Mosaic Law in the New TestamentIntroduction
This study seeks to examine the degree to which the Law of Moses, the Torah (instruction), has force in the New Testament. Does the Law still have force in the New Testament or had it been superseded?
Old Testament background
Mosaic Law and the teachings of Jesus
i] Jesus employed the rabbinical summary of the Law as an adequate expression of the central obligations binding upon the Israelite, Mk.12:28ff. In addition, and in the same context, he commends his questioner for emphasising the Old Testament perspective: "to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams", 1Sam.15:22 cf. Mk.12:33f. In other words there are central obligations which must be fulfilled even if this means that certain details of ceremony have to be ignored. Not all the law is of the same importance, cf. Math.12:1-8.
ii] Jesus' charge against the Pharisees was that they had failed at precisely this point. They paid attention to external rituals while ignoring their main responsibilities, Matt.9:11-13,122:2-7;23:23f. The "weightier matters" of the Law, its central emphases, were bypassed while the relatively less important regulations were attentively followed. "Insect-law" was dutifully fulfilled while "Camel-law" was not, Matt.23:24. In fact the Pharisee arrived at this disobedient pattern of life in two ways: First, he allowed the lesser obligation to replace the greater, Lk.10:25-37). Second, he even translated the greater obligation into the less, Lk.18:11-12. By such measures as these (issuing in disobedience) the Pharisee was able to "justify himself" in the presence of God, Lk.18:9-14.
iii] Jesus was a consistent expositor of the weightier matters of the law, Matt.5:17-48. He thereby illustrates just how extensive are the claims of the Law upon the lives of people. Taking the Law seriously, at the level at which Jesus expounds it, the disciple is called upon to exhibit a "righteousness" which will exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees, Matt.5:20. There is no substitute for the genuine doing of the Father's will, Matt.7:21.
iv] Jesus constantly moved his exposition of the Law toward ideals which were beyond obedience. The Sermon on the Mount serves as the best example of this "exceeding righteousness", which in the end only Jesus is able to do, and which therefore defines him as the only person who has the right to "enter the kingdom of God." We may be able to obey the command "do not murder", but who can refrain from anger? We may be able to obey the command "do not commit adultery", but who can refrain from lust? Even Jesus' "law" on divorce moves into the realm of ideals. Jesus' "exceeding righteousness" reveals God's purity, but also our corruption. In so doing Jesus "fulfills" the Law in the sense of the Law's function of exposing sin and so driving the lost sinner to God for mercy, Matt.5:17-20.
v] Jesus constantly pointed beyond obedience toward repentance. The preaching of Jesus contained this emphasis as its very centre, Mk.1:14-15. His illustrations of the Prodigal son, Lk.15:11-23, and the tax collector, Lk.18:13-14, as well as his appeals based on the Galilaean and Siloam disasters, Lk.13:1-5, more than adequately confirm this emphasis. It would seem from these passages, and many more besides, that there can be no enjoyment of the benefits of the Kingdom apart from this penitential response to the gospel. The demands of the Law are such that disobedience, along with the subsequent application of God's curse, is the inevitable outcome for anyone who is "under" the Law. Only a repentance which rests on God's grace of mercy and forgiveness, is able to save the sinner. This, of course, is the substance of the gospel, and it is to this end that the Law seeks to bring us.
2. Who are the righteous who need no repentance?
Mosaic Law in the teachings of Paul
1. Functions of the Law
i] Paul admitted that the impact of the Law of God upon his life was devastating and he now refused to adopt any "transformist" or "reductionist" methods of evading its implications, Rom.7:7-24. His old-time response to the Law, leading to the goal of self-justification, was not available any more, Rom.10:1-3.
ii] This understanding is coupled with the recognition of the role of Jesus in providing the justification for the sinner under the condemnation of the Law. Jesus Christ had brought to a manifest end the apparent function of the Law as the route to righteousness. Our righteous standing before God, in the theology of St.Paul, is brought about by our response of faith to Jesus Christ, Rom.10:4-13; Gal.21-26.
iii] Paul now sees the role of the Law as twofold:
iv] St.Paul follows the Old Testament precedent, found clearly in the teachings of Jesus, of laying the emphasis on the "weightier matters of the Law" and, as he does so, he does not hesitate to illustrate the scope of these "weightier matters" by using rather freely several of the sayings of Jesus, Rom.12:10-21, 13:8-10, Gal.5:14. To "love one's neighbour" is, at depth, a far-reaching and all-inclusive imperative both in the teaching of Jesus and St.Paul.
v] Paul recognised the more peripheral character of the "lesser matters" ("Insect Law") and taught two things of considerable importance in this regard:
2. "Without Law" and "Under the Law of Christ".
i] "Not under Law". To be "not under Law" seems to involve three things:
ii] "Law of Christ". The "Law of Christ" in Galatians 6:2 probably incorporates the following two ideas:
The Law in James
The Law in 1 John
i] In the New Testament some of the Laws of Moses are seen as a useful guide to the Christian life, while some aren't. The New Testament retains and emphasizes the Old Testament distinction between primary and secondary matters of human obligation. This is the distinction which Jesus employs when He accuses the legalists of swallowing camels while they strain out insects, Matt.23:23-24. Jesus emphasizes the weightier matters of the Law in his acceptance of the rabbinic summary of the Law in terms of love to God and neighbour, Mk.12:28-34. God's demands fall not upon the externals of ritual and formal procedure, but upon the heart. This is the "just requirement of the Law", and it should represent the direction of a believer's life, Rom.8:4. So in the New Testament the weightier matters of the Mosaic Law are restated to serve as guides for the Christian life, lived out in and through the power of the indwelling Spirit of Christ. They serve as signposts for Christian living.
ii] In the New Testament the Mosaic Law is not portrayed as a means of grace, either for justification or sanctification. Of course, the Old Testament itself never suggested the Law served that end. The Law's primary purpose is to expose sinfulness, to convey the "curse" of God's condemnation upon sin, and thus lead the sinner toward repentance and the grace of God's free forgiveness in Christ. The New Testament stresses that both reconciliation to God and growth in holiness can never be achieved by obeying the Law. This, Paul argues, was always true, even in the Old Testament, Gal.3-4. The Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14 grasped the Old Testament truth of God's grace and forgiveness more than the Pharisee who made the fatal mistake of using the Law as a ladder to God. The Pharisee's mistake involved two maneuvers. He modified the Old Testament's indictment against sinful human nature so as to accommodate his optimistic anthropology, and he modified the demands of the Law so as to make it's fulfillment possible. Paul's declaration that a Law-based righteousness is not good enough, Phil.3:9, had the effect of driving home the Old Testament truth of God's grace, Rom.7:7-25. The Law could never be misinterpreted in a Pharisaic way again in the light of Christ's death and resurrection.
For the New Testament the Law does not offer a route to salvation, Rom.10:4, Gal.3:24. Yet it still details, in its "camel" aspects at least, the pattern of life which the child of God should press toward in their daily life, in the power of the indwelling Spirit of Christ. This "just requirement of the Law" is typically illustrated in Matthew 5:17-7:27 or Romans 12:1-15:13. The New Testament does not devalue the Mosaic Law, rather it underlines its two purposes, first as a guide to the Christian life, and second as a tool to expose sin and thus our need for a saviour.
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