Returning to the Law-Gospel series:
4. What does it mean that Christ is the τέλος of the law (Rom. 10:4)?
One must first consider what Paul meant by “law” in this verse. Historically, four different concepts have been set forth: (1) law in some general sense; (2) Old Testament revelation; (3) legalism; and (4) Mosaic law. Though a detailed treatment cannot be made here, the fourth option is preferable given the context and how Paul refers to the law earlier in Romans (namely, as a body of commandments given uniquely to Israel which functioned to give them a particular, national identity as a “people set apart”).
The next issue is to determine how to handle the prepositional phrase “εἰς δικαιοσύνην.” Some scholars would connect the phrase directly to “νόμου,” arguing that Christ is the τέλος of the law with regard to its relationship to righteousness, or as a means of righteousness. They attach “for everyone who believes” to the verse in its totality. Most who go this route translate τέλος as “end”—The end of the (false) understanding of the law as a means of securing righteousness with God. Many of these scholars (e.g. Murray) do not mean to imply that the law ever could make sinners righteous. They have in view the hypothetical possibility that life (i.e. righteousness) would come from the law if individuals were able to perfectly fulfill its demands (Gal. 3:21). This is the idea of the law “promising life” (Rom. 7:10) to the ones who perfectly obey. However, others who also translate τέλος as “end” do so with an entirely different nuance: The end of Israel’s misunderstanding of the law “as a means of establishing and fixing firmly righteousness as Israel’s special prerogative.”
However, it is more compelling, given the syntax, to take εἰς as introducing purpose or result. Christ is being viewed as the τέλος of the law with the result that there is (or with the purpose that there might be) righteousness for everyone who believes.
The remaining exegetical challenge is the meaning of τέλος. The main possibilities are “end,” “goal,” or “result.” The former denotes a temporal sense of termination. The coming of Christ would indicate that the law’s authority or significance is, in some sense, over. Either “goal” or “result” implies that the law pointed forward to Christ in some fashion. I agree with Moo that a sense of temporal completion in addition to the attaining of a goal is present. It does not need to be one or the other. The race imagery in the context can be helpful here: the finish line of a race represents both the “termination” of the race (the race is over when it is reached) and the “goal” of the race (the race is run for the sake of reaching the finish line). Christ brings the era of law to a close by once and for all providing the perfect obedience for which the law promised life. Christ’s arrival also represents that which the law anticipated and pointed toward. After all, the law was given in the context of a gracious covenant: God had condescended to make Israel His people, though she was totally undeserving. What greater fulfillment could there be than God coming to them in human flesh to provide the righteousness they lacked and to perfectly fulfill the Anti-type of the sacrificial system? I prefer the term “consummation” for τέλος in Rom 10:4, because I think it best captures the ideas both of termination (“end”) and of long-term “goal.”
The sin-atoning provisions of the Pentateuch make sense only within the framework of God’s ultimate requirement for perfect obedience. An Israelite was supposed to have been brought to repentance by the law, recognizing his inability to keep it. So the short-term goal of the law was to kill (II Cor. 3:6), or to shut mankind up under sin (Gal. 3:21-22). The long-term goal (τέλος) of the law was Christ for righteousness to everyone who believes. God’s design seems to have been that the outpouring of the Spirit (Gal. 4:6) and the act of justification by faith be clearly attached to the work of Christ (Rom. 3:25-26).
Returning to the Law-Gospel series: