Law and Meaning
But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies,
and contentions, and strivings about the law;
for they are unprofitable and vain (Titus 3:9).
In religion, the very existence of a law is an invitation to legalism. When Paul wrote, warning Titus to avoid foolish striving about the law, he was addressing the then common Jewish custom of endless debate over fine points of law. It was this kind of debate that later found expression in the Mishnah and finally the Talmud.
I have to believe that there were some contentions about the law from the earliest days of the Christian faith. That should not be surprising, because the earliest church was comprised entirely of Jews, soon joined by “God Fearers”—non-Jews who nevertheless believed in the God of the Bible, and loosely practiced Judaism. We know there were Pharisees who became believers, and we are fully justified in assuming that there were Sadducees as well. In fact, there is reason to believe that the new Christian faith cut across every facet of Judaism. That being the case, it is reasonable to assume that controversies involving the law followed in due course. It could hardly have been otherwise.
Consider, then, the dilemma of any Christian who takes the view that the law has not been abolished. He has firm grounds for that conclusion, since Jesus affirms it in the Sermon on the mount. We cited this before, but here it is again:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished (Matthew 5:17-18 NIV).
Some awkward problems present themselves when you try to live by this. For example, the law forbids the mingling of fabrics together in the making of a garment. One fellow, sincerely wanting to do the right thing, became concerned about whether the elastic around the band of the top of the socks would constitute the mixing of fabrics together. The story had it that he removed all the elastic from his socks. I don’t know what he used to keep them up.
I have long been an advocate for reading the Old Testament, but once people start reading it seriously, all manner of questions start arising about the law. There is a strong temptation to attempt answers to all those questions and thus create a new Talmud. Resisting that temptation, we still need to find a way to heed what Jesus said, to read the law with understanding and learn what it reveals to us about God, his character, and what he expects of us in living a life.
A friend once asked me, “Why it is that we play hopscotch through the Old Testament, picking up this law and dropping the one right next to it?” I thought the question was reasonable. In essence what he was asking was this: “What are the criteria we use to decide which Old Testament laws we will keep and which we will ignore?” It is an important question because, truth to tell, every serious Christian does precisely that.
Ever since the beginning of the Christian faith, theologians and teachers have attempted to address the question. Various and sundry dissections of the law have been suggested in an effort to rationalize what we do. For example, no one is going to argue that the law, “Thou shalt not steal,” is of no import to Christians. But when it comes to a law that requires a blue tassel on the fringes of our clothes, we will probably find dissenters.
Some people try to solve the problem by making a distinction between the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law. In other words, the Ten Commandments are valid, but the rest of the law is not. Others attempt to distinguish between the law of God on the one hand and the Law of Moses on the other, feeling that if a statement can be identified as the law of God, you should keep it; but if it is part of the Law of Moses, then it’s abolished. Still others distinguish between what they call “the moral law” and “the ceremonial law.” They try to make the distinction based upon whether or not it is a ceremony, a ritual, or a sacrifice. These, they argue, are done away whereas the other aspects of the law are not.
Still another denomination contends that all of the law was nailed to the cross, including the Ten Commandments. They then go on to explain that nine of the commandments were “reinstated” in the New Testament. It is the Sabbath commandment that didn’t make the cut.
With typical wrongheadedness, we often make big issues out of things that aren’t very important while we give too little attention to more serious matters. It is tempting to ask, “Do I have to do this?” rather than ask “What does this mean? What lies behind it? What is the underlying principle? How might it apply in real life?”
Too few people ever get around to asking the immortal, “Why?” To me, that is the truly interesting question when it comes to the law. When I read the Old Testament and encounter an obscure law, I stop and ask, “Why did God say that?” I can’t see any way to apply the law in the here and now, but the natural question that follows is, “Why was this a law in the first place?” I have come up with some intriguing questions, though not quite so many answers.
I spotted a bumper sticker once that proclaimed proudly, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it for me.” That makes life much simpler, but the fellow driving the car might well be wearing wool and Dacron slacks. He probably has no idea that God handed down a law of mixed fabrics. Yes, God said it. Yes, he believes it. But so far, he hasn’t done it. He has likely overlooked the importance of understanding those things that God has said. Solomon wrote: “Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding” (Proverbs 4:7 NIV).
Blind obedience may be better than no obedience at all. Sometimes you don’t know the reason behind a law until the consequences come home to roost. But still, obedience with understanding is better. Without it, you may cause actual harm in your attempts at righteousness.
A guiding light for me is that passage in Jeremiah cited on the very first page of this book: “. . . Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me . . .” (Jeremiah 9:23-24 NIV).
It seems to me that it is in the study of the Law of God that we have a great opportunity for coming to understand the character of God, what he stands for, and why he did some of the things he did.
The Basic Assumption: No Bad Laws
I have approached the study of the law with a basic assumption. One should always be alert to an author’s assumptions, so I’m giving you one of mine right up front. I am assuming that God would not and did not ever give man a law that was bad for man.
Readers of the King James Version may object, citing Ezekiel: “Wherefore I gave them also statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live” (Ezekiel 20:25 KJV). But this flies in the face of the character of God and what we see and know of God. As it happens, the King James guys got it wrong. Read it in context in another version:
Because they had not obeyed my laws but had rejected my decrees and desecrated my Sabbaths, and their eyes lusted after their fathers' idols. I also gave them over to statutes that were not good and laws they could not live by (Ezekiel 20:24-25 NIV).
God did not hand down a set of bad laws when they disobeyed the original. He gave them up to other laws, including the laws they made for themselves. So I can retain my premise. All of God’s law, as originally written, was good for man. Then, I can ask an important question about any given law: “Why is this law good?” Proceeding along these lines, I find some interesting questions and some important answers.
Here is another premise I bring to the study of the law: The Law of God is not arbitrary. I get the impression that some people think God sat back one day and said to himself, “Now let’s see. These people need some laws. And I must determine what is going to be right and what is going to be wrong.”
Some seem to approach the law like teenagers fighting a parent’s rules. They think God said, “This act is fun so I will make it wrong.” God, they think, doesn’t want us to have any fun. If God were arbitrary, he could have taken the things that were fun and made them right and taken the things that were not fun and made them wrong. That would have made life a lot simpler for all of us, not to mention a lot more fun.
I think we can all agree that God, who made man, knows man. And as an old mentor of mine used to put it, “the Bible is God’s instruction book to man.” He compared the Bible to the instruction book that comes along with a new car. It tells you what kind of oil to put in it, what pressure should be maintained in the tires, what grade of fuel you must use, what periodic maintenance is needed, and how to operate all the features. If you accept the premise that the Bible is God’s instruction book, then it follows that God, having created man, then began to communicate to man a way of life, a way of living, and things to do that were good for man, things that would save him from hurt, from trouble, and from the heartache that might come his way. And so, we proceed from this premise to the conclusion that when God speaks to man, he tells him something that is good for man.
But, there is a fly in the ointment. As you begin to read through the law, you’re going to occasionally find laws that are a little bit, well, annoying. You will find others that are deeply and profoundly troubling. I don’t recall the occasion when I first read the Old Testament laws concerning slavery, but I recall vividly how I felt. I came across this law:
And if a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property (Exodus 21:20-21 NASB).
Here was my question: “How could God take such a callous view of human beings and see them treated as chattel, as property? Why would He do that?” I won’t answer that question right here, but the laws regarding slavery still fall within the assumption that God never gave to man a law that was bad for him. And, since they are a part of the written law, they haven’t gone away.
Our problem is not so much that we are getting the wrong answers as it is that we keep asking the wrong questions. Take this common question, for example: “Is the Law of Moses binding upon Christians?” There are two problems with semantics in the question. What, exactly, does the questioner mean by “the Law of Moses,” and how does the word “binding” apply? Here is another misleading question: “Is keeping the Fourth Commandment [the Sabbath] required for salvation?” The question implies that there are some laws that are required for salvation, an assumption that is theologically unsound. Just change the commandment by one notch and think about the implications: “Is honoring your father and mother required for salvation?”
The error in this line of questioning is that it does not recognize that the purpose of the law is not, and never has been, the achievement of salvation. It was not a salvation issue for Jews, and it is not for Christians. Proceeding from this basic fact, we can ask what a person means when he asks if a given law is “binding” upon Christians. What does the word “binding” mean? Does it mean God requires it of us? If we don’t do it, what happens to us? The question is just another way of asking, “Is this or that law required for salvation?” And that assumes a role for the law that God never intended the law to play.
The best way to get at this question is to illustrate it with one of those Old Testament laws. Try this one: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is a Christian “bound” by this law? It is hard to get at the question by trying to decide what category of law it is. Is it the moral law? Is it ceremonial? There is no ritual involved in the law, and how can it be a question of morality if you feed an ox while he’s actually working instead of feeding him before?
There are more questions. Is this the Law of Moses or is it the Law of God? How would that affect our answer as to whether it is binding? Being where it is in Deuteronomy, it would be part of the Law of Moses. But what if I don’t have an ox? Do I need to go out and buy one? The question is absurd, but nevertheless, it’s the one that has to follow if we are asking if this law is binding upon us. As it happens, Paul reached back in one of his letters, grabbed this law, and revealed in the process an entirely different way of thinking about the law. He said this:
For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn't he? Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? (1 Corinthians 9:9-11 NIV).
One question is answered. This law falls in the category of the Law of Moses. Make a note, though, Paul said it is written there, and that turns out to be more important than you might think. Paul did not see it as an animal rights law. It is not, he said, because God is concerned about the animal. It is for our sakes that it is written (he mentions it twice), and it is written so we can understand that it is right and fitting to compensate our minister.
You can’t argue that this law was nailed to the cross (the common reason for dismissing a law we don’t like). Paul wrote this 25 or more years after everything was nailed to the cross that would ever have been nailed there. Nor can we argue that it is solely Jewish. The law was being applied to a Gentile church. Plainly, it was not nailed to the cross, and it was not “abolished.”
It may be worth looking a little further into Paul’s usage. He took this law out of its Old Testament context, and applied it here as an authority for what he is telling this church of Gentiles. In the broader context, Paul was talking about his own example of avoiding offenses:
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. Don't we have the right to food and drink? (1 Corinthians 9:1-4 NIV).
It is an odd statement on its face, but when taken in context, it is clear enough. The word rendered “right” is exousia, which means “authority” or “privilege.” And as the theme is developed through the chapter, it becomes clear that he meant he had the right to eat and drink at their expense. He appealed to the practice of the other apostles who traveled with a wife and did not work at an ordinary job. “Who ever goes to war at his own expense?” he asked. Then he said something very strange when viewed in the light of modern Christian belief. He appealed to the Law of Moses as an authority. But then the Old Testament was the only Scripture they could appeal to. This is the meaning of the law of the Ox:
Do I say this merely from a human point of view? Doesn't the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn't he? Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? (vv. 8-11 NIV)
It is worth emphasizing that Paul did not appeal to the teachings of Jesus. He didn’t appeal to the Sermon on the Mount. He didn’t appeal to Peter, or the Jerusalem elders. He appealed to the law, and specifically to the Law of Moses. Does this make the Law of Moses somehow binding upon Christians? This was said to people just like us. There were people in Corinth who were not even in agriculture. They may have been craftsmen, merchants, or mine workers. They may have owned vineyards, where they didn’t use animals for their work. Yet Paul wrote that the law was written for their sakes—and ours.
Mind you, a Gentile church was told that a segment of the Law of Moses was “written for our sakes.” It was written, not for oxen, but for the underlying principle:
If others have this right of support from you, shouldn't we have it all the more? But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ. Don't you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel (vv. 12-14 NIV).
I wouldn’t have thought that the church or the Gospel was what God had in mind when he handed down that law of the ox. But in a simple, two line statement God laid down a principle that can stand through all the ages, and across all national or cultural boundaries. It is applicable in any circumstance of human endeavor, that a man should be paid fairly and promptly for what he does.
Now a legalist might have been very careful to ensure that his oxen were not muzzled, while at the same time he failed to pay the man who followed the oxen and tended to them. This kind of thinking comes about because men don’t understand the underlying principle of the law. It is not enough to obey the letter. One must understand the meaning of the law.
This is important because a man might be careful to buy clothes that are 100% wool, thereby establishing his righteousness, while he is sleeping with another man’s wife. If the law is your salvation, you had better keep it all. You can’t just cherry-pick the laws that appeal to you, or that are easier for you. Then there is the fellow who dismisses all Old Testament law and ends up in the same place as the legalist.
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty (James 5:1-4 NIV).
Try another example of Old Testament law: “When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof ” (Deuteronomy 22:8 NIV).
Why on earth, in an age of pitched roofs, would we need to put a parapet around our roof? No one is going up there except repairmen, and they have their own skills and insurance. Maybe this is a law we can safely ignore. Well, not if you have a flat roof and easy access to that roof. If children climb up onto that roof and fall off, you are liable. The principle underlying this law is personal liability. You may not have a flat roof, but you might easily have an elevated deck behind your home. My home is built on a slope, and the back edge of the deck is eight feet above the ground. If anyone fell from that deck, they might well be hurt. I have an obligation to protect my family and guests from falling off the edge of that deck, and that obligation is implicit in the law of parapets. Why would it be abolished? It is implicit in the law that it would apply in any comparable situation in any age.
This law would probably be categorized as civil law by those who divide the law into compartments. But there is nothing wrong with civil law. In fact, one should be held accountable for creating a hazard and for negligence.
So here is a biblical law, thousands of years old, that still has application in the 21st century. The reason some might think it doesn’t apply is because, in our society, flat roofs are a rarity. But if a person is free to build one, the law requires the parapet. It isn’t a matter of legalism, but responsibility for any hazard you create.
It is easy to forget that, in many parts of the world to this day, there are people who not only have flat roofs, they have stairways that go up to them. They go up and sun. The air is fresher up there. They go up and sit in the evening. In fact, I stayed once in a home in Jerusalem that was just so. I think some visitors actually slept on the roof of that house at night because it was so cool once the sun had gone down and the evening breeze began to blow. And it did have a balustrade all around the edges so there was no danger of falling off.
There are, to be sure, parts of the law that would have no application for a man. For example, a single man need not concern himself with any of the laws that might apply to a married man. And laws that pertained to a particular priesthood would have no application if that priesthood were no longer in existence. In the same way, if there’s no Temple, then many of the laws pertaining to the Temple might not have an application. Then, some laws are not applicable because they deal with administrative penalties. Take this one:
If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise (Exodus 21:22-25 NIV).
The idea of cutting off a man’s hand because he caused the loss of a hand is troubling. So troubling that some interpreters have said that the meaning of the law was that the man had to pay the value of the hand. But it should be clear that only a governmental authority could administer such a penalty, either literal or monetary. A church, existing in a land where there is a civil government, has no right to impose civil or criminal penalties. The law is not abolished. But it cannot, it must not, be privately enforced. That has always been true of laws of enforcement.
Nevertheless, the principle is still there. If you cause bodily harm to another through an act of carelessness, anger or neglect, you are responsible. And in the New Covenant, you are held responsible, not merely to the letter of the law, but to the spirit of the law, whether there are civil penalties or not. We’ll talk more later about administrative law and how it affects the relationship between man and God, but for now, I want to consider the implications of thinking about the law.
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