To obey or not to obey? That is the question.
Like many, my heart longs to be right with God, but the Bible is stuffed full of laws, rules and warnings. How are we to find a way through this maze without tripping over any number of them? Mousetraps seem to be everywhere!
Contrary to what most non-Christians and many Christians believe, generally the New Testament doesn’t teach us to obey the rules. Moses gave the ancient Hebrews lots of laws which they were told to obey, but we are emphatically and repeatedly taught in Paul’s letters that to obey those laws will cost us dearly.
People are built with a disposition to either obey or disobey the rules. Few can find it in themselves to simply ignore ones which they believe apply to them—but this is exactly what Paul teaches, that we must ignore the rules. And not just the Laws of Moses, but any laws or rules we find or make up to guide our lives.
At the same time, we are also taught not to disobey, and there still are laws we are to obey, aren’t there…? But which is which? And how are we to find our way through this confusion?
This extended post is the result of my Mouse Enquiry into the law. I’m committing it to you with much prayer in the hope that it will help to clarify some stuff for you too.
What laws are there, anyway?
The first problem is that there are different types of rules referred to in the Bible so we need to discover our position on each one. I have found five distinct types of rules mentioned in the Bible:
• the laws of Moses
• laws of the land
• laws of the kingdom of God
• worldly or fleshly rules
• commands for sinners.
Under a different category entirely there are also what might be termed the laws of life: gravity and falling, sin and death, reaping and sowing, and so on, but these are the inevitable results of our decisions: immutable laws to be aware of and respected as they may be defied but they cannot be broken, so for our purposes here we can ignore them.
The laws of Moses
The mosaic laws are a list of rules governing circumstances, actions and interactions, defining righteous behaviour for the Hebrews in each situation or relationship. It is a long list, covering many things in fine detail and most things in a general way, but it is far from definitive, as anyone’s life complexities will confirm. Apart from providing the Hebrews with a lot of regulations, what the Law also did was to reveal much of the character, the goodness, and the standards of God.
These laws were given to the Hebrews for two very specific reasons. Firstly, they were to attempt to obey them in order that they would realise that they could never reach God’s perfection, even in these restricted areas, no matter how hard or long they tried. Unfortunately for the Pharisees, they managed to turn a blind eye to their own private failures and so they believed they were actually living holy lives. They were especially keen to judge those around them and point out their failings. This was so that the Pharisees, scribes, and rabbis—the teachers of the Law—could personally look better in their own eyes by means of the (false) comparison.
Most Hebrews never realised that the mosaic laws weren’t intended for anyone to live by, and because the rabbis made it all so impossible, they generally gave up and just obeyed the easy ritual stuff like keeping the sabbaths and festivals. All the same, the Law itself was an impossible standard which any fallen human being would fail to reach—which however, pushed those few with faith, like the prophets, into the arms of God where they were graciously received.
We have always been taught that the ten commandments are special in some way—that you don’t have to know all the laws, just obey the ten commandments. But again, we can’t—the flesh lets us down and we fail. We actually fail on number 1. So no, the ten commandments are no different from the rest of Moses’ laws.
The second purpose was that they would see their Messiah described and prophesied within the Law, so that they would know Him instantly when He appeared. Then they could believe what He said, do as He commanded, and thereby become the holy people of God they were called to be. Thus they would reveal to the world the gracious nature and invitation of God. This they also failed to do: they failed to recognise Him so when He admitted to being the Son of God they were offended; they failed to believe what He said so they couldn’t benefit from it; and they failed to do as He commanded so they missed their own salvation.
Jesus also taught that an angry word was the same as murder, a lustful glance the same as adultery. Then He taught that all foods are clean, that all days are equal, and that all people are invited into the kingdom of God. So much for the rules.
So they crucified Him because they thought He was defying the Torah by teaching disobedience to the laws. They thought His perfect fulfillment of the Law was blasphemy!
Our response to the mosaic laws
Clearly we are to live by faith, not by the laws of Moses. In Christ we are dead, and buried in baptism, and even God can’t expect adherence to the Law—perfect or otherwise—from dead people. Paul teaches a lot on legalism and his first concern is to rescue the Jewish believers from trying to hang on to the laws of Moses. Then he also wants to save non-Jewish believers from getting drawn into legalism.
He understood that obedience to one law forced you to be judged by the whole law, which in turn insisted that you obey the whole law. Which then proved you a sinner because you couldn’t help but fail. Obeying two or three laws cannot count ‘for you,’ to add in some way to your credit with God, because the attempt rejects, in principle, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for you. And if you reject the work of Christ on your behalf, you also reject His salvation. Which means you spurn your own place in heaven!
So Moses’ laws we must ignore—even observance of the Sabbath—or we will undo our redemption.
Laws of the land
The world’s laws are, necessarily, fallen laws, but many are useful in terms of managing a mixed population of fallen people. The Bible directs us, in principle, to obey the laws of the land, though they are very arbitrary and will differ between countries, and so on. Today however we are seeing more and more unjust laws enacted by corrupt governments which penalise ordinary people and benefit governments and large corporations. Some laws even allow governments to steal from their own populations or other countries, and even to imprison and murder people without trial. Nazis who ‘just did as they were told’ by their government, were plainly in sin.
So we have a responsibility before God to obey those laws of the country which are not immoral, unethical or unjust, but not the rest. Though even here we don’t disobey unjust laws in our own interest, but to serve those around us as the Spirit leads.
Laws of the kingdom of God
There are some laws, particularly in the New Testament, which we are obviously supposed to obey, aren’t we? Laws such as: follow me, love one another, be not deceived, live by faith, do not blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, etc…
The point with these ‘laws’ is not that we obey them so much as that we don’t disobey them.
As Christians, nothing we do properly is done by our flesh: all is done by the indwelling Christ, as we allow Him to work through us by our will. All we do is choose to obey His prompting in our spirit, while trusting that His Spirit will provide the opportunity, the resources and the fruit, and that He will be responsible for the outcome. Then He will have the glory and we will have the joy.
So even with the laws of the kingdom we don’t obey the rules, we obey the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Then Jesus can act through us—and He will never disobey the spirit of His own law.
Worldly or fleshly rules
So what about making up some useful little guidelines, which will help young believers to walk the narrow way?
• never be alone with another young person of the opposite sex
• you must give a tenth of your income to the church
• never eat meat on a Friday
• never pray for someone of the opposite sex unless accompanied
• blah, blah…
Colossians 2:20-23 The Mouse Companion Version (MCV):
Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of the world, why, as if still alive to the world, do you follow its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Don’t even touch!”? Use of these will lead to moral decay, just like all man’s tenets and teachings. Such maxims may indeed seem wise, with their contrived religious practices and humility, and their brutality to the body, but they have no value against the indulgences of the flesh.
The ‘world’ (Greek ‘kosmos’) means the entire society of the planet made up of fallen people who don’t yet believe. It is a system of life, government, principles, beliefs and so on, devised by Satan in order to deceive everybody into missing their salvation. It’s built on the idea of shutting God out from all human behaviour, whatever the situation. So we are to get on with our lives while pretending that God simply doesn’t exist—even though he maintains all creation at every moment, even Satan himself.
All the other translations miss Paul’s main point here. They are fooled by the word order in the Greek and assume that either the ‘rules’ will perish from use, or that they refer to ‘things’ which perish from use. Neither idea makes sense, nor fits the context.
The rules he is talking about are developed by fallen human beings as God-free workarounds, attempting to improve themselves, to remove their own corruption without help from God, and thereby earn a place in heaven. But fallen man cannot create anything pure and as a result they are fallen rules, corrupt and corrupting.
In this context they particularly refer to the principle of having no involvement with heathen practices. Things included would be both unacceptable sexual partners, often in a religious context, and foods offered to idols, so abstinence and the avoidance of certain foods and drinks were targeted. However, the principle is not just historic: plenty of ‘church’ leaders give their congregations, particularly the teenagers, some kind of rules to ‘keep them safe.’
Paul is arguing that relying on these fallen directives will actively corrupt us, and that all worldly principles and learning designed to ‘improve’ the sinful man will have the same effect. Using the power of the flesh in this way, to combat the power of the flesh, is inevitably doomed to failure: the more we use the flesh for anything, the stronger it gets. And “everything which is not of faith is sin,” and therefore corrupts.
As we have died with Christ these useless methods no longer apply to us, so they are not even slightly helpful. And again, we would be rejecting God’s provision for salvation in favour of a d.i.y method, with the same tragic result as trying to live by the Law.
Obeying worldly or fleshly rules will corrupt us, so we must actively reject them.
Commands for sinners
The commands for sinners are designed to get the sinner to stop being a sinner and receive salvation. They basically boil down to:
• be baptised,
and these are the only rules to be obeyed in the flesh. They have to be obeyed in the flesh because while we are in sin we cannot draw on the indwelling life of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. The reason ‘repent’ is not a rule for believers at all, is that we are free from sin and therefore not supposed to be living in sin at all. If, as believers, we fall into sin, we become sinners, so immediately we are to obey this command and get back into fellowship with Christ.
So why do we have all these laws then?
We have to remember that the Bible is not a rulebook or manual for living, any more than it should be an idol, it is an expression of our holy God. As a result, indepth knowledge of the scriptures will allow us to recognise, and thus follow, the promptings of the Holy Spirit and so live a holy life, or conversely, to know when another spirit is trying to deceive us. It will alert us to any compromise or sin in our lives and lead us back to repentance.
Laws are not intended for saints
Life is full of rules. The Bible is full of rules. Once we understand the believer’s position in Christ, we can see that most rules are not for obeying or disobeying—they are for knowing. And this is true even if the believer is completely new to the faith, or just a mouse. Since we are dead in Christ we cannot obey the law without resurrecting our flesh and thereby falling into sin.
The idea that we must obey laws, any laws, is the real mousetrap. >ᴥ<