(Bible quotations are from the NIV unless otherwise stated)
Why is the Law the Law?
1st February 2007
Sometimes I'm a bit slow. It can take me ages to understand something that I suspect everyone else realised years ago. This week, I want to write about one of those occasions. I realise that most of you will finish this column and say something like "well, of course! isn't that obvious?" but it means a lot to me right now.
Looking back since I started this website about a year ago, I see that I've quoted this story three times (from either Matthew or Mark):
It is a particularly foundational passage. Here, Jesus Himself tells us the first and second most important things for us to do, and He tells us that all the other stuff we're supposed to do "hangs" on these two.
The most obvious thing about this passage is that both the commandments that Jesus selected as the most important and the second most important is that they're about love. Jesus's whole answer can be summarised as:
And I'm sure all Christians everywhere (and plenty of other people) would agree with this, in theory.
But what I want to focus on this week is the last bit: "All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two c ommandments". We all know that the Bible is a big book, and it contains a LOT of commandments. There are 10 famous ones in Exodus 20 but there are plenty of others. That's why Jesus talks about "All the Law and the Prophets" here. There are so many that most of us can't even remember them all (although it's true that we'd remember more of them if we read our Bibles more).
Jesus was talking to a Pharisee - someone who believed that way to peace with God was to know and keep all the laws all the time - and whose religious sect even made up a pile of extra laws. And Jesus said, in effect, "Just keep these two!"
It wasn't that the others aren't important; if they weren't important then God wouldn't have given them to us. It's that if you keep these two, then you will - inevitably - keep all the others.
So what do we learn? Well, here's the bit that's revelation to me and probably blindingly obvious to you:
We all understand that, if God says do something, then we ought to do it. We all understand that if God says don't do something, then we ought not to do it. So we try - like the Pharisees - to remember and keep all the Law. And that's quite right. But - here goes - There's a reason WHY God says what He says. The Biblical laws are not just arbitrary rules that He made up to make life difficult. Every law in the Bible - every commandment - is there for a reason. And the reason is love. Every time the Bible tells us to do something, it does so because that's the loving thing to do, and every time it tells us not to do something it's because that's not a loving thing to do.
You can check this out by looking through the 10 commandments. The first three are:
These are about loving God. If you love God then you will, of course, acknowledge that there is no other God besides Him. You will, of course, refrain from worshipping idols. And you will never abuse His holy name.
The fourth commandment is:
This is interesting and instructive; Jesus says in Mark 2:27 that "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath". This commandment is there in part to remind us that God made the universe, and to encourage us to be respectful of our Creator. But, more than that, God gave us the Sabbath because one day a week without work is good for us. This principle actually applies to all God's commands: obeying Him is good for us. But it's particularly obvious in this example. It can be very helpful to us to realise that God gives us His commandments because they're good for us. Try to remember this when you find a commandment you don't like.
The remaining six commandments are all about loving other people:
These have been summarised like this:
In each case, it's easy to see that the commandment is telling us to do the loving thing.
We're weak and fallible people. And sometimes doing something (or not doing something) just because God says so isn't easy. "Just because God says so" should be reason enough, but it's easier for us to obey Him if we grasp that there's a reason why He says what He says - it's because He wants us to always do the loving thing and never do the unloving thing. And the individual commandments (in Exodus 20 and elsewhere) are there to show us which are the loving actions and which are the unloving ones.
One last thought. You may find a commandment in scripture that doesn't seem to you to be about doing the loving thing or about refraining from doing the unloving thing. When that happens, we need to trust God that He knows better than we do what is loving and what isn't.