‘the gospel is the explanation of the law and its fulfilment’ – Melito of Sardis and typology

Melito of Sardis’ On the Pasch from as early as 165 and as late as 190 is one of the earliest surviving sermons, and the earliest surviving Easter sermon. It was famous enough that the Venerable Bede mentioned it in The Greater Chronicle of 725. It’s not a very long read; I recommend it.

For Melito, as the title of this post suggests, the law is typos of the Gospel story; or, as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, it is a shadow. Christ is the real thing. Melito uses the image of sculpture to communicate the concept of the typos.

When someone is going to make a sculpture, you see, he/she makes a smaller model out a cheaper, more changeable substance than the final — clay, perhaps, or wax. Auguste Rodin, for example, preferred clay, and the claylike contours of his sculptures are visible in his bronzes. The sculptor takes the clay model and then proceeds to make a full-size sculpture from it. If the full sculpture is marble, various measuring devices and tools are used to produce a larger version of the preliminary representation. If it is to be cast as a bronze, a full-size clay sculpture is made, then a mould made of this sculpture, which is then used to cast the bronze.

In the case of Rodin, many of his fine clay models still exist and are on display in the Musée Rodin, Paris. But in the ancient world, once the reality has been made, in all its size, vigour, and glory, those models were no longer needed. They could be turned into new models for other sculptures. They have served their purpose — bringing abot the perfect production of the full-scale sculpture envisaged by the artist.

This, says Melito, is what the law is in relation to the Good News of Jesus Christ. He says, ‘But when the church arose and the gospel emerged, the representation handed over its power to the reality and became empty, and the law handed over its power to the gospel and was fulfilled.’ (42)

Melito goes on:

The death of the sheep was valuable, but is now without value because of the salvation of the Lord.
The blood of the sheep was valuable, but is now without value because of the Spirit of the Lord.
The silent lamb was valuable, but is now without value because of the Son without blemish.
The temple below was valuable, but is now without value because of the Jerusalem which is above.
The Jerusalem below was valuable, but is now without value because of the Jerusalem which is above.

Christ came to fulfil the law, something he did through his own free will by his death and resurrection. And by fulfulling the law, he has freed us from it. We are no longer bound to the Jewish feasts, sacrifices, and ceremonies because we can live in the reality they foreshadow.

Some take this fulfilment of the law to mean antinomianism. But when we look at what writings such as Melito’s On the Pasch or the Epistle to the Hebrews or St Paul’s typology, it is clear that the law from which we are freed is the ceremonial law of the Torah. We are still called, as in the epistles of St Paul and especially of St James, to live holy lives. But we no longer do so in the context of Mosaic ceremonial. We do so now as free sons and daughters of the Almighty.

This is something to be celebrated.

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