Because some are asserting that God’s law is expansive – even eternal – so that all men everywhere and at all times are always under some version or other of that law, I want to spend some time examining what the Bible knows about these various ‘Laws’. Their insistence, as far as I can see it, is threefold:
- That law and law-keeping is a fundamental and essential attribute of man’s relationship with God, in whatever covenant, or even no covenant, he happens to be.
- That certain of God’s moral requirements, expressed as commandments (laws), overarch the whole of human history, and that they have always been ‘issued’ for mankind to obey in some form or other.
- That the breaking of God’s law is always the definition of ‘sin’, and ‘sin’ is always that.
I want to suggest that God’s word only knows of one, complete, God-given Law – the Law of Moses – whatever other commands and communications there were to others at various times. That the designation of that as God’s Law was unique and never repeated. And that the heart of the new covenant – Christ’s covenant – is completely contrasted to it, not paralleled.
My first argument is simple. It is seen, for example in this verse from John’s gospel prologue:
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. …
Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”(Johvs 14; 16-18)
The contrast in the bolded statement is clear:
The law was given … – Grace and truth came …
We see, then, that the heart of the new covenant is Jesus Himself, rather than a suite of commandments sent via a mediator. But this is not my point. The thing is that it is a noticeable and consistent reference pattern of the New Testament writers to refer to ‘THE law” – indicating the Mosaic covenantal law. Implying that there is no other ‘law’ which is of interest to the writers to set alongside the new covenant. Indeed, going even further, perhaps implying that there was, only and ever, one, God-given law.
So Paul, in Galatians 3, says:
“The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. … What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise.” (Galatians 3 vs 16,17)
Do you see? ‘The promises’ – and the qualifier (to distinguish from other promises spoken to anyone else) – ‘spoken to Abraham and his seed’
- ‘The law’ – and the qualifier is not ‘given to Moses’ (to distinguish it from other ‘law’ given to anyone else), but – ‘introduced 430 years later’.
- ‘Introduced’ means that it was not there, in any shape or form, before this. This was the first incidence of it.
It could be argued that this is only because it is this Law of Moses that is ‘in focus’. But I think it is significant that no other kind of law is ever mentioned. At all! This is Paul’s statement from Romans 2 – and he is talking to Gentiles as well as Jews:
“All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.” (Romans 2 vs 12 – 16)
Note that there are no qualifiers. At no stage in his argument does Paul say anything like “but they DID have ‘the Law of Adam’ or ‘the Law of Abraham’”. It is just, starkly, Jews had the law and Gentiles did not have the law. Quite evidently, he speaks of the Law of Moses. But no alternatives are mentioned.
This goes further. If, in fact, the Gentiles had some kind of God-given law, his argument in this passage does not make sense at all. He is saying that despite their NOT having God’s ‘given law’, nevertheless they had a law-like function in their hearts which makes them tend (imperfectly) to do the same things that the Law actually requires.
‘The Law of Moses’
Second, the designation ‘the Law of Moses’ is distinctive. We are never told anything about ‘the law of Abraham’ or ‘the law of Noah’ or ‘the law of Adam’. No collection of God-given laws assigned to any of these people is ever referenced in the Bible. The new covenant is new because the old covenant was old. And the old covenant, Moses’ covenant, was a law-covenant. As John 1 vs 17 says, the new covenant is a grace-and-truth covenant, a Jesus-covenant.
The Law of Sinai
Third, the occasion for God’s giving of this special Law, with all of its detailed commandments about tabernacle construction, priestly attendance and service, sacrifices, and the social rules of behaviour for the people in Canaan, is remarkable. It is given with great and fearsome displays of power and majesty, along with terrifying warnings and prohibition. Such a ‘giving’ is unparalleled. Surely, if God gave law anywhere else, it would be reasonable to expect similar display. Certainly, He would not just ‘slip it in to the statute books’ unnoticed and unannounced. When God gives law, those for whom it is intended hear what is going on, so that they are under no illusions that THEY are under that law. It is published and made both clear and available, so that it can be read and read again, and understood. It is to be proclaimed by the priests. It is to be ‘in the mouth’ of the leaders of Israel. It is to be ‘bound on their foreheads’ and affixed to the doorposts of their houses. The law of God is a very public affair indeed.
And, chiefly, it is completely logical to expect such occasions as the giving of God-law to be attested in His word – the word of the revelation of His dealings with man throughout history. But after or before Sinai, there is absolutely no equivalent at all. No other law-giving.
We are left to conclude that if law there is other than the Mosaic law, it is of a completely different kind. And of law of any other nature, again, there is no indication whatsoever in God’s word.
The Law of God’s New Land – Canaan
Lastly, Mosaic Law is physical in nature because it is ‘land-law’ – law given for a physical people occupying a physical country. They are not to be merely a replica Egypt. They have grown up under the law of Pharoah. They are now to adopt the law of God. It institutes not only laws for worship and approach to God, but also laws for their living side-by-side with each other. But in the new covenant, we are ‘living stones’, built into a spiritual – not a physical – temple for a dwelling-place for God. Essentially, non-visible. The true realities of which the old ‘shadows’ only hint.
The Visible Law
God tells Moses:
“I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you.” (Exodus 19 vs 9)
And vs 16 – 19 relate the phenomena which accompanied God’s communication:
“On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.”
Hebrews 12 draws out this contrast between these two covenants. This is the Sinai covenant:
“You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.” “ (vs 18 – 21)
And the Christ-covenant:
“But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (vs 22 – 24)
We see that ‘the mountain that can be touched’ – visible, audible, tangible, physical – is compared to the as-yet immaterial realities of the ‘substance’, the heavenly Mount Zion. And belonging to the first is a physical set of laws engraved on very-physical stone tablets. But in the new, no mention of new law. It is, however, there, written on the hearts of the ‘spirits of the righteous made perfect’.
Here, then, is how God gives His law. Where else do we see it? Nowhere.
In Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36, God promises a new covenant, even in the midst of the chaos Israel had made of the old one. He says it would be a Spirit covenant, where a new heart would be given to His people – a heart where He would put His law. It would be ‘not like’ the covenant which Israel broke so completely. Hebrews 8 tells us that “the new covenant is established on better promises.” Not, you will note, ‘better law’. Obedience there would be. But when the Son of God gives us His commands, whether through the mouth of the incarnate Word, or those of His appointed Apostles, we are to obey not because they are our law, but because He is our Lord, and we love Him.
I still love that old Coca Cola ad. One has to see how clever these people are who draw our attention to what they want us to buy. There were many other ‘colas’. But only one original, against which the competitors came a poor second. Why be content with ‘also-rans’ when you could have … “the Real Thing”?
So we see that God’s law, as given through Moses, is unique in its many respects, and it was given only once. Nothing else is referred to as ‘the law of God’. And Biblically, nothing should be. What it promised is fulfilled in Christ. It is replaced by ‘the real thing’, of which it was a record only of the copies. God does not, again, ‘give law’. And what He gave to Moses was not ‘eternal law’ – it was not durable; it would be replaced by something – someone – who would vastly outstrip and surpass it. Who would fulfil it. And we would know, in no uncertain terms, that that was what He was doing, if it was, just as it was an unmistakable publishing on Mount Sinai. The laws which comprised it would be delineated and numbered, clearly identified as our rule-book for new covenant living. We would have a “however-many-a-logue”. But, as Hebrews 10 tells us:
“The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.”
The reality is the givingof God's Son and the giving of His Spirit.
To refer to ‘the law of Christ’ as a substitute ‘law of Moses’ actually diminishes both. And destroys the super-eminence of the Son of God and the outpouring of His Spirit, which now lies at the centre of all we are as believers, members forever of the true Israel of God.