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Nov 29 2012

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The Law – Good, Bad or Ugly?

Sermon: 11-25-12 (Rudy Rentzel)

What is the law?  Most people think they generally have a good idea of what it is, though they might be vague on some of the specifics.  Some think of laws that Congress, or the State Legislature, passes.  Others think of case decisions our courts pass down.  Some even refer to an officer in law enforcement as “the law.”  Some might even think of the body of Old Testament commandments.

For the Hebrews, the phrase, “the law,” tora, usually means the first five books of the Bible, also called “The Pentateuch,” – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  It’s their way of dividing the Old Testament into The Law, The Prophets, and the Writings (often shortened to just The Law & The Prophets).

So in the Bible, sometimes the phrase the law refers to the first five books of the Bible.  Sometimes it refers to the collection of commandments in those five books.  But more often, it refers to the revealed will of God that sets forth a standard for our behavior backed by His authority, and more importantly by His character, so that it’s often called the law of the Lord.

What holds all these uses of the term the law is the concept of a standard for behavior enforceable by authority.  The difference is who sets those standards, who enforces them, and especially what is the basis for the authority behind the law.  A key difference is whether that authority is essentially man-based – or God-based.

Many Christians have a dim view of the law, especially when they read Paul write in Romans (6:14b), “you are not under law, but under grace.”  They get confused when they read in Psalm 19 (verse 7), “The law of the Lord is perfect – refreshing the soul.”  They read some of the Old Testament commandments, and their soul does not exactly feel refreshed.  Or they can’t quite say with one of the Psalmist (119:97), “Oh, how I love your law! – I meditate on it all day long.”  They don’t exactly love the law, and they certainly could think of better things to do than meditate on it all day long.

However, as we saw in our New Testament reading in Romans (7:13), Paul says, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.”  Paul explains in that passage that the problem is not with the law, the problem is with our sinful nature which cannot keep the law. In fact, Paul explains our sinful nature is challenged by the law to violate it.

One way to think about this is that the law reflects the holiness and character of God.  There is no standard behind God by which to judge His law.  God’s own character determines what is right and what is wrong.  His character is built into the very structure of the law.

Jesus well understood this, which is why, as we saw in our Gospel reading, he not only rejected the concept that he came to abolish the law, but he made an extremely strong statement in support of the law.  He further strongly condemned anyone who urged others to break even the least of God’s law.

But someone will say to me, “Wait a minute Rudy! I know that somewhere in the New Testament it says that Christ is the end of the law.  So doesn’t that settle it?  The law is over; at least as far as the Old Testament law goes. Isn’t it?”  However, this is partly a translation problem, as well as a problem of different meanings for the word, “end.”  Let me explain.

The passage they are thinking of is Romans 10:4, which does say in the King James Version, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.”  While even the New International Version used the phrase, end of the law in it’s 1984 translation, it now translates this verse this way, “Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”  The World English Bible translates it this way, “For Christ is the fulfillment of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”  These newer translation gives a better sense of what the end of the law means, and more fits with what Christ said that he came to fulfill the law.

Many Christians have a problem with the law, because they somehow think it is devoid of love, or is somehow at the opposite end of the spectrum from love.  After all, if you do something the law requires, you do not do it out of love.

We find that Jesus had a much different understanding of the law.  When he was asked what was the greatest commandment, Matthew (12:37-40) records he replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.”  Jesus directly quoted this from Deuteronomy 6:5.  Then he quoted from Leviticus, “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Then Jesus said something remarkable.  “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” In this very simple statement, Jesus forcefully asserts that all the law derives from love – our love for God, and our love for others.  If you accept that the law reflects the character of God, then this makes sense – it reflects the holiness of God as well as His love.

Paul explains how love fulfills the law in Romans 13 (8-10):  “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Paul says this again more succinctly in his letter to the Galatians (5:14).  For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

James (2:8) even calls this the royal law, If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.”

However, Jesus did more to fulfill the law.  He perfectly kept the law, so that he was without sin.  So the writer of Hebrews (4:15) says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”  Later (9:14), the same writer describes Jesus as “unblemished” – which means in a special way that he was without sin.

This language recalls the requirements of the law for an animal sacrifice for sin.  The sheep had to be without defect, unblemished.  However, the writer of Hebrews says (10:4) the animal sacrifices could not really take away sin.  Instead, the animal sacrifice presented a picture of what Christ would do, and accomplish, what is sometimes called a prefigurement, so that when Christ came, Israel might recognize him and what he did.

So in the King James Version, Paul in Galatians (3:24) calls the law a schoolmaster, to bring us to Christ.  In other versions, this is translated as tutor or guardian.  The law leads us to Christ by teaching us through vivid illustrations about the work Christ would do.  That is part of why studying the law is a wonder and amazing.  It also does this by giving us a standard for what is required to come near a holy and loving God.  As we compare ourselves to this standard, it becomes clear how much we miss this mark, which is exactly what sin is.  The more one studies the law, the more clear it becomes of how much we need a Savior.

I remember in my late teens when I started reading the Bible, I started cleaning up my life.  However, the more I read, the more areas I saw that needed cleaning up.  As I contemplated the law, and the punishments that would come for disobeying God’s law, it prepared me more to eventually understand what the gospel was all about – how Jesus sacrificed his life to pay for my sins so I could have a close relationship with God.

Now someone else will say, “Now Rudy, clearly we don’t follow all the Old Testament law.  We don’t insist on circumcision, clean and unclean foods, or worshiping God on the 7th Day of the week – Saturday – the Sabbath, and the apostles tell us not to.”  I would agree with this.  So why do we follow some parts of the law, but not others?

The historic Church studied this early on, and developed a tradition to help us when we study the Old Testament law.  They divided the law into three categories: what they called the ceremonial law, the moral law, and the civil law.

The ceremonial law had to do with those laws that dealt with sacrifices and other ceremonies such as circumcision required to maintain the Old Covenant with God, to be right with Him, and to draw close to Him.  Christ completely obeyed and fulfilled those requirements in His life, and not only paid those requirements for us, but replaced the Old Covenant with the New Covenant sealed in His blood.  This has to do with our justification – something I will cover more at length in a future sermon.  We no longer have to observe the ceremonial law, and trying to get others to observe is contrary to the Gospel.  So the writer of the Hebrews, in describing the Tabernacle, says, “They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings—external regulations applying until the time of the new order.”  However, studying the ceremonial law, understanding the picture it presents of who Christ is and what he did for us, gives us a better understanding about Christ and causes us to praise Him.

The moral law is best exemplified in the Ten Commandments.  It is still against God’s moral law to lie, steal, covet, etc.  It also covers matters of sexual behavior.  These are based on God’s determinations of what is right – and what is wrong, which are ultimately based on his character.  Since God is absolute – he does not change, these moral laws are also absolutes – they do not change over time, in different societies, or in different places.  In other words, they are not relativistic.  They give us a firm bedrock and foundation on which to build our lives and societies, and to be able to say what is right and what is wrong, which does not waver or fluctuate.  Jesus Christ also obeyed and fulfilled that law, and His righteousness is transferred and counted to us as part of our justification.  However, we still have to follow God’s moral laws as part of our call to holiness – as part of our sanctification – something else I will cover more at length in a future sermon.

The civil law has to do with those laws that specially applied to Israel as a nation.  For example, if someone in Israel openly and contemptuously cursed God – the sin of blasphemy – the law called for that person to be stoned to death.  There are other sins where the law called for capital punishment by stoning.  While we might agree someone shouldn’t do this – we probably wouldn’t agree they should be stoned to death.  However, Israel was a special nation.  They were called to be a holy people, God’s very special people, and an example to the world.  God was directly their King, so we call that type of government a theocracy.  It was extremely important to the nation’s covenant relationship with God that sin be rooted out and destroyed quickly.  God told them he would destroy them as a nation if they failed to keep his commands.

In contrast, we are not a part of the nation of Old Testament Israel under the Old Covenant.  Instead, we are part of the Church, the body of Christ, which has been spread out among the nations to take the gospel to every nation.  We are not part of a theocracy, and we are not trying to set up a theocracy.  So much of the civil law that God set for Israel does not apply to us, and we are not obligated to follow it.  We can study the principles from those laws, since many of them also contain the moral law, and by the use of reason, judiciously apply them to laws of the nations we live in.  But we should not be trying to recreate Old Testament Israel.

I said this is a tradition because you will not find a list in the Bible that categorizes the law into the ceremonial law, the moral law, and the civil law, nor are the individual laws identified in this manner.  It is a teaching developed in the Church over time from studying the Bible.  It is not exact, since some commandments are difficult to categorize, while others fit two or more categories.  In addition, not everyone agrees which commands belong in which category.  Sometimes it depends on which church tradition they belong to.

So it’s best to think of these categories – the ceremonial law, the moral law, and the civil law, as a helpful tool, as a guideline, in thinking through which Old Testament commands do we need to follow or not, and in appreciating them, especially those we do not need to follow.

So now let’s turn our attention to the laws of nations – those laws that govern a nation, often called the civil law (though different than the civil law we just discussed that applied to Old Testament Israel).

The first thing to say is that we should want Jesus to be Lord in all areas of our lives, including our government and it’s laws.  While that doesn’t mean we want a theocracy, it does mean we recognize when we obey God, and follow his laws; a blessing follows, not just in our personal lives, but also for our, or any, nation.

In addition, we live in a democracy which largely resulted from a Christian understanding about government.  While living in a democracy, based on our Christian heritage, we have a duty as citizens to work to bring about laws that will result in a blessing on our nation – partly why we sing “God Bless America” at the 7th inning of our ball games.

So how do we determine what God’s laws are for our nation?  Well, in one way, people in general already know what is right and wrong, and usually know what the law should be.  That is because God created the world, and created mankind in his image.  Mankind, through the use of reason, because of the image of God, can generally determine what is right and what is wrong, and develop laws on this basis.  This is sometimes called the law of nature. So Paul talks in Roman 2:14-15) about, “(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)”  This is also at times called a conscience.

 However, our reason is flawed, as part of our sinful nature.  So just as we can distort what is right and wrong in our minds, and just as our conscience, stretched to the breaking point and sometimes even torn can let us down, so as a nation, our laws can go adrift just through the use of reason alone to determine the laws of nature.

We, both individually, and as a nation, need a higher standard to hold us accountable, and by which to measure ourselves by.

In the Bible, God provides, by special revelation, that higher standard.  Our laws should be based on that standard, in order to bring our laws under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

However, we need to be careful in this pursuit.  The Bible does not set forth a ready-made set of laws to legislate.  There are many areas it does not cover.  And as we saw before, not all of the divine law are to be followed today.  When it comes to laws for any nation today, including ours, the Bible is more like a guidebook in helping us determine the laws that should be developed in our nation.  And we should always keep in mind the emphasis on freedom we especially find in the New Testament.  This emphasis inspired the fathers of our country to develop a system of government, however imperfect it might be, to advance the cause of freedom.

Art - Justice Lifts the Nation

Justice Lifts The Nation
(1905) Paul Robert

To illustrate this point, let’s look at a mural painting Paul Robert painted in 1905, Justice Lifts the Nations (larger image).  Paul Robert painted this mural on a stairway in the old Supreme Court building in Lausanne, Switzerland.  In the foreground, we seem many people engaged in various types of legal disputes.  The two in the middle are engaged in a heated argument over a document, and look like they almost could come to blows over it.  Above them stand or sit the various judges looking to Justice for guidance to help resolve these disputes.

Justice, sometimes called Lady Justice, is based on the Roman goddess Justitia – an allegorical personification of the moral force in the judicial system.  Statutes and paintings of Lady Justice often adorn courthouses and courtrooms.  Artists typically depict her with a set of scales, usually suspended from her right hand, which she uses to measure the strength of a case – both in support and in opposition.

Lady Justice usually wears a blindfold.  The blindfold represents objectivity – justice should be the same for all – not favoring the rich over the poor, the strong over the weak, or the celebrity over the unknown.  No one should fear justice and no one should have special favors from justice.

Lady Justice also usually carries a double-edged sword in her left hand.  That sword represents both Reason and Justice, which can be wielded either for or against either party, or both of them.  Sometimes the sword is held up, and sometimes it’s point rests on the ground.

So Paul Robert makes some interesting changes from the usual depictions of Lady Justice.  First, she wears no blindfold.  Instead, she appears to look directly into the eyes of the justices on her left who are standing gazing into her eyes with different expressions on their faces.

Second, she neither holds her sword up, nor rests it point on the ground.  Instead, Lady Justice uses her sword as a pointer, and she points it to a book lying open on the ground.  It is difficult to see in this photo, but on the book are written the words, “The Law of God.”

Through this painting, Paul Robert reflected the traditional Christian understanding of law, that it should be based on and guided and shaped by the law of God.  Since he painted this mural on the stairway of a Supreme Court, he was sending a pointed message to the justices who climbed those stairs every day, and who were inclined at that time to go with a more modern view of law.

In the modern view of law, there are no absolutes which guide or bind the law.  The law is based on arbitrary, relativistic values of mankind and the society and the times you find yourself in.  What is right today may be wrong tomorrow, and what is wrong yesterday may be right today.  Somehow, it’s presented as the new thing – though ancient civilizations and past societies have held to at least the same level of, and often surpassed us in, moral depravity, usually leading to their decline.  A society usually cannot long last in a topsy-turvy world of blown about moral moorings.  A legal structure built on this basis usually breaks down over time and becomes a legal system that only favors the well-connected, the rich, the powerful – basically the elite.  It winds up becoming a nation that follows the rule of men, rather than the rule of law – that looks to laws primarily devised by mankind, rather than looking to the laws of God.

So I urge you to rejoice in the law of the Lord, and to do what you can as citizens of our country to see that the laws of nation are based on the laws of the Lord.

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