Read Romans 13:8-10
We often talk about a subject that we don’t really comprehend. It is a big part of the Bible. Paul discussed it frequently, but we in this modern era do not really comprehend what we call the law.
Today we think of law as something enacted by government. We think of law as something enforceable by some sort of sanction. Enforcement is often difficult even when the law is clear.
Many of our laws today are rooted in what the Bible talks about as the law. Do not murder is manifested in all sorts of degrees of manslaughter. Malice aforethought or mens rea is essential for the most severe cases. A death resulting from negligence on the part of one or more parties also has its roots in thou shalt not murder.
We see God’s law at work in many of our own laws. Then there are other laws that we don’t see in our societal laws. Take do not covet as an easy example. This one does not translate into something enforceable. Now if you covet something so much that you go and take it, then we get to thou shalt not steal, and that is enforceable.
When you ask your kids what they want to be when they grow up, nobody ever says the coveting police. That’s like the Major Case Division of the Thought Police.
“Maam, do you know why I pulled you over?”
“As soon as you pulled into the Walmart parking lot, I could tell you were wanting that space near the entrance by the lawn and garden section.”
“No officer. I had my heart set on the one by the food market.”
“Aha! A confession at last.”
Honor your father and mother surely makes sense to those of us set upon bringing up children in the way they should go, but it’s hard to translate that into what we would call law.
Not all of God’s laws were for all of his people. Some just told the priestly order how to conduct business. Others were more about agriculture. Many were about relationships that we don’t deal with any more.
What do you do if a slave girl is violated? Slavery still exists in parts of the world, but by and large most western countries think it repulsive. God’s law considered human relations that included the status of slaves.
The law as it is called in the Bible is something that we don’t grasp as firmly as the Hebrew people who grew up with it two millennia ago. Even then, Paul brought the good news to many who had been pagans. They likely knew of the Hebrew law but did not study it or consider that it applied to them in any way.
If we look to the Hebrew Shema, we see God talking about My Words. The term law wasn’t something frequently associated with God’s words. His words were teaching and instruction and his purpose was right living and right standing.
While there are 613 directives of sorts that might be called the law or laws; we should not associate them too closely with our modern concept of man-made law. The Law of Moses as it came to be called was not the same to all people.
Some of what we know as the law came with penalties, including death penalties. Others fell into what today we would call civil law with compensation for damage done to a certain party.
Sometimes, we read through the Torah and might just ask ourselves, “Did God really need to tell his people not to do some of this stuff?”
Actually, he did and he attached his reasoning with some of these laws. He said these are the things that the people who are not living in the land that I am giving you are doing. You, however, are not to do them.
Few of us today grew up learning the Hebrew law before we came to know Christ. We learned it after receiving Jesus as Lord. We were saved from our sin before we knew the full extent of our sin as revealed to us in the law. God’s Spirit was at work in us before we understood much at all about the law.
We understand that the law points out our transgression to us. It helps us understand our need for salvation that we cannot achieve on our own. It gives us eyes to see Jesus as our Savior.
The law still condemns our heart so that our soul may be saved in Christ Jesus, but does the law apply to us today? Is it binding?
Jesus said that not the smallest word or letter in a word would pass away until all things are accomplished. We believe that to mean the end of the age—this church age that we live in.
So do we live by the law today? If so, we have missed out on making sacrifices and burnt offerings for a long time.
The problem rests in our connotations that we place upon this term law.
We have this thing that we call free will but God has not left us to aimlessly figure out right and wrong, what pleases him and what doesn’t, or how to relate to him and to others.
He gave the world teaching and instruction through one people. God gave instruction and teaching—sometimes with consequences attached for disobedience—and he gave a means to be made right once again with him through offerings and sacrifices.
God did not just set things in motion and say, “Good luck guys. See you at the judgment.”
He gave instruction—laws if you must.
He sent prophets with messages.
Finally, he sent his Son to reconcile all things to himself. His finished work on the cross took care of sin and death getting in the way of an eternal relationship with our Father in heaven.
But now that the work on the cross is done, do we still need the law? Are its consequences binding upon us? What about the words of Jesus who said that not one pen stroke of the law would pass away until all things were accomplished?
There is an old quiz that I love to use in different contexts. When I was a counselor in prison programs, I really enjoyed it. You have surely seen it.
It begins by saying these instructions are important, read this entire page before answering any questions or beginning anything else. There is a page full of questions and instructions. Some are as simple as write the answer to what is the sum of 2 and 2. Some are more fun. One reads, “Stand and announce that I have reached question 17.” Another says, “Raise both hands and announce that I love this quiz.”
Other questions and instructions require more thinking and are challenging to some. Some are surely just boring. But for the person who follows directions and reads to the end before beginning the quiz, they find one final instruction.
Put your name at the top of the paper. Set your pencil down. Be quiet and enjoy the fun.
And without fail, there is some fun to follow. Those who read to the end and are just sitting quietly are struggling not to laugh out loud every time someone stands up and announces their arrival at question 17 or follows some other instruction requiring public comment.
Why does this exercise work time and time again? Maybe, we don’t like to follow instructions. Maybe something inside of us wants to finish before the next guy. Perhaps there are a hundred different reasons not to simply do what is set before us.
Sometimes, we as people complicate the simple but God doesn’t. God does not make things complicated for us.
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
God is always working for our good. He does not complicate things. We complicate things.
Consider the Scribes and Pharisees.
They knew the law very well. They knew it so well that they added some things to it to make sure that the common people complied with it. So if it was not permitted to use a tool on the Sabbath, the additional law would be that you shouldn’t even touch it.
If you have ever been in the military, you understand the concept. The commander sets the formation time at 0800. That’s a nice hour to have people get together.
The First Sergeant, tells the platoon sergeants to have their Marines ready by 0730. Nobody is going to be late to the formation.
Platoon sergeants follow suit and tell their squad leaders that everyone needs to be in formation by 0700. Nobody is going to be late.
Squad leaders tell their team leaders…well you get the picture. By the time the captain and first sergeant walk out, people have been standing around for an hour and a half. This is what the Scribes and Pharisees did with the law.
This is often called putting a fence around the law. It’s like we are not even going to let you get close to breaking the law. And it seems to be human nature. It seems to have always been human nature.
What did God tell Adam about the tree at the center of the garden? Don’t eat its fruit.
When the serpent asked Eve about the fruit of this tree, what did she say? We can’t even touch it. Either Adam or Eve had already begun Talmudic commentaries even when there was just one rule. They had already put a fence around that one rule.
It seems that the Scribes and Pharisees missed the point. The law was not to produce a compliant people. The law was to lead people to a good life, a godly life, and eventually it would point people to the One through whom we know eternal life.
Godly instruction is for the purpose of right relationship with God and each other. The blood of Jesus put us into right relationship, but we also want to live as the people that God has made us to be. We want to please him. So what do we do with the law now?
Paul tells us that love fulfills the law. The law has not vanished but love permits us to fulfill it.
If I love God and do my best to love my neighbor, surely I won’t murder him.
If I am loving the God who loved me so much and I am doing it by loving my neighbor, I am not going to covet or steal his stuff or his wife or his Wi-Fi signal.
Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love fulfills the law.
People do so many things to complicate what God has made simple and straightforward. God says that it is all about love, so much so that if we give our hearts and minds to a life of loving God and each other, all the directions and directives and procedures and prohibitions that are enumerated in the Bible just seem to fall into place, at least those that apply in our lives.
It’s time for a proverb. The proverb says that the borrower is slave to the lender. Translation to today—personal debt stinks! It is a burden. We should do as much as we can to live debt free, with one exception.
We will always have one debt. We will never get it paid off. We will be paying on it for all of our natural days.
What debt? The debt that we owe to God for his great love. Our payments are to love one another. The proverbs say that debt is bad stuff. Avoid it. Get out of it. Never go back to it.
But Paul reminds us that there is a debt that is essential, and our payments on that debt are that we love one another. Last week we talked about loving our enemies because Jesus said so and because that just who we are now that we have been born of the Spirit.
We are all about love. Having been set free from the power of sin and death, God did not burden us with compliance with hundreds of rules. He set us upon a course of loving him by loving each other.
When we live by love we live inside-out. Without love governing everything, then it’s outside-in. We try to keep up with every regulation that applies to us. It seems complicated.
When we realize that we love because God is love and we are his, and when we realize that love is always our first choice, knowing what to do in this life to please God and just to do what is right in the eyes of the Lord is not as complicated as you might think.
That does not mean that it won’t be difficult to live out a godly decision made in love, but it won’t be a complicated process to know what to do.
Has God shown us what is good? Absolutely yes! We have his words. Some of them we have called laws. God was content to call them his words and didn’t seem to be hung up on the term law.
We have the life and teachings of Jesus. He taught us what is good. We know from God what is good.
Well then what does he require of us?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
How can we do that?
By living a life governed fully by love. When we live a life governed by love, we have met the requirements of God. We have fulfilled his words. We have fulfilled the law.
That’s good news.
Let’s not complicate what God has made so simple. Love fulfills the law. Live by love.