In Paul’s letters to the churches he tells followers of Jesus that they are no longer “under law.” What does this mean?
In the New Testament, “the law” is usually a reference to the Ten Commandments and their related rules and regulations (recorded mostly in Exodus and Leviticus). This code was given by God through Moses to the Hebrews after they were freed from slavery in Egypt.
The law was not given to the Hebrew slaves as a pathway to freedom from bondage in Egypt. God did not send Moses to the Hebrew slaves with the law, telling them that he would deliver them from bondage if they kept the law. God delivered the Hebrew slaves from cruel bondage to Pharaoh in Egypt because they were willing simply to trust the Lord and to follow God’s chosen leader: Moses.
Once free of Egyptian servitude, God brought the Hebrew people to Mt. Sinai where he made a covenant with them, which was expressed in writing through the Ten Commandments and their related regulations, the law.
The law described a life that reflected God’s holiness, a life that was pleasing to God, a life that was distinct from the surrounding nations. The Mosaic law included details that were especially related to the ancient agricultural society that Israel (the emancipated Hebrew slaves living in the Promised Land) inhabited four thousand years ago. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the statutes and regulations in the law are applicable to any and all cultural environments at all times.
In giving the law to the Hebrews, God offered them a choice. He said that they would be his people if they agreed to follow the law (Exodus 19:5-6). They agreed, so they were “under” the law.
God did not give the Hebrew people the choice of returning to Egypt. In fact, once they were in the wilderness and realized the challenges of living a nomadic lifestyle on their way to the Promised Land, they began to grumble and complain. Their homes, food and plentiful water back in Egypt began to look better when compared to the trek through the desert. They were tempted to return to slavery in Egypt. But God would not allow it. They had made a covenant with him. The only two choices were to die in the desert or move on toward the Promised Land.
This was not the only example of the people’s resistance toward God. Only weeks after agreeing to the covenant, they set up an idol, the golden calf, and worshiped it. They discovered the painful results of being God’s people and not acting like God’s people. To be “under the law” came with blessings and with curses.
The law always recognized the need for God’s mercy. The presentation of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 is immediately followed with instructions to build an altar. In other words, the commandments came with a built-in avenue of restoration for the times when God’s people would fall short of the commandments. God knew they would fall short from the beginning, but he loved them and provided a way of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Much of the Old Testament records the long slow spiritual decline of God’s people Israel. Once they were in the Promised Land, they wanted to be like the surrounding nations. Despite God’s warnings, they followed the idolatrous and sinful ways of their neighbors, bringing God’s discipline time after time. God repeatedly showed mercy, but the people consistently returned to their disobedience and rebellion.
After generations of failure (with occasional bright spots), God sent a prophet named Jeremiah. Jeremiah warned God’s people that their persistent idolatry was about to bring terrible judgment on them. The Babylonians would destroy Jerusalem, the Temple, and many of the people. Those who survived would be carried away to Babylon, expelled from the Promised Land, exiled to a foreign nation.
The people refused to listen to Jeremiah, accusing him of being a traitor to Israel. They believed that the Temple guaranteed them protection. In other words, their position as God’s chosen people, “under the law,” left them free to sin without any worry of God’s punishment. They were wrong. Nebuchadnezzar’s armies destroyed Jerusalem, the Temple, many of the people, and carried the survivors into exile.
Through the Prophet Jeremiah, God promised that the people of Israel would return to the Promised Land after seventy years. He also promised a New Covenant. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God told the people that the Old Covenant, the one made at Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, had failed. Not because the covenant was faulty, but because the people were unwilling to obey.
The New Covenant would not be written on tablets of stone (like the Ten Commandments). The New Covenant would be written on the hearts of God’s people. In other words, they would not be “under the law” as an external code of conduct, but they would be subject to a work of God from the inside, in their hearts.
Many of God’s people remained in Babylon when the seventy years were finished. Some returned and struggled to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. Hundreds of years went by without any clear sign of the New Covenant which God promised through Jeremiah.
Then the resounding and authoritative voice of John the Baptist broke the silence. And on his heels came Jesus. Jesus’ teaching was so revolutionary that he found it necessary to assure his listeners that he was not abolishing the law or the prophets (the Old Testament). He was fulfilling it.
What did Jesus mean by saying that he was fulfilling the law and the prophets? He fulfilled the law by living a sinless life. He never broke a single command in the law. Jesus fulfilled the prophets by coming as the promised Messiah, eternal Savior and King of God’s people.
Jesus also fulfilled the law and prophets by becoming the ultimate and final sacrifice, thus rendering the Old Testament sacrificial system completed, unnecessary for New Testament/Covenant believers. The sacrificial system was part of the law, but once fulfilled by Jesus, it was no longer needed to provide forgiveness for the people’s sins. Faith in Jesus’ death on the cross has now become the avenue for repentance and restoration.
What about the ethical commands of the law? New Testament believers no longer follow the animal sacrifice in the Old Testament law, but what about the commandments related to righteous living (morality)? Jesus clearly affirmed Old Testament instruction about how to live in a way that is pleasing to God. He offered a memorable summary of the law in two commands: love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used a formula to introduce his teachings about the ethical demands of the law: “You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you,” etc. At times he was referring to established commands from the Old Testament law, like the commandments forbidding adultery and murder. In these cases, he broadened the scope of the commands. For example, when teaching about murder, he expanded the command to a prohibition against anger. “You have heard that is was said, ‘You are not to commit murder and anyone who murders will face judgment,’ but I say to you that anyone who is angry with his brother will face judgement” and so forth. When teaching about adultery, he expanded the command to a prohibition against lust. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You are not to commit adultery,’ but I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has committed adultery in his heart.”
At other times Jesus seems to be reversing the Old Testament law. Instead of keeping one’s vows (as called for by the law), his followers were not to swear at all. Instead of exacting an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth (as defined in the law), his followers were to turn the other cheek. If these examples seem arguable, his declaration that all foods are clean comes without a hint of ambiguity.
In addition, Jesus also seems to address erroneous interpretations and applications of the Old Testament laws, usually advanced by the Pharisees and Sadducees. For example, he refused to follow their version of Sabbath-keeping, resulting in their accusation that he was breaking the law. Jesus also revealed a hierarchy of importance in the law, noting that divorce was a concession, not a command, thus making the design for marriage a priority over the ‘command’ for divorce.
Clearly, Jesus had a complex and nuanced understanding of the law. He fulfilled it with his life. He affirmed it with his teaching, including corrections of improper interpretations. But he also made at least one dramatic change: cancelling the prohibitions against ritually unclean foods.
One might try to reconcile these various attitudes about the Old Testament law by saying that Jesus affirmed the moral law but altered the ceremonial law. But this distinction is difficult to maintain. A serious difficulty with this approach is the fact that it is not advanced by the writers of the New Testament.
A better distinction might be between laws for holy living (moral law) and laws for restoration and forgiveness (animal sacrifices and the related rituals). In this case, we can say that Jesus fulfilled all the regulations addressing sacrifices with his sacrificial death on the cross. As a result, the commands related to sacrifices, including the division of food between clean and unclean, would no longer be applicable. But what about freewill and fellowship offerings?
Attempts to systematize Jesus’ relationship with the Old Testament law usually seek a reasonable and consistent dividing line between those laws still applicable to New Testament believers and those laws no longer in force. But when the Apostle Paul wrote about the law, he made the sweeping statement that New Covenant/Testament believers are not under law. He made no distinction between sections or divisions in the law.
Like Jesus, the Apostle Paul seems to have a complex understanding of the law. He affirms the law generally and even instructs Christians to follow many specific commands from the law, such as, honoring father and mother, not committing adultery, not murdering, and so forth. Paul wrote that the law is holy, spiritual, and good, high praise that reflects the Psalmist who expressed love and delight in God’s commands.
At Jesus’ baptism, when John hesitated to baptize him, Jesus insisted, saying that it would in some way fulfill all righteousness. Students of the Bible disagree about the exact meaning of Jesus’ statement, but one thing is clear, Jesus says nothing about following the law to fulfill all righteousness. And there was nothing in the law that was equivalent to the baptism of repentance that John was teaching.
Jesus also predicted the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the most visible and popular representation of the law. The system of worship overseen by the Jewish religious leaders was corrupted and unacceptable to God, so it would be brushed aside, just as it was in Jeremiah’s day. Without the temple, sacrifices for sin could not be offered. How would God’s people find forgiveness if they could no longer offer animal sacrifices (since they were forbidden to offer them anywhere but the temple)? Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross took the place (fulfilled) of the temple. He challenged his enemies to destroy “this temple” and he would rebuild it in three days. They thought he was referring only to the Herod’s temple in which they stood, but Jesus’ followers later realized that the three days was a reference to his resurrection. Jesus himself took the place of the temple. Jesus’ ‘body,’ the church, is now the temple, constructed with living stones, which God inhabits by his Spirit.
Jesus’ teaching placed him under hostile suspicion by the Jewish religious leaders. They were afraid that Jesus would tear down the system of beliefs and practices they had built on the Mosaic law. At his trial, they tried twist his statements about tearing down the temple, implying that he was a threat to the established laws given by God through Moses. After Jesus, Paul was also accused by the Jewish religious leaders of teaching against Moses and the law.
Upon closer examination, Paul’s teaching is closely aligned with Jesus’ teaching. In fact, Paul develops Jesus’ teaching about many aspects of God’s unfolding revelation.
Both Jesus and Paul recognized the struggle that followers of Jesus experience in this world. Jesus asked three of his disciples to keep watch with him while he prayed in Gethsemane, just hours before his crucifixion. When they fell asleep, he exhorted them to be more diligent, saying, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Some English Bibles (1984 NIV and New Living Translation) render Jesus’ words as “the body is weak” instead of “the flesh is weak.” The 2011 NIV changed this rendering to “flesh” in order to more accurately reflect the underlying Greek term: sarx (as opposed to soma, which is often rendered as “body” in English versions). Why is this important? Because sarx, “flesh,” becomes a sort of technical term for Paul. The apostle’s use of this term is highly specialized.
In Paul’s writings, ‘flesh’ is not synonymous with “body.” He is not saying that all physical reality is evil. God made the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, including people, and proclaimed them good. The gospel does not promise that we will be saved from our bodies. Jesus was raised with a glorified body. We will share in his resurrection, having glorified bodies and living in a new heaven and earth, a creation free of sin and suffering and crying and dying.
The book of Genesis tells us that God’s good creation is broken because of sin. People are broken, not because we are born into physical bodies, but because we are born with a broken human nature that is prone to disobey God. This state of being broken is what Paul means when he uses the term ‘flesh.’
Like Jesus, Paul describes the believer’s life in this age as a conflict between ‘flesh’ and spirit. In Paul, however, spirit becomes Spirit, that is, the Holy Spirit, God’s invisible, personal, powerful presence in the world today and in the lives of Christians in a more intimate way. In fact, since first-century Greek was written in all capital letters (which means that all decisions about using lower- and upper-case letters are editorial in modern versions of the New Testament), then we might wonder if Jesus’ statement should be rendered, “the Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Either way, Jesus is setting up a struggle between his followers and ‘the flesh.’
Paul’s solution for dealing with the ‘flesh’ is to realize that it is ‘crucified,’ passing away. He wrote that those who belong to Jesus have crucified the ‘flesh’ with its passions and desires. Believers are buried with Jesus through baptism, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, they too may live a new life. This reflects Jesus’ charge to his followers to deny self, take up a cross, and follow him. A cross, of course, was the Roman instrument of execution that was used to kill Jesus. To take up a cross and follow seems like a contradiction. Cross stands for death and follow reflects life. Jesus’ compact statement made more sense after his resurrection. What does it mean? The old life, the broken human nature, the ‘flesh,’ is passing away and the new life in Christ, eternal life, will remain forever. For this reason, believers must “count” or “consider” the ‘flesh’ to be ‘crucified,’ ‘dead,’ and live by the power of God’s Spirit instead of by the passions and desires of the ‘flesh.’
The Early Church obviously took these words figuratively. There is no record in the book of Acts of church members rushing out to find a Roman to crucify their physical bodies (the physical body is not the culprit). The practical expression of this truth is one’s daily ‘walk,’ or lifestyle. Does it reflect rebellion against God (unrighteousness), or does it reveal love for God (a life of holiness and obedience, bearing spiritual fruit)?
These realities in the lives of believers raised questions about the relationship between Jesus’ followers and the Old Testament law, for it was in the context of teaching these truths that Paul wrote, “If you are led by the Spirit, then you are not under law.”
It is helpful to consider the historical context in which Paul wrote these provocative words. Both Jesus and Paul insisted that God invites people from all nations and walks of life to participate in his kingdom. Jesus said that many will come from the east and west and take their places with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, a reference to the nations (Gentiles). Jesus irritated the religious leaders from Jerusalem by reaching out to tax collectors and sinners. On another occasion he shocked even his followers by reaching out to a Samaritan woman. Jews considered the Samaritans to be hopelessly ‘unclean.’
Paul reflected this aspect of Jesus’ teaching by preaching the gospel to Gentiles and planting churches throughout the Roman Empire, churches that included both Jews and non-Jews (the nations). In addition, Paul insisted that in Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. These three contrasts represented a belief that Christianity welcomed all classes of people, requiring only faith in Christ, not conversion to Judaism.
Paul traveled from city to city in the first-century Roman world preaching the good news about salvation through faith in Jesus. His routine was to begin his work in each city by first teaching in the local Synagogue. Typically, many Jews and Gentiles would joyfully receive the good news and put saving faith in Christ.
After a while, however, some of the Gentiles would distort the grace of God into a license to live in unrestrained sin. If God will forgive every sin in Christ, then why not ‘enjoy’ sin to the fullest? The Jews were horrified. They knew God’s Old Testament law about living holy lives as God’s people. They mistakenly concluded that Paul’s message about God’s grace was flawed. The Jews stepped in to ‘correct’ Paul’s message, insisting that the Gentiles become full-fledged Jews, under the law, to truly be God’s people and live in a way that is pleasing with God.
Of course, one of the key features of the law was circumcision. Jews circumcised all their males as an outward sign of membership in the people of God. Paul refused to back down and mix law and grace (a cancellation of grace, he asserted). In his letter to the Galatians he insisted that circumcision was no longer necessary to be a member of God’s household and even said that Gentiles who agreed to circumcision were falling from God’s grace in Christ and bringing upon themselves the curse of the law!
Paul agreed with the Jews that commitment to God should lead to a life of righteousness, not sin. This is another point of continuity between Jesus and Paul. Jesus insisted that authentic followers of God will live in a way that produces spiritual fruit. Paul agreed, writing that the Spirit-led life will be obvious from the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and other such things. And he adds, there is no law for these types of things.
Paul came into sharp dispute with the Jews when they promoted imposing the law in order to control the ‘flesh.’ Paul’s goal was not control, but crucifixion. The ‘flesh’ was not to be subdued; it was to be ignored entirely. To return to the law was to return to the failed Old Covenant and to retreat from the glorious New Covenant.
The ‘flesh,’ Paul asserts, cannot be controlled by law. In fact, the ‘flesh’ insures that people will resist and rebel against God’s law. All who break the law are condemned by the law, cursed. Since Jesus died to free God’s people from the curse of the law, Paul is adamant that a return to the law is foolishness. Why give up one’s freedom in Christ to return to certain death?
Paul also realized that the ‘flesh’ in religious people can produce an ugly spiritual pride. Some people mistakenly think that God’s law is a sort of check list that they can present for his approval. God, they imagine, will ignore the commands they break, grading on a curve, treating the law like a test in high school: nine out of ten is a passing grade. James assures us that stumbling at one point in the law is breaking all of it because it is disobedience to God, the author of the entire law.
Paul is certainly not saying that the law is a curse. He is saying that the law condemns all who cannot follow it. This is precisely why the sacrificial system was given with the law. Without it, the law would have left God’s people condemned because of their disobedience, their inability to obey completely.
In addition, we must note that Paul is not equating the law with God’s word. Paul did not write that Spirit-led believers are not under God’s word. God’s word includes the law but it is much more. Primarily, God’s word is the account of his marvelous work of redemption in this age. So, God’s word is more than the law.
Both Jesus and Paul insisted that the relationship between God’s people and the law was somehow altered. Jesus proclaimed all foods clean, even though the Old Testament law was filled with prohibitions about food. Paul insisted that the Galatians not be circumcised, even though the Old Testament law (and before that, God’s instruction to Abraham) imposed circumcision as a sign of the covenant between God and his people.
On one occasion, a wealthy young man asked Jesus what he must do to get eternal life. He claimed to have kept the law. Jesus assured him that strict adherence to the law was insufficient. Instead, Jesus urged him to sell everything, give to the poor, and come follow him. Jesus did not say that the law was wrong. He did say that it was insufficient. The law addressed giving to the poor, but never required such a radical move. Jesus was calling his followers to something both like and unlike the Old Testament law.
Both Paul and Jesus insist that God’s people turn away from sin and produce spiritual fruit. They agree that God’s grace does not free God’s people to sin, but to live in a manner that is pleasing to God, brings glory to God, and advances his kingdom. Jesus and Paul do not hesitate to use the commands in the law to define a righteous lifestyle, but not to produce it.
Paul also included a perspective on the law that develops Jesus’ statement about fulfilling the law. The apostle wrote that the law was a sort of slave master, a kind of ‘nanny’ that exerts control over a person until Christ comes. God sent Jesus to be born under law in order deliver/redeem those under law. Jesus Christ is the culmination of the law and all those who are “in Christ” or “under grace” instead of “under law” share this culmination of the law.
So, on the positive side, the law can serve as a ‘nanny’ or ‘supervisor’ that brings us to Christ. On the negative side, those who remain under the law have missed the highest purpose of the law. Instead, they remain in the bondage of the law, never freed by Christ to live the new life, led by the Spirit.
What conclusions can we draw about this important subject?
First, the transition from Old Testament to New Testament did not erase or remove the helpfulness of the commands and instructions included in the Old Testament law. They still provide insight into the person of God. Holiness is not redefined. Righteousness reflects the unchanging character of God.
Second, the move from Old to New Testament did not remove the need for sinners to be forgiven. It did not remove the need for God’s grace, but this is precisely where the differences between Old and New arise. In the Old Testament, God’s forgiveness was available through animal sacrifices. In the New Covenant, Jesus has become the final and complete sacrifice for all the sins of God’s people. The animal sacrifices in the Old Testament were a foreshadowing of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Now, the personal sacrifices made by Jesus’ followers are a reflection of Jesus’ sacrifice. The law pointed toward this fulfillment in Christ.
Another continuity between the two testaments is the condition of the human heart, the ‘flesh.’ In the Old Testament, people abused the law and the sacrificial system, mistakenly concluding that God’s covenant guaranteed them protection from painful discipline when they insisted on disobeying.
Our hearts are still corrupted by the ‘flesh.’ Though condemned and doomed, the flesh still exerts an influence in the lives of believers to the extent that we allow it. The flesh is crafty and creative in justifying sin. Believers are imperfect, a work in process, and as such often need objective standards to assist in growth and accountability. God’s descriptions of holy living, whether recorded in Old or New Testament, still provide guidance in holy living. These descriptions, however, do not justify us before God. Only faith in Jesus can bring redemption.
Perhaps the easiest way to think about the relationship between Old and New Testaments is expressed by Jeremiah. The Old Covenant was external, written on stones. The New Covenant is internal, put in our minds and written on our hearts. The one writing is God’s Holy Spirit. Believers are sealed with the Spirit, called upon to be filled by the Spirit and to walk by the Spirit, led by the Spirit, keeping in step with the Spirit. The indwelling Spirit is the expression of God’s grace, which was purchased by Jesus. Why go back to an external written code when we have the Author’s presence and power in our hearts?
The Old Testament Prophet Ezekiel prophesied to God’s people during that terrible time when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian armies, deporting the Jewish survivors to a pagan nation far from their homes. At the end of his book of prophecy, Ezekiel records a vision of an ideal relationship between God and Israel.
In Ezekiel’s description of the sacrificial system, like the earlier Mosaic law, he gives exact commands and instructions about worship and offerings in the temple, even dictating the exact amount of grain for each different offering. Three times, however, the instruction deviates from such fine detail, instead saying that that grain offering is to be “as much as he pleases”! Instead of a predetermined amount carefully defined by a law, the worshiper was free to express his reverence for God according to his heart.
This obscure passage from an Old Testament prophet raises the question about how God’s people will approach him. Given the freedom to choose, would the worshiper’s heart demand that he be selfish and withhold a generous offering, giving God the leftovers, or even less? Or would his heart inspire him to give sacrificially out of a burning love for the Lord? Here, in the pages of the Old Testament is a shaft of light, hinting at another way of living in relationship with the Lord, a way that includes unprecedented freedom, a heart inclined toward the Lord.
Marriage illustrates this well. A husband can fulfill the law by merely avoiding adultery. His marriage may be without love and affection for his wife, but technically he can claim to have fulfilled the law for marriage. Love inspires so much more. A healthy marriage has holy boundaries, yes, but it is far more. A healthy marriage includes positive actions that express love. A healthy marriage is not merely “under law,” but guided by love. God’s New Covenant in Christ soars beyond all minimum requirements.
John’s Gospel says that the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. God is calling us to move on from being under law and enjoy a life under grace. Grace is no pretext for sin, but freedom to love, just as God loved us in Christ. The daily question for a Christian is certainly not, “What can I get away with today and still be saved?” Nor should the question be, “What is the minimum standard necessary for being right with God?” The question for the Spirit-led follower of Jesus is this, “How can I express the Lord’s love to the fullest?”
May God’s Holy Spirit enable us to live free and love freely,