A pretty blogless week, it seems, though in truth, the last article, although started on Monday, took me most of the week to complete. It was based on one of Christ Kelly's sermons and I have also been thinking about the evening sermon on the same day. How it is possible to produce two such excellent sermons on one day is beyond me.
The question, which arises from the Sermon on the Mount, was what is Jesus' attitude to the law?
Whenever, a Christian brings up any practice that is clearly condemned in the Old Testament, he is likely to be criticised because he doesn't keep all the Old Testament laws. Have you made your wave offering for today? Do you avoid bacon sandwiches? Did you know that you shouldn't eat rabbit?
Some people wriggle round it by claiming that there are different kinds of law in the Old Testament: Ceremonial Law, Theocratic Law (laws pertaining to a state that is ruled by God - a Theocracy), and absolute Law (as manifested by the Ten Commandments). Only the latter is applicable today. But if that were true we should spend from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday as a Sabbath - with all the attendant rules that Jesus and his followers considered breakable.
We have to remember that Jesus didn't have the New Testament; the Old Testament was his Bible.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, nor the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished."
How did he mean to fulfill them?
The problem in the world is not, at its heart, failing to keep the law, but what the Bible calls sin. It is the corruption in the center of the soul that rebels against the Creator. It is illustrated in the Bible by the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden. Despite being given all he could require, he insisted on choosing the one thing that was forbidden him. It was Adam's rebellion that undid the world and brought a curse upon it. As the Apostle Paul writes in Roman 5:12 as a result of Adam's sin, "Death came to all men" . This was before the Law had been given to Moses. In verse 13 Paul writes, "Before the Law was given, sin was in the world." And in verse 20, "The Law was added so that the trespass might increase."
That sounds strange. Why should God want trespass to increase? It sounds like the current government's policy of introducing more laws so that it can fund the budget deficit by collecting more fines. No, the Law is there to reveal the sin. If it's just the Ten Commandments, you could probably make a fair stab at keeping them as written. Don't steal, don't murder, don't commit adultery, don't commit perjury, don't covet, look after your parents - any decent person could feel that he could go along with that. Don't swear, get rid of your graven images, keep Sunday special, and only have one God -
(Thou shalt have one god only, who
Would be at the expense of two?
wrote Arthur Hugh Clough).
Later on in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes on to expand on what it means not to murder and not to commit adultery, but the Pharisees had already made the same point about Sabbath keeping. Jesus seems to endorse the attitude of the Pharisees (who were a sect of ultra-religious Jews who were assiduous about every detail of the Law - they even took a tenth of the weeds growing in their gardens to give to the Temple). "I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."
What Jesus is saying is that it is impossible to be right with God simply by keeping the Law. The Pharisees had a jolly good shot at it, but even they fell short. I remember speaking at an old people's home and trying to make this point. To be good enough for heaven you have to make 100% in everything you do. Perfection is required. An old guy from the back of the room shouted out, "According to you, there will be nobody in heaven."
Exactly! He had it quite right. If we rely on ourselves there will be no-one in heaven.
The Law establishes that we cannot be good enough for God; we must throw ourselves upon his mercy.
The Ten Commandments were known to the Jews as the Decalogue or ten words. John's gospel tells us that the word became flesh.
In 1 Corinthians chapter 6 Paul tells us not to be deceived. "Neither the sexually immoral, not idolaters, nor adulterers, not male prostitutes, nor homosexual offenders, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God." He goes on, "And that is what some of you were." He is writing to the Church of God at Corinth, people he says who have been called to be holy. How can they be holy if they were sinners? Is it just a matter of turning over a new leaf? What about all past sins?
The Bible tells us that Jesus dealt with all sins, past, present and future, on the cross. He who knew no sin became sin for us. The punishment that was due to us was inflicted upon him. Paul goes on, "You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." When we can accept this, his Holy Spirit comes on board and guides us into all righteousness. We are no longer under Law but under Grace.
Does that mean we can do as we please? If future sins are forgiven dies it matter that we sin again and again? Paul deals with this question in Romans chapter 6. "Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?" He answers his own question. "By no means! We died to sin." and again, "Sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law but under grace."
Imagine yourself as a footballer contracted to Cloggers United. Your manager is one of the old school, so you are taught how to tug shirts, to tread on the striker's toes in the penalty area so he can't jump, to handle the ball behind the referee's back, to surreptitiously lean on your opponent and to dive flamboyantly at the slightest touch. Cloggers United score few goals themselves, but they are very good at stopping even the most talented teams from playing well. You find the whole set-up dismal, but there seems no hope for getting out of it. Then one day a bright new manager comes and buys you. You are transferred to Flair City. The watchword here is run, pass, move into space, pass again and score. You find the new manager's attitudes invigorating. This is football as it is meant to be played. Why would you want to go back to clogging? With this new flair you are top of the table. How could you ever choose mediocre again?
It is certainly true that we are not under the Law. In fact if we were not converted from Judaism, there was never a time when we were under the Law. At least not that law which was given to Moses so that the chosen people might recognize what sin was. But Paul in seeing that the Mosaic Law no longer applied cried out in 1 Corinthians 6:12, "Everything is permissible for me", but then he qualifies it, "but not everything is beneficial."
Although no longer bound by the Law, when dealing with Jews he voluntarily submits to it. Similarly, because he is intent on winning as many as possible for the Lord, when dealing with those not having the Law, he puts himself in the same position. He then makes this subtle distinction in 1 Corinthians 10:21, "Though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law."
What is Christ's law? Jesus gave us many commandments including new ones that we love one another and that we go into all the world and preach the gospel making disciples of all nations, but evil is still evil.
People today have a warped view of Jesus. Because he is a forgiving God he is taken as a soft touch. Paul is seen as a sort of corrupter of the faith, a bitter old bigot who brought in repressive doctrines that Jesus would never have assented to. They assume that to forgive is to condone. Such nonsense proceeds from ignorance, of course, but listen to Jesus on what evil is, "What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean'. For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean'."Mark 7:20-23.
The law of Christ is not a 'softer' law than the law of God; it is not more permissive. The grace of Jesus Christ brings forgiveness for the sin that law exposes, but when freed from the law and its punishment keeping close to Christ means living the life he modeled for us. We must walk the walk as well as talking the talk.