The issue isn’t really one of law. The Old Testament laws were largely about how Israel were to live well as a community. The law was given in the context of their fallen relationships and their sense of estrangement from God. The sacrifice and temple laws were to clear their conscience and draw them back to God. But these laws also separated them from people who didn’t follow them.
In the New Covenant God has removed the barrier in our conscience between us and him. He did this on the cross, where we see his love for us and his free acceptance of us, even when we sinned so much against him. The cross shows us his forgiveness.
This has removed the need of the temple laws. The temple laws pointed to God’s free forgiveness, but the laws themselves couldn’t really enter our conscience and set us free. But the love of God shown us on the cross can remove our sin from our hearts. This removes the need for the Old Testament laws, because we know that in God’s love our sins are forgiven and gone.
It’s a bit like if we had hurt someone very powerful and were scared to come near them. If that person had proved his love towards us, then we would feel safe to approach. We would feel forgiven and reconciled to that person. We would come close to them again. This is what the cross has done for us. It proves God loves us. We feel reconciled and able to love him again.
But the other laws Israel had, were more about their relationships with each other. These laws were more to do with how creation works, and how community can flourish. We shouldn’t need these laws. Our hearts should desire to learn what is best for the community and should want to follow that. That is how our hearts should be. But they weren’t like that, so we had laws as guideposts, to keep our community safe.
Today, these laws are written on our hearts, when we come to faith. Now, we realise that we don’t live by the letter of the laws. The laws aren’t things that we use to strike people down and count people out. They aren’t used to kill and condemn others, but as guidelines for how we can be healed and restored to wholesome community living.
Now by faith, we live by the Holy Spirit, since we have become friends with God. The Spirit leads us in how to heal each other, and away from using the law to hurt each other. The Spirit leads us in how to restore each other, when we have been hurt and trodden down by the abuse of others. All of humanity is in this condition in some way, needing healing.
Serve to Heal
This is what Jesus showed when he came. He didn’t use the law to point the finger, but to point to what a healed community looks like. Then he stretched his hand, in fact he stretched out both his arms on the cross, to help us get there. This shows us how to serve others, and this service fulfils what the law pointed us to. The cross shows us that God doesn’t come to us with law, but with service. His only desire is for our healing.
Healing is sometimes very difficult in this world. The world is filled with complexities. Therefore, it takes patience for us to care for each other and serve each other as we become stronger in faith. Our faith is to be used with patience and care. It is never to be used as a gun to wipe out the sinner. If we wipe out other sinners, then we are also wiping out ourselves for our sin.
Life of Kindness
Sometimes we are not fully healed, but we learn to walk daily by God’s grace towards a better world, towards a life that is more about community wholeness, than what we may want for ourselves. As we mature from childhood, we learn that we can’t treat God, creation and life, like things that always give us what we want. We have a relationship with creation, where we grow in responsibility towards the common good.
This is what the laws of Israel were pointing them towards. They all had a relationship with each other, and with the world God made for them to live in together. The laws pointed towards living this life in wholeness. Part of this were the sex and family laws, but most of it was about laws of kindness towards those in need, hospitality, relieving the poor, setting the slave free, helping the foreigner and refugee. But they are all really the same law: true kindness.
These laws were about how to live in harmony with the creation. They show us that greed and violence put us out of kilter with our environment. These things destroy the balance of creation and our community’s existence. God put it like this, if we live in this greedy and violent way, relying on our armies, and not on providing mercy to those in need, then the land “will spew us out.”
These things are the laws of creation. Creation has been designed towards justice. It may take time, but creation is designed for our good, which means that sin eventually destroys itself, it removes itself from the creation. This is the judgement of God, the way his wisdom has made creation, for our wellbeing.
All God’s laws were about wholeness. They were given in the context of the hardness of our hearts, so they don’t reflect this shalom perfectly. But they point in that direction. It is through Christ that we see the heart of God perfectly presented to us.
The purpose of God revealing himself in Christ, is to point our communities towards a better way, a way of living that leads us out of covetousness, self-absorption, and violence, towards picking up our neighbour from the road to Jericho and healing him, no matter what sinful or racial background he or she is from.
It was towards this world that Paul wanted to point the violent and destructive gentile cultures. But to get to that place, Paul had to drop the Jewish temple laws. These laws became a barrier between the Jews and other people. They stopped them coming together, and healing can only come to our world, when we come together and join our lives to care for each other.
This is what Jesus faced in the gospels. The laws of the temple were being used as an excuse not to serve the sinners and foreigners, who were separate from the Jews. Jesus pointed out that this isn’t the world God was leading us to, but to a world where we receive and serve each other. So now that the cross has fulfilled all these temple laws, we don’t insist on those rituals we used to cleanse our conscience, but which divided us from the rest of humanity.
The cross launched Paul and the early disciples out in a new world, where they could receive and care for each other. We see this immediately in Acts, where people from all backgrounds eat together and share their wealth in restoring each other’s lives. And this didn’t depend on them keeping any temple laws. It was just a new love between them, where they were trying to follow the love Jesus showed us on the cross. This is the world God wanted to bring us to.
With the temple restrictions relaxed, the new church can move out among the gentiles and start sharing, in their own lives, the real meaning of the Old Testament law. Its real meaning wasn’t the temple restrictions, but love and care for neighbour. In sharing this with all our neighbours, our communities could get onto the road of healing, and overcome our selfishly motivated separations.
Now this church can share the heart of God in a fallen and violent Roman world. It can shine the light of God’s real character, which God has shone on our hearts through his love on the cross. On the cross, he showed forgiveness to us, when he should have judged us for our injustice towards the week, even towards himself. But he didn’t. He loved us in return. Now he sends us out to pass this love on to all, living the same love among them. We are to do for others what he has done for us all.
The love of Christ has brought a new leaven to the world. This leaven was shown in the law, and spoken of by the Prophets, but demonstrated by Christ. The early church was sent out with this leaven filling their hearts, not written as a letter in laws. This is the part of the law, now made new and complete in Christ, which the church was called to pass on to the gentile world.
The purpose of relaxing the temple rituals amongst the gentiles, was so that the real values of Torah could infiltrate the world through the church, for the world’s renewal. These were care for the poor, value for human life and sexual morality. These are the things that devastated humanity the most and that marked the Roman/ Greek culture of the day.
These values, this new way of life, began to change the world. It was resisted. It would take away the advantage of the oppressors. Those who lived this new way were harshly persecuted. They were fed to the beasts, and burned as night lamps in the streets. But they persevered, being convinced of the love of God. And today the impact on the world has been huge.
We have a choice now, in our generation. Which way do we go? Back to our personal lives and our own fulfillment, or forward, to follow a God who lays down his life in love for others, to bring healing to our world? Healing doesn’t come any other way, unless we live it out, paying the cost of love.
This is the reason Paul laid aside insistence on the temple laws, to unite the Jews and gentiles in one body of faith and love. It wasn’t Paul’s personal calculation. He also resisted it, killing those who refused the Jew’s temple laws. But then the purpose of God got through to him.
We can see here the distinction between the temple laws, that were no longer insisted upon in the New Covenant, and the moral laws that have been perfected in the New Covenant. Really, the temple laws were also perfected in the New Covenant. They have been perfected and fulfilled in Christ.
The other laws have also been perfected and fulfilled in Christ. He has shown us their meaning; renewed creation. He has put them in our hearts and this has fulfilled them in an outward living. The temple laws are also now in our hearts, not in our flesh with circumcisions. The temple laws spoke of reconciliation. Now we live out that reconciliation in love towards the world.
The law being fulfilled, we don’t need those Jewish flesh markers of religion. Rather, the mark is love bearing witness, not through arrogant doctrines, not by policing others, but through cross-shaped serving lives, which reveal what the law was about: care for the poor, the value of human life and sexual morality.
These things revolutionise a pagan world, a world that destroys humanity for selfish gratification. These are the destructive issues that a caring church addresses, not by rebuking a world in sin, but by opening its doors to serve those people trodden down by that sin. We take them in, dress their wounds, and show them a better way. Sexual morality is just a part of that way. The way is selflessness and self-giving. This is the way we show a world entrapped in greed.
This settles the confusion of why the temple laws were relaxed, but the laws on morality or care for the poor appear like they have not been relaxed. All these laws are relaxed because they all have fulfillment in our life of Christ. When paganism is gone, law and ritual aren’t needed, because there is no sin, but rather a new way of living. The temple and behavioural laws spoke of reconciliation and newness. Reconciliation is a life we live out in sexual morality and care towards our neighbour.
Sexual morality is part of what enhances the value of human life, a key witness of the church in a brutal world. This community-building life is the witness of the law, it’s the witness to how creation was made. There is nothing we can do to change it, or set any part of it aside. Creation is creation. This is the witness of Christians to a world that is battered and broken.
The theme of scripture is consistent throughout. Something we think is freedom, may not be true freedom. The scripture also consistently tells us not to judge others, for when we think people are doing wrong, in other areas of their life they may be better than us, and besides, God may still be working on them. The scripture rather points us to the cross, to service.