Many are confused. The gospel accounts speak heavily of the Law, while Paul’s letters tell us the law doesn’t apply. Can we make sense of this (apparent) contradiction? Yes! In the form of two questions: First, “When did the New Testament begin?” and, secondly, “To whom was each (Paul, Matthew, John, Peter, etc.) speaking when he wrote?” The answers to these questions will lead us to a clear understanding of the apparent contradiction.
Though the literature of the New Testament begins with Matthew’s account of the life of Christ, it is not the New Testament paradigmatically or historically speaking. The debate over which Gospel – Mathew’s or Mark’s – is older notwithstanding, none of the gospel accounts are technically the New Testament. Jesus walked the earth in the gospel accounts fulfilling the requirements of the Jewish Messiah (Old Testament). As a rule He came for the Jews (Matthew 15:26; Mark 7:27). He was divinity in the flesh, born a Jewish man, who lived according to Jewish law, and He was the Jewish Messiah who necessarily had to hold completely the Jewish Law (or fail the qualifications thereof). Also, as a rule, Jesus spoke to the Jews, and the Gentiles were simply incidental over-hearers. The Law was the identifier for Jews, but was no such thing for Gentiles. Though the gospel accounts are, biblically speaking, “Christian” articles, they are still very much Old Testament and very much Jewish.
Likewise, it was established at the (so-called) “Jerusalem Council” (Acts 15) and subsequently in the letter to the Galatians, that Peter was the apostle to the Jews (Gal. 2:8); James was equally concerned with Jews (Gal. 2:12-14) and, in fact, James, Peter, and John were known as “The Pillars of the Jewish Church” (Gal. 2:9). Quite simply, the letter of James is written to Jewish Christians; it is the Jewish Gospel, if you please (Gal. 1:6-9). The letters of Peter and Jude, for the most part, bear no resemblance to the gospel accounts, but deal with practical issues of the recipients – mainly Jews. It can be argued that the three epistles of John are directed to Gentiles (for instance, the “Gaius” in III John is arguably the same “Gaius” the Macedonian – Acts 19:29, who hosted Paul in Corinth – Rom. 16:23, who was a recipient of one of the rare baptisms that Paul performed – 1Cor. 1:14, and who accompanied Paul to Ephesus – Acts 19:29). But all letters bearing John’s name were written three decades after the Apostle Paul’s.
For the Apostle Paul, whose letters were the very first collected as a whole, the Gospel of Grace does not begin before the Cross of Christ. The reason is that he was the Apostle to the Gentiles, and as such, the Gentiles would have known nothing about any Mosaic Law, save that it was Jewish tradition. Furthermore, Paul (at best) only alludes to the earthly life of Christ; as the apostle to the Gentiles, it would be the Resurrection Life of Christ that would concern the pagan nations. His theology demands conformity to the death of Christ (Phil. 3:10), not the earthly life of Christ. For Paul, the fact that Jesus fulfilled the Law of Moses only concerned Gentiles because of His sinless life and, therefore, His ability to be the Gentile Savior.
However, as important as the Cross of Christ is to Pauline Theology, the crucifixion is not the beginning of the New Testament. It is the Acts 2 account of the Day of Pentecost where the paradigmatic and historical New Testament began. It is not until the Holy Spirit is the indwelling power-plant that the church is born, resulting in the dawning of the New Testament era.
So, with all that being established, though the gospel accounts appear first in the Scriptures, they were written after the Day of Pentecost but deal specifically with events before it. We see in the gospels the Law as the norm because they are still of the Old Testament paradigm. And we see in the letters generally, and Paul’s specifically, that Jesus Christ is the norm because the Day of Pentecost has occurred, shifting Testaments to the “New.” What makes the New Testament distinct from the Old is the Resurrection Life of Christ, rather than the attempted best efforts of humanity (and Israel, specifically). Being the New Testament church, our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3) – the Resurrection Life of Christ – and not a part of the ministry of death contained in the killing letters of the Law (2Cor. 3:7).