Putting the Law in Its Spiritual Context: What Did Paul and Jesus Teach about the Law of God?

During His ministry on earth, Jesus said He was not here to destroy the law. Yet we also have record of the Jews saying He “broke the Sabbath” (Matt. 5:17; John 5:18). Do those two statements contradict?

Similarly, Paul said his own writings “establish the law,” but he also asked his readers why they would be “subject to ordinances” now that they live by faith (Rom. 3:31; Col. 2:20). Aren’t those statements contradictory as well?

These statements actually don’t contradict each other, but to understand why you have to know something about the Jewish world at the time. On one hand, you have God’s law that He delivered to His people through Moses (the Torah). On the other hand, you have additional rules, regulations, and traditions that were put in place by human beings.

So if we look more closely, we see Christ was not here to destroy God’s law, but He did loose the Sabbath from restrictions added by human teachers. Similarly, in Romans Paul is talking about establishing the law of God, but in Colossians he is talking about walking away from “the commandments and doctrines of men” (Col. 2:20-23).

So what does all this have to do with modern Christians? We’ll take a close look at this question in today’s post, and I think we’ll find that these statement that at first appear contradictory actually teach us about how we are supposed to relate to God’s law. They also teach us how to respond when other people (including teachers and leaders) start to change or add to God’s word.

Torah Teachers and Lawbreakers

For a long time, I’ve been confused about the opening verses for Matthew 23. They read like this:

Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. All things therefore whatever they tell you to observe, observe and do, but don’t do their works; for they say, and don’t do.”

Matthew 23:1-3, WEB

I used to think Jesus was telling people to follow the extra traditions because we should respect authority even if it’s corrupt. That didn’t seem quite right, but it was the best I could figure out. Then a heard a sermon about the true meaning of legalism that explained things differently and (I think) more accurately.

Sitting in Moses’ seat refers to the scribes and Pharisees teaching the Torah that Moses taught. The Apostles make a similar observation later, saying they don’t need to focus their efforts on teaching Torah because the synagogues are already reading Moses every sabbath (Acts 15:21). Torah is important, but it was already being taught. That is why Jesus said to “observe and do” what the Jewish leaders said to do — because they were teaching God’s law.

These leaders were not, however, doing the law themselves and that’s why we’re told not to imitate their works. In fact, by saying “they say and don’t do” Christ is identifying them as lawbreakers (Matt. 23:4-36, particularly verse 23). They legalistically followed doctrines of men but broke the laws of God.

More Righteous Than The Pharisees

Jesus tells us to do what the scribes and Pharisees said inasmuch as they were faithfully teaching God’s words, but not to follow their example because they weren’t really keeping God’s law. This connects to an earlier point He made in the Sermon on the Mount.

Do not think that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets. I have not come to destroy them but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one tiny letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all takes place. Therefore whoever abolishes one of the least of these commandments and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever keeps them and teaches them, this person will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness greatly surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:17-20, LEB

I imagine it shook some of Jesus’ hearers to learn He expected them to follow God’s word with more righteousness than the scribes and Pharisees. That group was the most righteous that Jews could get, following every little ordinance to the letter. But as Jesus teaches in Matthew 23, their “righteousness” was not the type of righteousness that God seeks. Jesus wants His people to follow His words faithfully from the heart, not to put on a more righteous show. Aligning ourselves with Jesus is how we become truly righteous.

These passages of Jesus’ teachings are key to understanding Paul’s writings. As a faithful apostle he would not have contradicted Jesus by abolishing God’s commands or teaching people to break the law. Rather, Paul’s writings expand on how we relate to God’s laws as spirit-led Christians.

Image of a scroll written in Hebrew, overlaid with the text "To say Paul rejected the Law is to misinterpret his arguments. Rather, he's stripping away Jewish tradition and putting the Law back in its proper, spiritual context."
Photo credit: me

Inward Judaism

In the Old Testament, God promised a new kind of covenant relationship with His people, one where the Law would be written in their minds and hearts instead of imposed from the outside (Jer. 31:33). That happened when Jesus came as the Messiah (Heb. 8). So now we come to Paul — a rabbi who was once a Pharisee and became a faithful follower of Jesus (Phil. 3:4-6). Paul teaches how we should relate to God’s law under the New Covenant. He teaches that it’s not so much about “do”s and “don’t”s, but about inward transformation that makes us spiritual like God instead of fleshy.

For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit not in the letter; whose praise is not from men, but from God.

Romans 2:28-29, WEB)

In this chapter of Romans, Paul tells his readers God cares more about how you live than your pedigree or your professions of lawfulness. “It isn’t the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law will be justified” (Rom. 2:13, WEB). We need to keep the Law because we have a relationship with the Lawgiver which changes our character, not because we think the law will save us on its own. New Covenant believers still keep God’s law, but our relationship with it is different.

As Romans progresses, Paul builds an explanation for how post-Crucifixion believers relate to God’s law. We’ve all sinned and stand condemned under the law of God, which is incapable on its own of making anyone righteous. We can only be saved by Christ’s atoning sacrifice (Rom. 3:20-27). This doesn’t get rid of God’s law, though. “May it never be! No, we establish the law” (Rom. 3:31, WEB). Paul himself (perhaps anticipating how his words might be misread) makes sure that we understand his arguments establish God’s law rather than say it doesn’t matter.

Aligning The Inner Man With Christ

Our walks as Christians should be closely identified with Jesus and affected by our participation in Him. We are buried into His death, raised to new life with Him, and now walk in Him freed from sin (Rom. 6:1-11). Because of this, we must not let sin rule over us. Instead of serving sin, we are now servants of righteousness (Rom. 6:12-23).

In dying with Christ, we also died to the condemnation from sinning/breaking the law and we are now joined to the Lawgiver in a New Covenant marriage “so that we serve in newness of the spirit, and not in oldness of the letter” (Rom. 7:1-6). There’s a struggle inside us about how we relate to the law that only Jesus can reconcile. “The law indeed is holy, and the commandment holy, and righteous, and good” (Rom. 7:12). It is also “spiritual, but I am fleshly, sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14). We want to do what God says but wrestle with human inability to be good.

For I joyfully agree with the law of God in my inner person, but I observe another law in my members, at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that exists in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself with my mind am enslaved to the law of God, but with my flesh I am enslaved to the law of sin.

Romans 7:22-25, LEB

Jesus makes it possible for our inner man, which hopefully agrees with God’s law as Paul did, to live in alignment with Him even though we fall short of God’s perfect standard. We rejoice with God’s law and walk in the spirit, free from the fear that came with not measuring up under the old covenant. There’s no condemnation now because in Christ, we walk not after the flesh but in the spirit (Rom. 8:1-14).

We learn more about this flesh vs. spirit distinction in Paul’s other writings, notably Galatians 5:13-26. Instead of following our fleshly desires into sin or being preoccupied by trying to make ourselves perfect by our own power, we focus on walking in the spirit. This process necessarily results in change. Paul makes it clear that if we aren’t changing from flesh to spirit then we’re not in Christ. It’s as simple as that. Following Jesus and truly modeling His love results in us fulfilling the law in its proper, spiritual context as God always desired. Righteousness happens as a sort of side-effect when we’re following Christ and living a life that is truly spirit-led.

Featured image credit: zofiaEliyahu via Pixabay

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.