The Law Is Abolished and the Law Continues: Why Matthew and Paul Don’t Disagree

Vern Poythress:

Some people might suppose from a superficial reading of Matthew that Matthew asserts almost pure continuity of the law, and enjoins us merely to keep the same old law in the same form as always, only now empowered with the presence of Christ. In fact, however, the coming of Christ is the coming of the kingdom of God, the climactic fulfillment of all to which the Old Testament pointed. Reality supersedes shadows. Hence radical transformation of the law is included.

Conversely, some people might suppose from a superficial reading of Paul that Paul primarily asserts only discontinuity in the law. The law is dead and gone, not to be obeyed, virtually irrelevant for Christian living (cf. Eph. 2:15; Rom. 7:1-6; Gal. 2:19). But Paul too sees the law as comprehensively fulfilled in Christ (Rom. 15:4-6; 1 Cor. 10:1-13; cf. Rom. 8:4; 13:10-14). When understood properly it is a most impressive means of communion with Christ (2 Cor. 3:15-18).

The apparent differences between Matthew and Paul arise largely from the differences between their immediate concerns and goals.

Paul asserts the abolition of the law loud and clear, lest anyone miss it and destroy the unity of Jews and Gentiles as free people in Christ.

Matthew asserts the continuation of the law loud and clear, lest anyone miss it and think that Jesus is not the true Jewish Messiah.

But at a deep level they agree.

Matthew’s assertions are qualified by the idea of fulfillment, which involves radical transformation through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.

Paul’s denials are qualified by his vigorous affirmations concerning the character of the law: it is God’s prophetic revelation looking forward to Christ and still now revealing him in his righteousness and mercy. The law is abolished in the sense that the fulness has come and the temporary has come to an end. The law continues in the sense that seen in the light of Christ, it still speaks his word to us.

In short, we may speak either of abolition or of continuation, as we wish, provided we understand the depths and richnesses involved in what we should affirm in a total picture.

—Vern S. Poythress, “Fulfillment of the Law in the Gospel according to Matthew,” The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1991), 281-282.