Today’s Gospel reading addresses one of the most contentious issues in the early Church:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter
will pass from the law,
until all things have taken place.
Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments
and teaches others to do so
will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven.
But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments
will be called greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.”
Although it may appear clear to us what Jesus means here, it was not so clear to the first Christians. The debate regarding the validity of the Jewish law for Christians divided the Church for decades. Some, such as James, followed the Mosaic law very precisely and did not stop attending the Temple and celebrating the Jewish feasts. Others, however, eventually stopped following the ceremonies of the Old Covenant. And some proposed a compromise between the two extreme positions. This debate underlies much of Paul’s letters and was a constant concern for him.
So how did the Church resolve this issue? Since we no longer practice any of the ceremonial laws of the Mosaic Law, didn’t we in fact “abolish” the law, contra Christ’s explicit command? In my article Abolished or Fulfilled? I did an in-depth study of this issue and found that the early Church divided the law into different parts, and each part was fulfilled by Christ, but its fulfillment took different forms, depending on the type of law involved.
For example, St. Justin Martyr divided the Old Law into three parts:
(1) Ethical commands
(2) Commands symbolic of Christ (such as the Passover lamb)
(3) Laws due to the hardness of the Jews’ hearts
For Justin, then, only the first type of law was still to be followed, for Christ’s work had fulfilled the others in such a way to make them unnecessary.
Another common delineation in the Law by the Church Fathers was to see two types of Law in the Mosaic Covenant:
(1) Ceremonial Laws
(2) Moral Laws
Christ’s saving works brought an end to the ceremonial laws because his life, death and resurrection brought them to complete fulfillment. But the Christian must still follow the moral laws (such as the Ten Commandments) because they were still necessary to follow Christ fully.
So in fact Christ did not “abolish” the law, but brought it to fulfillment. However, that fulfillment in some cases meant that certain particular laws were no longer necessary to follow.
For those of us who are discouraged by the seemingly constant debates that rage within the Church today should take heart that similarly intense debates also existed at the beginning, and that they were eventually resolved. Sometimes it takes hundreds of years, but the Holy Spirit is always faithful in bringing resolution to our own hardness of heart.