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LAW OF GOD
The law of God as revealed in the Bible is a
good, right and perfect system of eternal directives and principles which reflects God's
character and serves as a means of expressing His love toward man. God's law teaches man
how to properly worship God, how to love his fellowman, how to live life abundantly, and,
at the same time, how to prepare for an eternal spiritual life in the family of God. The
law of God is represented in both the Old and the New Testaments and is expressed by both
physical actions and spiritual motivations.
The Church of God looks to the whole Bible, both Old and New
Testaments, as its fundamental source of doctrine and teachings. We accept Christ's
statement that "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth
out of the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4). Jesus plainly accepted the authenticity and
inspiration of the entire Old Testament with its three major divisionsthe Law, the
Prophets and the Writings (Luke 24:44)as being relevant for the New Testament
ministry of the Church of God. In support of this, the apostle Paul wrote: "All
scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine" (2 Tim.
3:16). Therefore, the character, personality and specific teachings of Jesus
Christboth as the Rock that went with Israel in the Old Testament (1 Cor. 10:4;
Deut. 32:15, 18) and as the son of man and the son of God in the New Testamentare
the foundations of our biblical understanding of man's relationship to the law of God.
God's law in its fullest, most complete sense is spiritual and could
not be discovered or discerned by man without direct revelation from God. The fullness of
God's law involves every facet of personal and collective human existence. Though its
expression may change as the circumstances change, the eternal spiritual law of God is
unchanging and is always the ultimate object of any biblical law code or instruction
expressed in human language. God's laws are all designed to lead to a consummate knowledge
and understanding of God and of the ultimate purpose of life, and to supreme godly love
Divine law is the totality of the means whereby God instructs man how
to live most abundantly in this present physical life, and how to most effectively prepare
for the future spiritual life in the Kingdom of God.
The New Testament writers clearly express a positive attitude towards
God's law as magnified and given spiritual impact and import by Jesus Christ. Jesus stated
that "all the law and the prophets"the entire Old Testamentwere
based on the overall principles of love toward God and love toward one's fellow man (Matthew
22:36-40). Furthermore, Christ made it very clear that He did not come to destroy the law
or the prophets (Matthew 5:17). John tells us that sin is the transgression of the law (1
3:4); and Paul says that the law is holy and just and good (Rom. 7:12).
The overall approach to God's law in the New Testament is summed up in
the statement, "He that saith, I know Him, and keepeth not His commandments, is a
liar, and the truth is not in him" (1 John. 2:4). However, in fulfilling Isaiah's
prophecy of magnifying the law and making it honorable (Isaiah 42:21), Christ instituted
certain changes. Christ Himself specifically abrogated certain statements in the law, in
relation to swearing and to marriage, for example, to bring the laws given at Sinai more
into conformity with the original intent of the commandments upon which they were based.
Moreover, Acts 15 makes clear that the law in regard to circumcisionwhich had
antedated the covenant at Sinai was not binding upon Gentile Christians. Therefore, based
upon this example of God's Church using the power entrusted to it by Christ to make
binding decisions (Matthew 16:19), the Church of God recognizes the same administrative
responsibilitiesbased upon New Testament principles and examplesto determine
the application of Old Testament laws today.
The term "law" is intrinsic to any systematic
study of theology. Yet the English word "law" carries a narrow, legal
connotation which may cause a misunderstanding of the biblical terms. A number of words in
both the Old and the New Testaments are commonly translated "law" in the major
English versions. These words, however, often admit of broader meaning than the normal
English usage and do not necessarily have legalistic overtones of their English
counterparts (or are otherwise unequivalent).
A thorough study of the Hebrew and Greek terminology in the Bible would
be out of place here because of length and technicality, though some of the major terms
are briefly discussed later on in this paper. But it might be helpful to illustrate why
"law" may not always be a suitable equivalent of the original. An important term
in the Old Testament and later Judaism is the well-known Hebrew word torah. It may
refer to law as a legal system; it may refer to specific regulations and statutes. Yet torah
is often used in the broad sense of anything considered traditional, customary and
authoritative. Perhaps the best English equivalent is "teachings" though even
that may not be broad enough in meaning.
One needs to be careful that he does not assume laws are necessarily
categorized by the Hebrew (or English) terms used. There is no consistent terminology for
the various types of laws. For example, one might assume a distinction between
"statute" and "ordinance" as found in certain translations. However,
neither term consistently translates the same Hebrew word. Thus, the Hebrew hoq is
variously translated as "law...... statute," "ordinance," and
"commandment" in the major English versions. The Ten Commandments are never
called by the Hebrew term usually translated "commandment" (miswah)they
are simply referred to as the ten "words" (devarim). As mentioned above,
the word torah means much more than just the English word "law."
It is also important to note that the term "law of Moses" is
itself used interchangeably with the term "law of God."
Thus, in Nehemiah 8, the expression alternates between "law of
Moses" in verse 1 and "law of God" in verses 8 and 18. The term "law
of Moses" is generally used as a designation for the Pentateauch or
"Torah." The term "law of Moses" would thus apply to anything in those
five books, whether it be the Ten Commandments or the sacrificial laws or circumcision.
Such usage is confirmed in the New Testament as, for example, in Luke 24:44.
Thus, the occurrence of "law" in an English translation may
implydepending on the original Hebrew or Greek and the context"legal
system," "regulation," "sacrificial ritual," "Ten
Commandments," "principle," "natural law" " the
Pentateuch," "customary tradition," "belief," etc. It is
therefore impossible to give a simple definition of "law." The concept of
"law" in the Bible is complex and cannot be defined or summarized in any brief
way without danger of oversimplification. The very complexity of the subject requires that
the many aspects of the biblical concept of law be discussed. No adequate understanding of
the teaching of God's Church on law can be gained without a thorough and careful reading
of the entire overview given here. Seldom is an "either/or" position taken. The
Church believes in freedom and law, faith and works, love and law, forgiveness and
justice, reward and selfless service, grace and law, to name only a few of the
traditional dichotomies found in treatments of the subject.
The Bible itself sets the tone for the use of the term "law.
Sometimes law is viewed as the only important thing, sometimes as a good thing; at other
times it is considered something obsolete, inadequate or incomplete. Perhaps the epitome
of biblical discussion on the subject is found in Paul's writings, yet it is obvious that
Paul has been frequently misunderstood.
Love is the Fulfillment of the Law
God is love. That is His nature and essence (1
John. 4:8). It
is only from God that we can learn what real and perfect love is. A great deal depends on
the guidance of His Holy Spirit, but God's love is essentially expressed and taught
through His law (Rom. 13:10; 1 John. 5:3). It is the major vehicle by which His love has
been made known to mankind.
If we human beings had the love that God hasperfect, complete and
limitless lovewe would have no need of any external moral law (though we should
still need God to reveal to us His Sabbath, holy days spiritual meanings, ceremonial laws,
etc.). If human beings had the full knowledge of love plus the full power to express that
love that God has, there should be no need of external guidelines or codified statements
or definitions or examples of any kind: we would always express love to its full extent.
But we are not God, and we do not have the perfect love which is exemplified in Him. Human
beings must learn love. Christians must grow toward that absolute embodiment of
love of which all fall so short. This is the purpose of God's law.
How can one know love unless he is taught what it is and how it works?
Ultimately, it is learned by practice. Yet before one can practice it, there must be some
sort of beginning. The various aspects of God's law in the Bible are designed to give a start
to the individual. These aspects then lead him to greater and greater understanding of
this concept until he learns to live by internalized spiritual motivations which, while no
longer adequately expressible in human words, impel him to continue to fulfill the
objective of God's law which is love at the highest plane.
The concept of love can be epitomized, albeit inadequately, in the
following statement: Love is both wholehearted worship toward God and outgoing concern for
one's fellow man equal to the natural concern for self. This is seen in Matthew 22, where
Jesus says that the great commandment in the law is to:
love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy
soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is
like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all
the law and the prophets" (vv. 36-40).
Here, Jesus states that our love must be first toward God with full
fervency, and then toward our neighbor in a manner equal to our love for ourselves. In
fact, these two great commandments of God are the very foundation of God's law on which all
the law and all the prophets hang. All the biblical books on the law and the prophets
teach one, by example as well as by command, how to show love toward his neighbor. Many of
the basic principles of loving one's fellow man are well known; the basic principles of
love of neighbor have appeared in almost every culture, age and religion (cf. ROM.
Yet love of God is a point about which there is considerable difference
of opinion. For that reason God gave four basic commands or principles that are the first
four of the great Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:3-11). The last six proceed to give basic
principles of love of fellow human beings (Ex. 20:12-17). Thus, the two "great
commandments" of love of God and love of man are made more specific in the broad
precepts of the Ten Commandments (cf. Deut. 5:7-21).
Limited as they are, however, human beings find it difficult to
translate broad principles into practical application.
Therefore, when God gave the Ten Commandments to ancient
Israelthough it is clear they had already been known for thousands of yearsHe
did not stop there. He went on to give them more detailed instructions, some of them
rather broad, others very minute and detailed, applicable only to a specific situation in
a specific time or culture. (These will be discussed later at length.)
It is in the detailed physical regulations that man first finds
himself able to grasp what God's law is all about (cf. James 1:22-25). Almost everyone
understands the need today for a speed limit or a no-parking sign. Likewise, in ancient
Israel, there was little chance for dispute about the need for a parapet surrounding one's
roof (Deut. 22:8). These are very tangible regulations which anyone can come to grips
with. It is these detailed instructionsoften time or culturally boundwhich
begin to lead one toward the higher concepts of God's law and hence "love." This
is assuming that one obeys them and reflects on their purpose: to teach one how to love
God and how to love his fellow man.
The command to build a guard rail around one's roof has variable
application in societies today. It would only serve as a bird perch in some areas of the
world. Yet in the society of ancient Israel, as also in certain modern forms of
architecture, it was, and is, common to use the roof as living quarters or for other
similar purposes. One who did not protect the users of his roof with a guarding parapet
was guilty of negligence and, consequently, of not loving his neighbor. One cannot love
his neighbor, after all, if he does not correct a potential hazard to life and limb.
As the individual regulates his life by these. more narrow ordinances,
he starts to perceive what it means to think of others. He begins to grasp the meaning of
living a life which shows concern for others and is not just purely egocentric. Suddenly,
the minor regulations have a significance greater than their specific object or immediate
concern. The man who would never think of killing a neighbor in cold blood might
accomplish the same actthrough unthinking carelessnessby not penning up his
berserk bull. The one who caused an innocent person to be condemned by his false testimony
would be as guilty of his blood as if he had struck him with a meat cleaver.
The detailed regulations, whether statute, ordinance or judgment (the
terminology is of little significance, as already discussed, since the Hebrew terms do not
correspond exactly with the English ones) lead to more general precepts. As the individual
attempts to apply the more minute instructions and in so doing considers their purpose, he
comes to see how they relate to one another and how they incorporate broader concepts.
These broader concepts themselves cohere to form the basic structure of love embodied in
the Ten Commandments. Through these two major facets unfold love of God and love of
manneither of which can be omitted from the total meaning of love.
At this point, the artificial dilemma regarding the spirit of the law
and the letter of the law takes on a different perspective. Ultimately, the love of God
can be discerned only through His Spirit. It cannot be expressed in human language in
other than inadequate form. This is why knowledge of God's love is conveyed through legal,
ethical and moral regulations. These instructions are not ends in themselves. They point
to the true end and provide a means of reaching it. They were not, in their deepest
significance, set up as a code by which a person could be adjudged innocent or guilty.
They were designed to show the way to love of God and love of man.
Naturally, in any human society which does not understand God's perfect
love, some sort of administrative system of reward and punishment is necessary. In the
same way, the concept of sin as the breaking of God's law is a New Testament concept, and
sin plays an important part in New Testament theology. Yet it is due to the failings of
human nature, not because God is simply interested in the law as a means of judging sin.
Ultimately, the law points beyond the level of sin, transgression and living by the letter
to the love of God. To fulfill the law to its greatest extent is to have perfect love.
Conversely, to have perfect love means to fulfill the law in its most spiritual
Law in the Old Testament
The Old Testament is a collection of diverse types of
literature. The first five books, which compose the Pentateuch, are often called the
"Torah" or "Law." However, the Hebrew term torah, as mentioned
earlier, means "teachings" rather than just "law" in the legal,
codified sense. Further, even though detailed regulations tend to be centered in the
Pentateuch, they are not limited to that section of the Old Testament, nor is the
Pentateuch simply a law code in the strictest sense.
Some laws in the Old Testament clearly encompass broad principles while
others are quite specific, minute regulations. The biblical text does not itself always
clearly distinguish between the more important and the less important. That is why one
finds many admonitions to meditate on the law (e.g. Ps. 119:97,99). Thus, even though
these were all laws originating with God, some are more permanent and spiritual in nature
than are others. (For example, the whole sacrificial system of the tabernacle and temple
were importanteven vitalfor a certain period of time, but the New Testament
shows that these regulations are not for all men at all times.
They served a specific function for a certain time and in a particular
place while always symbolically pointing to deeper spiritual truths.)
Old Testament laws can be broken down to various categories:
1) Broad spiritual principles which cover various lesser laws and
regulations. The Ten Commandments are the primary example, as is clearly recognized by
Old Testament scholars. For example, the seventh commandment--specifically against
adulteryis a broad principle regulating human sexual relations. Detailed
instructions concerning the types of sexual practices to be avoided are found in Leviticus
18. These latter fall under the category of "civil regulations" (category no. 2
below) but are summarized by the board principle of the seventh commandment.
2) Civil regulations for the Israelite theocracy. These cover a
number of different types of regulations. The laws about building a parapet around one's
roof, cutting down fruit trees while besieging a city, taking the mother bird with her
young, inheritance, cities of refuge, covering an open pit, penning up a dangerous bull,
leaving the corners and the forgotten sheaf for the poor, and many other instructions had
to do with the proper conduct of a physical society within national state. Since Israel
was a theocracy, many of these regulations had religious overtones, even while being
primarily civil in function, and often pointed toward the broad principle of the law. To
these were added the various decisions made by the judges.
3) Laws of cleanliness and ritual purity. These are hard to
separate since both are often included under the same instructions. For example, one who
touched a dead body had to wash himself. This is the cleanliness part of the instructions.
Yet he also remained "unclean" (Hebrew tame) for a certain length
of time (Lev. 11:39-40). Thus, both physical cleanliness and ritual cleanliness are
included in the same instructions.
4) Laws relating to the sacrificial system and other regulations
having to do with the religious liturgy or serving a symbolic or disciplinary function.
For example, individuals were to sew blue fringes on their garments as a physical ritual
to remind them of God's commandments (Num. 15:37-40). Circumcision was also a religious
ceremony of great importance. Whole sections of the Pentateuch (e.g. Lev. 1-10) give
detailed instructions about the conduct of the sacrificial system. The sacrifices were, of
course, religious in purpose since they had to do with worship and expiation of sin (Lev.
4: 26,35; 5:16).
One can use the analogy of a modern free country to better understand
the various levels of Old Testament law. All instructions were part of that law. None were
to be slighted or ignored. The breaking of any law brought some sort of penalty on the
violator, though the penalties varied in severity. The same is true with the laws within,
for example, the United States. The Constitution says nothing about speed limits, property
taxes, zoning, or sexual conduct. Rather, laws are broadly laid out and worded to serve as
an overall guide for all generations. All other lawswhether national, regional or
localmust conform to the principles laid down in the Constitution. These laws
themselves vary in importance. Some cover only a certain state or region or city.
They may need to be changed according to the time and circumstances. In addition, a
certain body of common law has grown up through individual court decisions (cf. the
"judgments" of the Old Testament).
Category no. 1 might correspond to a national constitutionsuch as
that of the United Statesand cover all men at all times. Category no. 2 might be
analogous to national laws passed by national legislators. That is, they may incorporate
regulations which have permanent value for various human societies. On the other hand,
some of the regulations may be culturally bound and require modification or replacement to
remain relevant in a changing society. For example, the laws of inheritance were
very important for ancient Israel but are less useful today. The seventh-year, land
Sabbath could be applied in a nation under God's government but is difficult for all
Christians everywhere to apply in today's society. Thus, the specific law sometimes does
not fit the changed situation brought about by the vicissitudes of time and circumstance.
Yet, one should not allow the concept of broad principles to devalue
minute and detailed regulations. It would be impossible to run a country only on the broad
principles of a constitution. Other laws, statutes and ordinances are also required. Speed
limits and obedience to traffic lights may not be the most spiritual or "moral"
of laws, but they are nonetheless essential for man in a mechanized society. Such
ordinances are the result of applying moral and ethical principles (not running into
another automobile does, after all, have ethical consequences); chaos would ensue if they
were suddenly stricken from the books. To say that a law is of lesser value or more narrow
in application than another is not to say that it is of no concern or that it can be
ignored. The same applies to the detailed laws of the Old Testament.
No survey, even a lengthy one, can begin to cover all the examples or
details of law in the Old Testament. The basic types of law and their function have been
outlined above. Following is a brief historical survey, given to illustrate that outline
and to show that law was by no means static during Old Testament times, even during the
history of Israel.
The Old Testament, especially the book of Genesis, records the
existence of extensive legal principles and legal codes long before the foundation of the
nation of Israel. The last hundred years of archaeological discoveries have seen the
discovery of legal codes and regulations from various parts of the ancient Near East.
Thus, the particular codification given under the Sinai covenant was hardly the giving of
law where none had previously existed. In fact, many of the regulations found in the books
of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers were only a reaffirmation of accepted regulations which
had been known for centuries.
The account of the Garden of Eden is the first reference on
instructions to human beings. Adam and Eve were instructed in the proper use and enjoyment
of their idyllic physical surroundings; the one thing expressly forbidden was partaking of
the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This first simple instruction was given for
the good of Adam and Eve, yet they disobeyed and reaped the consequences.
Their sons, Cain and Abel, knew of God and worshipped Him by means of a
burnt offering. For a reason not fully specified in the Genesis account, Cain's offering
was not acceptable. His jealousy of Abel, whose sacrifice was accepted, produced the first
murder. This brief episode shows several important points: worship was permitted through
certain ritualistic ceremonies; this worship was regulated by some sort of unwritten code
which Cain violated; Cain knew he was wrong to slay his brother and tried to cover it up;
two sinsviolations of laware pointed out: murder and lying. It is therefore
impossible to refer to the period before Sinai as a time of no law.
Similarly, the flood of Noah came because "God saw that the
wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of
his heart was only evil continually" (Gen. 6:5). Wickedness and evil are capable of
existence only when there is a standard against which they can be judged. That standard
does not have to be written down or externally codified; it can be a common understanding
to which the term "natural law" or perhaps even "common law" could be
applied. The point is that law had to exist before actions could be pronounced good
Throughout the patriarchal period, various statements are made which
evidence at least an implicit code or system of law with grave results for violation and
great blessings for obedience. Perhaps the classic capsule statement of the situation is
contained in Genesis 26 in a reference to Abraham: "Sojourn in this land, and I will
be with you, and will bless you; . . . and I will fulfill the oath which I swore to
Abraham your father. . . because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my
commandments, my statutes, and my laws" (vv. 3-5).
Abraham, Isaac and their descendants were blessed for obedience to
well-known laws and commandments. The fact that these are not specifically enumerated does
not mean that they did not exist. On the contrary, many of them can be known by the specific
examples which presuppose them. The following are examples of implicit laws in
Genesis. Adultery being punishable: "What is this you have done to us? One of the
people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon
us" (26:10); homosexuality being drastically punished (chapter 19); circumcision
being a requirement for descendants of Abraham as a sign of God's covenant with him
(chapter 17); private property being respected (chapter 23); standard weights being used
in business dealings (23:16); theft being wrong (31:19,30,32). Many other examples could
Therefore, when God brought Israel out of Egypt, it was no new thing
for Him to lay down regulations for them. The first command concerned the institution of
the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread. Between Rameses and Sinai, a number of
different commands were given to the Israelites. On Mount Sinai God spoke the Ten
Commandments Himself and wrote them on two tables of stone. These two symbolic acts showed
that the Ten Commandments were to be considered more fundamental than the other laws. (The Sinaitic covenant included a number of laws besides the Decalogue, Ex. 20-24).
Later, other regulations were added. A significant number of these
centered on the sacrificial system at the altar. Sacrifices were not new; they had been
offered at least since the time of Cain and Abel. What were new were many of the specific
laws about the conduct of the ritual worship. Yet we find that, with the introduction of
the temple at Jerusalem centuries later, many of these rules were modified. In fact the
rules about building altars in Exodus 20:24-26 were soon changed and no altars except the
one associated with the Tabernacle were allowed (Deut. 12). Deuteronomy covers many of the
same basic regulations found in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers but often modifies them or
adapts them to new situations. So it is that in the Pentateuch itself we see a development
of the legal code. A change in the administration or the environment often changes the
interpretation and application of the law without altering the underlying principle. Rules
given at one time for one situation were already being modified because of new situations
(such as the change from nomadic desert-dwelling, in Exodus, to agricultural living in the
land of Canaan, in Deuteronomy). Thus, God's Word establishes from its beginning, the
responsibility of God's people to apply His laws to their changing contemporary situations.
Some of the laws arising with Israel were already known in the same or
a similar form elsewhere in the ancient Near East, as the book of Genesis and the
literature of other ancient peoples show. A code of law was accepted as in any functioning
national state today. Even where the word of the monarch was law, a common system of
conduct for the average citizen was still very much in evidence. After all, the king could
not judge every single case or decide every little matter in the day-to-day life of even a
small city-state, much less a huge empire.
It is true that a number of the laws of the Old
Testament can seem somewhat less than ideal from our
modern viewpoint. They sound strange, indeed "primitive," to
our modem ears. For example, slavery is
only regulated, polygamy is allowed and women have decidedly inferior position. However,
when the instructions dealing with these subjects are viewed against their background in
the ancient Near East, many of them are remarkably progressive. That is, they would have
been considered extremely liberal, even radical, for that time. These laws appear to have
been instituted for the regulation and mollification of previously existing customs.
Whether the customs themselves were good or bad was not the point. Rather, since
eradication of the bad was impossible, God gave laws to ameliorate the existing situation.
Such accepted institutions as slavery were regulated to help protect
the indentured servant and the bondslave. Polygamy was normal for the time, yet the
laws of the Pentateuch saw to it that at least inheritance should be conducted fairly. A
rapist normally had to marry his victim, if unmarried, to protect her since she
would have had a hard time finding a husband. Of course, if the character of the rapist
was clearly depravedthat is, if his crime was not an isolated example of lust
getting the better of him but evidence of a basic flaw of characterthe father of the
victim could still disallow it. From our modern point of view, the law may look peculiar.
For the society at the time, it was a means designed to make the best of a bad situation.
Similarly, just because God gave specific laws regarding divorce, it did not mean that He
approved the practice (cf. Matthew 19:8). God was simply eliminating the possibility of
continuous wife swapping (Deut. 24:1-4).
These examples are again evidence of a progression in the revelation
and the understanding of Gods ultimate spiritual law. Even in the New Testament the
institution of slavery is nowhere condemned outright. Yet the Church today, from its
perspective of two thousand more years of history and guided by God's Spirit, clearly
recognizes that slavery is contrary to God's purpose for man.
A look at law in the Old Testament would not be complete without
examining certain prophetic Old Testament passages which indicate the reinstitution of a
temple and regular sacrificial system during the Messiah'sChrist'sreign in the
millennium (Isaiah 66:20-23; Ezek. 40-48; Zech. 14:20-21; Mal. 3:1-4; etc.). Why should such
physical rituals have a place when Christ Himself is ruling?
There seem to be three interdependent reasons for a temple and
sacrificial system. First is because, in addition to allowing Jerusalem to serve as a
religious center, such a system shall enable a restored Israel to serve as an example to
the world. The priesthood, which in times past did not consistently execute its duties
with the proper care and willingness, shall now show the world how those duties should be
carried out (Ezek. 44:5 ff). Israel as a model physical nation shall also have an
important part in setting the social, ethical and religious examples.
The second reason is somewhat similar. Christ shall have established
His rule over physical, unconverted nations. They must be led gradually to the place of
repenting, being converted and receiving the Holy Spirit. Just as the temple ritual was
important to the ancient Israelites without God's Spirit, so the reestablished ritual of
sacrifices shall give them a physical means of growing towards a spiritual understanding
of God. The necessary education shall take a good deal of time. The temple shall
serve as an important partthe centerof religious education.
Thirdly and finally, just as the sacrifices of ancient Israel pointed forward
to a coming Savior who was to pay the supreme sacrifice for the sins of the world, so
in the millennium the sacrifices will point back to that sacrifice and give people
a greater understanding of Christ our Savior (in much the same way as the Passover service
does today), the consequences of sin, and the meaning of salvation.
Law in the New Testament
The importance of law in the Old Testament is easily
accepted even though its exact implications may be debated. It is the subject of God's law
in the New Testament that has been much misunderstood. The question affects not only the
totality of the Christian life but also how the New Testamentand its relationship
with the Old Testamentis understood. It would be out of place in this section to
attempt to take up the entire New Testament teachings on conversion, salvation, morality,
conduct and so on. (Many of these points are discussed in detail under other major
headings.) Here we will therefore concentrate on the background situation in New Testament
times, the reason why certain new approaches to law are emphasized, and why some contrasts
are made with the Old Testament position.
The New Testament is very much rooted
in the Judaism of the time. The picture of Judaism in the first century is only now becoming clear
as a result of recent scholarship, while many old assumptions (unfortunately widespread in
many of the major reference works) are no longer tenable. The reconstruction of early
first-century Judaism that emerges from new methods and documents is quite different from
that of Judaism after the period 70-135 A.D.
The Judaism of New Testament times was rooted in the Old Testament. The
Hebrew Bible was the major traditional literature (even if read only in Greek translation
as it was by many in the Diaspora). The religious center was the
Temple and its
sacrificial system. There were also many different popular preachers and religious sects
of diverse persuasions. However, actual membership in the sects was quite small. The vast
majority of Jews were not members of any sect and were not overly scrupulous or religious
in conduct. That is, despite a general piety which undoubtedly characterized most of them,
they were too busy making a living to devote their time to sectarian taboos, religious
harangues or denominational disputes.
This does not mean that certain of the sectarian leaders and teachers
were not looked upon with a certain respect or that the temple worship was neglected. But
the picture of a populace dominated by strictly observed
Pharisaic rules of purity and halakah
is not accurate. This is not to say that the Pharisees did not have considerable
prestige or that they were without influence. On the other hand, there were only a few
thousand Pharisees, and their rules and opinions were not dutifully followed by the people
and were emphatically not followed by most of the temple priests.
Yet we must also keep in mind the previous centuries of Jewish history.
The destruction of Jerusalem and the exile in 587 B.C. were very traumatic experiences.
With the return of the exiles, there was a determination not to repeat the original causes
of that exile. One of the major causes was considered to be Sabbath-breaking (Neh.
13:16-18; Ezek. 20:24). In the centuries that followed, the Jewish faith had its ups and
downs. The one episode which threatened to submerge Judaism entirely came in the middle of
the second century B.C. The Seleucid king, Athiochus IV Epiphanes, waged war against
Judea, allying with the renegade Jews, defiling the temple and stopping the temple
At this time the Jews waged a long war to preserve their religion and
autonomy. Although Jerusalem was retaken and the temple services restored after three
years, the Maccabean state continued to fight with the Syrians for decades. The priesthood
was combined with the political leadership in the Hasmonean (Maccabean) dynasty which
ruled Judea for the next century. This autonomy came to an end in 63 B.C. when Rome
intervened in civil strife resulting from rival claims to the high priesthood.
Nevertheless, under Roman rule, with the Herodian family as the major
figure of political control, the Jewish state still maintained a considerable amount of
freedom. Not only was worship not restricted but Herod the Great even began a lengthy
process of beautification and restoration of the Temple. Objections to Rome were primarily
of a political and not of a religious nature. The Jewish religion was a thriving concern.
The main thing to remember is that Judaism was a pluralistic phenomenon of many differing
aspects with the Temple as its focus; it was not a
Pharisaic or rabbinic monopoly.
It was onto this stage that Jesus steppedthe stage on which He
began His teachings. It was on this same stage that the early Church began. The apostle
Paul concentrated his efforts in the Diaspora. The Jews in the Diaspora, despite some
differences, seemed to cover the same basic religious spectrum as the Jews in Palestine.
As a people and as a religion, the Jews and Judaism were very well known in the first
century throughout the Roman Empire. This is borne out by many historians of the period.
Preaching the gospel in the Gentile world meant building upon a Jewishand hence Old
The New Testament teachings presume the Old Testament and the Judaism
of that time. This is clear to anyone who studies the historical and cultural background
as well as the New Testament itself. Thus, what sometimes appears to be a radical
statement about Judaism or the law or the Old Testament, is really either a spiritual
modification or an amplification or both, rather than a rejection or repudiation of it. In
other words, the New Testament writersincluding Pauldid not reject the Old
Testament or the law or even their Jewish background. They rejected a few things, they
modified or changed the emphasis of many things, and they especially taught the newly
revealed spiritual meanings involved. It is critical for a full understanding of God's
law in the New Testament to realize that the apostles assumed a great deal as intuitively
and publicly obvious, without seeing any need to discuss it specifically.
To take one exampleperhaps the heart of the New
Testamentwe can look at the "Sermon on the Mount." Much within this vital
section is not new; that is, it can be paralleled with sections in the Old Testament. The
Old Testament law is presupposed: "Think not that I have come to abolish them but to
fulfill them . . . Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches
men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches
them shall be called great" (Matthew 5:17-20).
What is revolutionary about the "Sermon on the Mount" is its
complete emphasis on matters of the heart rather than just on external practice. Here is
the ultimate in the complete rejection of egotismthe highest form of absolute
concern for others and for God. Many Old Testament commands are made more strict by
becoming matters of the spirit: sexual desire, divorce, repayment for wrongs, swearing,
murder and hate, to name some of the major ones. Jesus was making things harder, not
easier. As the disciples said about the subject of divorce in another context, "If
such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry." Jesus' answer
was that "Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is
given" (Matthew 19:10-11).
Jesus was not doing away with the law; He was, rather, magnifying and
lifting it to a spiritual plane, revealing its full spiritual intent. He was making it a
matter of the spirit rather than only of the letter. He was showing the law's intent and
purpose as opposed to its bare physical statement. The basic overall result was the
introduction of a system of law which could be kept only by means of the Holy Spirit. Old
Testament law could be kept in the letter by any ordinary physical individual with
character and self-discipline. New Testament law in its spiritual form could in no way be
kept without divine help.
In the Old Testament, righteousness was primarily judged by what one
did, by external conformity to the laws. This does not mean that there are not many
statements about the attitude and intent of the heart and its importancethere are.
But the emphasis is nonetheless on adherence to the letter of the law, something that was
possible for the ordinary person. The New Testament goes much further, stating that
external obedience is not enough. Despite all one's attempts, full service to the
spiritual demands of the law is unattainable in the flesh. No one can be completely
righteous without perfect obedience. Since this is impossible, no one is, by himself,
This view was, of course, quite contrary to the then current view of
things. To persons such as the Pharisees who put great emphasis on their scrupulous
observance of their own ritual laws of purity, it was rather galling to be told that their
faithful practice was so much dung (cf Phil. 3:8). Paul is not castigating obedience; he
is not denigrating the Old Testament law. Rather, he is showing that the real source of
forgiveness and salvation is Jesus Christthat His sacrifice for our sins and His
resurrection are the really important things as opposed to the less important do's and
don'ts of the law.
Paul is often misunderstood in this regard simply because his teachings are
not understood against their background. He himself strictly conformed even to what were
considered ritual observances (Acts 16:3; 18:18; 21:17-26). On the other hand, some things
which are often relegated to the level of ritual were not ritual but essential parts of
worship which Paul observed and taught. (For examples, see Sabbath and Annual Holy Days.)
Furthermore, Paul was teaching not just Jews but Gentiles. The Old
Testament promises were purely physical, made to a physical Israel that did not understand
the spiritual intent of circumcision, even though Old Testament writings speak of an
inward circumcision not of the flesh (Jer. 4:4; Deut. 30:6; Joel 2:13). The requirement of
physical circumcision for males was a major problem in the early Church, with the decision
being made that such circumcision was not for the Gentiles. The message Paul took to the
Gentiles was that they no longer needed to become Jews outwardly, in the flesh through
circumcision, to gain salvation. Membership in the Israel of God was a matter of the
Paul's epistle to the Romans is replete with vigorous statements in
full support of the law. The law is not void by faith, but fully established (Rom. 3:31).
Christians are admonished not to continue in sin (Rom. 6:1-2), but to become
"servants of righteousness" (Rom. 6:18). The law is good, (Rom. 7:7); it is
spiritual (Rom. 7:14) and "holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good"
(Rom. 12:7). The carnal mind that leads to death (Rom. 6:23; 8:6) is defined as being
"enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God" (Rom. 8:7).
Paul's statements in Romans 2:25-27, while often quoted, have been
somewhat neglected as a powerful affirmation of the fact that Gentiles need to be lawkeepers. In this passage Paul is showing that the issue of circumcision is irrelevant
for the Christian, in contradistinction to the issue of keeping "the righteousness of
the law" which is extremely relevant. If the uncircumcised Gentiles fulfill the law,
they are immeasurably superior to circumcised Jews who transgress the law. So a
the Church who keeps the law becomes a true Jew inwardly, because he is fulfilling what
God wanted all along. The condition is to keep God's law. Paul's use of the term
"law" cannot mean the entire Sinaitic covenant, since circumcision itself was a
part of that covenant and therefore it would be logically impossible for an uncircumcised
person to keep the "whole" law. Paul must be referring to the moral law, the Ten
Commandments, in Romans 2:25-27.
Paul knew that some would conclude that, because he continually
stressed that salvation cannot be earned by law-keeping, the law was annulled or
worthless. "Do we then void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the
law" (Rom. 3:31). This is important because, if the law were done away or became
invalid, then sin would be dead (Rom. 7:8), no transgression would exist (Rom. 4:15), and
God could not impute sin to make the sacrifice of Christ meaningful. "The strength of
sin is the law" (I Cor. 15:56): the law is the standard of what sin and what
righteousness are. If that standard is removed, there is no need for Christ. So by
accepting Jesus, the true Christian is indeed establishing the law, by admitting its full
empowerment in condemning him (Rom. 6:23). As a result, the true Christian, with the help
of the Holy Spirit, can fulfill the righteousness of the law (Rom. 8:4) and with Paul
shall "delight in the law of God after the inward man" (Rom. 7:22).
The book of Galatians is often used as support in an attempt to do away
with God's law. This is not the issue dealt with in the epistle at all. The focal point of
Paul's letter to the Galatians does not deal with the abrogation of the law but rather
with the question of how one is justified. Justification means forgiveness for past
sinsbeing counted as just and pure through Jesus' blood. That is what Paul is
dealing with. In other words, there are two systems. One began with the covenant at Sinai.
The other is the system of faith in Christ. The one system, of relying on the fact that
you are circumcised, etc. for justification does not lead to eternal life. Paul shows that
this only condemnsbrings bondagebecause no provision exists for real
forgiveness and pardon for sin. So the system of the first covenant will not save anyone.
Some were denying that to the Galatian Church. They were looking to their physical
adherence to the way of life of the Sinaitic covenant, especially to circumcision, to earn
But the question was not whether Gentiles could covet, or kill, or
steal, or break the Sabbath. Rather, the question was whether a Gentile had to be
physically circumcised (Gal. 2:3-4). Paul categorically denied this. Galatians 2:14
portrays the problem further: the Jews were even practicing racial discrimination for
religious reasons. They felt superior to their Gentile brethren because they were
physically a part of the heritage of Israel. But Paul showed in Romans that this should
only have made them see their sins more, since they knew God's law so well. So the
question has to do with circumcision and the manner or customs that one follows. Why,
then, is Paul so upset over this? Because carried to their logical conclusion these
requirements would mean that Jesus' death was not necessary. If being a Jew could save a
man, if being physically circumcised could bring favor with God, then Christ died in vain.
It would mean that just having the law would be enough. But having the lawhaving the
whole system of the Sinaitic covenant--was not enough to attain eternal life; in fact, it
only pointed out sin more and more. To rely fully on the law, one would have to keep all
of it perfectly, which is impossible. So when Paul uses "law" in Galatians he
means all that is involved in being a Jewthe whole system of the Sinaitic covenant,
especially the ceremonies and rituals which were "added because of
transgressions" until Christ should come (Gal. 3:19) and he specifically
singles out circumcision as an issue.
Justification must be by faith (Gal. 3:11) and the law of the Sinaitic
covenant was given not to save us, but as a schoolmaster or "pedagogue," to
teach us the meaning of obedience, to bring us to Christ.
This, then, is the core of Galatians. Much of Paul's reasoning is the
same in Romans as in Galatians. But in Romans, Paul is dealing with moral lawsin and
gracewhereas in Galatians, the problem is circumcision and understanding the place
of the Sinaitic covenant, the whole system called "law." But the same
conclusions are arrived at by complementary arguments.
In Romans, Paul uses as an example the law of God concerning coveting
(Rom. 7:7ff). Why cannot that law save us? Because it only emphasizes the sin. If we rely
on works of the lawour keeping of this lawwe will fail. We are sinners and
have all coveted. The only solution is justification by faith.
But after justification we
must keep the law through God's Spirit. The law is holy, just and good; it is spiritual
In Galatians, Paul deals with the law of circumcision. We cannot be
saved by being circumcised, because if we go to that whole system of which
circumcision is a part for salvation we receive no grace or pardon, only condemnation. We
cannot, with our natural human strength, keep the law (i.e. the Ten Commandments; we can
keep circumcisionit is painful, but easy). So the only solution is again Jesus and
justification by faith. What about after justification? Are we then to follow circumcision
and the system of the Sinaitic covenant? No, that would be to deny Jesus and our need for
Once again, the reasoning in Romans and Galatians is basically the
same, but the issues are different. The first is universalthe question of sin and
morality. The second is the question of the historical place of the Sinai covenant in
God's plan. Remember that the Ten Commandments did not originate with the Sinaitic
covenant but with God at Creation and since. So they are not affected when the covenant is
changed. They are universal and tell us what sin is.
Ephesians 6:1-3 is a very significant statement concerning the position
of the Ten Commandments in the Gentile churches. Here the fifth one is cited. Notice the
comment in verse 2. It is "the first commandment with promise." Not
just that it was-it still is. And what does Paul mean by "the first"? He is
obviously referring to a set of commandmentsa group of them. And they still
apply. This simple statement by Paul gives us an important insight into the attitude of
the Gentile churches towards the Ten Commandments. He does not have to introduce them or
say that "Honor your father and mother" was once a commandment with
promisefor it is a commandment at this time.
If Gentile Christians were indeed taught to honor and
keep the Ten Commandments, why, then, does Paul make certain mitigating
comments about "law"?
The answer is rooted in the historical reality that Christianity at this time was viewed
as a Jewish sect in the general public opinion. And therefore, much of what has been
taken as a castigation of the Old Testament law in the New Testament is actually an
antidote to the idea that Gentiles had to become Jewish Proselytes before they could
become Christians. This idea probably gained credence simply because
Christians were taught and read their Old Testament, and various proselytizing Jewish
groups were spreading the message that Gentiles had to follow the whole system of
first-century Judaism in order to partake of the salvation offered by the God of Israel.
Certainly to Gentiles who had never heretofore been taught the Holy Scriptures, apostolic
Christianity and contemporary Judaism must have seemed extremely similar (much as
Methodism and Seventh-Day Adventism might seem similar to a Buddhist today). Paul
therefore had to take great pains to show how Christianity differed from Judaism. He
had to do this because the two religions clearly had so much in common.
Nearly everybody knew what Judaism and the Old Testament taught.
The Sabbath and annual Holy Days, for example, were commonly known. What Paul had to do
was not reemphasize the Old Testament laws already known, but rather teach the new
revelations about Jesus Christ and His spiritual magnification of the law that nobody knew.
No attempt was made by the New Testament writers to repeat everything
of relevance in the Old Testament. To have done so would have made the Old Testament
redundant It would also have been utterly ridiculous, since the Old Testament was commonly
presupposed to be inspired Scripture, the Word of God. It was the only Scripture then in
Converts from paganism were, of course, tempted to revert to the
religious culture from which they had come. They were influenced by various popular
religions, syncretistic cults and astrological clans. But the contrast between
Christianity and paganism was fairly clear. What was not so clear was the difference
between Judaism and Christianity. Thus, even though Paul has to fight the influences of
paganism and the contemporary culture, he seems to have found many problems from the Jewish
side as well. In some cases, this problem may have been instigated by some sort of Jewish
syncretistic group. (For example, a Jewish syncretistic astrological group may have been
behind the problem in Colossae. In other cases, it was probably the basic
Hellenistic Jewish mission to the Gentiles which upset the various churches.)
When this is understood, most of the presumed antinomian, anti-Jewish
and anti-Old Testament sentiment in Paul's writings evaporates. Despite some differences
of his specific mission to the Gentiles, Paul suddenly looks a great deal like James and
Peter and John in teaching what Jesus taught. Paul was no longer a Pharisee, but he
remained a faithful Jew as well as becoming a Christian.
The book of James has been a perennial problem for those who would have
the New Testament discard God's law. James calls the law of God "the royal law"
in 2:8. He quotes Leviticus 19:18: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,"
which is the epitome of the last six of the Ten Commandments (Rom. 13:9-10). James goes on
to show that if you break one point of the lawany one of the Ten
Commandmentsyou are guilty of all (James 2:10-11). God's law is at the same time the
"law of liberty" (2:12), since it frees man from the bondage of sin.
But it is the last half of the second chapter of James, verses 14 to
26, that gives antinomian Christians their biggest problem. James repeatedly emphasizes
that "faith without works is dead" (vv. 17, 20, 26), that the best way to show
real faith is by works (v. 18), that by works faith is made perfect (v. 22) and "that
by works a man is justified, and not by faith only" (v. 24). James 4:11-12 is a
proper conclusion to this theme, putting the question directly to any who would do away
with God's law: "if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a
In the epistles of John, the subject of keeping the commandments comes
up several times. 1 John 2:4 is direct: "He that saith, I know Him, and keepeth not
His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him." 1 John 3:4 is powerful in
its blunt assertion that "Whosoever committeth sin trangresseth also the law: for sin
is the transgression of the law." Likewise, John 15:10 (cf. 1 John. 3:22-24), where
Jesus tells His disciples before His death to keep His commandments as He had kept His
Certainly these commandments included all of Christ's commandments, but
the expression clearly includes the only set of commandments, the Ten Commandments.
Compare Matthew 19:16-19 in this context. Here Jesus tells a rich young man, "if thou
wilt enter into life, keep the commandments." The young man asks, "Which?"
And Jesus responds by enumerating five of the Ten Commandments.
The necessity to keep Gods commandments is reemphasized in the
book of Revelation. The Church"the rest of [the woman's]
offspring"is identified as keeping the commandments of God in 12:17. The saints
are defined as those "who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus"
in 14:12. And finally, those who shall be in the incomprehensibly awesome new heaven and
new earth of chapter 2l shall be only those who "do His commandments."
All the New Testament writers presuppose the Old Testament and often
quote or allude to it. It was decades after the founding of the Church before Holy
Scripture comprised more than the Old Testament. Furthermore, since Jesus Christ was the
very personality who had given His law to humanity in general and to Israel in
particular at Sinai (see Jesus Christ), He would scarcely have discardedand He did
not discardin the New Testament the very law He had established in the Old.
The Old Testament is an essential part of the biblical canon. It is as
much the Word of God as the New Testament. However, to New Testament Christians, the Old
Testament has a special status in that it is not to be taken alone: it must be read in the
light of the New Testament.
Law and Grace
Much of the misunderstanding regarding whether a Christian
must keep the biblical law (i.e. the Ten Commandments) revolves around the term
"grace." Those who do not think a Christian "must" obey the law
conclude that since we are under grace" (Rom. 6:15), we no longer "must"
keep the law. Those who follow this line of reasoning point to various
scripturesespecially those in the book of Galatians (some of which have already been
mentioned)to support their case. They maintain that Christ came to free us from
"the curse of the law," or that "Christ is the end of the law" (Rom.
7:4). But Jude describes this line of reasoning as "turning the grace of our God into
lasciviousness (lawlessness)" (Jude 4).
This approach also illustrates a basic lack of understanding of the
word "grace." "Grace," in its biblical meaning and intent, means
"the favor, forgiveness, beneficence, generosity, mercy, kindness and compassion of
God. " Therefore, to be "under grace" means to live within this whole
sphere of God's favor and compassion. The two greatest acts of grace are: 1)
forgiveness of past sins, which God grants upon true repentance, faith and baptism; and,
2) the unmerited freely-given gift of eternal life, which God grants upon the condition of
faith. Hence, to be "under grace" means that one's sins have been forgiven, that
he is in a favored position with God, and that he is an heir of salvation.
But the Bible nowhere equates "grace" with freedom to disobey
God. On the contrary, the exact opposite is stated: "Do we then make void the law
through faith? [i.e. do we negate the necessity of keeping the law because we are under
grace as a result of faith?] God forbid: yea, we establish the law" (Rom. 3:31). We,
as Christians, "establish the law" because when we accept God's grace through
baptism we are acknowledging the existence of law against which we have sinned.
The true relationship between law and grace may be simply stated. Law
defines sin because sin is the transgression of the law (1 John. 3:4). God's forgiveness of
our sins is an act of grace. But this act of gracethis act of unmerited pardon and
favor in Gods eyes, along with the eventual entrance into God's Kingdom which shall
follow if we are faithfulin no way grants us a license or permission to continue to
sin. In like manner, a convicted criminal who has been pardoned or has had his sentence
commuted by a judge is shown an act of grace, but is not permitted to go out and repeat
his crime. Again, far from doing away with the law, grace establishes the law, because one
who accepts grace acknowledges that the law has been broken. Without Law there can be
no grace therefore grace can never do away with law.
The purpose of the law is not to provide a means of earning
forgiveness and salvation. Salvation cannot be earned. It comes by God's free
giftsalvation is by grace alone (Rom. 3:21-24; 5:15-16). Faith in the sacrifice of
Jesus Christ is the only requirement for this gift of grace. Keeping the law even in the
most spiritual manner cannot and does not earn salvation. The central message of the New
Testament is that salvation is a gift of God through faith in Jesus Christ.
Yet this by no means negates the importance of law in the process of
salvation. While salvation is in the final analysis a free gift, God will not give that
gift to one who is not willing to submit to Him. Gifts are not given to the
unappreciative, and lack of appreciation is indicated in many ways, including a basic
contempt for God's laws or a lack of any enthusiasm in trying to see how God's laws
reflect His mind (1 John. 2:4). Note again the well-known case of the young rich man who
approached Jesus about the very subject of salvation in Matthew 19, as quoted above. When
Jesus replied, "If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments" (v. 17), He
was not describing the method of salvation, but rather the prerequisite for His free gift.
The Jews in the time of the New Testament understood the importance of
the law and the many promises about blessings for observing it. The problem was
that many went on to assume that salvation came by observing it. When Paul and other
writers showed them that this assumption was incorrect, it became a major stumbling block.
Even after the Church had been in existence for almost 20 years, it was still necessary to
call a conference over the question of circumcision, since some still believed salvation
was impossible without it (Acts 15). Paul had a deep and abiding appreciation for the law
(Rom. 6; 7:12; 1 Cor. 7:19), yet he also understood that salvation was not earned by lawkeeping.
The New Testament makes it clear that sin brings on the death penalty
(Rom. 6:23). And "sin is the transgression of the law" (1 John. 3:4). Since all
have sinned and thus failed to keep the law perfectly (Rom. 3:23), all have brought the
death penalty upon themselves. Only the giving up of human life will satisfy this penalty.
Thus, the sacrifice of the Creatorof God Himself, in the person of Jesus
Christis the only means by which that penalty can be paid and thereby removed from
all humanity. No one (apart from Jesus) has kept the law perfectly; all have incurred the
death penalty. This made the death of sinless Jesus, the Son of God, a necessity.
Recognition of Christ's freely given sacrifice not only brings home the sober reality of
sin but also enables us to see what true love is at first hand (John. 3:16).
The enormous importance of the law of God and man's living within it
can be measured by considering this immeasurable price that God has put on the conditions
for the forgiveness of sinsrepentance and recognition and acceptance of Jesus
Christ's death as payment for our transgressions of His laws. This certainly reflects
God's love towards mankind, and can begin to motivate man to express his love back to God
by wanting to live within God's laws.
God expects Christians to repent of sin (Acts 2:38). But
repentance alone does not remove the death penalty. Once one turns from his sinful way of
life in wholehearted repentance, God accepts his repentance and Christ offers His own
sacrifice on the cross as payment for the death penalty previously incurred by that
repentant sinner. The Holy Spirit is promised to the repentant individual as a free gift
which makes possible salvation and eternal life. Even one who is converted will still sin
out of weakness. However, he can call on the sacrifice of Christ and gain forgiveness. It
is the direction of his life that God is concerned with; God does not keep a tally, as it
were, ready to send the individual straight to eternal death if he dies with a single sin
he not repented of on his record. Far from being some sort of "Almighty
Bookkeeper," God wants to see His children receive salvation. He is very happy
to forgive His begotten children who continually find themselves in trouble, so long as
their hearts and attitudes are rightso long as they are wholeheartedly sincere and
making progress despite weaknesses and setbacks.
Thus, the fight against sin is a very important component
of the plan of salvation. Sin is horrible and heinous. Yet one can become so
preoccupied with sin as to miss the point of the law in the first place. He can be so concerned about making a
mistake that he never steps out and does good. Some, people so concentrate on their
"sinful wretchedness" that they never climb out of the mire and exercise their
positive spiritual talents as they should. Sin is important, but recognition of our sinful
natures should not discourage or cow us to the point of not making positive progress
New Testament Application of Old Testament Laws
Both the Old and New Testaments form the written Word of
God. The Old Testament is no less the Word of God than is the New. It would completely
miss the point of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments to require
everything from the former to be repeated in the latter in order to be considered as
relevant for Christians behavior. (Bestiality can be used as an extreme and ludicrous
example to make the point.) Conversely, it would be equally illogical to attempt to
enforce in the secular states of the twentieth century every exact regulation given to the
theocracy of Israel over 3,000 years ago.
Christians read the Old Testament in the light of the New, and the New
Testament does make some changes. The teachings of the Old Testament may also be
understood in the light of the changed circumstances of the Church in the modern world.
The Hebrew Bible was written initially to a congregation or church organized as a special
nation in the culture and society of the ancient Near East. By the time of the first
century, circumstances had changed to some extent. Furthermore, the full revelation of
God's plan with the concept of a spiritual Israel required the modification of certain Old
Testament teachings in their implementation within a physical nation. This modification
process continues today.
The Church, as ordained of God and authorized by Jesus Christ, has
the power of binding and loosingof making judgments on the basis of biblical
principles (Matthew 16:18-19). New situations arise not directly addressed in the pages of
the Bible. The modern world is not the ancient world. Without the flexibility of making
judgments and applying earlier laws to fit newer situations, the Church would become
anachronistic and ineffectual. It may be necessary to look at the environment in which the
Old Testament laws were giventhe society, culture, national situation, contemporary
legal attitudes, literary influences and so forthin order to understand the reason
why a law was initially given to Israel. But to understand the intent behind the law, we
must examine the lives and teachings of Jesus, the apostles and the prophets. Once the purpose
and intent of each law is discerned, its application to 20st century life becomes much
more clear and obvious. (It is interesting and instructive to realize that though the
principles underlying God's laws are immutable and unchangeable, the specific applications
of the laws have changed in every period of biblical history.)
The following sections examine certain laws of the Old Testament and
show how the Church has applied these today. It has not been possible to cover all the
individual laws by any means, but the general principles used should be basically clear.
Of course, some of these laws have been clearly modified in the New Testament. In other
cases, the New Testament is silent on the subject, and the Church has made decisions based
on the Old Testament alone. (Note that Sabbath, Annual Holy Days and Tithing and Giving
are covered under those titles.)
Circumcision: One of the laws regarding which the Old
Testament is very clear is that of circumcision. Circumcision was instituted as a sign of
the covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17). It was a sign of the covenant with God and of the
Israelites national identity. It made the newborn boy a part of the community. It
was, in a sense, an initiation rite since any male of whatever age was required to undergo
it to become a part of Israel. Therefore, it is not surprising that circumcision became an
important issue in the early Church (Acts 10-11; 15).
Christians do not consider physical circumcision as a requirement
for entry into the spiritual community of Israel, the Church. The reason is that the New
Testament makes it clear that the only circumcision that is required is spiritual
circumcision of the heart and mind. The question had already been debated and settled in
the early Church (Acts 10-11; 15; Gal. 5:2-12). While one could voluntarily undergo
circumcision, it was not a requirement for membership in the body of Christ. To reiterate,
the only required circumcision is spiritual circumcisioncircumcision of the heart
Nevertheless, this does not mean that the Church rejected all physical
rituals. Baptism was taught as a physical ceremony. The symbolism of baptism is that of
death followed by resurrection to a new life. It is a voluntary act requiring active,
conscious repentance on the part of the mature individual, whereas circumcision is an
involuntary act carried out on the unknowing babe in arms.
The Sacrificial System and Temple Ritual: The New
Testament has a clear teaching about the temple ritual, just as it does about
circumcision. As long as the temple was standing, it was certainly not deprecated. On
occasion Christians actually offered up sacrifices (Acts 18:18; 21:23-26). However, the
death of Christ was the supreme sacrifice, of which animal sacrifices were only a type
(Heb. 10:1-18). The Old Testament system was rendered unnecessary by Christ's sacrifice.
Christians look to this rather than merely to the "shadow" which represented it.
Furthermore, Christians offer up, not only their possessions (livestock and grain stuffs),
but their very selves to God by presenting themselves as living sacrifices (Rom.
Many of the laws in the Old Testament were specifically designed for a
physical people who did not have the help of God's Holy Spirit and who lived in a national
state. The whole sacrificial system was an extremely regulated and detailed physical
ritual. It required a great many on a continual basis to keep it going. With many
sacrifices, the person offering the animal was actually able to eat most of it along with
his family. Only certain parts were burned on the altar and certain pieces went to the
priest. But sin offerings were burned whole and neither the offerer nor the priest
realized anything from them. It effectively hurt one's pocketbook to sin!
The principle of sacrifice has certainly not been eliminated for New
Testament Christians. However, the sin offering we look to is not an animal offered at the
temple altar: it is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. His death rendered the physical
sacrificial system unnecessary for converted Christians. This system had pointed to
Christ. Christians can now view the sacrificial system with greater understanding than
could the ancient Israelites who participated in it (Heb. 9-10).
This does not mean that the temple worship was wrong or even bad. The
book of Acts shows that the apostle Paul himself participated in the sacrificial system on
at least two occasions. He took certain vows which could be completed only by offering an
offering in the temple (Acts 18:18; 21:20-26 and cf. Num. 6:18). It was not wrong for
Israelite Christians to continue to participate in the sacrificial system; it was simply
unnecessary. Of course, once the temple and Jerusalem were destroyed, it became impossible
for them just as for all Jews.
Clean and Unclean Animals: Many regulations in Leviticus
have to do with being "clean" (Hebrew tahor) or "unclean"
(Hebrew tame). These regulations had two functions: (1) They usually required washing
which served as a physical cleansing agent and helped prevent the contraction or spread of
disease; (2) they served a ritual purpose in that anyone "unclean" could not
participate in the sacrificial service. Ritual purity was a major emphasis in conducting
any of the temple activities. Included in this regulation was the prohibition against
eating all but certain types of animals (Lev. 11: Deut. 14) and such things as the blood
and the bodily fat of these animals.
Nowhere in all these regulations is anything stated specifically about
physical health. Yet physical health seems clearly to be one aspect of these regulations.
The continual requirement of washing after touching dead bodies or engaging in certain
activities has the concept of hygiene behind it. Modem science has also discovered the
dangers of consuming animal fats (they are high in cholesterol among other things). Public
health doctors are also acutely aware of the importance of quarantine in avoiding the
spread of disease, another requirement for various types of disease in ancient Israel
(e.g. Lev. 13).
Modern science has also found that certain of the biblically proscribed
animals present potential health hazards. For example, the danger of contracting
trichinosis from pork is one known by almost every housewife. Such scavengers as crabs are
also among the most affected by conditions of pollution since they tend to feed in
contaminated areas and thus concentrate the dangerous substances in their bodies. Granted,
these are only potential hazards. However, there is always the question of whether there
may be other, as yet unknown, dangers to be discovered by science in the
futuredangers known and forestalled by the Creator of all.
True Christians, however, obey these Old Testament directions because
God says to do so. God stated that certain foods should be avoided by man, and He,
as Creator of both man and animals, knows best. The laws of clean and unclean meats
clearly transcend any ritualistic system given to Moses and Israel, since Noah obviously
had known about clean and unclean animals generations before (Gen. 7:2; 9:4). It is
recognized that total avoidance of these and other potential hazards in our environment is
well nigh impossible. They are physical matters to be kept in balance and perspective. The
Church does not have a rigid, ultraorthodox-type ruling which forbids eating out in
restaurants or buying packaged foods. One simply exercises a reasonable amount of care,
yet does not make a fetish of the regulations. Though the Church continues to abide by the
prohibitions against blood, animal fat and certain animal foods, these laws are not
considered to be of overriding spiritual importance since food does not constitute the
Kingdom of God (Rom. 14:17). (The Church does not see any direct biblical support for the orthodox
Jewish of not eating meat and milk together and thus does not have any such
regulations, even though some of its food practices may otherwise resemble those of
The year of Release and the Jubilee: According to
Leviticus 25, every seventh year was to be set aside to allow the land to rest (no crops
were to be planted and the permanent orchards and vineyards were to be left unattended)
and for the releasing of all debts and of all fellow countrymen kept as slaves. Every
fiftieth year was also to serve as such a year (thus making two in a row) but additionally
as a time when land should revert to its original owner. The seventh year and jubilee were
major events in the society of ancient Israel and required the cooperation of the entire
community to be effectual.
Today's society is not geared to such an institution. (Even the jubilee
was evidently never observed after the return of the Jews from Babylon.) Farmers may not
always own their own land. Those who do are often not in a financial position to allow
their entire land to rest for a full year; their creditors would not allow them to do
that. Debts are considered owed until paid, regardless of the year. (In fact, as discussed
in the next section under "Monetary Interest," to release debts incurred
voluntarily rather than from necessity was not part of the original intent of the law.)
Fortunately, slavery is no longer practiced either, in most areas of the world, rendering
that aspect of the law inapplicable.
It is recognized that allowing one's land to lie fallow every so many
years is a good agricultural procedure. Thus, the seventh year land rest teaches a
principle from which farmers can indeed learn. Yet the same result can be accomplished by
letting a portion of the land lie fallow each year rather than the whole land every
seventh year. The Church recognizes the agricultural and other principles in the laws
about the year of release and the jubilee. But, because of our differently constituted
modem societies, the Church teaches that each person should observe them as best he or she
is able according to his or her circumstances and according to the spirit of the law.
Farmers are not required to let all their land lie fallow each seventh year, nor should
they feel a moral obligation to do so. The important thing is that they respect their
heritagethe land and its environmentand do their best to protect it according
to the ability and the means God has given them. In this way, the intent of the Old
Testament laws (Lev. 25; Deut 15:1-8) is achieved even though the exact means of
application may not be the same as in ancient Israel.
Monetary Interest: A number of passages
forbade charging interest on loans to the poor (Ex. 22:25-27; Deut.
23:19-20). The Church considers that this principle still applies today:
one should not lend money at interest to anyone in genuine need. Yet
most contractual loans today are not for the purpose of assistance to
those in absolute need but instead are a means of obtaining capital
for an immediate project (rather than saving up the capital over
a period of time). In other words, a person has an amount sufficient to
maintain his life and well-being but wants an additional investment or
luxury. He could save his money over a long period of time to obtain the
particular item. Or he could be enjoying it now while turning the
savings payment into repayment for a loan. It is perfectly legitimate to
consider interest in such a case as simply payment for services
rendered. Likewise, for corporations and institutions to be able to
borrow money from banks is essential for economic growth.
Our modern society runs on credit. To require members of the Church to
avoid all borrowing or lending at interest would be asking them to live outside society.
The original intent of the law was simply to avoid adding an additional burden on the poor
man who had to borrow because of his financial straits in the first place. Only in such
cases of dire emergency does the Church consider it wrong to charge interest.
Summary: Many other examples could be given, but the
major ones, listed above should be sufficient to illustrate how the Church applies the Old
Testament laws. It considers the Hebrew Bible very much a part of God's Word. It is not
considered secondary to the New Testament nor in any way inferior to it. Yet it is
superseded in the sense that the New Testament has made some specific changes to deal with
spiritual Israel, which nation has replaced the physical nation of ancient Israel.
In a number of cases on which the New Testament throws little direct
light, the Church has had to make decisions on the basis of the Old Testament. Time may
yet show the need for modification or change of some of these decisions. Nevertheless, the
Church of God is exercising the power and authority given to it by God. If such decisions
could not be made, each person would drift into doing what seemed right in his or her own
eyes and confusion would quickly result. Therefore, the Church assumes its God-ordained
prerogatives to step in and make decisions where it deems them necessary and helpful,
always remaining aware that each individual has to serve God according to the best of his
own knowledge and conscience. The purpose of giving regulations is to achieve unity of
thought and practice in major areas without trying to take away from the direct, personal
relationship each person should have with God.
By making decisions, the Church is attempting to stay true to, and
consistent with, the Bible. In some cases, to attempt to apply the exact Old Testament
practice today would actually violate the intent of the law rather than observe it.
Changes have to be made as society and culture both change. Sometimes the Bible is not
perfectly understood and mistakes are made. But this is inevitable as long as the Church
is made up of human beings and as long as God continues to work through human instruments.
The important thing is that there always be the proper respect for the Bible, and the
desire to understand God's mind and to fulfill His wishes. This requires a continual
searching for the mind of God and a continual making of decisions to keep the Church in
line with that mind. Since the Old Testament also represents the mind of God, it cannot be
neglected in this process. Progressive revelation of God's will cannot be logically
inconsistent with previous revelation.
Conclusion: Law in the Life of a Christian
The law is very important in the life of a Christian. Of
course, he knows that he cannot earn salvation by it. He knows it is not an end in itself
but only the road by which he draws closer and closer to the mind of God and hence to God
Himself. The law leads him to godly love. No written law can fully or completely express
the depths of love. The "letter of the law" is always an inadequate means of
expressing what love is. This is why Christians must keep the law in the spirit. Keeping
the letter of the law alone may not be a complete expression of love; it is only when one
looks behind the letter to the spirit, the true understanding that he can see how to
correctly apply the letter to show godly love.
For example, a Christian recognizes that killing another individual is
hardly likely to be showing love for him. But just keeping the literal letter of the law
which says, "Thou shalt not kill," is still not sufficient. One must also not
hate the other individual, and go yet further and demonstrate a positive outgoing concern
for that individual. Yet true concern for another person's welfare does not usually come
naturally (cf. Rom. 8:7), it has to be learned. It is a concept which must be captured and
internalized. No amount of explanation can force a person to capture the true spirit of
love; no amount of legal wording in a decree can bypass human nature. One can only grasp
the concept when guided by the Holy Spirit.
The law of God, properly understood in its spiritual intent, enables
one to express both love toward God and love toward one's fellow human beings. It defines
the relationship with God which shall encourage and stimulate one's spiritual growth.
Furthermore, the law of God defines relationships between human beings that foster the
development of genuine concern for one's neighbor. In so doing, the law of God also
defines the spiritual parameters which, if observed, would maximize the genuine welfare of
both individuals within a society and of society as a whole.
The law of God, properly conceived of in its spiritual intent, in no
way restricts the flow of godly love. On the contrary, the law instructs man how to love.
The law is inherently a law of love.
On the other hand, it is the love of God that enables a Christian to
fulfill the law (Rom. 13:10). It is through godly love that the full meaning and intent of
the law is expressed. Hence, God's love and God's law mutually envelop one another in a
symbiotic relationship, with the one supporting the other.
The eternal and holy law of God kept in its spiritual intent provides
the essential instructional framework that a Christian needs for his godly life. As one
grows in understanding and in personal application of God's law, he nurtures within
himself the qualities of holiness, justice and goodness (Rom. 7:12).
A Christian will make mistakes. If he is wholehearted and desirous of
doing all he can to serve God, he may end up making more mistakessinning
morethan the one who concentrates on his inward state and holds back from positive
action for fear of error. God is concerned about the mind and attitude. He does not need
us, and in that sense, our service to God is really no service, since He could do it all
much better without us. But our service is a means of building character and proving our
devotion to God. It is that devotion and that love towards Him that He most wants for our
ultimate good. Mistakes can be corrected and sins can be forgiven, but character is
either present or lacking. Therefore, the Christian learns to put his life in perspective.
There are sins which weigh one down and continually dog ones
steps so that little can be accomplished. These sins must be overcome. But there are also
the inevitable sins which occur as a consequence of the frailties of our human nature.
These are also important, but one should not allow them to so dominate his thoughts that
he turns away from life. There is more to a Christian life than just avoiding trouble.
The one who has been forgiven much is also the one who is grateful for
much. He may not be as likely to take God's mercy for granted as the one who thinks that
he has never really sinned all that much. The one who has been close to death appreciates
life more than the one who has always had health and safety. Self-righteousness is perhaps
the worst spiritual malady, and it tends to be bred in an environment of constant
attention to outward forms of righteousness.
The true Christian knows that the law is good, not solely because
biblical writers say it is, but because he has experienced its blessings in his own life.
This does not mean that conforming to this spiritual guide is necessarily easy. On the
contrary, it can be very difficult, even with the help of the Holy Spirit. Yet the end
result is worth the toil, because God's law produces spiritual character and the natural
blessings which result from expressing godly love.
Neither is it always easy to know what to do in any given situation.
Comprehension of Gods law is something which requires effort, study, time and
practice. However, when the law is understood, the reasons for it become obvious and the
beneficial results that accrue from following it stand out. Ultimately, the law can be
understood, as well as followed, only by the aid of the Holy Spirit. Those who have made
the effort to understand and to obey can testify that it makes perfect sense. The
Christian grows, develops and builds character as he contemplates the law, meditates on it
and sees its purpose and judgment.
A Christian realizes his need to live by faith. Faith is directed
toward the future. It aims at a promise which has only been fulfilled in part by the gift
of the Holy Spirit. Yet faith is not just a passive state or a vague form of wishful
thinking. Faith implies action; faith requires works (James 2:14-26). Works can never earn
salvation but works are necessary for the Christian life. A person who is following God
will produce good worksfulfillment of the lawas a natural consequence of his
conversion and his possession of the Holy Spirit. These works are not an end in
themselves. The ultimate goal is the Kingdom and family of God. But even though keeping
the law does not produce the Kingdom, one shall never reach God's Kingdom without them.
For one who does not have good works also does not have the Holy Spirit, the sine que
non of salvation. Lovefulfilling the lawis the natural product of the Holy
Ultimately, the goal of the Christian is to attain the mind of God.
When that perfection comes, at the resurrection, there shall be no further need for
guidelines. Perfect love shall have become internalized, fully expressible without
external law, with the result that the need for law codes shall be no more. But love
cannot be comprehended without the law. It requires an understanding of love to truly
appreciate the law. But one cannot come to that understanding unless he first starts to
obey the law. That is the beginning, and love is its end.
To the Christian, God's law is the way to happiness, peace of mind and,
ultimately, salvation. To follow God's law is the way one can become more like God,
indeed, he can practice being God, so that God can give him eternal spiritual life in His
True freedom comes only under perfect law. Human government recognizes
that freedom does not encroach upon the freedom of his fellow citizens. There are limits
to freedom in order for freedom to exist; the greatest enslaver is anarchy. Perfect
freedom comes from the perfect law of God, which is the law of love. When perfect love is
expressed, perfect freedom exists. The law, therefore, is a summary of what constitutes
love and how it is best expressed.
James was inspired to call God's law "the perfect law of
liberty" and the "royal law" (James 1:25; 2:8). It is indeed a perfect and
royal law, because it was given by a perfect and royal Kingour Savior, Jesus Christ.
This publication is intended to be
used as a personal study tool. Please know it is not wise to take any man's word
for anything, so prove all things for yourself from the pages of your own Bible.
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