Much of the New Testament deals with the Law of Moses and with the implications of its fulfillment in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The books of Galatians, Romans, and Hebrews, and important parts of several others, including Acts, James, Colossians, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 Corinthians, all wrestle with the issue of the Law, and its continued role after the Atonement. Therefore, it is important to understand what the Law was and how it was fulfilled in order to fully understand these portions of the New Testament.
Strictly speaking, the Law of Moses consists of the first five books of the Old Testament—what the Jews call the Torah. These five books of Moses (Genesis; Exodus; Leviticus; Numbers; and Deuteronomy) are also called the Pentateuch, but in the New Testament they are usually just “the Law.” Sometimes the term “the Law” was used for the whole Old Testament, but usually a distinction was made between the books of Moses (the Law) and those of subsequent prophets (the Prophets); hence, the custom in Jesus’ time of referring to the Hebrew scriptures as “the Law and the Prophets” (for example, Matt. 5:17; Matt. 7:12).
The Law was revealed by God to Moses on Mount Sinai and came to be respected even by the gentiles for its antiquity and its comprehensive fairness. By the time of Jesus, it had stood as the criminal, civil, and religious code of the Jewish people for well over a thousand years. It had guided them in every aspect of human activity for so long that Jews found it difficult to conceive of life without “the Law.”
Though all of the Law was held to be of equal importance, the scribes and teachers of Jesus’ day recognized distinctions. They saw a difference between the moral and ethical requirements of the Law, which dealt with relationships between individuals, and the ceremonial requirements of the Law, which included among other things the distinctions between clean and unclean and the sacrificial and priestly regulations. (Num. Rabba 19.8.) Later rabbis relied on this distinction to declare that God would accept faithful observance of the moral law in place of that portion of the ceremonial law which could not be practiced after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70.
In addition to the written Law, some Jews, notably the Pharisees and the Essenes, also believed in something called the “oral” Law. This was a body of oral traditions which interpreted the written Law of Moses and applied it to new situations. It was often claimed that these traditions had been given to Moses on Mount Sinai; but actually they were attempts of later teachers to “fine-tune” the Law of Moses. This was done (in the absence of revelation) in an effort to extend or even to alter the requirements of the Law in the face of changing social circumstances. These “tradition[s] of the elders” were rejected by Sadducees, by Samaritans, and by Jesus. (See, for example, Mark 7:5–14.)
According to the rabbis, the five books of the written Law contain a total of 613 commandments and prohibitions, the most famous of which, of course, are the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. [Ex. 20; Deut. 5] Yet the Law, or Torah, was more to the Jewish people than merely a rule book. It contained not only an account of the creation of the world and the history of the human family, but also the history, the family and national traditions, and the genealogy of the people of Israel.
Among the Jews of Jesus’ day, esteem for the Law was so great that some even refused to accept anything but the five books of Moses as scripture. The Samaritans also rejected the idea of any scripture beyond the Law. Moreover, centuries of reverence for the Law as the revelation of God to Moses had created an almost fanatical devotion to its precepts in the hearts and minds of most Jews. Thus, the Law of Moses was no longer perceived in Jesus’ day as an expression of God’s will; rather, for Jews the Law of Moses had gradually become identified as the divine will itself—perfect, absolute, forever unchanging and unchangeable. The Law was thought of as the will of God exactly, precisely expressed; therefore, any deviation at all from the letter of the Law of Moses was also deviation from God. There was no room for flexibility or “extenuating circumstances.”
The reason Nephi hesitated when commanded to kill Laban (1 Ne. 4:10–18) was because of the prohibition of the Law—“Thou shalt not kill” (Ex. 20:13). Although Nephi had learned to be governed by revelation, the strictures of the written Law were clear and undoubtedly caused him to pause while he worked out the priorities in his mind. After all, if he killed Laban wrongly, according to the Law it would cost him his salvation. Eventually Nephi learned from these kinds of experiences that the written Law and God’s will were not always identical, and that the will of God expressed in revelation always had precedence over the written Law.
But for most Jews there was no such thing, could be no such thing, as a law higher than the Law of Moses. Nor could Jews talk about a distinction between the letter of the Law and the spirit of the Law, for they conceived of the letter and the spirit as identical. Furthermore, most Jews of Jesus’ day had come to believe that salvation came only by observance of the Law of Moses as the highest possible expression of God’s will, and in no other way. The Book of Mormon shows that among the Nephites before Christ a similarly exaggerated view of the Law had developed at the time of King Noah. Although the priests of King Noah did not keep its precepts, like the Jews they believed and taught the people that salvation came only through the Law of Moses. (See Mosiah 13:27–35.) By the first century A.D. some rabbis among the Jews were also teaching that the Law of Moses was God’s premortal plan of salvation, that the world had been created by and for the Law of Moses, and that the Law was eternally binding. (Sifre on Deut. 11:10 and Gen. Rabba 1; M. Aboth 3:15 and Gen. Rabba 12; and J. Meg. 1:70 and 1 Enoch 99:2.)
In view of this very exalted concept of the Law in Jesus’ time, it is easy to see why the teaching of Jesus and the early Church that the Law of Moses was a temporary, or “lesser,” law aroused such heated opposition from Jews. It is also understandable that many of the Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and joined the Church might nevertheless have found it difficult to alter their belief that observance of the Law of Moses was necessary for their salvation. (See Acts 21:20.)
Consequently, one of the most persistent doctrinal questions in the early Church concerned the precise role of the Law of Moses in the gospel of Jesus Christ: Was the gospel only an addition or appendix to the Law of Moses, in which case the requirements of the Law were still in effect; or was the gospel itself a new law which replaced the old and rendered it obsolete? Again and again this question was raised in the Church, particularly by Jewish members, and much of the New Testament deals with it.
Yet the position of the Church had been made quite clear from the beginning. The Savior himself in the Sermon on the Mount had shown that the old rules were no longer adequate and that those who wished to enter the kingdom of heaven must subscribe to a new standard of righteousness. (See Matt. 5:20.) Even the Ten Commandments, the ethical heart of the Law, were represented by Jesus as insufficient for salvation except as encompassed within the higher principles of the gospel.
For example, the Savior expanded the commandments “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” by now commanding Christians to avoid even hatred or lust. (Matt. 5:28, 44.) Merely abstaining from adultery and murder was no longer sufficient. Christians must now change their very hearts, and this was more than the old Law had required. Also, at the Last Supper Jesus had made it clear that the atonement he was about to accomplish instituted a new covenant which would replace that of Sinai. (See Luke 22:20, 37.) And on at least two occasions in the New Testament (Matt. 5:31–32; Matt. 19:3–9), Jesus made it clear that the teaching of the Law (in this case on the issue of divorce) was not eternal but was only a temporary concession made necessary by the hard-heartedness of Israel. In the Book of Mormon, this was also the teaching of Abinadi to the court of King Noah on the nature of the Law of Moses. (See Mosiah 13:29–31.)
And yet it is vital to note that in the teaching of Jesus, the Law was not revoked nor repealed but fulfilled. (Matt. 5:17.) Under the gospel of Christ, murder, adultery, and dishonesty are still prohibited, and the formal requirements of the Law are still essentially in place; but the demand of the Law of Moses has been expanded, has been filled to its fullest extent. Where there is no hatred or greed, there can be no murder; where there is no lust, there can be no adultery. With the coming of Christ, the ethical portion of the Law had not been abolished; it had been caught up by, included in, and expanded to a broader application its intention, its potential as an ethical standard, had been fulfilled.
The ceremonial portions of the Law, however, were fulfilled in a different way. These were not moral or ethical rules which could be transformed into broader principles, but were what Abinadi and Alma called “performances”—rituals that symbolically prefigured coming historical events. (Mosiah 13:30; Alma 25:15.) For example, animal sacrifice prefigured the future sacrifice of the Savior, the Lamb of God. But when the events prefigured actually occurred, they could no longer be anticipated; they could only be remembered.
After the atonement of Christ, the anticipation of the event found in the Law was replaced by the remembrance of the event which is part of the gospel. Thus those parts of the Law which anticipated the atonement of Christ were fulfilled in the events of the atonement and had an end, just as a prophecy is said to be fulfilled when the event prophesied takes place. (See Luke 22:37.) In this way, neither the moral nor the ceremonial portions of the Law of Moses were undone or abolished. Both were fulfilled, the former by being included in the broader principles of the gospel which replaced them, and the latter by finding realization in the events which they had prefigured.
In the Book of Mormon, the Nephites were able to give up observance of the Law of Moses en masse because of the circumstances surrounding the appearance of the Savior among them. Those who survived the destructions and benefitted from the ministry of the Savior were able to end the observance of the Law according to Jesus’ instructions (see 3 Ne. 15). They then built a society based upon the principles of the gospel.
However, among the Jews, those who accepted Jesus Christ were in the minority, and the Law of Moses continued to be the law of the land. Therefore, Jewish Christians, whether or not they understood that the Law had been fulfilled in Christ, continued to live it anyway as a matter of cultural, social, and legal necessity. This situation made it easy for some in the Church to insist that the Law was still necessary for salvation. Those who felt this way have been called “Judaizers,” and most of them flatly refused to accept the teachings of the Apostles and alter their traditional views on the subject of the Law. Often, their fanatical devotion to the Law of Moses was a hindrance to the work of the Apostles. (See, for example, Acts 11:2–3; Acts 15:5, 24; Gal. 2:3–5.)
As long as the gospel was confined to Jewish Christians, who had to live the Law anyway, the technical role of the Law in salvation was not really an issue. But when gentiles, who were under no cultural or legal necessity to live the Law of Moses, began to accept the gospel, the question of the Law was forced into the spotlight: Was it necessary for them to be circumcised and otherwise obey the Law of Moses to be saved, or did salvation come by obedience to the gospel of Christ alone?
The New Testament gives ample evidence that the leaders of the Church were in agreement on this issue. The Church in council had declared that most demands of the Law need not be met by gentile converts. (See Acts 15:10–11, 28–29.) Peter himself had learned through revelation that many restrictions of the Law were no longer binding. (See Acts 10:9–16.) As a result, he dealt with Cornelius, a gentile, in a manner which was contrary to the Law of Moses (Acts 10:28) but which was in accord with the gospel and with revelation. Nevertheless, “Judaizing” Church members, those who still insisted that salvation came through the Law, resisted and criticized the actions of Peter (Acts 11:2–3) and eventually became a major source of irritation in the Church.
Eventually, these Judaizing Christians broke away from the Church and formed their own sects based on observance of the Law of Moses. Most of these groups, some of the earliest participants in what we know as the Apostasy, ultimately denied the divinity of Christ and were gradually absorbed back into Judaism. Thus, their inability to follow Church leaders and their stubborn tenacity to the Law of Moses eventually cost them the blessings of the gospel.
The epistle to the Hebrews was probably written to Jewish Christians who were struggling with the issue of the Law of Moses and its fulfillment in the gospel of Christ. This epistle is an extended essay on the superiority of Christ and the gospel to Moses and the institutions of the Mosaic Law. The author emphasizes the superiority of Christ to angels (Heb. 1–2) and to Moses (Heb. 3), his superiority as a high priest to the Jewish high priests (Heb. 4–5), the superiority of his Melchizedek Priesthood to the priesthood of Aaron (Heb. 7), and the superiority of his sacrifice and covenant to those of the Mosaic Law (Heb. 8–9), which he flatly declares to be obsolete (Heb. 8:13).
Paul, the great Apostle to the gentiles, like Peter knew that the Law of Moses had been fulfilled in the gospel of Christ and that it was not necessary for gentiles to live it. So, naturally, when Judaizers came into his mission field and began to preach the necessity of the Law to the churches he had established, Paul resisted them. Out of this struggle over the Law came the New Testament epistles to the Galatians and Romans, and at least parts of Colossians and 1 and 2 Corinthians, all of which were intended to drive home the point that as a means of salvation the Law of Moses was obsolete.
Paul’s famous response to the question of the Law is found most forcefully stated in the epistle to the Galatians, who were in danger of adopting the Law of Moses:
“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. …
“For if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” (Gal. 2:16, 21.)
In other words, if living the Law of Moses and observing its “performances” could justify us before God, then the atoning death of the Savior would have been unnecessary. But as it is, Christians—both Jewish and Gentile—seek to be justified through faith in Christ.
Paul’s logic in support of his position is simple and direct. First, he shows that righteousness is obtainable without the Law of Moses. He uses the example of Abraham, who lived centuries before the Law was even given to Moses, yet who, even without the Law, was still accounted righteous through his faith. (See Gal. 3:7–9.) If Abraham could be counted righteous because of his faith, then those who follow his example can also be accounted righteous through their faith—even (like Abraham) without the Law of Moses.
Next Paul points out that the Old Testament itself declares that “the just shall live by faith” rather than by the Law. (Gal. 3:11, quoting Hab. 2:4.) Paul then goes on to show that, in fact, righteousness is not possible by the Law of Moses alone. He points out that those who would rely on the Law for justification, instead of on the atonement of Christ, must keep the Law perfectly, for the Law of Moses provides no means of atonement for intentional sins. Rather, it curses those who fail to live it perfectly:
“For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.” (Gal. 3:10, quoting Deut. 27:26.)
In other words, Paul saw the Law of Moses as an all-or-nothing contract. In order for a Jew to be theoretically “just” as far as the demands of the Old Testament Law were concerned, he would have to live the entire Law perfectly. If he were to fail in the smallest detail to live all the precepts of the Law, he would fall under the curse of the Law and under the power of sin. (See Gal. 3:10–13, 21–22.) Of course, even if he could live the whole Law perfectly, he would still need the principles and ordinances of the gospel in order to receive exaltation in the kingdom of God. Thus, according to Paul, one reason why the Law of Moses fails as a means of justification is that the Law lacks the power to forgive or redeem those who fail to live its precepts; it can only accuse them. Human beings need more than just a rule-book; we also need a means of gaining forgiveness when we break the rules. We need repentance; we need redemption; we need atonement—and these can only come through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As hard as it was for Judaizers to accept the end of the Law of Moses, there were those in the ancient Church who went to the other extreme. These people have been called “antinomians,” and they believed that the end of the Law gave them license to do as they pleased as long as they professed a belief in Christ. Some went so far as to claim that Christians, who were no longer bound by the Law of Moses, were even under an obligation to behave contrary to the commands of the Law. (See Rom. 6:15.) Particularly among the gentile churches, a misunderstanding of Paul’s teachings about the end of the Law of Moses caused some to believe that for Christians all laws and rules had been abolished. By distorting the scriptures, the antinomians were able to reject the demands of the Law without accepting the demands of the gospel. In the New Testament the epistles of James, Jude, 2 Peter, and 1 Corinthians deal in part with this error. James shows that belief without proper behavior and commitment is not enough for salvation. (See James 2.) The gospel does not destroy the Law, but is itself a new law which incorporates and fulfills the old—a higher law certainly, but a law nonetheless, and one which must be obeyed. It is likely that Peter is referring to antinomians when he condemns those who distort the teachings of Paul, “in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.” (2 Pet. 3:16.)
Of course, both ancient tendencies can still be found among the modern Christian churches. There are modern Judaizers who insist, for example, that the Sabbath be observed according to the Law of Moses, on the seventh day (Saturday) rather than on Sunday. There are also modern antinomians who insist that a mere statement of belief in Christ guarantees salvation regardless of one’s subsequent behavior. In each case the cause of the error is the same—both the antinomian and the Judaizer fail to understand the fulfillment of the Law of Moses in Christ. The one fails to realize that the Law has not been revoked or destroyed; the other fails to realize that it has been fulfilled in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ and in the principles of his gospel. As Jesus said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” (Matt. 5:17.)