05 October 2016

Law, laws, and where is grace?


It can be so confusing. Reading the Bible, which is an exceptional albeit ancient book, can be challenging. You have to be thinking about a culture which is agrarian, where there are kings and prophets, where God seems to speak with individuals and miracles happen once in a generation. This is almost Lord of the Rings stuff, or could be fodder for Harry Potter's next book. But it's not. It's historical and reliable. It's a poetic epic with the book of Psalms clearly some of the most heartfelt lyrics ever written. The book of Proverbs is full of wisdom for any people, of any generation. But, there are some apparent contradictions. Don't kill, but go kill all those Jebusite and Hittite possessors of the Promised Land. Love one another, but Levites killing all those Jewish people who worshipped the Golden Calf.

At times it's clearly confusing in regards to how seriously we are to take it. For whom is it really written? Is it for us in 2016? Is it for Jews only or are Gentiles included also?

There are 613 obligatory statements (laws) given to the Jewish people in Torah. That's the first five books of the Bible-- the Pentateuch. Some are laws about farming and others about ritual practices in the worship center, called The Tabernacle. Some are related to women only and others only for priests. Leviticus 19 is one of the most beautiful chapters in the Torah. The 18th verse tells us to "Love your neighbour as yourself." John Lennon and Taylor Swift, Michael Buble and Kahlil Gibran would all agree that that's all we really need.

What else is in chapter 19? ‘Every one of you shall reverence his mother and his father, and you shall keep My sabbaths; I am the LORD your God. Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves molten gods; I am the LORD your God.' (3-4) Those laws sound much like the Ten Commandments. OK, nothing new then. What about what is written in verses 9-10? "Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the LORD your God." Hey, that's interesting. When a poor person is in your neighbourhood, don't make him knock on your door to ask for food; leave the food he will require out in such a place where he can get it without shaming himself. That's both sensible and kind.

So chapter 19 is full of some Ten Commandment memories and some words of kindness for poor people. It also has a few laws on tattoos (a no-no), and about the legal system ("You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly." (v 15)) Great stuff if you like legal codes. But Law is not that interesting for non-lawyers.

And in the Newer Testament there seems to be some not-so-kind views to Law itself. For instance, the biographer and apostle John seems to make a dichotomy in John 1.17 "For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ." Law versus Grace. If you have a choice, which would you choose? Grace would win by far. Paul seemed to have a very low view of the Law as well, most notably in his letter to the Romans: "You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God?" (2.23) and again "the Law brings about wrath" (4.15) and "The Law came in so that the transgression would increase" (5.20)

So, do we keep law or laws? So which is it? Law or Grace? Law or laws? Shall we care for the poor, or take our tattoos off?

Here's the confusion. The Bible uses the term 'law' in two different ways. Don't be confused, although that's understandably easy to do. I believe Law is a system and is in contrast to Grace; laws, on the other hand, are commandments and statutes. The Jewish people were given laws to honour the Almighty, and to learn how to live well as newly-released slaves from Egypt. I believe that Law is a system by the which we seek to gain God's approval. Law is about my religious practice, and as such is based on what I do. Grace, in contrast is based on what God has done. Law is a checklist for us to perform; Grace is the nod-of-God to us because Yeshua died on the cross and welcomes us into His family. Full stop.

So when Paul says that the letter of the Law brings condemnation, he is using it in contrast to the Grace of God in Yeshua. Note this passage in the book of Romans.
"Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace." (6.12-14)

Grace doesn't allow us to go on sinning, in fact, it has to do with self-presentation. If I present myself to a system of righteousness in which I'm the chief player and the main point-earner, I will fail. No wonder "the Law brings wrath."

Paul summed it up at the end of chapter 6 with this quote:
"Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Messiah Yeshua our Lord." (.21-23)

The gift of God is in direct contrast to the wages we earn. If it's dependent on us, we fail. If we depend on God's work, we succeed. It's not earned. What we deserve? The condemnation of sin and death because we are basically selfish and proud, rejecting the Almighty and His love. What we earn? Death. What God wants to give us? Eternal life. That's newness! That's a new year's resolution. That's life!

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