If you spend any time online, you’ve probably encountered someone who believes in a doctrine radically different from what you have been taught about the Bible. They may believe you shouldn’t eat pork, shellfish (or sometimes any meat at all). Some believe you must only use Hebrew names and terms for God. Many are quick to recite different aspects of Old Testament law that you’ve never noticed or considered. The loudest say if you don’t follow the law in full, you aren’t really a believer. There’s a number of different interpretations and theories, but they all have one thing in common: they believe that the law, in whole or in part, is still applicable for Christians (or believers, if they don’t call themselves Christians) today. They feel that if you do not follow their understanding of the law, you cannot be saved.
There is one thing they get right. Atheists and agnostics also often get it right more often than Christians do: we do need to have some understanding of the law. I believe these groups continue to emerge because we don’t really have a very good understanding of the law as Christians.
I think we overlook the law because we think it’s complicated. It wasn’t until I set out to write the original version of my book, Ministering to LGBTQ (and Those Who Love Them) that I took any interest in trying to understand Biblical law. In so doing, I discovered that there is a principle of Biblical law we don’t understand because we are busy trying to figure out how the specific laws do or don’t apply today. And while a blog certainly can’t cover the full intricacies of the law, there are some basics we can gain on understanding the law as Christians.
The basics of Biblical law
The term “law” is used a few different ways in the Bible. It’s important to understand these different contexts so as to better understand what “law” actually is.
When Jesus, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees spoke of the “law,” they were not just referring to specific edicts found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. The “law” is a reference to the Torah, or Pentateuch, which consists of the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The use of it as the term “law” is not a reference to law as we understand law or regulation today, but the foundational establishment and understanding for the Hebrew people as those selected and set apart by God.
The Torah “law” within modern Jewish tradition also accepts and includes rabbinical commentary on the meaning of the Torah, which is held on par with the written word of the Biblical writings. (This will be important later.)
The “law” is also a reference to the specific 613 commandments given in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. When we think of the “law,” this is often what we think about. The commands given range from issues that seem practical to absurd by modern standards, and relate to things spiritual, practical, governmental, legal, hygienic, and interpersonal.
The Ten Commandments are not a separate part or a separate part of the 613 commandments. They are not special, nor detached, from the rest of the law. Rather than a summary, they are an introduction to the law that was later to come. Technically, there are not ten commandments cited, but nine. In certain Jewish traditions, the division of the ten saying varies further, reducing the number. For our purposes, this doesn’t matter.
Jewish “law,” as is understood today, is based on the traditions of the rabbis and is now known as the Talmud. The Talmud is a collection of interpretations of the law, social regulations, cultural commentaries, and general guidelines for interactions with others. It is related to the writings on the Talmud mentioned above and was known as “traditions” or “traditions of men” in dialogues between Jesus and the Pharisees.
And now, let confusion about the law begin.
The law in a literal sense
In Biblical times, the lines between “sacred” and “secular” didn’t exist. Everything was seen as part of spiritual understanding. One’s life revolved around the gods they served. Thus, the immediate purpose of the law was to separate Israel from its neighbors. Leviticus 15:31 summarizes the purpose of the law well: “‘You must keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling My dwelling place, which is among them.’” (NIV) In other words, the law’s on-paper-text purpose was to ensure the Israelites didn’t fall into idolatry. Without going into this matter in-depth, a good portion of the law – including that which defines things as “clean” or “unclean” – relates to idolatrous rites, rituals, and customs of nations that didn’t worship Israel’s God. Because God dwelt among Israel, Israel had to ensure it wasn’t adopting the practices of foreign deities.
Let’s also not forget that the nation of Israel was a literal nation, not a church. They had to deal with things such as borders, legal codes, boundaries, armies, and national enemies. For this reason, the law doesn’t just contain spiritual or moral codes. There are also regulations about military and political life, marriage customs, divorce, and other legal matters that were part of Israel’s custom.
The law in perspective
Understanding the law isn’t achievable in a few minutes. The law is confusing without context; sometimes it’s hard to understand even with context. It’s my personal belief that’s part of its point. Parts of it appear to contradict other parts. A thorough study of Biblical history proves the Israelites never, at any point of their history, followed the law completely. No one ever embodied the principle of the law in full, even when they understood its complexities in the most intricate of ways. Instead, they sought to find ways around the law, exceptions and clarifications, to try to make the law apply to some, and not others.
As human beings, we can’t understand the law in full. There was no way that, on an average day, a person could follow all 613 laws and not screw any of them up. We can’t follow it in full. That must mean God had another purpose all together when it comes to the law.
From the beginning…
From the very beginning, human beings have always sought their own independence. In the name of doing things themselves, Adam and Eve sacrificed relationship with God. If we look at Bible history, it wouldn’t take long for humans to desire God’s benefits through their own willful means.The law provides restitution for human behavior; it reveals what’s required when people do things on their own, without God.
As a result, the law isn’t quite as arbitrary as we might think. We might think it strange that God specifically told the Israelites not to eat a bat or prohibited mixing of fabrics, but these were things their neighbors did. People lived on basic human instinct: they were self-centered, out for themselves, and failed to consider consideration of others. They ate what was available and gave no thought to hygiene. We know from reading the Old Testament that the Israelites had a bad habit of doing what others around them did, thus the law focuses a lot on doing things differently from other nations. God knew with foreknowledge that the Israelites would fail, and thus the law – all about restitution – created an avenue for rectification.
From a spiritual perspective, the law reveals human nature. In it, God gave humanity enough information to show human nature so we would realize we can’t do it ourselves. Enter Jesus, the only One ever Who could serve as the fulfillment of the law.
Jesus as fulfillment of the law
As believers, we should never assume to know more about God’s law than God does. God gave the law; He spoke it Himself, by His Word. Jesus, as the Word, saw what happened to interpretation of the law down the ages. Human nature, rearing its ugly head again, interpreted the law as they saw fit. As a result, Jesus didn’t follow the law; He was the fulfillment of it. Jesus was the promise of the law, the solution for it. If we can’t do it ourselves, God had to do it for us Himself. Thus, the law and its limitations brings out our own shortcomings; failings; sinfulness; and, above all, that salvation is impossible for us to accomplish ourselves. As Christians, the law reminds us of our own limitations, bound by human nature.
That is an aspect of the law that makes us uncomfortable. None of us have ever followed the law in full, and none of us ever will. This is the central point of Christ: we can’t do any of this without God. No matter how much we hope, pray, think, or follow rules, we won’t do it perfectly. If it was as simple as following a law, then Christ’s intervention would have been null.
Instead, we find Christ as the law’s fulfillment and our fulfillment. He is the answer to the longing of our hearts. His perfection doesn’t dispel us; rather, it draws us. He’s not just a solution; Christ is, to all things we need, our ultimate spiritual answer.
…Then why have the law?
None of this means the law is bad or useless. It simply means the law’s purpose is much deeper than any of us consider. The law forces us to look at ourselves and recognize our own limitations. There is a difference from seeing the law as a teacher versus seeing it as an enforceable legislation.
Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator… So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. (Galatians 3:19,24-25, NIV)
The Greek word for “guardian” in this passage literally refers to a slave who was responsible for the moral guidance and discipline for children. The law, therefore, serves as a guardian; one that provides moral guidance and discipline (legal restitution) without the work of Christ in one’s life. There is nothing wrong with seeing value in the law as a moral teacher, providing spiritual lessons to benefit us even though we aren’t subject to the law. It also doesn’t mean it’s wrong to respect the beliefs others have about the law. For example, it might serve as a witness to avoid eating pork with someone who finds such offensive. But when it comes to our own relationship with God, we now follow Christ through the Holy Ghost, Who leads us into all truth.
We are a part of the church, is His body. In that Body, we are in Christ. Here, we are part of Him, and He of us. We are one, which means we are in relationship with Him. As Christians, the law shows us why we need this relationship.
The law leads us to Christ
Much of the law has no practical or literal application today (even if we want it to). God knew we would need something better when He gave the law. That’s why God gives us something better.
Clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart. And we have such trust through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, Who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:3-6, NKJV)
The law, as complicated as it is, displays a path by which Christ came into this world. Through history’s moral failings, we find Christ waiting at the end of their line. The law led to death, as it convicted of sin; Christ offers life. Seeing the supremacy of Christ over the law doesn’t mean we never sin. For this, we thank God for relationship and His guidance beyond regulations established thousands of years ago. Through the Spirit, the Lord’s direction lead us to what we should do and be…all because He is with us. We die daily; not once, and then it’s over. We die to sin and rise with Him, constantly striving for that better relationship in Him and with Him.
The law for Christians in conclusion
Studying the law as Christians is essential. Even in Biblical times, the Israelites acknowledged the importance of Scriptural guidance. As Christians, the law shows us our experiences aren’t that different. Sure, we don’t ride on camels and wear bed sheets, but we still deal with issues present in the law. Whether we want to defraud our neighbor or worship the idols around us, we still battle with issues of the heart, even now. We still, as the ancients did, want our way. Seeking to justify as Christians through law won’t work. Instead of using it for division, let’s use it for its purpose: to find Christ, over and over again, in our every need.