The Law and its relationship to the Christian is a profound subject with profound implications, and I do not want to even imply that I will be able to deal with it thoroughly in a single post. An entire book could be written on the subject, and, indeed, volumes of books have already been produced espousing a number of different views on the Law and the Christian’s relationship to it, the sheer number attesting to the depth and complexity of the subject. Nevertheless, this should not hinder any of us from dealing with the matter, for, regardless of our views, the view that we hold with conviction will have necessary implications on how we walk out the Christian faith. And yet we cannot merely hold a particular view with conviction, but that conviction must rest on the Word of God so that our conviction might line up with what God has actually decreed.
What is the Law?
When we speak about the Law of God we are really speaking about something more than mere commands and statutes. The laws that we have in Scripture (particularly those in the Pentateuch, i.e. the first five books of the Bible) are not composed the same way that typical codes of law are. For example, if we were to examine the laws that govern any given city, we would not find nor expect to find them to begin with a narrative or poetry, or to have different codes separated by narrative, poetry, or both. Yet this is precisely what we find in the Law, which implies that it does not merely exist to be a legal code for a people (though it is that) but that it is a literary work composed by an author who had a clear literary strategy in writing it.
Traditionally, the Law (as we call it) is known by the Hebrews as the Torah, or literally, Instruction. By its name, we can see that the design of the Torah is not merely to set laws into place to govern a people, but it exists to instruct and teach the individuals that comprise that people. In fact, I will argue that the Law as we have it in Scripture’s chief purpose was not to set forth regulation (as the title Law suggests), but it was to lead a people to God’s salvation through faith in him that is woven throughout the entirety of the work. It is also for this reason that Jesus said that Moses taught of him (cf. John 5:46), and why Paul told Timothy that the Scriptures (i.e. the Old Testament) were able to make him wise unto salvation (cf. 2Tim. 3:15).
The point that the Torah exists for reasons other than regulation is quite apparent by its composition. The first one and half books of it (viz. Genesis into Exodus) are not comprised of codes of law, but are comprised mostly of narratives illustrating the beginnings of things, like the cosmos (c.f Gen. 1, 2), the Jews (cf. Gen. 12), and Israel under the Law (cf. Ex. 19). This realization is so striking and obvious that many Jewish scholars have argued that the Torah should not have begun in Genesis 1 with the Creation account, but that it should have begun in the middle of Exodus with the giving of the first laws.
Since therefore, we, unlike those scholars, believe that the Torah that we possess today and the Torah that Jesus esteemed is inspired of God and is profitable for our instruction as it is, then what are we to make of its composition? How are we to understand the Law in the light of the Jesus who fulfilled it? And in what way did he fulfill it? And why is it, if the Law is indeed the Law of God, are some (or all) of its commands liable to abrogation? And if some parts are abrogated and some are not, how do we distinguish one from the other? I hope to answer these questions and more to some satisfactory degree in what follows.
Themes and Such
If we were to take a broad view of the Pentateuch and identify the themes that unify it, two of the most prevalent themes are disobedience and divine retribution (or the converse, faithful obedience and blessing) and the expectation of the Kingdom.
1. Disobedience and Retribution, Faithfulness and Blessing
From the outset of the Pentateuch, we encounter a God who is faithful to his people. In Genesis, even the creation order attests to that. Mankind is the last of the created beings, and he is last because God wanted to assure that the world he created would be perfectly fit for his most-cherished of creations. God endows man with his image, and lovingly gives him a mate who is “bone of his bones, and flesh of his flesh” (Gen. 2:23) for his companionship and enjoyment. Yet despite the benevolence of the Creator, the creature, man, decides to place his faith in a created being rather than in the God who created him, and thereby disobeys the single command that his Creator gave to him. The consequence of his disobedience is his death (i.e. his spiritual death and separation from God) and his displacement from the Garden—the beauty and delight of which one can only dream. Despite his disobedience and punishment, God is still faithful to man, and puts the first living creature to death to cover his and his wife’s nakedness. Furthermore, God gives them the promise of a Seed who will crush and utterly defeat the Serpent who stole away their faith.
This scene sets the tone for whole Pentateuch–the call for faith in the benevolent God and man’s response of faithfulness or faithlessness toward him. In a short period of time, we see how this theme plays out. Cain slays Abel out of jealousy; Lamech kills a man after his murderous predecessor; and eventually the whole world falls in faithlessness toward God, leading God to lament, “I wish I had never created man” (cf. Gen. 6:6).
Yet among the throng of evil is a single man who believes God and obeys him. That man is Noah, and through him the human race is spared. Littered throughout the seeming constant barrage of faithlessness is the occasional faithful man who not only receives God’s gifts but returns those gifts into worship of and faithful obedience to him. Thus we have Abraham from Ur of the Chaldeans, Joseph of the sons of Jacob, Moses from among his Hebrew brothers–all of whom are sparks of righteousness in the midst of a dark world.
Yet among these figures, two stand out: Abraham, who is the father of the Hebrews, and Moses, who is the institutor of the Law. Though both of these figures stand as pictures of men faithful to God, they stand in their respective situations as typological foils to each other. Abraham, who is given to us as the model of faith (cf. Rom. 4) lives in the Promised Land securely, while Moses never steps a foot in the Promised Land at any point in his life. Abraham goes down to Egypt and back as he pleases, while Moses departs from Egypt and perishes outside the Land. Abraham is righteous apart from the Law, while Moses, who receives the law from the very hand of God, is forbidden from entering into the Promised Land by a single act of faithlessness (cf. Num. 20:12). Though no one would deny that Moses was a righteous man who now rests in the bosom of God, he serves as a type, picturing the near-faithful man under the Law against the faithful (though flawed) man apart from the Law. Paul picks up a similar allegory in Galatians 4, where he contrasts the slave woman, Hagar (corresponding to the covenant at Sinai) against the free woman, Sarah (corresponding to the heavenly Jerusalem in Christ).
The conclusion from these types in the Pentateuch is to drive the reader to understand that it is faith in God that imparts righteousness, not obedience to the Law. For apart from faith in God and his provision for righteousness, a single transgression condemns even the holiest man in the sight of God. As Paul later writes about Adam, “[T]he judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification” (Rom. 5:16).
The Expectation of Kingship
Scattered throughout what John Sailhamer calls the “compositional seams” (Sailhamer 575) manifested in the poetry of the Pentateuch is the ever-developing notion of the Kingdom / King of God that / who will set straight God’s created order. The first such seam is after the Fall of Adam in the promise of the seed that will crush the Deceiver’s head in Genesis 3. This notion of a Kingdom is further developed in the clarification of the seed to Abraham (cf. Gen. 15, rendered offspring in English); cf. Gal. 3), the blessing poem of Jacob to Judah (cf. Gen. 49), etc. (cf. Num. 23:21; 24:7; Sailhamer 572). Furthermore, the notion is further developed by the type of the humble king in the rags-to-riches character of the righteous Joseph, who sits in between Abraham and Moses as a third major character.
The clarity of this kingship is such that Hannah is able to competently express it in her song at the dedication of her son, Samuel (cf. 1Sam. 2:1-10). Yet despite this clarity, the “incarnation” of this king is not found within the text of the Pentateuch, and we, with the Hebrews, possess the promise that a Prophet will arise like Moses after him, and yet are left with the cold reality of the post-exilic author, “[T]here has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deut. 34:10).
General Thematic Conclusions
With this extremely brief survey of two of the themes intimated in the Pentateuch we can start to draw a picture of the meaning that he is trying to convey to his readers who have “mediated on it day and night” (cf. Josh. 1:8). From man’s faithlessness and consequent rebellion, separation is made between him and the benevolent Creator. There is a division between man and God because of sin, and that division only seems to become more pronounced as we progress through the story. Even the sets of codes of laws that Moses gives to the people are illustrations of this. Every time there is a narrative of Israel’s faithlessness and consequent idolatry, there are new sets of laws given, which only confirms what the apostle says much later: “The law was added because of transgressions” (Gal. 3:19).
The types represented in Abraham and Moses demonstrate that righteousness comes by faith and not by law-keeping. It is for this reason Moses wrote, “Abraham believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6), and why Moses later wrote God’s words concerning himself, “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not believe in me … you shall not bring this assembly into the land’” (Num. 20:12). For the former was counted righteous by faith and dwelt securely in the land, while the latter (though he spoke to God as one would a friend) through one instance of unbelief was forbidden from entering into it.
Along this seemingly prevalent disobedience / retribution, faithfulness / blessing theme is woven the idea of a righteous King who would redeem his people by crushing their enemies, the ultimate of whom is the Deceiver from the Garden. This King is set forth as a hope for the people, “the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). Yet by the conclusion of the Pentateuch, even the Old Testament (cf. Mal. 4:5, 6), that King is not realized. We are simply left with unfulfilled expectation that One will arise after Moses who will turn God’s people back to him by writing the law upon their hearts (cf. Jer. 31:33).
What Does All of this Mean for the Christian?
What this should drive us to, especially as Christians, is that the Pentateuch is not merely a collection of laws, some of which are still practiced and some that are abrogated, but that it is ultimately pointing to the One who will lead us “back to Eden.” Yet this One cannot simply lead us back to Eden, but, because of our first father’s sin and our own sins, he must deal with those sins in a way that makes us righteous. We like, our first parents, must have our shameful nakedness clothed with the sacrifice of another, else we will remain in our shame.
Of course we know now what those faithful saints in the Old Testament didn’t, namely that it is Jesus of Nazareth, the very Son of God, who is this King, Redeemer, and the One after Moses to Whom we are to listen. What became the greatest plot twist in history also became our salvation–that God himself would enter into our world, humble himself as a man and as a Jew under the Law so that he might buy back a people for himself for the glory of his Father. It is the greatest story ever told, and it doesn’t begin in Matthew.
Christ and the Fulfillment of the Law
One of the most profound statements by Jesus (to me, at least) is one that he speaks in the Sermon of the Mount, namely, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). Jesus doesn’t say that he has come to keep the Law, or even to keep the Law on our behalf, but that he has come to fulfill the Law, or to bring it to its designed end. In other words, the Law was written to have a fulfillment, and that fulfillment was far more profound than policing the fields on the Sabbath to see who is plucking grain (cf. Mark 2:24). The Law was about Christ and it pointed to faith in Christ, and to merely look at it as list of laws to be kept would end in the bearing of the burden of unrighteousness with bent backs forever (cf. Ps. 69:23).
The apostle Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, puts this misunderstanding of the Law another way. He writes:
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law…. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law (Rom. 3:27, 28, 31).
Paul here makes a distinction between what he calls the law of faith and the law of works. And I do not think he is speaking of two different laws but of how different people have interpreted and applied the single Law. This appears more clearly later:
What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone (Rom. 9:30-32).
In other words, the reason that the Jews “stumbled over Christ” and did not believe in him is because of a fundamental misinterpretation and application of the Pentateuch. They read the Law and saw a list of dos and don’ts, not the Jesus about whom they were written. And since they worked to keep those laws, they were proud of those works, and therefore they found the cross of Christ offensive–that their lawlessness should be so great as to require the very death of God (cf. 1Cor. 1:23).
Christ is the End of the Law for Righteousness
I know that there is a certain ambiguity in the apostle’s use of “end” in Romans 10, so as to not be ambiguous, we will go to the Epistle to the Galatians where Paul gives his most thorough treatment of the Law and its relation to Christians.
For the sake of thoroughness and consistency, we will follow the apostle’s argument to the Galatians concerning the Law in the order that he gives it, though admittedly skipping over some texts for the sake of brevity. He begins:
[W]e know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified…. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose (Gal. 2:16, 19-21)
In short, Paul says that no one is justified by works of the Law. If one could be justified by works of the Law, then Christ died for no reason. Yet what Paul does not speak on in these verses is the present viability of the Law. In other words, he says that one is not justified by works of the Law, but he does not eliminate the possibility of someone having faith and still doing the works of the Law. But later he writes:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? (Gal. 3:1-6)
What has happened here, for the sake of context, is that the Judaizers (Jews who had converted to Christ but insisted on keeping of the Law) had infiltrated the Galatian church and convinced many of them that they needed to be circumcised after the Law of Moses. Paul harshly rebukes their foolishness and reminds them that their sanctification, just as their justification, is based on faith in Christ alone through the Spirit, not obedience to the laws found in the Torah.
Yet some who still go to Moses today will object, “Paul is not condemning them for going to Moses for laws, but he is condemning them for thinking that they are sanctifying themselves by the Law.” Perhaps, yet Paul becomes even more explicit about his thoughts on the Law in the verses that follow.
Beginning in v. 3:15, Paul speaks about the Promise to Abraham and its relation to the Law of Moses. He argues that even in man-made covenants no one adds to them or takes anything away from them once they have been ratified. Likewise, the Law, which came 430 years after Abraham, does not annul or add to the Promise given to Abraham by faith. And since we, through Christ the Seed, are sons of Abraham and the Promise through faith, we should not continue going to the Law for our Faith that has been realized in Jesus Christ.
Then comes the obvious question:
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary (Gal. 3:19).
The Law was added to Israel because of their transgressions (as we saw earlier) for the sake of preserving the Seed through whom the Promise would be fulfilled. In other words, it was added to restrain the disobedient and rebellious tendencies of a generally obstinate people so that they would not stray so far as to void the means of the Promise.
But can Paul be more clear on the matter? Sure he can:
Now before faith [read Jesus] came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. (Gal. 3:23-26).
In other words, the law was a parental guardian or, more harshly, a prison guard until Jesus came and fulfilled the reason for the Law. Therefore, we as Christians are no longer under the guardianship of the Law, but we are under Christ through faith. We are under Christ’s Law. We are now under the One that Moses spoke about, the One to whom we are told to listen and so stop listening to him (i.e. Moses).
How then are we to understand Paul’s (the former Pharisee) negative view of practicing the stipulations of the Law? What are we make of Paul’s view (in the case of the Roman saints) that seems to suggest that the only negative consequence of not knowing the Law is the inability to understand an example that he gives? (cf. Rom. 7:1-4).
If it is not clear to this point, my view (and the view that I believe the Scriptures drive us to) is that we do not turn to Moses for stipulations to govern our lives, but rather we turn to Christ, the “Mediator of a better covenant” (Heb. 8:6), who speaks a better word than that of Moses. We are no longer under the tutelage of the Law, but we are rather now governed by the Spirit of Christ, through whom we do not gratify the desires of the flesh, love as Christ loves, and thereby fulfill the Law of Christ (cf. Gal. 5:16; Rom. 8:1-4).
To make it practical, let us look at two of the most popularly “observed” Mosaic institutions today:
1. The Sabbath
The oldest Mosaic institution (at least by way of allusion) is the Sabbath, founded in the very Creation itself (cf. Gen. 2:3). It is also listed in the Ten Commandments, which are esteemed by some (particularly Covenant Theologians) to be the immutable, moral law of God. Therefore, if any institution were to still be practiced by Christians, it would most certainly be this oldest of institutions, and, indeed, many Christians still profess to keep the Sabbath and think that it lawlessness not to keep it.
Yet, do even these really keep the Sabbath? If grant them their argument that the Sabbath is the immutable command founded in the very Creation of the world, then why is it able to be changed? Why do we, as Christians (unless we’re Seventh Day Adventists) observe “Sabbath” on the first day of the week rather than the seventh? The argument that is given is that Christ’s work so effected the created order that it changed the very day of the Sabbath. While I agree with the notion that Christ’s work and presence in his Creation changed everything, I believe that Scripture teaches that much more happened than the mere bump of the Sabbath to the next day, but that it changed the Law, hence we now have the Law of Christ rather than the Law of Moses.
The writers of the New Testament are in agreement with this. For it is nowhere stated nor commanded that the Sabbath is now to be observed on Sunday rather than Saturday, but rather we have: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of … Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col. 2:16, 17). And, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). And, “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world (i.e. law), whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.” (Gal. 4:9-11). All these things clearly stating that there is no longer a law governing the observation of a single day, since it is “lawful” to esteem all days alike.
Furthermore, the author of Hebrews tells us that the Sabbath was a prefiguring of the Rest that we have in Christ (cf. Heb. 4), and now that we have Christ, the Substance (cf. Col. 2:17), we no longer need to live in the former shadow.
2. The Tithe
The notion of tithing is similar to that of the Sabbath, insofar as it finds expression outside the Mosaic Law proper and is still practiced by many Christians. Yet is there justification for the law of tithing for those of who are in Christ? The notion of tithing, like the Sabbath, is not commanded or even mentioned by the apostles, therefore many who insist on its persistence today appeal to narratives involving Abraham and Jesus to support it.
In the case of Abraham, the patriarch gives a tenth of his war spoils to Melchizedek—a priest who prefigures Christ according to the book of Hebrews. Despite this example, we are not told that Abraham was either commanded or compelled to give that tenth or that he had always given a tenth to every priest, but that he did so a single time and that of his own volition. Furthermore, we are told that purpose behind that tithe was to demonstrate the superiority of Melchizedek to Abraham, as is told us by the author of Hebrews (cf. Heb. 7). Furthermore, while some run to this example of Abraham to confirm the institution of tithing, why, if we are consistent, do we not likewise offer up our sons on an altar so that an angel might stay our hand? And why do we not dwell in tents since we believe, like Abraham, that our home is not of the world?
In the case of Jesus, our Lord attacks the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in their observation of the Law. He says:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23).
The appeal of the pro-tithers is that Jesus tells them that ought to have tithed in addition to keeping the weightier matters of the Law. Indeed, they should have. For these Pharisees were still under the Old Covenant (i.e. the guardian that was to lead them to Christ), therefore they, in this context, were still obligated to keep the Law. Jesus’ instruction concerning the Pharisees here is no different than his instruction to the leper that was healed, namely, “[G]o, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them” (Matt. 8:4). Again, if we were consistent, if one among us were cured of leprosy, we, by the same argument, would be required to send him to the priest so that he might offer the gift commanded by Moses. Yet, we are not under Moses, therefore the laws regarding leprosy and tithing are no longer applicable to those of us who are in Christ.
Thoughts on these Observed “Laws”
I am aware that some Christians rightly understand that the institutions of the Sabbath and tithing no longer bind us legally, but they believe that they can view them as rough principles or general guidelines of worship and giving respectively. I do not necessarily object to this, for “each must be convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5), yet I am very leery of this practice. For there is the tendency for one generation’s good principles to become the next generation’s laws. This is evidenced today in the hard and sometimes harsh preaching on the “law of tithing.” I have even heard of some churches who require their members to provide the church with a copy of their W-2s so that they can verify whether or not they’re being “disobedient” or “obedient.”
The problem I have with this is two-fold. First, the ones who preach the keeping of these laws do not even keep them as the Law requires, but they obey them according to what is sometimes called the “spirit of the Law.” I am not sure where this spirit of the Law comes from, but from the way God deals with these matters in the Old Testament, there was either the commanded-way or the highway. For the Sabbath is and only ever has been the seventh day, and the tithe was actually multi-leveled, amounting to approximately twenty-three percent of a person’s wages. Therefore, even these “adherents” of the Law break the Law.
Secondly, especially with tithing, the requirement of it may place an undue burden upon those who are placed under it. Paul writes to the Corinthians regarding giving:
For if the readiness [to give] is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness (2 Cor. 8:12-14).
In other words Paul is intimating that a person should give according to his ability in love and cheerfulness, not according to some percentage-constraint under Moses. For do you really believe that the widowed mother of two who is only able to muster up and give away five-percent of her income (and that with great difficulty) is less righteous in the sight of God than the millionaire who gives ten-percent and yet lives in the lap of luxury? The evidence seems to point to the contrary (cf. Mark 12:42).
The problem with people in general (including Christians) is that we have disposition toward legalism. We, like the Pharisees, like to be told exactly what to do in definite terms (e.g. give ten-percent, worship on this day) rather than the more abstract, “Love you neighbor as yourself,” and “Love the Lord your God with all of your being.” We can find ways to fulfill the former, but we always fall short of the latter. Yet Jesus and the apostles will not let us hide behind Moses, but they exhort us to follow the greater yet freeing Law of Christ. For through Christ and his indwelling Spirit we have the strength to keep those lofty exhortations, and since the power doesn’t come from us, we must glorify God for any obedience we do have.
Therefore, our duty, as those who are in Christ, is not to write down a list of laws from Moses and cross out the ones that we think are abrogated, else we will be tempted to stop eating cheeseburgers from the thrice-given and apparently moral command, “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk” (Ex. 23:19; 34:26; Deut. 14:21), since it does not fall into any of the contrived categories of ceremonial, dietary, or civil laws. Rather we are to follow the Law of Christ by the Spirit, by loving God with all of our being, loving our neighbors as ourselves, loving our enemies, loving the brethren and our spouses as Christ loved the Church, and walking in accordance with the Spirit thereby exhibiting his fruits (Gal. 5:22-24). For I am sure of this: if a person does these things and yet never reads a single command from Moses, Christ will welcome him one day saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master” (Matt. 25:21).
Recommended Reading and References:
The Meaning of the Pentateuch by John Sailhamer