Did Jesus come to abolish or destroy the law?
Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17, NIV). This contradicts what Paul says in Ephesians 2:15, “…by abolishing in his flesh the laws with its commandments and regulations.” So, was the law was abolished or it was not? (The NASB and NRSV also use abolish in Ephesians 2:15 and Matthew 5:17.) Why do the newer translation have this contradiction?
In this instance, the KJV and NKJV translations are better because they have “destroy” in Matthew 5:17 and “abolish” in Ephesians 2:15. This translation decision avoids the contradiction and is to be preferred, but is there any justification for changing abolish to destroy in Matthew 5:17?
There are actually two different Greek words used in these two texts and it is misleading to translate them the same because of the obvious contradiction. The Greek word (kataluo) in Matthew 5:17 means to tear down, or destroy completely, as in Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple. “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down (kataluo)” (Luke 21:6). Abolishing the law is not the same as destroying it, which is what Jesus is saying in the last part of Matthew 5:17 when he says that he came instead “to fulfill them.” Kataluo is a much stronger word than katargeo, which is the word translated “abolish” in Ephesians 2:15. Katargeo means to abolish in the sense of rendering inoperative. The Dictionary of New Testament Theology says, “its basic meaning of rendering something inoperative is clear and constant” (Volume 1, p. 73).
So, the Bible teaches that the law has been abolished but not destroyed because Jesus fulfills the law. Paul says that Christ is “the end of the law” (Romans 10:4, NIV) and he “canceled the written code” and “took it away, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). The law is described as a shadow of what was to come, with Christ being the fulfillment (Hebrews 10:1-4). Through Christ, the law has become inoperative by the new covenant, “and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear” (Hebrews 8:13).
It is unfortunate that modern translations have unnecessarily made these two passages contradict one another.
J B Myers