The role of OT law

Development of a sermon preached Sunday 3 October 2015.

Our need of God’s law

It is reported that in England, 40% of girls have sex before the legal age of 16. This is higher than in any other of the 24 European countries surveyed.

We are a country that has morally lost its bearings. A cloud of relativism has hidden the star we should navigate by. And as happens when people walk in the dark – our culture is profoundly broken and confused.

We see this in the everyday things of broken relationships and dishonesty in public life. But just think of the tidal wave of ethical debates we’ve faced in just the last few years: Same-sex marriage, three parent babies, gender selective abortion, trans-sexualism, assisted suicide.

They’re all signs that our culture has lost its moorings. Everything is suddenly uncertain. And because God’s revelation has been rejected, people have no firm grounding for deciding these issues. So those who shout the loudest tend to get their way. Or whatever affirms our individualism becomes the default. Little thought is given to the impact of these decisions on community life or its consequences elsewhere.

And so as Christian we need light for two particular reasons: First, so that as citizens of heaven we can stand apart from this moral meltdown and live lives that truly honour God. Second, so that as citizens of earth, we can speak into this moral meltdown, influencing the mind of our society for good and showing just how wise God’s ways are.

This is why we are going to be studying the Ten Commandments this term. They form part of what the Bible calls “God’s law.”

Now we need to understand this term. We’ll see that at one level it refers to all God requires of people. But at another, it refers to the specific commands God have Israel through Moses. They’re recorded in the Old Testament books of Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

You may have heard that there’s quite a diversity of material in the Mosaic law. Sceptics often ridicule Christians as selective in applying it today. They say we make much of what it says about things like sexuality, but ignoring what it says about what food should be eaten.

So we’re going to establish some basic principles for how we should read the law – and with it the Ten Commandments.

Rules on the fridge

If there is one image you take away as you think about the law – I hope it is the image of a list of rules for children on your fridge door.

Think for a moment about them. What might you include? You shall not flick your food. You shall not burp. You shall not stand on the table. You shall not climb out of the window.

Now this list is particular to your house isn’t it? Not every house has a window by the table you can climb out of. And it’s particular to you as children too. You need these strict rules when young because you’re so out of control. But when you grow up you’re able to control yourself and your behaviour will be much more nuanced.

So it’s right to say the list is not applicable as a whole to other families or to you as an adult. But it is still applicable in other ways. So far as their situation is similar, families would do well to adopt it. And, even as an adult, recalling it will remind you of its deeper concern with good manners, and politeness, and respect for others – moving you not only to instinctively abide by its rules, but the attitudes they reflect as well.

Well so it is with the Old Testament law. Speaking of Israel in Galatians 3v24, Paul says “the law was like a child’s guardian until Christ came.” In other words, like rules on the fridge, as a “package” it was only temporary – keeping Israel together so that Christ would be born.

The sense is that as Christians, Jews have become grown up. So they no longer need this sort of regime. They are filled with the Holy Spirit. So they are able to fulfil not only the precepts of the law but the attitude of the heart they reflected. Galatians 5v14: “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”

Well, let’s turn to Deuteronomy 4. Here, we see three points that we can draw out about the law:

(1)    The law no longer applies as a package for anyone

(2)    OT laws do still apply as a proto-types for society

(3)    OT laws do still apply as principles for the heart 

(1) The law no longer applies as a package for anyone

Listen to some of the laws still current in the UK that you need to be very aware of: It is an offence to beat or shake any carpet rug or mat in any street in the Metropolitan Police District, although you are allowed to shake a doormat before 8am. It is illegal to keep a pigsty in front of your house (unless duly hidden). It is illegal to order or permit any servant to stand on the sill of any window to clean or paint it. It is an offence to be intoxicated (drunk) and in charge of a cow in Scotland!

We recognize that laws change according to context. It’s obvious that these laws are ultimately concerned with orderly conduct and health and safety. These are givens. But how they should apply at different points in history will differ.

Well, take a look at Deuteronomy 4v5. What time is the law Moses was giving for? For Israel’s time in the land.

1) We see the law no longer applies as a package for contextual reasons

We must realise God’s law wasn’t shaped for a western technological society, but for a nation with a particular calling – to be God’s holy people, in a particular culture – the Ancient Near East, and a particular circumstance – forty years in a desert and then life possessing another nation’s land.

So its laws reflected this. The laws about eating certain foods were to emphasize that Israel were to be different from the nations. Their festivals and sacrifices reflected worship of God in an agricultural society. Their laws on war reflected what was necessary to take Canaan.

2) We see that the law no longer applies as a package for covenantal reasons

This couldn't be clearer than in Galatians 3v25: "Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian." In their spiritual infancy, God's people needed the rigidity of the law for two reasons. First, it was to convict Israel – so that the people would see just how sinful they were, and how in need of the saviour the sacrifices pointed to (Romans 7). Second, it was to constrain Israel – so the nation could remain stable and endure God’s special presence without his anger breaking out at them (Galatians 3v23).

Paul's point is that the law anticipated the day when faith would be directly placed in Christ. And now that time has come, God's people have become spiritually mature. Now the Holy Spirit does these two things, so there is no longer the need for such a tight regime.

It is for this reason we must reject what’s known as a theonomic understanding of the law. Its proponents commendably assert the relevance of God’s law today. However they do this by stating that only its ceremonial aspects have passed with the coming of Christ. So its moral and civil commands apply directly to Christians and to the structures of society too. Not only will theonomists therefore assert the law’s moral principles should influence public policy, for example, on marriage; but that as a society is Christianized it should work towards directly applying the law’s penalties too. Moreover, any government that takes responsibilities to itself that the law didn’t assign to government in the time of Moses is moving beyond its divine remit. An example would be in taxing the more well-off to fund welfare schemes.

The problem in all this is that it just doesn’t do justice to both the contextual and covenantal reasons why the Mosaic law was only temporary. Its scope may well have reflected a simplicity only necessary in such a technologically primitive culture. Certainly, its laws had a particular spiritual purpose for the people of Israel in preparing them for Christ, and that is not one God has for every society. Both its laws and penalties may well have reflected a particular importance of, say, the family in this. And although we must affirm its penalties were entirely just and right, they would have reflected a particular degree of accountability for wrongdoing consistent with Israel’s privileges in having witnessed God act in her history. As is clear throughout the scriptures, the penalties justice demands are relative to revelation received (Lk 10v13-15, Lk 12v48).

Having said all this, a thoughtful consideration of the contextual and covenantal particularities to OT law, of how it is viewed throughout scripture, and of parallels with society today, does mean that its principles can nevertheless be applied. And in a heavily Christianized society, where the population has a high awareness of God’s acts and ways, we might see a degree of close conformity between both its laws and penalties and those of Israel. This takes us to our second point.

(2) OT laws do apply as proto-types for society

The law was not only to convict and constrain Israel, but to commend Israel too. Have a look from Deuteronomy 4v6-8.

King Alfred the Great is credited as bringing the birth of our nation into being. And part of that was a law code, called the “Doom” book. It makes much of justice – of protecting the weak and dealing with people fairly, whether poor or rich. And it is accepted that this had a significant impact in ensuring subsequent British law has been just and fair.

Well there’s no surprise for guessing where Alfred got his inspiration. Essentially he gathered and updated the laws from three other Christian Saxon kingdoms. But he did it on the basis of God’s law. The Doom Book began with an introduction containing the Ten Commandments in English, the Mosaic Law from Exodus 21 to 23, Jesus’ call to do to others as you would have them do to you. He even included a brief account of apostolic history and the growth of Christian law among Christian nations.

Despite the way the law reflected Israel’s particular calling, culture, circumstances and covenant, God teaches there are aspects to it that other societies should want to emulate. More than that, they are accountable to him if they don’t live by these things.

So Leviticus 18v24-28 tells us the Canaanite nations were driven out by God for sexual practices that contravened God’s laws earlier in the chapter. This tells us that the law’s teaching on sex is different from its teaching on foods. The teaching on foods applies only to Israel back then, because it reflected her particular calling as a holy nation. But the teaching on sex is more foundational, applying to other cultures and circumstances too.

Isaiah implies wider application should be our default position with God’s law if it is not geared to Israel’s special calling. Isaiah 24v5 tells us the final judgment will come because humanity have “disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant.” More positively we are told that “righteousness exalts a nation” (Prov 14v34) and that good rule is one that reflects God’s righteousness (Prov 8v15-21) – where righteousness what is reflected in Israel’s laws (Deut 4v8).

The heart of God’s law is his concern that Israel are like him: “Be holy as I am holy” he says again and again. Now he created all humanity to image him and to rule or govern on that basis. So, it follows that the laws that are not geared simply to Israel’s unique calling, reflect his righteous character. They show what it looks like to image God in Israel’s context. And so, as long as we account for legitimate changes of context, these laws can and should be applied to any society. This is just the point Chris Wright makes so clearly in his book “Living as the people of God.” Living in the land under God’s rule, Israel are a paradigm of humanity in general living on the earth in accountability to God as patterned in Eden. In his NT biblical theology Greg Beale makes the same point, saying that by describing Israel as his son, the Lord was portraying them as a corporate Adam, who was son of God. What follows is that their life under the law manifested what the societal life of human beings should rightly look like in their context – a paradigm then, for applying its principles to any nation.  

In terms of humanity’s accountability, we must recognize that the Ten Commandments have a central place. Take a look at Deuteronomy 4v12-13.

The importance of the Ten Commandments is highlighted in two ways. First, can you see God declared them personally. At Mount Sinai, the people heard him recite them himself. Second, God wrote them personally. Can you see that? Elsewhere we’re told the “finger of God” inscribed them on the stone. Now God doesn’t have fingers – so this probably refers to some miraculous way Moses saw the words appear.

When you read through Israel’s laws you realize that they are basically these Ten Commandments, but applied to Israel particular situation. And so it is entirely fitting for us to consider ethics, by considering these commandments – how they were applied to Israel’s society, and then how they might therefore apply to our own.

We have become so used to secularism that the relevance of OT law for society, assumed by Christians in the past, is so often ignored by Christians today. But it is an historic fact that Western Society flourishes on borrowed capital from Christianity. This is symbolised by the fact that British monarchs are charged at their coronation to keep "mindful of the Law and Gospel of God as the Rule for the whole life and government of Christian princes." Even Angela Merkel recognizes it, commenting that the problem with cohesion in Europe is “not too much Islam" but "too little Christianity.” Again, in his book "Time of Transitions" the sociologist and thinker Jurgen Habermas writes: "Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct heir of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love...To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk."

So we ignore the law of God as a society at our peril. Yet, having said this, how we talk of the law in society is important. First, we should do it with realism – recognizing that without the regenerating work of the Spirit that comes through faith in Christ, people will break these laws. And when unbelievers do, we should not act surprised, which is to imply to our society that people are better than they are, and can actually do good. Instead we should explain that this is the reality of sin that God’s law highlights. Second, we should speak of the law without moralism. We must be clear that better keeping these laws is good, but it isn’t the way to God’s favour and acceptance because we can never keep them fully. Rather we need the forgiving and renewing work of Christ.

(3) OT laws do apply as principles for the heart

Turn now, would you, to our second reading in Matthew 5v17-20. Here we see the change Jesus has brought.

As elsewhere, we see his high view of the Old Testament. Verse 18: It is accurate, authoritative and continually relevant down to the least serif used in the Hebrew lettering. So, verse 19: Every single command of the law must still be obeyed and taught in the church. But, there is a difference. It’s there in verse 17.

The meaning of these words is much debated. But their sense is most probably this: We are not called to obey and teach God’s laws as if Jesus had never come. No we are to teach and obey it giving due weight to how his life, death and resurrection confirm and deepen our understanding of them - of their purpose, and of whether or not they are applicable in different contexts.

Verse 17 implies Jesus fulfils the law in a similar manner to which he fulfils the prophets. In other words, he is the point they were looking to – their goal. Together they gave detail about God’s coming king and kingdom. So no law is abolished in its relevance. But some are relevant in what they reveal about God’s king and the nature of his kingdom. Whereas others are relevant in revealing the way the subjects of that kingdom are to live.

It’s rather like looking at light rays refracted through a prism. Every ray or law is significant. Yet we see the particular significance of each so much more clearly and brilliantly through the prism of Christ.

Now key here, is understanding the nature of Christ’s kingdom as opposed to the Old Testament kingdom of Israel. Christ’s kingdom is one in which the Holy Spirit is active, fulfilling the promise of Jeremiah 31 in “writing God’s law on the heart” – which is described in Ephesians 4v24 as being “re-created to be like God, in true righteousness and holiness.”

The logic is this: Acting according to the law written on the heart is the same as acting according to God’s righteous character from the heart.

The Old Testament law only applied the image of God outwardly. But by considering the principle behind it, we are now to apply it to Christians inwardly too.

So in what follows Jesus immediately teaches he is not just concerned with the outer acts of murder and adultery, but the inner acts of hatred and lust. This deepening of God’s law to a higher standard for Christians is I think the key to the whole chapter. But note, it’s not just what some term the “moral” laws that Jesus says must be taught and kept. It is all God’s law. And so we find the NT apply the principle of generous thankfulness in the OT offerings to offering ourselves and our money to God (Rom 12v-12, Phil 4v18). It applies the need for making an atoning sacrifice and for being cleansed by ritual washing to our need to draw close to God on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice (Heb 10v22). It applies the command not to touch what is unclean to being set-apart from unbelievers (2 Cor 6v17).

Perhaps more than any other, I have found Doug Moo’s understanding of the law most helpful. But here we must part from it. He seems to join others in speaking only of the abiding relevance of the law’s moral aspects. But he also states that these should only be applied to the Christian where Jesus or the apostles apply them and not in other circumstances. It is this that he says is meant by “the law of Christ.” But we have seen that all the law applies through Christ. And so we must see the instances where Jesus and the apostles apply it as not exhaustive but exemplary – providing a methodology for how we should apply other aspects of the law too.

And it is of course the standard of love that is critical here. Jesus made this so clear by saying that love for God and neighbour sums up all the commandments. And Paul stated that “love fulfils the law.”

Personally, I think it is this that Paul means by “the law of Christ”: The law of Christ comprises the love principles reflected in the Old Testament law applied to the Christian through Christ. So Paul speaks of the law of Christ when urging Christians to bear each others burdens – and act of love (Gal 6v1-2). And we should note that the only command or law Jesus declared “new” was his command to “love one-another” (Jn 13v34). This makes much sense as love is the essence of what it is to image God. And so we might define God's law as "love applied" - understanding this of course by the definition of love in scripture, not that of any society.

As we deal with each commandment then, we’re going to consider the love principles reflected in it, and not only apply them ethically to wider society allowing for changes in context, but to our hearts as Christians too, allowing for the change in covenant.

Our need of grace

But in this, we must never forget it comes to us through Christ. And so we can’t consider the law without first considering grace. We seek to obey it not to earn or deserve our salvation, but because we have already received it. We’ve been forgive our sins, and brought into Christ’s kingdom. We therefore obey because we love him as our King and are filled with his own Spirit.

And so as the Ten Commandments convict us of our sin, we must do two things: Seek Christ’s forgiveness in full confidence if we are repentant. And pray for his help, recognizing that if we would be more faithfulness to him, we can’t do it without the insight, energy and love for God and others only his Spirit gives.