Sunday, January 24, 2021

A Built-In Self-Destruct Button

If you have spent a lot of time reading the Old Testament and trying to get into the mindset of the average law-abiding Jew, you probably agree with me that Christian freedom is a marvelous thing.

The believer’s relationship to the Law of Moses is one of the most misunderstood aspects of Christian life, notwithstanding statements like “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” and “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

But freedom is not something we human beings do easily or naturally. We prefer rule-keeping.

The Ten Commandments as “Fundamental to Christian Living”

Amazingly, despite having a more-than-passing acquaintance with Paul’s letter to the Galatians, many Christians still view the Ten Commandments as fundamental “principles for a satisfying life” and argue that they are the legitimate “boundaries for Christians” in our present era. At the other end of the spectrum, we all know believers who reject attempts to rein in their behavior with rule-keeping to such an extent that their Christian lives are characterized by a lack of discipline and their personal testimonies are less effective than even they would like.

And indeed, the Ten Commandments have aged pretty well. For example, it is awfully hard to argue that because Christ came to fulfill the Law, adultery, lying or theft have suddenly become acceptable practice for Christians. Of course not; the New Testament repudiates them all. However, a Christian life based on following the Ten Commandments mechanistically and literally would fall far short of God’s intentions for his people in the present age. That’s a subject for another post, but it needs to be stated at the outset.

Not a New Concept

God gave Moses his law on Mount Sinai somewhere around 1496 BC, but that famous set of 613 rules was far from the first legal code mankind had known, or even that the Ancient Middle East had ever known. Men had long recognized that making rules and imposing them on others was a reasonably effective way to order society. Human beings subject themselves to laws and define themselves in relation to them almost instinctively.

Hundreds of years before Moses, when Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees to journey to Canaan, he was leaving a jurisdiction subject to the Code of Ur‑Nammu, a package of commandments that was itself already 100 years old. The Mesopotamian Code of Urukagina predates Ur‑Nammu by a further 300 years, and even the better known Code of Hammurabi predates Sinai by approximately 300 years. Egypt, where Israel became a nation, had what is thought to be the oldest set of laws known to mankind. Those orderly Egyptians began formulating regulations only a few generations after Noah’s flood.

So then, the genius and uniqueness of the Law of Moses is not that it was a concept that had never occurred to anyone else in human history. It was that this particular set of laws was God-given rather than having arisen organically from social trial and error. Far from introducing something brand new to Israel, God perfected (as much as was possible given the limitations of law and the hard hearts of men) something which had already existed in the world for well over half a millennium.

What About the Other 603?

For the Christian, it is not really the obviously moral aspects of the Law of Moses that cause us confusion. Those tend to stand up quite well on their own. No, our difficulties often come in understanding our relationship to the other 603 commands (give or take) by which the children of Israel were intended to order their society and which they were instructed to pass on from generation to generation.

Many writers break these out into three categories: moral laws, ceremonial laws and judicial laws. The suggestion is that for the Christian, the moral laws are to be retained while the ceremonial and judicial laws were specific to the nation of Israel and may be left behind, though of course there are things we can learn from them.

Jonathan Bayes, for example, writes:
“The ceremonial was a shadow of Christ which became obsolete with his coming, and the civil a model of legal arrangements for any society, though not of such a status as to demand exact replication.”
That’s a fairly neat system, but it works better as a generalization than when we get down to specifics.

Reading the Shema

Categorizing some laws is easy. The prohibition against eating leavened bread on Passover is ceremonial, and may be rejected as unnecessary for the Christian life. However, other laws are tougher to label accurately. Christians do not read the Shema in the morning and at night; we have other more immediately relevant things to read which Israel did not. But is the Shema law really moral or ceremonial? There are aspects of each involved. It was a sort of ceremony, if you like, but it provided the spiritual “spine” to Israelite morality. Failing to give attention to the reading of the law got Israel in trouble repeatedly.

There are principles behind each of these laws that are useful to us (rejecting corrupting influences in our worship, and giving attention to the reading of scripture), but every one of those principles is taught explicitly in the New Testament. The form in which the Law of Moses enshrines them is mechanical, ritualistic, and in many instances really only serves as an illustration of something laid out more fully in the days of the first century church. These legal regulations for the nation of Israel are great reminders of bigger spiritual truths, sure, and they point to the wonderful unity of the scriptures, but that’s all they do for those of us who are looking back to the Law of Moses rather than forward from it.

So then, in the case of these sorts of laws, Christians rightly observe the “weightier matter” to which they were always intended to point Israel (or at least one hopes we do), without being overly fussy about literal compliance.

Christians and the Law

It has been remarked that the Law of Moses served the following purposes, and possibly others:
This last one is possibly the most important of all. You might find plenty of commonalities between the Law of Moses and the Code of Hammurabi if you examined them carefully, but what you would never find in the Code of Hammurabi or in any other man-made legal system is a built-in self-destruct button like God put in the Law of Moses. In that it pointed to Christ, the law itself revealed its own shortcomings, and it was designed to do so from the very beginning.

So then, if the finest set of laws mankind has ever known proved insufficient to salvation, then surely rule-keeping of every sort is an exercise in futility insofar as it is attempted in order to make us righteous in the eyes of God. Law is inadequate to salvation, and it is inadequate to the moral improvement of believers. Christians cannot submit their lives to the governing principle of law, because that principle, in combination with the fallen condition of the human heart, has already been conclusively demonstrated to be not up to the task. Law-keeping was, in the words of Peter, a “yoke that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear”.

The Rich Young Ruler

Let me close with a few lines from Bernie on the subject of the so-called “rich young ruler”:
“He arrives on the scene and asks, ‘How do I get eternal life?’ He gets the answer, ‘Keep the commandments’, and then is given the detailed listing of commandments in response to asking which ones.

Now the interesting thing to me is this: if you asked a question of someone you considered a great teacher and he then gave you both a summary response and a detailed clarification when you probed further … well then, you’re done, right? It’s either time to walk away satisfied OR to move to an entirely different line of questions, because you got the fulsome answer to the initial question you asked.

But here’s what smacked me for the first time the other day: that is NOT what happens. Enigmatically, the ruler follows up with this: ‘Yes, I did and I do all that — so what am I still lacking?

How does he know he’s lacking anything? But he does know. He knows innately that simply keeping the law — doing good works — is woefully insufficient and has not given him eternal life. Something more is necessary.”
Precisely.

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