Understanding “The Law”

Hi friends, I got the following email this morning from someone and I thought it asked some great questions. There seems to be a lot of talk right now in Christian circles about the Law, the Gospel, Grace and how those things all fit together. I thought I’d chime in with my thoughts. First, the email:

Morning Ben-
I am reading Luke Chapter 5 and the man with leprosy was healed by Jesus and He tells him to present an offerring for his purification. Why don’t we do that now? I know that was part of the law, right? But when in the Bible does this become something we as Christians don’t practice.  Does that make sense? I am really trying to understand these details better. 

What is “the Law”?

Whenever Christians/theologians talk about the Law (capital “L”) they are talking about the first five books of the Bible, otherwise known as “the Torah” or “the books of Moses.” The first five books of the Bible were written by Moses during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. They describe the story of God making covenant with the Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and, finally, the people of Israel. “The Law” refers to the commands that God gave to the Israelites as part of his covenental agreement. The Law was supposed to distinguish the Jewish people from every other people on the face of the Earth and consisted of 3 types of commands: ceremonial laws, moral laws and religious observances. There were 613 different laws that a Jew needed to abide by in order to live under the covenental blessing of God. To break one of them was to be guilty of breaking them all. In order to try and protect the (illiterate) people from breaking one of God’s laws, the priests/levites/rabbis/scribes created additional laws called “the hedge.” These are the “rules taught by men” that Jesus so strongly criticized.

An example of “the hedge” is found in Genesis. In Genesis 2:16, God said to Adam, “You are free to eat of any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…” However, just one chapter later, the serpent quizzes Eve about God’s commands, her response? “The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat fruit from the trees of the garden, but God did say, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it…”” Genesis 3:2-3.

God didn’t say they couldn’t touch the tree, Adam did. Adam was trying to protect his wife from eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and breaking God’s command, so he told her to not even touch it or else she would die. Well, that was an easy door for Satan to exploit. Eve only needed to touch the tree (which was perfectly permissable) and not die, then she was easy pickings. She broke a man made rule which then gave her confidence to break a God made rule – not good.

By the time Jesus enters the scene, many of the Jews had stopped trying to obey the Law. God’s rules and man’s rules were so confused and conflated that many people just gave up trying. Jesus reinterprets many of the Laws and totally ignored others. He gave people hope that they too could live a life pleasing to God.

The 3 categories of Law 

As I mentioned before, there were 3 categories of Law: ceremonial law, moral law and religious observances.

Ceremonial law dealt with the issues of being clean or unclean. One needed to be ceremonially clean in order to worship at the Temple. Ceremonial, or cleanliness, laws included kosher dietary laws, what to do with certain types of illnesses, infections and molds, how to interact with women on their periods, what to do about dead bodies and many other kinds of things. Being “clean” or “unclean” was a HUGE issue for the Jewish people. To be “unclean” was to be excluded from worship, family and community life and there were involved rituals and sacrifices needed in order to “get clean” and be reinstated to the community.

Moral law dealt with how the people should behave as God’s covenental people. I use “moral” in this sense to mean “accurately reflecting the character and nature of God” not in the sense of “good/bad”. Laws that represent the Moral law category would be, “Don’t bear false witness. Don’t covet. Don’t steal.” God doesn’t do any of those things, so the people who bear his image shouldn’t do them either. Moral law is an interesting category because it requires an intense study of the character of God and how we live in the tension of being called to be like him, yet still falling short this side of the Resurrection.

The final category, what I call Religious Observances, are the Laws given by God specifically to the Jews to make them unique from any other people. Some Jewish dietary laws fall under this category, as does the Sabbath, the Jubilee and various other Feast days. The most famous of these Laws is the prohibition to the Jews of worshipping any god than YHWH. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, religious observances are what caused the Jews the most amount of persecution when they followed them.

How Jesus interacted with the various categories of Law

As Christians, it is vitally important to understand what ended with Jesus and the Cross, what changed and what carried through virtually intact. It is also essential to understand the the Old Covenant is fulfilled in the New and that the New Covenant interprets the Old. Basically, this means that if you are reading through the Old Testament and come across a Law, then you must go to the New Testament to study how Jesus and the authors of the New Testament dealt with that particular subject. The New Testament understanding of the Law supersedes the Old Testament understanding.

Jesus and Ceremonial Law

Jesus demolished ceremonial Law with his understanding and teaching of sonship and intimacy with the Father. Jesus was so in love with God, so filled with the Spirit, that he was undefileable. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could make Jesus unclean or unworthy to be in God’s Presence because he was and is God’s Beloved Son. In the Old Covenant, if a leper touched you, you became unclean. With Jesus, when lepers touched him they got healed! Jesus’s radical understanding of Grace and the Love of God allowed him to effectively set aside the requirements of ceremonial law. As Christians, our lives are hidden in Christ, we are filled with his Spirit and the power of Jesus’s resurrection flows in our veins – we are God’s beloved sons and daughters and nothing, absolutely nothing, makes us unfit to be in God’s Presence. We can come with confidence before the Throne of Grace because of Jesus’s sacrifice on our behalf.

Jesus and Moral Law

Jesus was and is the fulfillment of moral law – he is the perfect representation of the Father. Every moral law in the Old Covenant finds its fulfillment in Jesus. Jesus is our model and standard in terms of character and, while he set the standard high, it isn’t beyond our ability to duplicate by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In many ways, Jesus intensified the demands of moral law. In the Old Covenant, as long as you didn’t actually have sex with a woman who wasn’t your wife, you could oogle her all day and be just fine. But Jesus says that to look at a woman lustfully is the same as having comitted adultery with her. Similarly, in the Old Covenant, as long as you didn’t physically assalt and kill someone you could despise them in your heart all you wanted, but in the New Covenant, simply cussing someone out internally puts you in danger of the fires of Hell – why? Because free will doesn’t go away in eternity.

Think about it, in the beginning, God created everything and everyone absolutely PERFECT. How, then, did  Lucifer fall?  Lucifer had free will and used it poorly. He indulged in internal fantasies of what it would feel like to be the one worshipped, rather than the one worshipping. Satan wasn’t created evil – he became evil as he used his free will to create a wicked fantasy of himself sitting in God’s place. Jesus set the standard of moral law so high so that we would have to engage in a lifelong pursuit of being conformed to his character and bearing the fruit of the Spirit. Jesus gives us ample opportunity in this life (and in the Millenial Kingdom) to learn to distinguish Good and Godly thoughts from carnal and sinful desires. We are being trained to live in ABSOLUTE FREEDOM for eternity as we obediently respond to Holy Spirit convicting us of sin and less-than-pure motives.

Jesus and Religious Observances

Jesus embraced his Jewish roots and identity, but on his own terms. Jesus did observe certain rituals and feast days, but other things, like the Sabbath, he reinterpreted  so that they would be more life-giving.

In the book of Acts, we see the Church wrestling with Jewish culture and religious observances. As the Gospel spread like wildfire across the Roman Empire and thousands upon thousands of Gentiles (non Jews) entered into God’s family and eternal life, the question arose “what do we do with them?”  Some people wanted “Christian” and “observant Jew” to be one and the same thing. They wanted to circumcise the Gentiles and make them live like Jews. Others, notably the Apostles Peter and Paul,  argued that God’s Spirit was given to the Gentiles, and to the whole Church, as a gift, not because they had been faithful to obey the Law. The compromise was to create some distinctly “Christian laws” that would differentiate the Christian church from other Gentile religions and protect the intent of the Law to set apart a people holy to the Lord. The four laws the Jerusalem Council agreed upon in Acts 15 were: 1) To abstain from eating food sacrificed to idols, 2) from blood (presumably from eating food with blood in it, but some have argued that it means from violence or “shedding blood”),  3) from the meat of strangled animals  and, 4) from sexual immorality. Paul seems to have theological disagreements with numbers 1, 2 and 3 later on, arguing that all food is clean if it is received with thanksgiving, but he vigorously upholds number 4.

Ultimately, it appears that if you were a Gentile when you became a Christian, you should remain a Gentile and if you were a Jew, then you should remain a Jew (culturally speaking of course). And in instances where Jews and Gentiles are part of the same congregation, they need to be gracious to one another and try to do whatever they can to minimize offense and celebrate freedom. They must trust that each person is doing what they feel God is asking them to do and to not quarrel over “disputable matters.”

How Grace and Law Interact

Depending on which category of Law you are referring to, Grace means different things.

No Christian need concern themselves with ceremonial law. We are forever clean because of Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross. We never have to try to be “good enough” to get into God’s Presence or righteous enough for him to hear our prayers. In fact, we are the Temple, for God’s Spirit lives in us – so we can never be excluded from his Presence. We are undefilable, able to walk into the messiest circumstances and set people free. Grace means we never have to work for God’s acceptance or favor, it is a free gift given to us at salvation because of Jesus’s obedience and sacrifice. It means that we are God’s Beloved Sons and Daughters and that nothing can ever change that.

Every Christian needs to concern themselves with obeying God’s moral law. Grace, in this instance, is God given ability to bear the fruit of the Spirit and be conformed to the character of Christ. Grace is God giving us the mind of Christ, infilling us with the Holy Spirit and giving us a heart that longs to love him and serve him. Obeying God’s moral law is the process of sanctification – it requires effort and results in doing righteouss deeds, but should never be confused with salvation. We do good works BECAUSE we’re born again, not so that we CAN be born again. Grace empowers us to obey God’s moral commands and to represent him accurately, it doesn’t excuse us from being sanctified

Gentile Christians do not need to be concerned with religious observances. If you want to follow some of them, like the Sabbath or the tithe, then I think that is great. But please, don’t get silly about things. Unless you were raised in an ethnically Jewish home you have no business pretending to be something you are not. It isn’t a small thing in God’s sight to be Jewish. Don’t mess around with something you dont understand because you think it it “cool” or “biblical”. Grace, in this instance, allows for people from a wide variety of backgrounds to do life together. It allows us  to humbly love, serve and honor those who are different than us and recognize that God’s family is large and diverse and that we are just one small part of it. Grace allows us to live out the weightiest matters of the Law, to love God with all that we are and to love others with the same type of sacrifical love with which Jesus love us.

Closing Thoughts

I realize I worked through this complicated issue quickly and using broad strokes. My intent was not to do a detailed analysis of every Law in the Bible. Rather, I wanted to give you a mental paradigm to go about researching these things for yourself. You must be absolutely convinced from responsible use of Scripture of your own opinions about the Law, the Gospel and Grace. You can’t take my word for it or anyone else’s.

Good luck in your study my friends!


4 thoughts on “Understanding “The Law””

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