What do we do with the law (CWL-5)

Should or shouldn’t we keep the law (of Moses)? This is a repeating question among Christians. We don’t have to keep the food laws since Peter had a vision about it, but how can we reconcile that with Jesus’ statement that “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law”? What are we allowed to do and what not? What is the role of the law today?

In his letter to the Galatians Paul calls the law a schoolmaster or guardian (Galatians 3:24). That sounds to me like a drill-sergeant, the one you encounter in American films, yelling merciless to freshmen running in the poring rain. The end result probably will be good, but the method isn’t nice. For me it is in line with “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”(Hebrews 12: 5,6).

But this image of the law isn’t correct. It isn’t a set of tedious rules, it is a loving tutor. It learns a way of life that has a lot of advantages. It is the best upbringing you can get. It is divine wisdom that protects you and gives you direction. That’s why Psalm 119 is so long, there is al lot of good things to tell about the law. The Jews even have a feast called ‘the joy of the law’. They are grateful to God for the law.

In the course of history we, regrettably, no longer looked at the law as a source of wisdom, but as a set of rules you had to obey, because if you broke them, you were punished. Did you sin against the rules on purpose, then that was seen as contempt of God. That person could not be a part of the people any more and was put to death. If a rule was broken unintentionally, then an animal life was sacrificed in your place. (Numbers 15:22-31)

The economical, social and religious life are stated in great detail in the law. Even the days to rest and to feast are prescribed. Just to be sure, these rules were thoroughly explained in supplementary rules, because people didn’t want to take any risk regarding trespassing and punishment.

In the sermon on the mount Jesus shows that it isn’t about the rules, but it is the thought behind it that counts. As a kind of disclaimer He says He didn’t come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them. (Matthew 5: 17) Having said this, He radically changes the outlook upon the law. But, He adds, ‘I don’t make a new law, the old one will stand firm, not one jot or one tittle will pass. Despite the limitations of the (letter of the) law, shown by Jesus, it still remains the wisdom of God and still will show right from wrong.

Because the law has these huge benefits, it is a logical conclusion that Christians should keep the law. And because the law is part of the covenant with God, they should also be circumcised. In the early church emotions went high on this subject. Finally in Acts 15 the issue is put before the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. They reached the conclusion that the new believers were not obliged to keep the commandments of the law. Because, also without keeping the law God had accepted them and gave them the Holy Spirit, when they believed. That’s why the congregation decided the following; “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.”

Paul teaches us the law could be seen as a wall that separated the Jews from the rest of the world, but Jesus has abolished the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances. Through the cross He has put this enmity to death. (Ephesians 2:14-16)

In his letter to the Colossians he repeats this; “having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (2:13-14).

So, the positive of the law, the loving teaching and the wisdom of God will always remain. The negative of the law, the anxiety of trespassing and punishment is abolished by Jesus at the cross. ‘It doesn’t testify against us any more, because He has taken it out of the way’.

That’s why Jesus could summarise the law as ‘Love God with everything you are and you have and your neighbour as yourself’, without even the smallest letter disappearing.