Mosaic Law in the New Testament

    This study seeks to examine the degree to which the Law of Moses, the Torah (instruction), has force in the New Testament. Does the Law still have force in the New Testament or had it been superseded?

Old Testament background
    The Law of Moses stood at the centre of the religion of the Old Testament. Deuteronomy chapter 30 well illustrates this centrality. In this chapter God's statutes and ordinances are God's "near word", v11-14. They mark out the path along which God's obedient servants must walk if they are to enjoy the life-giving benediction of God, v15-20.
    Yet even within the pages of the Old Testament an important distinction occurs more than once. The distinction is between the central "moral" concerns of the Law and the more peripheral aspects of "ceremonial" Law, 1Sam.15; 22; Hos.6:6, Mic.6:6-8; Isa.1:11-20, Am.5:21-24. This distinction even includes the rite of circumcision, Deut.10:16, 30:6, Jer.4:4, 9:26.

Mosaic Law and the teachings of Jesus
    Jesus in the gospels stands within the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament as one who elucidates and expounds the Law of Moses. Although from one point of view He introduces something radically new (the era of fulfillment, Matt.11:11-13), it remains true that Jesus stands in the tradition of the Old Testament prophet, impressing upon his hearers the need to obey the divine word. Whatever differences the gospel of the Kingdom introduced, neglect of the Law was not one of them, Matt.4:23. On the contrary, He stressed its permanence, Matt.5:17-19. Even the Scribes and Pharisees, of whom Jesus was so critical, are acknowledged by him to be teachers in the succession of Moses. Their words should be obeyed, Matt.23:1-3.
    On at least three occasions Jesus cites the rabbinical summary of the Law in discussions concerning eternal life, Mk.12:28-34, Lk.10:25-37; 18:18-30. On each occasion a right understanding of, and obedience to the Law, is crucial to the question being discussed.
1. The use of the Law in the teachings of Jesus
    There are four observations which we may make at this stage about the use to which Jesus puts the Law in His teaching:

    i] Jesus employed the rabbinical summary of the Law as an adequate expression of the central obligations binding upon the Israelite, Mk.12:28ff. In addition, and in the same context, he commends his questioner for emphasising the Old Testament perspective: "to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams", 1Sam.15:22 cf. Mk.12:33f. In other words there are central obligations which must be fulfilled even if this means that certain details of ceremony have to be ignored. Not all the law is of the same importance, cf. Math.12:1-8.

    ii] Jesus' charge against the Pharisees was that they had failed at precisely this point. They paid attention to external rituals while ignoring their main responsibilities, Matt.9:11-13,122:2-7;23:23f. The "weightier matters" of the Law, its central emphases, were bypassed while the relatively less important regulations were attentively followed. "Insect-law" was dutifully fulfilled while "Camel-law" was not, Matt.23:24. In fact the Pharisee arrived at this disobedient pattern of life in two ways: First, he allowed the lesser obligation to replace the greater, Lk.10:25-37). Second, he even translated the greater obligation into the less, Lk.18:11-12. By such measures as these (issuing in disobedience) the Pharisee was able to "justify himself" in the presence of God, Lk.18:9-14.

    iii] Jesus was a consistent expositor of the weightier matters of the law, Matt.5:17-48. He thereby illustrates just how extensive are the claims of the Law upon the lives of people. Taking the Law seriously, at the level at which Jesus expounds it, the disciple is called upon to exhibit a "righteousness" which will exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees, Matt.5:20. There is no substitute for the genuine doing of the Father's will, Matt.7:21.

    iv] Jesus constantly moved his exposition of the Law toward ideals which were beyond obedience. The Sermon on the Mount serves as the best example of this "exceeding righteousness", which in the end only Jesus is able to do, and which therefore defines him as the only person who has the right to "enter the kingdom of God." We may be able to obey the command "do not murder", but who can refrain from anger? We may be able to obey the command "do not commit adultery", but who can refrain from lust? Even Jesus' "law" on divorce moves into the realm of ideals. Jesus' "exceeding righteousness" reveals God's purity, but also our corruption. In so doing Jesus "fulfills" the Law in the sense of the Law's function of exposing sin and so driving the lost sinner to God for mercy, Matt.5:17-20.

    v] Jesus constantly pointed beyond obedience toward repentance. The preaching of Jesus contained this emphasis as its very centre, Mk.1:14-15. His illustrations of the Prodigal son, Lk.15:11-23, and the tax collector, Lk.18:13-14, as well as his appeals based on the Galilaean and Siloam disasters, Lk.13:1-5, more than adequately confirm this emphasis. It would seem from these passages, and many more besides, that there can be no enjoyment of the benefits of the Kingdom apart from this penitential response to the gospel. The demands of the Law are such that disobedience, along with the subsequent application of God's curse, is the inevitable outcome for anyone who is "under" the Law. Only a repentance which rests on God's grace of mercy and forgiveness, is able to save the sinner. This, of course, is the substance of the gospel, and it is to this end that the Law seeks to bring us.

2. Who are the righteous who need no repentance?
    We need to consider a related issue found in point IV above. If repentance is the proper response to the demands of the moral Law, and Jesus is not summoning his generation to a level of perfect obedience as the necessary condition for their salvation, who then are the "ninety and nine righteous persons which need no repentance", Lk.15:7? Who are the healthy ones who "have no need of a physician", Lk.5:31? The answer is that they are the ones who have declared themselves as having already achieved a level of perfect obedience to "Insect" Law, Lk.5:30, 15:2. These are the very ones to whom Jesus speaks and to whom he reveals the almost frightening scope and depth of the Law which they believe they are fulfilling, Lk.10:25ff; 18:18ff. Had the Pharisee in Luke18:10 realised the extent of his failure he would have joined the tax collector and prayed for mercy. Access to the Kingdom of God begins with a recognition of one's spiritual poverty, along with a penitential reception of God's mercy, Matt.5:3. None of Jesus' expositions of the Law conflict with this emphasis. In the gospels there is no grand highway of obedience to the Law which bypasses the place of repentance and leads into the Kingdom of God.

Mosaic Law in the teachings of Paul
    Paul's background was pharisaical, Phil.3:5, and he was not insensitive to the genuine advantages which the Law gave to the Jew of the first century, especially in a pagan environment, Rom.2:17-20. There can be little doubt that in his preconversion days, Paul himself had a "reductionist" (or "transformist") approach to the Law (attention to "Insect-Law") which made a certain kind of righteousness possible, Phil.3:6. In those days Paul may not have had the insight or the honesty to admit that his own law-abiding contemporaries were failing so conspicuously to render the obedience which was required of them, Rom.2:21-24; Gal.6:13.

1. Functions of the Law
    Paul's experience on the Damascus Road was the decisive turning point in his life. In the aftermath of this revolutionary event, we may note the following points:

    i] Paul admitted that the impact of the Law of God upon his life was devastating and he now refused to adopt any "transformist" or "reductionist" methods of evading its implications, Rom.7:7-24. His old-time response to the Law, leading to the goal of self-justification, was not available any more, Rom.10:1-3.

    ii] This understanding is coupled with the recognition of the role of Jesus in providing the justification for the sinner under the condemnation of the Law. Jesus Christ had brought to a manifest end the apparent function of the Law as the route to righteousness. Our righteous standing before God, in the theology of St.Paul, is brought about by our response of faith to Jesus Christ, Rom.10:4-13; Gal.21-26.

    iii] Paul now sees the role of the Law as twofold:
        a) It provokes a consciousness of sin and thereby drives the sinner to hold on to God's mercy in Christ, Gal.3:21-24.
        b) It provides a guide to the Christian life which is now lived through the energizing work of the Spirit of God, Rom.3:2; 7:6; 8:4.

    iv] St.Paul follows the Old Testament precedent, found clearly in the teachings of Jesus, of laying the emphasis on the "weightier matters of the Law" and, as he does so, he does not hesitate to illustrate the scope of these "weightier matters" by using rather freely several of the sayings of Jesus, Rom.12:10-21, 13:8-10, Gal.5:14. To "love one's neighbour" is, at depth, a far-reaching and all-inclusive imperative both in the teaching of Jesus and St.Paul.

    v] Paul recognised the more peripheral character of the "lesser matters" ("Insect Law") and taught two things of considerable importance in this regard:
        a) The child of God should not knowingly offend weaker brethren by being indifferent to their scruples, Rom.14:1-23, 1Cor.8; 10:14-3;
        b) Paul explained that his own policy was to adapt himself to the Law's requirements when amongst his own countrymen if it meant that this improved his chances of reaching them with the gospel, 1Cor.9:20f., Act.21:17-26.

2. "Without Law" and "Under the Law of Christ".
    Two final matters remain to be discussed: What is meant by Pauls' phrases "not under Law", Rom.6:14-15, and "without Law", 1Cor.9:21? What is meant by his phrases "Law of Christ", Gal.6:2, and "Under Law to Christ", 1Cor.9:21?

    i] "Not under Law". To be "not under Law" seems to involve three things:
        a) Not to be bound by the details of peripheral law, e.g. the "externals" of foods, circumcision, and even Sabbaths, Rom.14:5-6, Col.2:16ff
        b) Not to be bound to fulfil the Law in order to obtain salvation. Obedience to the Law does not achieve justification, Rom.1-11, Gal., etc.
        c) Not to be bound by the Law as a means of progressing sanctification, progressing Christ-likeness, holiness.
    Pauls' thinking moved straight to "Camel-Law". His approach was not one of fear (which generates bondage), but of gratitude and determination, 1Cor.9:26f. He knew that on the basis of the obedience of Christ he was graciously declared righteous, and that through the enabling power of the Holy Spirit that righteousness was daily shaped in him - "by grace through faith". He was, in his new-found sonship, "under Law to Christ", Gal.4:1-7.

    ii] "Law of Christ". The "Law of Christ" in Galatians 6:2 probably incorporates the following two ideas:
        a) It refers to the commandment of Christ about brotherly love exhibited in acceptance of a brother, mercy, forgiveness...., Jn.13:12-17, 34-35, 14:15, 15:12. Cf. Mk.9:35, 10:42-45.
        b) It refers to "law" in the sense of principle. "The obedience of faith" wins salvation, not the obedience of "Law righteousness", Rom.1:5. "We serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code", Rom.7:6. "The law (in the sense of a principle) of the Spirit sets me free from the law (again principle) of sin and death", Rom.8:2.
    As the Law of God is good, Rom.7:16, 22, 25, reflecting the very character of God, so we aim to be Holy as He is Holy, 1Pet.1:15-16. We delight in the Law of God in the inner man, Rom.7:22, being conformed to the image of His Son, Rom.8:29.

The Law in James
    For James, obedience to the Law of God is the sign of true faith. He, like Jesus and Paul, emphasises the weightier matters of the Law summarized in the Law of Love, Jam.2:8, and expands it to include some of the explicit commands, Jam.2:12. For James, the Christian will be judged by it, Jam.2:12, therefore we should live it, Jam.1:25, 4:11.

The Law in 1 John
    John christianizes the rabbinical summary of the Law to read - believe in Jesus and love one another, 1Jn.4:23. The Christian life should be lived to that end, 1Jn,2:3,4, 3:22,24 5:23. Only in this way is the love of God truly perfected, 1Jn.2:5. Those who live contrary to the Law of love do not know God, 1Jn.2:4, 4:8.

    We began by asking the question, does the Old Testament Law still have force in the New Testament, or had it been superseded? The answer to this question falls into two parts:

    i] In the New Testament some of the Laws of Moses are seen as a useful guide to the Christian life, while some aren't. The New Testament retains and emphasizes the Old Testament distinction between primary and secondary matters of human obligation. This is the distinction which Jesus employs when He accuses the legalists of swallowing camels while they strain out insects, Matt.23:23-24. Jesus emphasizes the weightier matters of the Law in his acceptance of the rabbinic summary of the Law in terms of love to God and neighbour, Mk.12:28-34. God's demands fall not upon the externals of ritual and formal procedure, but upon the heart. This is the "just requirement of the Law", and it should represent the direction of a believer's life, Rom.8:4. So in the New Testament the weightier matters of the Mosaic Law are restated to serve as guides for the Christian life, lived out in and through the power of the indwelling Spirit of Christ. They serve as signposts for Christian living.

    ii] In the New Testament the Mosaic Law is not portrayed as a means of grace, either for justification or sanctification. Of course, the Old Testament itself never suggested the Law served that end. The Law's primary purpose is to expose sinfulness, to convey the "curse" of God's condemnation upon sin, and thus lead the sinner toward repentance and the grace of God's free forgiveness in Christ. The New Testament stresses that both reconciliation to God and growth in holiness can never be achieved by obeying the Law. This, Paul argues, was always true, even in the Old Testament, Gal.3-4. The Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14 grasped the Old Testament truth of God's grace and forgiveness more than the Pharisee who made the fatal mistake of using the Law as a ladder to God. The Pharisee's mistake involved two maneuvers. He modified the Old Testament's indictment against sinful human nature so as to accommodate his optimistic anthropology, and he modified the demands of the Law so as to make it's fulfillment possible. Paul's declaration that a Law-based righteousness is not good enough, Phil.3:9, had the effect of driving home the Old Testament truth of God's grace, Rom.7:7-25. The Law could never be misinterpreted in a Pharisaic way again in the light of Christ's death and resurrection.

    For the New Testament the Law does not offer a route to salvation, Rom.10:4, Gal.3:24. Yet it still details, in its "camel" aspects at least, the pattern of life which the child of God should press toward in their daily life, in the power of the indwelling Spirit of Christ. This "just requirement of the Law" is typically illustrated in Matthew 5:17-7:27 or Romans 12:1-15:13. The New Testament does not devalue the Mosaic Law, rather it underlines its two purposes, first as a guide to the Christian life, and second as a tool to expose sin and thus our need for a saviour.

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