What is the Meaning of “… the Law Has Found Its Fulfillment in Christ”?
A. Yoel Ben Arye
One of the controversial aspects in Jewish-Christian dialogue has its source in Paul’s teaching (Rom 10:4) that the law (the Torah, the commandments) has found its fulfillment in Christ. While I am fully aware that the problems of the subject of the Mosaic Law in the NT are far broader, in this article I purport only to establish, on one hand, whether the law continues to be valid today and, on the other, for whom it is relevant.
According to the Christian interpretation of this passage, once the gate of salvation is opened by belief in Christ for all mankind (Rom 10:9), simultaneously the path of redemption through fulfillment of the law is canceled for the Jews.
On this point, my question is: Is this theological position correct and consistent with the other teachings of Christ and with the entire New Testament? This doctrinal position can only be considered theologically correct if the Jews are excluded from the redemption. In this way, all the parts of the NT referring to this theme would be consistent.
In this paper, I will endeavor to throw light on the Christian theological position in relation to the Jewish anachronism in the fulfillment of the law, which maintains that the correct path for attaining salvation is Yeshua (Jesus).
In order to demonstrate my opinion in this respect, I will base myself on the studies relating to this topic carried out by the Qumran Institute for Research of the Religions.
The term “LAW” is the translation of the Hebrew “TORAH” and represents the Pentateuch which in turn, together with the Prophets and the other Scriptures, makes up the Old Testament. The Law given to the People by Moses at Mount Sinai consists of a set of commandments and statutes which, when fulfilled, will allow them to attain redemption. Unfortunately, ten of the twelve tribes of Israel committed repeated infractions and idolatry and were dispersed, assimilating into the pagan peoples, and in this way lost their national identity (1). Although the two remaining tribes sinned, they succeeded, nonetheless, in remaining within the strict framework of living subject to these commandments and statutes.
The problem of the Law in the New Testament, at first glance, is extremely confused, since it is impossible to know absolutely who must or must not fulfill it. Jesus certainly comes from the House of Judah, but his mission in this stage of history consists in beginning the process of seeking out and saving the House of Israel (Mt 15:24), i.e. the ten lost tribes. The prophet Jeremiah is very explicit on this subject:
In those days the house of Judah shall walk with the house of Israel, and they shall come together out of the land of the north to the land that I gave for an inheritance to your fathers (Jer 3:18).
The House of Israel is dispersed throughout the world since it was unable to support the weight of the Law. Therefore, it cannot be saved, among other reasons, by the obligation to fulfill the Law. Hence, Jesus specifies different obligations for both Houses: he affirms that the members of the House of Judah are not part of his sheep (Jn 10:26-27), and both Jesus and John the Baptist preach to the Jews only repentance from sins and fulfillment of the Law (2).
Jesus is extremely clear as regards the Law and the Jews, and Matthew expresses it unequivocally, strictly warning of what awaits those who do not fulfill even the least of the commandments:
Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets (…) I have come not to abolish but to complete them.
In truth I tell you, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, is to disappear from the Law until all its purpose is achieved.
Therefore, anyone who infringes even one of the least of these commandments (…) will be considered the least in the kingdom of Heaven; but the person who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the kingdom of Heaven. (Mt 5:17-19) [My emphasis].
Certainly, Jesus is referring only to Jews. The situation is completely different in relation to the lost sheep of the House of Israel and the Gentiles, who can only achieve their salvation through Divine mercy, which depends on a specific act of faith:
If you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and if you believe with your heart that G-d raised him from the dead, then you will be saved. (Rom 10:9-10).
There is an apparent contradiction in this text, when Paul asks: “(…) Are we saying that the Law has been made pointless by faith?” However, Paul himself resolves this difficulty, replying to his own question: “Out of the question; we are placing the Law on its true footing” (Rom 3:31).
If faith places the Law on its true footing, it means that it completes it and does not make it pointless; the inevitable deduction is that the Law must remain valid, but only for the Jews.
The subject of faith should be discussed in a separate work. However, two extremely important questions must be clarified here:
1. The faith of the Jews, as an inseparable component of the law and, obviously, of its fulfillment, consists in the direct belief in the Father, without need for an intermediary.
2. The Christian faith, conversely, while directed ultimately at the Father, nonetheless requires Christ’s mediation (Rom 10:9), but there is no obligation of fulfillment of the Mosaic Law.
The Scriptures foresaw, also, that God would give saving justice to the Gentiles through faith, but are unequivocal about those who are circumcised, who must continue to keep the Law:
On the other hand, all those who depend on the works of the Law are under a curse, since Scripture says: Accursed be he who does not make what is written in the book of the Law effective, by putting it into practice (…) (Gal 3:10) [My emphasis] (3).
Error in the interpretation of this quotation must be avoided, i.e. that the Law could be considered synonymous with a curse. On the contrary, those who do not keep the law are accursed and, hence, the Law constitutes a blessing for the Jews who keep it. Paul’s sermon indeed attests to this: “So then, the Law is holy, and what it commands is holy and upright and good (…)” (Rom 7:12). Through a quote from Luke, I will endeavor to shed light on this very widely discussed and complex subject:
So the rich man said to Abraham in hell, “Father, I beg you then to send the beggar Lazarus to my father’s house, since I have five brothers, to give them warning so that they do not come to this place of torment too.
Abraham said, They have Moses and the prophets, let them listen to them. The rich man replied, Ah no, father Abraham, but if someone comes to them from the dead, they will repent. Then Abraham said to him, If they will not listen either to Moses or to the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead. (Lk 16:27-31).
It is clear from this quotation that repentance and salvation for the Jews does not depend on the faith in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The apparent contradictions on this subject in the New Testament and which have caused so much confusion for the exegetes, do not offer any satisfactory solution other than the one affirmed in this work.
When Jesus states that the Law and the Prophets go up to the time of John, and then affirms that it is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for one little stroke to drop out of the Law (4), he leaves no possible alternative: either he contradicts himself irremediably or he refers to two different groups as receiving his words.
In the Talmud it is affirmed that from the time of Adam’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, this world has six thousand years divided into three periods of two thousand years each. It is usually indicated that in the first two thousand years, chaos constituted the dominant note. The second two thousand were those of the Law, while the last two thousand years have been characterized as messianic (5).
During the second two thousand years there was a possibility of restoring the harmony lost since the original sin and achieving salvation through fulfilling of the Law, but this was not achieved, principally due to the weakness of the House of Israel. Therefore, the last two thousand messianic years open the possibility of salvation for those who were unable to keep the Divine commandments; here the Gentiles must be included, since, according to Jewish tradition, they should have fulfilled the seven Noahide laws and did not.
Accordingly, Paul considers it fundamental to make a distinction between the different obligations, as can be seen in one of the many examples found in the NT:
My verdict is, then, that instead of making things more difficult for gentiles who turn to God, we should send them a letter telling them merely to abstain from anything polluted by idols, from illicit marriages, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.
For Moses (the Torah or Law), has always had his preachers in every town and is read aloud in the synagogues every Sabbath. (Acts 15:19-21) [My clarifications in brackets].
This is one of the important reasons why John stresses that: “Salvation comes from the Jews” (Jn 4:22). This means that a group (the Jews) must be preserved in order to keep the Mosaic Law alive, since: “(…) There is no change of mind on God’s part about the gifts he has made or of his choice” (Rom 11:29). Namely, if the fulfillment of the Law constitutes an irrevocable gift of God for salvation, at least a small part of Israel (the Jews) should continue to keep this covenant valid. Paul also instructs that: “Everyone should stay in whatever state he was in when he was called (…)” (1 Cor 7:19-20).
Christianity, as a movement for redemption of mankind having its origins in the beginning of the messianic era according to Jewish tradition, will carry out its mission through fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that Israel must be a light unto the nations. This Light must keep and transmit the very essence of the religion of Israel.
While Christianity sprang from and separated from Judaism, both constitute two aspects of one entity. Nonetheless, the Church’s conception in this respect is based on the belief that the time of the Sinai Covenant has ended, having been superseded by the arrival of the Messiah. This belief, based on a partial vision of the New Testament, does not allow the consistent explanation of the entire text: “But the Law has found its fulfillment in Christ so that all who have faith will be justified” (Rom 10:4), or “Up to the time of John it was the Law and the Prophets; from then onwards, the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it” (Lk 16:16), for instance, are quotations that Christian doctrine considers definitive for qualifying the Law as obsolete as a path of salvation.
Notwithstanding, the same Paul insists that: “Even when a will is only a human one, once it has been ratified nobody can cancel it or add more provisions to it (…)” (Gal 3:15-17). We can find a clear example of identification with this teaching of the apostle in Pope John Paul II’s address to the Jewish community of Mainz (Germany) on November 17, 1980, where he maintains: “(…) “… the people of God of the Old Covenant, which has never been revoked”. This address, in turn was included in the document Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis of the Roman Catholic Church, 1985.
When the Sinai Covenant cannot be invalidated by the subsequent New Covenant or Testament, why do so many theologians and exegetes have such difficulty in accepting what John Paul II understood so naturally? (6)
The Church could argue that the quotations considered do not refer to the invalidating of any covenant; rather they simply announce that the Law of Moses has come to its end, has fulfilled its objective and that now, it no longer has any reason for being.
Against such arguments, I have endeavored to show that the full validity of the Law corresponds solely to the House of Judah. However, for a more detailed analysis of these significant teachings of Jesus, the following quotation should be reexamined: “(…) till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, is to disappear from the Law until all its purpose is achieved” (Mt. 5,18). This is an extremely explicit text as regards the time of what could be interpreted as the end of Mosaic Law or, at least, of some type of change in it. This would be an interpretation more in keeping with Christ’s teaching, i.e., that the Law will remain in force until “heaven and earth disappear” and “until all its purpose is achieved”.
The Scriptures contain references to the “world to come” relating to the concept of “new heaven and new earth” and to the coming of the “Kingdom”. In accordance with these references, it remains for us to establish what the New Testament says about the Kingdom of God: whether it has already come about or if, on the contrary, this is a still awaited event. In this context, the Apostle Luke notes:
There will be signs in the sun and moon and stars; on earth nations in agony, bewildered by the turmoil of the ocean and its waves; men fainting away with terror and fear at what menaces the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken.
And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand erect, hold your heads high, because your liberation is near at hand.
So with you when you see these things happening: know that the kingdom of God is near (Lk 21:25-31)
Since these events have not yet occurred, and the Kingdom of God has only been announced and has not yet been established, the Mosaic Law continues to be valid until “heaven and earth disappear” and “until all its purpose is achieved”. For it to continue to be present, it must be kept alive: This is the mission of the House of Judah, since otherwise the very existence of the Creation and the Divine plan of the final restoration are threatened (7). Without the Jews who keep the Law, no possibility of salvation exists.
1. The house of Israel (the ten lost tribes) and the Gentiles cannot achieve redemption through keeping of the Law.
2. Salvation for these two groups is through an act of confession (that Jesus is the Lord) and by believing that God raised him from the dead (Rom 10:9).
3. For the house of Judah (the Jews and Judaism), the Law continues to be valid in its entirety, at least until “heaven and earth disappear” (Mt 5:18); namely, until the coming of the Kingdom of God (Lk 21:25-31).
Changes in the Mosaic Law, according to Jewish Tradition and the New Testament
The Christian interpretation of the fulfillment of the Law consists, as we have seen, in considering that belief in Christ replaces the Law of Sinai as instrument of salvation. This theological position was analyzed in the previous chapter, in which the conclusions drawn show that in “this world”, the Law and the belief in the Messiah (Christ) constitute two parallel and indispensable paths of salvation, which can in no way replace each other, one for the Jews and another for the Gentiles. The shared objective is the redemption for all mankind, i.e., “the world to come” (“olam haba” in Hebrew).
Having explained the New Testament conception of the time in which the Law will reach its fulfillment, it only remains to establish the contents of this “fulfillment”, both in the New Testament and in Jewish tradition. From this perspective, I will endeavor to clarify the meaning of the sentence: “The Law has found its fulfillment in Christ” (Rom 10:4).
In relation to this Pauline statement there are two conceptual options:
A) The fulfillment of the Law means that it will disappear as instrument of salvation once the world has been redeemed; namely, it will become an anachronism and obsolete, in the context of a mankind already saved.
B) Alternatively, the “fulfillment of the Law” consists, in reality, in “the end of the Law as it is now”, without actual changes in this world; however, in a world that has been redeemed or in stages approaching this state in the process of redemption, changes could begin to occur within it. In principle, this would be a Law differing from the previous one, even though a large part of the first one would be conserved in the second.
Both in the NT conception, through the teachings of Jesus, and in rabbinical tradition, the second option is considered the correct one. When Jesus says: “In truth I tell you, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, is to disappear from the Law until all its purpose is achieved” (Mt 5:18), two conclusions can be drawn:
1. The change will occur at the end of this stage, as we have already seen, when the present “heavens and earth disappear”.
2. Jesus in no way implies the total elimination of the Law, but only presents changes in it.
A proof that validates this last option is to be found not only in Jesus’ statement in Mt 5:18, but, principally, in his teaching on the “Greatest Commandment” as it appears in Mt 22:
‘Master, which is the greatest commandment of the Law?’ Jesus said to him, ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. (cf. Deut 6:5). This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it: You must love your neighbor as yourself (cf. Lev 19:18). On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets too.’ (Mt 22:36-40). [My clarifications in brackets] (8).
These two great commandments, which are the bases of the Law and the Prophets, i.e. of the entire Old Testament, certainly will not disappear in the world now redeemed by the Messiah or Christ. According to this, Jesus implies only changes in the Law and does not foresee or promote at all its total disappearance either in this world or in the next.
The same conception of changes in the context of the Mosaic Law exists in Jewish tradition, of which Jesus is a faithful exponent. Jewish tradition is no less explicit on the time when there will be changes in the Law received at Sinai. Thus, for instance:
(…) As they said (our Torah sages) all the sacrifices will be abolished, except for the “Thanks” (“Toda”) offering and all the festivals will no longer be celebrated, except for Purim and Yom HaKippurim (the Day of Atonement), since all the sacrifices and festivals that are pronounced abolished (will have no meaning) in the reality of the “World to Come”. (9)
We find another very significant example in the writings of Maimonides:
All the books of the Prophets and all the Scriptures will be abolished except for the Book of Esther, since this will remain like the five books of the Torah and the halachot (the religious laws) of the Oral Law (the Talmud), which will never be canceled. Nonetheless, even though all memory of sufferings will disappear (“For, behold, I (God) create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered, nor come into mind”, Is. 65:17) the days of Purim will not be canceled, as it is written in the Book of Esther 9:28 “that these days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the memory of them perish from their seed.” (10)
The reasons why the rabbis determine Halacha (according to the Law), i.e. they fix a concept with doctrinal power, go beyond the bounds of this work, as do the whole range of arguments in this respect.
Another theme that can guide us in relation to the changes in the Law is found in the concept of the “law of the Messiah (Christ)”, as it appears in the NT (Gal 6:2) and in Jewish tradition. The NT: “Carry each other’s burdens; that is how to keep the law of Christ (or Messiah)” (Gal 6:2). [My clarification in brackets]. St. Augustine, in turn, interprets this sentence in the following way:
(…) namely the law of charity. He who loves his neighbor as himself keeps the law; further, loving of one’s neighbor is particularly recommended in the OT (cf. Lev 19:18). Elsewhere the same Apostle says that all the precepts of the Law are included in this love. Clearly, the scripture that was given to the first people was the Law of Christ, which he came to fulfill out of love since it was not fulfilled out of fear (cf. Rom 13:10). (11).
Another interesting commentary states:
(…) people love each other when they bear each other’s burden. You have this defect, and not that; he however does not have the defect that you have, but another defect. Support his defect and he will support yours. For in this way the law of love is fulfilled. Christ called his law love because He said: “I give you a new commandment: love one another” Jn 13:34 (12).
Without taking into consideration St. Augustine’s view in relation to the “first people”, for him the law of Christ does not constitute any change in respect to the Law from Sinai; he merely stresses what is specific in the law of Christ, namely the “love of others” that exists in the Mosaic Law (Lev 19:18).
Theodoretus of Cyrus interprets Gal 6:2 from the teaching in the Gospel of John on the “new commandment” of mutual love. Certainly, this teaching of Jesus does not bring any innovation in relation to the same commandment in the OT (Lev 19:18). What is really new is that Jesus extends the order to love others to the Gentiles.
Little children, I shall be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and, as I told the Jews, where I am going, you cannot come. I give you a new commandment: love one another (…) (Jn 13:33-34).
With this quotation it is clear that the new commandment is only for the Gentiles, since it is addressed only to them: his listeners (“little children”) are not Jews, since he had already spoken with them on the subject of the place to which he was going.
In this passage, Jesus (or John) makes very sure to differentiate between these two groups. Certainly, it could not have been otherwise, since this manner of teaching love of others was foreign to the Gentiles of pagan origin; at the same time, it constitutes one of the bases of the Jewish religion and of the OT teachings, from which Jesus draws this duty for all men. In other words, the Law of Christ does not represent an innovation in this case in relation to Judaism; however, it is an innovation for the Gentile world.
For its part, in Jewish tradition, the concept of the “law of the Messiah” is approached from a different perspective:
The miracles that will be performed on the Day of the messianic redemption will all be supernatural, performed directly (“personally”) by the Holy One Blessed Be He, and in them the hidden light (of the first day of the Creation) will be discovered. All the miracles that the Holy One Blessed Be He performed during the people’s exodus from Egypt will be as naught in comparison with the miracles of the future redemption (…) And since the redemption of the people in the “exodus from Egypt” was carried out even though the people were given up (slaves) to idolatry, the future redemption will also be performed in a generation of sinners (…) The Torah (the Law) that a man has learned in “this world” will be futile as opposed to the understanding of the “Torah of the Messiah” (13) [My clarifications in brackets]
Another source also teaches the following:
The law (Torah) that a man has learned (in “this world”) is futile as opposed to the “Torah of the Messiah” (or the Law of Christ, according to the New Testament). And our sages of blessed memory said about the Torah of the Messiah that between “this world” and the “days of the Messiah” only the “enslavement to the kingdoms” will still exist, i.e., the cancellation of the “the Evil Kingdom” and (…) of the evil instincts (evil inclinations, lustfulness) (14) [My clarifications in brackets]
In conclusion, it may be said that both the NT and the Church Fathers, on one hand, and Jewish tradition and the Jewish Sages (Rabbis), on the other, interpret the concept of Law of Christ (or Law of the Messiah) in the sense that it does not involve a change in the Law from Sinai applied to “this world”, since within it all the aspects and variants are included for the “world to come” or “until the heavens and earth disappear”, as taught by Jesus in the NT. Certainly, with different words and teaching about different concepts, both traditions refer exactly to the same thing.
Clarification: The theological articles by A. Yoel Ben Arye are a result of the teachings received at the Qumran Institute for Research of the Religions in Jerusalem, founded in 1982.
(1) See Yoel Ben-Arye: “Verus Israel, a problem of identity”, in which the Qumran Institute subject of the mission of Jesus for the House of Israel is presented.
(2) Cf. Mt 3:1-12.
(3) Cf. Deut 27:26.
(4) Lk 16:16-17.
(5) Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97; Avodah Zarah 9.
(6) See, for instance, the interpretation of Mt 9:17 (Mr 2:22 and Lk 5:37-39) concerning “the old wineskins and the new wine” in A. Yoel Ben Arye: “Theological Stagnation of the Roman Catholic Church in Jewish-Christian Dialogue and in Practice”.
(7) Acts 1:6.
(8) For instance, all the other aspects of the Law that appear starting from Mt 5:21 should be taken into consideration.
(9) Sha’arei HaLeshem, part 1, section 8 (Torah). See also, for instance: Ibid. Section 20 (Supplement to Shabbat); Ibid. Part II, section 13, ch. 1: “Times of restoration, Days of the Messiah; Tiferet Israel, ch. 53; and Sefer Or Hadash, p. 48, Midrash Mishlei (Buber), Parasha 9, 2 Chron, Tavha Tivha). [My clarifications in brackets]. It should also be clarified that the “Thanks offering” is not an animal sacrifice, but a bread sacrifice i.e., belonging to the vegetable kingdom: Treaty Pesahim 1:5.
(10) Rambam: Yad Hahazaka, Halachot Megilla veHanukka ch. 2, Halacha 18. [My clarifications in brackets].
(11) St. Augustine: “Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, 58”, in The Bible commented by the Church Fathers. New Testament. Vol. 8 op. cit.
(12) Theodoretus of Cyrus: “Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians 6:2”, ibid. [Theodoretus of Cyrus (393-466; fl. 447-466), Bishop of Cyrus (Antioch)].
(13) Sha’arei HaLeshem. Part I, ch. 1: “The hidden Law, foundation of the creation”. [My clarifications in brackets].
(14) Ets Hayyim (The Tree of Life). Introduction of Rabbi Hayyim Vital of blessed memory on Shaar HaHakdamot. [My clarifications in brackets].