With Christ, it’s not “obey or die” — it’s “believe and live.”
One of the oldest controversies in the history of the church is – what exactly are the rules? It’s especially confusing in our days. So, you got baptized, and now you’re the member of a Protestant church. What next? Where’s the rulebook? If you’re Catholic or Orthodox, you have a pretty nice and well-organized rulebook, in the Catechism. If you’re a monk or a nun, you have even more clear-cut rules, and stricter at that.
But we don’t really have that here, do we? We might not have a Christian rulebook, but we definitely have the “goodbook” – the Bible – but even in the good book, there’s not really a Christian rulebook.
But we do have a rulebook in the goodbook. What we have is a Jewish rulebook – the 613 commandments of Moses. The Levitical Laws. Now, something interesting about those Laws. Where do you find them in the Bible? In Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, basically — and a little bit of history about them in Exodus.
Now, those books of the Law are toward the beginning of the Bible – but they’re not in the very first book of the Bible. Genesis is the first book of the Bible – the story of the beginning. Why do the books of the Law come after the book of Genesis? Because the Law came after the events of Genesis. The Law wasn’t there in the beginning. God didn’t give the Law in the Garden — he gave it many, many years later, in the Desert.
This is an important clue for helping us understand the “Christian rules”. St. Paul spends a long time in the book of Romans pointing out that before the Law came, there were plenty of righteous people – all in the book of Genesis: “Enoch pleased God” — “Noah was a man righteous in his generation” — “Blessed be the Lord God of Shem…and may God make room for Japeth” — all of these men were righteous before God. And yet, they had no rulebook! They came long before the Law was given to Moses.
The great men of old were righteous not because they were obedient to a Law – since there was not yet any Law – but they were like Abraham. In Genesis 15:6 we read, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
This was the way it was before the Law – but that doesn’t mean the Law changed how God judged righteousness. Faith is still what counted. In fact, St. Paul tells us that the Law and Prophets themselves confirm this. He says that with the revelation of Jesus Christ, “now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” (Rom. 3:21)
Why did Paul spend so much time talking about righteousness “apart from the Law”? Because the Law was never meant to be permanent, and in Paul’s time it was already passing away. “He has made the first [covenant] obsolete – and what is obsolete and aging is passing away.” (Heb. 8:13)
The Law and the Prophets all testified that a new covenant would come: “the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt” (Jer. 31) — which covenant is he talking about with their fathers? The covenant of Sinai – obey the Law of Moses or die!
But Jesus cut a new and better covenant on better promises. It’s not, “obey or die” — it’s “believe and live.”
That’s all well and good – but isn’t the Law of Moses still the rulebook for the Christian life? No, it’s not. Not anymore than coloring between the lines with crayons is the rulebook that will make you a painter like Michaelangelo or Rembrandt. An even more direct analogy is, Christians have no more obligation to obey the Law of Moses than Americans have to follow the Articles of Confederation, the old and obsolete constitution which is no longer is in effect in our nation.
This can be a confusing subject for many. Jesus does say, after all, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.” And yet St. Paul contradicts him in Ephesians, saying that Jesus “has abolished in his flesh the Law with its rules and regulation.”
But the Bible is quite clear. In Luke 16:16, Jesus himself says, “The Law and the Prophets were until John: since then, the Kingdom of God is preached, and every man presses into it.”
But Sean, isn’t the next line: “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for a single letter to drop out of the Law”?
Yes it is – and he directed these words at the Pharisees, whom he accused of loving money more than the Law. Follow me here for a minute – these are the same Pharisees against whom he pronounces 7 Woes Judgment in Matthew 23: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!…And so upon you will come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all these things will come upon this generation.”
Did you catch that? Jesus said all this blood would come upon them, upon their generation. After Jesus says all this, he points to the Temple and says, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
“Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?” (Luke 21).
To this question, Jesus gives a long answer, called The Olivet Discourse, which Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record with slight variations. But all three record his closing words in exactly the same way: “This generation shall not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my Words will never pass away.”
Do you follow? Did you catch the power of that? Jesus could not have made it any more clear – he was telling them he will rain down judgment upon his generation – and when he does, heaven and earth will pass away.
St. Paul describes the passing away of heaven and earth too, in Hebrews, in the following way: he sets it up by saying that in the days of Moses, the children of Israel came to Mt. Sinai, to a commandment of “obey or die” — but that in the days of Jesus, the children of God have come to Mt. Zion, to a new covenant of “believe and live.” It is with these two covenants in mind that he says:
“See to it that you do not refuse Him who speaks. For if the people did not escape when they refused Him who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject Him who warns us from heaven? At that time His voice shook the earth, but now He has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth, but heaven as well.” The words ‘once more’ signify the removal of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that the unshakable may remain.
“Therefore, since we are receiving an unshakable kingdom, let us be filled with gratitude, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe. ‘For our God is a consuming fire.’”
Do you see? Paul here interprets the meaning of “heaven and earth passing away” to mean the removal of earthly, shakable, created things – he’s talking about the Law – and the establishment of heavenly, unshakeable, eternal things – the Kingdom of God. Just like Jesus, he contrasts the Law with the Kingdom. And Paul is saying that “now” in his own time, heaven and earth are being shaken.
Well, how did this shaking occur? Just as Jesus said it would in the Olivet Discourse – when the Temple came tumbling down. This happened in the year 70. A war broke out, and the Romans circled the city of Jerusalem and burned it down. It was a horrible holocaust. Only the Christians, who were repentant and holy, escaped. Many of those who despised Christ and the Christians were killed in the most horrendous of ways – just like Jesus said, the blood of the martyrs came upon their generation, and especially upon the priesthood of the Temple.
When the Temple came down, the Levitical priesthood was destroyed along with it, and has not returned since.
What does Hebrews say about the priesthood? “When the priesthood is changed, the law must be changed also.” This is why we no longer follow the Levitical Laws – because the Levitical priesthood that administered it no longer exists. Just like the government constituted by the Articles of Confederation no longer exists or administers its laws in America. Instead, we have our current government based on the Constitution administering its laws.
In the same way, since the 1st century, we now have the Priesthood of Christ, after the Order of Melchizedek, based on his new covenant, administering His Law.
We no longer “obey or die” under the Law of Moses — we “believe and live.” That is the Law of Christ.
What does this mean for you? It means that when you fall in love with Jesus, when you give your life to him, what he asks of you is your faith. When he says that your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, he’s speaking of righteousness through faith, apart from the Law – after all, he came to fulfill the Law because no one else could, or can. He didn’t bring us to Mt. Sinai, commanding us “obey or die” — he brought us to Mt. Zion, proclaiming, “believe and live”.
“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elementary principles of this creation rather than on Christ.” (Col. 2:9). Paul is talking about the Law – and really anything like it that the world has to offer – don’t let anyone take you captive to the traditions and teachings of a shakable creation, but remain in the unshakeable Kingdom of Christ. 2 Cor. 3:6 goes so far as to say that “the letter [of the Law] kills, but the Spirit brings life.”
“Now…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Cor. 3:17).
So what are the rules? “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:12-13)
“Live in freedom, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Treat everyone with high regard: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.” (1 Pt. 2:13)
We no longer are captive to obey or die: we do not “live by the rules”, since rules don’t bring us closer to the Lord, not even the old commandment of Moses himself, since Moses is not the Lord, and is but a servant in the household of God. Instead, we believe and live: we live by the new commandment of Jesus, the Lord, who is heir over the house of God: “Love another. Love one another as I have loved you.”
“And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory” (Heb. 3:6) — if we believe and live.