The Law in the New Testament – General Epistles
When He said, "A new covenant," He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is
becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear. NASB
New Testament Texts and Contexts – General Epistles
As we survey the General Epistles, we find the Old Covenant Mosaic Law as a main topic of discussion in the book of Hebrews. Therein it is contrasted with the new age of Messianic salvation that has dawned in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, very much like we saw in the Gospels and Acts. Of this discussion in Hebrews Thomas Schreiner writes; “The author to the Hebrews engages a sustained argument against reverting to the Aaronic priesthood and the Levitical sacrificial cultus. He does not claim that the Mosaic Covenant was somehow a mistake from its inception. Instead, he hangs his argument on salvation-historical realities. Now that Christ has arrived as the Melkizedekian priest, a return to the Levitical priesthood would constitute a denial of Christ’s sacrifice. The Aaronic priesthood and the Old Testament sacrifices are not rejected wholesale, they are viewed typologically. The Old Testament priesthood and sacrifices pointed to and anticipated the sacrifice of Christ. They are shadows, He is the substance. The brute beasts offered in the Old Testament sacrifices cannot ultimately forgive, but Christ’s sacrifice is atoning since He is a willing and sinless victim. The repetition of Old Testament sacrifices reveals that they do not actually forgive sin, whereas the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ definitively and finally atones for sins.” These statements are clearly seen to be true in the text of Hebrews. The writer maintains that the Levitical priesthood was unable to atone for sins and looked forward typologically to Christ, His sacrifice, His priesthood, and to a New and better covenant at time later in history.
Hebrews 10:1-4 – 1 For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never by the same sacrifices year by year, which they offer continually, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? 3 But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. NASB
Hebrews 10:9-12 – He takes away the first in order to establish the second. 10 By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 11 And every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; 12 but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, NASB
Hebrews 9:8-10 – 8 The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed, while the outer tabernacle is still standing, 9 which is a symbol for the present time. Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, 10 since they relate only to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation. NASB
Hebrews 9:11-16 – 11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; 12 and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? 15 And for this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, in order that since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. NASB
Hebrews 8:6-7 – 6 But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises. 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second. NASB
Hebrews 8:13 – 13 When He said, "A new covenant," He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear. NASB
The writer maintains that when the priesthood changes, it also changed the law that governed it.
Hebrews 7:11-12 – 11 Now if perfection was through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the people received the Law), what further need was there for another priest to arise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be designated according to the order of Aaron? 12 For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also. NASB
The Melchizedekian priesthood succeeded the Levitical priesthood as the eternal and once-for-all mediation prescribed by God Himself.
Hebrews 7:23-28 – 23 And the former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers, because they were prevented by death from continuing, 24 but He, on the other hand, because He abides forever, holds His priesthood permanently. 25 Hence, also, He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. 26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; 27 who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins, and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. NASB
Therefore the Levitical Priesthood and the Ceremonial Law are seen as typological in a Redemptive-Historical sense. This is to say that they fit into a specific time period in redemptive history to be fulfilled at a later time and in a greater way. The Old gives way to the New and better plan of fulfillment that God has as the ages progress ever nearer to the consummation.
Hebrews 9:23-25 – 23 Therefore it was necessary for the copies of the things in the heavens to be cleansed with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; NASB
Learn here then from the letter to the Hebrews, the clear abrogation of the Ceremonial Law, including the Levitical Priesthood, the temple sacrifices, the washings and consecrations and the other outward and ceremonial rites related to it. The Ceremonial aspects of the Law were only temporary and ineffectual. More than this, see that Christ is the actual long awaited substance of God’s ultimate plan in history that was only a shadow in the Mosaic Covenant. It was Christ who provided a perfect mediation between God and man as the divinely appointed High Priest, whose once-for-all sacrifice is effectual to atone for sins to the uttermost, and whose Priesthood is eternal, for “He ever lives to make intercession for us.” In Christ a New and better covenant has dawned which stands on better promises and provides complete atonement and eternal forgiveness for “those who draw near to worship God through Him.”
The letter by James, the brother of Jesus and a leader of the Jerusalem council of elders, does mention the Law, and has a significant discussion about it. James does draw significantly from the Old Testament to drive home his points as the recipients of his letter are clearly identified as Jews. Although this is true, we must understand that James never mentions the ceremonial Law, circumcision, the Sabbath or food laws. Instead he has a particular focus on obedience to the moral aspects of the Law and an emphasis on obedience to it. For example he maintains that if you violate one portion of the Law, you have transgressed the entire Law.
James 2:10-12 – 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. 11 For He who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not commit murder." Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act, as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. NASB
Therefore James exhorts his hearers to obedience to the moral aspects of the Law. He has a particular focus on partiality, a bridled tongue, godly wisdom, rich oppression of the poor, and the care of orphans and widows. See in these James clearly drawing from the moral principles contained in the Old Testament and applying them to our life as a guide for walking in and doing God’s will. In fact, this is the key to seeing how James views the Law. Apparently, He sees the Law as having been fulfilled in Christ, which has brought about a salvation of the soul, through the Gospel, “the word of truth” (v-1:18), and “the implanted word” (v-1:21). This “implanted” “word of truth” is an obvious illusion to the promise of the New Covenant foreseen in the Prophets, and which has produced a new life and divinely inspired obedience for believers.
Jeremiah 31:31-34 – 31 "Behold, days are coming," declares the Lord, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them, "declares the Lord. 33 "But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares the Lord, "I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34 "And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them," declares the Lord, "for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more." NASB
Ezekiel 11:19-20 -19 "And I shall give them one heart, and shall put a new spirit within them. And I shall take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may walk in My statutes and keep My ordinances, and do them. Then they will be My people, and I shall be their God. NASB
Ezekiel 36:25-27 – 25 "Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26 "Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 "And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. NASB
Thus when James refers to the Law, he sees the Law as the fulfilled Law in Christ which has freed us from sin by regeneration and conversion, a Gospel reality that has now dawned in the age of the New Covenant. Therefore he does not minimize the Law but rather sees it as a guide and a mirror (1:23), clearly informing us of God’s will so that we are freed from the shackles of human sin in order to become doers of the Word and thus please God, be blessed by Him, and avoid sinning against Him (1:22-25). Thus James refers to the Law as the “Law of liberty.”
James 1:25 – 25 But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does. NASB
Now all of this may seem as though James is exhorting us to obedience to the Law as if we were under the Law. However the discussion in James 2:14-26 clearly focuses on the life of faith, where James makes the point that the kind of faith that “saves,” is the true and genuine kind of faith that produces good works.
James 2:14-17 – 14 What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. NASB
James emphasis on obedience to the Law and producing good works as a result of faith, is designed to drive home the point that obedience to God is an essential part of born again faith, and mere professors are in fact “merely hearers who delude themselves” (1:22). He speaks of a salvation by “faith” (2:14) and also a salvation by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, where he clearly testifies of an “implanted word” which “is able to save your souls.”
James 1:18 – 18 In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we might be, as it were, the first fruits among His creatures. NASB
James 1:21 – 21Therefore putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. NASB
Therefore, James clearly sees the freedom that has come to us now in the Gospel, the “faith” that “saves” by an “implanted word of truth,” which produces a visible obedience. In this he exhorts us to continued obedience to the moral aspects of the Law. He sees this as the way of freedom from human sin and as freedom to obey by a newly empowered and born again life. We now obey the Law because God is empowering us, and this is the way of true freedom from the human shackles of sin.
In the epistles of 1 and 2 John there is a reference to the Law by way of the word “commandments.” John never mentions the ceremonial Law, circumcision, the Sabbath or food laws. Rather, John sees the commandments in terms of love for God and for neighbor. In this see that John exhorts obedience to the moral aspects of the Law, and sees the “commandments” as having been fulfilled in Christ as the new age of the Gospel has dawned, and the indwelling Spirit is a reality that allows us to “abide in Him.”
1 John 3:23-24 – 23 And this is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us. 24 And the one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And we know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us. NASB
See here that “believing in Jesus” and “loving one another,” are identified with each other. Consider how the second table of the Law is closely tied to the Gospel or believing in Jesus Christ. This emphasis on faith and love is a major theme in 1 and 2 John. Thus see that the “commandments” cannot be restricted to Old Testament “commandments” but are identified with the Gospel. Therefore, born again Spirit empowered faith that manifests itself in the obedience of love, is John’s theme, showing the heart of Christian life in the new gospel age.
1 John 4:7-8 – 7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. NASB
1 John 4:13-14 – 13 By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. 14 And we have beheld and bear witness that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. NASB
1 John 4:20-21 – 20 If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also. NASB
Much like James, John explains that true saving faith manifests itself in obedient love for God and neighbor. Notice the two tables of the Law shining brightly here. But the Law here is empowered by the indwelling Spirit which is identified with the new Gospel age and faith in Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. As John summarizes his letter in chapter 5, he connects these two themes of loving God and neighbor with being “born of God.”
1 John 5:1-3 – 1 Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God; and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. 3 For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome. NASB
Then he clearly explains that being “born of God” is a direct result of “believing that Jesus is the Son of God,” which he identifies as “the victory that has overcome the world, our faith.”
1 John 5:4-5 – 4 For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world — our faith. 5 And who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? NASB
See then the use of the Law in the General Epistles is much like its use in the Gospels and in Acts. The moral Law is seen as God’s eternal guide and mirror for us, but Jesus has brought a new Messianic age of life and immortality to light through the Gospel. The Ceremonial Law is seen as temporary and in contrast to the Person and Work of Christ, who is the fulfillment thereof, which has brought about a radical new born again age of faith. In this new Spirit empowered age, God has regenerated us and written the Law on our hearts. This has resulted in a faith towards Jesus the Christ. This faith is then expressed practically in loving obedience to God in the moral precepts of the Law, loving God and neighbor. Ceremony and ritual have given way to genuine and heartfelt conformity to God’s holy will, by a radical regeneration of the Holy Spirit. This is the eternal and effectual New Covenant age of Messianic salvation.
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