He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. -NRSV
One thing that often trips up Christians as they try to make sense of the Old Testament is that Jesus’ Bible, WAS THE OLD TESTAMENT! I mean that’s a bit over simplified as our Bible is not quite like his was, because we carry 2,000 years of history that the context of the New Testament didn’t carry. But, never-the-less Jesus was NOT opposed to the “Law and the Prophets.” For example, according to Matthew Jesus said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (NRSV).” So the question is inevitably begged to be asked and answered, what does the Christian do with the Old Testament Law?
What I’ll set out to do here is accentuate, theologically, one way of explaining how some of the New Testament writers characterized the Old Testament law (but you can include the prophets too). But I’ll shape this theological accent through a sociological and then a literary move, so bare with me as I guide us through the context of the Biblical texts.
Please understand I’m using the term “Old Testament Law” very loosely here, and simply mean the spirit of the law and the prophets as it was culturally baked into the psyche of the 1st century texts and traditions. As you can imagine some of this stuff is as much an art as it is a science to understand because the Hebrew scriptural traditions during the time of Jesus were passed on more through orality, culture, and religion (temple practices), than they were passed through books (of course NOT as we understand books today, because back then books weren’t even invented yet, but that’s a different story). Literary tradition is important to this reflection here so we can see the context of the law as a whole.
I have read that perhaps as much as 90% of the population in Jesus’ day were probably illiterate (by our standards). Where this gets interesting is that the literacy rates seem to be dramatically higher if you were a member of a specific religious sect, like say a disciple of Jesus (see pages around 98 of Rodney Starks’, “The Triumph of Christianity”). And that is a point of this reflection here: much of the New Testament is an opinionated commentary about their context, but much of that opinion is about what they thought of the Law and the Prophets meant for their times, struggles, and needs. In fact, it’s highly likely Jesus told Christians how to go about doing this process as his teachings seemed to be recordings done much in this mode. (But what came first the chicken or the egg? If you get my drift.) So what is this underlying opinion that guided their reflections of the times they wrote out of?
The Law as Prognosis
One way to understand the NT writer’s understanding of the Torah tradition they were saturated in, is to see Torah as both revelation and a preserved tradition that served as a prognosis on the people of God. The law and the prophets were a subversive way of diagnosing the disease of human sin and worldly disorder in a universe ruled by a God of the opposite type of nature. The law wasn’t an ideal, it was a rule of life to reveal this tension between the Righteous King over all and his unruly subjects. The key here is the writers of the NT saw and expected this tension to have an inevitable breaking point. That’s the scene Jesus was born into. He walked onto the stage and said I’m the outcome of this tension and we’re going to settle this once and for all because he was that Lord.
You can imagine when God called out this tension for the first time, not through the chaos of historical turmoils, like wars, or periods of feast to famines, but rather chose to do it through a head on battle of messiah versus the worldly powers of Rome and the Temple, it was sure to end badly one way or another. Jesus was fulfilling the law because a good diagnosis understands what is the inevitable prescription. Let me illustrate this quickly with a different but contemporary tie in.
In the news a few days ago there were stories of human devastation on world wildlife populations. Apparently we have killed off a significant percentage of animal life on earth. But should one be surprised by our ignorant opposition to the good nature God created? God visited here once and we killed him too. God knew the inevitable outcome of his prognosis because the law and prophets said as much accordingly. At least the NT writers interpreted the Law and Prophets as such. And this is why the NT writers could say so often, “according to the scriptures,” or similar phrases like that.
The law and the prophets were not only a tradition, but a literary lesson that set an expectation: God was coming to set things right one day. Jesus and his teachings, and his Church, and most importantly, His Spirit, are the outcomes of that prognosis.
Christ as the New Prognosis
So what should Christians do with the law? Well, that’s the problem. The writers of the NT kept the tradition going. They accepted the prognosis they inherited is the reality of the earth as long as it is spared from complete dismantling and rebuilding from the neutrino up. The continuation of history with any God given prognosis is the fate of life. Christ as the new prognosis on the world was seen as the patience of the Father, Jesus and his teachings are seen as grace and mercy, and the Holy Spirit as the ultimate gift and help until the end. This triune reflection is the new prognosis resurrected out of the outcome of the old prognosis. Much of the NT is basically inferring that the grace of God the world has received through Christ will inevitably have its own fulfillment like the law did.
So, “when will this cycle end!?,” is a good question to ask here. No one knows. But just as the NT was expectant of the law, not to be abolished but fulfilled and transformed into something new, we too, look forward to being fulfilled and transformed into something new. The law, such that it is still relevant is a slave, like us all, to the service of Christ. The point of the Law in the NT is, don’t obsess about the details of the law but pay attention to the prognosis of it. So, if you must flirt with the question, “what to do about the law?” I suggest see the law as, in fact, abolished, because our current situation, in light of Christ, has a much more existential crisis and prognosis: the law of Christ is here and its inevitable fulfillment is a scary one. God himself is directly with us not some easy law to fulfill.
Every year around Halloween I’m reminded most are haunted by ghouls and ghosts but I’m haunted by God. Trust me, I’d rather have the ghost problem because God’s is Holy and I am not. The law systems we have to navigate with today are way more complicated and harder to keep, like American law and the law of Christ, but I digress.
In summary, Jesus inaugurated something dramatically new to the world but the New Testament presents this newness from a world view ok with cyclical thinking, in a historical sense. But don’t be fooled. The law has been abolished and its authority made subservient to Christ. As the scripture says (in the NRSV),
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.”