Monday, July 17, 2017

Elementary, My Dear Christian

The giving of the law to Israel through Moses at Sinai was a truly spectacular event, attended by “blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them,” as the writer to the Hebrews so eloquently puts it.

The law that God gave on that grand occasion is described in glowing terms by the psalmist: wondrous, delightful, sufficient for all sorts of situations, sweeter than honey, perfect, sure, right and true. Of all legal codes by which men have ordered their societies down through the centuries, the law of Sinai was the very best.

But law itself did not originate at Sinai. Laws were no new thing.

No New Thing

In Hebrew the word “law” is torah. Technically, Israel had torah before they reached Sinai, where they officially received their torah. Before that, Egypt had laws of its own; how else could Joseph have found himself in an Egyptian jail? And scripture tells us the patriarch Abraham actually had torah many generations before that. God says of him, “Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my torah.”

Going back even further, historians tell us the Code of Urukagina predates Abraham by at least 300 years. In fact, the Code of Ur-Nammu, the world’s oldest known law code, originated in Mesopotamia, which Abraham left behind to obey God and go to the land of promise. And while it’s not actually referred to as torah, the case may be made that Adam received the first real law in the Garden of Eden.

Basic Principles

The apostle Paul implies law is in the very nature of the world in which we live. He tells the churches in Galatia:
“We also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.”
Here Paul is referring to the Law of Moses, but what he says could be applied equally to the principle of law generally, whether it originates in ancient Egypt, Sumer, China or even in the U.S.A. Laws are the “elementary principles of the world”.

Men have always made laws. They are fundamental to the social order. Moreover, we crave laws. No matter how many we have, we keep on making more of them. History demonstrates men multiply laws on the flimsiest of excuses until they become unwieldy and impossible to either obey or enforce, ultimately failing in their purpose.

Worthless and Weak

In itself, even the very best of laws is insufficient. Again, Paul asks the Galatians:
“How can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world?”
This is even stronger. Compared to sonship in Christ and life by the Spirit, law-keeping is slavery. It is weak and worthless in the sense that it cannot bring us into the family relationship God desires for us. Christians are children of the promise, adopted sons and heirs of God, and it is not law that got us there, but only Christ. To return to law-keeping in an attempt to justify ourselves before God is to go back to a method that has been tried and has failed repeatedly throughout the history of mankind.

It is no answer.

The Law of the Gospel

So why are so many Christians bound and determined to do it? I have actually seen the Sermon on the Mount referred to as the “Law of the Gospel”. Aargh! Have you actually read it? Good luck keeping that!

The law was a schoolmaster or guardian until Christ came. He fulfilled the law, and I have fulfilled it in him. Thus its primary purpose was historic, not ongoing.

Today, if we’re unsure what sorts of things God likes and dislikes, the law can give us a better idea of God’s character and his will for our lives only in the same sense that poring through my own father’s library would give me a better idea of what he values and what sort of gifts might please him. His library is useful when I want to acknowledge my father’s importance to me. It has no value in establishing that relationship in the first place.

A visitor looking through that same library doesn’t magically become my father’s son because he has done so. Ordering all the same books from Amazon won’t do it for him either. Reading them and having all the same information as my father at my disposal won’t do it. Even following the suggestions of their authors and doing it perfectly won’t change his family status one iota. On the other hand, I remain my father’s son even if it has never yet occurred to me to explore my dad’s library.

No, my relationship to my father turns on something else entirely.

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