All followers of Jesus want to honor the Lord. Our common confession is “Jesus is Lord”—which means Caesar is not, and neither are we. Because Jesus is Lord and because our hearts are turned to him in faith, we desire to honor him. This necessarily impacts how we live our lives. Inevitably, then, the question comes up: how are we to live? What does it mean to live a life that honors the Lord?
For many, the Ten Commandments are believed to be God’s eternal moral law and are binding on all people at all time. It is not this simple, however. In his excellent book “Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God”, Brian Rosner begins chapter 1 by citing several scholars on this topic.
Paul’s views on the law are complex. (Ben Witherington III)Brian Rosner, “Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God”, p. 19
Paul and the Law—The subject is complex. (Donald A. Hagner)
Current discussion of Paul’s view of the law…has become extraordinarily complex. (D.A. Carson)
There is nothing quite so complex in Paul’s theology as the role and function which he attributes to the law. (James D.G. Dunn)
Part of this complexity is the very meaning of the word “law”. When we examine the concept of the law of Moses in its Ancient Near Eastern context, something quite different emerges from our modern notions of law as legislation. The late Jean Bottéro, a highly regarded expert in Ancient Near Eastern studies, argued in his book “Mesopotamia” the very concept of a “law code” was foreign to the ANE mind. In his chapter on the “Code of Hammurabi”, he points out that while Hammurabi’s code was copied for a thousand years, there are no references to it in the thousands of legal decisions archaeologists have found. He wrote,
Finally, it has long been recognized that among the numerous pieces of procedures and protocols of judgment, or the “dossiers” of the administrative and judiciary practice of the time of Hammurabi, no verdict was given, no official decision was taken, nor any agreement signed that made a reference to any article of the so-called “Code”, even if the latter contains explicit references to subjects upon which they are based or dependent.Jean Bottéro, “Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods”, p. 163
To put this in context of the law of Moses, which bears incredible similarity to the Code of Hammurabi, it was wrong for a man to murder another man, but not because the sixth commandment forbade murder! This is because in the Ancient Near Eastern mind, whether in Mesopotamia or Egypt or the wilderness or Canaan, a “law code” functioned as “royal propaganda”. A “law code” was really the public declaration of the character of the king, for he was just and fair and wise. In Mesopotamia, for example, if a man’s ox gored his neighbor’s ox, he must compensate his neighbor, but not because the “code” said so! He must compensate his neighbor because a good and just king like Hammurabi would. How did they know? The “code” said so!
What we call the Law of Moses is the Torah. This Hebrew word means “instruction” or “teaching”. This is why the “law” includes the book of Genesis, which is almost entirely narrative, along with much of Exodus and Numbers. When we come to Deuteronomy Moses sets out to recount the “law” he had given Israel but he does so by first telling them how God rescued them. The law, or more accurately, the teaching—Torah—was given to show Israel what their king is like. He is good and righteous and holy. They shouldn’t murder because God is not the sort who would take human life unjustly. How do they know God is not that sort? The sixth commandment says, “You shall not murder.”
When we think of the law of Moses, we usually think of various commandments, so when the question is raised as to whether we must “keep” the law of Moses, the book of Genesis never comes to mind though it is as much law—Torah—as Leviticus! It is Torah because it is the teaching or instruction about God. This is why we say the law is God’s self-revelation. This is the essence of God’s command to “Be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). To keep the law is to be like God. Therefore we must keep Genesis in the same way we keep Leviticus: we must be like God as he is revealed in the law.
The reason Israel must not wear wool and linen together has nothing to do with an inherent issue in wearing mixed fibers (Leviticus 19:19). God is revealing himself through this particular commandment. What is God like? He is holy and cannot “mix” with that which is unholy. Even the sacrificial system demonstrated God’s character: because he is holy and his people were not holy, they required something outside of themselves to cover their sin that they might be his people.
It’s not difficult to see how the various commandments in the law point to God’s character. They further pointed to a greater revelation of his character. Paul refers to this greater self-revelation as “the law of Christ” when he tells the Galatians to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). Who bore the burdens of others and thus demonstrated what God is like? Jesus did! As Peter put it, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). To bear one another’s burdens is to be like Jesus, which is to be like God. Paul says something else in his letter to Galatians about the law of Moses, particularly in respect to the law of Christ.
So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.Galatians 3:24–26 ESV
It is clear that Paul understood the law of Moses to have been fulfilled with the coming of Christ. Everything the law was pointing to has come with Jesus. The law was like a road map pointing to him but now that he is here the map is no longer necessary. This does not mean we are without “law”, however, for we have the law of Christ! Hebrews 8–9 make it clear the law of Moses was temporary and no longer functions in this new covenant era. Paul even makes a startling declaration about the law:
For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.1 Corinthians 7:19 ESV
What a remarkable declaration about the law of Moses as a whole! Abraham was commanded to circumcise his offspring in the law (Genesis 17:1–14), which includes this dire warning:
Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.Genesis 17:14 ESV
How could Paul then say neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything? And how could he follow this up by saying that only “keeping the commandments of God” counts when the commandments include circumcision? The law of Moses has been fulfilled, abrogated. Keeping the commandments of God in the new covenant is no longer found in a list of rules. Consider the following declarations.
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:8)
Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:10)
For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.” (James 2:8)
Obeying the specific commandments in the law of Moses count for nothing, for this covenant has been fulfilled. What counts is keeping the true law, for we do not live according to a list of rules but according to a Person—the Lord Jesus Christ. We live under the law of Christ. Jesus is not a list of rules but a Person who is the full and complete revelation of God. Everything that can be known about God can be known in Christ. The reason the specific command to circumcise baby boys counts for nothing is the truer, greater obedience to God—“keeping the commandments of God” in 1 Corinthians 7—is becoming like God through faith in Jesus.
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV
Jesus bore our burden and so to keep the law of Christ—to be like God—is to bear one another’s burdens. The outcome of the gospel of Jesus is we become the righteousness of God! This is something the law of Moses could never do. Paul says this very thing in Galatians 3:21.
Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.Galatians 3:21 ESV
Righteousness is not by the law but by faith in Jesus. We are therefore not under the law of Moses, but under the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. We keep the purpose of the law, that is, we fulfill it when we are like Jesus, for Jesus is the full and complete revelation of God. The question is then raised: what are we to do with the law of Moses?
All Scripture is profitable (2 Timothy 3:16), for all Scripture points us to Jesus, the righteousness of God (Luke 24:27). It all points us to who God is and what he has done. If we have faith in Jesus and confess together that Jesus is Lord and we love one another as he loves us, we fulfill the law—all of it. This does not mean we are free to do whatever we want for Jesus is Lord, and we are not. We are free from the law because we have the righteousness of Christ, which the law of Moses could never give us.
Our difficulty is we often think of life in general and of following Jesus in particular as being about following rules. If we keep Sabbath or if we avoid stealing and murder or if we give generously or if we read our Bible every day and memorize verses every week we think this somehow makes us righteous. Keeping rules can never do this because real righteousness is Jesus. Because Christ is our righteousness we are free to eat a pulled pork sandwich. We are even free to eat a pulled pork sandwich in a restaurant on the Sabbath. Because Christ is our righteousness, we can keep the law of Moses while eating pulled pork at Mission BBQ, on Sunday right after our worship service.