When we studied Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), you might have felt a little depressed. Jesus explained that keeping the law is not just a matter of avoiding sinful acts, it has to do with our thoughts and attitudes. It requires attitudes that are, frankly, foreign to our natural heart. We are to do good to those who abuse us? Turn the other cheek? The good news is found in our lesson today. Jesus kept the law for us. The law is still our ever constant "map" to keep us out of trouble, but the high standard Jesus holds before us is not the test of salvation. Let's wade into our Bibles and learn more!
Christ's Death and the Law
Commentary for the May 10, 2014 Sabbath School Lesson
“Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.” Galatians 3:21, NIV
Since the time of Christ, His followers have often been divided into two camps over the relationship of grace to law. Those who are of a more forgiving nature want to see God as made of similar stuff, a being that extends compassion even in those situations where compassion might not seem appropriate. For these individuals, the Parable of the Workers[i] is a perfect allegory for such a God.
They feel that love is displayed by imparting the blessings of grace even to those who do not deserve such a blessing, just as the vineyard owner paid the same wage to all without respect to the amount of work they did in his vineyard. Those who had worked the longest and hardest felt this was unfair. The owner felt the workers had no right to question his fairness and seemed to feel that his desire to be compassionate overruled their sense of justice. Perhaps those who see God in this way are more likely to be inclusive, welcoming all to the “vineyard” and trusting God to sort it all out at the end of the day. However, those, who feel God is like this, struggle with a God who would destroy all of humanity for their wickedness except for eight people floating over tempestuous seas in a frail wooden craft.[ii]
Those who feel that justice and obedience are primary attributes that define deity would perhaps use the story of the flood as prima facie evidence that justice ultimately overrules compassion, and that God is obligated to make all things fair one day. These look forward to an apocalyptic denouement when an unfair world will be forcibly re-booted and made eternally fair. As part of that scenario, those who have not been obedient enough will be destroyed with fire. For some denominations, the sense of offended justice is so strong that they insist that burning will go on for all of eternity. We might ask, “What sin would be so great that it would demand such harsh justice?” Instead of modeling Christianity this seems to echo a more pagan punishment like that of Prometheus, who was chained to a rock with an eagle eating out his liver each day, only to have it regrow and be eaten by the eagle the next day. A God who possessed any compassion at all would be expected to one day release such a sinner from his eternal torment. At the very least, just as for Prometheus, a Hercules should necessarily arise to free him from his horrible fate. Justice without any sense of compassion may stand in danger of becoming cruel despotism.
Perhaps like the old fable about the blind men who each felt a different part of an elephant’s body and then described the animal differently based on the singular perspective they each had, Christians are doing the same thing with God. This does not mean that those perspectives are wrong or cancel one another out. After all, the blind man who felt the elephant’s tail and determined elephants are like a strand of rope was right about the part of the elephant he felt. But the blind man who felt the elephant’s leg and decided that elephants are like trees was also right based on his encounter with the animal. Perhaps if we go looking for a God of justice, we will find Him, and if we go looking for a God of grace and compassion we will also find Him. But are these concepts exclusive of one another?
Perhaps the God who created the vast universe with its many, many billions of stars and planetary systems transcends such simple characterizations. A God who dwells in such vastness is infinitely more difficult to grasp than an elephant’s tail. We may chuckle at the naiveté of those blind men who were unable to see how truly magnificent an elephant is. Do we also have the ability to see how naïve we may be in presuming to adequately explain the character of God based on a human understanding of either grace or justice? Maybe, being made in God’s image, we have been inappropriately trying to return the favor ever since.
Some might feel that while God is transcendent, the corporeal Jesus was well within the realm of human understanding. They might even wish to make the point that this was the whole purpose of Jesus’ incarnation, to reveal the character of God. However, even though he might be just the Hercules to free our justice-bound Prometheus, the paradoxes appear to continue even with the character that Jesus demonstrated. On the one hand, He told people to stop sinning,[iii] implying a need to be obedient to avoid a just fate for disobedience. Yet on the other hand, He seemed reluctant to judge people for those sins, even healing or forgiving them for the very same events that caused Him to tell them to stop sinning. Perhaps there is a depth of character here that goes far beyond the simplistic and maybe false dichotomy between grace and justice that we continue to perpetuate.
In the first century CE, a Jewish Jesus was initially accepted by Jewish believers within a Jewish culture. That culture venerated obedience and ongoing debates over what character that obedience should take. Whether it was how far one could travel on the Sabbath day, or how one might carry a kerchief without bearing a burden during the Sabbath, many theological discussions centered not so much on what constituted salvation but rather what was transgression. Of course that transgression meant disobedience to law.[iv] But because the law was the foundation for all understanding of the character of God, the only salvation that could be offered to the sinner was to be obedient. To put it simply, the answer to law breaking was more law. This concept is not unfamiliar to us in modern times as we also tend to multiply laws in a vain attempt to promote obedience. In the United States, this has resulted not in more obedience, but less, as our astronomically high incarceration rate shows.[v] Maybe this very focus on obedience and justice kept them from seeing a Messiah instead of simply another law breaker.
Perhaps the reason for Jesus’ visit to our little planet out on the edge of the galaxy was to demonstrate something different about obedience. Perhaps it had something to do with a flaw in our understanding about grace and compassion. In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats,[vi] He is sorting out those who would be saved (the sheep) from those who would be lost (the goats). The lone criteria that the sorting appears to be based upon is did they show compassion to others. If we take the Jewish perspective that obedience is what saves and disobedience is what destroys God’s people, then in the context of this parable, we might understand that compassion is obedience, and failure to show compassion is sin. If sin is law breaking then perhaps compassion is law keeping. This compassion then may be that love that Paul wrote to the Roman church about when he told them that love is keeping the law.[vii]
Could it be that when we indicate to someone that God’s justice is going to get them for their disobedience that the very same hand that has a finger pointing out such a fate to them also has four fingers pointing back at us indicating how many ways our behavior is failing because of its lack of love and compassion? How can we see this when such darkness colors our attitude toward others? Perhaps a good indicator is when we see ourselves multiplying standards by which to judge others, and then if that were not enough, when we fine tune those standards even further in an attempt to eliminate any possibility of wriggling while under the stern gaze of justice.
The Epistle of James is often quoted by those who focus overly much on obedience for saying “Faith without works is dead.”[viii] But does this in anyway justify the cold legalism of a “God-is-going-to-get-you-for-that” justice? If we look at the context in James, we discover that he also is talking about compassion or mercy[ix] as opposed to a cold, legalistic calling down of justice upon our neighbors. He even goes so far as to say that mercy trumps justice.
In conclusion, perhaps we can say there is no real opposition between the law and grace as grace is the summation of all that the law is. Therefore any justice implied in obedience might simply be a return to us of the very lack of compassion that we have shown to others. It is a universal principle that when you plant something that is what you can expect to get back. If you plant corn in your field, you do not expect to get a harvest of pumpkins. That is not a matter of justice. It is simply a principle active throughout creation. If our lives are lived in an attitude of compassion toward others, we can then perhaps expect to find compassion returning to us. Perhaps the vial we find God offers us on the stereotypical judgment day can only be filled with what we have placed in it over the course of our lives. Perhaps if we find only wrath there, it is not so much God’s wrath as what we ourselves have sent ahead to fill it. Perhaps this is why mercy trumps justice.
[i] Matthew 20:1-16
[ii] Genesis 6:9-22
[iii] John 8:11, cf. John 5:14
[iv] 1 John 3:4
[v] “List of countries by incarceration rate,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_incarceration_rate
[vi] Matthew 25:31-46
[vii] Romans 13:8-10
[viii] James 2:20
[ix] James 2:13
Intro. Are you like me in that you dread reading or hearing about how cruel people were to the kindest Being in the universe? If Jesus had gone around beating people up and knocking them around, that would be one thing, but did He ever do anything that wasn’t an expression of love? Love for all? Love all the time? Was there ever a more gentle Person than Jesus? Why, oh why did Jesus have to die at the hands of wicked people? Have you ever wondered about that?
Image © Steve Creitz from GoodSalt.com
Image © Steve Creitz from GoodSalt.com
1. Paul and the law. Are you and I condemned by the law? When you read the first six verses of Romans 7, do you feel like you’ve been tapped on the shoulder and invited to stop thinking that the law applies to you? Or that the law dies when you do? Does the holy law apply to all living people? Even born-again Christians? What is the value of being “married” to Christ if we still have to keep the law? And still stumble as we try? What does condemnation have to do with the greatest blessing of keeping God’s law?
2. The law of sin and death. In Romans 8:2 Paul declares that the “Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” made him “free from the law of sin and death.” Are there two laws at work here? Explain. In what way is the law an instrument of death and sinfulness? Is that good or bad? Is the surgeon’s knife a tool of cutting away what is bad or is the knife itself bad? At any time in your life do you recall putting aside the Word of God and focusing only on what you wanted to do? What is the result of a self-led life like that?
3. The power of the law. What would it be like to live in a world in which sin had never been defined and everybody made up his or her mind about what was right or wrong? Do you think God had to study and work to create the law? If not, why do you and I have such a hard time understanding it, much less obeying it? What makes the law a tool of righteousness? What does the law do to sin? How can we sing with David, “O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day.”
4. The impotent law. From powerful to impotent, how can the law be painted with these two brush strokes? Can you and I sin and be lost through eternity by being crushed by the weight of the law? Or can keeping God’s law guarantee our eternal salvation and crush not us but sin? Do you ever wonder what life will be like when there is no more sin? Will sin become holy? Or will sin be totally destroyed? Does keeping the law of God guarantee our salvation? How? or Why not? How can we experience the law as impotent (without power)?
5. The curse of the law. Do you and I live under the curse of the law? Who bears responsibility for this curse? What did Paul think about people who don’t obey what is written in the law? (Galatians 3:10) In what way is the law like a mirror? What did Paul mean when he said that those rely on the law are cursed by it? Is there a margin of error when it comes to obedience of God’s law? Can we obey 90% of the law and “make it” with God? Share what you think about the path to holiness that Jesus provides.
6. The law abolished. Why do some find it so compelling to believe that the law was abolished at the cross? Wasn’t the cross the final blow to sin as revealed by the law? Didn’t Jesus’ death spell the end of the law? Will we need the law in heaven? Will there be two tables of stone to remind us what we should do? What about the law is permanent?
Victor Mba on May 9, 2014 at 8:52 am said:
The Law is like a mirror we use to see how good we look, it does not add beauty to us. But through it we know what to adjust in our life.
God will help us understand his plan and will for us.
Jeanne [Last name??] on May 6, 2014 at 10:18 am said:
I think I understand. It's like going in a store. The store has rules (God's Law) for customers to follow (don't touch certain merchandise, ask for help for reaching items high up on shelves, supervise your children, etc.). However, even if you adhere to all the rules of the store, it will not cover the cost of purchasing one of its items. So even when I keep all of God's Law, it doesn't pay for my sins. It's Christ's blood that covers the cost of our sins.
David Deane on May 8, 2014 at 10:41 am said:
Interesting analogy Sis Jeanne. However, it does not show where one has violated the store's rules, and then try to keep the rules after to pay for the damage. For example: If the parent failed to supervise the child and the child touches an item and brakes it; keeping the store rules perfectly thereafter cannot pay for the violation ( broken item). It would take cash (blood) to reconcile the situation and put the parent back in good relationship with the store's owner/manager.
Yours in Christ,
"Christ's Death and the Law"
May 10, 2014
Texts: Romans 7:1-6; 8:5-8; Romans 7:7-13; Romans 4:15; Acts 13:38, 39; Galatians 3:10
You've probably heard the statement, "The law was abolished at the cross." It seems to be a popular belief with many Christians today. "We are now free from the law!" they proclaim.
There's a website called Yahoo Answers where anyone with a Yahoo account can post a question, and other account holders can answer. Someone posted the question: "Did Jesus abolish the Ten Commandments?" It's quite interesting to read some of the replies:1
"No...in the new testament God said, 'If you love me, you will keep my commandments.'"
"The law isn't done away with. It's written in our hearts by the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ our Lord."
"He came to fulfill the penalty of breaking the law, but He never abolished or changed any laws."
"These answers come from people that do not rightly divide the word of truth, and have NO idea about what really happened at the cross. This truth was revealed to Paul almost 20 centuries ago, and for 99% of professing Christians, it is STILL A MYSTERY!!"
"No, He didn't abolish them. Instead He clarified them by telling people what God wanted from man by the initial 10 commandments. For example - one commandment warns not to commit adultery. Jesus warns that looking at someone lustfully is similar to committing adultery!"
"WE, the Body of Christ, are not under ANY commandments! Commandments were given to ISRAEL, NOT the Body of Christ!"
"No, however He did fulfill the ceremonial symbolism behind the commandment regarding keeping the Sabbath day Holy or a day or rest. Christians are no longer under the Sabbath law and while it is wise and good to have a day of rest and to trust in God to meet your needs when you honor Him in such a way, in Christ we have the freedom to worship on the Lord's day or any or every other day of the week."
"Now we live under the two commandments. Love God - Love your neighbor."
"He abolished the Hebrew Bible...So yeah."
If today's Christians would ask their Bibles rather than their peers, they'd clearly see their relationship to the law:
Where there is no law there can't be any sin, because there is no way to define sin. God gave the law so we would know what sin is (Rom. 5:13, 7:7).
No one can perfectly keep God's law--all fall short (Rom. 3:23).
Jesus became the curse for us and paid sin's penalty--death (Gal. 3:13).
The law no longer condemns us because Jesus' death frees us from its penalty (Rom. 7:6).
Sin brings death, but God's gift is eternal life (6:23).
Just because Jesus paid the penalty, that doesn't mean we throw away the very law that teaches us how to live in harmony with one another and with God. It should make us want to follow it even more! As 1 John 5:3 says, "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome."
Thomas_Zwemer > Elaine Nelson • 5 hours ago
The Old and New Covenants are poorly named. The proper names should be the Sinai Covenant, and the Everlasting Covenant or the Covenant of Redemption. The Old Covenant was between God and the Children of Israel at Mt Sinai, In which the Israelites pledged to do all that The Lord required. the New Covenant, so named, because it was ratified at the Cross,is the Everlasting Covenant or Covenant of Redemption entered into prior to the creation of Adam and ratified at the Cross. Thus the Everlasting Covenant became the Everlasting Gospel of Revelation 14. The Cross not the Sabbath is the seal of God. It is here that the Covenant was fulfilled, where payment was made in full for the sin of the world. Adventism insists on living under the Old Covenant. LGT insists that a significant number will at last demonstrate complete fulfillment of the Old Covenant and then Christ will return. True Christianity denies that possibility. We are declared righteous upon the finished work of Christ alone, because of that, we behave with gratitude and generosity among our fellow man, particularly those in need, as found in Matt 25. Tom Z
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