The Law and the Christian

E. Earl Ellis, “Biblical Interpretation in the New Testament Church,” Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 715.

In the NT the law is viewed from the perspective that ‘Messiah is the end…of the law’ (Rom 10:4). However, as Cranfield[,] Davies[,] and Michel…have rightly observed, [the Greek word for ‘end’] here does not mean simply ‘termination’ but carries connotations of ‘completion’, ‘goal’ and ‘fulfillment’. Even legal observances that stand in contrast to the new-age realities, in spite of the dangers posed by them (cf. Heb 9:9f.; 10:1; 13:9) and the prohibition of them to Gentile Christians (e.g., Gal 5:2; Col 2:13; 16f.), were not forbidden to Jewish Christians when they were practiced in the right spirit (Matt 5:23f.; 6:2ff.; Acts 2:46; 3:1; 16:3; 18:18; 20:16; 21:20-26; Rom 14; I Cor 9:19-23). When not literally observed, they continue in their antitype, transposed into a new key: Passover continued in the removal of unethical leaven (1 Cor 5:7f.) and in observance of Messiah’s ‘Passover’ sacrifice of the new covenant (Luke 22:19f.; cf. 1 Cor 11:23-26); circumcision is the identification of the believer with Messiah’s spilt covenant blood (Col 2:11; cf. Phil 3:3); an altar in the appropriation of Messiah’s sacrificial offering (Heb 13:10; cf. John 6:53f.); sacrifices of praise and gifts (Phil 4:18; Heb 13:15; 1 Pet 2:5) and one’s own life (Rom 12:1; 2 Tim 4:6) by which the afflictions of Messiah are completed (…Col 1:24; cf. Rev 6:11). In the words of J.A. Sanders[,] the Tora was not eradicated in early Christianity but ‘was caught up in Christ’.”

I have mixed feelings on this quote. Here are some thoughts:

1. Romans 10:4 states that “Christ is the end (Gr. telos) of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (NRSV). Does this mean that Christ has abolished the Old Testament law, or that he’s the Torah’s end, goal, and fulfillment? The Jewish New Testament makes a big deal about its acceptance of the latter meaning. While the JNT views the former interpretation as a product of Christian anti-Judaism, it thinks the latter is consistent with observing the Torah in light of Christ.

Telos can mean “end,” as it does when referring to the end times (Matthew 24:6, 14; et al.). But it can also mean “goal.” For instance, I Timothy 1:5 says that the telos of the commandment is charity out of the pure heart, and I Peter 1:9 affirms that the telos of our faith is the salvation of our souls.

Some may argue that the two interpretations overlap: Now that Christ has fulfilled the Torah, God’s people do not have to observe it literally. The goal of the Torah has come, so why observe the shadows when we have the real thing?

I think that Romans 10:4 says that something has come to an end. On the whole, Romans 10 criticizes the majority of Jews for seeking to establish their own righteousness through obedience to the law. Whereas the righteousness of the law is all about doing, Paul argues, the righteousness of faith is about passively believing in what God has done through Jesus Christ. The legitimacy of “righteousness by the law” has come to an end, since we now become righteous through another means: “the righteousness of faith.”

2. Ellis points out that Jewish Christians could continue observing the law, even though its rituals posed some dangers. He cites passages from Hebrews (9:9; 10:1; 13:9) to support his latter proposition, but I’m not sure that they are necessarily telling Jewish Christians to avoid the rituals of the Torah. These texts emphasize that the Old Testament rituals cannot make one perfect, and 13:9 exhorts them, “Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings; for it is well for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by regulations about food, which have not benefited those who observe them.” A person cannot rely on the Old Testament rituals to become spiritually clean, but can a Jew observe them to physically commemorate what Christ has done? Luke affirms that Jesus’ disciples were continually praising God in the temple (Luke 24:53), and Paul underwent a vow in the temple to show Jewish Christians that he was not anti-Torah (Acts 21).

3. Were Gentile Christians prohibited from observing the Torah in the early church, as Ellis states? He cites Galatians 5:2 and Colossians 2:13, 16. Here’s Galatians 5:2: “Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.” And Colossians 2:13, 16 has: “And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses…Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.”

Paul seems to be warning Gentile Christians not to be circumcised. If Paul is prohibiting Gentiles from having their foreskins removed, then a lot of us are in trouble, since many of us were circumcised when we were born! But Galatians 5:1, 3, and 4 illustrate what Paul is talking about: those who are circumcised place themselves under a yoke of bondage, which requires them to observe all of the law to be righteous before God. Paul criticizes those who desire justification through the Torah, for, if the Torah could make us righteous, then why did Christ have to die and rise again? I don’t think Paul is categorically forbidding Gentiles to keep Jewish customs, but if they’re doing them to become righteous and aren’t relying on the righteousness that Christ freely offers, then they’re on dangerous ground.

Colossians 2:13, 16 appears to say that Gentile Christians shouldn’t let anyone condemn them for not keeping the Sabbath, holy days, new moons, and dietary regulations. These things are not important for their righteousness before God, since forgiveness of sin comes through Christ alone. Therefore, they shouldn’t let anyone tell them they’re second-class for not keeping them. But if they want to keep them because doing so reminds them of Christ, then I don’t think Paul would have a problem with that.

4. I like Ellis’ point that, in a sense, Christians now observe the Torah’s rituals of Passover, circumcision, and sacrifices, only their observance is not literal. New Covenant theology (as I understand it) states that Christ has abolished the Old Covenant with its Torah and established in its place a New Covenant, which has a new law. For adherents to this position, the Old Covenant (and with it the Torah) was solely for ancient Israel, for it was with her (not the Gentiles) that God made the agreement. At the same time, New Covenant theologians claim that the Torah has a universal sort of relevance. The now New Covenant-oriented Worldwide Church of God (or whatever it’s presently called) has argued that the dietary laws pointed to purity through Christ, a concept that the New Testament applies to all believers. And, as Ellis notes, categories within the Torah (e.g., sacrifices, Passover, etc.) are deemed relevant in the New Testament for all believers, Jews and Gentiles, only in a spiritual sense.

This is a dilemma: The Torah was given to Israel as part of God’s specific agreement with her. At the same time, even New Covenant theologians acknowledge that the Torah is sacred Scripture for Christians, ascribing to it a universal relevance.

See “Common Legalist Arguments – Part IV” for my discussion with New Covenant advocates, who offer solutions to this dilemma.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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