Monday, February 8, 2010

Jesus and the Law

The concept of law is found throughout the Gospels and the New Testament and is an important element of atonement theology. This post explores the way Jesus understood and treated Old Testament law to provide a perspective for New Testament understanding of the law.

The issue of the Old Testament law as it relates to Christianity and the atonement is an important subject that needs clarification. For example, in Romans 5:13, Paul writes "for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law." Previously in verse 8, he wrote "But God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Just looking at these two verses, we can conclude that it is through the law that sin has its force, which we are delivered from through Jesus' death (for more related to the topic of sin see "Sin and Community").

The law that Paul is referring to is the Jewish law found in the Pentateuch. However, when we look at the attitude of Jesus towards the Old Testament law, we should see the need to be careful in making a one-to-one comparison between the exact content of the Old Testament law and the idea of a timeless divine law. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, Jesus states:

"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. 18I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For 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. (link)

However, right after making this strong sounding statement regarding the law, we find Jesus saying things that either change or greatly elaborate upon the law (see 5:21, 5:27, 5:38). To pick one as an example, in 5:38-39 Jesus states "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person." Compare this with Exodus 21:24-25 - "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise." (very similar wording to this is also found in Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21). Clearly, when Jesus spoke of how the smallest letter of the law would not disappear, he had something different in mind than just the words contained in the Old Testament books of law.

This becomes even more clear when we look at Jesus' teaching on divorce in Mark 10:
1Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.

2Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"

3"What did Moses command you?" he replied.

4They said, "Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away."

5"It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law," Jesus replied. 6"But at the beginning of creation God 'made them male and female.'a]">[a] 7'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife,b]">[b] 8and the two will become one flesh.'c]">[c] So they are no longer two, but one. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."

10When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11He answered, "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery." (link)

In this passage, Jesus indicates that at least parts of the Old Testament law were concessions of sort to the ancient Hebrews. God did not want or desire divorce, but allowed it to be tolerated. Thus, the "law of God" in the sense of the ultimate moral values that come from God are not to equated on a one-to-one basis with the words recorded in the Pentateuch. Thus the "Law of Moses" and the divine law of God, while not completely incommensurable, are not to be thought of as necessarily interchangeable. Jesus declares his respect for the law, while at the same time making statements that seem to change or greatly revise it. Jesus also declares that parts of the law are there because of the hardness of the hearts of Israel and not because God necessarily desires it.

Even in the Old Testament law itself, we find indications that parts of the law were meant to serve specific pragmatic purposes, giving us pause if we should wish to treat them as timeless expressions of the will of God. For example, in Deuteronomy 19 we find the commandment to do to one who brings false testimony what he had intended to do the person he was testifying against. The reason for this is given in verse 20 which states: "the rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you." This harsh treatment was meant to serve as an example to others so that they would avoid such evil behavior. The purpose of this law then isn't aimed at giving the eternally God-ordained just recompense for bringing false testimony, but serves a broader pragmatic purpose for the morality of the community at large.

These examples provide a context for better understanding the law as it is understood by Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. Since these texts are foundational to Christianity, they should factor in prominently in any attempt to understand Christian doctrine, particularly the atonement which deals specifically with law and sin. We can see in the way that Jesus treated the law, and even from parts of the Old Testament law itself, that it should not be equated with eternal statements of God's prescriptions for human conduct, but rather as aimed at pointing humanity towards these divine attributes.


Logan Cres said...

Before I say anything, I'd like to know which view point you hold.
The viewpoint that Jesus fulfilled the old law, presented a new law and that that adherence to the old law was not necessary,

or that both laws are binding

or something else?

Matt K said...

I believe that Jesus offers a new understanding of law, based on the spirit of God's word and not the letter, so that the God-given principles of the law are still our guide for moral action (taking into account the ways in which the old law accommodated certain behaviors, as i argued above. In those cases, it is the teachings of Jesus that point to the will of God for our behavior, e.g. love for enemies).

So the old law, in the sense of the literal propositional content is not binding, but the will of God for morality has and always will exist for us either to embrace or reject.

Logan Cres said...

okay matt,
so how does one go about implementing this new understanding of law?
I imagine that Christians will have to ignore any immoral acts that are done to them because of Jesus Commandment:
""You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person.""
Does this means that a christian that gets raped, or stalked, threatened, or has their child abducted should not do anything about it, or do I have a misconception?

And what is this "will of God for morality"
since it "has and always will exist " where is it so that I can look it over so that I have the opportunity to "embrace or reject" it.

How does God expect me to behave If I am a christian and I find that someone has taken my child?

Matt K said...

We don't have to ignore immoral acts, but we must not seek to avenge them. I am willing to recognize that the state has been granted authority by God to deal with these kinds of matters (see Romans 13:1-7), but I believe Jesus is calling his followers to a radical kind of love for enemies that lets go of any sense of entitlement we might feel for ourselves, our families, or our property. I don't think this means you have to do nothing if someone were to abduct your child, but part of saying "Jesus is Lord" means letting go of any claim to take revenge or kill.

As for God's will for morality, I've already listed Jesus' summary elsewhere: love God and love people (Don't worry, atheists don't get left out of acts of love for God since Jesus also reminds us that whatever was done to least of us was done to him). N.T. Wright has a nice phrase about the recorded law, calling it a thumbnail of dehumanizing behaviors. God's will for morality is to see us live as beings in the image of God, and his judgment is in response to the ways we have desecrated this image in the way that we treat each other.