The Heart of the Law
Another point we must make clear before delving into details of the Law: it’s not about law for the sake of law. We are shown this multiple times throughout Scripture, most prominently in Jesus. I’ll provide here two case studies:
If we were to look at Law in very literal terms binding for all times, we would see that Jesus changes laws from the Old Testament to the New, such as the freedom for a man to divorce his wife on a whim:
3 Some Pharisees came to him. In order to test him, they said, “Does the Law allow a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?”
4 Jesus answered, “Haven’t you read that at the beginning the creator made them male and female? 5 And God said, ‘Because of this a man should leave his father and mother and be joined together with his wife, and the two will be one flesh.’ 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore, humans must not pull apart what God has put together.”
7 The Pharisees said to him, “Then why did Moses command us to give a divorce certificate and divorce her?”
8 Jesus replied, “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives because your hearts are unyielding. But it wasn’t that way from the beginning. 9 I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 18:3-9 CEB)
While the Pharisees treated Moses’ teaching on divorce as absolute law binding for all time, Jesus reframes the Law, claiming that Moses only allowed it as a concession. He then goes back to God’s heart on the issue instead of the strict literal reading of the Law.
This isn’t the only time that God overturned the biblical Law. For just one more example, in the Sermon on the Mount, he says this:
38 “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. 40 When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. 41 When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. 42 Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42)
Later in this journey through the Bible’s message of social justice we’ll examine why exactly these three options are so radical (hint: it isn’t about being passive). For now, we’ll simply note that Jesus here is again directly overturning the clear wording of Scripture to get back to the heart of God. This isn’t in the Oral Law, which Jewish teachers made to make sure they didn’t even come close to violating the Law which was direct from God. This is directly in Scripture in Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21. Again, even though this was allowed in the Law, God’s heart has always been for a radical enemy love instead of retribution.
The Heart of God
So what do we do with this approach to Scripture? The short answer is that we seek the heart of God in Scripture. If we approach Scripture primarily as a perpetually-binding rulebook, then we are at odds with Jesus’ own approach. However, if we view the Bible primarily in terms of the story of God and his people where Jesus is the culmination of that story as the ultimate revelation of God, that changes things.
We can conclude that God’s heart is not a heart of legalism. The Pharisees thought this, determined to live by the letter of the Law. Jesus isn’t exactly nice to them, calling them hypocrites, claiming they make their converts twice the sons of Hell they are, using comedic imagery like straining out a gnat (not allowed by the Law) but accidentally swallowing a camel (Matthew 23), and more. If we simply approach the Old Testament Law as the Pharisees did or even if we approach many of the guidelines suggested in the New Testament with this attitude, we are in no better condition than they were.
Instead, as Jesus says, the heart of the Law are things like love, justice, peace, and faith. There is some value to guidelines in the Law. This definitely isn’t about dismissing the Law at all. In fact, Jesus says that he came to fulfill the Law. But if we allow the Law to become the point in and of itself, we will miss the heart of God that the Law should be pointing us toward, just like the Pharisees did. Christian interpreters will disagree on which laws if any from the Old Testament Law texts are still binding to Christians today, but I’m not going to go into those details because while they may be helpful they are not the point. As we start to look at the Old Testament Law, my goal is to help draw out how we see God’s heart for justice.