Law of Christ

Law of Christ

The phrase "the law of Christ" appears only in Galatians 6:2, although it is implied by the wording of 1 Corinthians 9:21 as well. In both places, its precise meaning is difficult to fix. In Galatians, Paul argues vigorously that the law given at Sinai makes no claim on those who believe in Christ, whether Gentile or Jew ( 2:15-21 ; Galatians 3:10-14 Galatians 3:23-26 ; 4:4-5 ; 4:21-5:6). He then appeals to the Galatians to engage in ethical behavior by walking in the Spirit ( 5:16 Galatians 16 ), being lead by the Spirit ( 5:18 ), and fulfilling "the law of Christ" (ho nomos tou Christou) through bearing one another's burdens ( 6:2 ). In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul demonstrates how Christians should, out of love for the weaker brother or sister, refrain from demanding their rights. By way of illustration Paul says in verses 19-23 that he adopts certain Jewish customs when among Jews, although he is not under the Jewish law, and that he adopts some Gentile customs when among Gentiles, although he is not without the law of God but rather "in the law of Christ" (ennomos Christou).

It seems fairly clear from these two texts that Paul uses the phrase to mean something other than the law given to Israel at Sinai and considered by most Jews to be their special possession.

Help is found in the prophets. In Isaiah 42:1-4 we read that God's chosen servant will one day establish justice throughout the earth and that "the coastlands will wait expectantly for His law" (NASB). If we take this passage to refer to the Messiah, then we could paraphrase it by saying that the Christ, when he comes, will teach God's law to the Gentiles ("the coastlands"). Jeremiah 31:31-34 similarly predicts the coming of a time in which disobedient Israel will receive a new covenant, consisting of a law written on the heart and therefore obeyed (cf. Ezek 36:26-27 ).

Jesus' teaching, although standing in continuity with the law given at Sinai, nevertheless sovereignly fashions a new law. In some instances Jesus sharpens commandments ( Matt 5:17-48 ) and in others considers them obsolete ( Mark 7:17-19 ). On one occasion, having been asked to identify the greatest commandment, Jesus concurs with the Jewish wisdom of his time ( Mark 12:32-33 ) that the greatest commandments are to love God supremely and to love one's neighbor as oneself ( Mark 12:28-31 ). He breaks with tradition, however, by defining the term "neighbor" to mean even the despised Samaritan ( Luke 10:29-37 ).

Paul believed that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ marked the beginning point of God's new covenant ( 2 Cor 3:1-18 ; Gal 4:21-31 ; cf. Rom 8:2 ). Like Isaiah, he believed that this covenant included the Gentiles ( Gal 3:7-20 ), and like Jeremiah he believed that it offered Israel a remedy for the curse that the old Sinaitic covenant pronounced on Israel's disobedience ( Gal 3:10-13 ). In light of this, Paul may have understood the teaching of Christ as a new law. If so, then the correspondence between the ethical teaching of Jesus and Paul on many points (e.g., 1 Cor 7:10-11 / Mark 10:2-9 ; 1 Cor 9:14 / Luke 10:7 ; Rom 14:1-23 / Mark 7:18-19 ) is a matter of Paul's intention rather than happy accident. Paul's own admonition to fulfill the law of Christ by bearing one another's burdens provides both a pithy restatement of Jesus' summary of the law and an indication that Jesus' teaching fulfills prophetic expectations.Frank Thielman

See also Galatians, Theology of; Paul the Apostle

Bibliography. C. H. Dodd, More New Testament Studies; R. N. Longenecker, Paul, Apostle of Liberty; W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism; S. Westerholm, Israel's Law and the Church's Faith.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.


Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Law of Christ'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.