Phil Cox

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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):

Matthew 22:34-40
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?"
Jesus replied: "‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

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:

  • Love God.
  • Love other people.
  • That's it.

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:

Exodus 20:1-7
And God spoke all these words:
1 "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. "You shall have no other gods before me.
2 "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
3 "You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

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:

Exodus 20:8
4 "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

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:

Exodus 20:12-17
5 "Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.
6 "You shall not murder.
7 "You shall not commit adultery.
8 "You shall not steal.
9 "You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.
10 "You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour."

These have been summarised like this:

  1. Love your parents.
  2. Don't take another person's life.
  3. Don't take another person's wife or husband.
  4. Don't take another person's property.
  5. Don't take another person's reputation.
  6. Don't even think about it.

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.