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Jesus and the Law

Anthony Buzzard

It is a fundamental mistake to suppose that Jesus merely reinforced the need to observe all the laws given to Israel through Moses. It is, however, true that he specifically denied that he was going to destroy the law or the prophets (Matt. 5:17, 18). How then can Jesus have altered the law while not destroying it? The answer is found in his significant statement that he “came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it.” What is meant by “fulfilling the law”?

Does “fulfilling the law” simply mean performing it as Moses required? If Jesus demands that we carry out the precepts of the law as given by Moses, then clearly circumcision in the flesh is still mandatory for all. We should remember that circumcision in the flesh was a sign of the covenant made with Abraham (after he had believed the Gospel, Gal. 3:8; see Rom. 4:9-12) and a mark of the true, obedient Israelite (just as the Sabbath also identified a faithful Israelite).

The law had said quite clearly: “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘When a woman gives birth and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean for seven days…On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised’” (Lev. 12:2, 3). Note also the commandment which ensured that “no uncircumcised person may eat [the Passover]. The same law shall apply to the native as to the stranger who sojourns among you” (Ex. 12:48, 49).

In Exodus 4:24-26 God had threatened death to Moses if he did not see that his children were circumcised. This was one of God’s most fundamental commandments to Israel. But was it His eternal law, in that form, for every human being?

None of us feels the obligation to carry out this part of God’s law, though we can find nothing in the recorded teaching of Jesus while he was on earth which would do away with the requirement of physical circumcision. We do not pay the slightest attention to the eighth day of an infant’s life as the day on which he should be circumcised according to God’s law. Have we then destroyed that law? In a sense, yes. But in a different sense, no. We understand from the teaching of Paul (though not from the teaching of Jesus when he was on earth) that circumcision is now “in the heart,” for “he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the spirit, not by the letter” (Rom. 2:28, 29).

There is surely a vast difference between circumcision in the flesh and circumcision in the spirit. Yet the New Testament sees spiritual, inward circumcision as the proper response to the command that we are to be circumcised. The law has been spiritualized and thus “fulfilled.” It has not been destroyed. It has certainly taken a quite different form under the Christian dispensation.

Jesus embarked on just such a spiritualization of the ten commandments and other laws (treating them all the same) when in the Sermon on the Mount he announced, “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’…but I say to you…” (Matt. 5:21, 22). “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ but I say to you…” (Matt. 5:27, 28). “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you…” (Matt. 19:8, 9).

By “fulfilling” the law Jesus is altering it — actually changing it — but not destroying it. He is in fact bringing out the real intention of the law, making it more radical, in some cases (divorce) repealing the law of Moses in Deuteronomy 24, stating that this provision was temporary. This is an important fact: Jesus’ teaching actually renders Moses’ divorce law null and void. He takes us back to an earlier marriage law given by God in Genesis (2:24). Jesus thus appeals to an earlier and more fundamental part of the Torah. He overrides the later concession given by Moses as Torah.

Jesus brought the law to its destined end, the ultimate purpose for which it was originally enacted (Rom. 10:4). In every case we must see what this entails. For example, what of the law of clean and unclean meats? Does Jesus say anything about the meaning of that law for Christians? In character with others of his sayings, Jesus goes to the heart of the problem of uncleanness: “Whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated” (Mark 7:18, 19). Then Mark comments: “Thus Jesus declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19, see modern translations).

It appears that at the time Jesus spoke of defilement, his audience did not understand the radical way in which he was altering the practical effects of the law. Peter continued to observe the food laws and protested that he had never eaten anything “common” (koinos) or “unclean” (akathartos) (Acts 10:14). But later, when Mark wrote his gospel, the lesson was learned: The law of clean and unclean food was no longer in force. Mark had elsewhere (3:30) added his own editorial comment, and he does so in Mark 7:19. Jesus had been referring to this change under the New Covenant. The law’s original purpose had been to teach people to be discriminating in matters of good and evil.

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