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By Stephen Green. (First published in Christian Voice: March 2010)
Acts 15:5 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.
6 And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter.
7 And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. ...
10 Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?
11 But we believe that through the grace of the LORD Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.
12 Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them.
13 And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: ...
19 Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God:
20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.
21 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day.
Over the last two months, I have been arguing out of Hebrews and Galatians that our Lord Jesus Christ fulfilled and abolished the sacrificial and ceremonial laws of God given by Moses whilst leaving the moral and civil laws of God intact.
I showed from the scriptures - in their context - that the receivers and hearers of those two letters would have understood exactly that message. The Hebrews were plainly finding it difficult to give up the
and all its ritual, whilst the context of Galatians is that these gentile believers were in danger of being led back into the ceremonial law, with its major issue of circumcision.
WE ARE EXHORTING OUR LEADERS
I said that this matter - of whether the civil and moral laws of God are still in force - is important to us as a ministry. That is because we are exhorting our leaders to frame laws modelled on the righteous laws of God. If those laws have been nailed to the cross along with our sins, then we obviously have no spiritual leg to stand on. MPs, Peers and people in public life are not going to listen to us because we are nice people. Our only authority to speak to them, as well as our only weapon against the wicked, is the sword of the spirit which is the Word of God. If that Word - or three-quarters of it - has been abolished, then we are rendered dumb.
Many Christian Voice members are following the Christian Voice Lamplight Bible Reading plan this year, reading through the entire Bible in one year. We have already read perhaps the most amazing day in the whole year, when we read in Exodus 26 of the erection of the veil of the temple, and then in Luke 23:45 that when our Lord died on the Cross, the veil of the temple was rent in two. If nothing else in the Bible showed that our Lord's work on the Cross was to fulfill end complete the
sacrifices, do away with the priesthood of Aaron and provide us with direct access to the Holy of Holies, that single verse would be enough.
HEBREWS FOCUSED ON THE CEREMONIAL
The first Christian martyr Stephen certainly understood that, when he cried out 'I see the heavens opened', as recorded in Acts 7:56. And as we work through the Lamplight Plan, we are deep in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. We have been reading stanza by stanza through Psalm 119, that great and glorious hymn to the righteousness of the laws, precepts, commandments, statutes, judgments, testimonies and word of God. In the Old Testament, which runs in parallel, we have finished Exodus and are moving through Leviticus into Numbers.
My theory to interpret Hebrews correctly includes the presumption that the initial hearers or readers of that Epistle would have understood the word 'law' or 'Torah' as focusing on the sacrificial and ceremonial elements of what Moses brought down from Mount Sinai, rather than the moral and civil, which was held fairly universally in the world at that time, and had in any case been understood variously since the Patriarchs, or since Noah, or even since Creation itself.
CEREMONIAL OUTNUMBERS THE MORAL
Just on an impulse, as we have been reading through Exodus and Leviticus, I thought to count up how many chapters from Exodus 20 to the end of Deuteronomy are concerned with the moral and judicial law, how many with the sacrificial and ceremonial law, and how many are historical, warnings of blessings or curses or simply not fitting in the first two categories.
The results were interesting. By my reckoning, forty chapters fall into the latter group. Twenty-seven are concerned with moral and civil matters, and that is including the regulations for lepers, buildings and uncleanness in Leviticus 13-15. An astonishing fifty-two are to do with ceremonial and sacrificial matters. Putting Lev 13-15 into the ceremonial category would tip the figures from 27/52 to 24/55. See if you come up with the same figures.
Now when we Christians read these books today, it is tempting to hurry on past all the difficult (to us) ceremonial passages about priests' clothes and trespass offerings, to get onto the interesting stuff. But for Jewish readers, those chapters about
regulations were literally of vital importance, and they just happen to outweigh the civil and moral laws by around two-to-one. That is not to say that the Jews of the day ignored the civil and moral laws - far from it; the Pharisees were asking Jesus questions about divorce law - but they clearly attached far greater weight to being right with God through the sacrificial and ceremonial - tithing, bringing the right gift, being there on the right day, keeping ceremonially-clean, and so on and so on.
BOLTING JESUS ON TO OUR LIFE
And it was the Pharisees who had the job of going around teaching such observance to the people. So much so, that when many of them converted to 'The Way' (Acts 9:2) they could not give that up. So we read in Acts 15 that they wanted in a sense to bolt Jesus Christ onto a Jewish life, much as some try to bolt Jesus Christ onto a secular life today. It was a case of carry on as normal, and just have Christ as the cream topping. And the crucial issue became that of circumcision, exactly the issue in the
Being generous, we may say that the Pharisees honestly thought that lack of circumcision and following Moses' ceremonial laws would keep believers out of the kingdom of heaven. But Peter had just been instrumental in the conversion of Cornelius following his vision which cleansed the unclean foods (Acts 10). Paul and Barnabas had walked out of the synagogue in
in a fury and turned to the Gentiles (Acts 13).
In the face of such testimony, the Pharisee believers had to back down and allow James to issue his Holy-Spirit-inspired letter to the Gentiles. To abstain from fornication and from blood and eat only properly-slaughtered meat which had not been offered to idols is not exactly how the Jews understood the entire covenant which God made with Noah, and hence with the Gentiles for perpetuity, but it is close enough to see that as its origin.
PAUL'S ADMONITIONS GROUNDED IN THE MORAL LAW
But even Paul did not leave it there with the Gentile churches. He warned the Galations against adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envy, murder, drunkenness, revelling which are forbidden in the Old Testament. He rebuked the Corinthians because a man had taken his father's wife, a command straight from Lev 18:8 and Deut 22:30. The admonitions in his letters, like the teachings of Christ, are rooted and grounded in Old Testament moral law.
One brother wrote to me after reading my article on Hebrews and said that the moral and judicial aspects of the law were also perfectly fulfilled and done away with in Christ. 'We needed Christ both to pay the price for our sins and to fulfil the requirements of the moral law for us,' he wrote.
Now in one sense this sentence is true. Christ's authority to bear my sins and justify me before a righteous and holy God lies in the fact that He was without sin. This is a point that Muslims fail to understand when they object to Jesus taking our sin upon Him on the grounds that 'no-one can bear another's burden'. This is an important objection to Christian theology for Islam; it is repeated in the Koran five times. For example:
'And no bearer of burdens shall bear another's burden; and if one heavily laden calls another to (bear) his load, nothing of it will be laden even though he be near of kin.' (Koran 35:18)
But it is precisely because Jesus Christ had no burden of sin Himself that He can bear my burden of sin and that I can indeed put all my trust, or as Galatians 3:23 puts it, my faith, in Christ and call to Him to bear my burden. Peter in Acts 15:11 says our salvation, or justification before God, is of His grace, not of our own doing.
CHRIST BORE OUR BURDEN AS OUR KINSMAN-REDEEMER
I have quoted that particular Koranic verse rather than one the other four on the same subject because it mentions the kinsman. Christians believe Christ to be our kinsman-redeemer. He fulfilled all three requirements of that office. He was indeed our kinsman, being born of a woman. He had the ability to redeem us, being without sin through His divine nature. And He was willing and obedient even to the way of the Cross. (see Ruth 3:9-13).
As the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it:
'Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.' (WCF Ch XI,
But I am not entirely happy with the word 'fulfilled' in a moral/civil law context. It seems to have an agenda behind it. Our gracious Lord kept the moral law, that is certain. He did not commit any sin, 'neither was guile found in His mouth.' (! Peter 2:22) But can He be said to have 'fulfilled' it in the sense that He fulfilled the sacrificial law, which is what He plainly means at Matt 5:17? In other words, if we use the word 'fulfilled' in a moral/civil law context with the idea of 'kept' behind it, we can defend it. But then, why use it at all if it is not to make a link to Matt 5:17? Certainly if we try to shoehorn the idea of 'abolished' into it in the context of the moral and civil law we fly in the face of the Apostles' admonitions in the Epistles, not to mention our Lord's own teachings.
WE SHALL ALL STAND BEFORE THE JUDGMENT SEAT OF CHRIST
As the Westminster Confession also says: 'The moral law does forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof, and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither does Christ, in the Gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation. (Ch XIX,
God's law reveals God's nature, and His sacrificial law having prophesied Christ and been fulfilled in His perfect blood, His righteous moral, civil and physical laws which govern the universe cannot pass while the earth remains (Gen 8:22; 2Pet 3:7) And even in the new heavens and earth, God's righteousness will still be there (2Pet 3:13).
Plainly, we believers, repentant sinners as we are, needed Christ to keep the law where we could not that He might justify us. 'And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin' (1John 3:5). But the Lord cannot then lead our lives for us. All have to 'work out your own salvation, with fear and trembling' (Phil 2:12), and 'run with patience the race that is set before us' (Heb 12:1) keeping the moral law as Christ commanded.
The Bible says we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ and give an account of ourselves (Romans 14:10,12). In that day, it will not be enough to say, 'But Lord, I thought you fulfilled the requirements of the moral law for me.' No, we have to keep it ourselves.
When the lawyer asked Jesus how to get eternal life, the Lord asked him what was written in the law (Luke 10:25ff). The lawyer correctly quoted Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:8. The Lord said, 'This do and thou shalt live.' He did not say, 'I'll fulfil that for you, so don't bother keeping it because you can't.' Actually, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and by the grace of God and the risen power of Christ, we can! 'Whoever is born of God doth not commit sin.' (1John 3:9)
'For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, (Heb 10:26-27).
A MODEL NATION
Next month I intend, God willing, to look at Deuteronomy 4 and
's place as a model nation, and at how their civil laws were intended to be an example to every other nation. And I shall argue that they too have never been repealed in the Courts of Heaven. We shall see the fragility of what we might call 'national salvation', but that every nation still has a duty to follow the laws of God in obedience to Jesus Christ, the King of kings.
In the meantime, I hope that there is something of God in what I have written, and that it makes some kind of sense in our present darkness. In any event, let us pray to be like the Psalmist who could say: 'O how love I thy law! It is my meditation all the day.' (Psalm 119:97)