I gotta have my orange juice.

Jesu, Juva

The law of God

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The Bible uses law variously to refer to the ten commandments; laws within the five books of Moses; the Mosaic books themselves; or even the entire Old Testament (John 10:34, 12:34, 15:25). There is a history of dividing the law into categories of moral, civil, and ceremonial, but the boundaries are not always clear: God’s laws are more a sermon than a legal code, mixing history, commands, exhortations, threats, and judgments. God is God, so every law is moral. Many of what we call civil laws have no judicial penalties attached. Is the fourth commandment, the Sabbath—a creation ordinance!—a moral law or a ceremonial law? And what kind of civil law neglects water rights?

It’s good to simplify things; a good map is a useful thing. But it’s easy and dangerous to over-simplify. We might over-simplify how the law has changed: our husband, the living law-word, died, releasing us from the law (Romans 7). The law was our tutor, but now we have graduated (Galatians 4). With the change of priesthood there is a change in law (Hebrews 7:12). The first Pentecost brought the letter; the last Pentecost brought the Spirit. Jesus inaugurated a new creation; to the degree this is “already,” the law has passed away together with the old heavens and earth (Matthew 5:18). The law was only a shadow (Hebrews 7). But we might also over-emphasize how things have not changed: The law reveals the unchanging character of an unchanging God. The law is perfect (Psalm 19:7), an exemplary witness (Deuteronomy 4:6-8), holy, righteous, and good (Romans 7:12). Students live by the lessons of their tutor. Jesus and his Spirit do not negate the law but fulfill it.

Both of these have an element of truth; let us rather say that the law has been transfigured or glorified. The law is changed (Hebrews 7:12) but not abolished. Our husband has been transfigured, resurrected, glorified. We remember the lessons of our trainer but we are no longer running intervals and stuffing spaghetti: we are running a race.

All this is to say that we need much wisdom, understanding, and patience to wrestle with applying the law (2 Tim 3:16), to our lives, our church, and to nations (Matthew 28). Proverbs 25:2 reminds us that “it is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings . . . to search things out.” A few thoughts from teachers like John Frame and James Jordan have helped me in this search:

First, all law is typological of Jesus and his church (John 5:39, Luke 24:27, etc.). Typology doesn’t let us off the hook of applying the law to ourselves (the law of adultery applies to our marriages as well as Jesus’s), but it does enrich our understanding. When Peter saw the sheet of unclean food, he reasoned that God was adding Gentiles to his priestly people (Acts 10). Paul applies the law of the ox treading grain to pastors (1 Cor 9:10). The laws for house leprosy guide the inspections and and dismantlings that Ezekiel and Jesus performed on God’s own house. We know of no wife who experienced the jealousy test (Numbers 5)—except for Israel: consider the golden calf. The Lord’s supper is our jealousy test: some bread and some drinking and a threat of judgment (1 Corinthians 11).

Second, Jesus is still lord over nations and kings, and his law has much to teach them. The society spelled out by God’s law is amazingly free. Even in the case of death penalties, few were mandatory sentences (consider Matthew 1:19). But the first application of civil laws is to the church. The church is Israel transfigured, the beachhead of the new creation and new kingdom. We have elders. Church discipline replaces the death penalty. Evangelism by the sword of the spirit replaces holy warfare.

Third, the Jerusalem council ruling in Acts 15 gives a helpful guideline for what is transformed versus what is carried over directly. The laws for the stranger, the Gentile God-fearer, remain directly applicable: idolatry, sexual immorality, and eating blood. This is why God now allows eating bacon and shrimp but not homosexuality. Israel and her laws come transfigured into the church, where we are now all priests. But out in the world we live as sojourners.

Fourth, the laws of Exodus and Deuteronomy are structured around the ten commandments. Deuteronomy is a kind of sermon by Moses after forty years meditating on the commandments. I’ve found this helpful in considering the Sabbath: Moses expresses the fourth commandment (Deut. 14:21b-16:17) in terms of tithing, giving freedom and rest, and feasting together with God. Moses considers the fifth commandment (Deut. 16:18-18:22) to also apply to leaders like judges, Levites, priests, and kings.

Finally, the ceremonial laws are not merely a picture of how Jesus deals with our sin at the cross. Hebrews repeatedly considers these to be transfigured in the church’s worship: All washings are wrapped up in baptism. All feasts are wrapped up in the Lord’s supper. The old covenant’s sacrifices are covenant renewals are feasts are drawing near are worship: Leviticus—a red-letter book if there ever was one—has much to teach us about worship in the new covenant.

There is so much to figure out; we have barely scratched the surface in our kingly search. I leave you with a few intriguing problems:

  1. In light of Acts 15, is blood pudding off the menu? Not that I’m tempted, mind you.
  2. In Genesis 26, God says that “Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” What did Abraham know about God’s laws?
  3. Five times God commands us to greet one another with a kiss. What?

Additional resources

Written by Scott Moonen

July 29, 2017 at 2:47 pm

Posted in Biblical Theology

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  1. […] the greater work of the Spirit in the new covenant (e.g., Jeremiah 31; Hebrews 8, 10), it is possible to overstate things. At times you will hear the implication that the regenerating work of the Spirit is new to the new […]

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