The Law – How to Keep a Covenant
The Law in the Old Testament had just one purpose – to forge a holy, God-worshiping, Covenant-keeping community. It turned out to be impossible to keep. We need to be wise about how to keep the laws that still apply to us and how to rely on God’s presence and grace to shape us into right-relationship people.
Seriously – what’s up with all the laws in the Old Testament? The ones about loving God with all your heart, and not murdering people are one thing but what about those laws in Leviticus 18 and 19 about not being able to cut the hair at the sides of your head or trimming your beard?? Or the one some people like to quote about homosexuality being ‘detestable to God’?
And if not all of them apply today but some do, then how do we tell which is which? And how are we supposed to live by the ones that do apply? Didn’t Jesus say he had come, not to abolish the law but to fulfil it? Why then does Paul say we don’t live under the law but under grace – and that living by the Law is basically a rejection of what Jesus did?
We’ve tackled the ‘which laws apply and which don’t’ question in a separate article (things just got too long for one post!) In this article we’ll explore a few key things about the Law – what God’s intention for the Law was, and how it relates to us today.
God’s grand plan for the law was to help people be the holy Covenant-keeping people God called them to be. The basic deal of the Covenants was God saying: ‘I’ll be your God and do everything an all-powerful, loving God can do for you. As for you, you need to let me be God, and be holy people’. Being holy meant being faithful to, loving, obeying and worshiping God more than anything else.
In the middle of a pretty hectic list of laws and punishments in Leviticus, we find this verse. It’s God’s heart behind everything he was saying:
‘You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own’ (Leviticus 20v26)
The laws in the Old Testament had just one purpose – to forge a holy, God-worshiping, Covenant-keeping community out of some pretty unholy raw material.
The laws in the first part of the Bible (see for example Exodus 20-23) generally have two parts. There’s a statement of the rule or principle. For example in Exodus 20v13 we get: ‘You shall not murder’. And then there are details about how that rule actually works. So in Exodus 21v12 there’s a bit more detail about not murdering someone, because, you know, life is complicated:
‘He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint you a place to which he may flee. If, however, a man acts presumptuously toward his neighbour, so as to kill him craftily, you are to take him even from my altar, that he may die.’
In many cases we’re talking about laws that set out the bare minimum for acceptable behaviour in very imperfect situations. The laws God gave often didn’t describe God’s ideal for human life, they were about making the best of some rough times. Like this one for example:
If a man sleeps with a female slave who is promised to another man but who has not been ransomed or given her freedom, there must be due punishment’ (Leviticus 19v20).
(The punishments prescribed, like stoning for example, also don’t align with God’s ideal way to deal with law-breakers but were also accommodated to the times as a way to make the best out of very imperfect situations.)
Other parts of the Law, like the great commandment that Jesus restated in Matthew 22v 35-40 are the most complete (but not very specific) expression of holy living.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
Frederick Buechner has a great take on the different kinds of law:
There are basically two kinds of law: (l) law as the way things ought to be, and (2) law as the way things are. An example of the first is “No Trespassing.” An example of the second is the law of gravity.
God’s law has traditionally been spelled out in terms of category no. 1, a compendium of dos and don’ts. These dos and don’ts are the work of moralists and, when obeyed, serve the useful purpose of keeping us from each other’s throats. They can’t make us human, but they can help keep us honest.
God’s law in itself, however, comes under category no. 2 and is the work of God. It has been stated in seven words: “Whoever does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14). Like it or not, that’s how it is. If you don’t believe it, you can always put it to the test just the way if you don’t believe the law of gravity, you can always step out a tenth-story window.
The ultimate problem with the Law
Ultimately, the Law was impossible for people to keep. We just can’t be holy by our own efforts at rule-keeping. Paul realised that the Law actually became a curse for us since all it did was to show us how unholy we were. That wasn’t the Law’s fault, it was ours. Here’s how Paul explains it in Galatians 3 and Romans 7 (The Message translation):
… those who depend on the law to make them right with God are under his curse, for the Scriptures say, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the commands that are written in God’s Book of the Law.’ Galatians 3v10
At one time I lived without understanding the law. But when I learned the command not to covet, for instance, the power of sin came to life, and I died. So I discovered that the law’s commands, which were supposed to bring life, brought spiritual death instead. Sin took advantage of those commands and deceived me; it used the commands to kill me. But still, the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good. Romans 7v 9-12
All that to say – we really need rescuing from the impact that sin has on our lives! The Law-keeping way to become holy and right with God is out of our reach – we need some divine help … Here’s Paul again in Galatians 3v13-14:
‘But Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When he was hung on the cross, he took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing. For it is written in the Scriptures, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’ Through Christ Jesus, God has blessed the Gentiles with the same blessing he promised to Abraham, so that we who are believers might receive the promised Holy Spirit through faith.’
Jesus is the human representative who’s now keeping the Covenant agreement with God – and so anyone who believes in Jesus gets to experience not the curse from trying to be good by keeping the Law but the blessings that come from being united with a Covenant-keeper (more on that in Series 4).
So how are we supposed to live by the Law today?
Jesus made it clear in Matthew 5-7 that the Law is still very much part of God’s plan to shape us into holy people. Here are four thoughts on just what to do with that …
1. Not all the laws in the Old Testament apply to us today. Some were given in order to keep the nation of Israel holy back then, others were part of the sacrificial system that’s been replaced by Jesus. Other laws were there to separate Jews and Gentiles until the time came for them to be integrated (we’ve explored this more in the extra post). The New Testament is also clear that we do not have to live according to these laws – in fact we will be sinning if we try! See Galatians 5v1-5 for a good example.
2. Those that do apply mostly provide basic limits within which we are to live. Do not steal, lie, nurture anger towards someone etc. The problem with those kinds of laws is that they are not very good at telling us the kinds of specific things we should do. The fifth Commandment says to honour your parents but it doesn’t offer any specific instructions on how to do that. You can’t command anyone exactly how to live a parent-honouring or say, a sibling-loving life, right?
‘Thou shalt give thy brother a hug every second Saturday…’.
We need more than limits to know how to live well.
3. The great commandment to love God, love others, love ourselves is, well, the great commandment. It defines the great playing field on which all the things we need to do must happen i.e. everything we do must be compatible with loving God, loving others, loving ourselves. St Augustine once said: ‘Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.’
At a general level we can ask ourselves, ‘is what I’m doing or wanting to do in line with loving God, others, myself?’ If it is, then ‘do what you please…’
4. The thing that does shape and enable us to recognise and do specific things well is the presence of God. Paul tells us that we are not ‘under’ law but under grace. Grace is a lot more than just getting what you don’t deserve. Grace is about God’s power for us to become the people we are meant to be and do the things we are meant to do. Jesus’ covenant-keeping provides a way for God’s grace to be poured out on us – and for God to send the Holy Spirit who comes to live inside people who believe. The results (or fruit) of Spirit-filled, grace-shaped lives are the good ways of living that real, eternal life is all about: patience, kindness, joy, self-control – and knowing how to honour parents and being nice to little brothers …
Long ago, Jeremiah spoke about God’s great desire for what the law and God’s inner presence would do for anyone who chooses to love and obey God:
‘But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,’ says the Lord. ‘I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbours, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,’ says the Lord. ‘And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.’ Jeremiah 31v 33-34
Isn’t that an awesome vision?!
In this tab you’ll find ideas and questions to help you lead your group through an interactive, story-based journey. Our leaders guide has more info on how to use our Story-based framework.
Download a PDF version of this session here
Have you been asked an awkward question about those old laws in the Bible or do you have one yourself? What kind of answer did you come up with?
Find and read the Ten Commandments again. How closely do you think they need to be obeyed? Would you say you’ve been doing things more or less in line with what they say the past few weeks? Which ones do you struggle more to keep?
Get the conversation started …
Get everyone to check out the WordSpace posts from this week on their phones or from a printout (you’ll find them in the next tab.)
o Is there a post that stands out for you? Why so?
o Is there something in a post that raises a question for you? What is that?
o If you had to choose one post to share with a friend, which one would it be?
Read the post in The Story tab.
Some questions to help you replay your story …
o Did what you encountered in this session resolve any questions you had about the Law? Did it raise any new ones for you?
o “Whoever does not love abides in death” Do you agree with Buechner that that’s a good summary of God’s law?
o Imagine you had more of God’s grace and presence that was helping you become more Jesus-like in the way you think and act. What differences would you notice?
Re – draw your picture of Jesus
Jesus often shocked the religious rulers of the day by seeming to care far more about people than about strictly keeping laws such as not healing or fasting on the Sabbath. For Jesus the law was about restoring right relationship with God and people and not earning holiness points. That meant he’d heal a guy’s hand on the Sabbath in defiance of the leaders but also that he took the law about murder to the next level by equating murder with hating someone.
o How does thinking about that change or challenge the way you view Jesus?
What practical action, response,or new way of thinking do you need to take into the week?
Have you encountered something in this session, maybe a specific thing you’ve thought or done, or a more general way of thinking that makes you want to say to God:
‘wow, I’ve kind of been getting that wrong in my life – sorry! Fill me with your presence and grace to help me really change on the inside and get over this thing.
Some questions to help you remix your story …
o Is there anything you’re doing that needs to change so that it can fit with ‘love God, love others, love yourself’? What would be the first step to take in changing this?
o What could you do this week to invite God to be present and receive more of God’s grace?
From the WordSpace
Here are five posts from the WordSpace we’ve posted specially to tie in with this topic:
What is God’s law really about? Here’s a great view by a guy called Frederick Buechner.
God’s law is often seen as a list of dos and don’ts. ‘These dos and don’ts … serve the useful purpose of keeping us from each other’s throats. They can’t make us human, but they can help keep us honest.’
Actually though, God’s law is more a statement of the way things are. ‘It has been stated in seven words: ‘Whoever does not love abides in death’ (1 John 3v14).’
‘Like it or not, that’s how it is. If you don’t believe it, you can always put it to the test just the way if you don’t believe the law of gravity, you can always step out a tenth-story window.’
Time to practice love a bit more this week?
‘Young people, I am writing you, because you are strong. God’s message is firm in your hearts, and you have defeated the evil one.’ (1 John 2v14)
Wow, what a vote of confidence from Jesus himself, speaking to you through John! You are strong, in the prime of your life. Use your strength to serve God and learn to run with him now. Give the Word lots of space to grip your heart and know that overcoming is part of your identity.
What would it look like to work out God’s word about you today?
Read 1 John 2 here: http://goo.gl/bUeBk
Where are you now God, where are you now? Do you ever think of me? Why am I surrounded by temptation and bad stuff?
Faith is hard sometimes. Here’s help:
‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you.’ James 4v6-8
Grace is God’s power for us to know God and live well. Quit living as if you know everything – you don’t! Ask God for grace and invite God to be present. See what happens 🙂
Read James 4 here: http://goo.gl/ZduSP
How can I be a Christian and know what to do about my friends who are into getting drunk or hooking up with each other? That’s a huge question! In Colossians 4v5-6, Paul gives four ways to begin to respond:
Ask God for wisdom to know your limits and weakness to temptation; find ways to love and care for your friends wherever you go; don’t judge your friends in what you say but let your words and actions show what God is growing in you.
Wisdom, love, grace, flavour. Ask God to give you more of those and help you show your friends what real life is really about.
Read Colossians 4v5-6 here: http://bit.ly/118fZe4
Near the end of Jesus’ agonising time on the cross he said three words: ‘It is finished.’ (John 19v30) What was finished? Everything that needed to be done to make our relationship with God right again.
Do you believe that? A guy called Darrell Johnson said that we can either believe Jesus did that relationship-rescue work for us or we can spend the rest of our lives trying to get it done ourselves. Are you trying hard to earn a good relationship with God by doing all the right things, or feeling despair cos you can’t get it right?
Here’s good news. Jesus did it already. It is finished.