Catholics will often take for granted the answer to this question: did Christ abolish the law or not? The Catechism of the Council of Trent answers just how it is that Christ abrogated the Law of Moses in the context of explaining why Christians no longer observe the Sabbath in its section entitled “The Third Commandment.”
The other commandments of the Decalogue [other than the day on which the faithful are to worship] are precepts of the natural law, obligatory at all times and unalterable. Hence, after the abrogation of the Law of Moses, all the commandments contained in the two tables are observed by Christians, not indeed because their observance is commanded by Moses, but because they are in conformity with nature which dictates obedience to them.
That’s all well and good. But it doesn’t answer the question often posed by skeptics:
Jesus seems clear in Matthew 5:17 that he did not abolish the law when he said: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.” And yet, what do we find in Ephesians 2:14-15? “For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances” (cf. Rom. 7:1-4; Heb. 10:9-16).
Looks to me like a contradiction in Scripture!
But in fact, there is no contradiction. Jesus speaks of “fulfilling the Law” in Matthew 5 in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, where he is acting as the new Moses, teaching the new Law, which was a central part of Jesus’ earthly mission (see 1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2; Heb. 7:11-12). Jesus makes very clear that the old law was going to be abolished, or “pass away.” The question was, when?
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
Two things are abundantly clear. First, the Greek word for “pass (parelthei) from the law” means to “disappear,” “go away,” or “pass away.” So Jesus’ intention was for the law to be abolished, eventually, or for it to “pass away.” Second, the “when” of the abolishment would only fully come to pass when the law was fulfilled.
The first way through which the old law was abrogated came through Christ teaching a new Law that perfected and thus fulfilled the old. But that would mean that the fulfilling of the old and the establishment of the new law of Christ would be accomplished over time. Christ would teach aspects of the new law all the way up until he would ascend into heaven (see Matt. 28:16-20).
The second way Christ “fulfilled” the Law was by living it . . . perfectly! But even there, at times, we see Jesus giving definitive interpretations of what the Law truly means in the process of his living the Law. Such was the case in Mark 7:1-23, when Jesus encountered “the Pharisees . . . and some of the Scribes,” who were angered by Jesus and the apostles failing to wash their hands (Greek, baptizontai, or “baptize” their hands of ritual impurity). Was Jesus failing to live the Law here? By no means! Notice that when Jesus responds, he not only answers “the Pharisees and some of the Scribes” as regards the truth of the Law concerning “the washing of hands,” but also dispels their underlying error of failing to understand what defiles a man in general. He gave the Pharisees, the Scribes, the apostles, and all of us the definitive teaching of “the Law” concerning what is perhaps the most important truth of the moral life:
Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus, he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man” (Mark 7:18-23; cf. CCC 582).
Here is the key to understanding: whether we are speaking of Christ’s teaching or living the law, all would not come to complete fulfillment until at least his death on the cross. Hebrews 9:15-17 clarifies:
Therefore, he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant. For where a will (or “testament”) is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive.
One could argue that Christ continued to give us his new law in toto until his ascension. As far as the Sermon on the Mount goes, Jesus was clearly speaking there during the transition. He was still alive when he preached it. But the inspired epistles are coming at this decades later, when the New Covenant Church had been teaching for decades the abolishing of the Old Law in its proper context. Why? Because all had been fulfilled. The teaching of Christ was essential to the creation of the New Covenant, but for it to fully “take effect,” as Hebrews 9:17 says, “the death of the one who made it must be established” (v. 16).
“But what about CCC 2053?” says the skeptic. Here, the Catholic Church teaches:
Following Jesus Christ involves keeping the commandments. The Law has not been abolished, but rather man is invited to rediscover it in the person of his Master who is its perfect fulfillment.
How do we respond as Catholics?
The Catechism is saying the same thing her Lord and Master said. The Law has not been “abolished,” but Christ in his “person” is its “fulfillment.” But notice, the Catechism says Christ “fulfills” the law in a way that we are called to “rediscover” the commandments of the Old Law in the person (and teaching) of Christ. That is another crucial point. The old law was not abolished in the sense of correcting errors. There were no errors to correct. It was abolished in the sense of being fulfilled and superseded. Enter the new commandments or new law of Christ, some of which we see expressed immediately after Matthew 5:17, in verses 21 through 45, where five times Jesus refers to different aspects of the Old Testament in terms of “you have heard it said . . . but I say.” For the sake of brevity, we’ll consider just his first example:
You have heard that it was said to the men of old, “You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment” [referring to Exod. 20:13; Deut. 30:15ff]. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment (Matt. 5:21-22).
This powerful teaching would lead St. John to famously declare, “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15). Here we see an example how Christ does not destroy the law for the sake of its destruction; rather, he builds upon the good while replacing it with the better.
Thus, the Sermon on the Mount cannot be understood apart from its context of Christ giving us the new law that would both fulfill and supersede (or abolish) the Old Law. Jesus was emphasizing the fulfillment part of the equation because he was in the process of fulfilling it. He does not want to be seen as introducing lawlessness. If he were to say just “I am abolishing the law,” that would have been reckless as well as incorrect. The Law and the prophets had not been completely “fulfilled” by that time. As the master teacher, Jesus emphasized the fulfillment of the law until such time that it would finally and fully be accomplished on the cross. Then, through his spirit (see Heb. 10:9-16), he would reveal that “all [things are] accomplished” and the old law has passed away.