Tag Archives: law

Matthew, Jesus, and Law

I had a professor friend who used to say (maybe he still does) that every controversy of the first couple centuries of the church’s life was over the (dis)continuity of the Old Testament and the life/faith of the church.

We see on the pages of the New Testament that questions about circumcision, food laws, and law-keeping in general were pressing pastoral questions. Later the question arose as to whether this world that we live in, which seems like it’s a disaster, could have possibly been created by the good God whom we worship through the work of Jesus.

The point of this post isn’t to argue that historical claim, but there’s sufficient grain of truth in it to suggest that any time we get into questions of (dis)continuity between Jesus and what came before that we are on ground that has been well traversed but often with little consensus.

In other words, three quarters of you who read what follows will probably disagree, but here it goes, anyway.

The Law in particular, and the whole Old Testament in general was of crucial importance for the writer of Matthew. “Don’t think I’ve come to abolish the law, I haven’t come to abolish but to fulfill… Not one jot or tittle will fall away from the law until all things have come to be.”

Moreover, there’s that marvelous little parable in which Jesus says that every scribe trained in the kingdom is like a householder bringing out of his storehouse treasures old and new.

Scribe: expert in the writings.

So obviously law-keeping as such is important to Jesus, as Matthew presents him. Right?

Not so fast.

The law that Matthew’s Jesus upholds as the standard of righteousness is not the Moses-given Torah, but the law and instruction and refracted through the life and teaching of Jesus.

Immediately after saying that he doesn’t come to abolish but to fulfill, Matthew’s Jesus holds up various commandments and says, “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…”

Even if you translate this “and I say to you,” the point is largely the same: if you want to “fulfill what is written” it is not enough to keep Torah, you have to keep the words of Jesus. Knowing what you are to do is not to be had from Torah alone, but through Jesus’ teaching.

The end of the Sermon on the Mount reinforces this idea.

In 7:21-23 we get the warning that not everyone who says to Jesus, “Lord, Lord” will get into the Kingdom; those who do “get in” are those who obey God’s will, which is the same set of people whom Jesus knows.

What is perhaps oblique in this paragraph of Matthew is made explicit in the next one: Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like a person who builds his house on a rock.

Jesus’ words are what must be obeyed, not Torah itself.

The crowd’s reaction bears this out. They were amazed at Jesus’ teaching because he was teaching like one having authority. This doesn’t mean he was a compelling speaker. It means that he was speaking by standing on his own calling to speak for God, not as one passing on a tradition whose authority is vested elsewhere (such as the giving of the law itself or the line of teachers).

Finally, when Jesus sends out the eleven after his resurrection, he commands them to make disciples by teaching them to obey everything that he himself has taught.

For Matthew, discipleship is a matter of following this teacher. The Law and the Prophets are essential, but they are essential inasmuch as they have been given a Christological refraction and fulfillment.

There is a paradox entailed here: for Matthew, Law is more important than it seems to be for the other Gospel writers; but, in weaving the Law so prominently through the story, I believe he creates a Jesus who is less acceptable to a non-Christian Judaism, to a people defined by keeping Torah.

Matthew brings the law in closer, but in so doing brings it into such contact with Jesus that it no longer stands as such. The defining activities of the people of God are no longer found in the Law, but in the teachings of this particular teacher of the way of righteousness.

Jesus Kept Kosher (Boyarin, Pt. 3)

Did Jesus say that it doesn’t matter what people eat?

Did he say, in effect, that people can eat pig and shrimp, that Jewish food laws are no longer binding?

In what I found to be the freshest part of Daniel Boyarin’s The Jewish Gospels, he argues no. Unlike the interpretation he offered of Daniel 7, Boyarin makes his claim based on the interpretation of the biblical text as it currently stands.

Here’s the passage in question:

14 Then Jesus called the crowd again and said, “ Listen to me, all of you, and understand. 15 Nothing outside of a person can enter and contaminate a person in God’s sight; rather, the things that come out of a person contaminate the person. ” k

17 After leaving the crowd, he entered a house where his disciples asked him about that riddle. 18 He said to them, “ Don’t you understand either? Don’t you know that nothing from the outside that enters a person has the power to contaminate? 19 That’s because it doesn’t enter into the heart but into the stomach, and it goes out into the sewer. ” By saying this, Jesus declared that no food could contaminate a person in God’s sight. (Mark 7, CEB).

The traditional interpretation is this: Mark is telling us that Jesus just overturned the whole system of food laws–food can’t make you unclean before God, not even pig or shrimp.

Contextually there is one particularly problematic feature of such an argument: Jesus had just condemned the Pharisees for abolishing the commandments of God in favor of their own tradition. Could Jesus really, then, turn around and abolish the law of God in favor of a new tradition?

Boyarin follows the argument of Yair Furstenberg in saying no.

He distinguishes between laws of impurity and laws of kosher food.

Food laws tend to be about certain foods that are always off limits, or situations that differentiate between kosher and non-kosher foods.

Purity laws are about contagion that comes from different sources: often from the body itself (through sores, through menstruation, through ejaculation), sometimes through circumstances such as death.

Boyarin’s point is this: the kosher laws are not purity laws.

What Jesus and the Pharisees are arguing about is not whether certain foods are kosher, but whether certain ways of handling foods could make them impure.

In this context, the Pharisees have created an additional tradition: even kosher foods can be rendered unclean if eaten with defiled hands.

Jesus, according to Boyarin, is arguing against this “liberalizing” of the tradition, arguing for a more “conservative” reading of the law. Jesus disagrees that purity or impurity is transferred to and through food. You can still transgress the law if you choose to eat a detestable thing. However, eating kosher food with impure hands or that has overshadowed a corpse is not going to make you impure.

Thus, for Boyarin, this is an intramural Jewish debate, among kosher Jews, about an innovation in the food laws added by the Pharisees.

He extends his argument by focusing on things coming out of the body as the typical sources of impurity (fluids, for example). Jesus says that things going in don’t make you impure, but instead, things coming out.

The one point where I would have liked to see a bit more concession from Boyarin is that here Jesus’ “what comes out of a person” is not body fluids, but instead actions that spring from the heart.

It’s a point that needs to be addressed, because it seems that Jesus’ definition of what makes impure does not, in fact, uphold the law as such. If he is refusing the Pharisees’ redefinition of “impure,” he is still creating his own new definition when we does not revert to fluids but instead to the actions that spring from the heart.

I need to do more research on OT laws, and see what folks more versed in them, and Jewish traditions, than I think about this argument. But it is the one thing that I’ve read so far where I’ve stepped back and thought that Boyarin might be presenting something that truly has the potential to transform how we read a crucial text.

Free to Say No

If we think we’re free to say no to God, should this influence how we navigate the choppy waters of engaging culturally and politically as Christians?

Most people I know think that we are free to say no to God. Was it C. S. Lewis who spoke of eternal perdition of God’s final, “Thy will be done” spoken to the creature?

Indeed, human freedom of the will (an idea that never gets any airtime in the entire Bible) is a much firmer part of most of my students’ theology than their tentative affirmations of “predestination” (which is affirmed in several places in scripture).

We experience ourselves as free, and that freedom is one that, in our experience, extends to our receptivity to the call of God. And gifted theologians do find helpful ways of marrying freedom and Providence.

While I was reading Barth last week, I was struck by something that, I confess, I cannot find at the moment! (So I may be making this up.)

Barth was talking about God being glorious in God’s freedom. The discussion of God’s glory in freedom shifted for a moment, to claim not only that God is glorious as God acts freely, but that God is glorious as God gives humanity the ability to act freely as well.

God is glorified in his willingness to allow the creature to say no to God.

It made me wonder if we truly believe in the freedom that we say we value so highly. If we believe that God does not want to force compliance or love (for then it would not be love!) then why do we so often see ourselves charged with enforcing compliance to the will, law, or theology of God as we understand it?

It struck me that a people who would not have ourselves compelled should not compel others, but should summon them with love.

All of us are willing to affirm the greatness of Jesus’ words of love:

Do unto others as you would have done unto you.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

But are we able to own up to what we would have done unto ourselves? Will we genuinely acknowledge our desires, our freedoms, our refusal to be compelled, when we are face-to-face with a neighbor who has different desires, yearns to exercise her freedom in a manner differently than we have exercised ours, resists the compulsions of the Jesus story we participate in?

If we insist on our right to say no (or to have said no) to our God, what might that mean for our neighbor who may want that right as well?

The Command of the Foot Washer

The debate about the place of the Law (or not) rages on in the comments of yesterday’s post, whilst my life is flooded with non-cyber-life that has me engaged elsewhere.

But perhaps we might allow Maundy Thursday to direct a contribution to the discussion.

Depending on whom you ask, “maundy” may be derivative of the Latin form of Jesus’ statement, “A new command I give to you…” (mandatum novum do vobis). And that brings us to the heart of things–and the possible meanings we might affix to the later Johannine literature as well. What is the command of Jesus?

Full understanding of the command is unfolded over the course of the narrative.

John has made the footwashing itself an anticipation of Jesus’ coming death on the cross. It is the time when he “lays aside” his mastery and girds himself as a servant, the time when he “takes up again” his garments, laying his self-humility aside. In this, he illustrates the part of the Good Shepherd who lays aside his life for the sheep and then takes it up again.

The footwashing is a cleansing that enables the disciples to have a share in himself–and it is an illustration of the full extent of Jesus’ love.

The footwashing is what Jesus does when he knows that his time has come to depart from the world and return to the Father.

The footwashing opens up the Book of Glory with an enactment of the coming crucifixion.

Returning to his place, Jesus says, “Do you know what I have done for you? You call me master and teacher–and you’re right! For I am! So… If I, the master and teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example, so that you would do as I have done.”

Footwashing. Or, perhaps, laying down our lives for one another?

Keep reading in the passage, and Jesus predicts his departure, after which he gives his new command:

“I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:34-35, CEB)

John had told us that the footwashing was picturing the full extent of Jesus’ love. Might this, “love one another as I have loved you” be a command to love each other with the self-giving love of Christ?

Jesus closes the loop in John 15:

This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. (John 15:12-14, CEB)

There is, of course, continuity with what came before: love of neighbor is nothing new.

But what is love? What does love look like? How do we know love when we see it?

On Maundy Thursday Jesus enacts the love that should define his people: a self-giving love, a laying down one’s life so that others might live.

The defining story of our salvation (Jesus died for us) becomes the defining story of Christian community (so ought we to die for one another).

This is why Christian love can be a testimony to all that we are Jesus’ disciples–not because only Christians can love, but because Christian love has a particular definition. And that definition is the cross.

Gentiles and Homosexuals (pt. 3)

In Part 1 of this series I illustrated the danger of thinking that we as the insiders can contain the blessings of God–we might find ourselves attempting to throw Jesus off a cliff. In Part 2, I continued with a story that shows how these blessings come even to those who stand against the very purposes of God–a Roman centurion receives the blessings of Jesus’ authority.

The point of this is to show through a series of engagements with NT stories that we must not only consider how we are to act in order to please God in our standing before him, but must also consider how we must act toward our neighbor who will not so act if we are to truly please God. In all, it seems that upholding our moral standards, or obeying God more generally, as a barrier to extending the fulness of God’s blessings to the world around us is a crucial mistake that might make us more the outsider than we realize.

The quintessential example of failure to extend blessing due to adherence to the Law is the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Image: therubicon.org
The Lawyer comes to Jesus, and correctly enumerates what must be done to obtain eternal life: love God, love neighbor. Like us, he knows that both are crucial, and that the doing of one cannot be an excuse to not do the other. And, like us, he is keen to make sure he knows who this neighbor is. How far does love extend? What must it look like?

The story that ensues is familiar. But too often, we fail to dig deep enough into the failure of love that is illustrated.

The man is beaten, and lays within an inch of his life. In fact, for all that someone can tell by looking at him, the man is dead. Why is this important? It’s a crucial factor because priests were forbidden to contract corpse impurity for any but their closest relatives. In other words, for a priest, and perhaps a Levite, to leave an apparently dead man unattended to was nothing less than upholding the Law of God.

Was the man who loved his neighbor the one who kept the Law of God and thereby kept himself pure to act on the people’s behalf in the Temple service?

Was the law-keeping obedient one the person who did what was necessary to obtain eternal life by loving neighbor?


The person who was neighbor to the man, and therefore acted with the love that leads to eternal life, was the non-Law-keeping Samaritan, the half-Jewish “other” who bound the man’s wounds, entrusted him to the care of the inn keeper, and paid for him to come to full health and strength.

When we wrestle with how the ordinances of God might impact our status toward outsiders, we are too often in the place of the priest and Levite–upholding the Law of God and thereby claiming that we are loving neighbor even while we leave our neighbor without food, without healthcare, without a true participation in the blessings God has given us.

These NT stories are merely about legalists who don’t really understand God’s Law. They are about people who understand all too well the Law that differentiates them and separates them from the world that lies beyond the people of God. But Jesus takes hold of the biblical storyline that demands we recognize God as the God of all–and that we extend the blessings of God as far as God’s own Lordship itself extends.

These are stories that call us to love the outsider, that demand of us that we set aside the law of God–not as a means by which we live faithfully, but–as a means by which we determine who is worthy to receive the good things that God has bestowed upon God’s people, the good things by which God pushes back the brokenness and fallenness of the world.

Love is not depicted in any of these stories as demanding that someone enter the people of God, it is depicted as a realization that God’s blessings burst beyond the people of God, enveloping even those who will not place themselves within the space marked off by that God’s rules and people.

Gentiles and Homosexuals (pt. 2)

On Thursday I began a series in which I want to develop an interpretive framework for wrestling with issues of homosexuals in civil society for those Christians who do not believe that homosexual practice falls within the realm of acceptable Christian action.

In short, the hermeneutical move is this: Christians reading the NT are now more in the place of the first century Jews than the first century Gentiles. We are the “insiders” who know what God has done to redeem and reconcile a people and what it means, at least in general, to faithfully follow this God.

In short, what we find at several key moments is that the blessings of God are not confined to the people of God–and that these blessings overflow and come to outsiders even without their agreeing to become insiders. We began with Luke 4, and the reminder Jesus gave of how the power of God to feed the hungry and heal the sick went beyond Israel in the days of Elijah and Elisha–and this enraged his audience.

It presses the question of whether we, too, are not enraged at the idea that our community might not lay exclusive claim to the blessings of God?

The decentering ministry of Jesus is visible elsewhere as well. In Matthew 8, after Jesus comes down from the mount of his famous sermon, a centurion approaches him, asking for a servant to be healed.

Gentiles are outsiders. Uncircumcised, unkosher, Sabbath-breaking outsiders.

But things here are even worse.

The Roman occupation of Galilee and Judea is a potent reminder of the failure of God’s promises in the prophets to come to fruition. The promise of being free in their own land to worship their own God under their own king is daily thwarted by military and political subjugation to Rome.

This Gentile who stands before Jesus is not only a reminder of, but an active agent in the failure of Israel to enter into the civil, religious, and political life that God has promised God’s people.

And he comes to Jesus to ask for healing. And Jesus heals his servant.

This means at least two things. One: the man saw in Jesus, the very definition of the “insider” for the new people of God, something powerful. Two: he saw in Jesus someone who would be wiling to share that power for the good of even a Gentile centurion.

He had faith in that power, in Jesus’ authority, and that it could and would be used for him.

Here, we might say, is an example of an outsider coming “in” in order to receive the blessing. But did he? Yes, he had faith in the work of Jesus. But Jesus commends him as an insider without demanding that he actually become an insider first. He blesses him, heals his servant, without the man joining himself to the Jewish people–and without the man leaving his post as one who stands against the freedom of the people of God or leaving his life behind to follow Jesus in his mission.

Questions that present themselves to us: do outsiders see anything in the church that they would want part of for themselves?

When they do see something that looks like a good–a blessing bestowed by the power and authority of God–do we willingly give to them out of the abundance of what God has given us? Or do we demand that they become like us first, enter into the community of faith in order to know the blessings of God?

Will we give outsiders our money for their food? Our medicine for their healing? Our marriage for their comfort and security? Or are these things only for those who first drop all that they have and then enter into the kingdom of abundance?

Note: I am on vacation and will be mostly away from the internet. Please feel free to have constructive conversation amongst yourselves, but I am not likely to participate!

Gentiles and Homosexuals (Pt. 1)

In Saturday’s post about homosexual marriage I made the suggestion that Christians need to develop the habit of asking two separate questions, without predetermining what the relationship between them might be. The first is, “What does God require of us as God’s people?” and the second is, “What does this mean for our life in civil society populated by people who do not, and will not, agree with us?”

I want to pick this back up today, once again focusing on those of us who are Christians and who believe that homosexual sex is sinful. I realize that there are Christians who disagree with this position, and that is its own debate. I want to keep pushing here the “so what?” question for those of us who uphold heterosexual normativity as part of our constellation of Christian belief and practice.

There is a strand of NT teaching that pushes me to keep the two questions I’m asking distinct, if not entirely separate. Why should we ask both what does God demand of us in our posture toward God and then, separately, what does God demand of us as an act of love toward neighbor?

That strand of teaching is the posture of the Jewish insiders with respect to Gentile outsiders in the NT.

In the history of interpretation, the church has made a number of mistakes in assessing the exclusivist posture of the first century Jewish community to the Gentile outsiders.

Perhaps most often the problem of early Judaism has been seen as legalism. Yes, the law was good, but early Jewish people were keeping it legalistically; or, they were keeping it because they thought that if they did they would merit God’s eternal favor and eschatological salvation.Gustav Dore, Jesus Teaching in a Synagogue

But the admonitions of Paul and the actions of Jesus point in a different direction: a surprising superabundance of grace that overflows the people of God even as that people is rightly adhering to the law that God has given them.

In Jesus’ famous sermon in Luke 4, he proclaims a jubilee year: freedom to the captives, good news proclaimed to the poor, light to those who are in darkness.

And the Jewish people marveled at the gracious words falling from his lips.

They knew themselves to be captives in need of deliverance. They knew themselves to be blind in need of light. They knew themselves to be poor in need of good news.

They were ready to sing “Amazing Grace.”

But then Jesus explodes their understanding of who the grace of God is for. There were many widows in the time of Elijah, and many lepers in the time of Elisha–but they were sent beyond Israel, beyond the people marked out as pure and holy and faithful, to feed the widow and cleanse the leper (without first demanding adherence to the Law of Israel’s God)–of non-Jewish, non-YHWH-worshiping outsider Gentiles.

And then the people were filled with rage and attempted to murder Jesus.

How are we to read this? On the one hand, we can recognize that most of us are gentiles and therefore happily included in this great surprise of God–that grace comes to us without our becoming Jewish.

And this is true.

But as those who now occupy the place of the “insiders,” the embraced and, by God’s grace, faithful people of God, we must also reappropriate this text from the point of view of its insiders. We must place ourselves not merely on the periphery as those to whom the word would come despite all apparent obstacles. We must place ourselves in the role of the insiders and be willing to hear that God’s grace will not be contained by us, and God’s blessings cannot be cordoned off to the faithful.

Of course, this is not an argument for gay marriage, but it is an argument about how we need to posture ourselves toward those we deem “other” if we are going to be faithful children of our Father in Heaven. Come back Saturday for part 2.

The Just Requirement Fulfilled

I can’t get enough of Romans 8.


If I were only allowed to have one chapter in the whole Bible, this would be it: you have here the empowered life given by the Spirit of the resurrected Christ, you have a picture of cosmic redemption and therein an affirmation of God’s love for the whole created order; you get signals that our salvation is about participation in the new humanity of those who rule the world on God’s behalf and thereby participate in new creation; you get hope in times of suffering; you get freedom from condemnation; you get our identity as God’s beloved children as we are in the beloved son.

And, of course, you get God’s daring act of giving up of God’s son so that we might live.

Jesus’ death for us comes into play a couple of times in the passage. The one I want to explore a bit right now is the difficult claim in 8:3-4.

3 God has done what was impossible for the Law, since it was weak because of selfishness. God condemned sin in the body by sending his own Son to deal with sin in the same body as humans, who are controlled by sin. 4 He did this so that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us. Now the way we live is based on the Spirit, not based on selfishness. (CEB)

Here we have, once again, the question of how the Law is related to the saving righteousness of God. And, once again, it stands outside looking in. God did what the Law could not. We are on much the same ground as Rom 3: no flesh is justified by Law before God, so God acts outside the Law, with something new and unexpected.

God acts through giving God’s own son to die. Where the CEB here says “to deal with sin,” the Greek is περὶ ἁμαρτίας (peri hamartias), a likely reference to the Septuagint’s use of the phrase to mean “sin offering.” Once again we’re on the same ground as ch. 3: Jesus as a sin offering as God’s alternative to Law as the means of salvation.

But here’s where I want to explore a bit further: How is “the righteous requirement of the Law fulfilled in us”? What is the requirement and how is it fulfilled?

First, there is nothing in this passage, Paul, or the NT in general to support the claim made by at least one modern commentator that this refers to God’s reckoning of Jesus’ law-keeping to our account. The passage is entirely about Jesus’ death, nowhere does Paul (or any other NT writer) speak of Jesus’ righteousness consisting in keeping the Law. Enough of such speculation.

In Romans, Paul has used this “just requirement” language before.

  • Rom 1:32: They know the “just requirement” of God that those who do such things are worthy of death.
  • Rom 2:26: The uncircumcised keep the “just requirement” of the Law because, as God’s eschatological people who have received the Spirit, they have this Law written on their hearts.
  • Rom 5:16: The many transgressions were the seedbed from which grew out the gift, the transgressions leading to a “just requirement” (this does not mean “justification,” but the just act which would enable one to be justified
  • Rom 5:18: One “just act” lead to “justification”
  • Rom 8:4: God fulfills the “just requirement” in us

I find it fascinating that in three of the previous four occurrences the connotation of dikaioma had to do with death. The just requirement of death is known, in 1:32, and in ch. 5 it is Jesus’ death in particular that is the just action that leads to justification.

So I wonder: is the “just requirement” that is fulfilled in us, what the Law couldn’t do but God did, the just requirement of death for sin?

I have been hesitant to go down this road, in part because Paul speaks immediately afterward of our identity as those who walk, not according to the flesh but, according to the Spirit. So I’ve previously thought of this as our own obedience to what the Law would have us do: the death of Jesus enables us to live obediently to the Law.

But what does the Spirit do in Romans 8?

As the Spirit of freedom, it is the Spirit of adoption–making us God’s children and confirming and conforming us to that identity.

But that “Abba, Father,” cry is the cry of those who are being conformed to the image of Jesus by suffering with him in order to also be glorified with him (8:17). The Spirit’s work in us is to conform us not merely to sonship generally, but to the crucified and then resurrected son.

In other words, the Spirit fulfills in us our dying with Christ, our union with him in death and resurrection, our baptism into his death.

So to be those who “walk according to the Spirit” is precisely to be those who carry about in our body the dying of Jesus–and thus have the just requirement of death fulfilled in us through our realization of our union with Christ.

This finds further corroboration in Rom 3, where the thing that allows God to be just and justifier is the blood of Jesus–and those who are justified are those who are “of the faithfulness of Christ”–united to and defined by Jesus’ own death.

To have the just requirement fulfilled in us is to realize in ourselves the dying of Christ by which we are justified both now and at the end.

Why Do You Say Such Things?!

Last night I found myself in the happy company of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics once again. And he was, yet again, talking about theological method.

In talking about God, the Christian always begins with revelation as the given. What we mean by God, by salvation, by revelation are all reflections on the actual given of the revelation of God in Christ.

We start with the given. And we attempt to explain.

This is what it means to do Christian theology.

We do not begin with our categories of “God”, and attempt to then describe our God such that our God alone fulfills that category.

We do not begin with our understanding of “the possibility of humanity hearing from God,” but from the given of God’s revelation of Godself to humanity.

At this most basic point of theological method, I find myself in profound agreement with Barth. And, this is why I have been engaging this conversation about Law for the past week.

This is one of the most vexing questions of the NT–What is the relationship of the Law to Christian faith and life? It is one subset of the question that has pressed the church to wrestle within itself for two millennia: where is the continuity and where is the discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New?

For Christians, it is these two “givens” that make the place of the Law so challenging to articulate: (1) despite what we might have thought from reading, say, Exodus or Deuteronomy, Christians must confess that the Law was not what Christ is: the means of righteousness and life in the presence of God; and (2) though some commands are repeated in the NT, the Christ event, not the Torah, is the defining standard for measuring the fidelity of the Christian life.

These are the givens. What, then, about the Law?

Its place in the story is surprising. It is something waiting to be “fulfilled” (Matthew); not the giver of life but what witnesses to Jesus (John); the parental stand-in, the power that ruled Israel until maturity came (Galatians); the thing that is passing away (Hebrews).

And, it is precisely in this temporary place, in this witnessing beyond itself to the coming Christ, that the Law is God’s, and good, and an inescapable part of the story of redemption, and what is required as the penultimate gift of God in anticipation of the ultimate gift of grace–in Christ.

None of this I say because of what I think a Law should do.

None of this I say because of what the Law itself says it should do.

All of this I say because it is what we must say if the revelation of God in Christ is true. Christ is holy, righteous, good, necessary and ultimate. Law is holy, righteous, good, necessary, and penultimate.

Law in Romans: Not for Law, but for Christ

First, thank you all for continuing the conversation on Law while I’ve been out of pocket this weekend. I’ll jump into the comments a bit later today.

In the mean time, I want to do two things.

First, briefly, a reminder: what I’m trying to lay out in this series of posts is Paul’s view of the Law, as it comes to light in Romans in particular. Many of the objections have been interesting, and pointing toward other ways of conceiving the relationship between Law and the Christ event or Law and the people of God.

But I find that many, if not most, of the objections are to Paul as much as they are to me. That’s fine, you don’t have to like Paul if you don’t want to. I’ll sell you a book on that in December. But I do think it’s important to highlight that the ways several of you have pushed for more continuity have caused you to say, in essence, Paul is wrong (or at least incomplete).

Second, I have one last thing to say about the purpose of Law in Romans: in Rom 9-10 Paul insists that the Law is used wrongly if it is used so as to delineate the things we should to in order to maintain relationship with God (i.e., pursue righteousness), but it is rightly used if seen as a witness to the coming Christ.

He says this three times in parallel arguments.

First, in Rom 9:30-33. The Gentiles who didn’t pursue righteousness obtained it, but Israel pursuing a Law of righteousness didn’t. Why? Because they didn’t pursue by faith but as though by works.

Now, I know that at first blush this looks like there are two different dispositions a person might have in their Torah-observance (the traditional Protestant reading). But Paul tells us more specifically what he means, and the problem comes down, instead, to whether or not you use the Law to cultivate faith in the coming Christ.

They didn’t pursue by faith, but by works–thereby stumbling over the stumbling stone just as it is written: “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, and whoever believes in him will not be disappointed.”

What Israel does “wrong” is not believe in the coming Christ. Their failure with respect to the Law is Christological. Instead of looking to Christ, they were looking for the Law to establish what righteousness is–and their own within it.

They were reading the Law self-referentially (referring to themselves and the Law itself) rather than Christo-referentially.

Paul repeats the argument, in essence, in 10:1-4.

Yes, Israel is zealous for God, but not according to knowledge. They are ignorant of God’s righteousness (which Romans has already told us, repeatedly, is to be found in Christ, not Torah) and seeking to establish their own, they didn’t submit themselves to God’s righteousness.

So what does this God-righteousness consist of? And how is it different from “their own?” “For Christ is the end of the Law, for righteousness, unto all who believe.”

The problem with how Israel was using the Law was that they were using it as something that establishes righteousness rather than as pointing to another in whom God would establish righteousness. They were reading the Torah self-referentially rather than Christo-referentially.

A third time Paul says the same thing, this time working out the specifics of the Christ-event as the works that bring righteousness rather than the doing of Torah.

This third argument is found in 10:5-13.

On the one hand, there is the “righteousness that comes from Torah”–what Paul was talking about in 9:32 and 10:3 as well–“Whatever persons does these things will live in them.”

But that’s not the righteousness from faith that reveals God’s own righteousness.

That faith-righteousness speaks of the Christ event: don’t ask who’s going to bring Christ down or raise him from the dead, for the word of faith is near you: confess that Jesus is Lord, believe that God raised him from the dead–this is the means to salvation.

In so outlining faith-righteousness, Paul transforms the words of Deut 30:12-14. Those had spoken of doing Torah as the means of salvation; Paul reads them as presaging the Christ-event as the means of salvation.

The result of this is that Israel does not become the place one has to enter in order to be saved–that people and space circumscribed by Torah.

instead of seeking salvation “in Israel,” all may now seek salvation, on equal footing, “in Christ.” Because the Law is not the source of righteousness–it points away from itself, witnessing to Another who is the source of righteousness. That would be Christ, now raised from the dead and enthroned at God’s right hand.

Torah’s ultimate purpose is thwarted when the Law is read as something to be done rather than as witnessing beyond itself to the coming work of God in Christ.