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022  The Law of God

The Law of God has received a bad name from Protestant teachers. I aim to change that, but this will take longer than my usual RfMemo. Sorry.

In my wanderings around Christendom, I've encountered lots and lots of Protestant believers who are literally afraid of doing good things for people for fear of falling into "works righteousness." I've encountered decent believers who could not bring themselves to accept Catholics or Greek Orthodox Christians as their fellow-Christians because they believe in "works righteousness." Only lately, I watched while millions of Evangelicals, including well-known leaders, rejected any notion that God cared about godly behavior in leaders that Christians support. These all err badly.

My last RfMemo hammered home the idea that God cares about righteousness. Today, I want to straighten out some misconceptions about what Jesus said about Law.

In Matthew 5, it looks like Jesus says clearly, with a bold face, "I do not intend to abolish the Law." Since Paul, the Apostle, spent about 1/4 of his writing telling us that we are free from the Law, people think that Jesus must have been talking about something Jewish that only belonged to the age that ended when He was resurrected. Of course, this pretty much negates what He said, since they're saying something has passed away which Jesus said would never pass away.

So, let me help you understand what Jesus was actually talking about. Let's start with some definitions:

(1) The books of Moses:

Sometimes just referred to as "Moses" in the New Testament (see Luke 24:27), this refers specifically to the first five books of the Old Testament, which Jews also call "Torah": Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Jews call these "the five books of Moses," and Jewish tradition says that Moses wrote them in the wilderness. These form the core of what the Jews call "the Law."

(2) Paul's Law:

Paul used the word "law" to mean a lot of different things, but the bulk of his writing about "Law" was about the whole Jewish religious code of conduct. This includes but is not limited to the laws found in the books of Moses. Jewish law was explained, extended, amplified, enhanced, and commented upon by Rabbis starting back in the years when Israel was living as captives in Babylon and continuing through Jesus' time, through the fall of Rome, and right up through the Middle Ages. The collected writings of the Rabbis about the Law are called "Talmud" by Jews, and are held to be part of the Law. The Pharisees mentioned in the New Testament were the Jews who obeyed that developing legal system.

Most of the Talmud had not been written during Paul's lifetime, but some had, and it was already part of the Law. Jesus said a lot of things about the Jewish legal system, most of it negative (see examples in Matthew 19:8-9 and Matthew 23, the whole chapter). Jesus believed what was written in the scriptures, but had strong arguments against some of what Jewish legal analysis had done with it.

Note that Jews do not count as "Law" the rest of the Old Testament--Psalms, Proverbs, stories about Ruth and Esther, various prophecies, etc.

(3) The Law and the Prophets: 

You'll see many references in the New Testament to "the Law and the prophets" or some variant thereof: "Moses and the prophets," "The Law of Moses and the prophets," and "the Law, the prophets, and the Psalms" are examples of other phrases you'll find in the New Testament that mean the same thing.

All of these are shorthand ways that Jews spoke about their canon of scripture. When you see "the Law and the prophets," you should think "Old Testament."

The books in Jewish versions of the Old Testament are not organized in the same order that Christians organize them. In the Jewish versions of the OT, even in Jesus' day, there would have been three subcategories in the canon: Torah (meaning "law"), Nevi'im ("prophets"), and Ketuvim ("writings.") "Prophets" includes not only the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and most of the minor prophets, but also the books of Samuel and Kings, which Jewish tradition claims were written by the prophet Jeremiah. "Writings" is their way of saying "other stuff," and includes things like Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the stories of Job and Esther.

So, "the Law and the prophets" was shorthand for the collected writings that they considered scripture. Notice that this is not synonymous with "the Law" because the Law included the commentaries by the Rabbis ("Talmud") and some oral traditions, but excluded the prophecies and other canonized writings like Job, Ruth, and Psalms. There's overlap, but "the Law" and "the Law and the prophets" are not the same thing.

And now, we're ready for:

(4) The Law of God.

This is what Matthew chapter 5 is all about. There is eternal truth that emanates from God's character. It defines righteousness. It is the standard by which all human beings--even Protestant believers who are "born again"--will be judged at the end of all things (see II Corin 5:10, Romans 2:5-6, 16 if you doubt me).

Here is what Jesus actually said:

"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." Matthew 5:17-20

Notice that what Jesus will not abolish is "the Law or the Prophets." He was talking about the truths revealed in scripture, not about the Jewish religious system.

The place where Jesus mentions the Jewish religious system is not verse 17, but verse 20: "...unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees...." The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was the practice of the Jewish religious system. Jesus was saying "That is not good enough to get you into the Kingdom of Heaven." What follows in Matthew 5 is several instances where the teaching of the Jewish religious system fell far short of what God taught in the scriptures: "You've heard it said, 'Don't murder.' What God actually wants is for you to stop holding your brothers in contempt." "You've been taught, 'Don't commit adultery.' What God really wants is for you to stop treating women like your playthings." "You've been taught, 'Fulfill your vows,' but God wants you to mean everything you say." And so on.

What Jesus was saying is that God's character fills the universe, and it will never change. The Sermon on the Mount was Jesus' description of what life is supposed to be like when we're living in the presence of God--and how we're supposed to behave when we're together in the Church. 

Have heaven and earth passed away yet? No? Then what Jesus was saying here has not passed away, either. Nor will it until there is a new heaven and a new earth.

Now you can take this and go read Paul again, and you'll understand better what he was talking about. Paul says the same as Jesus: the Jews "...have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge" (Romans 10:2). But "the requirement of the Law is fulfilled in us, who walk... according to the Spirit" (Romans 8:4). The Holy Spirit was given in order to enable us to live as God intended all along for human beings to live--conforming to His character, just as He has always taught, even in the Old Testament scriptures.

Are we under the Law? No; we're supposed to be behaving better than that, by the power we receive from the Holy Spirit.

Go live according to the true Law of God (by His power, through your faith) and we'll talk again in a few weeks.

Phil Weingart

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