Last month, I formulated a New Testament understanding of the law. Paul is emphatic that Christians are not “under the law,” because they have died to the law – all of it, not merely certain sections. It is possible to come away from such an exercise believing that the Old Testament law is therefore just that: something old that we have left behind and that is of little or no interest. This would be a mistake! We may not be under the law in the sense of the Mosaic covenant with its rules and stipulations, but it is still the word of God. So what do we do with it? (Like the previous part, this issue runs quite long; I promise to be shorter again next month!)
Again, before diving in, I recommend reading through Exodus 21-23, so you have a sample of the law fresh in your mind.
Why the Law
Let me start with three reasons to take the law as Scripture seriously.
1. The law is God’s word. The law, including the commandments, is quoted in the New Testament as authoritative Scripture. It may not be our covenant, but it surely is God’s word to us. This is what Paul writes about the Old Testament in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
“All Scripture” refers to the writings of the Old Testament, the Bible of the early church. If all of it is profitable, then this includes the books of the law and all its commandments. Notice two important aspects of this profitability: training in righteousness and equipping for good works.
2. The law is a source of wisdom and understanding. Paul’s prayer for the believers in Colossae shows a concern for growth similar to 2 Timothy:
And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. (Col. 1:9-10; emphasis added)
(As an aside: In case anyone is surprised by all this emphasis on good works in Paul, let me point out that, while good works are never the foundation or reason for our acceptance by God, they are very much expected as the fruit of our redemption.)
Where does this knowledge of God and his will come from? How do we grow in spiritual wisdom and understanding? How do we know what is right or “worthy of the Lord?” Can I divorce my spouse because I now “love” someone else and therefore to do this is love? Read the Bible (OT and NT), and you will have a hard time making that case. The Spirit-filled and Spirit-led life needs the books of the law and other biblical writings to be informed. There is no room in the New Testament church for the kind of antinomianism that says we only need to follow the Spirit or the inner witness. We learn what love and righteousness (God’s will) are from God’s revelation.
3. The law is a source of joy (yes, joy). Psalm 1 is illustrative of a broader phenomenon in the Old Testament: the very positive experience at least some Israelites made with the law:
His delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night (Ps. 1:2)
The author of Psalm 119, especially, is full of praise and delight, totally excited about God’s statutes and commandments. If you think this is weird, you are in for a surprise.
The function of the law in the life of believers has been understood differently. It may therefore be helpful to provide a brief overview of at least some viewpoints.
Blueprint. A blueprint is a detailed plan drawn by an architect; the builder is obliged to follow it accurately. Some take the law of Moses as a blueprint that we are to follow both individually and nationally as closely as possible. Theonomy (its name is derived from the Greek words for God and law) follows this path. The sacrificial and other ceremonial regulations have been fulfilled and are no longer binding, but all the moral and civil legislation in the law is to be applied today.
Template. The Mosaic law can also be understood as a template. I like this view better, because it leaves significant flexibility. A template can be adjusted and filled in many ways, depending on needs and situations. Think of a template in Microsoft Word. I am not convinced, however, that the Mosaic law can and should indeed be taken as a template for today. At the very least, the commandments are not easily transferred from the old to the new and from Israel to Gentile states. The next section will introduce some of the hurdles that stand in the way.
Paradigm. This view is close to the previous one but uses a different image, that of a paradigm. The term paradigm has a double sense here. According to this view, Israel functions as a model and its commandments serve like a grammatical paradigm. In learning Spanish, for instance, you learn to decline the verb hablar: hablo, hablas, habla, hablamos, habláis, hablan. This paradigm with its endings can be applied to a large group of other verbs. In a similar way, Israel’s commandments provide a paradigm that can be adjusted and applied to numerous other situations.
The moral law. Many theologians work with a threefold division or categorization of the law: ceremonial, civil, and moral law. This is probably the most common view. It is argued that the ceremonial law has been fulfilled in Christ and that the civil law of Israel is culturally and historically determined and therefore not universal. Consequently, only the moral law is still relevant and binding.
As I have argued in the previous issue, there are indeed moral standards that apply and are binding on believers. These standards have much in common with commandments in the law of Moses; there is significant overlap.
Nevertheless, Paul does not imply that we have died to only two-thirds of the law. Besides, the law itself never makes this threefold distinction. Commandments belonging to these categories appear side by side, mixed together. It is not always easy to classify a commandment, and there is disagreement about this. Is the prohibition of tattoos (Lev. 19:28) and of boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk (Ex. 23:19) a moral or a ritual commandment? And what about the sabbath?
Example. It is possible to understand OT Israel as a model or example. There is no easy or direct way to transfer individual commandments from then and there to here and now, but there is much to learn from studying this example of God dealing with an entire nation at a different stage of salvation history. Beyond this, there is also the ethical instruction of the New Testament. This is the approach that makes the most sense to me.
In practice, this approach comes close to the previous one. It is likely to end up with similar conclusions as to what is still binding.
Conviction of sin. There are also does believe the sole purpose of the law was to convince humanity of its sinfulness: through the law comes knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20). It serves as the counterpart to the gospel and shows how much we need grace. In other words, the role of the law is largely negative. The law certainly has this function, but I don’t think it is its only or even its main function.
None: Antinomianism. And then there is antinomianism, a complete rejection of the law as having any function in the life of believers. Antinomianism exists in different forms, ranging from total licentiousness (let us sin, so grace can abound even more) to relying on the inner light, the voice of God, or the Holy Spirit only, with no need for authoritative input from the law or other Scripture.
Here are some things to keep in mind when wrestling with the application of biblical law. For ceremonial law, Hebrews offers a great framework. My focus here is largely on those commandments that are not or not obviously ceremonial.
1. The aim is not an improved version of the law. The aim of the kind of study I pursue here is not a “better” commandment, as if we were to replace the OT commandment with an improved or updated NT equivalent. My primary aim is not to sift through the OT commandments to decide which ones are still valid. After all, we are not under the commandment. There is no need (indeed, it would be a fatal error) to formulate a ‘new’ law and put it into writing as an external standard to live by. But we do need to know “righteousness”. How can this be done?
In theological terms: the OT law has been subsumed in the revelation of Jesus, who transformed and transcended it. The question thus becomes: how can the OT law be understood in the light of the Christ event, which transformed and transcended it, and in the light of the NT?
In other words: The aim is to know God and righteousness because righteousness reflects who God is. The aim is to know what it means to live a life motivated and defined by love. The question therefore is: how does this passage help me to understand what love and righteousness might look like in our situation?
2. Remember God’s empowering presence. We need to remember that the Holy Spirit is God’s empowering presence in us. Israel’s problem with the law always was its lack of ability to live up to its demands. The law demands, but it does not enable. The gospel comes with a higher standard (see the Sermon on the Mount, especially Mt. 5:20, 48), but the indwelling Spirit more than matches this increase in demand. This leads to the great paradox of life in the Spirit (the law is fulfilled by those who do not live by the law) as expressed in Romans 8:4:
For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom. 8:2-4; emphasis added)
3. Some laws are fulfilled. The entire sacrificial cult with the tabernacle setup and priesthood was from the start intended as a temporary and limited solution, awaiting the superior (and fully adequate) priesthood and sacrifice of Jesus. See Hebrews.
4. Some laws are concessions. If you read Exodus 21-23, you may have wondered about the regulations for slavery. Does God approve of slavery? Or is this simply an established practice that the law condones as a concession? I think the latter.
The classic example of OT laws that are a concession, not God’s true will on the matter, is the law on divorce (Dt. 24:1-4). As Jesus puts it, Moses allowed this “because of your hardness of heart” (Mt. 19:8) – it is a concession. Polygamy in ancient Israel is another example; it was condoned, not approved.
5. Some laws are a limited first step. Although the slavery laws in Exodus 21 accept the practice, they do put limits on slavery. There is concern for a reasonable treatment of persons. It is a step in the right direction. The same can be said for various laws related to the treatment of women in Israel. They are not God’s final word, but they brought improvement, at least offering women a measure of protection they would not have had otherwise.
The classic example of such a law is the so-called Lex Talionis (from Lat. lex = law and talio = avenge), an eye for an eye (Ex. 21:23-25, Dt. 19:21). This puts a limit on revenge. God’s ideal is of course forgiveness, not restrained retaliation, but this was a step in the right direction.
Both laws that are a concession and those that are a limited first step obviously fall short of God’s real intent.
6. Some laws depend on the unique status of Israel under the old covenant. Israel was the only nation ever where state and church, to use the modern terms, were truly identical. This makes it hard (hard, not impossible) to compare Israel with modern states or to draw conclusions for a biblical approach to modern legislation.
Some things are wrong, but that does not necessarily mean the state should deal with them. Murder and theft yes; but adultery? Or idolatry? And false teaching? Should we do away with that fundamental human right, freedom of religion? Would we want the state to be the arbiter of such issues and interfere with the life of religious communities? Or would we rather deal with them within the community of the church? I think the latter. And in that case, the ultimate consequence for serious breaches of the norm is not capital punishment but exclusion from the community.
For numerous transgressions, the law prescribes certain punishments. Even apart from the possibility that some of these were concessions, not God’s ideal, it is unclear who should execute such punishments today (the state? the church? God?). They are not prescriptive for the legislation of states today. Interestingly, even within the Old Testament, these punishments were not consistently practiced. David committed adultery and murder, yet lived to tell about it. OT sanctions and punishments are not reapplied or restated in the NT. Jesus did not condemn the woman caught in adultery.
Israel was unique in this as well, that it was an attempt to establish a perfect community. No modern society is called to do the same. History shows such attempts usually end in bloodshed. A Christian design for human government takes the fallen nature of humans and the abiding presence of evil seriously. Human government at its best will have to be a compromise.
7. We need to consider the cultural background. This consideration is closely connected to the next one.
8. We need to understand the reason for a commandment. Only if we understand the cultural meaning of things and the rationale behind a commandment do we stand a chance of applying it properly. Why does Leviticus 19:28 forbid tattoos? Do you think this prohibition applies to Christians today? What if tattoos were part of idolatrous rites (they probably were)? Wouldn’t that make a difference?
And what about boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk (Ex. 23:19; I realize you have probably not considered doing this)? Is this a law against cruelty? Kosher McDonald’s restaurants in Israel do not offer cheeseburgers. After all, the milk-giving cow might be related to the cow that was slaughtered. Is this a valid application? More likely, this commandment reflects a Canaanite fertility rite and condemns an idolatrous practice.
The Example of Israel under the Law
For all the cautions expressed here, the law is worth studying – for one, because it is beautiful. But also because it continues to point us to the kind of life that is pleasing to God. And it helps us to think through what kind of society we would want to build.
As such, the law does not provide an easy-to-use blueprint or template. It is not the political system of Israel that is worth copying (it changed from a tribal confederation to a monarchy to being a province in a larger empire with limited self-rule). But the law and the example of Israel do provide pointers, not least through inculcating a passion for justice and other values.
If Israel had kept these laws, what sort of nation would it have become?
- It would have been a nation with justice for all. Its king was not above the law but, like everybody else, subject to it.
- This second point is more complex. Israel started with a broad distribution of land, the main means of economic productivity; under Joshua, every family received an allotment. The year of Jubilee instituted a system to return land at least once in a generation to the original family owner, thereby preventing land and the means of production from accumulating in the hands of a few upper-class families. This would have made Israel a nation with broad ownership and broadly spread wealth, where everyone could participate in the economic life of the nation and make a living.
- Because of the previous two points, Israel would have been a nation of freedom with not much of a hierarchy and small class differences.
- Israel would have been people who take responsibility for the consequences of their actions.
- Israel would have been a compassionate society, with justice and concern for the poor and the weak. Workers were cared for; even slaves and animals got to partake in the Sabbath.
- It would have been a nation with sexual integrity.
Etcetera. That’s an example worth emulating!
Next month: who wrote the fourth gospel?
Worth watching: What was the purpose of the Torah (Moses’ Law)?
Book recommendation for the OT law:
“Justice”: https://pixabay.com/nl/justitie-rechts-juridisch-advocaat-2755765/ (CC0)
Standard Bible Society (2001), The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Standard Bible Society)
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