Law of Christ

Christ did more than to merely interpret the Law of Moses; He replaced the Law of Moses with much higher moral standards, which Paul calls the Law of Christ.  This law reflects the Father’s perfect heart.  He loves His enemies and has compassion with people.  Therefore, the Law of Christ asks the same from His followers.  The Law of Christ is the eternal law as it existed from the beginning.  The Law of Moses was a temporary watered-down version of the eternal law, suitable for the corrupt condition of the nation.

Overview:

Christ not only interpreted the Law of Moses; He replaced the Law of Moses with a higher law with much higher moral standards.  Paul refers to this as the Law of Christ.  The Law of Christ is best illustrated by Matthew 5, where Christ quotes various Old Testament laws, and then, starting with the words, “But I say to you”, for each gives His alternative law, which is at a much higher moral level.  For instance:

He replaced the law against murder with a law against anger.

The revenge-law, which specified “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”, He completely set aside, commanding His followers to “not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also”.

This higher level Law reveals the Father’s heart.  The Father is perfect.  He loves His enemies and has compassion with people.  For that reason the Law of Christ requires His followers to do the same.

When Jesus was asked about the provisions for divorce in the Law of Moses, He referred to the creation account, stating that “the two shall become one flesh”.  When the Pharisees then asked why Moses allowed divorce, Jesus responded as follows:

Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way” (v8).

This teaches two principles:

Firstly, Christ’s Law is the law as it existed “from the beginning”.

Secondly the Law of Moses was a diluted / watered-down version of the law as it existed “from the beginning” to fit the corrupt condition of the nation.

The question then is, did Christ also replace the Old Testament Sabbath with a much higher Sabbath Law?

Introduction

This page discusses a principle that is seldom sufficiently appreciated, namely that Christ, through His teachings, did more than to interpret the Old Testament Law; He rather replaced the Law of Moses with a higher law with much higher moral standards.

Christ replaced the law of Moses with a higher system of ethics.

The Sermon on the Mount provides perhaps the best examples of this.  Here Christ quoted various Old Testament laws, and then, starting by saying, “But I say to you” (Matthew 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39 and 44), gave a much elevated version of that law.

For instance, the law against adultery He replaced with a law against looking at a woman with lust:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mat 5:27-28)

This is not an interpretation of the seventh commandment, but on a much higher moral level.

The law against murder He replaced with a law against anger:

You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘you shall not commit murder … But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty …” (Matthew 5:20-21).

Still talking about people that make one angry or scared, He said: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  Here Christ lifts the standard exponentially by defining even anger is a sin.  Instead of anger He requires us to love even our enemies.

Christ not only replaced the Ten Commandments; he also replaced other Old Testament laws, for instance, God gave to Moses the rule “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Lev. 24:20), but now Christ teaches that we should not take revenge:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)

This was also how Christ lived and died.  Dying on the cross, in incredible pain and suffering, He still had time to think about His enemies:

Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)

The law of Christ replaced the law of Moses. 

Moses said that “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him” (Deut. 18:15; cf. Acts 3:22), for “I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him” (Deut. 18:18).  At the transfiguration of Jesus, Moses also appeared with Jesus (Mt. 17:3), but God said of Jesus “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him” (v5).  These statements confirm that Jesus is the law-giver of the new dispensation.

Just before His ascension, Jesus said to His disciples:

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Paul wrote “the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment” (1 Cor. 14:37) and that he (Paul) is not “without the law of God” because he is “under the law of Christ” (1Cor.  9:21).  He urged Christ’s followers to “fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).  The “Law of Christ” refers Christ’s teachings, which is the higher level law which replaced the Law of Moses.

The Law of Christ reveals the Father’s heart.

Christ said:

He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9)

“I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me. (John 8:28)

I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak” (John 12:49).

It is therefore proposed that the “Law of Christ” is the pure law as it exists in the Father’s heart.  This is supported by Christ’s conclusion of His teachings in Matthew 5,

Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

This means there is no anger or revenge in the Father.  He would never expect more from us that from Himself.  He requires us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:27, 35) because He loves His enemies.  He told us to “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39) and “I desire compassion” (Matthew 9:13) because that is what the Father is like.  The Bible does sometimes present God as angry or seeking revenge, but it is proposed here that that is simply to explain the infinite One in a way which humans can understand.

God never punishes us because of bad things we have done in the past.  He does punish, but it is always with an eye on the future; to achieve better things for the future, for God is love (1 John 4:8, 16).

The Bible speaks about God’s wrath, and His wrath is a reality, but that does not mean that He becomes angry.  Without God we can do nothing.  He is the invisible Force that constantly protects and upholds us both physically and spiritually.  We are not even aware of all the dangers from which He constantly protects us. His wrath, therefore, is simply to give up those people for whom He can do nothing more.  In Romans 1, where Paul discusses “men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (v18), he three times wrote that “God gave them over” to their own passions and lusts (v24, 26, 28).  Also with respect to His people Israel, who were “bent on turning from Me”, God said:

How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I surrender you, O Israel? … My heart is turned over within Me, All My compassions are kindled” (Hosea 11:7-8)

Since the Father’s standards are infinitely high, our response should simply be like that of the tax collector:

“standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner’” (Luke 18:13)

God gave Israel the law in a form which they could understand.

But, one may protest, if Christ revealed God’s true law, why was the Law of Moses given at a lower level?  Why did God give Israel a watered-down law?

It is proposed that the law was scaled down to fit the corrupt condition of the nation.  Jesus explained this principle in Matthew 19.  When He was asked about the provisions for divorce in the Law of Moses, He said:

Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” (v4-6)

Jesus therefore responded to their question by referring to the creation account, not the Law of Moses.  This implies that the Law of Christ is the law as it existed “from the beginning”.  For both marriage (Mat. 19:8) and the seventh day (Mark 2:27) Christ reached over the Law of Moses to derive His elevated principles or laws from the way that things were created to be.

The Pharisees then, still adamant to apply the Law of Moses, asked, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (v7)  Jesus then explained:

Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way” (v8).

Here we have confirmation that the original law was adapted to Israel’s limited abilities.  God elected Abraham and his seed to be the conduit of His grace to the peoples of the earth.  To Abraham He promised, “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:3).  But, by the time of Moses, Israel has become a corrupt and enslaved little nation; far removed from the sinless and regal human beings that God created.  Due to the deterioration that comes from thousands of years living in a world filled with sin, Israel would not have been able to keep or even to understand the Laws of God as it existed “from the beginning”.  Therefore, to rescue that weak little nation from their addictive and soul-destroying idolatrous practices.  He gave the Law to Moses in the form that was best for Israel due to their “hardness of heart”.  He gave laws to Israel according to their capacity.  Israel needed simple, clear and practical instructions, linked with severe penalties.

This principle is applicable to all of God’s interactions with His creatures.  God meets people where they are.  He speaks to His hearers words that they are able to understand.  He never expects more from people than what they are able to do or able to bear.

Differences between the Law of Moses and the Law of Christ

The point is that Christ went beyond interpreting the Law of Moses; He replaced the Law of Moses and the Ten Commandments with a much higher system of ethics, here referred to as the “Law of Christ”.  Consider some differences between the Law of Moses and the Law of Christ:

The Ten Commandments is God’s Law at Satan’s end of the spectrum; it expresses God’s principles in terms of the practical realities of a world controlled by the evil one.  Take, for instance, the commandment not to kill.  It is based on God’s law—to love the people around you as much as you love yourself—but with Satan’s and man’s fallen nature in mind.   The Ten Commandments therefore are but a dim reflection of His original and eternal law.  The Law of Christ describes what the Father wants us to strive for, namely to be like Him, which is unconditional love.

The Law of Moses is an adaptation of God’s eternal law to fit the condition of a specific nation, place and time; to fit the hardness of man’s heart (Mat 19:8).  The Law of Christ is the law as it existed from the beginning.

The Law of Moses is given at a level where sinful man would be able to keep it.  The Laws of Christ, being at such a high level, is impossible for man, in his current condition, to comply with.

The Law of Moses may be read as teaching that one can earn rewards from God.  The Law of Christ emphasizes grace (mercy).

The Law of Moses focuses mostly on external behavior, while Christ’s laws put the emphasis mostly on the drivers of external behavior, namely internal feelings, such as love, hate and compassion.

Most of the Ten Commandments are stated negatively (what you should not do), while most of Christ’s explanations of the laws are stated positively (what you should do: Matt. 5 – let you light shine – be reconciled – make friends quickly with your opponent – turn the other cheek, to mention a few).

The Old Testament prescribes the death penalty for Sabbath breaking (Ex. 31:14), murder (Ex. 21:12), striking or cursing one’s father or mother (Ex. 21:15; Ex. 21:17), adultery (Lev. 20:10), blaspheming the name of the LORD (Lev. 24:16) and various other transgressions.  But Christ said to the woman caught in adultery, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more” (John 8:11).

Relevance

You may ask why the “Law of Christ” is discussed here as part of a discussion of Christ and the Sabbath.  The reason is that when we read what Jesus said about the Sabbath, we have to listen carefully.  If it can be shown that Christ, through His Sabbath teachings, explained the Sabbath principle as at a much higher moral level than the Law of Moses, then it would be possible to conclude that He replaced the Old Testament Sabbath with a much higher Sabbath Law.

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Galatians 3:19-25

3:19 Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made3:20 Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one. 3:21 Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. 3:22 But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 3:23 But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed.  3:24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 3:25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.


The Seed … to whom the promise had been made” is Christ, for in 3:16 it says that “the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed … that is, Christ” (3:16).  People can also become “heirs according to promise”, but only if they “belong to Christ” (3:29).

The Law is not “contrary to the promises of God” (3:21) because the Law and the promises have different functions:

The Law “was added because of transgressions” (3:19), which implies that the purpose of the Law is to protect against sin.  This is confirmed a few verses later, where it reads, “We (Jews) were kept in custody under the law” (3:23), and “the law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ” (3:24).  The Greek word that is translated “tutor” refers to somebody that takes children to school.  The NIV translates it as a “guardian”.  The law acted as guardian to the Jews.  The Ten Commandments should therefore not be seen as prohibitions, but as mercy; as a wall of protection against sin, which is a destroyer.

3:21 confirms that the purpose of the Law is not to “impart life”, which is equivalent to grant “righteousness”, which is another way of saying that the Law does not “justify”.  Since this is the answer to the question whether “the Law (is) then contrary to the promises” (3:21), 3:21 thereby implies that the purpose of the promises is to “impart life” (to justify).  The promise is to be “heir of the world” (Romans 4:13), which is a promise of “eternal life” (Romans 6:23).

We” (3:23, 25) in this letter refers to Jews; they were the people that were “kept in custody under the law” (3:23).

In 3:19-25 Paul continues to argue that man is not justified by the works of the Law, but through faith in Christ Jesus.  His argument is now as follows:

Scripture has shut up everyone under sin (3:22), which means that all people have sinned.  Therefore the law is not “able to impart life” (not able to grant “righteousness”) (3:21).  Therefore (note the words “so that” in 3:22) the promise (to impart life) is “given to those who believe (3:22).

Thus far in this chapter Paul has provided many arguments to support his claim in 2:16 that man is not justified by the works of the Law, but through faith in Christ Jesus.  Some of the arguments supported the notion that man is not justified by the works of the Law.  Other arguments supported the statement that man is justified through faith in Christ Jesus.  But in the current verses he adds a new line of argument, not previously mentioned in this chapter, namely that Christians are not subject to the Law of Moses:

He wrote that the Law was “added” (to the promises – 3:18), but only “until the seed (Christ) would come” (3:19, 16).  The law served as a “tutor … to Christ” (3:23-24), “but now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (3:25).

This idea, that the Law of Moses is no longer relevant, is also contained in certain statements in chapter 2, namely:

  • Paul indicated that he “died to the Law” (2:19; Romans 7:6).
  • Both the reference to Christ as “a minister of sin” (2:17) and the reference to something which Paul destroyed” (2:18) are interpreted above as referring to the fact that Gentile Christians do not have to obey the Law of Moses.

Christians may generally agree with most of the arguments above, but the conclusion that the Law of Moses is no longer relevant, is disputed by many.  There are Christians today that argue that we must adhere to the laws given by Moses, or at least to the moral aspects of that law.  They might quote Romans 3:31 and other verses, such in Romans 7, where Paul, for instance, wrote that “I myself with my mind am serving the law of God” (Romans 7:25).  They consequently might interpret Gal. 3:19-25 as warning against a wrong use of the Law.  But as shown above, 3:19-25 rather clearly states that the Law, as given to Moses, has expired.  This includes circumcision and even the Ten Commandments.

Also consider about the wider context.  Paul is arguing against the circumcision of the Gentiles and against compelling Gentiles to live like Jews.  This also confirms that the Law of Moses has been set aside.  Someone may argue that Paul set aside the ceremonial laws, but Paul himself does not make that distinction.  The entire Law was “addeduntil the seed (Christ) would come” (3:19).

To Christians that want to retain the Law of Moses I would like to say that Paul taught that Christians are subject to the “law of God”, but not in the form given to Moses.  Rather, Christians are subject to the “law of Christ”:

Paul said of himself that he was “not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ” (1Cor 9:20-21).

He also wrote: “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).

A reading of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-) would show that Christ did not interpret the Law given to Moses; Christ actually replaced it with His own laws, for instance:

“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ …  “But I say to you that … whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. (Mat 5:21-22)

Note that Christ here replaces one of the Ten Commandments with His own version of that commandment.  In this way Christ replaced the entire Law of Moses with the fundamental principles that existed ever since creation, of which the laws given to Moses were adaptations suitable for the specific time and place and people.

Therefore, one cannot justify the Sabbath (either Sunday or Saturday) simply on the basis of the laws given to Moses.  One has to find the Sabbath in Christ’s teachings.  He said more about the Sabbath than about any of the other nine commandments.  He probably even said more about the Sabbath than about the other nine commandments combined.  If we want to retain the Sabbath, we will have t retain it on the basis of Christ’s teachings, and, perhaps even more important, in the format presented by Christ.

For a more complete discussion, see the separate page on the Law in Galatians.

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