The law

I wanted to take a look at one of the major topics in the Bible, namely the law.  A good place to begin is to ask to what extent is ‘the law’ still in effect?  But before we can answer that question, it is perhaps helpful to consider what is meant by the law, which can be looked at in many different ways and contexts.  For example, from a Biblical perspective the law might be the mosaic law (the Law of Moses), the Ten Commandments, the first 5 books of the Bible (the Torah, or the Pentateuch), or the entire Old Testament.

During a service of Holy Communion, we often hear the following words:

Our Lord Jesus Christ said:

The first commandment is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is the only Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’

The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

There is no other commandment greater than these. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Have you ever realised that if we truly uphold these 2 commandments, then quite naturally we will not break any of the others?  The astonishing thing is that “we love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19).  God sets a standard and then gives us the means to attain that standard, and the means is through our Lord, Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  We do this in grace.  Jesus opens our eyes to what God’s law was intended to do.

How many of us can identify with the statement “I knew what the right thing to do was, but I just couldn’t do it?”  Paul recognised that conflict and struggle all too well and speaks of it very personally in our first reading from Romans 7:  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15b) In that chapter, Paul makes the case that because of how God’s people had tried to uphold the law, rather than it having a positive and transformative effect on people’s lives, it left people in condemnation and instead had a tendency of provoking rebellion in people’s hearts, stimulating sin and bringing death (Romans 7:5).  Through the way it was implemented, the burden of the law was quite simply too much. Paul recognised the enormous weight of this, the huge tension with his sinful nature, the inadequacy of the mosaic law alone, and how easy it is for us to become captive to the ‘law of sin’ at work within us.  A contemporary example of this would be how some people have rebelled against recent lockdown restrictions in our communities – the way in which lockdown restrictions have been communicated and imposed have provoked rebellion in some people’s hearts even if the purpose of the law was to protect them and the people around them.

To be clear though, the law is not at fault – we know that God’s law is good and holy (Romans 7:12), but it is in itself powerless to change the human heart. Furthermore, we often choose to interpret the law in our own way, apply it incorrectly and fail to live it. We can so easily approach the law with a legalistic ‘tickbox mentality’ where we believe that because we have ticked off the boxes of following the law, we must be good and righteous – but actually in our heart we can still not be right with God (so we follow the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law). Instead, if we follow Jesus and live in grace, which involves a heart-change and serving him in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are released from the law since we have died to the law through the body of Christ (Romans 7:4).

In Galatians, we read: “Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was put in charge of us until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.” (Galatians 3:23-25)  That does not mean that the law is irrelevant.  Neither does that abdicate us from any responsibility.  Being free from the law does not present us with a blank cheque book to sin.  That’s why in Matthew’s Gospel we are told that said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20)  Jesus did not come to abolish the law and the prophets; he came to fulfil them or take them to completion.  He came to open our eyes to the spirit of the law and what its purpose was (more of that later). He came to demonstrate the enormity of God’s love and grace so that we may stand free of condemnation.  This is set out really clearly in Romans 8:1-4: 

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Unless we know the righteousness of God, how can we submit to it?  We can so easily try (and fail) to establish our own righteousness independently of God, “Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:3-4)  Christ is the culmination of the law, and for a reason – that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.  Our righteousness can only be found in Christ. 

So what is the purpose of the law?  The law:

  • Serves as a spotlight to the sin within us;
  • Illustrates our need for and dependency on God;
  • Reveals the power of the extraordinary grace of God (all have fallen short);
  • Is the means of diagnosis and not the actual treatment;
  • Can help to restrain or limit evil and sin;
  • Must be fulfilled in and through Christ because in itself, it cannot overcome human sin. ‘Fulfilled’ has that sense of taking it to completion or making it perfect;
  • Is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. (Hebrews 10:1);
  • Can easily become distorted, misinterpreted and misapplied (i.e. overly legalistic where people seek to follow the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law)

My dear friends, we follow Jesus because of love and through his grace. When we really love someone, it is not burdensome.  So I pray that the eyes of your hearts might be enlightened so that you might recognise the fullness of God’s love, God’s grace and God’s mercy that triumphs over judgement.  I pray that in Christ you might be set free from condemnation, hear God’s invitation to you and the words of Jesus: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

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