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The Law of God

The longer I live the more things about the mindset of our culture just makes me scratch my head. When I was younger, we used to talk about “Things that make you go, Hmmm…” Today, I wonder if the phrase should be, “Things that make you go, huh?!?” And one of those things that I find a head-scratcher today is the way the Gospel has been redefined into something that it was never meant to be…at least if we have any sense of propriety to the Bible. And while it is true that this is not a new trend, it amazes me just how prevalent the idea is today.

Don’t misunderstand me, I do understand the context in which we live. The world is getting small, churches of pretty much every flavor exist on nearly every corner of America, yet overall, American church attendance is dropping. Buildings, also, are expensive. Old ones cost money to maintain and new ones cost money to build. There are also salaries to pay, activities to finance, and other costs that go along with doing business.

And so, churches behave like businesses, yes, and this is the first step down a path that leads away from fidelity to the Bible. How so? The purpose of a business is to make money and they do so by promoting their brand over the brand of others. So churches often enter into a kind of feeding frenzy, trying to grow by pulling members from one church into their own…typically by the programs and services that they have to offer. In addition, there is a phrase in business that goes: “The customer is always right.” That of course, is not true and few real businesses truly believe that sentiment, but it is still said. And, if you view church members as customers, your goal is to fill their needs and make them feel good about themselves, ready to go about the next week.

To do that, Law must be deemphasized. Why? Law makes us feel bad. It makes us feel guilty for the things we have done over the week. We’ve thought bad thoughts, we’ve coveted things that are not our own, we’ve even taken the Lord’s name in vain and have gone our own way on the Sabbath. People don’t want to be told they are sinners and deserving of the wrath of God. People want to be told that God forgives them anyway and that they should just keep doing their best and he will overlook the other stuff. 

What’s wrong with a message like that? Well, apart from being entirely unbiblical, it belittles the Gospel. It’s a form of watered-down universalism. Why? Here’s the thing, if the bad news is that God is not happy with our sin, but that he will tolerate it anyway, do we really need him? No. The Gospel then is only about us feeling better about ourselves. And worship becomes a kind of “spiritual recharge” that kind of earns us the right to receive blessings from God (you never thought of the “prosperity gospel” as a works-righteousness movement, but it is — the more you do, the more you earn from God — that’s essentially their lie). 

The problem is that God is not unhappy with us for our sin. God is enraged at our sin. It is outright rebellion and it always has been — going all of the way back to Adam and Eve (remember, they basically accused God of being a liar). The problem is that we stand in rebellion against God and deserve his wrath in the fires of Hell. Yep, that is far more serious than him just being unhappy with us…and no, he tolerates no sin in his presence (Isaiah 65:16; Habakkuk 1:13); he is light and in him is no darkness (1 John 1:5). And, as I have said repeatedly across the twenty-some years that I have been in the pulpit, and as many who have gone before me have said: “Until you come to terms with the greatness of your sin, you will never appreciate grace.”

So how do we come to terms with the greatness of our sin? That is essentially the question that is asked in the third question of the Heidelberg Catechism: “How do you know your misery?” We must indeed recognize that sin, whether small or great on human terms, brings misery to our souls. The answer is short and succinct: “The Law of God tells me.” In other words, until you let the Law weigh down your soul and nurture a sense of godly sorrow for your wicked state, grace will be nothing but a feel-good promise that eludes your life.

What then is the Law of God? Probably the best summary of it is found in the Ten Commandments — one law with ten interwoven parts. Heidelberg reminds us too of Jesus’ summary of the Ten Commandments, found in the command to Love God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36-40). Yet, these are summaries (convicting summaries, indeed!), but the outworking and application of this moral law is found throughout the Scripture. Thus, no matter how well we know the summaries, every passage of scripture has the power to approach you and to convict your soul. 

So, the message of the Gospel is not, God is displeased but he will forgive you anyway, just come and worship him. That would portray God as a kind of senile grandfather doting on his children. No, the Gospel is much more powerful than that. You are a rebel. You are guilty of breaking the Law of God both knowingly and unknowingly and thus deserve wrath and the eternal torment of the fires of Hell. That is rightfully yours. Yet, in spite of that, God has elected to save some — a remnant from humanity for himself — not because of who we are or because of something we have done, but because he has graciously chosen to do so. And that does not mean that our sins are excused if we are part of that remnant. No, nothing of the sort. Our sins are not excused, but the punishment for our sins was borne by another — God’s own sinless Son. He did for us what we could never have done for ourselves. 

This, folks, is grace, but it only makes sense under the conviction of the Law. That means that the message of Sunday morning is not to make you feel better about yourselves. It is not to give you a spiritual recharge during the week. The message of Sunday morning is to convict you of your sins, to show you the mighty nature of our God in contrast to our lowliness, and to reveal the work of Christ that gives us hope, lowly worms that we are. We do not come to invoke God’s blessings on our lives, we come to submit to the Word — to be crushed under its weight even — and to be exhorted to live a life of gratitude on the basis of that knowledge. Anything short of that is another Gospel, and in the words of the Apostle Paul:

“But, even if we or an angel from heaven were to proclaim a gospel incompatible with the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have already told you, now I say again, if someone preaches something incompatible to what you have received, let him be accursed!”

(Galatians 1:8-9)

Which Commandment is First? (Mark 12:28)

“And one of the scribes approached, hearing them disputing, and seeing that he replied well to them, put a question to him: “which commandment is first in the whole?”

(Mark 12:28)


Matthew and Mark both include this dialogue between Jesus and the Scribe/teacher of the Law with very few variations.  Luke relates a similar account, but the context and the question were entirely different.  In Luke 10:27, Jesus is being asked what one must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus’ response is to give the same answer that he does in this passage, but also to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate who one’s neighbor happens to be.  In addition, Luke then records the event with Jesus at Mary and Martha’s house to help illustrate (through Mary’s actions) what it looks like when you love the Lord God with all of your heart, strength, and mind.

In this context, we find Jesus during his last week of earthly ministry, often referred to as Jesus’ Passion Week.  Jesus has entered into Jerusalem during this time and has been publicly teaching and facing the challenges of the Jewish authorities.  In terms of the immediate context, this dialogue most likely takes place that Tuesday, two days before his arrest, and he is facing a string of legal and philosophical questions that are designed to trap Jesus into siding with one religious party or another—a trap that Jesus refuses to fall into.  Hence, unlike the account in Luke, there is no genuine interchange of ideas nor does Jesus tell any parables to illustrate his point; he is being challenged and the statements that come out of the mouth of our Lord are made with emphasis and with clarity. 

Earlier this day, the Sadducees had sent a group to question Jesus’ authority to preach in the temple and to clear it of those who were selling in the courtyard.  After the Sadducees leave the Pharisees step in only to be followed by the Sadducees once again.  Historically, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were at odds with one another.  The Sadducees were the remnant of the elite priestly ruling class that went back to the Hasmonean Dynasty, which had begun in Judea roughly 170 years earlier.  When Judah Maccabees and his brothers overthrew the Seleucids, who controlled the area at the time, his brother Simon would end up ruling over the then free Jewish state (Judah had died).  Simon combined the office of King with that of the High Priest, making the priestly office one of privilege and reputation and not one of Levitical service.  These “Royal Priests” would become known as the Sadducees.  During this era, two reform groups emerged: the Pharisees and the Essines.  The Essines were a radical group that withdrew from the cities into what were essentially fortified monasteries.  They studied and trained to become the army of the Messiah when he would come.  The Pharisees were a less radical group, but one that pushed personal piety and who challenged the hypocrisy of the ruling order.  Sadly, by Jesus’ day, the Pharisees had reduced themselves into a legalistic view of what it meant to be a believer and had become very hypocritical themselves, obeying the law (as they nuanced it) but missing entirely the purpose behind the law.  With this history in mind, it is easy to see not only the tension between the two classes (Pharisees and Sadducees), but also the way each group was looking to try and get Jesus to take sides so that they could discredit him.

Thus a scribe approaches Jesus and puts him to the test—which commandment would Jesus say was first amongst the whole of the law, or, as we usually put it into language today, which is the greatest commandment?  Our idiomatic English translation does us a little bit of an injustice, though, given our mindset.  When someone poses the question to us of which commandment or which law is the greatest, we think back, and in our minds, treat the commandments of God as separate commands that can be isolated from one another.  As westerners, we are accustomed to compartmentalizing everything, and while on some level this is useful for acquiring and applying knowledge, it also creates a perception that the commandments of God are not intimately interrelated—or more specifically, are a unified whole.  One of the great points that James makes is that if you break one of the commands in the Ten Commandments, you are guilty of breaking the whole law because the whole law is one (James 2:10).  It should not surprise us, then, that Jesus answers this question by summing up the spirit of the law in two categories rather than elevating one aspect of the whole.  Which is first in the whole, Jesus is asked?  “Love God” is his answer.  Which is second?  “Love man.”

While many of us who have grown up in the Protestant traditions are accustomed to this kind of language, essentially dividing the Law of God (the 10 Commandments) into two sections, or two tables, one being our obligations toward God and the second being our obligations toward man, we must not assume that such is the same way the ancient minds approached the Law.  In fact, there were and continue to be many schools of thought amongst Jewish and Christian thinkers as to how the Decalogue should be divided up.  Some have suggested that there are five and five, drawing thematic parallels between the first and the sixth, the second and the seventh, and so forth.  For example, the line of thinking is that the first commandment (no other gods) is connected with the sixth (not kill) because when you take the life of another you put yourself into God’s place, essentially making yourself to be a god and breaking the first commandment as well as the sixth.  Though Jesus does not divide up the law in this way, it does help illustrate the inter-connectedness and unity of the Ten Commandments of God.

In Jesus’ day, gematria had become a popular way of looking at the Law.  Gematria is a means by which the numerical value of words or phrases was calculated (remembering that letters in ancient times represented the numerical system, so “a” would be equal to 1 and “b” would be equal to 2, etc…).  Then, the laws which represented the highest numerical value was considered to be most important.  Another way that was popular was to look at the penalty that was connected to disobeying the law.  The harsher the judgment against the sin, the more important that rule was considered to be.  This concept was later picked up by the Roman Catholic church and provided some of the foundation for their division of mortal and venal sins along with isolated passages like 1 John 5:16-17 and Hebrews 10:26).  By Jesus’ day, the rabbis had extended this debate outside of the Ten Commandments to reflect the whole council of God’s command.  They had identified (in what we refer to as the Old Testament scriptures) 613 commandments of God (248 positive commands and 365 negative commands).  Others weighted commands more heavily depending on how far back in the scriptures that they were recorded as having been given, thus emphasizing the Sabbath command or the Circumcision.  Yet, once everything was said and done, they missed the purpose of the law—to demonstrate to us the holiness of God and to make us painfully aware that based on human efforts alone, we cannot come close to that holiness—or, in other words, to drive us to our knees in the midst of our sins and make us realize how desperately we need a redeemer.  The Law was not designed to be parsed and made into a checklist; it was meant to drive us to Christ!

With this now before us, we have a far better picture of what the religious authorities were trying to do with Jesus.  They were trying to put him into a box or a category, and then once defined by men’s terms, they could give him a label.  Once labeled, they could have worked to discredit him in the people’s eyes.  This scribe is essentially seeing where Jesus is going to fall in this matter, but our Lord does not allow himself to be put into a box.  Our Lord never allows himself to be put into a box, but oh, how we so often try.  We want to define God on our terms and according to our own understanding of how we believe God should think and behave, but God refuses to be dealt with on human terms.  Beloved, how we must always endeavor to submit ourselves to God’s terms.  Let God define our theology and our ideas according to his word, do not try to make God work to support your pet preference.  This way of thinking and living is a harder road to travel, but it is the only road that honors God with your heart, mind, and whole life.