If you spend any time online, you’ve probably encountered someone who claims to espouse a doctrine that is radically different from what you have been taught the Bible teaches. They may state it is improper for believers to eat pork, shellfish, or any meat at all, they may believe in exclusively using Hebrew names and terms for God (there’s nothing wrong with using such, but telling people they will go to hell of they don’t use them is certainly wrong), and they are probably pretty quick to recite different aspects of the Old Testament that you’ve never noticed before or ever considered. Some might have told you that if you don’t follow the law, that you aren’t really a believer and that believers are still required to follow the law, in its totality, without question. Some might elevate the Ten Commandments above other aspects of the law, saying those are the only aspects of the law still enforceable. They might claim any assortment of beliefs and theories, but all who do this have one thing in common: they believe that the law, in whole or in part, is still enforceable for Christians (or believers, if they don’t call themselves Christians) today and if you do not follow their understanding of the law, you cannot be saved.
There is one thing these people get right, and in actuality, atheists and agnostics often get it more right than Christians do: we do need to have some understanding of the law. Groups like this continue to emerge because we really don’t understand the law in Christianity today. Very few of us were ever Jewish in our lives and very few of us have a proper understanding of the Old Testament law and just what the “law” is that we were redeemed from.
I was never much for the law myself because the way it was often taught by various groups and instructors was so complicated, I lost interest in it. They made it sound impossible to understand and it always seemed like we picked and chose what aspects of the law seemed most enforceable and applicable, while ignoring the finer points of the law that were more complicated. It wasn’t until I set out to write my now best-seller, Ministering To LGBTs – And Those Who Love Them (Apostolic University Press, 2016) that I took an interest in discovery of the law and more of its understanding as applied to the issues pertinent to homosexuality. I am not going to get into my findings on that particular topic, as they can be found in my book, and I want us to look at the principle of law rather than at specific laws and how they apply or do not apply today. While a blog certainly cannot cover the intricacies and ins and outs of the law, there are some basics we can get on understanding the law for Christians.
Let’s start with a couple of basics:
The term “law” is used in a few different ways, and it is important to understand the different ways it is used to better understand what the term “law” actually means.
In the New Testament, when Jesus, the Pharisees, and Sadducees spoke of the “law,” they were not just referring to specific edicts found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. The “law” is a reference to the Torah, or Pentateuch, which consists of the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The use of it as the term “law” is not a reference to law as we understand law or regulation today, but the foundational establishment and understanding for the Hebrew people as those selected and set apart by God.
The Torah “law” within Jewish tradition also accepts and includes rabbinical commentary on the meaning of the Torah, which is held on par with the written word of the Biblical writings. This is going to be important later, so remember this.
There is the “law” that are the specific 613 commandments given in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. When we think of the “law,” this is often what we are thinking about. The commands given range from issues that seem practical to absurd by modern standards, and relate to things spiritual, practical, governmental, legal, hygienic, and interpersonal.
The Ten Commandments, as we understand them, are not a separate part or a separate part of the 613 commandments, the “law,” we just spoke of. They are not special, nor are they detached, from the rest of the law. Some assume them to be a summary, but in reality, they are, more or less, an introduction to the law and the complexities of the law that were yet to come. Technically, there are not ten commandments cited, but only nine. In certain Jewish traditions, the way the ten sayings are divided varies even further, reducing the number. For our purposes, however, it does not matter. The point is that they are a part of the 613 commandments, not a special or divided part of the law, so what we are discussing here means they apply the same as everything else.
Jewish “law,” as is understood today, is based on the traditions of the rabbis and is now known as the Talmud. The Talmud is a collection of interpretations of the law, social regulations, cultural commentaries, and general guidelines for interactions with others. It is related to the writings on the Talmud mentioned above and was known as “traditions” or “traditions of men” in dialogues between Jesus and the Sadducees and Pharisees.
And now, let the confusion begin.
I can’t write this blog and lie to everyone and say that understanding the law is an easy thing that can be done in a few minutes, because that’s not true. The reality is that the law is confusing, but I think that’s part of the point. Parts of it appear to contradict other parts. If we study the Bible in its entirety, we can see that the Israelites never, at any one point of their history, followed the law completely. There was never anyone in Old Testament times who embodied the principles of the law in their lives in full, even those who understood and studied its complexities in the most intricate of ways. What they did, instead of trying to follow it completely, was find loopholes and ways around the law, exceptions and clarifications, to try and make it so that the law was, well…not the law anymore. The confusion of the law reflects the fact that, as human beings, we can’t understand it in full; there was no way that, in an average day, a person could follow all 613 of the laws and not screw one of them up or screw up in some subsidiary way; we can’t follow it in full; and that must mean that God had another purpose all together for us when it comes to the law.
Back in the Garden of Eden, humanity chose to go its own way and have its own independence. Human beings sacrificed relationship with God in favor of doing things themselves and making their own decisions. It wasn’t long if we look at Biblical history to see that humanity still wanted its own willful way, but still wanted to receive or touch eternity through their own means. Through the law, God wanted humanity to realize just what they were doing, trying to handle things on their own. God gave humanity just enough of a taste of what they sought to do on their own so that we would realize we can’t do it on our own. Enter Jesus, Who was the only One ever in history Who could follow the law.
Let’s not assume we know more about the Word than He does; He is the Word. His understanding, His insight into the law was not only challenged, it was downright condemned by those who were interpreting the law however they saw fit. The result was Jesus was not just following the law, He was the fulfillment of it; He was the being, the individual, the promise that the law pointed us to and instructed us to seek out. If we can’t do it for ourselves, then God had to send someone to do it for us. That means the law and the limitations it brings out within each and every one of us shows us our sinfulness; where we falter in right and wrong; and above all, that indeed, salvation is impossible for human beings to accomplish on their own. The law reminds us that we are limited.
That is an aspect of the law that we simply do not want to hear about, especially when talking to groups that try to say we will follow it perfectly if we are really believers and really “saved.” Not once has this ever happened for someone in history, and never will it, because the whole point of Christ, of the work of Christ, is to remind us that we can’t do this without God and we can’t do this without relationship with Him. If it was as simple as following a law, then Christ wouldn’t have been needed and we would still be bound by it because it could “save” us.
None of this means that the law is bad or that the law is evil or useless. It simply means that the perspective of the law’s purpose was much deeper than any in history and any of us now ever considered. It was to make us look at ourselves and see our own limitations and look to God to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. There is a difference from seeing the law as a teacher, as is spoken of in Galatians 3, and seeing it as an enforceable legislation, something that is used to penalize and judge. There is nothing wrong with believing that the law consists of good precepts or things that teach us more about loving God and others, that we can now glean from even though we are not subject to the law. It also does not mean that we will never be in a situation where evangelism dictates that we follow parts of the law to stand as a cultural, religious, and personal beliefs in order to witness to someone else, right where they are. But when it comes to our own relationship with God, we are now following the guardian that is Christ, led by the Holy Ghost, who leads us into all truth (not the law), and the leadership that He has given to us in the five-fold ministry. We are a part of the church, which is His body. We are in Christ; we are a part of Him, and He of us. We are one, which means we are in relationship with Him. It doesn’t mean we never falter or sin, and for that we thank God for relationship; for His guidance that leads us beyond written regulations that often have no literal application today or practical understanding for us; and that we do not even understand. Through the Spirit, the Lord’s commands and His direction lead us into everything we should do and can discover because He is with us. We die daily; not once, and then it’s over; and we constantly strive for that better relationship, and understanding, in Him and with Him.
You can know a person, or you can know a written code. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Under the law, none of us will ever stand. Thanks to grace, we now have a chance. The choice is yours.
I could come on here and debate the Word. I could come on here and throw around a ton of verses, but that’s not productive. That’s all we do, is play “a verse for a verse.” There is deeper understanding needed to see what Jesus has done for us and why the relationship we have with God is so essential. It’s more than going to church and lifting up your hands or spouting off verse after verse that does not change life. It’s about your own transformation, about moving from the fallen to something more. Your ability to know the law forwards and backwards doesn’t mean that you have the first clue of how to follow it. We, as people, need to understand the Word. Even in Biblical times, the Israelites understood that there needed to be divine understanding and explanation for just what the Scriptures meant and how to apply them. Even though they missed the mark, we now have the revelation present in the work of the five-fold to guide us. We can pray and seek God for ourselves to get guidance for our own lives, and while that is different from doctrinal revelation or interpretation, the Spirit, if we learn to follow it rightly, will take us to exactly where we need to be. The law can’t do that. It can make us look at ourselves, but it can’t take us where God can.
It is possible to idolize the law and to idolize the written word. If we think it’s obvious to jut apply it without understanding, we aren’t including God in our assessment. Whenever people fight over keeping or establishing a Ten Commandments monument on public property, they are, themselves, in violation of the law because they have created a graven image out of them (an idol). We can try so hard to do good, we can completely miss God and finding Him, discovering and knowing Him. If He desires us to know Him, and the power of His resurrection, that means our focus needs to be on something than the law or throwing shade through the law. Receive what God has for you, and let Him do His transformation within you. Let Him do His work within you and you do your work with Him.
Stop hiding behind the law, because that’s exactly what we are seeing today. Stop throwing shade with it, stop offending others with it, and grow your own self up to be transformed, glory to glory and faith to faith. On judgment day, that legalistic veil won’t save you; it will condemn you.
© 2016 Lee Ann B. Marino. All rights reserved.