Sunday, 13 December 2015

Coffee and a History of Christmas

Well, things seemed to have well and truly settled down from the Starbucks Christmas debarcle, which is good because it was pretty much a non-issue for a number of reasons:
1. Their coffee’s not that great, so there’s plenty of other places to get caffeinated,
2. It’s not the responsibility of a coffee-chain to promote Christmas, and
3. It turned out to be quite unfounded anyway. There was no ban on Christmas (Green), just a change in cup design.
And of course with any controversy like this one, the humorous memes came out. One that stood out in particular was this one…


The pagan symbol in the Starbucks logo is a 16th Century Norse siren whose origins go back to a snake-legged goddess from Greece in the 4th century BC. And of course, to not drink coffee at Starbucks because of a logo might be a bit extreme. But, that’s not my point. My point is that while looking at this image it dawned on me that this actually reflected the nature of Christmas.

It is very widely accepted that many elements of Christmas have come from pagan practices and traditions from around the time of the winter solstice. And occasionally, when we approach Christmas, we might encounter some kind of debate as to whether it is right or not for Christians to celebrate Christmas because of its apparent pagan heritage. Those who are on the side of the objectors, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and what can be best described as ‘High-Puritan’ Christians, will be labelled as unreasonable, legalistic kill-joys, a Scrooge or Grinch accompanied with a ‘bah-humbug.’ And we might agree that in some ways they are. But, if we are to be Berean Baptists, wanting to live obedient to scripture rather than popular tradition and opinion, then we need to be willing to ignore that stigma. Not only does the enemy like to hide the truth by deception, he also likes to hide the truth by associating it with heresy. Take prosperity for example. God wants to bless us materially, but because of the abuses of the prosperity Gospel, some people have a knee-jerk reaction and take hold of a poverty Gospel, and the enemy has successfully kept them disempowered. And so, by letting go of the fear of being labelled as ‘one of those people’, we can come to the Scriptures and examine history with fresh and less-biased eyes. And this is true for either side of the debate. We need to be willing to come back to our conclusions and convictions and test them.

So, just as people were asking, ‘should Starbucks celebrate Christmas?’, let us ask ourselves ‘should Christians celebrate Christmas?’ I should clarify what I am not asking here. I’m not asking if Christmas is ‘bad’. Spending time having fun with the family, expressing generosity through giving, celebrating the birth of Jesus, telling the world the message of Jesus. These are all good and wonderful things. But the question is, is it biblical? To be honest, I don’t have a definite answer. I’m still unsure because working this out. There are good points on either side, but I haven’t heard enough to help me make a conclusion. So, I thought I would share some of the things I’ve come across and hopefully it will inspire you to consider the question further.

I want to begin by talking about the date of Christmas. It appears that no one began trying to calculate Jesus’ birth until late second/early third century. Origin of Alexandria, who lived between 165-264 rejected the Roman practice of honouring births as Pagan. Clement of Alexandria (150-215) reports that a number of dates had been proposed by Christians in Egypt, but December 25th was not one of them. He writes:

There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar] … And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21]. (Stromateis 1.21.145)

Thus, the earliest calculations placed His birth in the Spring. But it would seem that this is based on philosophically connecting Jesus’ birth to his crucifixion, rather than the bible or history. For example, “A Latin treatise written around 243 pegged March 21, because that was believed to be the date on which God created the sun” (Coffman). But still at this point, there was no celebration of the birth of Jesus.

The earliest reference that we have for the birth of Jesus in December is “a mid-fourth-century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs. The first date listed, December 25, is marked: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae: ‘Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea’” (McGowan). There was also at this time the observance of Epiphany on January 6, primarily by those in the east, as mentioned by Augustine of Hippo around 400AD.

The most popular theory for why this date was chosen was because the church had commandeered pagan festivals to make it easier for people to transition from their pagan past into Christianity. The two main attributed feasts are the Roman Saturnalia, and the Natalis Solis Invicti, or ‘Birth of the Unconquerable Sun,’ which was the birthday of the Roman Sun god, and celebrated on the 25th of December. Also, related to Sol was the Mithras cult which goes back to the first century and attributed his birthday to the 25th of December.

The problem with this theory is that although the parallels in symbology do suggest some kind of relationship, there is no historical evidence directly linking Christmas with the Roman Saturnalia, or Sol Invictus. There is not one contemporary in the mid third century who wrote about ‘taking over the pagan days.’ The earliest connection we have is from a marginal note made by a Syrian Bishop, Jacob Bar-Salibi, in the twelfth century. Thus, Christmas as a redeemed day is difficult to prove. Moreover, as discussed above, the contemporary evidence we do have for the December 25th and January 6th dates reveal that both groups used the same formula, but they ended up with different results because they used different calendars: “we have Christians in two parts of the world calculating Jesus’ birth on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day (March 25 or April 6) and coming up with two close but different results (December 25 and January 6)” (McGowan).
However, that these explanations are philosophical rather than historical suggests that they may actually be justifications and defences for observing a contextualised festival. Also, Tertullian does mention (and rebukes) Christians observing Saturnalia (Tert. On Idolatry. 14) which means the church at that time was no stranger to participating in pagan customs. It also suggests that they just enjoyed Saturnalia so much they Christianised it, rather than the popular theory that it was an evangelical strategy. Moreover, the shared dates and iconography of Christmas does indicate some relationship.

The evolution of Christmas to today is a long and complex one. In fact, much of its present form didn’t emerge until the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Nonetheless, much of our current traditions can be traced back to pagan origins. For example, the Christmas Tree finds its origins in Germanic and Norse paganism where trees were considered the dwelling place of their gods, with homes being decorated with evergreen branches during the winter solstice, or Yule, and were considered a symbol of fertility. This was carried on through to the Middle Ages when evergreen branches were hung on either the door or inside the home to keep evil spirits away. The wreath finds its roots in Ancient Greece when after offerings were made to Helios, an olive or laurel wreath was hung on the door in the hope of protection for their crops. Perhaps this was incorporated into the Roman Saturnalia as Saturn was considered the god of the harvest and its celebration marked the end of the harvest season. This practice was also found in the Scandinavian harvest wreath and used
as an animistic amulet.  The same can be said of Santa’s elves. Considered either a companion or alter ego of Saint Nicholas in the 17th century was the Krampus (left); a goat headed monster who was said to take naughty children to hell on the night before St Nicholas day, the 6th of December. The Krampus actually pre-dates Christianity and is said to be the son of Hel in Norse mythology. This pagan demon evolved over time into a variety of Santa’s Helpers, including the American (and more marketable), friendly helper elves we know today. For the Norse, Germanics and the Romans, these were not neutral decorations as they are for us. For them it wasn’t just a tree or wreath, they were sacred objects with carried a strong symbolic meaning.

The bible does give actually give some indication of when Jesus was born. We can begin with Zechariah’s time of service in the Temple (Luke 1:8-13), because from that, using 1 Chronicles 24 we find that being from the division of Abijah he would have served his first course around June. We read that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary during Elizabeth’s sixth month. Provided Elizabeth conceived shortly after Zechariah’s service, Jesus’ conception can be said to have occurred in December and with His birth nine months later in September. However, if it was the second course, then Zechariah would be serving around October, pushing Jesus’ birth to late December. However, being the middle of winter, and during an important festival and season of rest, it is unlikely Ceasar Augustus would have called an Empire wide census (Lk 2:1). This method is not quite conclusive and fool-proof as it assumes Elizabeth fell pregnant almost immediately after Zecharius’ course in the Temple, but there is a sense in which it was soon after. And despite being inconclusive, it is the closest we can come. Moreover, it is based on biblical evidence more than philosophical assumption.

As mentioned above, Christmas as an intentionally redeemed day is difficult to prove. But let’s assume for a moment that Christmas is a redeemed day and that the philosophical argument for December 25th was a justification. Is this possible for the Christian? Is it biblical to ‘Christianise’ a pagan festival?
Critical contextualisation teaches that when it comes to contextualising the Gospel and Christianity into a new culture we are to reject the unbiblical, accept the biblical, and redeem the neutral. That culture might pray to a false god, so that’s unbiblical. But praying is biblical, so they can pray to God. Their culture may use a particular genre of music and speak a particular language. These are neutral, so they can use those to worship God with. And so when we come to Christmas, it might seem like there’s nothing unbiblical about decorating a tree on a certain day. There’s certainly no verse forbidding Christmas trees. And honouring God for the things he has done in Salvation History, the very focus of the day’s origin, is definitely biblical. So how should we approach a redeemed-day-Christmas according to the critical contextualisation process?
There is a passage of Scripture that we need to consider and begin to take seriously if we are to biblically answer this and comes from Deuteronomy 12:29-31

When the Lord your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? - that I also may do the same.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods…

Quite simply put, we cannot take a pagan practice and redeem it for worshipping God. This is because when we do, He doesn’t see us honouring Him; He sees us honouring that false god. This was the sin of the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf. Two things from this story need to be noted. One is when the people said to Aaron “make us gods who shall go before us” (Ex 32:1). The Hebrew for gods is Elohim, which is not only the plural form of El (god): gods; but also the name used for God in verses such as Genesis 1:1. The second is the words of Aaron, ‘“Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord (YHWH)” And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings’ (Ex 32:5-6). This, and other factors such as how they only built one statue and the declaration that the statue was the god who brought them out of Egypt, strongly suggest that the second meaning of Elohim was what was intended. Also, consider that the statue was a calf, a symbol of strength. Coming out of Egypt where gods were worshipped through mediums such as statues and people this interpretation makes sense. They didn’t know what happened to Moses, their mediator, and demanded Aaron give them a new one. The Israelites had attempted to redeem elements of Egyptian religion for worshipping Yahweh, and what was His response to Moses: “…let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you” (Ex 32:10). It’s not about what it means to us; it’s about what it means to Him. Even if we’re sincere, if we worship God in an unacceptable manner, He will reject our worship (Gen 4:5-7, Isa 1:11-17). So if Christmas was intentionally established as a redeemed Saturnalia, Sol Invictus, or Yule, then we need to reconsider whether or not Jesus would be happy with us honouring his birthday on the birthday of a sun god according to their customs.
I am yet to hear an argument from those who say Christmas is okay for Christians that deals with this biblical principle properly. Normally comparisons such as ‘druids drinking hot chocolate’ are made, but this is irrelevant as hot chocolate is neutral, and it fails to address the ‘package’ that is Christmas. They also appeal to how fun and nice Christmas is, and as I mentioned in the introduction, this is very true. But there’s also many fun and nice things in New Age Spirituality and Buddhism, so we cannot use that as an argument because the Christian needs to be biblical, not emotional.

But what if it is not a contextualised holiday? What if any relationship to pagan worship is merely coincidental? In that case, it would be extra-biblical rather than non-biblical, and therefore posing no problem with Christians celebrating Christmas. Any day is a good day to remember and give thanks for the incarnation, and setting aside some time to intentionally remember Jesus coming into the Earth is good. The Gospel Coalition explains that the ‘waiting’ of Advent reminds us in the midst of this difficult world, that there is one

final Advent that is yet to come. Just as the ancient Israelites waited for the coming of the Messiah in flesh, we await the consummation of the good news through the Messiah’s return in glory. In Advent, believers confess that the infant who drew his first ragged breath between a virgin’s knees has yet to speak his final word.

However, God has already given us holidays to remember and celebrate the things He has done for His people in the Feast Days, none of which were ever repealed (see September Celebrations). Why would our creator take away days of celebration? And why is it that we pour out so much time, energy, and money honouring human traditions, but we are unwilling to celebrate His days? Should we not put His ordinances before our traditions? God has already given us a week-long festival to remember Immanuel and to give thanks for all He has given us and will give us, and that is the Feast of Tabernacles, or in Hebrew Sukkot. During Sukkot, God’s people remember their time in the wilderness as they awaited their entrance into the promised land, and how God lived among them in His own tent during this time. And now that Jesus has come, we now remember how “The Word became flesh and dwelt (tabernacled) among us” (Jn 1:14), and how He now dwells within us as we await our inheritance in the promised world to come where we will live near the tent of God for eternity (Rev 21:3). Considering it is closer to Jesus’ birthday, that it’s in the Bible, and how its symbology and iconography better reflect the Gospel than Christmas, wouldn’t it make more sense to celebrate Jesus’ birthday then and make Christmas more of a time of general thanksgiving? If we want to go extra-biblical, that’s fine. But let’s not ignore the biblical in the process.

If we are to be Berean Baptists and not make null and void the word of God according to our traditions (Mark 7:13), we need to evaluate Christmas scripturally, apart from social perception, stigma, or attachment to tradition. And if we conclude for whatever reason that Christmas is unbiblical, getting rid of it doesn’t have to be the solution. It’s a great time of year, lots of fun and great memories. Maybe the day just needs to be redeemed. Maybe we should keep the Saturn in Saturnalia and take the Christ out of Christmas, especially since it’s most likely not even His birthday. Maybe we need to remove the pagan iconography. But maybe it is just a tree. Then again, maybe Yoga is just stretching and maybe Israel just made up their own feast day. The matter of Christmas is a tricky question and a big issue. Yet, if we are to walk with God in His ways, it’s one we need to honestly work through.

List of References

Basu, Tanya. ‘Who is Krampus? Explaining the Horrific Christmas Devil’., 19 December 2013.

Coffman, Elesha. ‘Why December 25?’, 8 Aug 2008.

‘Goat-Headed Christmas Cheer: Run, Kris Kringle, Krampus Is Coming!’., 2 Dec 2008.

Green, Emma. 'The Inanity of the Starbucks Christmas Cup ‘Controversy’' 10 Nov 2015.

Hastings, James. Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Part 16. Bloomsbury: New York, 2003.

McGowan, Andrew. ‘How December 25 Became Christmas’., 8 Dec 2014.

Pearse, Roger. ‘The Roman Cult of Mithras’

Pasori, Sazan. ‘Daniel Kalman Reveals the Origin of Starbucks’ Loge and its Trademark Siren’., 1 Sept 2013.

Setzer, Ed. ‘What is Contextualization’, 12 Oct 2014.

The Gospel Coalition, ‘Why Celebrate Advent’., 26 Nov 2013.

Image sourced from:

Friday, 2 October 2015

Between the Covenants: Paul and the Law

What I love about Paul, is that he ferociously defends the Gospel. He refuses to allow anyone to add or take away from the work Christ has done. We see this especially when responding to a group of Christian-Pharisees called ‘the circumcision party’ who said Gentiles needed to be circumcised to be saved. Paul said he wishes that they would castrate themselves (Gal 5:12). We owe much to Paul and the freedom that comes by the doctrine of justification by grace. This is why he was so popular among Protestant reformers like Martin Luther who were publicly rejecting the Roman Catholics works based salvation.

But, could it be possible that this focus on grace has caused many to misunderstand Paul’s position on the Law? Many would argue that “None of the Old Testament law is binding on Christians today. When Jesus died on the cross, He put an end to the Old Testament law” ( But is this a reliable interpretation? Peter warns his audience, and us today that:
There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability (2Pet 3:15-17).
 I know in researching and preparing this post that there are a number of parts of Paul’s writing that I found difficult to make clear sense of. Especially when he appears to be contradicting himself, or when he introduces something apparently new and unsure of how it relates, or sometimes just the way he can use such dense wording. So not only did I want to write this to suggest some interpretations that might offer some clarity on difficult passages, but it has also helped me in gaining some clarity too.

As we have explored in this series of ‘Between the Covenants’, we have found that there is a real continuity between the Old and New Covenant, and the real essence of both covenants is the way a Holy God has related to an unholy people. Under the Old Covenant, the Law was such a significant part of that. But what about now under the New Covenant where Jesus’ satisfaction of the requirements for a perfect, once for all sacrifice, which is the basis for our forgiveness and being made right with God? How does the Law fit into this covenant? What is Paul’s attitude towards the Law in response to Grace?

Paul explains this quite plainly in Romans 3:31, “Do we then overthrow the Law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” Quite clearly, Paul continues to uphold the Law (Torah), even in view of justification and salvation being a free gift in response to our faith in Jesus as saviour and Lord. But there are other places that Paul seems to be suggesting that the law is contrary to Grace, and that it is actually done away with. What do we do with those passages?

Paul's Use of 'Law'

Before we explore them, I think it would be helpful to review the meaning of Law and look at how Paul uses it. First, we need to recognise that Paul in his letters actually uses law (nomos) in more than one way. Strongs explains that the word nómos ("law") can refer not only to "the Law," but also "law" as a general principle (or both simultaneously). Moreover, “the particular sense(s) of (nómos) is determined by the context.” And so, by looking at the context of the occurrences of Paul’s use of nomos, we find the following seven laws being referred to:

1. The Law of God, or Torah (Rom 3:31, 7:22-5, 8:7)
- These are God’s instructions on how to live a moral and Holy life.

As a Jew, Pharasee, and scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Paul was most likely thinking Torah rather than nomos. Jeff Benner explains the difference as follows: “To interpret the Hebrew word torah as law is about the same as interpreting the word father as disciplinarian. While the father is a disciplinarian he is much more and in the same way torah is much more than law.” And therefore it is in this light that we must understand Paul when he speaks about God’s Law.

The other uses are more in line with the concept of nomos as principle.

2. Law of Sin (Rom 7:23-5)
- This is the principle of how disobedience to the Law from the flesh makes people accountable to sin (Rom 3:19-20, Jer 44:23)
3. Law of Sin and Death (Rom 5:12, 8:2; Gen 2:16-17)
- The consequence of sin leading to death, to which we are in bondage to apart from Christ
4. Law of Spirit of Life (Rom 8:2)
- The Spirit sets us free, exposes our lost reality, and leads us to the Law of God, which leads us to life
5. Law of Faith (Rom 3:27)
- The Law of faith describes the process of having confidence and trust in the word of God, making it the foundation of how we are to live
6. Law of Righteousness (Rom 9:31)
- The instruction to live out our faith and righteousness by the Spirit, as opposed to living in disobedience by our flesh
7. Law of Christ (1Cor 9:21)
- Jesus’ instruction, example, and empowerment to live according to the Law of God.

So with this range in mind, let’s consider the main examples of where Paul seems to suggest that the Torah no longer applies to Christians.

Are We No Longer Under the Law?

According to Romans 6:14:
“…sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”

This passage actually raises two questions when it comes to understanding it?
Were people before Jesus not under grace?
What does it mean to be under the law, and what law?

Firstly, as Deuteronomy 7:7 explains, the Lord did not set his affection on Israel because of anything they had done, or their size. God chose to love them because he chose to love them. Also, as Romans 4:1-5 explains, Abraham was justified by grace through faith, and not by works. So grace existed before Jesus. Moreover, the Law of God is not contrary to grace. The giving of the Law was actually an act of grace. It told the people how to live in peace with God and one another, and reveals the reality of sin, judgement, and forgiveness. The Law was considered by its initial recipients, to be a blessing and a demonstration of God’s favour (Deut 4:8).

Secondly, the context of the passage helps to understand what being ‘under the law’ means, and what law it is referring to. Earlier, in Romans 6:6 Paul explains, “We know that our old self was crucified with [Jesus] in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin”, and therefore, as verse 14 explains, that ‘Sin has no dominion’ over the Christian. This means, that the Christian was once a slave to sin (Rom 6:18), but now, no longer under its authority because of grace. So can we equate no longer being under sin to being under the Law of God?
Paul rhetorically asks later in Romans 7:7, Is God’s law sin? His response in Greek, moi genoito!, the strongest way possible to say ‘No!’  So the use of law in Romans 6:14 cannot be referring to the Law of God. The logical problem with such an interpretation is that since God’s law defines sin, and if the Law no longer exists then sin no longer exists, and therefore, what would we need grace for?

So, based on the context of the passage, we can see that Paul is talking about the Law of Sin and Death, and not the Law of God. The reason Jesus’ death frees us from this law is because the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). And so, if we are united with Christ (including His death) the Law sees us as having already been given the punishment for disobedience, and therefore no longer under the condemnation of the Law. Paul also explains that the implications of this is that we have been transferred from slaves to sin (disobedience of the Torah [1Jn 3:5]), to slaves to righteousness (obedience of the Torah [Rom 2:13]). As John Piper explains, “…when [Paul] said, ‘You are not under law but under grace’… this does not mean: you don't have to keep the law. It means you are not burdened by it as a job description of how to earn the wages of salvation” (emphasis added).

The truth of the Gospel is that obedience to the Law cannot free us from the law of sin and death, only forgiveness by grace through faith can achieve that. But that forgiveness frees us to live in a deep and empowered way of obedience to the Law.

Died to the Law
To die to something can generally be taken to mean that it is no longer relevant to our lives. The Bible talks about dying to sin, meaning that you are denying your sinful nature control over your life and now living under the authority of God. But Paul says in a number of places that he has ‘died to the law’, and therefore it makes sense according the phrase’s common understanding to see that to mean the Law is no longer an authority over his life. Let’s consider two passages of scripture where he says this to see if that is what he meant.

In Romans 7:6, Paul says “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” The typical interpretation of this is that we no longer need to do what the Law says because we are released from its authority. We now just need to follow how the Sprit leads us. But is this a faithful interpretation?

Looking at the broader context of the passage, we find Paul describing how his actions are held captive by the flesh, such as in verse 5: “For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.” But to suggest that here Paul is saying, ‘the law is bad and now we have been set free from having to keep it’ is to ignore the rest of the chapter. In it, Paul explains that the law is not sin, rather, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (v12). Also, it definitely wasn’t (moi genoito) the law that makes us sin, “It [is] sin, producing death in [us] through what is good” (v13). The reason sin can do this is because, “the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (v14). So it is unlikely that Paul is talking about being released from the Law of God that held (past tense) us captive. Rather, we have been set free from the law of sin: that which causes us to disobey God’s Law. As we looked at above from Romans 6, we were once slaves to sin, but now we are slaves to righteousness. Before we received the Holy Spirit, we only had the will of the flesh to try and keep God’s Law, but now that we have the Spirit, we have the ability and empowerment to follow and obey His Law. So let’s paraphrase verse 6 with this understanding:
“But now we are released from the law of sin, having died to that which held us in disobedience and death, so that we obey the Torah in the power of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” This is a fulfilment of what was spoken through Jeremiah: ‘I will write my law on their heart’ (Jer 31:33) as God uses His Spirit to acheive this. 

Was the Law done away with at the Cross?

A verse used to suggest that Jesus did away with the law is Colossians 2:14, usually quoted in the King James:
“Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances [commands/requirements] that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross”
But did Jesus really nail the Law to the cross and crucify it?

Firstly the context of this passage is about our justification, and not our sanctification, as demonstrated in the previous verse: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses…”
Secondly, there are two layers of understandings of the Greek which reads, cheirographon tois dogmasin; Cheirographon means anything written by hand, but can more specifically apply to a legal document, bond or note of debt [and] Dogmasin refers to decrees, laws or ordinances” (Henn).
1. Dogmasis (or dogma) refers here to the requirements of the law, specifically in terms of the punishments and penalties for sin (i.e. death), which reflects the understanding of cheirographon as a legal notice of debt and the salvation context of the passage. Also, the reference to ‘it’ is singular, whereas dogma is plural, suggesting ‘it’ is not the ordinances and laws etc… In crucifixion, only two things were nailed to a cross: the offender, and a decree of their offence. Thus, in His death, Jesus justified us by nullifying the debt of our sin. This comes out the best in the ESV: “cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.”
2. One could also understand dogma as referring to “the ‘decrees, laws and ordinances’ of the society in which we lived. Now that we have repented and accepted Christ, we have embarked on a new way of life and are living by God's standards and values” (Henn).

Paul uses similar language in Ephesians 2:14-15:
“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances (dogmasin), that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two…”
When interpreting this passage, it’s important to remember that the focus and context of this passage is the breaking down of the wall of hostility between the Jews and the Gentiles who “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise” (v12). And so, like Colossians 2, Paul is talking about those things that kept Gentiles from becoming part of the people of God. This is again, talking about the consequences of our sin, as well as man-made traditions and hostilities that kept division between the two groups, because for Paul to say that The Law was abolished would be to contradict Christ (Matt 5:17).

Another passage is Galatians 3:23-26:
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.

Typically, the interpretation of this verse goes something like this: ‘We used to have the Law to tell us what to do, but now that Jesus has come we can get rid of it.’
In order to understand this passage, we need to remember the purpose of the book of Galatians, namely, to counter the false teachers and correct those who were trying to be justified and saved by the law: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (5:4). As Paul wrote many times, no one can be declared righteous by keeping the Law (see Rom 3:20; 8:3; Gal 2:15-16; 2:21; 3:10-11; 3:21; Eph 2:8-9). And as James alludes to, only perfect obedience could produce salvation (Js 2:10). It is only by faith that we can be saved. In this passage Paul connects the role of the guardian to justification by faith, and considering its context, it is reasonable to understand Paul as saying that the guardian cannot justify us. Rather, its purpose was to lead us to Christ.

It also says that we are no longer under the guardian, i.e. the law. But which law? Paul uses the same language of ‘captivity’ and ‘enslavement’ as he did in Romans 6, which means we are no longer under its condemnation. Also, Paul wrote earlier in verse 13 that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” May I suggest, as 119 Ministries does, that the guardian is in fact the ‘curse of the law’, or ‘the law of sin and death’. This is reflected in 2 Corinthians 5:21: ‘God made him who knew no sin to be sin…’ As Paul goes on to write in verse 19: “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made…” So to paraphrase, ‘The law of sin as tutor was added because of disobedience to the Law of Moses.’ Thus, we are no longer under the curse of the law which served to instruct us of our need for salvation. But let’s assume that Paul is actually saying we are no longer under the Law of Moses as a Tutor, ask yourself: ‘should we throw out and abandon the text books once we are done with the tutor?’

A Right Attitude to Law

Many verses of Paul used to argue against the current validity of Torah are done in such a way to describe it in negative terms. It’s described as a curse, a burden, oppressive, enslaving and something Jesus set us free from. But to think of the Law of God, Torah, in these terms is to contradict scripture. God and John explained that it is not a burden (Deut 30:11, 1Jn 5:3). As mentioned above, Paul saw the Law as something good and Holy. Also, King David delighted in the Law as he declared: “The [Torah] of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;… the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart… More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” (Ps 19:7-11).
Perfect. Joyful. Desirable. Sweet. A Blessing. If this is the Law, and every good and perfect gift comes from God, why would He remove such a thing? And if this was David’s experience under the Old Covenant, shouldn’t our experience in the new and superior covenant be even better?
As Berean Baptists, when we learn to have a biblical view of the Law, we will begin to see it not as something to be rejected and resisted. But rather, as a delightful gift that will enable us to enjoy and delight in God when we obey, not in a spirit of legalism or religiosity, but it in the light of Christ, in the context of love for and relationship with God, and in the power of the Holy Spirt, walking further into the blessing of how God ordained us to live for which Christ saved us.


119 Ministries, The Tutor

119 Ministries, Pauline Paradox Part 4: Which Law Paul?

Crandall University, Paul and the Law

Earl L. Henn, Was God's Law Nailed to the Cross?

Gotquestions, Do Christians have to obey the Old Testament law?

 Jeff Benner. Hebrew Word Definitions: Torah

John Piper, Why the Law was Given.

Strongs Concordance, nomos.


Sunday, 6 September 2015

September Celebrations: Pointing to Christ

This month of September, I will be venturing into some unfamiliar territory in regards to the practice of my faith. In fact this whole year has seen me take up anew most of the biblical celebrations of God and His works known as the feast days, which have been lost to church history. The exceptions would be Pentecost (although it's focus and form is different) and Passover, which in recent years has seen a resurgence in practice by Christians with varying degrees of relevance (which I will address in a future post).

The feast days in September are often referred to as the fall feast days (primarily because they originated in the northern hemisphere) and consist of: The Feast of Trumpets (Yom Teruah), Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), and Feast of Booths, or Tabernacles (Sukkot). The natural question is, 'why am I doing this?' And it is a reasonable question too, considering the dominant perception is that they are Jewish and specific only to the Old Testament, neither of which applies to me. But is this understanding accurate?  As Berean Baptists, we need to be willing to test this traditional doctrine/understanding with scripture since the Bible, and not what other Christians do or don't do, is our authority for living. Understandably, if still applicable/relevant/binding, this has a number of implications all summed up in the chief 4-letter-word of the flesh: 'change.'  Change is difficult, especially when it might challenge something we have an emotional investment in. This is why witnessing to Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons is so difficult: they have a huge investment in belonging to their community so that even in the face of clear scripture, they hold onto their beliefs. Not that this matter falls anywhere close in weight to their heresies, it's just an example. I recognize this difficulty is true for us as well, and so I don't take challenging tradition and popular interpretation lightly. I know for myself, it was a couple of years before I became fully convinced. Moreover, I don't intend to be overly dogmatic about it either, as I know there are a number of valid arguments against it out there. So I'm not trying to say "here is the true interpretation", I'm just merely presenting a case for your consideration. So as you read this, and you find resistance to something that is written, I encourage you to be honest with that resistance. Challenge yourself: "why do I dislike this?" And test it out, revisit the scriptures that come to mind, and above all pray.

Are they Jewish?
I'd like to begin by saying that not one of the feast days are Jewish. While Independence Day is American, Oktoberfest is German, and Australia Day is, well, Australian, Yom Kippur is not Jewish. The feast days are in fact, God's days. It's just that traditionally they are the only ones who keep them. As God said through Moses: "These are the appointed feasts of the Lord that you shall proclaim as holy convocations; they are my appointed feasts" (Lev 23:2).
One preacher explains it like this:
'If I have a birthday party, and I invite you, it's not your birthday party. I'm just inviting you to celebrate with me. It's the same with the feasts...' (paraphrase). I think it's important to maintain that idea of invitation. Although there was a commandment to observe his feasts, it's best to see them as an invitation to celebrate with Him, rather than "you better come to my party or else!" Also, they weren't given only to the Jews either. The Jews are the remnant of the southern kingdom of Israel who had come out of exile in Babylon. The feasts were given to all 12 tribes of Israel. In fact, God said that there was an expectation that the foreigner who lived among them would celebrate them too, with one law for the native born and the stranger. This is a foreshadowing of how Gentiles would be 'grafted into Israel' under the New Covenant (Jer  31:31, Rom 11:17-24, Eph 2:11-13).

Are they Relevant?
But what relevance does it have for the Christian today? What does Sukkot have to do with a 21st century 'Baptist' living in Brisbane, Australia? Well, firstly, like the rest of the Old Testament, the feasts of the Lord are all about Jesus. The depth of symbology is much deeper and extensive than space will allow for here, but consider this as an introduction (I will endeavour to write a more in depth post in the future).  The 'spring feasts' are all about Jesus' first coming. He died on Passover as the Passover lamb was being sacrificed. He took away our sins and was buried as the people were removing the leaven from their homes for Unleavened Bread. He rose on the morning of the feast of first fruits as the first of all to be resurrected. And he sent His spirit on Pentecost to write His law on our hearts (the Law is traditionally considered to be given on Pentecost) and produce a harvest of many people for salvation.
The fall feasts point to his second coming. The feast of Trumpets reminds us of how "the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God..." (1 Thess 4:16). The Day of Atonement describes how God will pour out his wrath and judgement on the sinful world. There is a sense of Jesus fulfilling this in his first coming, as on the cross Jesus made atonement for us as our sins were laid on Him, just as one of the goats had the sins of the people of Israel laid upon it and was sacrificed. And how as High Priest, Jesus could present His offering in the true most Holy Place in heaven (Heb 9:11-14). So, for followers of Jesus, our day of judgement has already happened. But the bible describes a day of judgement still to come for those who are not following Jesus as Lord and saviour, and therefore are not covered by the blood of atonement, thus it is not until the day of judgement that the blood of atonement comes into full effect.
And finally, the eight day feast of booths has a past, present, and future symbology.
Based on the description in Luke's gospel of Zechariah serving in the temple and using 1 Chronicles, the conception of John the Baptist, and the conception of Jesus we can reasonably calculate that John was born approximately during Passover (which is a time when Jews await the arrival of 'Elijah' (Jn...)), and Jesus was conceived around December around the time of Hanukkah, the feast of lights, and born around the time of Sukkot, the feast of tabernacles. This reflects John's words of the light of the world made flesh and dwelling (tabernacling) among us (Jn 1:9,14, 8:12), being born in a stable (Sukkah, Gen 33:17).
As Christians, we are sojourners in this world (1Pet 2:11). This world is not our home. This feast was originally given for Israel to remember their time in the wilderness spent living in tents before getting to the promised land (Lev 23:42-43). In the same way, we are living in temporary dwellings (2Cor 5:1-5) awaiting our arrival in our true home. Thus, for us today, it serves as a reminder of this reality. 
This ties into the future aspect as it points us to our eternal future with God, as John recorded:
"And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place (tent) is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God" (Rev 21:3).
So, since all the biblical holidays point to the past, present, and future work of our Lord and saviour there is a significant level of relevance for us today.

Aren't they done away with?
But you may be thinking of the following passage:
"Therefore let no one pass judgement... with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ"(Col 2:16-17).
The traditional interpretation of this passage is that people were imposing the feasts on the Colossian church, but Paul explains that now that Jesus has come those things are done away with: so don't let anyone tell you you have to. But the surrounding context speaking of 'human precepts and wisdom' (v. 22) suggests the scenario was actually the other way around. Surely the feasts of the Lord are not human precepts with the appearance of wisdom. It appears that because of their insistence on aestheticism (v.18), the false teachers were judging the Colossians for keeping the feasts. Paul's encouragement to continue their observance is that they point to Christ. Note also that they are a shadow of things to come. As we discussed above, they are pointing us to a yet to be fulfilled and completed work of Christ. Since the feasts are just shadows of things to come of which Christ is the substance, is that sufficient reason to neglect them? The sacrifices of the old covenant were a shadow of things to come of which Christ became the substance. Imagine if the people said, 'Moses, these sacrifices are just a shadow, so it doesn't really matter, so we don't really see any point in doing them.'

So as we've seen, these Christ centred feasts of the Lord given to God's people are neither Jewish nor irrelevant to Gentiles under the New Covenant. And based on Paul's encouragement to the Colossian church, and it's lack of mention in scripture, it's safe to conclude that they have not been done away with. Of course, the sacrifice parts have been done away with, thus changing how they're observed. Nonetheless, the feasts as a whole can still find a significant part of any believers life.

But let's say I'm wrong. Let's say that the feasts were really only given to the descendants of Jacob, and Paul really was saying they are irrelevant. Even if this was the case, I want to close with three questions that I think are still worth considering:
1. Is there not some benefit to observing the Lord's feasts, especially since observing them acknowledges and proclaims the Gospel; as does communion, another shadow of the work of Christ?
2. While I agree that the principle: 'if it's not in the bible we can't do it' is wrong, why are we happy to celebrate days that aren't in Scripture, namely Christmas (which most likely not Jesus' birthday) and Easter; but we resist these celebrations actually given in scripture of which there is no command forbidding or cancelling their observance?
3. Why would God give only a certain people group a bunch of 'public holidays' on which to feast and celebrate on a large scale, only to take them away after Jesus died and leave us with only the brief weekly snack of 'bread and wine'?

Image sourced from

Sunday, 16 August 2015

The Mighty Voice of God

It has been a bit longer than usual between posts. Between researching my next post ‘Paul and the Law’, starting back at university for my final BA Semester, and family… life’s been busy. But I thought I would take the time to share something I learned/experienced in my devotional time a couple of weeks ago. I want to share it because my mind felt so overwhelmed by the breadth, depth, and significance of what I was reading in Scripture. This, in popular nomenclature, is referred to as ‘mind blown.’ Normally I like to properly get my head around things that I learn and discover, and feel restless and ‘anxious’ when I can’t. But this time I felt a sense of peace and contentment in the midst of ‘drowning in information’, and delight in the enormity of the love of God. My prayer is that as you consider these things, God will meet you in a special way too.

My time in scripture began with the reading of Deuteronomy 4 as part of a reading plan. In it, Moses was warning the people of the blessings and curses of obedience to God’s Law whilst living in the Promised Land. In particular, this warning in verses 25-27:
“…if you act corruptly by making a carved image in the form of anything, and by doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, so as to provoke him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess. You will not live long in it, but will be utterly destroyed. And the Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the Lord will drive you.”
God’s warning was that if the people fell to idolatry, they would be exiled from the land as punishment. And, as history makes known, this indeed did happen. Despite constant warning, idolatry ran rampant in Israel and they were sent into exile first into Assyria, and then into Babylon. The next part of the reading plan took me to Isaiah 40 and this is where God showed me something I hadn’t quite seen before. The words of Isaiah 40 were written to those who were in exile, and were words of comfort saying that God would restore them and bring them back:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
    that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord's hand
    double for all her sins..

But the part that really struck me was verses 25-26:
To whom then will you compare me,
    that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
    who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
    calling them all by name,
by the greatness of his might,
    and because he is strong in power
    not one is missing.

Here I’d always just read that as ‘God has names for all the stars, and how awesome is it that He knows my name too’. But note that it says that God calls out the stars, each by name. I was thinking about the context of the passage and I realised ‘God is trying to say “I have the power and wisdom to be able to call out each and every star, from darkness to light, by name. If I can do that, then surely I have the ability to call each of you, from captivity to life, by name.” This means that God called each and every person who returned from Babylon by name, they responded, and they went into the inheritance God had for them.

Also notice the second part, ‘by His power, none are missing.’ I’m not sure what ancient Israel’s concept was of stars, or how aware they were of their size, but the fact there were so many meant they knew keeping track of every star was quite a feat, but not for Yahweh. And so, if God could ensure none of His stars were lost, He’d make sure none of His people would be lost. This would have no doubt have reminded them of the Lords promise to Abraham, ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars.’ So, not only can they have confidence in the power of God, they can also have confidence in the faithfulness of God.

It reminds me of this scene in Blackhawk Down after one of the crashed helicopter pilots were captured. A helicopter with loudspeakers was flying over Mogadishu declaring over and over “Michael Durant, we won’t leave you behind. Michael Durant, we won’t leave you behind…” Yahweh was doing a similar thing through Isaiah in Babylon: “Children of Judah, I won’t leave you behind…” And true to his word, when Cyrus of the Persians came to power, the southern kingdom was free to return to Jerusalem.

What was true for Israel in this instance, is a type of what is true for humanity as well. Because of his holiness, God has effectively said through scripture, ‘if you want to live with me in the fullness of life, there is a certain way you must live. If you don’t, you won’t.’ In the Garden, Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and they were expelled. Their sin, as all sin is, was idolatry: they exchanged the authority and supremacy of God for their own autonomy and the lies of the enemy of what eating it would offer: “But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate” (Gen 3:4-6). This reflects Tim Keller’s definition of idolatry:
It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give…An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I‘ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship (xvii-xviii).

The Garden was a place where they shared close intimacy with the presence of God and it became a sacred space. Being removed from the Garden removed them from being near to God. So because of sin, we are all in exile in the world, away from the Garden, away from the fullness of His presence. We have all exchanged the supremacy and authority of God for our own autonomy and earthly pleasures. But like He did with Israel, God calls us back to Him through Holy Spirit because of what Jesus did for us. He died for our idolatry. He took the punishment so that we can be forgiven and reconciled to God. And so now God calls all people to repentance. Just like in Babylon, not all will come out from there into God’s Kingdom, but nonetheless, He desires none to perish but all to come unto eternal life (2Pet 3:9).

In coming to faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour, we become grafted into Israel and become citizens of His Kingdom, but we are still physically in exile in the world. And like Ezekiel, we can all experience the manifest presence of Yahweh in exile, the difference now being under the New Covenant is that we ourselves are now the Temple of God with Holy Spirit dwelling within us (and this opens up a whole other analogy for another post). But a time will come that God will call His people physically out of Babylon to Himself. The church in Thessalonica was aware of this and there was fear and anxiety about people missing it, asking questions like ‘Did we miss it?’ and ‘What about those who are dead?’ And this is why Paul wrote the words of what has become famously known as ‘the Rapture Passage’:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1Thess 4:14-18)

There’s two things to note here. One, Paul is saying that those who are in Christ, whether dead or alive, will not miss out. The second is the reference to ‘a cry of command’. What the command is, we are not told, but Jesus gives us a clue in John’s Gospel:
 “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live… Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:25,28-29).
So, the cry of command will be like the one the crowd heard in John 11:43, “Lazarus, come out.”

The reason we need not fear if we are in Christ is that, as Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10:27). Jesus, on that last day will call you up to be with him. You will not miss it, dead or alive. Not merely because you’ll respond when you hear it, but the fact that you will hear it. This is how mighty and powerful the voice of the Lord is.His voice can penetrate through death and into the grave. 
We often hear, based on Elijah's experience, that 'the voice of God is a still soft voice.' But that was just one instance. John the Apostle said he heard a voice like rushing waters (Rev 1:15), and a trumpet (Rev 1:10). The people of Israel at Sinai (Ex 19:19), and the people in Jerusalem (Jn 12:29) said the voice of God sounded like thunder. I think we can conclude that God will use whatever voice the situation calls for, so if He needs to yell, he will. The implications of this are encouraging:
There is nowhere He can’t call you from.
I remember hearing stories from people in the 50s and 60s, being told that if they go to the movies and Jesus comes back He won’t get you. If Jesus can handle touching something as spiritually unclean as a leaper and a corpse, I'm sure some buttered pop-corn and coke won’t stop Him. If Jesus can enter a world containing things much worse than what you might see on a cinema screen, and live in in for 30 odd years, I’m sure He can handle going into a movie theatre for a couple of seconds. 
There is nothing He can’t rescue you from.
No matter how long or far you’ve run from Him, and no matter how deep a hole you’ve dug for yourself, it will never be too deep for him to pull you out of.
There is no one that He will miss out.
I’ve heard stories from the 70s and even up to today, about preachers warning people that if Christians aren’t ready, they’ll be left behind at the rapture because he will be coming like a thief in the night. But just like those words from Isaiah 40, He will call his saints out of the grave and the earth, one by one, each by name, and not one of them will be missing. I think about how I mix up my kids names, calling one the other and another by the first, or how easily I can lose track of where they are. I think about how my grandfather, mixing up my name with my uncles, has given me my second official name: ‘Gav-ah-ryan’, and the times I got lost in the shops as a child. Jesus won’t do that. He knows you by name, and he knows exactly where you are, always.

I feel that if I talk about it or try and explain it too much more, I’ll lose the purpose of this post. My purpose was to share with you a revelation about the might of the voice of God that just blew me away. Can I encourage you to spend some time meditating and reflecting on this? As God told Abram, go and look at the night sky and consider how many stars there are, thinking about how God knows then each by name. But don’t just go outside, too much light pollution, do a google-image search for Milky Way photos. Also, go and read Isaiah 40 and listen for God to speak into your situation right now where you might need comfort, or assurance for the future.

Keller, Timothy. Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters. Penguin: New York (2009).

Monday, 20 July 2015

Between the Covenants: Jesus and the Law (Take Two)

As well as the certainty of death and taxes, an evolving theology should equally be definite part of the Christian experience. And this is the case with me. Since writing this blog post nearly two years ago, I have continued to study and discovered new things that needed to be added and came to change my mind on a few things So what follows below is an updated version of the original post.

In my last post, we explored the topic of God and Law, or Torah, and how it is a revelation of the Holiness and Righteousness of God and His intentions for humanity. In this instalment of ‘Between the Covenants’, we will be exploring what Jesus said about it and the implications it has on His disciples.

A little while ago I came across a flow-chart here made by a guy called Scott Bateman, critiquing an inconsistency of Christians when it comes to homosexuality in the bible. Although quite well thought out, a few factual errors let it down. Possibly the biggest, is the claim that Jesus never once mentioned gay marriage. And in a sense he is correct, although Jesus does reject it by defining marriage with an affirmative teaching, quoting Genesis: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?”  (Matt 19:4-5). It’s a bit like this scenario: A parent says to their child ‘play in the yard.’ Yet, the kid runs out of the yard and down the road. Then the parent finds out, catches them, and tells them off. Scott’s argument would be like the child responding: ‘But you didn’t say we couldn’t leave’.
Another error is the claim that it is forbidden to adorn yourself with gold. This is based on verses such as 1 Peter 3:3, which is actually an instruction against vanity, not wearing gold.
But, despite its flaws in interpretation, Scott makes a great point in the middle:
“No buts! You don’t get to pick and choose which parts of God’s word you’re going to follow.” 
If the author of the diagram ever spoke a word of theological wisdom, it was this. Because, if we have indeed called Jesus the Lord of our life, he is Lord over all of it. And as He instructed in the great commission, we are to obey all that He commanded.

Bateman’s flow chart raises an interesting question about what New Covenant followers of Jesus are to do with the Old Testament Law. As I raised in a previous post, there is some continuation as God declared He would write His Law on our heart, but what that looks like is complex and debated. According to Michael Wilkins, “Some contend that none [of the law] applies to Jesus unless it is explicitly reaffirmed in the New Testament, while others say that all of the Old Testament applies unless it is explicitly revoked in the New Testament.” For example, based on Jesus’ words in the Great Commission, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20), France concludes that “it is the ‘commandments’ of Jesus, not those of the OT, which are to be the basis of Christian discipleship” (188). But what did Jesus actually say about the Law?

In this post I want to explore two of what I consider to be Jesus’ most clear and explicit teachings on the relationship the Law has with the follower of Christ.

Jesus Fulfils the Law

The first I want to explore is in the Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil 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. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:17-20).

Jesus’ critique of the scribes and the Pharisees observance and interpretation of the Law had no doubt caused some to believe that Jesus was opposed to the Law. However, here Jesus reaffirms His commitment to the Law, that He as a member of the Triune God-Head revealed to Moses at Sinai, by declaring He will not abolish, but rather fulfil them. Many take the word ‘fulfill’ to mean something like bringing to an end, treating the fulfilment of the Law like the fulfilment of prophesy. For example, since Jesus fulfilled the messianic prophesies, we shouldn't expect anyone else to do it. But is this an accurate interpretation?

In verse 15, Matthew has used the Greek word plerosi (from pleroo) which means to render full, i.e. to complete; to make full, to fill up, i.e. to fill to the full. For example:
“this joy of mine is now complete” (Jn 3:29)
“in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Rom 8:4)
“All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” (Matt 1:22)

Based on this understanding of pleroo, Richard France paraphrases Jesus as saying “it is my role to bring into being that to which [the Law and the Prophets] have pointed forward, to carry them into a new era of fulfillment” (183). As we will explore below, this is a very true understanding, but to say that Matthew 5:17 has nothing to do with Jesus’ actions or teaching, as France does, is to isolate the statement from its textual and historical context. 

When interpreting any text, it is important to understanding it in its original historical context. The 'fulfilling of the law' was an idiomatic phrase of the Rabbis that referred to the faithful commitment to and accurate teaching of the Torah. For example: "Go away to a place of study of the Torah, and do not suppose that it will come to you. For your fellow disciples will fulfil it in your hand. And on your own understanding do not rely" (Mishnah, Pirke Avot, 4:14). So when Jesus said he came to fulfil the Law, He meant that he had come to rightly and completely teach the Torah. Notice too how Jesus contrasts 'fulfil' with 'abolish'. The word for abolish, katalyo used in this context “means to declare that it is no longer valid, to repeal or annul” (France 182). So for Jesus to fulfil the Law cannot mean to bring it to an end. But rather He said He will pleroo the Law. To abolish the law was also contrasted with fulfilling it by the Rabbis: "If the Sanhedrin gives a decision to abolish a law, by saying for instance, that the Torah does not include the laws of Sabbath or idolatry, the members of the court are free from a sin offering if they obey them; but if the Sanhedrin abolishes only one part of a law but fulfils the other part, they are liable" (Mishnah, Horayot 1:3). Based on this context, I believe it is better to define Jesus as the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets in how His person, teaching, and work provides a full revelation of Old Testament doctrine. As John Stott explains: “His purpose is not to the law, still less to annul it, but to reveal the full depth of meaning that it was intended to hold” (72).

In fulfilling the Law, we cannot say that Jesus made any of it null and void. As Jesus said, not an iota nor a dot will be removed from the Law, but this is what people in history have attempted to do. A heretic from the second century, Marcion, wanted to remove the Old Testament and its references in the New Testament from the Canon of the New Covenant. His legacy is still alive, according to Stott, among those who proclaim the ‘new morality’: the only law applicable for the Christian is the law of love (72).

As we have seen thus far, to say “Jesus fulfilled the Law so I don’t have to do it” is misguided because it over-simplifies the Law. Did you realise that Jesus did not obey all of the Law?  There are laws specifically for women that Jesus never did. There are also laws for farmers and slave owners that Jesus didn’t do either. So at the final judgement we can’t say that we have obeyed all the Law because Jesus did it on our behalf. Now, we have received by faith Jesus’ righteousness that he attained because He satisfied the righteous requirements of the Law expected of Him, but we cannot claim that we have been perfectly obedient because Jesus was.

Many people know the promise of Malachi 3:6, “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” And this is a great promise of the enduring faithfulness of God. The same God who rescued His people from Egypt 3500 years ago will definitely rescue His people from Satan sin and death today. But the context of this verse is one of obedience. Let’s read verse 6 in that context:
“Then I will draw near to you for judgment… says the Lord of hosts. For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them.” 
So, what we find here is that God’s Holiness, morality, and character are unchanging. What he found good/offensive in the Garden, He found good/offensive at the Mountain, and still finds good/offensive today. As Ladd explains: “It is clear that the Law continues to be the expression of the will of God for conduct, even for those who are no longer under the Law” (510). Jesus makes this emphatic by saying that our status in the Kingdom will be based on our relationship with the law: 
“whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” 
At the heart of this teaching is the picture of the disciple of Jesus imitating the behaviour and teaching of their Lord and saviour?  “Since [Jesus] does not ‘abolish’ the Law and the Prophets but fulfils them… his disciples likewise must not ‘abolish’ or ‘break’ the commandments but must instead practice and teach them” (Wilkins). Two things that should be briefly noted here. One, Jesus didn’t say entrance. He said you would be least, or greatest in the Kingdom. So you’re still in there if you’ve trusted in the free gift of grace and forgiveness through Jesus, but what that experience is like will be somewhat different. In fact, the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is best understood as principles for those living in the Kingdom, rather than mere general ethics (France 153).  And two, we shouldn’t think of first and second class citizens in Heaven, but rather being “a more or less worthy representative of those who acknowledge him as king” (France 188). But the point I want to focus on here is that these words mean that Jesus could not have possibly meant ‘we don’t have to do the law’ because He fulfilled it. In fact he warns against making such a statement.

But aren't we only under the moral law?
There are arguments out there to deal with the arguments made by the likes of Scott Bateman, such as only those commandments that are repeated on the New Testament is binding. Or maybe they might categorise the Torah into categories of ceremonial, civil, and moral law and argue that only the moral law applies today. . There are two respective arguments against these claims. The first is that 'moral law' isn't a real scriptural category. As E.P. Sanders (1992, 194) argues: "Modern scholars often try to divide the law into ‘ritual’ and ‘ethical’ categories, but this is an anachronistic and misleading division." In fact the Bible only knows of two categories: 'Love God and love neighbour', and both are connected. According to the Old and New Testament, we love our neighbour because we love our creator (Lev 19:18, 1Jn 4:20). The second is that the blank page between Malachi and Matthew doesn't belong there. It is the one God with the one standard of righteousness. Although the covenants may be different, the difference isn't the content of the Law; it's the location of the law: the heart (Jer 31:32-33). But even if we were to take the New Testament alone as our Torah, one of the most often repeated commandments is not a moral law, but a ceremonial law: worship God alone. Moreover, three of the four guidelines from the Jerusalem counsel in Acts 15 were 'ceremonial' in nature: abstain from blood, idols, and strangled meat.

But doesn’t the bible teach that ‘Jesus is the end of the Law to everyone who believes’?
Well, kind of. It says that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom 10:4). And in the context of this passage, this is righteousness for salvation. As I will explore more deeply and extensively in the next post, Paul is teaching that in order to be justified and declared righteous in status in the eyes of God, it is by faith and not by works. But what Romans 10:4 isn’t saying is that the law no longer teaches how the righteous can live righteously. For Paul instructs us to “no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds… and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:17-24). We are to live out the reality of the righteousness we have been given, and the Law can show us how to achieve this.

But didn’t Jesus re-write and re-define the Mosaic Law in the Sermon on the Mount?
This claim is made on the basis of Jesus’ repeated words in the sermon: “You have heard it said… But I say to you” (Matt 5:27-28 etc…), which is taken to mean ‘You have heard that the law says this, but this is now what you should do…’ But is this true? Well, we need to remember that whenever Jesus referred to Scripture He always referred to it as being written, as seen for example during His temptation in the wilderness: “But he answered, ‘It is written…’ (Matt 4:4). The Greek word for written here is gegrapti (written), and also used by New Testament authors such as Luke and Matthew when talking about scripture. For example, "as it is written (gegrapti) in the Law of the Lord" (Luke 2:23). But, in the case of Matthew 5 Jesus said “You have heard it errethe (speak, spoken)...” So, if for Jesus, the scripture is written (Matt 21:13, Mk 7:6, Lk 10:26, Jn 6:45), Jesus cannot be talking about the Law. What Jesus is talking about is the traditions of Pharisaical interpretation of the Law, which is reasonable considering Jesus mentioned the Pharisees in verse 20 before going on to correct the faults in their interpretation of God’s law throughout the sermon. Jesus’ complaint here against the Pharisees in their interpretation of the law was not that they made it more restrictive, but were actually making it easier and relaxing God's commandments by making it about external conformity (Stott 79).
However, an argument could be made that 'spoken' can refer to scripture since Matthew often refers to that what was 'spoken' by the prophets. Although it is only the prophets and never the Law, and Jesus never uses spoken of scripture. But even if Jesus was 'redefining' scripture, it wasn't changing the Law in the Sermon on the Mount, but rather restored the heart level obedience God always required. In fact, Jesus was not the first one to advocate for heart level obedience. God through Moses was: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart" (Lev 19:17). Thus, as John Calvin puts it: Jesus is “not a new legislator, but… the faithful expounder” (290). 

We can do the same thing today as the Pharisees did when we relax God’s commands by making them easier and saying that we are obedient to the ‘spirit’ of God’s commands. No, we shouldn’t be legalistic (see post on legalism here) by saying that only the explicit words count, but we can be just as rebellious when we ignore the specifics too. In other words, we can say to ourselves: ‘As long as how I’m living looks kind of like what he asked for, then that’s good enough.’ To borrow Paul’s analogy from Ephesians 4, when we do this we are wearing God’s commandments and the righteousness Christ purchased for us like a cheap cosplay costume, claiming we’re dressed like our hero because we’ve written their name on our outfit.

Jesus was saying to the crowd and the Pharisees; the heart and the hands must match when it comes to obedience. As Jesus warned, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20). These words are not about a ‘works based’ salvation. Jesus is talking about a righteousness of kind rather than degree, and this is where New Covenant righteousness surpasses Old Covenant righteousness. The New Covenant established by the blood of Christ allows and empowers the deeper conformity to God’s commands as opposed to merely an external conformity. This is what was explored in a previous post from God’s promise in Jeremiah 31:33:
“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts”
And Ezekiel 36:27 describes this too:
“And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
This is a process of participation. We encounter God’s law through His word, the Spirit testifies to its truth, we agree with the Truth, and the Spirit begins to transform our heart to conform to that truth.
“Thus God’s two promises to put to put his law within us and to put his Spirit within us coincide. We must not imagine… that when we have the Spirit we can dispense with the law, for what the Spirit does in our hearts is, precisely, to write God’s law there” (Stott, 75). And so not only did Jesus complete the Law by fully teaching it with his words and actions, He completed it so that by our faith in Him for salvation, we are empowered to keep it through Holy Spirit. Therefore, the deep righteousness is evidence of being filled with the Spirit and born again, without which no one will enter the kingdom (John 3:3).

In fulfilling the Law, Jesus made it everything it was intended to be. He is the sum and substance of what it was pointing towards, He demonstrated and taught what its perfect obedience looks like, His sacrifice paid the penalty for its disobedience and makes available the eternal blessings for its obedience, and He empowers and enables us to obey it from the heart.

Moses’ Seat

There is another, lesser known passage in Matthew 23 where Jesus also spoke about the Law.
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice’” (Matt 23:1-3).
Because of cultural and chronological distance, we tend to miss what Jesus is trying to say. Moses’ seat is a special place in the synagogue from where the scriptures were read from, and where the Pharisees and scribes would sit as they taught and expounded the Law. Although Jesus is most likely referring to the authority given them to do so as the basis of listening, He is ultimately appealing to the authority of Scripture they were being taught. In other words Jesus is saying: ‘do what they tell you because what they are telling you to do is from the Law.’ And because Jesus commanded His disciples to obey the Law, according to the Great Commission, that command is applicable to His disciples even today. 

Answering Scott

So how are we to answer Scott? First and foremost, with three main words: context, context, context. There are a number of laws we don't practice today because of our cultural context. We do not offer sacrifices because there is no Temple. All sacrifices were restricted to the location of the Temple, and so no Temple = no sacrifice. Although Jesus did make a final sacrifice for sins, not all sacrifices were about sin and forgiveness. Many were there simply to honour God and give thanks for all He has provided. Other's don't apply because we aren't in the land, such as the Sabbath years. And there are others such as laws regarding capital punishment that don't apply because not only are there no directly divinely guided priesthood and council to judge such matters, but Jesus took the death penalty we deserve for our disobedience on the cross. Also, things like shaving and the wearing of mixed fabric need to be understood in their historical context. But beyond these, I see no reason why we should not continue to observe every Law possible. They are given for blessings and a way to demonstrate love and gratitude towards our creator and saviour.  

Bereans and the Law

As products of the Reformation and a rejection of 1950's legalism, we have inherited a church tradition that irks at the thought of the Law for today, choosing to live exclusively in Grace-Land. And the grace of God is amazing and mind-blowing, don't get me wrong. But there is another side to grace. And as Berean Baptists, we need to be willing to test what our tradition and personal doctrine teaches about the role the Law has in our lives as disciples of Christ, against the words of Jesus and the rest of scripture. And as we have seen, there is an expectation that our lives do conform to the righteousness of the Law. Not for salvation, but in response to our salvation out of love for our God, our King, and our Redeemer.

While Jesus made a righteousness apart from the Law possible, He did not annul it nor remove it. Rather, He reiterates its importance in how we are to live in relationship with God and others, and empowers us to observe it in the true and deeper way.

In my next post, we will be exploring what Paul said about the Law and the Christian and how it relates to the Gospel.


Calvin, John. Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Chrysostom, John. Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew.
France, Richard. The Gospel of MatthewNew International Commentary on the New Testament. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids (2007).
Ladd, George. A Theology of the New Testament. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids (1993).
Sanders, E. P. Judaism : Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE. Philadelphia: Trinity Press, 1992.
Wilkins, Michael. The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew. Zondervan: Grand Rapids (2004).