In an earlier post entitled “Subjecting our beliefs to severe scrutiny” I denounced the modern Evangelical system used to parse the law. Remember, the “civil, moral, ceremonial” filtering method taught by seminaries and bible schools? Today, we will think about “a better way”.
I have long believed that before we attempt to tear something down, we should be able to demonstrate that we can replace it with something better. Demolition is much easier than construction. (It is interesting to note though, that the better the construction, the harder the demolition!)
First, a point of reference
Let’s start with a basic point of reference. For thousands of years, the Israelites have recognized a total of 613 commandments in the books of Torah. Who first came up with that number? I have no idea, nor apparently, does anyone else. However, it might be helpful for some of my readers to think of this as the “maximum” number of commandments in the law. In case you are interested, “mitzvah” is the Hebrew word for commandment, or more precisely, “instruction.”
Now, the first response of many Christians is: “Wow, that’s a lot of commandments!” But here’s something to keep in mind: Some of these instructions are only incumbent upon Levite men; some only apply to the house of Aaron; some are only incumbent on the king of Israel; some only on the High Priest; some only apply to men; some only apply to children; some only apply to women; some only apply to a man and a woman in the context of marriage. How do we know? Scripture itself tells us so, often right where the command is issued.
Let me summarize this another way: In order for all 613 commands to apply to any single individual, that person would have to be both male and female, foreign-born and native-born, an adult and a minor, single, married and widowed, a priest, a king, a Levite, a High Priest, a leper and a Nazarite – simultaneously! Obviously, that’s not possible.
The better way
What is the “better way?” The better way is to use the highest authority – God’s own word. The Word of God itself, gives clear instructions for when and how commands should be obeyed! We have just seen that all commandments do not apply to all people. This again, helps us to understand God’s holy justice. One size does not fit all.
How Scripture parses the law
Scripture outlines other dependencies – dependencies that limit the commands incumbent on God’s children. What this means is, that while the law is eternally valid, there are going to be times in history when certain commandments cannot, indeed should not, be followed. We could say that obedience to these commands is postponed by extenuating circumstances.
Three big ones can be labeled as judgeship, land and temple. Let’s consider each of these.
The “judgeship” label reminds us that sanctions prescribed by the law, may only occur under the jurisdiction of a valid, ruling council of judges. During the first and second temple periods, this was called the Sanhedrin. During the exile under Nebuchadnezzar, the Jewish people were unable to execute violators for capital crimes in the law because there was no ruling council. These judgments had to be postponed until the council of judges was once again in place. For the same reason, God’s children are not permitted to apply these sanctions today. (See Ex 21:22 “he shall pay as the judges determine”; Ex 22:8 “the master of the house shall be brought to the judges”; Ex 22:9 “the cause of both parties shall come before the judges”; Deut 16:18 “You shall appoint judges and officers”; Deut 19:18 “And the judges shall make careful inquiry”; Deut 25:1 “If there is a dispute between men, and they come to court, that the judges may judge them, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked”)
The “land” label reminds us that certain commands only apply to those living in the land of Israel. Making tithes from agricultural harvests is one of these. Through much of history, the Israelites themselves have been in exile and unable to keep a significant number of commands. (See Ex 23:31-33; Ex 34:26 “The first of the firstfruits of your land you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God.”)
The “temple” label reminds us that certain commands can only be followed at the place God chose (the temple mount) and in the way he prescribed (with an operating priesthood). This certainly applies to the sacrifices and to regulations for priests. (Deut 16:2 “Therefore you shall sacrifice the Passover to the Lord your God, from the flock and the herd, in the place where the Lord chooses to put His name.”; Deut 16:15 “Seven days you shall keep a sacred feast to the Lord your God in the place which the Lord chooses”; Deut 17:8 “then you shall arise and go up to the place which the Lord your God chooses.”)
Here’s a question: Why would it be wrong for me to offer a burnt offering in my backyard? A valid answer is: because such a sacrifice should only be made at the temple in Jerusalem (the place God chose for His name) under the guidance of a Levitical priest. An invalid answer would be: because Jesus made one sacrifice for all men, for all time. Why is this an invalid answer? One reason, is because I did not define this offering as a “sin” offering. Scripture is very clear that God’s children (that’s us) will still make burnt offerings and other sacrifices that will be acceptable to God in the future. (see Isaiah 56:6 & 7)
If we start with the 613 commands and deduct those commands restricted by judgeship, land and temple, what’s left? Before we answer that question, we should also deduct those commands that do not apply due to our personal age, sex, occupation, etc. What we have left are laws that are incumbent on all God’s covenant people. These include loving one’s enemy, laws on charity, laws on debt and lending, sabbath observance, honoring appointed times and the dietary laws, to name some.
But wait . . now we need to add back
We are still not done. If we follow the teaching of our rabbi Yeshua, we will discover that the laws that don’t technically apply to us, actually do! Confused? Here’s an example that might help.
Let’s call this “Laws Governing Kings of Israel”. Stop for a moment and read Deuteronomy 17:14-20.
(Honestly, did you read the passage? If not, you may not understand what I am about to say.)
Technically, these laws apply to Israelite kings. You are not one of them. Israel has no king at the moment. However, would it be a good idea for you in your leadership role as businessman, a father or a mother to write out a personal copy of the law, to read from it every day and to follow its statutes in the execution of your leadership? Would it be a good idea to have a monogamous relationship with your spouse? Would it be a good idea to put your trust in God rather than the weapons of man? Is it wise to recognize and avoid the dangers of hoarding wealth? Yes, yes, yes and yes.
To be clear, these commands apply specifically to kings of Israel. Each of them seems intended to protect the king and to guide his authority. If there is no command prohibiting us from obeying these instructions, then we too are at liberty to benefit from them.
No simple formula here
We can, and should, use the authority of God’s word to determine what instructions apply to us today. That said, this doesn’t come down to a simple 3-point exercise, convenient as that would be. Rather, obedience is a discipline – one that requires going back to the well day after day, to draw from the living water. (Kind of makes me think it was designed that way.)
Scripture not only provides our instructions but guides us in our obedience to these commands. We have SO much more confidence when we rely on the Word than on a system of man. Would it not be better to stand before the judge of the universe and say “O Lord, your Word says . . .” rather than “A commentary I read said . . ” or “I once heard a pastor say . . . ?” Can we be learn, like Job, that there can never be an external authority above God and His Word? Can we also agree that the Holy Spirit never disagrees with what God has already declared to be true?
Now that we have thought about a biblical foundation for understanding “the law”, perhaps it is time to analyze some common objections. There’s an awful lot of “But . . .”, “But . . .” butting going on. (For the record, I have no intention of addressing every one of these objections. Others can attempt that, if they want.)