I’ve been arguing over the past week that followers of Jesus don’t go to the Decalogue as the starting point for our ethics. We begin with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In particular, we have kept coming back to the Sabbath as a command that is no longer binding on God’s people.
I want to focus on Paul, but before I get there I want a brief pit stop in Acts.
“Therefore, I conclude that we shouldn’t create problems for Gentiles who turn to God. Instead, we should write a letter, telling them to avoid the pollution associated with idols, sexual immorality, eating meat from strangled animals, and consuming blood. After all, Moses has been proclaimed in every city for a long time, and is read aloud every Sabbath in every synagogue. ” (Acts 15:19-21, CEB)
The Decalogue as such is notably absent, as is the Sabbath command in particular. It seems that if there were some requirement that the Gentiles adopt this distinctive Jewish practice this would be the place to tell us.
But to Paul.
In particular, to Paul and the Decaglogue and the Law of Sinai more generally.
When Paul wants to contrast the present epoch of salvation with what came before, it is the Law given at Sinai that serves as his point of differentiation.
In 2 Cor 3:7ff., here’s how it goes, where Paul is contrasting the Law carved in stone with his ministry of the gospel:
- The Law brings death, though with glory–Paul’s ministry brings the Spirit, with greater glory.
- The Law brings condemnation; Paul’s ministry brings righteousness
It’s not simply that Paul’s ministry is more glorious than Moses’; it’s that the law on stone–i.e., the Decalogue itself–is the point of contrast between Paul’s ministry of the Spirit and Moses’ ministry of Torah.
Then there’s Galatians. The whole point of Galatians 3 is that the Abrahamic covenant is the point of continuity between God’s people old and new–and therefore the Law is the point of discontinuity. Law is not about the promise or the people of promise–it participates in curse and enslavement that must be overcome (Gal 3:10-18).
Then what’s the Law’s purpose? Funny we should ask…
So why was the Law given? It was added because of offenses, until the descendant would come to whom the promise had been made. It was put in place through angels by the hand of a mediator.
It’s a placeholder. It’s a custodian or guardian, a temporary stand-in from the time between Abraham and Christ. This is specifically the Laws that God gave on Sinai to Moses.
The tradition of angels mediating the Law was common in early Judaism (see also Heb 2:2). That’s what Paul is alluding to here.
None of this is to say that the Law was bad, or that it was experienced as a burden, or any of those stereotyped denigrations of the Law that people have fallen into.
It is to say, however, that what defines us as a people is tied to a different covenant, and therefore what it looks like to be the people of God is fidelity to a different sent of covenant norms.
The Decalogue was Israel’s covenant, and this is why Israel was known for keeping Sabbath among the nations.
The death of Jesus is ours, and this is why we are to be known as those who lay down our lives so that others might live. Our summons is to take up our cross and follow Jesus.
Deriving our ethics from the Decalogue is binding ourselves to the shadow rather than Christ who is our life-giving substance. Our ethics begin with the self-giving Christ, not the Exodus; with the new covenant rather than the old.