I recently was asked some questions about the law of liberty, (James 1:24) and the royal law (James 2:8-10). In the course of this person’s presentation of the question he also refers the “old law” and the “new law” and cites Matthew 5:21-22 as an example.
Let us deal with the old law/new law matter first. Actually these expressions are not found in the Bible. Perhaps this thinking is due to confusing law with covenant. Yes, there was a covenant which became old and was taken out of the way. A covenant may involve law or requirements upon the part of the lesser party (man) in the covenant. And when the covenant is superseded by a different covenant those requirements obviously will be superseded also. When the old covenant was taken out of the way a new covenant, enacted on better promises, was put in its place. The better promises of the new covenant have to do, perhaps among other things, with the forgiveness of sins which were not taken away under the old covenant.
What Jesus was talking about in Matt. 5 when he cited the commandments “you have heard it said …” was not about the law as it was given, but about how it had been perceived and interpreted by the Jewish rabbis and Pharisees. And when he said, “but I say…,” he was not giving new law – he was giving the meaning of the law as it was always intended to be understood and applied.
When we think about the law of God we should think of it as being a manifestation of the character of God himself. When God gave the ten commandments at Mt. Sinai he said, “I am the Lord your God…” He wanted his people to think of him and to know something about him when they thought of these laws. Summed up, the ten commandments say that one fulfills their demands by loving God and loving others. This is exactly what Jesus said.
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40).
The first 3 of the ten commandments relate to love and respect for God. The 4th command – the Sabbath – is fulfilled in Christ. He is our sabbath. When one honors him he honors our sabbath. Our rest is in him. The next 5 of the ten commandments are essentially moral law, having to do with how people are to live together before God and fulfill their responsibility toward one another. The last (covetousness) has to do with our own mind and how we think about others.
We sometimes hear that the ten commandments were done away with and then all but the fourth restated under the new covenant. In an accomodative sort of way I suppose it could be stated that way, but in fact, how can the character of God be done this way? Personally, I prefer to think of these as being eternal principles based on the character of God and always applicable. If these laws are based on the existence and character of God, then they cannot pass away or be done away with.
Being from God and having the purpose for which it was intended, we should have the highest respect for God’s law. This, I think is what James 1:25 means by calling God’s law the “perfect law – the law of liberty.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary says of this verse …
“So long as the law is not seen in the beauty of its perfection, it is not loved, and men either disobey it or obey it by constraint and unwillingly. It is then a law of bondage. But when its perfection is recognized men long to conform to it; and they obey, not because they must, but because they choose. To do what one likes is freedom, and they like to obey. It is in this way that the moral law of the Gospel becomes “the law of liberty,” not by imposing fewer obligations than the moral law of the Jew or of the Gentile, but by infusing into the hearts of those who welcome it a disposition and a desire to obey.”
In this respect, think of the 119th Psalm. This lengthy (176 verses) psalm is an acrostic poem extolling the excellence of the law, the commandments, the precepts and statutes of God’s word. To the writer, the law of God was a beautiful thing. Why shouldn’t it be? It does, after all, express the beauty and perfection of God himself and the standard expected of us as his creatures made in his image.
Paul relates to us the reason for law. In speaking of the law of God the apostle says …
Romans 7:13 “Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.”
Romans 5:20 “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,”
Galatians 3:19 …“Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary”
There is obviously a problem here as far as man is concerned. Since this law, based on the perfection of God himself, is the standard by which man is to live, it necessarily follows that if we in any way fail to live up to that standard we become condemned by that perfect law. It is only those who “do the law” that shall live by the law – and no one ever has done that (except Jesus). The very thing that reveals the ideal of life to us becomes a thing of death! The fault is not in the law – it is in man’s inability to keep that law perfectly. As Paul said, the law was “weakened by the flesh” (Romans 8:3).
Obviously what we have said concerning the doing away with law does not include ceremonial law – the rules and requirements that regulated animal sacrifices, holy days and the things that made Israel distinctive and thus kept them apart from their neighboring nations – their dress, diet, etc. There is no one today who practices all those things prescribed in what we call the ceremonial law.Why? Because that aspect of law has been done away. It no longer is applicable because it served its purpose.
Since it is God’s purpose now to bring all humanity together in Christ, those things which had kept people apart were done away when Jesus died on the cross, which, I believe, is what Paul means in Ephesians 2:15-16. The ceremonial law fulfilled its purpose and was taken out of the way. But how can the moral law which is based on the moral perfection of God’s own character pass away? That law calls man to conform to the image of God by doing everything it requires.
Now, what about the “royal law”? This simply means that this is the law of the king. Our king is Jesus. His law is simple, yet profound. It is profound in that all right actions are to be based on the two “greatest commands.” We don’t have to make lists, memorize details, know secret formulas or do hard tasks. All we have to remember when faced with a situation that demands a decision is … does it show my love for God and is it the loving thing to do toward my fellow human being? My model for this is the person and exemplary life of Jesus.
When Jesus was speaking to his disciples the night before he was betrayed and crucified he told them he was giving them a “new commandment” John 13:34 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” This was what John referred to as not a new commandment at all, but the old commandment they had had all along (1 John 2:7-8).
So, how does that play out in practical terms? The apostle John puts it this way …
1 John 3.22-24 – “…whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.”
John 15.10, 14 – “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
What are those commandments? My friend Matthew Allen wrote …
“Then Jesus mentioned a few commandments: You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The commandments listed are the same in the three gospel accounts except that Mark adds do not defraud and Matthew adds you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
“After Jesus said this, the young man sincerely answered: All these I have kept, what do I still lack? The ones that he could perform to the letter, he had. But notice. Jesus placed the moral law in the foremost place. Some have said that Jesus did this purposely as to stress them over the laws of ritualistic obedience. (The Jews were primarily concerned with tradition and ritual.) You shall love your neighbor as yourself summarizes the law. Our love for God can only be demonstrated by love for our fellowman, 1 John 4.20-21. Someone has said, our light burns in love to God, but it shines in love to our neighbor.” (allenbibleresources.com).
And when we have done all we think and know to do in obedience to these two great commandments of the law we will not have done enough to save ourselves. This will be true of any system of law, whether God’s law or man’s law. No law can save us because we will always come short of doing everything required by that law.
We still have to depend on the mercy and grace of God. Why? Because we will never, ever, always do exactly the right thing or always think the right thought or always have the right attitude toward God or other people. We will want to do right because God wants us to do right, but we will always at some point or in some situation or with some people do something wrong. That we don’t live up to its perfection does not detract from God’s law. In fact it heightens the excellence of it. If it did not expose our sin it would not be perfect!
No, we are not even saved by the “royal law!” We do our best to live by it because we love God, but always depend on him for his grace!