Tag Archives: law

Swords Into Plowshares

Isaiah 2:4-5 says there will come a time when mankind, “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation neither shall they learn war anymore” (ESV).

This passage is so often taken by itself that we treat it as a solitary whole and tend to interpret it as such. We imagine it describes a transformed humanity who no longer have a taste for conflict and war—a perfect world populated by perfect people (try to say that five times fast). We long for a world where everyone just gets along without the slightest argument and without any anger. Because of these assumptions, this passage is most often ascribed to the Millennium or even to the post-judgment New Earth. Such speculation is not part of this post. Instead, I want to draw your attention to the surrounding text.

The passage gives us no reason to believe the era described will be without conflict. It is preceded by an explanation for why there will be no more war, “For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes between peoples” (ESV).

This is not a description of people transformed into peaceful little lambs with no aggressions or anger issues. Instead it is a description of the reign of God. The people still have disputes, but God mediates between them and decides who is in the wrong. The law of God goes ‘out from Zion,’ but this is just another way of saying God rules. When a King rules from a city and we say his law goes out from that city, we are saying he rules from that city to the places where his law goes. The law going out from Zion and the Word going out from Jerusalem are simply two ways of saying the same thing. The text goes on to tell us that the God whose law goes out from Zion and whose Word goes out from Jerusalem settles the disputes of all peoples and judges between the nations. Rather than being a time without disputes, it is a time where all disputes are settled by the omniscient and just God. Because He is omniscient, the decision made is the right one. Because He is just, His decision is just for all parties involved. Because He is God, the decision has irresistible force behind it. Yes, it describes a time when everyone willingly submits to God, but this is far easier knowing God has power to compel if needed.

Since each party knows the decision will be right and just, and backed up by the force necessary to keep each party in check, there is no need to fight over issues. All that any aggrieved person or persons must do is take their grievance to God and let him decide. Since the decision will be binding there is no need to fight.

Now, I know it is assumed this will only be possible in a different world system, one where God, in the person of Christ, is personally present to make decisions and pronouncements. However, I want to point out that (1) We as Christians already have the law of Christ in our hearts; (2) Christ instructs and guides us through his Word and by the Holy Spirit present in our hearts; and (3) Christ already rules in our lives, whether there is to be a future millennium or not. A more important question than when this will happen is “Why does it not describe Christian peoples today?” Why such discord among the brethren? We have disputes and division between Christians. We have, throughout history, even seen religious wars between Christians. We still today see Christians persecuting other Christians. Why is this so, when the rule of Christ in our hearts should produce peace between us as his people? The issue is one of trust.

In the era described by Isaiah all peoples trust God, while his power gives them reason to trust their opponents. Suppose my neighbor and I have a disagreement. We go to court and the issue is settled. The court can settle is because we both trust and submit to the decisions of the court, and we both know the court has the police power to force both parties to follow through on what was decided. A problem comes when either party doesn’t trust the court’s wisdom or power. If one person questions the court’s wisdom to decide the issue that person is unlikely to accept the court’s decision. Another problem can come when the court either cannot or will not enforce its decision. If my neighbor is free to ignore the court’s decision then I have no reason to trust the court to settle the issue—my neighbor would be free to disobey, placing me at a disadvantage if I willingly submit to the court’s decision.

We have conflict between brethren because we are human. I have an interest in A. You have an interest in B. Our situation does not permit both—((AvB)^¬(A^B))—but some cooperation is necessary to have either. If you work to undermine my efforts for A, then I will be unlikely to have A. But if I get A you are unlikely to get B. I am sure A is best for both of us, while you believe B would be best for both of us (an irrefutable rule of humanity is the tendency to believe what benefits me will equally benefit everyone like me). Conflict escalates because we do not trust the other to have our interests in mind.

This situation would be alleviated if we had Christ present to decide for us. There would be no conflict, if we could walk up to Christ and say, “Lord, I want A; he wants B. Which is best?” Unfortunately, this is not possible right now. Yes, one of us could say, “I believe Christ wants us to do this.” However, why would the other agree? The other could easily respond with “No, I believe he wants this.” The problem with such pronouncements is they are always suspect. Ever notice how these claims seldom go against the personal needs or desires of the one making them.

So, how can we change this? How can today’s church be more like the perfect era described in Isaiah? I won’t try to answer how we can be exactly like it, because that assumes we are supposed to be. If this is a description of the millennium, then it will only happen then. The same goes if this is a description for the post-judgment era. I will however, try to give advice on how the church gets closer to the ideal.

The best place to start is trusting Christ to balance the scales. It may be in this life, it may be in the next, but in the end we trust Christ to take care of injustices. We instead concentrate on living according to the command of Christ and at peace with one another, rather than insisting on our own interests and justice in the here and now:

1 Corinthians 6:7b ESV, “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?”

Another part of this is putting the interests of others above ourselves:

Philippians 2:3-4 ESV, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

This tells us to count the interests of others (or at least the other person themselves) as of greater value than our own interests. Then trust Christ to balance the scales in the end and to look after our interests on our behalf.

There are objections:

  1. “But then I lose because no one is looking to my interests. If I don’t look after my own interests, no one will.” Then you don’t trust Christ to balance the scales.
  2. “But then he gets his way, but I don’t get mine.” Then you are not putting him above yourself.

It is these which cause so much strife among the brethren. Unless we put these aside, we will never be marked by peace.

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Disagree but Respect

In Romans 2:17-24, Paul accuses some of hypocrisy. He asks if those who denounce adultery and stealing are themselves guilty of adultery and stealing. He speaks of those who boast in the law while breaking the law. Most of this passage is quite clear, but one part can be confusing. In the latter half of verse 22, Paul asks: “You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” It’s confusing because the two are not an apparent contradiction to us. In our minds, robbing temples would contradict our denunciation of stealing, but an expression of abhorrence of idolatry. However, Paul treats them in way showing he intends this to be contradictory: you abhor idols, in keeping with the law, but then act towards them in a way that violates the law. But the behavior towards them is not worship of idols. Paul’s meaning would have been evident had he said, “You who abhor idols, do you worship idols?” But he didn’t. He actually uses a negative treatment of idols (robbing temples) as the moral antithesis of a negative opinion of idols.

This passage, like many, is best understood by keeping it in context. Verse 24 says, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” The word literally translated ‘rob temples’ is also used to describe any act of blasphemy or sacrilege. Paul is decrying those who abhor idols and then act in a way that turns away and offends those who worship the idols. When we act disrespectful to those holding another belief we do not inspire them to adopt our beliefs. Too often such blatant disrespect causes people to shut down and turn off. Few are convinced into the faith. Most are modeled into the faith. By this I mean that few will adopt our faith simply because it is explained to them. Most will come because the faith is explained while being modeled. Paul is saying that just as we should not steal if we are against stealing, we should not live out our opposition to other faiths by being disrespectful to those who practice those faiths. This ill treatment of them is itself equivalent to violation of the law. We must love the person trapped in idolatry. This includes respecting them enough to not blaspheme (or ridicule, or misrepresent) their beliefs. We must take their beliefs seriously, if for no other reason than to respect those holding those beliefs.

Now, I don’t want you to misunderstand what I mean by this. This is not to say we should see all beliefs as relative and therefore true. The idea that whatever you believe is true because it is true for you is laughable at best. Some beliefs are right and some are wrong—holding to a false belief strongly does not make it true. That is simple logic. The opposite is…well…illogical (said in my best Spock voice). Let me give you an example of two beliefs:

Christian: Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God (John 3:16).

Muslim: He (God) neither begets nor is born (Quran 112:3).

It is impossible for these two beliefs to be true because it would violate the Law of Noncontradiction (Av~A). This is because God begetting a Son contradicts the premise that God does not beget. They are mutually exclusive. This means either both are false or one is true and the other false. It is impossible for both to be true.

Respect for another’s faith does not mean accepting it as truth. Likewise, pointing out the facts and even errors of another’s faith is not disrespectful—unless you do it in a way which disrespects the person. This is dialogue and discussion. Actually the issue itself is not even about having respect for the other faith. The passage is warning about treating the other’s faith in a way that drives away the other person—that is, therefore, disrespectful of the other person. While we must stand against false beliefs and share the truth, we must always remember we are dealing with people and not just impersonal premises.

To paraphrase Paul’s question in Romans 2:22b, “Do you who abhor idols drive people away from God and closer to their idols by how you treat them?”

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Morality and Law

ten commandmentsMany have complained to me about my believing the law (including the Ten Commandments) has passed away with the finished work of Christ. The claim is that if the Ten Commandments are gone, then the things forbidden by the commandments are now acceptable. So, if the law which says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” is gone, then we are morally free to commit adultery. The problem comes from understanding the role of the law. The law does not make an action morally right or wrong. The law declared what was already immoral to be illegal. Without the law, the immoral is still immoral. Without the law, the threat of punishment for the immoral is gone, but that does not make it moral. Without the law we still must not commit the immoral because it remains immoral, even if there is no law to punish us.

But without further understanding this could lead us into a different error. If morality remains the same even though the law is gone what about dietary laws, restrictions on clothing, and tattoos? If the law declared the immoral to be illegal, then does that mean eating certain things was immoral prior to the law? And wouldn’t eating those things is still be immoral? If so, wouldn’t that mean Christ, by declaring all foods clean, permitted immorality; and the church, as a result, sanctions immorality?

Actually it doesn’t mean this at all. Some laws codified and provided punishment for actions that were always immoral (murder, adultery, disrespect of parents, idolatry, etc.). Other laws were meant to show deeper truths (such as those pointing to Christ like Sabbaths, sacrifices and rituals) or to produce an obviously unique people different from the surrounding communities (such as clothing laws, dietary restrictions, etc.). While these things were not themselves immoral prior to the law, because the law forbade them, committing them violated the law of God which was itself an immoral act. For these otherwise morally neutral but legally forbidden actions, violation was immoral. So, being free from the dietary law, I may eat whatever I choose so long as it is not otherwise immoral. Since food type is morally neutral, I am free to eat whatever. However, even without a law against adultery, adultery is still immoral and contrary to the life of the virtuous Christian.

So, while it is not possible to separate the moral law from the ceremonial law without doing damage to both, it is possible to separate those things that are immoral regardless of law and those things made immoral by inclusion in the law. With the passing away of the old covenant the former are still immoral as always, but the latter are no longer immoral because the law which forbade them has passed away. There is now no law to immorally violate.

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Christ the Triumphant

Colossians 2:14-15 speaks of Jesus’ accomplishments on the cross. In the NIV this says:

“[…] having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

This translation says it was the ‘charge of legal indebtedness’ which was canceled. Other translations make it sound like the law itself was canceled. The KJV for example says:

“[…] blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it.”

One reading the KJV and several others (including the original NIV from 1984) would assume it was the law being canceled (KJV: ordinances; 1984 NIV: written code).Those reading the latest NIV or others, like the LEB, would see this as canceling the list of debts (violations). This distinction is important because if only the debts are canceled, then the law is still in force. If the law is canceled then the debts against the law go with them. The latter removes not only the current debt, but also removes any possibility of future indebtedness. The former removes past debts, but leaves the possibility of future indebtedness. So, it is important to know exactly what is said here. The word used is δόγμασιν, which is the word for ordinances, or commands. Its root is the origin of our word ‘dogma.’ The passage says the ordinances (laws) themselves, which once condemned us, have been removed from the page. The NAS translates it as:

“[…] having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.”

The word for ‘canceled’ or ‘blotting out’ is the word for a scribe using a sponge to remove the ink from the page. In their day, they had no pencils and erasers. To erase something from the page the scribe would use a damp sponge to blot the ink from the page. It is this which Paul says Jesus did to the ordinances which were bringing us condemnation—he washed the words right off the page.

The passage goes on and says Jesus disarmed the powers and authorities, making a spectacle of them. He triumphed over them by the cross. The imagery here is that of an ancient Roman Triumph. When a general returned from campaign, the Senate would often vote them a triumph. This would involve what we would recognize as a parade. During this, the enemy leaders captured would be paraded through the city before the people. At the end of the triumph the captives would be killed. It is this graphic image that Paul uses to describe Jesus victory over the ordinances and law.

In case you are still of the opinion that this only referred to the list of debts for past violations and not a triumph over the law itself, remember that this would leave you facing the possibility of future law violation. However, Paul, in verse 16 says not to let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or judge you concerning religious festivals, holy days, or even a Sabbath day. If the law was still in place, you would still be liable to judgment over these. Christ wiped the law off the page. He took it away and nailed it to the cross. He paraded it in a victory march and dispatched it. The law was taken away and we no longer face the guilt of past violation, neither do we face danger of future violation.

This does not make us free to sin, however. Paul says the law was a shadow of realities to come. The reality is found in Christ (Col 2:17). We no longer live to keep the law. We no longer live to sin. We live for Christ; we live in Christ; we live empowered by Christ.

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