– Law in the Old Testament –

The Hebrew word for “law” is “torah”. Its basic meaning is “teaching” or “instruction”. It denotes instruction focused on how one should live. It is the Mosaic code, with its Ten Command­ments and with its instructions covering every aspect of Israel’s personal and national life. It is the moral, ceremonial, and civil way of life God ordained for His Old Testament people.

In this sense the law consists of all the statutes, ordinances, precepts, commandments, and testimonies given by God to guide His people. But the Mosaic Law those teachings included in the first five books of the Old Testament – includes even more. It includes Moses’ review of and interpreta­tion of history, his record of God’s mighty acts, and his report of Creation. In time, “the Law” came to indicate everything that God revealed through Moses, and in one sense, it indicates the Pentateuch.

When we read the word “law” in the Old Testament, it is helpful to remember that it may have many re­ferents. It may refer to God’s revelation in a general way. It may point to a specific set of instructions – e.g., the law of Passover, or the Ten Commandments. It may indicate the moral or ceremonial codes, or the writings of Moses.

What is clear, however, in that whatever a particular use of “law” points to, the Old Testament views “torah” as divine instruction. “Torah” is God’s gift, intended to show Israel how to live a holy and happy life in this world.

– Law and covenant in Israel –

In Old Testament history and theology, covenant precedes law. God made His historic commitment to Abraham some 430 years before the law was introduced at Sinai. And law made no basic change in the covenant.

It is the covenant that stands as the basis of Israel’s relationship with the Lord, and it is the covenant with Abraham to which God will remain faithful.

Law was introduced to meet a need that existed within the context of the covenant. God acted in covenant faithfulness to bring Israel out of Egypt. But Israel’s unresponsiveness to God de­monstrated that this people needed guidance and structure. At Sinai, God provided the needed structure. He established guidelines for Israel for living with Him and with others, as individuals and in community. God also made clear the consequences of obedience and disobedience. The individual or generation that wandered away from the path marked out by law would be disciplined.

The Old Testament often has this emphasis on law as marking out the path by which one might experience blessing within the covenant relationship. For instance:

“The Lord will delight in you and make you prosperous … if you obey the Lord your God and keep His commandments and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul (Moses to Israel – Deut. 30:9-10).

See Joshua 1:7-8 and 1 Kings 2:3 as well.

Observing the revealed will of God shared in the law of Moses was the way to blessing. The law was a great gift to Israel, for it was their key to the experience of God’s best.

To understand the Old Testament, we need to grasp the relationship between law and covenant. Covenant is the basis for relationship between God and human beings. But the covenant was made with Ab­raham, and its fulfillment promised his descendants blessings at history’s end. What about those generations that follow one another across the intervening millennia? It is to these generations that the law is addressed. Law was designed to teach each generation of God’s people how to live so that they might experience in their day the blessings that God promised will be provided at history’s end. A generation might disobey the law and violate God’s commandments, but the coven­ant itself was unaffected. All that the disobedient generation would do is to bring down upon itself the punishments established when the law was given (Deut. 28:15-68).

– The extent of the law –

At times we may think of the law as merely the moral code delivered by Moses. But law encom­passes far more than that. In its prescriptive elements the Mosaic Law functioned as (1) the constitution of the nation, (2) the basis for determining civil and criminal cases, (3) a guide to worship, (4) a personal guide to good family and social relationships, and (5) a personal guide to relationship with the Lord. Law comprised not only those regulations that defined sin and established guilt but also the sacrificial system through which the believer might find a­tonement for sins. In essence, everything in the experience of the people of Israel was guided by the law.

Despite the all-encompassing nature of law and despite the fact that law is seen in the Old Testament as one of God’s good gifts, Israel fell far short of becoming a just and holy community. The prophets looked back and viewed history only as an unbroken series of disasters and tragedy, as generation after generation turned from the Lord and His ways. Looking ahead, Jeremiah saw a new day when the Mosaic Law would be superseded/replaced (Jer. 31:33). Law in the Old Testament is good. But law is not permanent, for law has never been effective in making the people of God righte­ous.

– The Old Testament believer’s attitude toward law –

While law was unable to make a generation or individual good, law was deeply appreciated by the person who trusted the Lord. Two of David’s psalms (Psalm 19 and Psalm 119) show us how highly es­teemed the law was among believing Israelites. He perceived God’s law in the context of personal relationship. The law is not a stern external demand, but David experienced it as the caressing voice of a God whom he loved and whom he rejoiced to obey.

– Law in the New Testament Gospels –

In Jesus’ time the rabbis (the teachers of the law) focused their faith on law. God had giv­en the “torah”, the first five Old Testament books, to Moses. All else (the Writings and the Prophets) were but commentary on this core. The religious leaders in Jesus’ day were sure not only that these Mosaic books were the key to life and death but also that the individual could keep the law and please God.

When Jesus appeared, He did not deny the Law (the books of Moses). But He did directly chall­enge the understanding of the Old Testament on which contemporary Jewish faith was based. To understand the challenge and to sense Jesus’ own view of “law” as the term is used in the Gospels, we need to examine several significant gospel passages.

Matthew 5:18-48. Jesus began by stating His own allegiance to the Old Testament But then He made this dramatic declaration concerning His purpose for coming to earth: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 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” (Matt. 5:17-18).

Jesus continued with a warning: the commandments are to be practiced (Matt. 5:19). But then He said, “I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).

Jesus then illustrated what He meant. He picked commands from the law, saying, “You have heard…” And then He went on, “But I say to you…” In each case, Jesus shifted the focus from a behavior regulated by law (e.g., “Do not murder”) to inner attitudes (e.g., anger) from which the actions flow. His point is clear: law looks on the outside, but God is concerned with the heart. It is the human heart that must be transformed and not merely expressions of sin that must be restrained.

Matthew 7:12; 22:36-40.  Jesus taught that the Law and the Prophets can be summed up simply: “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12). An expansion on this statement came when Jesus was questioned by one “expert in the law” (Matt. 22:35). Asked which is the greatest commandment, Jesus answered: “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” (Matt. 22:37-40). Again the issue shifts from strict compliance with the detailed instructions of the Old Testament to one’s heart attitude. Love for God and love for others is the key to godliness.

John 1:17; Matthew 11:13; Luke 16:16-17.  The New Testament indicates that with the appearance of Jesus, the foretold day in which the Mosaic Law would be superseded had arrived. John wrote that “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17). Luke quotes Jesus “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached” (Lk. 16:16). The Old Testament economy was not rejected. Not at all. Instead, all that the Old Testament foretold had come with Jesus. He is the Prophet who was destined to bring the message that supersedes that of Moses (Deut. 18:15). The way of life He introduced did not abolish the Mosaic code but supersedes it with the new covenant that the prophets promised (Jer. 31).

Matthew 19:3-9.  When Pharisees came to Jesus to raise a point of law concerning divorce, Jesus answered them by stating God’s intentions for marriage. From the time of creation, God has in­tended marriage to be a permanent union. The Pharisees insist, “Why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”. Jesus’ response is stunning, cutting the ground from underneath those who saw the Mosaic Law as a perfect expression of God’s righteousness. “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard”, Jesus replied.

The point of Jesus’ response is this: God, in the law, established a requirement for His people that was less than His ideal. Rather than being the highest possible standard, the Mosaic Law is a divine compromise. What God truly desires is utterly beyond possibility for people whose hearts are hardened by sin. To make it possible for Israel to even approximate God’s real standards, He gave them a law that made allowances for less-than-perfect righteousness!

No wonder, then, that Jesus taught that our righteousness must surpass that of scribes and Pharisees. God calls on the believer to find a righteousness that is greater than that expressed in law: a righteousness that flows from and finds expression in love for God and love for others.

In the Gospels, then, “Law” usually means the first five books of the Old Testament, although at times it means the commandments contained in them. Jesus denied that His teaching threatened the Old Testament re­velation. Instead, Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament, both in the sense of explaining it correctly and in the sense of being Himself the goal toward which the Old Testament points. As far at the specific commands contained in the Mosaic Law are concerned, Jesus introduced a righteousness surpassing them. This is possible because the moral regulations of the law are simply practical guidelines on how to love God and neighbor. When love fills the believer’s heart, the reality to which law points will come.

– Law as a total system –

Both the book of Hebrews and the apostle Paul approach law from a system perspective.

For the writer of Hebrews, law is that perfectly balanced Old Testament system that includes commands, sacrifices, priesthood, and tabernacle worship. Hebrews argues that this Old Testament structure is like a modern mobile, which suspends a number of objects in balance with each other. The writer introduces Jesus as a priest “in the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 7:11) rather than of Levi and argues that “there must also be a change of the law” (Heb. 7:12). The system is so balanced that a change in any single element implies a change in all other elements within the system. Under the new covenant there must be a new sanctuary, new sacrifices, and even a new approach to righteousness. The laws that the older covenant engraved on stones will be “put in their minds” and written “on their hearts” (Heb. 8:10).

The writer’s constant contention is that what we now have is “better than” what was provided by the Old Testament system – better at every point. The old was merely “an illustration for the present time” (Heb. 9:9), replaced now by the reality to which it testified. In saying that “the law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves” (Heb. 10:1), the writer includes the total Old Testament system – ceremonial (Heb. 10:2-14) and moral (Heb. 10:15-18).

The apostle Paul also takes a systems approach in his use of “law.” But the system implicit in Paul’s use of “nomos” has different elements. Paul is concerned with the interaction between the revealed code and human nature. Viewed objectively and in isolation from human experience, the law is “holy, righteous, and good” (Rom. 7:12). But when looked at in its impact on human be­ings, the law is a word of destruction and death (Rom. 7:9-19). The very establishment of a standard stimulates human beings to efforts to achieve righteousness, turning them from faith to works as an approach to a relationship with God. Thus the objectively “good” law, when viewed in its interaction with human beings, is “powerless” because “it was weakened by the sinful nature” (Rom. 8:3).

In Paul’s letters this evaluation of “nomos” as a system of interaction between the word of divine command and human beings is explored again and again. We cannot understand Paul’s use of “law”, as we will see, unless we realize that he includes in his use of the term the commandments that express righteousness via statutes, the human beings who hear this word, and every interaction between the word, and the natural man.

– Three functions of law

Theologians distinguish three functions of law, using law in the sense of the Old Testament’s moral code.

The first of these functions is to reveal the nature of God. The thought is that God’s own na­ture is revealed by the standards He establishes. The God who gives laws and announces “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:1) clearly expresses His own character in the commandments He calls on Israel to keep.

The second function of the law is to reveal sin. In the Old Testament, one who discovered he had violated a commandment in the Mosaic code was to come to the Lord with sacrifice. Paul picks up and emphasizes this function of the law: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in His sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Rom. 3:19-20).

Paul describes the psychological process in Romans 7:  “I would not have known what sin was ex­cept through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet’” (Rom. 7:7). In revealing sin, law points us away from our own efforts and di­rects our gaze to Jesus so that we may be saved by faith.

This view of law contradicts the common view of the religious Jews of New Testament times. They held that law marks out God’s way of salvation, and Paul’s preaching of faith seemed to them a great heresy. But Paul asked, “Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather we up­hold the law” (Rom. 3:31). Paul’s point is that the gospel restored faith to the place it had always had in one’s relationship with God, and the gospel restored law to its rightful place as well! Law does not make anyone righteous. Law brings to all who hear its demands and who honestly examine their own lives a consciousness of sin.

The third function of law is to lead the acknowledging sinner to Christ to be saved by faith (Gal. 3:24). When a person realizes that he can never live up to the standards of the law, and that he is condemned by falling short of complete obedience to the law, he then sees his need for a Savior. And that Savior is Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:10, 23-26; 2:16).

A function that the law does not have is to guide the New Testament believer to a holy life “Sin shall not be your master,” declares the apostle, “because you are not under law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14).

The same thought is expressed elsewhere in other ways. Believers died to the law with Christ (Rom. 7:1-4). We are released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit (Rom. 7:6). Christ is the end of the law (Rom. 10:4). Believers die to the law so that they may live for Christ (Gal. 2:19). Redeemed from under the law, we now have full rights as sons (Gal. 4:5). The law is not for good people (1 Tim. 1:9).

These statements of release from obligation to law do not explain how or why Christians are not to relate to the law as a moral guide. But they do indicate that the law is not to have the same role in the life of the New Testament believer that it played in the life of the Old Testament believer.

The early church recognized the issue in its first decades. A decision was necessitated by the fact that some people were insisting that the Gentile converts be required to accept circumcision and keep the Mosaic Law. In council at Jerusalem the church agreed not to put “on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10). With Christ, a new way is opened up, and the believer finds a principle of life that supersedes the way of law.

– The weakness and inadequacy of law –

One problem we have in understanding the New Testament view of law is rooted in the shifting meanings of “nomos” throughout the New Testament “Law” sometimes indicates the books of Moses or Scripture itself (Rom. 3:21b). Law can be a universal principle (Rom. 3:27; 7:21). In Hebrews, law usually means the total way of life prescribed in the Old Testament, including the moral, civil, and other regulations.

In Paul’s writing, the meaning of “nomos” shifts often and subtly. Paul realizes that we cannot separate an expression of morality in commands and a works approach to righteousness. The reason he shifts focus so often and so subtly when he writes of law is that each meaning is implicit in the other! To express righteousness in commands creates a necessity for effort to achieve. This is why the law is so effective in convicting of sin. We see the standards. We try to attain a degree of obedience, and we see how far short we fall. Thus, it is the very nature of law to stimulate effort. When righteousness is expressed in a form that by its nature stimulates human effort, looking to law will bring moral defeat, even to the believer. With this in mind, we can explore key passages in which Paul critiques the weakness and the inadequacy of law.

Romans 4:13-16. Blessing comes through the divine promise, accepted by faith. Paul says, “If those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, because law brings wrath” (Rom. 4:14). Law and faith are totally different approaches to relationship with God, and elements of the two systems cannot be mixed.

Romans 7:4-6. Paul says that man’s sinful nature is stimulated/energized by the law. The result is “fruit for death”. Paul contrasts systems when he says, “We have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit”. The two operating systems Paul describes show his conviction that no elements of the systems can be mixed.

Law  energizes  sinful nature  producing  fruit to death.

The Spirit  energizes  new nature  producing  fruit to God.

In the context of this teaching we see the force of 1 Corinthians 15:56:  “The power of sin is the law.”  Law relates to the old nature and arouses it to sin.

Romans 7:21-25; 8:3. Paul recognized the law’s commands as “holy, righteous, and good” (Rom. 7:12). Although as a believer he yearned to keep the law, he found that the principle of sin was so firmly rooted in his personality that his efforts fell desperately short: “I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law (principle) of sin” (Rom. 7:25). In Rom. 8:3, as Paul is sharing his solution to the dilemma, he explains that the law was “powerless … in that it was weakened by the sinful nature.”

There is nothing wrong with law. But the law system falls short where it touches humanity. A ship’s anchor may be carefully cast and its size matched to the vessel. But if the ocean bottom is soft mud covering a hard, impenetrable surface, there is no way the anchor can grip. The anchor is useless to hold the vessel. Just so, the law is good and righteous, but there is no fea­ture in human nature where it can obtain a grip.

Galatians 2:21; 5:21-22. Paul said that if righteousness could come by law, then Christ died for nothing. But law could not impart spiritual life.

Galatians 3:10-14. Paul criticized those believers who, having come to Jesus by faith, were trying to attain spiritual goals by human effort (i.e., by observing the law – Gal. 3:2-3). Paul showed that “the righteous will live by faith” (Gal. 3:11), while “the law is not based on faith:  on the contrary, ‘The man who does these things will live by them’” (Gal. 3:12). Here again, Paul insisted that one cannot mix faith and law in approaching Christian experience.

Galatians 5:1-6. Developing the thought that law and faith are opposing principles, whose system elements cannot be mixed, Paul insists that “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free”. One who seeks to be justified (to become or be declared righteous) by the way of law has “been alienated from Christ”. Paul does not threaten loss of salvation. He teaches that the source of righteousness is known through intimate relationship with and dependence on Jesus. To turn to law as a path to righteousness is to turn away from Jesus.

Each of these passages develops a common view: law must be seen as a total system and evalu­ated as a system. It is inadequate because (1) it cannot give life, (2) it is opposed to faith as an approach to a relationship with God, (3) it actually energizes man’s sin nature and pro­duces sin, and (4) it cannot produce righteousness.

Looking into the law, we catch a glimpse of the beauty of God’s holiness. Gazing at law, we sense our own sinfulness and are convicted of our guilt. Seeing the law, we realize our need for a Savior. But no! We are not to look to the law to help us become the truly good persons that God intends us to be.

– The Christian alternative to law –

Both Testaments witness powerfully to God’s desire that we who are His live holy and righteous lives.

The issue raised in the New Testament particularly by Paul, is whether or not law can help the believer attain to righteousness. As we have seen, Paul’s answer is a decisive no! So it is im­portant to go on to see what the New Testament provides as an alternative to the way of law. To discover this, there are two different questions we must ask and answer:  (1)  Can we conceive of righteous­ness apart from law?  (2)  How do we achieve righteousness apart from law?

The Testaments agree that we can conceive of righteousness apart from law. Enoch, in the Old Testament, “walked with God” before the Flood (Gen. 5:22). Abraham was credited with righteousness long before the law was given (Gen. 15:6). Also long before law existed to mark out God’s way, the Lord said of Abraham, “I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just” (Gen. 18:19). Jeremiah looked to a day when the Mosaic Law would no longer be relevant, and he communicated God’s promise: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33). Someone who is righteous within does not need to look at an external standard for direction on how to live.

Jesus’ teaching shifted the focus of righteousness from behavior to character and motivation. God is concerned with a righteousness that surpasses that of the rabbi and the Pharisee. That it is not necessary to express such righteousness by detailed commandments is shown in Jesus’ re­sponse when He was asked the greatest commandment. Love God and love others, Jesus replied. And He added, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:40).

Paul writes in Romans 13:8-10, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow man has fulfilled the law. The commands, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law”. Parallel passages, such as Galatians 5:13-26, make it plain that we can talk about righteousness without depending on the law to define it. In fact, the Epistles of the New Testament are filled with descriptions of how God’s people live together in love – descriptions that have no need to adopt the language or structure of law.

But there is still the second question:  How does the Christian achieve righteousness apart from law?

Paul answers this question:

Romans 6:1-10.  Christians are persons who have been given new life by Jesus. United to Jesus in His crucifixion, so that His death is considered ours, we are raised to a new life in Him. Righteousness now becomes a matter of living that new life, for the deadly and powerful grip of sin on our personalities has been broken by Jesus. The possibility of a righteous life is established by what Jesus has done and by the newness of life we have in Him.

Romans 7:1-6.  In these verses, Paul establishes a basis on which Christians can claim to be free from a responsibility to live under the law: marriage, the death of one partner frees the other from “the law of marriage” (Rom. 7:2). By analogy, the death of Jesus, to whom we are united, frees us from obligation to the law. After all, law has no jurisdiction over the dead. Paul then shows the need to be free from the law; the reason is that law energizes our old nature. In contrast, the Spirit of God energizes the new nature so that we produce “fruit to God” (Rom. 7:4). It is by relating to the Spirit and not to the law that righteousness is produced.

Romans 8:1-14.  Paul explains that the law was powerless to make us good. But he goes on to show that the death of Jesus establishes a basis on which “the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4). God does intend to produce righteousness in human beings! But He will not do it through law. He will do it in those who rely on and yield to the work of the Holy Spirit.

Galatians 5:16-25.  Paul teaches that if we live by the Spirit, the Spirit will control our sin­ful nature. “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law,” Paul says (Gal. 5:18). He lists, first, the sins that sinful human nature generates (Gal. 5:19-21) and then the fruit that the Spirit generates: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). In adding “against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:23), Paul describes the law’s approach to righteousness; it points to righteousness by standing “against” sin (“Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” etc.). In contrast, the Spirit generates righteousness by creating within us the love, patience, and simple goodness that move us to want to do what is right. No wonder Paul reminded Timothy, “We know the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is not made for the righteous but for law-breakers and rebels” (1 Tim. 1:8-9). Would there be any need for laws if everyone were truly good and only did the good?

God’s solution to the problem of righteousness is to give us a new life in Christ. God tells us to look to Christ and rely wholly on Him. He then gives us the Holy Spirit to guide us and to energize the resources of that new life. As we commit ourselves to doing good, the righteousness of which the law testifies will become a reality in our lives.

– Summary –

Law is a difficult and yet critical biblical concept. “Torah” in the Old Testament is the divine revelation itself, given to Israel through Moses. The commands and statutes of “torah” established the moral, social, and religious foundations for national and individual life. As the revelation of the God committed by covenant to Israel, “torah” was a great and wonderful gift. Through a study of “torah”, true believers found the Lord and understood His way, and they knew that rich blessings would follow if they walked the way its commands and ordinances marked out.

But the warm breath of the faith relationship that breathes through the Old Testament was stifled by the way many approached the Old Testament revelation. They missed the message of forgiveness and took the law’s careful description of life for God’s Old Testament people as a way to salvation. Jesus affirmed the authority and trustworthiness of the Old Testament, but He directly challenged the rabbis’ grasp of its meaning. The righteousness that Christ’s contemporaries sought to establish by careful keeping of the law’s detailed instructions is rejected by Jesus. He calls for a different kind of righteousness – one that flows from an inner transformation. The Gospels also show us that the Old Testament way is to be superseded and transformed by Jesus. He is the focus of the Old Testament, the One of whom it testifies. Now that He has come, that era is brought to a close. It is fulfilled, and a new era with new patterns of life will replace it.

The new era is explained and developed in the Epistles. Paul shows that “nomos”, as the law’s statement of righteousness in commandments and as an aid to being good, cannot function in the believer’s life. Faith, not law, was always the way to salvation. Reliance on the Spirit, not a struggle to keep the law, is the way to live a righteous life. It seems clear from Paul’s analysis of the weakness of the law that the Old Testament saints, like the Christian today, lived a godly life by trusting God and having a personal relationship with Him rather than by looking to law and trying to keep it (Hebrews 11).


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