Word Study #38 — The Law (Part 2 – Acts and Epistles)

Throughout the book of Acts, a refrain recurs persistently: Stephen (6:13) and Paul (18:13, 8:15, and 21:28) are both accused of “teaching things contrary to the law.” Even Jewish converts (15:5, 21:20), as unaware as many well-meaning people today that a new Kingdom has been established, argued fiercely that Gentile converts must be forced into a Jewish mold. Appearing to be “devout according to the law” (22:12, 21:24, 22:3) was taken as a compliment. The keeping of the law was not discouraged; neither was the observance of legitimate civil law. Both were respected (religious law – 13:15, 24:14, 25:8, 28:23; and civil – 19:37-40), and the justice required by both was requested (23:3, 25:11). Nevertheless, something new was in the air.

Speaking of Jesus’ resurrection, Paul’s message (13:39) was, “In this man (Jesus), everyone who is faithful is made just from all those things that the Law of Moses couldn’t make right!”
The rest of the New Testament could be said to consist of elaborating upon that one glorious piece of news: Jesus has done what no one else could do!

I was surprised to discover that the law is not mentioned at all in Mark’s gospel, in Paul’s letters to Corinth (II), Colossae, Philemon, Thessalonica (I and II), Timothy (II), and Titus, either of Peter’s letters, those of John and Jude, or the Revelation!
Of course, Paul manages to make up for it in his letter to the Romans (and you thought laws today were complicated??!). In many cases scattered through Romans, it is unclear whether Paul is referring to civil or religious law. Try reading it both ways, realizing that nomos can refer to either. Some places, of course, it is clear, when he speaks of Jewish convention. But perhaps some of this ambiguity is deliberate, since one of the main points (3:19-20) is that no one is able to keep any law perfectly. Notice, he is not saying that law (civil or religious) causes violations: it rather reveals them.
The remedy (3:22) is the faithfulness OF the Lord Jesus. Please notice the genitive case here (refer to the grammatical appendix to Translation Notes.) A genitive form indicates primarily possession, and may also designate a source. The “standard” translation, “faith IN Christ”, cannot possibly be correct, as that would require a dative case (or a preposition with the accusative). It is Jesus‘ faithfulness upon which we may depend!
Both the death/resurrection figure of baptism (chapter 6) and that of marriage laws (chapter 7) are closing in on the same concept: a completely new life, as the gracious gift of God, in identification with Jesus’ resurrection! (8:3) “For what could not possibly come from the law, in its weakness because of human nature, God (created, by) sending his own Son.”

Paul devotes much of his letter to the Galatians to the same theme: the futility of achieving faithfulness by adherence to the law. He concludes both arguments the same way: (Gal.5:14, Rom.13:8). The fulfillment of the law, is simply to live in love for one’s neighbor – an echo of Jesus’ own summary (Mt.7:12, Lk.10:26, Mt.22:36).
In the Ephesian letter, another element is added (2:15), “He (Jesus) eliminated the law of commands and decrees, in order that he might create (Jew and Gentile) into one person, thus making peace!”
In Philippians, Paul summarily renounces the privilege and prerogatives of his own “pedigree” with respect to the law (chapter 3), in favor of identification with Christ.

The clearest treatment of all comes in the letter to the Hebrews, which is almost entirely devoted to the superiority of Jesus to everyone and everything that had gone before. The futility and failure of the old system is methodically laid bare, and summarized (7:18-19) “the previous commandment [instruction] is set aside, because of its weakness and uselessness – for the law didn’t make anything [or, anyone] complete, but a better hope is introduced, through which we come near to God!”
Chapter 8 speaks of Jesus mediating “a superior covenant, which is established upon superior promises” (v.6), and, referring to the old prophecy of a “new covenant” (8:13), “in saying “new”, he has made the first “old”, and what has become old and been superseded, is near to disappearing!”

Heb.10:1: “The law had only a shadow of the good things that were coming, not the real thing!” That the writer may have been exposed to Plato’s ideas of “shadows” and “forms” does not impugn the integrity of the message. It is simply a useful way of making the point. A “shadow” is ok, as long as it leads one to the reality (Jesus) that has cast the shadow.
“He (Jesus) is taking away the first, in order to establish the second!” (10:9)

The writer then concludes the argument (10:19-25) with a confident summary of the complete solution for all the problems and inadequacies of the old ways: There is no longer a “veil” between God and his people (please see chapter 8 of Citizens of the Kingdom), as Jesus has provided for us complete freedom of access (19). He himself is the only “priest” (mediator) that we need (21).
This provides the grounds for the brotherly admonition:
(22) “Let’s approach him with a true heart, in abundant confidence [complete faithfulness].”
(23) “Let’s hang on to our commitment to [acknowledgment of] our hope [expectation] without hesitation – for the one who made the promise is faithful!”
(24) “Let’s concentrate on prodding each other, with love, and good deeds” – no longer the rigid requirements of an unbending law, but the joyful response of our hearts to the King’s glorious invitation to share his own life!
(25) “Let’s don’t neglect getting together … but keep on coaching each other, more and more…!”

The rest of the letter, recognizing the seriousness of faithfulness, continues in the vein of encouragement to constancy. Faithfulness is no effortless “trip to glory”. But “The one who made the promise is faithful”, and it is his faithfulness upon which we may depend, from which we may learn, and which, by constant, deliberate exposure, we may absorb!
“The law (that comes from) the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus, (definitively) set you all free from the law (that comes from) failure and death!” (Rom.8:2)

Thanks be to God!

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