Even a casual reading of the New Testament will highlight two themes, each of which is clear in itself but not at all clear when put together. One: We are free from the law. We have died to the law and are no longer under it's authority. Two: There are things we must do; laws we must follow. Jesus came to fulfil the law, not abolish it. Not a stroke of the pen will disappear from the law until heaven and earth disappear.
Confusing? Well, yes, at first, but when you look at it more carefully it makes excellent sense.
So, the question is this: Do Christians need to obey the law?
On the one hand we have Jesus saying that he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, and that the law will remain until heaven and earth disappear, and that nobody should teach otherwise (Matthew 5:17-18, Luke 16:17). But then we find him almost making a habit of apparently violating the law by performing healings, i.e. working, on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9-13, Mark 3:1-5, Luke 13:10-16, 14:3-4, John 7:22-24), and then we find him telling a man to work on the Sabbath when he tells him to "take up your mat and walk" (John 5:10-11), and we find him defending his disciples who were accused of picking grain on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-27).
Hmm. Seemingly two different messages here.
And then there is Paul. Paul is famous for saying that we have died to the law and been released from the law (Romans 7:6) and that we have been saved by grace, not by works (Ephesians 2:8), and that Christ is the end of the law for those who believe (Romans 10:4). Sure sounds as if Paul is saying that the law no longer applies, but then Paul also says that the law is good if used properly (1 Timothy 1:8), and that faith does not nullify the law, but upholds it (Romans 3:30-31) and - oh my! - Paul gives lists (Romans 12 and 13) and lists (Galatians 5:19-6:10) and lists (Ephesians 4:25-6:20) of instructions on how to live - "laws," if you will.
Again, seemingly two different messages, but, they are the same two messages. You may find it confusing, but it is consistent.
So, what is going on here?
Well, the writers of the New Testament are simply saying that the outward law of the Old Testament is a shadow of the true, inner, spiritual law that was always at the heart of the Old Testament law, and that inner law is just as alive as it ever was.
This inner law is what Paul calls "the law of the Spirit" (Romans 8:2) or "God's law" (Romans 7:22, 25) and what James calls "the perfect law that gives freedom" (James 1:25, 2:12-13) and the "royal law" (James 2:8).
We can see this emphasis on the inner instead of the outer throughout the whole New Testament.
For example, the writer of Hebrews says that "The [old] law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming - not the realities themselves" (Heb 10:1). And Paul says that we "serve in the new way by the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code" (Romans 7:6), and that the dietary laws and special celebrations of the Old Testament are "a shadow of things that were to come; the reality, however is in Christ" (Colossians 2:17). And again, Paul says says that "a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart", (Rom 2:28). And he adds that there is "a new covenant - not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor 3:6). And there is lots more.
None of these authors want to throw out the true law, but only its old, outer expression. When you crack open a peanut shell, you throw away the shell and eat the peanut. Underneath the outer law is the inner law, and that is the law we Christians need to keep. As Christians we can observe the outer law if we feel like it - for example to avoid causing offense (as Paul attempted to do by being ceremonially clean in Acts 24:18; he explains his logic in 1 Cor 9:20-21), or to avoid violating our consiences (Romans 14:1), but it serves no further spiritual purpose.
Okay, but does Jesus agree with these writers? Oh yes!
Right after Jesus insists that he had not come to abolish the law he starts giving the true underlying meaning of a lot of Old Testament laws. He says that the deep meaning of the law is that murder is not just the physical act, but is a sin of the heart (Matthew 5:21-22); that adultery is not just the physical act, but a sin beginning in the heart (Matthew 5:27-28); that we should speak the truth because it is the right thing to do, not because we have spoken an oath (Matthew 5:33-37); that the deeper truth behind the eye-for-eye rule (which limited revenge) is that we should not return evil for evil but instead we should love our enemies (Matthew 5:38-44). And he teaches that our good deeds (Matthew 6:1-4) and prayers (Matthew 6:5-6) and fasting (Matthew 6:16-18) should not be done with people as our audience, but with God as our audience.
And as for Jesus violating the Sabbath, I think he was actually pointing to the deeper meaning of the Sabbath, that it was set aside by God to give people a time of rest and restoration. In obedience to that deep meaning, Jesus provided restoration to those who needed healing, just - as he pointed out - the Pharisees would provide restoration to an ox by pulling it out of a well on the Sabbath (Luke 14:3-4). Jesus is the lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27), so he knows exactly what the Sabbath is about.
Also, notice that Jesus complains that the Pharisees were clean cups on the outside, but dirty on the inside, and whitewashed tombs - pretty on the outside but dirty on the inside (Mat 23:23-27), and he says that it isn't what goes into a person that makes them unclean, but what comes out of them (Mk 7:14-23).
Deeper, deeper, deeper. Inner, inner, inner. It's a theme that pervades the New Testament. Jesus and all the writers of the New Testament agree that the real core meaning of the law is deeper than the mere outward letter of the law.
Okay, but what is that deeper meaning?
If you are a Christian, you know what it is! You've heard it countless times. In fact, I found it a little humbling to spend months studying this topic and end up right back at what every first-grade Sunday school student knows:
The deepest meaning of the law, Jesus says, is first to love God and then to love our neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-31, Luke 10:25-27, John 15:12, 15:17). And Paul agrees. The one thing that counts, he writes, is "faith expressing itself through love" (Galatians 5:6), and, he adds, we should serve one another in love (Galatians 5:13), and - of course - Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 13, the famous "love chapter," with the great line: "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." And James agrees as well: "If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, 'Love your neighbor as yourself,' you are doing right."
So, for the Christian, the outer law is irrelevant, but the true inner law of love underlying the old law remains as valid as it every was.