Christ and the Law [Uncertain Inferences Series]

At the outset here let me make some things absolutely clear:

  1. I know I’m going to be misunderstood. I will try to make myself as clear as I possibly can, but I cannot control those who misread or intentionally distort what I write.
  2. I want to state unequivocally that I believe Christians live under the covenant that Christ established on the cross. In no way do I believe that Christians are bound by the ceremonial regulations of the Mosaic code.
  3. I do, however, firmly believe that Christians are just as bound to obey the moral/ethical commandments as given in the Mosaic code, (explained in part by the 10 Commandments) just as the people living before Moses were bound by those same moral/ethical teachings. (Read, for example, Genesis 26:4-5, and ask yourself what laws and commandments Abraham was expected to obey?)

The point I want to make today is that we can be correct in understanding a biblical concept, and be wrong in applying passages of Scripture to defend those correct conclusions. In other words, we can abuse Scripture by incorrectly appealing to proof-texts to defend perfectly legitimate doctrines. I do not want to teach false doctrines, but just as important, I do not want to teach correct doctrines by falsely appealing to the use of unwarranted Scriptures.

The correct doctrine that I want to point out in this article is the New Testament teaching that the covenant established by Christ has superseded the Sinai covenant described in the books of Exodus-Deuteronomy. In order to defend this doctrine, overly zealous preachers have gone beyond the biblical teaching and have used phrases such as “Christ abolished the Old Testament” or “Christ nailed the 10 Commandments to the cross.” To support their claims reference is frequently made to two passages of Scripture. One passage supports the idea that the cross does indeed invalidate certain aspects of the Mosaic covenant, but in a context that is completely incompatible with the manner in which it is used today. The other passage simply does not support the teaching that Christ has “abolished” law of Moses. A third passage of Scripture flatly rejects the teaching that Jesus abolished the law. Let’s examine these in reverse order.

First, Jesus himself plainly rejects the idea that he came to abolish the law of Moses – Matthew 5:17. Any preacher or teacher who suggests otherwise MUST explain this passage, in context, can be ignored or refuted.

Second, appeal is made to Colossians 2:14, which states (in the King James Version), “Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross.” The “handwriting of ordinances” is usually inferred to be the Old Testament, or the Mosaic law at the very least. But, note, if that was Paul’s intent, he could have used the word “law” here. He did not. He chose a unique expression (used only here in the New Testament) to make clear he was NOT talking about the Mosaic law. Note how more recent translators have worked to translate that phrase:

New Living Translation – “record of charges against us”
NET Bible – “certificate of indebtedness”
Common English Bible – “record of the debt”
God’s Word Translation – “charges brought against us” (by the written laws God had established)
Holman Christian Standard Bible – “certificate of debt with its obligations”
English Standard Version – “record of debt”
The Message (Eugene Peterson) – “old arrest warrant”

It is obvious that these committee translations (Peterson’s work is a paraphrase, not a translation) all want to convey that what Paul is talking about here is not the law of Moses in and of itself. The subject is the debt, or the charges made against us, because of humanity’s inability to obey the law (which the God’s Word translation makes clear through its next explanatory phrase, which is not in the Greek). Part of the difficulty in translating this section is determining the referent to the pronoun “he.” The ESV makes the issue fairly clear by providing God as the subject, but the word “God” is not in the Greek text. To me it makes the most sense, as Jesus did not nail anything to the cross – he was nailed to the cross!

I just do not see any way forward by using this text to argue that Jesus abolished the Old Law, the Old Testament, and certainly not the 10 Commandments.

Third, the passage that does teach that Christ abolished the certain aspects of the law, but which has been taken completely out of its original context to teach something it does not teach, is Ephesians 2:15, “by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace.” In this text we see how a passage which teaches one thing can be wrested out of its context to teach something entirely foreign to the author, and would not have been considered by the original audience.

Read in the immediate context of chapter 2 and the larger context of the Ephesian letter, Paul is refuting the idea that there can be two bodies, two “churches” of Christ. There is no “Jewish” church and “Gentile” church. There is ONE body – and Jews cannot claim superiority and Gentiles cannot thumb their noses at Jewish practices. Through the cross God (and Christ) have “abolished” or “broken down” the barrier, or the dividing wall of hostility that was crystalized in the ceremonial aspects of the law of Moses – Paul elsewhere points to circumcision, certain dietary laws, and specific days of worship.

Paul’s understanding of the law of Moses is multi-faceted.  On the one hand he can say, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good,” (Rom. 7:12); but he also knows that, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his [God’s] sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). In his letter to the Ephesians Paul is not giving his readers a finely tuned, carefully crafted explication of the old covenant versus the new covenant. He is emphatically telling both Jew and Gentile that neither side can use the law of Moses as a battering ram to bludgeon the opposing side. The cross has nullified the one single barrier that stood as a point of division between Jew and Gentile, and that was the ceremonial, or nationalistic, components of the law of Moses.

So, I return to my opening thoughts. Has the covenant of Christ established on the cross superseded the covenant established on Sinai? Absolutely. Did Jesus “nail” the Old Testament to the cross? No. Are Christians today still bound by the moral/ethical demands of the law? In my opinion, yes. Nowhere in the New Testament are such demands nullified, voided, abolished, or superseded. I believe such moral demands were in place long before Moses ascended Mt. Sinai, and I believe such demands are still in place. If you doubt me, please consider Genesis 26:4-5, as well as Matthew 5:17, and the numerous moral/ethical catalogs given by Paul, Peter, James and John in the New Testament letters.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

8 thoughts on “Christ and the Law [Uncertain Inferences Series]”

  1. Great post, Paul!

    The understanding you espouse here is a major reason why I dislike the term, “New Testament Christian”; I would much prefer to be a “Two Testament Christian,” because I certainly don’t want to be guilty of ignoring the first 3/4 of Scripture!

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    1. Or, maybe just a “biblical Christian”? The issue of Old Covenant/New Covenant is fraught with many problems, and I am certainly not going to say I have all the answers. As practicing Jews, the authors of much of our New Testament certainly continued to observe Jewish feast days, and even the Sabbath. As an ethnic Gentile, I do not believe I am bound to do so, but I am increasingly challenged, and even chastened, by “our” steadfast refusal to acknowledge the wisdom that God provided for us to observe one full day of rest out of the seven. Therefore, I am far more hesitant to dispatch the 10 Commandments than some of my peers.

      I also find it somewhat disturbing that in academic circles, the Churches of Christ have produced some world renowned New Testament scholars, church historians, and even biblical language specialists, but you have to look far and wide to discover recognized Old Testament scholar (once again, I speak on a worldly basis, that of publishing commentaries, scholarly articles, etc.) Maybe there are more than what I am aware of, and over the past 50 years that number has no doubt increased. I know that when I was in school in the dark ages of the 1980s, very, very few of my friends felt compelled to become an Old Testament scholar.

      Oh, well, rant over. As usual, I thank you so much for taking the time to read my meandering thoughts and to take the time to comment. I appreciate your insights, and although I have not done so, I will check out your 2017 reading list to make sure that it is officially approved! 😉

      Paul

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      1. I think the trend you mentioned in the general neglect of Old Testament scholarship within our fellowship still largely holds true, but is perhaps lessening somewhat. Some of this is likely practical (it is somewhat easier to get into a Ph.D. program in Old Testament than New Testament because of demand and competition), but also idealogical (the recognition that this area has been neglected).

        I have been blessed to be taught by some excellent scholars of the Hebrew Bible, but because they have focused more on teaching, their publication volume has likely suffered. Dale Manor from Harding is an Old Testament professor who is widely respected in archaeological circles, and Kevin Youngblood (formerly of Freed-Hardeman, now at Harding), is top-notch: he released a solid and fairly dense literary commentary on the book of Jonah in the “Hearing the Message of Scripture” series a couple of years ago. There are likely others that I am unaware of.

        Still, I think your general point holds true, at least, from where I sit.

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      2. My O.T. prof was John Willis – a brilliant scholar and one who did not publish widely. It might also have to do with the fact that profs in the Churches of Christ teach more than publish. I am just far more aware of N.T./History guys that publish more and are therefore more widely known among their peers – Ferguson, Malherbe, Holladay, Lewis (Jack), Harrell, Allen, Hughes – I know I am missing scores of others.

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  2. There are a number of moral/ethical laws which are timeless in terms of their establishment by and usage by God to judge mankind. God has proclaimed them to man from the beginning. A list could be made of them, and we can see that they have never changed. The post makes that clear and nothing in this comment is meant to dispute that. In determining whether we are bound in any way to observance of the law of Moses delivered by Moses at Sinai a question should be asked. Is there any sentence in that law or command in that law necessary to our eternal relationship with God which is not included in what Paul refers to in Galatians 6:2 or Colossians 9:21 as the Law of Christ? My understanding from reading the letter to the Galatians both in its overall tone and in specific statements made is that we are not bound as believers in Christ to any part of the law of Moses. The Galatian letter makes reference to certain specific items of law being promoted by Judaizing teachers, but in condemning those specific items Paul seems to teach that in its whole the law no longer binds those who in faith have chosen to be subject to Christ through obedience to him.

    “…by the works of the law no one will be justified.” Gal 2:6
    “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’ “ Gal 3:10
    “Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24 So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. Gal 3:23-25
    Using Hagar and Sarah to figuratively represent the two separate covenants, “These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother….28 Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. 30 But what does Scripture say? ‘Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.’ 31 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.” Gal 4:24-26, 28-31

    The letter to the Hebrews also contains language which indicates a new law replaced the law of Moses.

    “If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood—and indeed the law given to the people established that priesthood—why was there still need for another priest to come, one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? 12 For when the priesthood is changed, the law must be changed also. Hebrews 7:11–12
    “And it was not without an oath! Others became priests without any oath, 21 but he became a priest with an oath when God said to him: ‘The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever.’ ‘ 22 Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantor of a better covenant.” Hebrews 7:20–22
    “ But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises. 7 For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another.” Hebrews 8:6–7
    “By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” Hebrews 8:13

    The fact that the Mosaic law contains a list of moral/ethical laws which continue to exist and and which are now bound on mankind by the new covenant does not necessarily mean that the Mosaic law continues partially in force. The list of moral/ethical laws is repeated in the revelation of God given for our guidance by the New Testament writers. Those moral/ethical laws have full force because they are part of the revelation of the covenant of Christ. To me, it does not seem to be necessary to read the Mosaic law as law we are bound by in order to discover and understand all of the moral/ethical laws which apply to us. The post expresses that in the statement, “Has the covenant of Christ established on the cross superseded the covenant established on Sinai? Absolutely.” It seems to me that Hebrews 8:13 distinguishes the Mosaic law in its entirety with the covenant of Christ in its entirety by stating the covenant of Christ made the Mosaic law “obsolete” (NIV).

    The Mosaic law and Old Testament as a whole is a gift given to us that is rich in its role of providing a history of God’s people and an understanding of the nature of the God we worship and name as Creator. We benefit from spending much time in its study. It seems to me, however, that we do not need to be concerned in such study with searching for moral/ethical laws bound on us which might be missing in the revelation of the covenant of Christ. It seems to me we can have faith that in the revelation of the covenant of Christ all that we need to establish and maintain that covenant relationship is provided in completeness.
    Dave

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    1. Hello David, and thanks for the comment. You will note that I studiously avoided discussing those passages which discuss the covenant of Christ and the covenant of Moses – much to dense for this one post. My point was simply to point out how we can hijack certain passages in order to defend certain teachings, and in so doing, we are guilty of the same “proof-texting” as we accuse so many others.

      I will say that when we start trying to parse out what is covered by the “Mosaic law” and the “law of Christ” we end up trying to count how many angels can stand on the head of pin. What I mean by the moral/ethical teachings of the law of Moses (which I do believe are still in effect) I am basically referring to the Law of God that is timeless. Thus my reference to Genesis 26. Abraham was clearly given laws and commandments and statutes of which we have little or no knowledge. Cain was guilty of murder even though there is not a single command against murder given in Genesis before his crime.

      As I said, I believe the covenant of Christ supersedes the covenant of Moses – but we must be careful in using certain passages (and Paul in Galatians was writing against a very specific issue related to salvation, not a discussion of the merits of the law of Moses) to defend that truth. I do not believe that any Christian church today is teaching that a person must obey the ceremonial laws stipulated at Sinai in order to be under the covenant of Christ. So, for us to argue that “Christ nailed the Old Testament to the cross” is an argument against a straw man. But it is also an argument that has some far-reaching, and I believe, dangerous consequences.

      As with so many of our conversations, I really think we are saying the same thing, albeit in different words and perhaps in differing degrees. I really do appreciate you taking the time to comment, and your thoughts are well stated and well taken.

      Blessings!

      Paul

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      1. I believe we are essentially saying the same things also, and my comment though lengthy was not intended so much as a critique, but as an attempt to explain why I don’t feel bound in any way by any edict of the Mosaic law. Though I try to live by “you shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” it is not because I feel bound to it because it is in the ten commandments. If I did feel bound to it because it was in the ten commandments, then I would feel obligated to examine each and every item of Mosaic law to determine which ones of them were timeless moral/ethical commands and still binding and which ones were ceremonial and no longer binding. Sometimes that would be confusing to me. Is remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy a moral/ethical command or a ceremonial command? I certainly believe adultery involves a timeless moral/ethical command, but is stoning an offender bound upon me as part of the moral command? Those decisions may be clear cut for many, but they aren’t for everyone. My Seventh Day Adventist friends would not find me very concise and logical if I had to defend not keeping the Sabbath with an analysis of why the command was ceremonial and not moral. For me there is a line drawn in time when binding of the Mosaic law on mankind ended. The comment was only intended to throw that out there as something to be considered. I love your blog and look forward to each post.
        Dave

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      2. Hello again David – and I did not take your comment as a negative criticism – although I would argue it was a good critique – just as a written part of our many conversations.

        Your comment got me to chasing a rabbit, but my meandering thoughts finally got so long that I decided to create an entire new post on my blog. Look for it on Monday.

        Paul

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