Christ our Law
Yesterday I went from preparing this sermon to the Belmont races to publicly pray for the safety of those who involved in the racing industry. 2 incidents happened there which totally confirmed the content of this message.
After being welcomed by an official she offered me a race book and said with embarrassment, “Are you allowed to have a flutter (bet), I don’t know what the rules are?” Then I got into a conversation with a local by the bar, befriending me he said, “Can I buy you a drink, what are you allowed to have?” The crisis in Australia over the place of Christianity is a crisis over the place of Law.
Do you ever feel like there are too any demands on your life, demands from spouses, from family, work, Church or God? The unceasing appeal of Bali, the record levels of mental illness, the latest news about suicide rates amongst fly-in fly-out workers, binge drinking and drug taking all point to a society under pressure. The last thing our culture wants to hear is an organisation responsible for 60% of the nation’s institutional child abuse telling it that God has laws against abortion, against euthanasia, against non-marital sex, against homosexuality and against lots of other things. Ordinary people cannot tolerate the “negativity” of 10 “Thou shalt nots…”.
A film from the 90’s carries the title; Does That Make Me A Bad Person? Search the internet and you will find discussions, “Does that make me a bad person because I…have decided to have an abortion/smoke/loathe Islam /take drugs….and so on?” Overwhelmingly the response is, “No, that doesn’t make you a bad person.” Modern Australians only want to feel good about themselves.
Some churches have got onto the wavelength that Aussies can’t cope with wowsers and moralisers, and have dropped the language of law and sin. This superficial approach fails cannot release people from the demands of our society ruled by laws other than the law of God. There is a prevailing “law that the family comes first”, “law of self-esteem”, “law of beauty”, “law of right to choose”, “law of peer acceptance” and so on which viciously hold captive the consciences of ordinary people (cf. Rom 2:14-16).
Only Jesus can free us from our legalisms; “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”(Matthew 11:28-30 ESV).
In the Beginning
To reorient ourselves to the true meaning of law we need to go back to the beginning. Even before the entry of evil into the world God gave a clear command, “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Gen 2:17 ESV). We might think, “How is it possible to enjoy life when the negative thought of impending death is at the back of your mind?”; but the LORD had a greater purpose. Informed by the commandment of God Adam and Eve were equipped to hate evil and love good, if they had done this and resisted Satan’s temptation they would have become perfectly holy “like God” and lived forever (Gen 1:26; 3:5).
An everyday example might help us to understand these deep spiritual truths. When a child is born one of the first things everybody asks is, “Who does he/she look like?” Family likeness is connected to identity, belonging and mutual enjoyment. God gives commandments so that through obeying them we might become perfectly share his family likeness and enjoy his presence forever.
Tragically, the decision of Adam and Eve to listen to Satan rather than God stripped humanity of the sense of his fatherly care in the world around us (Acts 17:27-28; Rom 1:20). (John 8:44; Eph 2:1-3). In order to make sense of life every culture creates its own idols and systems of man-made rules (Rom 1:21-23 cf. Matt 15:9; Col 2:22; Tit 1:14). Every day the call goes out from mosques all over the world, “Come to Allah, Come to Success”, and every day the TV screens and stock markets spread our own version of the law of success. The world is full of people desperately trying hard to succeed in the material and spiritual realm. (Some are even trying hard to be laid back!)
God speaks an alarming word in Ezekiel, “I gave them statutes that were not good and rules by which they could not have life” (Ezekiel 20:25 ESV). Because they have refused to listen to him God has handed people over to following their own destructive family rules, cultural obligations and religious stipulations. Only Jesus can deliver us from this tragic mess, but we cannot understand Jesus apart from the Law of Moses.
This Law is built on a great promise, “If you obey my decrees and my regulations, you will find life through them.” (Lev 18:5). The person who keeps the law of God will “be holy as I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev 19:2). This is an enjoyable and beautiful state of affairs. The psalmist says, “I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”(v.8 ESV cf. Ps 1:2; 112:1; 119:70, 92, 174; cf. Rom 7:22). Sadly, the prevalence of idolatry indicates that this positive experience of God’s law was a minority experience in Israel. The reason for this is not hard to find, the “Thou shalt nots” of the law remind us that we are sinners; or as Paul puts it, “through the law comes the consciousness of sin” (Rom 3:20). Law makes law breakers feel guilty and no-one wants to feel bad about themselves.
By the time of the coming of Jesus Israel was unhealthily polarised around the Law. Those who believed they were keeping the Law, like the Pharisees, were self-righteous, those who believed they could not keep the demands of the Law felt condemned as sinners (Luke 18:9-14 cf. Acts 15:10). Neither the Pharisees nor the “sinners” could make sense of Jesus in terms of their understanding of God’s Law.
On the one hand Christ’s teachings seemed impossibly demanding, far beyond the perfectionism of the Pharisees who tithed even the tiniest income from their herb gardens and prohibited any effort on the Sabbath (Luke 10:42; 13:14). ““Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished….For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven….You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”” (Matt 5:17-18, 20, 48). If you have to be as perfect as God who can be saved? On the other hand whilst tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, lepers and various other sinners felt like the Law was constantly making them failures in the sight of God (Rom 7:7ff.) they all felt alive around Jesus (Mark 12:37; Luke 7:34).
Nothing has essentially changed, go out into public places quoting the Ten Commandments and watch people run from you. A friend of mine has for some years been going into a gay bar to share Jesus and guess what is happening. Despite our call to communicate Christ the institutional Church is generally stuck because we do not believe that Jesus has fulfilled the Law (Eph 1:22-23).
The sinlessness of Jesus has very important consequences for our understanding of the Law (Heb 4:15). With no air of self-righteousness Christ challenged his Pharisaical opponents, ““Which one of you can truthfully accuse me of sin?”” (John 8:46)? With no consciousness of guilt Jesus never experienced God’s Law as a demand, only ever as a delight. This distinction between Jesus and us sets up a crucial difference in the way we experience the world.
I was in a meeting with a group of pastors recently when one of them confessed something which I believe is true of us all. When he thinks of someone who has made a notable contribution to human life a negative aspect of their personality or behaviour springs to mind; Gandhi had a wonderful message but he left his wife, Gough Whitlam introduced Medicare but he was a socialist, Martin Luther was a great Reformer but he was anti Semitic, my wife/husband is a wonderful person but he/she … The but is an attempt to make us feel less conscious of our own moral failures. In an even more recent conversation I could sense a godly man devaluing himself in comparison to some famous Christians. Jesus however never felt the need to inflate or deflate himself or others for he had no sense of moral failure.
Christ has always seen sinners through the eyes of the all loving and merciful Father; through “grace-filled eyes”. Jesus sees us as the Father sees us, and when the Father sees us through Jesus we know we are seen perfect and complete in him (John 14:9; 2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15; 2:10). The presence of Jesus pushed out all efforts to keep the Law of the centre of religious consciousness and left no room for the religiously powerful. Loved by the masses Christ was hated by the experts in Law and temple.
The rulers of Israel knew exactly how to guard the primacy of Law in their nation. According to the Old Testament Law “a hanged man is cursed by God” (Deut 21:23). A crucified Jesus would be infallible evidence that he was a false Messiah and a blasphemer under the judgement of heaven (Mark 14:61-65). As they mockingly watched Jesus die the consciences of the Law-men of Christ’s day were fully convinced that they were in the right (Mat 27:38-44). God however does not see things in the way sinners do.
Jesus did become a curse on the cross, for Paul says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”” (Galatians 3:13 ESV). But no New Testament text ever says that Christ was cursed by God. The “curse of the law”, any law, is its power (cf. 1 Cor 15:56) to make us feel bad/guilty about ourselves when we fail to keep it and good about ourselves when we succeed in doing it. Being under the power of law always leads to a radical self-centredness. This narcissism is the epidemic of our times, both outside and inside the Church. Thankfully Jesus is totally different to us.
When Jesus cries out from the cross, ““My God, my God, why have you forsaken me””? (Mark 15:34) he is under the power of the law, in bearing our sin he experiences himself as the ultimate law-breaker, he becomes the Bad Person no one has ever confessed themselves to be (2 Cor 5:21; 1 Pet 2:24). What Jesus does not do is turn in on himself. Even though he can no longer see himself through the grace-filled eyes of the merciful Father he turns totally towards his God. In loving God with all his heart, soul and might Christ perfectly fulfils every requirement of the Law of God (Deut 6:4-5; Matt 22:37; Rom 13:8, 10; Gal 5:14; James 2:8). “Christ has accomplished the purpose for which the law was given.” (Romans 10:4 ESV). The sacrifice of the cross is the perfection of Jesus’ loving obedience to the Father and the total expression of his love for us.
The maximum penalty extracted by the Law of God and man is death, as someone who has died under the weight of the law and been resurrected into glory Jesus has infinitely surpassed all the demands of L/law (Rom 6:9; 7:1-6). As the one mediator between God and humanity the Father can no longer deal with us through the law of creation or the Law of Moses, but only through his Son (1 Tim 2:5). Christ is the sole Law giver.
The Law of Christ
Paul exhortation, “Share each other’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” (Gal 6:2) he is not directing us to keep a new and more demanding set of rules. The Law of God comes to us in every situation of life as one that has fulfilled for us by Jesus with the sole purpose of making us more Christ-like. This Law is not a set of principles but an expression of the life of Christ through whom all the commandments of God have been perfected in love. We need no longer be held captive by any fear of punishment for breaking the laws of God or men (1 John 4:18). This spells the end of all moralising Christianity. Let me illustrate by a couple of personal stories.
When I started going out with Donna whenever we went out the door her mum would say, “Be good.”I always knew that she meant, “Don’t have sex.” Some Christian parents regularly say to their teenagers, “Remember who you are/what family you come from.” Sincere sentiments such of these seem totally to lack an understanding that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6).
Some years ago I was struggling with what seemed at the time to be the impossible demands of the Christian life. Marriage and family life were OK, the church was growing but at the back of my mind there seemed always to be a sense that God’s demands were impossible to satisfy; how do you meet the expectations of a perfect person (Deut 32:4)?
Frustrated with this I started to call out to the Lord for help, and then one of the strangest experiences of my spiritual journey took place. Projected in front of me, almost like a hologram, I saw an image of the demands of my own earthly father. I knew instantly that what I had been feeling about the impossible demands of my heavenly Father were actually internalised expectations from my earthly dad. Immediately I repented of the hopeless effort to please this idol and asked the God and Father of Jesus to forgive me. A short time later I had a most marvellous experience of the goodness of God filling all the creation. A sense of the fatherly presence of God in all things had been restored.
The kingdom of God does involve a righteousness, but one that comes not through law keeping but through the Holy Spirit (Rom 14:17). The Spirit draws us away from our hopeless and exhausting efforts to meet what we feel are the demands of God and of life. In every situation of right and wrong the Spirit works through a law that leads us to Christ (Rom 8:2; Gal 3:24-26).
This sermon is one of the most unusual I have ever prepared. I was struggling deeply with sensing what God wanted me to say, then in prayer I came to a sudden realisation that I was experiencing the very problem the message needed to address. I felt like I was being overwhelmed by demands on every side, people in need here, people in need there, marriage issues, a race meeting to pray at. I was convicted that my own conscience was responding to the demands of the law and not to the gentle voice of Christ who brings to us “the unforced rhythms of grace” (Matt 11:29 The Message). This is the crisis in Australian Christianity.
Paul’s challenge to the Galatians is a challenge to us; “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—” (Galatians 3:1-3, 5 ESV). We have complicated the message of grace. We have grieved the miracle working Spirit of God.
The rampant sin that is so evident in our culture and which has recently been so grievously exposed in the Church has one origin and one cure; “Sin is no longer your master, for you no longer live under the requirements of the law. Instead, you live under the freedom of God’s grace.” (Rom 6:14). The prevalence of the power of sin is infallible evidence of the absence of grace. It is time that the Church in Australia confess that it has long substituted for the gospel of Christ-alone a message with many moralisms. Our one great need is to meet Jesus as we first met him in the simplicity of his all loving presence when we were first “born again”.
In a message to release multitudes of ordinary Australians from the demands that are crippling their lives John says, “For this is love for God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3). Through the “grace-filled eyes” of Jesus we can see ourselves and others free from the curse of the L/law. This is the freedom of Christ our Law (Gal 5:1).
 These are my random examples.
 Matthew clearly portrays Jesus as the new lawgiver e.g. “I say to you” statements of the Sermon on the Mount (5:22, 28, 32 cf. Matt 12:6-8; 19:3-9).