What is the Law in the Bible?
Before diving too deep into a weighty subject, it may be helpful to clarify a few terms that can be confusing if used interchangeably. So, what is the law in the Bible?
What is the Book of the Law in the Bible?
The Torah (Heb: teaching, instruction, law) or Pentateuch is the first five books of the Bible. In the context of scripture, the Torah is often referred to as the “book of Moses” (2 Chr 25:4; Mk 12:26) or the “book of the Law of Moses” (Josh 8:31; 2 Ki 14:6). The Torah is part of, but not synonymous with, the Hebrew scriptures (Heb: Tanakh, an acronym for Torah, Prophets & Writings), also known as the Old Testament.
Law of Moses in the Bible
“The Law” refers to the commandments given through Moses to the people of Israel at Sinai (Ex 19-32). Other laws and commands are recorded throughout the Torah, some of which came before or after Sinai (Gen 2:17; 17:10-14; Ex 15:25-6; 18:16; Num 15:38). However, “The Law” as a unit comprises the 613 laws of the Sinai Covenant or Mosaic Covenant (“old covenant”, Heb 8:6,13).
The Torah and the Books of the Law
Although the Torah contains “the Law”, it is much more than a law book or a type of constitution between God and the Jewish people. The Torah is primarily a historical narrative. It is a divinely inspired love story of the God of all creation and His interaction with humanity, especially as seen through the calling and election of Israel.
This understanding will greatly influence the way we interpret the purpose and message of the Torah and the Law within. And consequently, how we understand and apply the words of Jesus and the authors of the New Testament.
The Purpose of the Law in the Bible
In this walk of faith, believers often face questions about the purpose of the principles, or the law, in the Word of God and how to apply them to our lives today. But when we consider the revolutionary words and teachings of Jesus, another question may arise. Namely,
How should we relate to the Old Testament law in light of the New Covenant of grace?
Law of Grace in the Bible
Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). So, does following Him mean observing ALL of the Bible’s commandments, including the Laws of the Torah?
The apostle Paul emphatically taught that there is nothing salvific or meritorious about observing the Law (Rom 3:20-31; Gal 3). Because of the cross, right standing before God is by grace through faith alone (Eph 2:8).
Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. Galatians 2:16
Did Paul Contradict Jesus?
Paul’s epistle to the Galatians clearly outlines that before faith came, we were “imprisoned” and “held captive under the law” (Gal 3:23). But now that the Messiah has come, believers are justified by faith. Those who are led by the Spirit are no longer under the “guardian” of the Law (Gal 3:25, 5:18).
Paul tells the church in Ephesus that Christ has created One New Man through His redemptive work on the cross. He broke down the dividing wall, or the enmity, between Jew and gentile by “abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” (Eph 2:13-15).
Jesus Came to Fulfill the Law
When it comes to practical living, it could appear that Paul’s words about “abolishing” the ordinances of the law contradict the very words of Jesus.
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. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17-20
One New Man
Far from contradicting one another, these passages affirm that Jesus didn’t destroy (Gr: καταλύω, katalyō) or do away with the Law. Rather, through His own flesh and by filling up to the full measure (Gr. πληρόω, plēroō) every requirement of the Law, Jesus annulled or put an end to (καταργέω, katargeō) the hostility and separation between Jew and Gentile.
We are now free to come together as One New Man in the Messiah who perfectly fulfilled the righteousness requirements of the Law.
Jesus told His disciples that He came to initiate a New Covenant through His blood (Luke 22:20). The prophet Jeremiah foresaw this New Covenant with the house of Israel and Judah, saying that God would put His law within them, writing it on their very hearts (Jer 31:31-34). So did He mean the Law of Moses, or something altogether different?
The God of Covenant
The roots of Jewish identity are based on God’s unilateral promises to one man, Abram, and his desire for a family (Gen 12:1-3). From a man, to a family, to 12 growing tribes – the promises for land, seed and blessing and the faithfulness of God mark the people of Israel.
On the heels of the miraculous Exodus from Egypt, the Lord continued to reveal His intentions for them.
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Exodus 19:4-6
God wanted an unbroken relationship with His people, to give them a priestly assignment, and to bless them. Yet the Torah reveals that, since the dawn of mankind, disobedience to God’s righteous standards is the major obstacle to the blessing of relationship with God. So how does a perfectly holy and just God have a relationship with imperfect and sinful people?
This was mediated through the terms of a covenant (in fact, one of at least three), a divine ordinance with terms and conditions. The concept of covenant is foundational throughout the scriptures – from Noah to Abraham to David, and beyond. But since we’re considering what it means to follow God and obey His commandments, let’s focus on God’s covenant with Israel made at Sinai.
And the Lord said to Moses, “Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel. Exodus 34:27
A People Set Apart by the Law in the Bible
This God-initiated covenant was a rule of conduct for how to live as a pure and holy people, distinctly set apart from among the nations for God’s chosen purpose. And meticulous observance was mandated.
Only be very careful to observe the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you, to love the LORD your God, and to walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments and to cling to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.” Joshua 22:5
Many see the Torah as the fabric and foundation of Jewish identity. From the very beginnings of the Jewish people – the generations descended from the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – it has set apart God’s chosen people and governed their way of life among the nations.
The majority of the Torah centers around the Law of Moses. But what was the ultimate purpose or end goal of this covenant rule of life? Did the Torah (and the Law within) fully and forever restore the right relationship between God and the people?
Or, perhaps, it ultimately pointed towards something else.
Understanding the Purpose of the Law in the Bible
The Mosaic Law was the covenant means of a fellowship between God and Israel – a source of blessing to them (Ex 34:10; Ps 1). It revealed the nature of God, His wisdom and righteous standards, and justice (Ex 34:6-7; Lev 11:45).
It also revealed the sin of man, and taught Israel standards of righteous living and to fear the Lord (Deut 17:19-20, Rom 7:7). The Law put into practice regular occasions for worship, celebration, and civic duty, and set the terms for meeting with God.
The Law consecrated and set Israel apart from the nations (Deut 28:1). It established her priestly role, demonstrating the love and compassion of God (Deut 4:6, 7:6-11). Then it laid the foundation for substitutionary sacrifice in atoning for sin and kept this concept at the forefront of Israel’s regular pattern of life (Heb 9). Finally, it provided occasions and a pattern of worship unto the One true God (Deut 6:4-5).
The Law as Separation
The Law separated a people through whom the Messiah would come, the only people on earth that prepared for and expected this Messiah.
It served as a promise of good things to come, a shadow of the realities that Messiah would fulfill (Col 2:17; Heb 8:5, 10:1). The Law was a tutor and guardian, set in place until the time of the full inheritance (Gal 3:24-25; Col 3:24). The Law was good, a means of prosperity and success for Israel (Num 10:29; Josh 1:8; 1 Tim 1:8).
Does the Law Lead to Life or Death?
David praised the beauty and perfection of the statutes of the Lord as the path of life (Ps 119). The Law of the Lord itself IS perfect (Ps 19:7) but the Law MADE nothing perfect (Heb 7:19).
To sin-stained humanity, the Law of God was a prosecuting attorney that brought death (Lev 21:12-17; 22:18-20; 35:2). It revealed man’s inability to live up to the righteous standards of a holy God, and exposed humanity’s need for a Savior (Rom 3:19-20; 4:15).
So, is the Torah just a bunch of impossible rules and regulations, or is there hope?
The brokenness of humanity is evident through the reality of sin and exile from relationship with God – from Eden to Israel, to you and me. Yet despite man’s disobedience, the Torah is a narrative of Israel’s enduring hope. The background is painted dismally dark, but each stroke of light reveals the Artist’s intended focus. Mankind needed a Savior.
Messiah: The Hope of the Torah
Prophetic references to the Messiah in the Torah are sparse. However, the recurring themes and trajectory of the storyline illuminate the need for redemption and the hope of Messiah. Throughout the Torah, promises of a future blessing abound. Even in the people’s inability to keep the commandments of the Mosaic Law, hope resounds.
This hope is for a final judgment on the curse of sin to come through the seed of the woman (Gen 3:15). A Messiah would come, a royal king from the Tribe of Judah, a prophet like Moses would come in the last days (Gen 49:8-12; Num 24:1-24; Deut 18:15-19).
Millions of Jewish people still do not embrace Yeshua as their Messiah. Thus, it is understandable when they seek to live out the terms of the Torah to the best of their ability.
However, obedience to the Law was never set forth as the final means of salvation, not even for Israel. The Law was predicated on faith in the God of covenant (Gen 15:6). After all, Israel could not enter the Promised Land because of unbelief (Num 14:11).
The Purpose of the Law Restored
The primary purpose of the Torah is not to constrain Israel (nor any of us today) to perpetually follow the commandments of the Law as if that were the only hope for righteousness. Rather, the prevailing message of the Torah is to lead through Israel’s (and all humanity’s) brokenness and point toward the undeniable need for a Savior.
The remainder of the Hebrew scriptures (prophets and writings) affirm this hope, as do the New Testament authors. Paul says that the Messiah is the intended goal or end (Heb: telos) of the Law for righteousness for all who believe (Rom 10:4). Jesus said that Moses wrote about Him, and to believe Moses is to believe in Messiah (John 5:46).
In the simplest terms, to be faithful followers of the Torah is to believe in the hope of God’s promised salvation. Christ-followers today, both Jew and gentile, are called to live in the Spirit-empowered freedom of the New Covenant that gives the Law in fact its purpose.
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