specifically, for instance, is the Law fulfilled by Christ when He ate on the Sabbath and yet fulfills the Law which precisely forbade that?

And is there anything from the Law that was not merely provisional?

Boniface said...

Good questions. I will try to amend this article in the next day or two and will let you know when I have done so. Please check back in a few days.

C said...

What is there not to understand? I have spaghetti, I have minced meat, I make spaghetti bolognese. You cannot chew the hard stems, the uncooked spaghetti is no more, the raw meat is no more, we have spaghetti bolognese. BOLOGNESE!

Anonymous said...

There are also those people who think the Ten Commandments is not part of the New Covenant. I thought that it might help for you to mention that the first few concern God and the last few neighbour. This might help drive home to point that Jesus did not do away with the law but perfected it. The Old Testament is full of types fulfilled in the New Testament. The New Covenant is what the Old was pointing to.

Anonymous said...

Boniface, I'm interested on your thoughts about what Pope Francis said in Evangelii Gaudium No. 247 which states, “We hold the Jewish people in special regard because their covenant with God has never been revoked.” The solemn dogmatic definition of Pope Eugenius III and the Ecumenical Council of Florence, and the doctrine taught by the supreme magisterium of Pope Benedict XIV in Ex Quo Primum, set forth repeatedly and explicitly citing the definition of Florence that the Mosaic covenant has been “revoked” and “abrogated”. If popes and councils of the passed already established this as doctrine is this statement heretical??? The priest at my local church has stated this publicly several times in public that the Jewish Covenant is still valid. You seem very well educated about this stuff and seeing that your kind of on this subject I'm wondering if you can maybe shed some light on this for me.

Boniface said...

Anon July 17 12:28,

Fixed. And I tried to give another example. not sure it it will help.

Boniface said...

Anon, July 18th -

This is a tricky problem because, like many other modern statements, it can be taken in two ways. It centers on what people mean by the "Old Covenant". If by Old Covenant they mean the salvific nature of all the rituals, proscriptions of the Old Testament, then of course, that has been revoked, as the Councils and Popes have said.

However, if by Old Covenant they mean the Old Testament, in the sense of the revelation of God made to the patriarchs and prophets in the Old Testament of the Bible, then no, this has never been revoked. The Old Testament is divine revelation, inspired by God and binding except in those aspects which were provisional and have passed away with the coming of Christ.

The Old Testament is bigger than the Old Covenant. The Old Covenant is merely one part of the Old Testament. The Old Covenant is no longer valid, having been replaced by the New. But the Old Testament as such has never been revoked. The confusion arises between the words "covenant" and "testament", which are often (wrongly) used interchangeably when referring to the New but which should definitely be used distinctly when talking about the Old.

The problem is, as in Evangelii Gaudium, we don't know in which sense Francis means this.

Anonymous said...

Regarding healing on the Sabbath, it seems to me the problem lies rather with how we understand "work". Was Jesus doing work in healing? If he did not violate the law but instead fulfills it, we must say no. But we must also maintain the fact that Jesus did not do away with the law, understood rightly, as you note. So the Sabbath is still sacred. Work is still prohibited on it. But the Pharisees did not understand this. Their hypocrisy blinded them to what real righteousness is.

Boniface said...

Well Jesus quotes the episode of David eating on the Sabbath to justify it. This action was allowed to David because he was in need, and because He was king.

So, yes, Jesus shows how He fulfills and embodies the heart of the Law.

Anonymous said...

Boniface, Thank you for your response regarding Evangelii Gaudium. I really wish that Our Holy Father would be more clear as to exactly what he means when he makes a statement. I guess we all do though.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how will this refute the Jews when they claim that the Law of Moses is permanent? And also how will we prove that Jesus is the Messiah when they thought that the Messiah will lead as a political leader?

Anonymous said...

But how do we refute the Jews' assertion that the Law of Moses is permanent...interpreted by the rabbis and those in the sanhedrin leading up to the Talmud? And also how do we demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah when they have a doctrine that the Messiah must be a political leader? Traditional Catholicism may claim to have unbroken tradition...but the Jews will respond that we broke from their tradition....therefore making us heretics in their view. I know this is an old blog post....but these thoughts keep bugging me.

Boniface said...

I'd like to answer this in a separate post. I will try to do so within the week. Check back at the main page periodically or subscribe using the form on the upper left sidebar

Boniface said...

Hey Anon, here you go: