Hey, law, you can move on now
When the Bible speaks of the Law, it is talking about the entire covenant which God made with Israel when he brought them out of Egypt. It includes the Ten Commandments, the sacrificial system, the temple organization, the feasts and holy days, the moral commands, the social guidelines, and the economic instructions. I remember being taught that the work of Christ took the place of the sacrifices but the moral law was still binding on Christians. As far as I know, there is no such division like that mentioned in Scripture. The Law is all of the Law given to Israel (including the prophets who made application of the Law to the nation in their times). Note: I will capitalize the word Law as a reminder of its all-inclusiveness.
There are several statements in the New Testament that clearly assert the Law is no longer required for living as a follower of Jesus, such as:
Romans 7:6 (NASB) “But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.”
Ephesians 2:15 (NIV) “by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.”
Colossians 2:14 (NASB) “having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.”
Hebrews 8:14 (NASB) “When He said, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.”
The contexts of these verses as well as the entire Letter to the Galatians and 2 Corinthians 3 show us that the Law given by God to Israel is not in effect any more. We have been released from the law. By abolishing the law. He (Jesus) has taken it out of the way. He made the first (covenant) obsolete. I don’t know how it could be any clearer.
But it is still difficult for us to see. Deeply embedded in our minds is the idea that we are supposed to be behaving by obeying God’s commands, that God has given us a set of rules which bring order to life and guidelines which determine our faithfulness and righteousness. We may say that we believe Jesus saved us so we can obey God’s Law. And we assume that since God gave the Law, it is permanent and therefore mandatory for all people in all times to live by it.
What helped me the most with this is finally understanding why the Law was abolished and the purpose of the Law.
The Law “was taken out of the way” (Colossians 2:14) because Jesus fulfilled it. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18 NASB). His intention was not to just say “no more Law.” He intended to fulfill it. Fulfill doesn’t just mean he obeyed it perfectly so he could be the Savior and help us obey it. Fulfill means that he completed what the Law was meant for. Romans 10:4 (NASB) says, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” The word “end” means “complete.” It’s the same word Jesus used when, on the cross, he announced, “It is finished.” Jesus finished, completed, fulfilled the purpose or meaning of the Law. He said, “Not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law UNTIL all is accomplished.” Meaning that once all was accomplished, once the Law was fulfilled, it did “pass away.” Jesus began the passing away of the Law even before his death and resurrection: “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19).
So, what was the purpose of the Law? Why was it given by God to Israel? There are two primary features that are attributed to the Law in the New Testament.
The first: “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Galatians 3:24-25 NASB). The New International Version puts it: “So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” Paul even says, “we were held prisoners by the law” (v23). God gave the Law to the Hebrews to get them ready for the arrival of the Messiah. It wasn’t meant to be a code of behavior for everyone to follow. There was a specific time frame it was in effect: “until Christ came.” Since the Messiah has come, the Law is no longer needed. Its purpose – get ready for the Messiah – has been fulfilled. This is kind of like a mortgage: the purpose of the mortgage is to pay for a home; when all the payments have been made the mortgage has been fulfilled so you’re no longer under the requirement to send money to the finance company.
The second feature of the Law’s purpose is closely related. In fact we might say this is how the Law served has a tutor or guardian. How do the following three statements describe the Law?
Colossians 2:16-17 Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.
Hebrews 8:4-5 there are those who offer the gifts according to the Law; who serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things…
Hebrews 10:1 For the Law, since it was only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near.
Did you see it? “Shadow.” The Law (the entire Covenant with Israel) was a “shadow of what is to come” – “a shadow of the heavenly things” – “a shadow of the good things to come.”
The shadow of any object – a tree, an aardvark, a woman, a skyscraper – shows something of the object but not everything. It shows a basic outline, but no details, no texture, no color, no expression. And no life. The shadow is not the real thing. The Law was not the real thing – it was not the real means for God to reconcile and redeem humanity. It was not the real expression of God’s Kingdom. It was not the real way for God’s people to live with him and each other and the creation forever.
“The substance belongs to Christ.” Jesus is the real thing. The Person and Work of Christ cast a shadow over Israel so they would have some idea – but not complete – of God’s plan for saving and restoring humanity. Everything in the Old Covenant – the Ten Commandments, the sacrificial system, the temple organization, the feasts and holy days, the moral commands, the social guidelines, and the economic instructions – pointed to Jesus. After he had risen and appeared to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Luke says, ” Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (24:27). All of it is about him.
But the Law is only a basic outline, only a shadow, so we don’t hang on to it now that Christ has come and redeemed. There’s a wall corner that juts out into a room in my house. Imagine me standing near the corner, not able to see around it. I see a shadow on the floor of a person around the corner. And then my wife walks around the corner. Do I keep watching the shadow, talking to the shadow, hugging the shadow? Of course not. I want my real wife!
Jesus is the reality of all that God is doing. The Law was his shadow.
The Law’s purpose has been fulfilled. It has accomplished what God intended it to do. Now it is obsolete. It has been abolished. It has been taken away. It is not in effect for anyone. We still can learn much from the Old Covenant, but we do not need to try to obey it or adhere to it or observe it.
Now an important question has to be dealt with. If we don’t live by the Law, how do we live? How do we know what’s right and wrong? What determines our morality? How can we identify God’s will, what he wants us to do? Where do we get wisdom for making right choices? How do we function as God’s people in the world religiously, morally, ethically, socially, and economically?
The Law has been replaced with a new way – the only real way – for living faithfully and obediently to God.
To this day, Pentecost (Shavuot) is observed in Judaism as the feast of the giving of the Law. On the fiftieth day from Passover and leaving slavery in Egypt, the Hebrews came to Mount Sinai. The Lord descended to the top of the mountain with thunder and lightning and thick smoke and a loud trumpet blast. The people trembled in fear. Moses went up the mountain, and God sent him back down with the Law – the tablets of the covenant, the instructions for how to live in obedience to the Lord. That is the shadow cast backward from the day of Pentecost that’s described in Acts 2. Fifty days before, Jesus died as the true Passover Lamb then he was resurrected, making the way for humanity’s release from slavery to sin and death. Like Moses climbing Sinai, he ascended to the throne with his Father, and the Holy Spirit was sent down with the power to put the new covenant into effect. This new covenant is not operated by words written on tablets of stone. It’s operated by the Spirit living in the hearts of God’s people. The Holy Spirit has replaced the Law as the way for us to live faithfully and obediently.
The way God wants us to live cannot come about by commands and rituals and observances on the outside of us. The Spirit works in us to produce inner change so we each become a different kind of person. God wants us to be more than people who obey rules. He intends for us to be his images, his likenesses (Genesis 1:27). That is our true identity, what it means to be fully human. Ephesians 4:24 says “[you] put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” Due to our sinful corruption we can’t do that on our own, and the Law bring it about. The Holy Spirit present in our lives makes that happen – he teaches, confronts, shows, and enables. Paul teaches on this in 2 Corinthians 3 and 4, and this verse sums it up: “we all…are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (3:18).
The Spirit is working in our hearts and minds, our wills and emotions, our thoughts and desires, transforming us into a different kind of person. This is what God promised through Jeremiah and confirmed by the writer of Hebrews: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws into their minds, and I will write them on their hearts” (8:10, shortly before he said the old covenant is obsolete). God makes the ways for people to live a part of who we are. For example, I won’t just manage my anger but will become the kind of person who does not get angry when it’s not called for. Behaviors and priorities and desires and spirituality come from within instead of being requirements forced on us by external rules and commands. Of course, this doesn’t take place instantaneously or easily for the most part; it is a lifelong process.
The crux of becoming a different kind of person by the Spirit is learning to live relationally with God. Instead of adhering to a list of commands and observing a schedule of holy days or following a system of principles, we live by responding to God. The Gospel of Mark, in chapters 2 and 3, describes how Jesus taught this. He and his disciples were criticized for not obeying the laws of fasting and Sabbath observance. His response to the fasting issue was, “While the bridegroom is with them, the attendants of the bridegroom cannot fast, can they? So long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day” (2:19-20). Instead of fasting in obedience to a rule, you decide whether or not to fast in response to what the bridegroom (Jesus) is doing. The Holy Spirit reveals what God is doing (John 14-16) through Scripture, prayer, circumstances, other believers, and sometimes by speaking directly to our spirit.
This is kind of a messy way to live. It’s not well-ordered and scheduled by a Law. It’s a relationship with a Person. It’s not about mere surface behaviors. It’s about deep, inner transformation. So it can be a challenging struggle. Ben Patterson, campus pastor of Westmont College, explained, “Through circumstances he nudges us or draws us or jolts us into prayer. Suddenly we are faced with something that challenges our deepest securities, knocks away all of our props or violates everything we ever believed to be true about God and his ways.” Living in response means we must deal with God dealing with us. It’s messy and challenging, but it’s real, and it results in our developing a genuine closeness with God and being renewed in his likeness. Living by the Spirit in relationship with God is freeing and victorious.
This is a radical way to live. It’s not what most of our Christian training looks like. It’s not how the world operates. Most of our culture promotes a legalistic approach to morality, ethics, economics, society, and religion. Things like rules, values, rights, legislation, medication, executive orders, and coping skills have their place in a community of broken sinners, but they are only stopgaps and makeshift methods to control human behaviors and prevent anarchy. They produce very little real change. Much of American Christianity promotes a formulaic approach to religion – “here are the 19 keys to having a blessed, prosperous life!” – and attempts to find satisfaction in emotional experiences. Some still emphasize keeping the laws of the old covenant as the way for Christians to please God – “tithing is God’s financial plan for supporting the work of the Kingdom!” – and even believe they were meant to be the guide for all civilizations – “use of the Ten Commandments for their civic and moral significance should be not only permissible, but indispensable in encouraging age-old maxims of good citizenship.”
No, it takes something more radical than Law for us to hear the Spirit and become more like Christ. The Law doesn’t give life. John Piper provides a great description of this radicalized Christianity:
The way we strive towards being obedient, holy and loving people is not by getting up in the morning and pulling the list out of our pocket. No! We get on our knees and we open ourselves to the whole counsel of God in the Bible. We saturate and shape ourselves by everything he has done, he is doing and he will do. We stake our lives in the gospel and then instead of serving the law, we serve one another in love… You are now married to the risen Christ. You are not married to the law and the oldness of the letter, but to the newness of the Spirit. Our whole approach towards transformation, love and life is different than list keeping.