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Another On the Law, Pt. 1

The ”Law” as generally conceived is the term used to define the collection of all the commandments of God from the Old Testament, especially from the Pentateuch.  It is the collective term, while “commandment” is the specific designation of a single law.  Therefore we have “the Ten Commandments of the Law.”  While either term can be used in the singular or the plural, the general usage distinguishes between them in this way. Among those who claim Jesus as their spiritual foundation, it is no small source of controversy and this has led to some widely divergent conclusions regarding its relevance to modern times.

Moses wrote in Leviticus 18:5, “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my ordinances, by doing which a man shall live: I am the Lord.” 

Jesus said in agreement that, "If you would enter into life, keep the commandments" (Matthew 19:17).

Despite this, however, the majority of self-confessed Christians overlook the subject, Jesus' statements to the contrary.

In His time, there was another body of “law” developed by the Jewish religious establishment that grew primarily out of their intention to accurately apply the Law to everyday situations.  This resulted the beginning of a vast body of interpretive material that was later codified as "The Mishna."  In the Gospels, this body is termed “the traditions of the elders” and it was a source of controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees, for it Jesus excluded it from any consideration as valid “law.”

The Pharisees and the Scribes once came to Jesus with the complaint, “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?  For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” Jesus answered, "Why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?" (Matthew 15:1) He then applied to them the words of Isaiah 29:13: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.”

The Law of Moses was lacking, for God said through Moses,

    I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my Words in His mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command Him (Deuteronomy 18:18).

In the Gospel of John, Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment of this prophecy:

    For I have not spoken on my own authority; the Father who sent me has himself given me commandment what to say and what to speak.  And I know that his commandment is eternal life.  What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has bidden me (John 12:49,50).

Jesus acts as Moses’ successor as lawgiver, sent to make up what was lacking in the Law as delivered by Moses.

Of the Law of Moses he said,

    For truly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished (Matthew 5:18).

Then of his own words, he said,

    Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away (Matthew 24:35).

Jesus thus gave his own Words the same unique authority as the original Law:

    He who rejects me and does not receive my sayings has a judge; the word that I have spoken will be his judge on the last day (John 12:48).

But as I hinted earlier, the Law was deficient.  For several reasons, it was necessary that Jesus come after Moses to amend it.

First, consider the question about divorce as presented to Jesus in Matthew 19:1.  The Pharisees came to Jesus and asked, “Is it lawful to divorce ones wife for any cause?  Jesus referred to the Creation recorded in Genesis and concluded,

    What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder (v. 6).

The hostile Pharisees responded with another question, referring to the Law: “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?”  Jesus' immediate answer was:

    For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.  And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, makes her commit adultery.

The Law of Moses made accommodations due to the inability of the Hebrews to receive, understand or obey it in its perfect expression, which God came as Jesus to exemplify, who ended these accommodations and presented a pure Law.

Also the traditions of the elders, with their interpretations of the application of the Law of Moses, tended to relax the Law. The Law of Corban, for example, relaxed the Fifth Commandment, “Honor your father and mother.” In one confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus commented on this tradition:

    You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban' (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that." (emphasis mine)
Jesus despised this tampering with the law as he aimed to actually tighten and perfect it, bringing it into accord with what has been His Law from the beginning. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus takes the Law as expressed through Moses and stiffens it immeasurably. One of his most revealing statements relative to the Law begins with his introduction to the antitheses at Matthew 5:17:

    Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not 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 in the kingdom of heaven.

The Greek for “abolish” and “relaxes” in this quotation come from the verb lûo which means literally “to loosen”.  Prefixed with kata it means to loosen completely, and hence to abolish, destroy, or bring to an end.  When Jesus says, “Not an iota, not a dot, shall pass from the law until all is accomplished,” he must be understood as meaning that nothing is to be done to the law that would result in a relaxation of its application.  His purpose is to do the very opposite, by tightening it.  Then he continues to illustrate the significance of this by Sermon, in each of which the Law of Moses provided for a relaxed application, whereas the Jesus' Teaching stiffens it immeasurably. For example:

    You have heard that it was said to the men of old, "You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment."  But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, “You fool!” shall be liable to the hell of fire (Matthew 5:21,22).

This is the same sort of change accomplished by this:

    You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:27,28).

This stiffening of the Law takes the offense out of the category of simple actual commission of an act and includes in it the category of thought or intent.  If the Law seemed hard to keep already, Jesus’ stiffening made it much more difficult, including matters of divorce, swearing, violence, and sociology.  In every case the change advanced by Jesus was extremely radical.

We now understand what Jesus meant when He said, above, that he came to fulfill (plarosai) the Law.  He considered the law as given by Moses to be incomplete and unfinished.

He also introduced a change of administration.  He did this when he said of John,

    The Law and the Prophets were until John.  Since then the Kingdom of God is preached . . . (Luke 16:16).

Jesus did not mean to indicate with these words that the Law and the Prophets were terminated with the ministry of John the Baptist.  However, the administration changed when Jesus introduced the Kingdom.

Likewise, when He stated,

    It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void (Luke 16:17),

He did not mean that every facet of the Law would continue to be enforced.  To the contrary, His radicalization of the Law; raising it to be a matter of will or desire instead of mere action, and the resulting simplification necessarily renders much of its minutiae obsolete.

The laws regulating both fasting and ceremonial cleanliness, for example, are not enforced in the Kingdom of God.  The reason for this is the internalization of the Law, as is evident from the utterance of Matthew 15:10-20 (See also Mark 7:14-23):

     Hear and understand: not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.  … But Peter said to him, "Explain the parable to us."  And he said, are you still without understanding?  Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on?  But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, this defiles a man.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.

Jesus says quite clearly in the strongest of terms that there is no substance someone can consume that could possibly defile them. Similarly, that portion of the Law that regulates ritual and sacrifice, the ceremonial law, is no longer enforced.  When the Father said through Jesus, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice," He again internalized the law, as mercy comes from the heart (and Matthew 9:11, 12:7). His crucifixion provided the ultimate sacrificial atonement for sin (John 1:29), a "new covenant" in His blood (Matthew 26:28), culminating in the supernatural earthquake which destroyed the barrier of the Temple (Matthew 27:51-53; Histories v 13 by Tacitus; Wars of the Jews VI, 5, 3 by Flavius Josephus; Jer. Yoma 43; Yoma 39).

Large portions of the books of Moses were intended to regulate institutions, such as slavery, that, according to Jesus' Teachings, should no longer exist. Jesus said that those disciples who do the will of His Father are his "brothers and sisters" (Matthew 12:49). As Leo Tolstoy noted in his The Kingdom of God Is Within You, we have all been adopted as children by one Father, wherever we may live and whatever languages we may speak; we are all brothers and sisters and subject to the same love taught by this common Teacher, leaving no place for the division of people into castes and classes.

Other ordinances regulated procedures for managing lepers as diseases like leprosy were not understood.  Modern knowledge of these things, however, renders such ordinances obsolete.

The genocidal commands given when the Israelites invaded Canaan likewise cannot be reconciled with Jesus’ command to “Love your enemy” and “Love your neighbor as yourself" and so these can no longer be enforced in obedience.

Much of the Law of Moses was written to regulate a culture of which the prevailing circumstances no longer exist.

Jesus has confronted these cultural circumstances and made such ordinances moot by his condensation of the Law.  In so doing, he has also universalized it so that it is applicable to individuals of all cultures and times, leaving us "without excuse".

    So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets (Matthew 7:12).

    You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets (Matthew 22:37-40).

I must emphasize that this radical condensation of the Law comes from the Law; it does not represent a new law.  It is the same, differently perceived.  Also, by recasting the essence of the Law in terms of love and wish, Jesus has further internalized it, called individuals to full responsibility and made each person accountable for wants and desires.
God spoke to Moses out of fire on Sinai’s peak, commanding what human beings shall and shall not do; He spoke through Jesus on the mount of the Sermon commanding what human beings shall or shall not love and desire.  When the Lord rebuked Miriam and Aaron because of their complaint against Moses, He spoke of the latter as “my servant Moses” (Numbers 12:1- 8). But when he rebuked Peter, James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration, he spoke of Jesus, saying, “This is my beloved son; listen to him” (Mark 9:7)! Jesus is therefore higher than Moses as the son is higher than the servant.

For the children of God, the law and prophecy of Jesus supersede the Law and the Prophets, personified in Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration.

When Jesus confronted the scribes and lawyers on the matter of the application of the Law, he said adamantly:

    They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger (Matthew 23:4; Luke 11:46).

For Jesus assured us,

    Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).

But Jesus recognized that not all can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given (Matthew 19:11).

But there is still something missing.

"For whoever wishes to save his life will lose  it, and whoever loses his life because of me will find it." (see Matthew 16:21-26)

We can make sense of Jesus’ radicalization of the Law after we have applied this principle.

The ordinances of Moses are rooted in the love of life and its preservation. It is applicable to all people everywhere in principle and, indeed, every state develops legal codes compatible with it.

The Teachings of Jesus, however, are only for those “to whom it is given.”  These are those who have committed to the aforementioned principle and have, through Jesus and his Gospel of the Kingdom, learned to hate the life that we have in this world so as to qualify for eternal life as children of the Father.

It is only by compliance with this Teaching that His yoke becomes easy and His burden light. If our hearts' supreme desire is to leave this life and go to our Father in heaven "where moth and rust do not corrupt and thieves cannot break in and steal", then nothing can threaten us here.

On the surface, the Law, radically universalized by Jesus, seems like an immense burden. And yet Jesus said that keeping it was essential to eternal life. But replace love for this life with the love of God and it becomes easy to bear.
Jesus maintained the Law of Moses without loss of jot or tittle, condensed it to its essence (the First Commandment and the Second Commandment), radicalized it as required to make it compatible with the Love of God, internalized it by making it a matter of thoughts and attitudes rather than just deeds to make it compatible with His divine Spirit that is to bond with His disciples and "lead them into truth", and, finally, universalized it, applying it to all who would seek life, regardless of culture or circumstance.

Inspired by Jesus, the Rock of Offense by Edward Jones