Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Law

A tough question we face as Christians concerns the law. Did it end? What did Christ mean when he 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. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17-18)
Oh, if only the lesson stopped there! We could convince ourselves that everything was accomplished on the cross (it is finished) and so the law died with Jesus. End of story. But Jesus adds:
Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)
Now it is not easy to shoe-horn that into something that is about to end. So we trudge on—and Jesus teaches, in the rest of the chapter, that the laws are in a certain sense “harder.” It’s not just adultery that’s adultery, but simple lust is elevated to adultery.

And therein lays the seed of an explanation. Jesus is not warning us that all the laws of Israel are still in effect. He telling us, as Paul will tell us in great detail later, that grace is not a license to sin. Christ fulfills the law—so the law no longer condemns us, but the law is not abolished, it is still a rule of life that will convict us, and in fact it’s “worse than ever”—to him who much has been given, much is expected.

But Jesus’ examples are all of the “moral” variety--murder, adultery, etc. So we arrive at the common understanding of most Christians—that something has been abrogated and yet something is still in effect. We call the first something the ceremonial law and the second something the moral law. But how do we make a distinction? There seems to be a certain arbitrariness.

Yet it is an important point. For example, in the Old Testament we have all those laws concerning stoning adulterers, executing blasphemers, killing Sabbath violators, handling lepers, women having their periods, treatment of slaves (which then presupposes that Jews having slaves was permissible). We cavalierly state that “those are ceremonial laws and have been abrogated.” Our detractors, who want to show how inconsistent we are, correctly point out that Jesus never said those laws are null and void—and so Christianity does not they argue, as an example, inherently condemn slavery.

A fair point indeed.

Another fair point is that if all those laws from Leviticus are null and void, then why do we like to quote Leviticus that homosexuality is an abomination? It seems to me that the answer is: we probably shouldn’t, unless we are prepared to argue that everything in Leviticus is still applicable. (However, homosexuality is still condemned by Paul’s teaching.)

The problem is in this ceremonial law versus moral law distinction. I think that is probably the wrong way to look at it. The real distinction should be: the laws of the nation of Israel as opposed to the commandments Christ gives for Christians.

In the Old Testament, God dictated laws for day to day life in Israel. Why? Multiple reasons, I suspect. For one, they were to demonstrate the need for a savior. The Jews were the chosen people. They were given uncountable blessings and witnessed unimaginable miracles. Yet they would fail by the measure of the law. If they, in spite of God’s blessing, couldn’t save themselves by keeping the law, what chance did the gentiles have? None, is the clear answer. But another reason, it always seemed to me, was that we have a people who were enslaved for 400 years, They had no idea how to run a country, especially one that first needed martial law while it conquered many peoples. God gave them what amounted to a constitution.

So it is not that the ceremonial law that was abolished, it was the laws governing a nation. A nation, by the way, that effectively ceased to exist when Christ initiated the kingdom of heaven, and literally ceased to exist in AD 70.

How do we know that it is not sinful to violate Israel’s national law? After all, as we already mentioned, our critics are correct to point out that there is no definitive statement in the New Testament stating that we could stop observing it.

Well, the result of the lack of a definitive statement was predictable: the first century Jewish Christians were confused about it, and the gentile Christians protested that those Jewish national laws should not apply to them. Hence then need for the teaching of Paul and the Jerusalem council to make a decision: the gentiles were right.

Why didn’t Jesus make a definitive statement? I have no clue. So maybe we are mistaken? Not a chance, because what Jesus didn’t say explicitly (leaving it for Paul to state) he demonstrated by violating the national law of Israel—a nation of which neither he nor his followers were any longer citizens. If violating or disregarding the national laws of Israel is sinful, then Jesus sinned, and not only can his death not save us, he couldn’t even save himself.

So how did Jesus violate the national law of Israel? Some examples, off the top of my head:

  • He did not demand the death of the Pharisees who committed blasphemy. And they didn’t commit just your garden-variety blasphemy, but the mother of all blasphemies, the Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. In fact, they may be the only people in history to have committed that sin. (Mark 3:22-30)
  • He worked on the Sabbath. (Luke 6:1-2, Matthew 12:10; Mark 3:2, John 9:14–16)
  • He operated as a priest, forgiving sins, both in violation of how priests were to atone for sins, and in violation of the fact that he was not a Levite. (Mark 2:5-10)
  • He excused the woman caught in adultery. (Yes, I’m aware that that particular story might not actually belong in the bible.)
  • He mishandled lepers. (Leviticus 13)

(Do you know of any other examples?)

The law Jesus did give us is clear enough. The Ten Commandments are repeated, except for the law concerning the Sabbath. There are more commandments, including the greatest and the second greatest. (Matthew 22:36-40). In fact, these two, Jesus tells us, supercede the laws of the prophets. And from these two, we can deduce truths (even if it takes a while) such as slavery is contrary to the teaching of Christ. ††

Calvin wrote of the passage in question, John 7:53-8:11: “It seems that this passage was unknown anciently to the Greek Churches; and some conjecture that it has been brought from some other place and inserted here. But as it has always been received by the Latin Churches, and is found in many old Greek manuscripts, and contains nothing unworthy of an Apostolic Spirit, there is no reason why we should refuse to apply it to our advantage.” That works for me.

†† Why then didn’t Paul explicitly condemn slavery? That’s a long story, but here is a thumbnail sketch. Preaching the gospel is paramount, and proper treatment of other humans will follow from that. Paul did not put the cart before the horse. Better for Onesimus to be sent back, even if meant a return to slavery, because Onesimus was now a Christian and his walk was more important than his circumstances. Why not command his master Philemon, a Christian, to free him? Paul went very close to doing that but didn’t quite cross the line. Why? For the same reasons we are no longer commanded to tithe but rather to give joyfully. Under grace, our motivations are more important than reluctant obedience. Paul’s absolutely crystal clear hope is that Philemon will realize that it is right to grant Onesimus his freedom.

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