Archives For The Law

LawThe Old Testament Law can be a very difficult section of Scripture for modern readers. For one thing, it’s tedious (a less friendly word would be boring). Commands are often listed one after another for chapters at a time. And seriously, how long can you stay focused when reading about the many ways one’s ox can harm another’s family or property and the repercussions thereof?

But the Law is hugely significant. It runs from Exodus 20 through the book of Numbers. Then it gets recapped in Deuteronomy. So not only does it get a lot of Old Testament ink, it also sets the framework for the rest of the Old Testament. When Israel obeys the Law, they are blessed. When they disobey, they are cursed and sent into exile. So to understand the Old Testament you have to understand the Law. And to understand the significance of what Jesus did, you have to understand the Law.

Here are some tips, then, for reading Old Testament legal passages:


1. Acknowledge the historical & covenantal setting.

The Law was given in the context of the covenant that God gave to Moses and Israel at Mt. Sinai. In this historical setting, God was coming to dwell with his people, first in the tabernacle, then later in the temple. Guidelines had to be established for how a holy God would live with a sinful people. How would Israel’s sin be dealt with? How would God’s holiness be kept at the forefront of Israel’s mind? These kinds of practical problems—arising from God dwelling with human beings—are addressed through the Law.

So when we read the Law, we’re not reading commands that are given directly to us. We’re reading a contract signed by God and ancient Israel. When he came to earth, Jesus was clear that he wasn’t simply brushing the Law aside: “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” (Matt. 5:17). But this is not the same thing as saying “I have come to leave the Law exactly as it is.”

There is debate over precisely how the Law relates to New Testament Christians, but in my view, Jesus took the whole Law, rolled it up like one big prophecy pointing to himself, and then fulfilled it. So now Hebrews tells us that Jesus has instituted a new covenant and thereby made the old covenant “obsolete” (Heb. 8:13), which involves a change in priesthood and a change in the law (7:12). So the Law retains its value, but we do not read the Law as commands to govern our daily lives.


2. Identify which type of law is being described.

Once we acknowledge the historical and covenantal setting of the Law in general, we can analyze the specific laws we’re reading. Some laws are given as universals that appear to apply across the board: “Do not murder” (Ex. 20:13). Others give more specific case laws. For example, Exodus 21:21–36 gives means for restitution when your ox gets out of hand. This seems to be more of a case study, which would give a judge a sort of legal precedent to use in making rulings.

It’s easy to learn something from the absolute laws. We read Exodus 20:13 and affirm that we serve a God who values human life. But the case laws are a little trickier to pull principles out of. That’s okay. You don’t need to reach new heights in your spiritual life with each of the 600+ laws in the Old Testament. Try to understand what you can, and don’t get caught up on the rest. When you get stuck, there are always study Bibles and commentaries to help.


3. Picture what a society governed by these laws would look like.

If a nation kept all of these laws perfectly, what would it look like? How would it function with regard to the rest of the world? How would it contrast with the nations around it?

Take Leviticus 19:9–10 as an example. God tells Israel that when they harvest their grain, they shouldn’t harvest right up to the edge of their field, but they should instead leave some for the poor to come and gather. So a society governed by this law has a built-in mechanism for caring for the poor, not as a state sponsored program, but through each person sharing with the poor of the land. Or look again at the ox-goring passages. A society that followed these laws would have incentive for maintaining responsibility for one’s animals and a set means for making things right when they went wrong.

Picturing the way that this type of society would function is an important part of understanding what these laws are getting at.


4. Imagine what it would feel like to live under these laws and meditate on how these laws are fulfilled in Jesus.

What would it be like to constantly make the kinds of sacrifices you’re reading about? How would it feel to always keep—or strive to keep—the laws that keep stacking up? What would be on your mind as you made these sacrifices and broke these laws? And then, think about what it means that Jesus “fulfilled” the Law. This can actually be a rich form of appreciating what Jesus has done on your behalf.


What did Jesus think about homosexuality? While we can’t cite a verse to show that He affirmed or condemned same-sex love, I argued in my last post that Jesus’s Jewish worldview suggests that He probably would not have affirmed it.

For this post, I want to answer another question raised at the end of my last post: “What about Jesus’s disregard for purity laws (washing hands, eating pork, etc.) and His radical, counterintuitive outreach to the outcasts?”

First, we’ve already seen in a previous post that it’s not at all clear that same-sex intercourse was considered a purity law in the Old Testament. For the sake of space, I’ll rely on my previous argument. In short, not all laws in Leviticus 18 and 20 are classified as purity laws, and Paul, who did not embrace OT purity laws still alluded to Lev 18:22 and 20:13 to prohibit same-sex intercourse.

Hebrew BibleSecond, it’s also not clear that Jesus rejected the purity laws of the Old Testament. He certainly challenged some Jewish traditions of His day; traditions about the Sabbath law, washing hands, etc. But it’s far from clear that Jesus actually broke, or taught others to break, the sacred laws of the Jewish Torah. In fact, His words in Matthew 5:17-20 suggest otherwise. Now, there are a few instances where Jesus seems to overturn (or bring to fulfillment) a prior OT law, such as divorce (Matt 5:31-32) and retaliation (Matt 5:38-42). (The Sabbath law is a bit tricky; Matt 12.) But in these cases, Jesus cites the OT law directly. He never does this with the laws regarding same-sex intercourse. Put simply, if we say that Jesus overturned the sexual laws prohibiting same-sex intercourse (Lev 18:22; 20:13), we’d need clear evidence—evidence which we don’t have.

I’m genuinely not trying to push an agenda here, and if you read all my previous blogs, I hope this shines through. But if I’m going to enlist Jesus to support same-sex relations against His Jewish worldview, I’m going to need a good, biblical, historical, and logical argument to do so. And unless I’m missing something, such an argument cannot be found in saying that since prohibitions of same-sex intercourse are part of the purity laws (which they aren’t), Jesus therefore overturned these OT laws (which he didn’t).

Third, to add to this, we should notice that even though Jesus never mentioned homosexuality, when it came to sexual matters in general, He took a very conservative stance compared to other rabbis of the day.

For instance, ancient rabbis disagreed on the grounds for divorce. Some (e.g. Hillel) said that a man could divorce his wife if she made a bad meal, while others (e.g. Shammai) said that divorce is only permitted if the woman has committed sexual immorality. Jesus, of course, is much closer to the latter; that is, he takes the conservative view that divorce is only permitted in cases of sexual immorality.

Jesus also takes a crazy conservative stance on adultery: anyone who simply lusts for a woman has committed adultery in his heart (Matt 5:27-30).

When Jesus moves away from His Jewish tradition regarding sexual matters (and we need textual evidence for such moves), we see Him moving to the right (a stricter interpretation of Torah) not the left (more lenient interpretation of Torah).

But let me end by pointing out a somewhat flawed argument offer by my conservative audience. Some say that since Jesus only sanctioned heterosexual love within marriage, He therefore condemned homosexual love. For instance, in Mark 10:6-8 Jesus says:

But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

Jesus cites Gen 1:27 and 2:24 as Scriptural proof—but proof for what? Some people say that this is clear proof that Jesus was against homosexual relations. Some will then add the ever clever, knee-slapping hilarious, and studiously logical footnote that “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” which is neither clever, nor hilarious, nor logical. (Seriously, I hope that my Christian brothers and sisters will never, ever, ever say this stupid line, ever, ever again; it ignores biblical exegesis, showcases Evangelical ignorance, and isn’t, and never has been, funny.)

But Jesus’s positive affirmation of heterosexual union does not in itself preclude same-sex union. Although I disagree with 90% of his book, Daniel Helminiak is correct when he writes: “The fact that the Bible speaks often and positively about heterosexual relationships in no way implies a condemnation of homosexual ones” (What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality, 122). Moreover, Jesus cites Genesis 1-2 to show that divorce is wrong, not that same-sex relations are wrong. If we go on the explicit reason why Jesus went to Gen 1-2, that reason is clearly not homosexual love (which is ironic when divorced Christians cite the verse to condemn homosexual unions).

Now, please don’t confuse my disagreement with this argument as proof that I disagree with the view it’s enlisted to support. From what I’ve studied so far, I don’t think the Bible sanctions same sex intercourse (or marriage), and Jesus’s silence on the issue cannot be used to support it. But I only want my view (wherever I end up landing in the end) to be based on solid, logical, historically viable arguments from the text of Scripture. I will not race to find it under every rock and tree, chapter and verse.

For the next post, I’ll look at Jesus’s view of unconditional love. Does His embrace of harlot and sinner show that His love is poured out regardless of behavior?

This title may have attracted some witch hunters seeking evidence to burn N.T. Wright at the stake. If this is you, then better go back and read the previous four posts. The title, as the rest of you may know, means that this is the last of our New Perspective posts, which may elicit a blend of “yeahs” and “boos.” In any case, I’ll wrap up this series by laying out my own views about the so-called New Perspective on Paul (NPP). I’ve insinuated throughout that I’m not an advocate of the NPP, and yet I’ve tried to accurately and fairly represent it in the previous posts.

So, what do I see wrong with the New Perspective? Three things.

First, NPP proponents (broadly speaking) see Paul and first-century Judaism as having the same structure of salvation, but different identify markers. If I just lost most of you, let me explain. It’s typical of NPP interpreters to see Paul and Judaism as having the same understanding of grace and works. Both Paul and Judaism, they say, believe that salvation is by grace and our works are nothing more than a response to grace. This is pretty much what Sanders, Dunn, and even Wright would say. Or in the words of the brilliant NT scholar, Morna Hooker, “just as Palestinian Judaism understood obedience to the Law to be the proper response of Israel to the covenant on Sinai, so Paul assumes that there is an appropriate response for Christians who have experienced God’s saving activity in Christ” (Hooker, “Covenantal Nomism,” 48).

My only problem with this understanding of Paul and Judaism is this: it’s just not true. Having studied the original documents of Judaism for the last 6 years, I must say that while they were not robustly legalistic (merit mongers working their way to heaven apart from grace), they weren’t as “Calvinistic” as Paul (please excuse the anachronism). Our beloved Apostle believed that “God justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:5) and—take note of this—nowhere in first century Judaism do we see such a radical assertion. A section of the Dead Sea ScrollsIn fact, the Dead Sea Scrolls are famous for being “hyper-Calvinists” (tongue in cheek) and even they don’t make such ridiculous claims. For the Scrolls, “God atoned” for and “justified the righteous, and pronounced the wicked to be wicked (CD 4:6-7 [a famous scroll from the Dead Sea]). God doesn’t justify the ungodly—that would be offensive! But for Paul, it was not only affirmed but necessary, since we’re all ungodly! Paul believed that all—including Jews—are insatiably sinful and can do no good on their own. This leaves only the wicked to be justified by God—even though this was considered heretical and absurd by most Jews in the first century. Paul was a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil 3), but his Damascus road experience really rattled him something fierce. Paul’s view of divine grace is unparalleled in first-century Judaism. (I’ve got a few caveats here for those interested.)

Second, the phrase “works of the law” cannot be limited to Jewish boundary markers. I may have built a good case for this in my first two posts, but a close look at all the passages shows that “works of the law” refers to the demands of the old covenant law which Israel failed to keep. Dietary regulations may be emphasized in Galatians 2:16 and perhaps in Romans 3:28 (I still have my doubts here), but in all other instances (e.g. Rom 3:20; Gal 3:2, 5, 10), “works of the law” refers to the demands of the Mosaic law as a whole. So when Paul says that no one is justified by works of the law in Romans 3:20, he’s simply saying what he says elsewhere: that righteousness did not and cannot come through law (Gal 2:20-21; 3:21; Rom 4:4-5; 7:6-8:11). Limiting Paul’s critique to ethnocentrism cannot account for Paul’s driving point: we’re all jacked up and in need of unilateral grace to be saved (Rom 4:4-5 my translation).

Third, and somewhat related to the previous point, although the NPP has very helpfully brought to light the importance of the Jew/Gentile issue in Paul, this should not be pitted against a more classic reading of Romans and Galatians. In other words, we need to distinguish between the unique and surprising content of justification by faith (Rom 4:4-6)—that God declares righteous his ungodly enemies—and its universal scope (Rom 4:9-16)—that this salvation is given to Jew and Gentile on the same basis. The “Old Perspective” seemed to emphasize only the former, while the “New Perspective” the latter. Both, to my mind, are beautiful and true.

Let me end, however, by tipping my hat one more time to the New Perspective. Having read piles of stuff written by NPP advocates, I’ve been forced to go back and bury my nose in the text of God’s precious word. It’s been tedious at times, but overall I feel that I have a better grasp on what God was breathing out through the pen of Paul. And any time we are forced to revisit the text with fresh eyes, new questions, and a sensible spirit, that’s a pretty good day at the office. So let me end by encouraging you with the words of the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who on the eve of his exile from Nazi Germany, exhorted his students with these words:

“We have been studying cheerfully and seriously…And now the end has come. So listen to my piece of advice: exegesis, exegesis, and yet more exegesis! Keep to the Word, to the Scripture that has been given to us.”

–Karl Barth, on the event of his formal farewell to his students in Bonn, just prior to his expulsion from Germany in 1935.