Living Law

In my previous post I briefly explored law as the way to be human according to the Bible. Being human is not just a state of being. It is about fulfilling the purpose of our maker. When something is made, it is not completely realised until it does what it was made to do. Since law gives instruction, God’s law tells us how to be human, that is, how to function as his people. This understanding of law is sustained throughout the scriptures even in the New Testament, where it is reworked around Jesus and the spirit that is given in his name. This biblical vision of law is highly nuanced so we need to reject the idea that somehow law is diametrically opposed to grace. In this post I ask how the law contributes to our humanity. How does the law of God make us truly human?

The first appearance of the law in the biblical cannon is in the creation narrative in Genesis. This is very significant. It shows us the idea of law is bound up in the biblical understanding of what it means to be human and the human relationship to the rest of God’s creation. As I mentioned in my previous post the commands given to the first couple parallels the Mosaic code. The choice between the tree of life and the tree of knowledge in a chosen land is exactly what is found in Deuteronomy.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them. – Deuteronomy 30:19-20 ESV

Abraham and his family were given the vocation of Adam. When Adam and failed to live up to God’s law and choose life, the Lord chose Abraham to redeem humanity. That is why the family of Abraham was given a law just like the first family was so they could be a light to the world. Being Jewish was about being the divine example of what it means to be human. When we read Genesis 2 we see God did not make humans immortal. The tree of life was humanity’s elixir. God’s commandment was literally life to Adam. Similarly the Law of Moses was also described as the life of Israel. The same point is made in the first psalm (Psalm 1:1-3.) Jesus mentioned in the Gospel of John that the Jews regarded the scriptures, particularly the Torah, as the source of eternal life. Throughout scripture law is life giving.

This greatly contrasts a lot of modern notions about law as something restrictive, oppressive, regressive or just inconvenient. Law in the scriptures is something vibrant, liberating and life affirming. The Psalms often speak about delighting or rejoicing in God’s law. In Charismatic contexts like the one I am from, there is a lot of talk about God’s will but little mention of his law. However, we have seen right from Genesis that God’s law is his will for humanity. We need a high view of the law such as we find in the Psalms where the law of God is extolled. This high view of law is also found in the New Testament which is rich with obedience language. Contrary to popular ideas about Christianity being non-religious there are a lot of do’s and don’ts written in the New Testament. Jesus, Peter, James, and Paul all had something to say about what people should and shouldn’t do. New Testament ethics however, is not codified like in the Old Testament. Firstly, it is focused on obedience to the Messiah and worked out through the Spirit in the life of the believer. Secondly, it is shaped by story, praxis and community, targeted at the transformation of the human being and the renewal of the world. It is not that the Old Testament law was bad but it was restricted by human limitations and weaknesses. It therefore could not ultimately change people on the inside.

Before we take a closer look at the form, function and aims of New Testament law, it is imperative that we remember the following. Obedience to God’s law is just as important in the New Testament as it was in the Old. The grace of God does not nullify the law but rather transforms us, enabling us to truly abide by what God really wants from us. What God desires for us is our flourishing.

First of is the focus on the Messiah and the Spirit. In the New Testament we do not have the Jewish symbols of the temple or the Mosaic code. In the words of Tom Wright, the Lord Jesus has upstaged one and outflanked the other respectively. Jesus the Messiah as the fulfilment of these symbols truly embodies them in himself and his mission. Since God has made Jesus Lord of all, our obedience is to the Son of God. The way Jesus’ life and mission is carried out among those who believe in him is by his spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who empowers us to live as Jesus people. Law in the New Testament has a Trinitarian focus. We obey God by submitting to his Messiah and living by the Spirit. The question still remains of how we know the Spirit is at work. Of course the private existential experience of the Holy Spirit is very important but people have all sorts of feelings and inclinations. How do we determine which one is of God? This leads to my second point which continues in the Trinitarian mould.

The Torah was like a written constitution for the Jewish people. However, in the New Testament we have a three pronged unwritten constitution defined by story, praxis and community. Even though the Torah contained legal code it was essential a narrative. The controlling narrative we have in the New Testament is the Gospel. I must again borrow an illustration Tom Wright uses in Scripture and the Authority of God, how stories are just as effective as rules in instructing human behaviour.

The question is, How can a story be authoritative? If the commanding officer walks into the barrack-room and begins “Once upon a time,” the soldiers are likely to be puzzled. If the secretary of the cycling club pins up a notice which, instead of listing times for outings, offers a short story, the members will not know when to turn up. At first sight, what we think of as “authority” and what we know as “story” do not readily fit together.

But a moment’s thought suggests that, at deeper levels, there is more to it than that. For a start, the commanding officer might well need to brief the soldiers about what has been going on over the past few weeks, so that they will understand the sensitivities and internal dynamics of the peace-keeping task they are now to undertake. The narrative will bring them up to date; now it will be their task to act out the next chapter in the ongoing saga. Or supposing the secretary of the club, having attempted unsuccessfully to make the members more conscious of safety procedures, decides to try a different tack, and puts up a notice consisting simply of a tragic story, without further comment, of a cyclist who ignored the rules and came to grief. In both cases we would understand that some kind of “authority” was being exercised, and probably all the more effectively than through a simple list of commands. – N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God

The story of the Gospel, how Jesus gave his life for us on the Cross, is the example of love that we are given. In the Torah we are told the story of God’s love for Israel. In the Gospel this climaxes in the Cross. However, the promise was to bless the world through Abraham’s family so the death of the Jewish Messiah is for all people, both Jew and Gentile. In the Gospel, story inspires praxis since it is the drama of God’s unfailing love for us being lived out in Jesus, a real historical person. For instance in Philippians 2, when Paul wants to tell the church how to live, he does so by talking about the Cross. Such a powerful narrative generates powerful acts of love because it based on real events in the real world. Paul brilliantly encapsulates this vast, breath taking story in one little phrase at the end of Romans 8 – the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The love of the Son of God makes us the children of God. This means we should first and foremost show love to one another. The Church is a cross-shaped community of love in the Messiah. We cannot love God without loving his children. Furthermore, the law of God is the rule of the people of God. Laws work within human society so we cannot talk about New Testament law without New Testament community. The king’s command is the law of his dominion. When we abide by God’s law we bring his kingdom on earth. The Gospel is about God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. It is news of an event, that is, something that has happened which affects what is happening and will happen. We cannot preach something as good news if it has not affected us and the way we live.

The third point is about the aims of New Testament law, what is it supposed to accomplish? In one word it is renewal. It is about the transformation of the individual, society, and the environment. There is not much for me to say about the necessity of true change in a person’s life when they become a believer. In fact I think the Church has traditionally overemphasised personal transformation to the neglect of societal change. Private spirituality and moral piety are very important but Jesus is Lord over all people. The Church has left and continues to leave a positive mark on the society but there is much more to be done. We should be concerned about justice and equity, caring for the weak and assisting the disadvantaged, helping and holding accountable governments and institutions of power. In Psalm 72 the vision of the Messiah’s reign looks exactly like that, affecting human societies. Beyond the individual and the society we need to look at the environment.

When it comes to environmental conservation the Church has been very quiet. Understandably it is quite hard for people to see what conservation has to do with Church or the Bible. Also many secular conservationists value other life forms above human life which is very unbiblical. The combination of these and other factors make it hard for the average Christian to take environmental issues very seriously if it does not immediately affect them. Humans are not the only creatures of God. Jesus is Lord over all God’s creation and if we are his people we must be faithful and wise stewards of his creation. In the Messianic Psalm I just mentioned, it talks about the renewal of the earth as well. Isaiah describes the coming of God’s kingdom like deserts becoming lush forests. Revelation carries this cosmic vision of renewal further when it describes a beautiful exquisite new heaven and earth. Though it is not explicitly written that we should take care of trees and animals, when we look at the story the scriptures tells us, it clearly indicates that we ought to. When we take care of God’s world we are bringing in advance a sample of what God will eventually do for the entire creation: total renewal.

So far I have looked at the biblical theology of law in the scriptural narrative. This vision of law is not just empty theorising or pretentious pontificating, it has vital real world significance. As I grow older and better appreciate human history in general, I am further convinced that the problem with the human condition essentially boils down to a moral one. All human societies aspire to some form of utopia. No other creature has these desires. Yet in spite of our best efforts Paradise still eludes us. Just looking at the current state of the world, we must conclude in the final analysis the problem we properly have is called sin. Sin is such an ugly, repulsive word but it best describes what’s wrong with human nature. Malcolm Muggeridge once said,

The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.

I sincerely believe the world would not only be a different but a better place, if all people lived according to God’s law. I can personally testify that obedience makes me a better person.

Law is essential to who we are because it is the way to be human, the reason being that it ultimately comes from God and through it we are instructed on how to be the people he made us to be. God’s law is life giving because living by it means we are depending on God’s vision of who we ought to be, bringing us into an everlasting relationship with the eternal one. Unlike the Old Testament, the law of God is not codified in the New Testament. Yet it does have a distinctively Trinitarian form in its focus, function and aims, which we can clearly reflect on, understand and authoritatively practice. We obey God by submitting to the Messiah and living by the Spirit. Its function is defined by story and praxis, that is, the good news of Jesus and his example, which is shared in the life of Christian community. Its aim is to bring personal, societal and environmental restoration and renewal. In other words the commands of God in the New Testament are redemptive bringing about new creation. This is what the New Testament ethic of love looks like. John the apostle sums up our discussion best,

For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. – 1 John 5:3 ESV

Law is something for us and not against us.

Next post ⇒ The Meaning of Law

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