Is Christ the End of the Law? (part 3 of 3)

(Part 3 of a 3-part series that begins here.)

Paul tells us in Romans 10:4 that the “telos” of the law is Christ, which has been translated “Christ is the end of the law” (see NIV 1984). Much debate has occurred over this line. However, few have noticed the surprising way that telos is used elsewhere in the New Testament.

Believe it or not, we find two other places where the verb form of teleos (to end, complete) is used together with nomos (law) in the sense of in the sense of keeping or fulfilling (obeying) it!

Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps (teleo) the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. (Romans 2:27)

If you really fulfill (teleo) the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. (James 2:8)

Certainly in these two passages, the sense of teleo is not “terminate, bring to an end.”

Let’s also examine the other verb that is used in a similar context, pleroo (“to fulfill,” in the sense of filling up). This is what is used in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill (pleroo) them.”1

Note how the verb pleroo is used in these other passages:

Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling (pleroo) of the law. (Romans 13:10)

For the whole law is fulfilled (pleroo) in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)

Like teleo, the sense of pleroo here is that of upholding the Torah and living it out, rather than seeking its termination. (Go back to part 1 for details.)

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Christ is the Goal of the Torah

So, how should we read Romans 10:4? In light of the rest of Paul’s writing, I think it’s wise to take a two-handed approach. Scholars point out that while telos can mean “end,” it can also mean “goal” or “culmination.” They suggest that Paul’s wording in Romans 10:4 is deliberately vague, conveying two ideas at once. Christ is both the goal and the end of the Law, they conclude.

Christ is the climactic goal of the Torah, the living embodiment of the holiness and compassion toward which God was aiming. Jesus is the “Word made flesh.” He is the only one who has ever perfectly lived out the Torah.

If the Torah is God’s teaching for how to live as his people, in what sense could it end? It doesn’t. But, as Christians, we believe that Jesus took upon himself the punishment we deserve for our inability to keep God’s commands. As such, he brought the law to the end of its ability to separate us from God because of our sin. For that we rejoice!

Second, God’s policy for centuries had been to separate Israel from the influence of its pagan neighbors. He did this so that he could train his people properly, like a parent teaching a child (Galatians 3:24). In Christ, God gave a new command that went in the opposite direction. Instead of maintaining their distance, Jesus’ followers were to go into the world and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19).

The instant Peter visited the first Gentile, the policy of separation collided with the new policy of outreach. According to Jewish law, Peter could not accept Cornelius’s hospitality because Gentiles were “unclean.” But God had given him a vision in which unclean animals were declared “clean.” (Acts 10:9-16)

With the guidance of the Spirit, the church ruled in Acts 15 that Gentile believers did not need to enter into the covenant that was given on Mount Sinai. The “dividing wall of hostility” that the Torah put up to keep the Gentiles away was brought to an end (Ephesians 2:14). (See part 2 for more.)

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Unclean Animals

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What about God’s Covenant with Israel?

The Torah also contains God’s covenant with Israel. Did Jesus bring this covenant to an end? Absolutely not, Paul exclaims! Just look at Romans 11:

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! …As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Romans 11:1, 28-29

Paul mourns deeply for his Jewish brothers who have been alienated from God’s promises, and he longs for them to believe in their Messiah. He pictures Israel, the family of Abraham, as an olive tree that Gentiles have been grafted into. Some of Israel’s branches have been cut off, but he’s is optimistic that they can be grafted back in again. In no way does Paul think of God’s covenant with Israel as nullified.

 

In Conclusion

As Gentiles, Christians are not obligated to keep the Mosaic covenant. It was given to Israel, not to the world. We are saved by faith in Christ because of his atoning death, not by keeping a covenant we were never given.

How then are we to live? Paul and the other New Testament writers spend most of their letters discussing this very subject. In Acts 15:21, the Jerusalem Council points out that that Gentile believers will hear Moses preached every weekend in the synagogue. Certainly they will learn how to live from hearing the Torah preached.

The Apostles knew that we can discover great wisdom within the Torah because Christ himself was the goal toward which it was aiming. This is our goal too—to be filled with the love and goodness of our Lord and Rabbi, Jesus.

 

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(Certainly much, much more could be said about these issues. My point is to share a few language and cultural insights that challenge our reading, not deal exhaustively with Pauline theology.)

Here is the rest of this series:

Part 1, What “Fulfill the Law” Meant in its Jewish Context

Part 2, What Paul says about “Fulfilling the Law”

Bible quotations are from the ESV. Compare translations of Romans 10:4 here.

 

Image credits: Stephen Baker, Matt Botsford, Kate Bergin.

Comments

7 Responses to “Is Christ the End of the Law? (part 3 of 3)”

  1. 1
    thomas|November 12, 2018

    Thanks for the posts.
    In this series you’ve made the distinction several times concerning “Gentile” Christians but I was wondering if you’d like to elaborate on the “Jewish” Christian’s relationship to the Torah. Does it differ? I’m working out the issue myself within a conservative confessional context. Thanks, Thomas M

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    Lisa|November 28, 2018

    Very informative article but I was left wondering about your conclusion. It appears that you are saying that Gentile Believers are not obligated to keep the Torah. One would think that if the gentile accepted God and followed after Christ then they would be obligated just as the Israelite to follow Torah. Are they not commanded to walk in obedience? Does this verse only apply to Israel? “If you love me keep my commandments.” Did the early church leaders really conclude that the gentiles ONLY had to obey the 3 basic laws? Whats the significance of Acts 15:21 “for Moses from former generations in every city hath those preaching him — in the synagogues every sabbath being read.” Did the early church leaders or Paul firmly say and hold the position, and is this the consensus today, that the gentile converts did NOT and Do NOT have to obey the Torah? If the answer is no then what’s the purpose of a gentile being grafted into the Olive Tree if they are not expected to produce the same fruit? Thank you for your time.

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    Monica|December 15, 2018

    Scripture tells us there is one law for Israel and for the stranger and foreigner who dwells among them. Exodus 12:49 Numbers 15:15. Besides once you believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and desire to walk in His commandments you are know longer a gentile. I fully agree, Jesus came to show us how to walk, and we are to walk as He walked.

  4. 4
    john roper|December 19, 2018

    I agree with your assessment that the Gentile believers are not required to follow the Torah laws. Carefully dividing the Word is needed here or one come to other false conclusions. This is clearly shown in Acts 15. The food laws are clearly removed in Acts with Peter’s vision. Further, in Gal 2 Paul chastises Peter for his “backsliding”. Well all things are permitted, not all things are beneficial thus Jewish Christians are free to follow the Torah, but even they are not required to adhere to the Torah. That is the critical difference – are Christians required to follow the Torah or not. The answer from scripture is clear that they are not. Yes, Jesus followed the Torah but gave hints of what was coming. He told His disciples that he had much to teach them, but that they weren’t ready to bear it. The Holy Spirit would teach them after Jesus ascended. This is clearly shown throughout Acts.

  5. 5
    Lois Tverberg|December 20, 2018

    John, thanks for your comment.

    Lisa and Monica, in regard to your question, “But why wouldn’t Gentile believers need to obey the Torah?” see post #2 in this series: “What Paul Says about Fulfilling the Law.” My short answer: The early church made this decision in Acts 15, and God confirmed it by pouring out his Spirit on Gentiles when they first believed, not waiting for them to commit themselves to Torah observance by becoming circumcised. (Galatians 3:2-5)

    If you are convinced that Gentiles are obligated to become Torah observant, you are arguing with Paul, the early church, and God himself. AND YET I do agree that the Torah is the absolute core and centerpiece of the Scriptures, including the New Testament. The church is greatly impoverished by our ignorance. When the Acts council ruled against Gentiles becoming Jewish proselytes, they were expecting that they would still be hearing the Torah taught each week (Acts 15:21). I think that’s what we need to do – to study the Torah much more than we do, understanding that it was given to Israel, not to the rest of the world.

    Part of the problem here, once again, is an individualistic attitude toward reading the Bible. We plop it open to any page and pretend that it is speaking to “me” personally. When you do this with the Torah, you’re ignoring the fact that God was speaking to Israel and making a covenant with them, not everyone. It honors Israel far more to not paste yourself in as the intended audience of every line.

  6. 6
    Brandon|December 21, 2018

    Great articles. May you continue to shed light on the Jewishness of our Savior that we can better know his ways. In regards to Gentiles being Torah observant I would be interested in your thoughts on how Jesus deals with the nations when he returns and also the idea of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews where it states how he the Lord will write his law upon our hearts. What law does he write? Also Zechariah speaks of a time when Jesus returns when those who don’t come up to Jerusalem for Tabernacles are punished by not getting rain. Or the blessing spoken about to the gentiles who keep the Sabbath in Isaiah. Could it be that are hang up is situated more around the sacrificial system which can’t be applied bc there is no temple. Just curious to know your thoughts. But as you continue to teach Torah May you find yourself a spot among the greats in the kingdom of God.

  7. 7
    Lois Tverberg|December 21, 2018

    Brandon,

    Regarding how in the new covenant of Jeremiah 31 God writes his law on our hearts, I assume that describes how God poured out his Spirit on believers (both Jew and Gentile) and how the Spirit convicts us of sin. What law did he put in our hearts? The “royal law” of James 2:8 – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” which is the fulfillment of all the rest (see post #2 in this series.)

    Jesus answered your question about how he will judge the nations (goyim/Gentiles) in Matthew 25:31-46. His priority will be on whether they “fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and those in prison.” I’m honestly not a big preacher of social justice issues, but you just can’t get around the fact that these are what he says are his priorities. I’m guessing that when we stand before him, he’ll be asking about these things over whether we went up to Jerusalem to observe Tabernacles.