The Jews reckon there are 613 different laws in the first five books of the Bible, almost all of them in Exodus to Deuteronomy. I haven’t counted, but if they’re right, that’s nearly five in each chapter. If you’ve ever read Leviticus, Numbers or Deuteronomy, you might even think that’s an underestimate!
So how should we read the books of the Law? Law number 238 says we shouldn’t wear cloth of wool and linen mixed together (Deut. 22:11). Instinctively, almost all Christians would say that doesn’t apply today. Law number 2 says we should have no other gods besides the true and living God (Ex. 20:3). That still applies, we’d argue. But how do we know? And what’s the point of all those laws that we think don’t apply? What are we supposed to do with them?
Christ has fulfilled the law
As we read the Books of the Law, the most important thing to remember is that Christ has fulfilled the Law. We get this from Matthew 5:17, where Jesus says, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.’
Here, we learn what Jesus hasn’t come to do (abolish the law), and what he has come to do (fulfil the law). So what’s the difference between abolishing something and fulfilling it?
The Greek word behind ‘abolish’ is καταλύω (katalyō). It’s often translated in English Bibles as ‘destroy’. It means to throw something down – to demolish it completely. In contrast, the Greek word behind ‘fulfil’ is πληρόω (plēroō). It means to complete something, to fill it up. It’s the word used in Acts 12:25, where Barnabas and Paul have completed their mission to Jerusalem.
What does that mean?
What’s the practical difference between abolishing the law and fulfilling the law?
Imagine an architect’s plans to build a new house – let’s call it the ‘House of Righteousness’. The foundations for the house were put in perfectly, but the superstructure is not going well. During its building, the house has passed through many owners. Some tried hard but weren’t successful. Many built what they wanted, rather than what the architect had planned, but all along the architect’s plan hasn’t changed. Sure, he’s added extra notes and explanations to the plans to help the builders, but the overall plan is the same as it was on day one.
Now there is a patchwork of walls, many not connected to the others, and several in ruins. It’s completely uninhabitable and it looks nothing like the plans. Nobody knows how to get it back to what it should be. How do we fix that? Some argue that the plans should be ripped up and abandoned because they set an impossible standard and they’ll never get built. However, the architect disagrees. He says he’ll come and finish the work, completing the plans that everyone else has failed to follow. That’s what Jesus is saying in Matthew 5:17. He didn’t come to rip up the plans. He came to complete them.
If you haven’t already guessed, the plans for the house represent the Old Testament law. The law showed the Old Testament ‘builders’ what true righteousness looked like. There were lots of instructions, and although those instructions were never changed, they were added to over time to make them even clearer.
If the plans had been followed, then the House of Righteousness would have been built but everyone failed until Jesus came and built the house perfectly.
Reading the Books of the Law
How does this help us to read the Books of the Law?
First, reading the plans tells us a lot about the house and the architect, so they’re fascinating and instructive. Yet we must remember that we’re not trying to follow those plans. We’re invited to live in the house, not build the house.
Second, we’re not surprised to see instructions in the plans that we don’t see inside the house. On the plans, written across one of the walls it says, ‘four parts sand to one part cement’. Yet when you look at the finished wall, don’t be surprised that you can’t see that instruction anywhere because it’s not needed now.
Third, don’t worry that the plans are sometimes hard to understand and often look a bit uninteresting compared to the house itself. The plans were good, but they could never fully communicate just how wonderful the finished house would look.
So too, with the Books of the Law. They’re fascinating and instructive, but we’re not trying to follow all those laws because righteousness has already been accomplished. We’re invited to dwell in Christ’s righteousness, not build our own righteousness.
Likewise, we’re not surprised when we read instructions in the Books of the Law that are no longer required today. That doesn’t diminish their truthfulness or value. It just reminds us that different things apply during the building phase compared to when the house is lived in.
Finally, don’t worry that Christ and his righteousness is far more glorious than the Old Testament Law, and that the Law is sometimes a bit hard to follow. The Law is good, there’s no doubt about that, but the reality is so much better.
How then should we live?
It’s great to read the Books of the Law, but the Scripture tells us we must also live out what we read. How do we do that, when the Books of the Law tell us how to build the house, but we know that the house is already built?
Some people look at the plans and divide all the instructions into three categories: structural elements, things needed to meet civil building regulations, and finally decorative elements. Now that we live in the house, they say, it’s fine to change the decoration, the building regulations of the past no longer apply, but whatever we do, we mustn’t change the structural elements, because that will cause the house to come crashing down.
There’s a lot of wisdom in that approach but there are also problems. Those categories aren’t set out in the plans themselves and it’s not always clear which instruction falls into which category. This approach also forgets an important principle – the house has already been built. We don’t need to figure out all the building instructions.
Thankfully, there’s a better approach which the architect himself explained: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.’
We should not think of ourselves as a builder who needs to figure out which instructions to follow and which no longer apply. Instead, we’re residents who love the architect and love those who live in the house with us.
Since they love the architect, the residents have no interest in changing the structure, especially as he is living in the house with them. That’s what he built, it’s incredible to live in, and they believe that he got it right. Since they love their family who also live in the house, they’re constantly thinking of ways in which they can improve things for one another, and even for their neighbours in other houses.
Those living in the house are not so arrogant as to think they always know best, so they ask the architect to help them understand the original plans and how those plans contributed to making the house as great as it is.
These are the most important things to help you read the Books of the Law. Remember that the House of Righteousness has already been built. You’re not a builder and your job is not to figure out which instructions to follow. Instead, you’re to enjoy living in the house with the architect, who will help you understand how good those plans are, and how much better the finished house you’re living in is. From time to time, you’ll read those plans fondly, being glad that you’re not the builder, seeing the wisdom of the architect, and being thankful for the house that he’s built. As you read, your love for the architect and your neighbours will grow ever deeper, because the House of Righteousness has become your home.
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