A Rational Faith Section 3.10 The Nature of the Law
Probably the biggest obstacle to understanding the Bible comes from a misunderstanding
of the Law given by Moses in the Pentateuch. Christians have for a long time believed
that the Mosaic Law has a mystical and transcendent existence. It is almost as if
Christians have thought that the Mosaic Law was a fundamental part of God’s character.
As the Bible makes clear, this is very far from the truth. Consider the following verses:
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (NIV Matthew 22:37-40)
Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (NIV Matthew 19:8)
He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his
companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (NIV Mark 2:25-28)
I 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. (NIV Matthew 5:18)
In these verses, Jesus makes some remarkable statements concerning the Law of Moses.
Jesus says that the law can be derived from the two primary commandments to love God
and love your neighbor. Jesus says that parts of the law were given for their hardness of
heart. Jesus also says that the law was created and will pass away. These verses
demonstrate that the Law of Moses was a minimum standard given to the Israelites to
point them toward the true standard of love.
When Jesus says that Moses permitted divorce because of hardness of heart, He is saying
that the law is a minimum standard. The true standard, as He teaches us, is that anyone
who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery. This teaching
astonished the Pharisees who thought that the Mosaic Law was the final word on the
requirements of God. The idea that their lofty standard of righteousness was itself a
concession to human evil was unthinkable to them. Jesus is clear, however, that the true
standard of God’s righteousness is higher than the Mosaic Law.
The minimum standard for loving our neighbor is kind of equivalent to the “do no harm”
dictum of the Hippocratic Oath. When God tells us not to murder, steal, covet, fornicate
or bear false witness, He is laying out a minimum standard that tells you how to love your
neighbor. You are allowed to do more for your neighbor, obviously, but God considers a
violation of this basic minimum standard to be a very severe infraction. Some people
find it obvious that “victimless” crimes like substance abuse or fornication are not sins
because they do not injure anyone. As we will see later on, however, the real
distinguishing feature of these “victimless” sins is not that God is being unreasonable but
that human limitations prevent us from seeing the long term costs of such behavior to
those around us.
The minimum standard for loving God is a little more involved and can be rather
puzzling. Why does the minimum standard for loving God require the sacrifice of
animals? Why does God require elaborate ceremonies? The purpose of the ceremonial
law is clear when you consider the historical context. During that period, human kings
used elaborate pomp and ceremony to convince their subjects of their divinity and awe
them into submission and obedience. Giving the Old Testament Hebrews elaborate
ceremonies and requirements was an essential part of helping them to appreciate God. In
their minds, the greatness of God was determined by the ceremonies used to worship
him. Had God merely said, “read my word and thank me for what I do for you in
prayer”, the Hebrews of that time with their primitive mindset would not have thought
him a very great God. Later on in the Bible, God is clear that it is the attitude of the heart
that is important to him and not the feasts or the sacrifices.
The Bible says that God’s chosen people were not chosen for any special qualities. Like
the people that surrounded them, Moses and the Hebrews were brutal and primitive
savages who had barbaric notions of justice and divinity. In order to mold them into the
kind of people that God wanted them to be, Moses gave them a law that would move
them toward God’s true standard of loving their neighbors as themselves and loving him
with all their heart, soul and mind. The fact that this minimum standard was unattainable
for them and for us is a testament to the evil of the human heart.
As Jesus teaches us in the New Testament, the true standard of God is what we might call
the “Law of Love”. It is summarized in the highest two commandments: “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart soul and mind and love thy neighbor as thyself.” As Moses
came down the mountain with the Ten Commandments that constituted the fundamentals
of the Mosaic Law, so Jesus gave us the Sermon on the Mount to elucidate the
fundamental principles of the “Law of Love”. Any comparison of the Mosaic Law to the
Sermon on the Mount will clearly reveal that the Law given by Moses was a minimum
standard meant to point towards the “Law of Love”.