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The Great Commission and God’s Law
by Gerald R. Thompson
THE GREAT COMMISSION
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Mt 28:18-20.
If you spent any significant amount of time attending a church that identifies itself as evangelical, then you would likely be familiar with these last three verses of the book of Matthew, commonly called the Great Commission. These are ostensibly the last words spoken by Jesus just prior to the remarks He made at His ascension in Acts 1:6-8.
If these verses are not familiar to you, they are viewed by many, and possibly most Christians as the marching orders of the incorporeal Church, i.e., the worldwide body of Christ through the years, not tied to any specific group, congregation or denomination. In other words, these verses sum up what it is that Christians are supposed to do in the world as Christians until Jesus returns.
I typically list the Great Commission among the four great commands given by God to all of humanity in its principal institutional capacities, that is, the Dominion Mandate (Gen. 1:28) given to families, the Greatest Commandments (Mat. 22:36-40) given to individuals, the purpose of civil power (1 Pet. 2:13-14) given to nations, and the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20) given to the Church.
If you have a mastery of these four great commands, understanding what each includes and excludes, and how to interpret them without bringing them into conflict with each other, then you are well on your way to understanding God’s overall plan for mankind and His will for human society. Their importance cannot be overestimated.
There is no command or law higher than these. They are supreme over all other laws and commands found in the laws of nature and nature’s God, equal in authority and importance with the divine covenants. Indeed, two of them are divine covenants (the Dominion Mandate – Adamic covenant; and the Great Commission – Church covenant). The Greatest Commandments and the principles of civil power, in contrast, summarize eternal principles of the law of nature which coincidentally are reflected in the Mosaic covenant but are not derived from it.
By this I hope to establish a proper context for looking at the Great Commission. Yes, it is pretty darn important and well worthy of our attention, as would any statement beginning with the phrase, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Yet, at the same time, this statement is not over or above the other great commands of God. In other words, the Great Commission does not supersede or control the Dominion Mandate, the Greatest Commandments, or the nature of civil power. It is equal, not dominant.
One thing we must completely avoid is the common historical mistake of looking at the great commands of God all through the lens of the Great Commission. That is not its function. We are not to understand the other great commands as a subset of the Great Commission any more than individuals, families and nations are subsets of the Church. They are separate, but equal – and functionally autonomous.
For one thing, as between individuals, families, nations and the Church, the Church came last. Some people think what came last supersedes and/or incorporates what came earlier. Not so – what came last was least essential to existence. Don’t get your hackles up – I am not trying to minimize or downplay the Church, or its importance historically and spiritually.
I am, however, looking at the Church in the context of the full history of mankind. We cannot ignore the fact that mankind existed for 4,000 years without the Church and only 2,000 years with it, and the timing of the inauguration of the Church was determined by God, not man. If the Church was absolutely crucial to existence as is, for example, the bearing of children (as per the Dominion Mandate), then God would have introduced it into history much earlier. Can you imagine if the situation was reversed: if the Church was introduced at creation and the Dominion Mandate only came along 4,000 years later? Which one is more crucial? My point is made.
But I don’t wish to press the point too far – let’s leave it there and see what we can learn about the Great Commission (which is still plenty important) and what, if anything, it has to do with God’s laws.
What Things Were Not Said
The Great Commission is one of those statements everybody refers to, but no one actually pays attention to the words that were and were not used. The statement seems straightforward – until you see how people have mangled it over the years.
Let us first acknowledge that the Great Commission never says, in so many words, evangelize the lost, or even to preach the Gospel. Those words simply are not there, and we should ask whether it is necessary or desirable that they be implied when they are not expressed. If Jesus had wanted us to evangelize the lost or preach the Gospel to the whole world, He certainly could have said so – and it can be argued that He never did.
Here we must pause to look at some other statements Jesus made that will illustrate what I mean.
In Mat. 24:14, for example, Jesus said: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” But the statement is not made in the form of a command, but rather as a prediction about the end of the age. Jesus did not say, in Matthew 24, go and do this. Just because Jesus said it, does not make it a command.
What about Mk 16:15-18? Let’s take a look at it.
And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
Can we be frank and admit there are some problems with this text? If you have Bible translation done in the last 100 years, you may have a marginal note to the effect that “Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-20.” Don’t push this on me, as though it’s just a matter of my personal opinion. I didn’t translate your Bible, and I didn’t come up with this notation. But I grant you, many Bible scholars do not agree with the notation. And if you have a King James Version Bible, it probably does not have this notation.
Yet, there are a number of good reasons for questioning the Mark passage, in any event. First, the text in Mark makes salvation contingent on both belief and baptism, which is difficult, and some would say impossible, to reconcile with the rest of the New Testament. Second, the text links salvation with visible signs – and not just any signs, but miraculous signs – which almost anyone in Christian ministry will tell you either rarely or never occur in connection with a person’s salvation experience.
So, the Mark text may contain a strong statement to proclaim the gospel to the whole creation, but the context is a package deal, and you either take all of it or none of it. The reality is, many Christians are very uncomfortable with the Mark text, even if they believe it belongs in their Bible, so they ignore it. If you are comfortable with it, fine – it matters not. (I’ll come back to this point in a minute.)
Let’s move on. In Luk. 24:46-47, Jesus said, “it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations… .” Except, again, Jesus was not giving a command. He was really saying that the Old Testament (it is written) foretold that the gospel would be proclaimed. It is hardly a set of marching orders to the Church – the statement doesn’t even impart any new information.
Then there is Jn. 20:21, 23: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you. … If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.” Talk about an interpretational hornet’s nest! Protestants like verse 21, Catholics like verse 23, but the statement is another package deal, and you either take all of it or none of it.
Finally, there is Acts 1:8: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Again, not exactly a rousing call to arms to go do this. Then there is the fact Jesus’ statement was made in response to the question, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Acts 1:6. So it is a fair question to ask what it is, exactly, Jesus wanted the disciples bear witness to? From the context, it would seem Jesus expected them to bear witness to the gospel of the kingdom, which actually creates more ambiguity than it resolves.
If there is one thing you should glean from this discussion, it is that there may not be as clear and prominent a command of Jesus for all Christians to evangelize the world, as you may have thought there was. What we clearly do have, on the other hand, is a plain and unambiguous directive to teach all nations to observe all that Jesus commanded.
Ultimately, however, I concede the validity of evangelism as being part of the overall mission of the Church. I don’t care what set of scriptures you base it on. I do not deny the validity of evangelism, I only deny its preeminence in describing the mission of the Church. Evangelism is a legitimate function of the Church, but it has never been the only thing the Church is to do, or the main thing, or even the most important thing.
Law vs. Grace
I can imagine some of you tapping your foot impatiently. “OK then, if that isn’t what the Great Commission primarily means, then what does it mean?” When Jesus said to go and make disciples, let’s start with the obvious. Perhaps what He meant was exactly what He said, namely, to teach people to observe His commands. In other words, making disciples means teaching His commands. That’s just reading the text the way it really is, without reading anything into it.
Go back and look at the actual words of the Great Commission, and reflect on the fact that the phrases make disciples and teach His commands are all part of the same sentence, and the same thought. Grammatically, teaching His commands is a modifying phrase of go and make disciples. In other words, the goal of the Great Commission is to make disciples, and teaching Christ’s commands is the means whereby that purpose is carried out.
But I take it yet one step further, namely, that to teach the commands of Jesus means to teach God’s laws, because Jesus is God in both the Old and New Testaments, and in this context, commands mean laws. I’ll have to take up this idea and expand on it later, because I anticipate there is a hurdle we must jump over first.
Some of you, no doubt, are already thinking, “But we are under grace, not law!!” In effect, this is an argument that the Great Commission cannot mean we are to teach God’s laws, because we are under grace, not law, and we cannot give a construction to the words which puts us back under law.
To be sure, grace has come, thanks to Jesus. And I do not deny that the sacrificial and/or ceremonial parts of the Mosaic law have been obsoleted and done away with. That isn’t the problem, nor is it the source of our disagreement. Rather, the problem is with the words, we and us. Because if by we you mean Gentiles (non-Jews), we were never subject to (or under) the sacrificial and/or ceremonial parts of the Mosaic law in the first place, and that law never applied to us. Thus, whether that law was formerly applicable to Jews or not is irrelevant to Gentiles, at least as far as the Great Commission is concerned.
The nuances of which parts of the Mosaic law are dead and which parts are still viable is something I will explore later in this essay. However, for purposes of the Great Commission and the subject of law and grace generally, we need to take a step back and consider the whole picture. For that, we need to take into account all of the laws of nature and nature’s God, not just the Mosaic laws given to ancient Israel.
To start, let’s review what the scripture actually says about law and grace:
For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Rom. 6:14-15.
Now let’s look at the rule by which we are to understand Paul’s statements.
For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. Jn. 1:17.
By this we know that in Romans Paul was not speaking of all law in general, the law of nature, or what we would call civil or municipal laws (i.e., the laws by which nations govern themselves). Rather, he was speaking exclusively about that law which was given to ancient Israel through Moses. Also remember that Paul was born a Jew before the crucifixion, thus he was himself born under the law of which he speaks. So from his vantage point, he himself was once under the law, but at the time he wrote the book of Romans, grace had entered and the law given to Israel through Moses had been obsoleted.
When Paul says, we are not under law but under grace, he is referring to himself, and to those among his audience who were Jewish followers of Christ. But when we modern Gentiles read Romans 6, we have to realize that we were never part of the “we” which included Paul. None of us modern Gentiles were: a) born as a Jew; b) born prior to the entrance of grace; or c) born under the law given to Israel through Moses.
What does that mean? Simply this: no Christians alive today were ever under the law given to Israel through Moses to begin with. We cannot therefore, consider ourselves as having come out from under that law, because it was never over us. And unless you are a biological Jew, your ancestors were never under the law given to Israel through Moses either.
However, whether a Jew or a Gentile, your ancestors were under the laws of nature, and so are you. Your ancestors were also under the divine covenants mediated through Adam and Noah, and so are you. In fact, insofar as the laws of God are concerned, you and your ancestors (even going back more than 3,000 years) were and are under the exact same laws of God.
In the wider scope of lonang, the whole law vs. grace thing has only a very narrow and limited purpose, i.e., to illustrate the change in program, as it were, between the Mosaic covenant and the Church covenant as far as matters of redemption, priesthood and ceremonial laws for the Jews are concerned. Yes, of course, as Gentiles we can use the discussion of law vs. grace to help us better understand the nature of grace and appreciate how much better it is than if we had been under the Jewish law.
So I have a challenge for you, if you care to consider it. Name one law of God that applied to the Gentiles nations before the First Advent of Christ that no longer applied to them after grace had come. Go ahead. I’m waiting. There’s, uh, and there’s this other, uh …. Nothing. There are no such laws. Admit it. As to Gentiles, there are no laws of God that grace has obsoleted or displaced.
All of which renders the law vs. grace distinction moot and pointless unless you are a Jew.
Consequently, the words of the Great Commission in Matthew are what they are. Either they are God-breathed and authoritative, or they are not. Unlike the passage in Mark, we have no reason to question the Matthew text. We don’t take a text which is beyond question and substitute new words for the words actually used because we either don’t like or don’t understand them. We need to accept the fact Jesus knew what He was saying, and His words carry divine authority.
“We Follow Paul”
Up to this point, we have considered the argument that the words of the Great Commission as recorded in Matthew should not be read as an imperative to teach God’s laws because “we aren’t under those laws.” But there are those in the Christian community, primarily dispensationalists, who object to the Matthew statement precisely because it does command us to teach God’s laws – and that’s what is wrong with it (in their opinion).
According to this argument, the last three verses of Matthew hearken back to (and rely upon) the Mosaic law which Jesus operated under during his earthly ministry (i.e., prior to the coming of grace). For that reason, the expression of the Great Commission in Matthew should be ignored in favor of a Pauline expression of the Great Commission (such as Eph. 2:8-9). Some commentators even argue the Great Commission in Matthew is actually limited by its terms to the persons present at the time and not specifically directed to future generations.
Let me respond to this last point first. Any statement beginning with all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, and ending with behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age, is not how anyone (much less God, who always knows exactly what He is saying) would frame a temporary instruction to a handful of people. The whole verbal framing of the statement screams that it is something huge, for lots of people, forever.
Imagine Jesus saying something like, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go wash your hands before dinner.” All that would do is trivialize His authority. The plain fact is no one needs all authority in heaven and on earth to give a temporary instruction to a handful of people. But if the intention was to give instructions to an indefinitely large group of people (most of whom are not yet born) for ages to come, then yes, you would need all authority. It’s not that hard to match the level of authority with the nature of the command. And Jesus claimed, in essence, an infinite authority. Thus, the command itself must be worthy of that authority.
Now back to the main point. Representative of the dispensational argument is the following:
As we have seen, Dr. Ironside declared that our commission is to be found in Matthew 28:18-20, but [other commentators] … realized immediately that this would bind believers hand and foot with the law of Moses, for our Lord distinctly commanded the apostles that in going to “all nations” they should “teach them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you,” and this would inescapably include obedience to the law of Moses for, not only was our Lord Himself under the law (Gal. 4:4), but He commanded His disciples to “observe and do” whatever the scribes and Pharisees directed them to do because these leaders in Israel occupied “Moses’ seat.” Pastor Cornelius R. Stam, Our Great Commission, 10/3/2006, as published by the Berean Bible Society, www.bereanbiblesociety.org/.
Note what Pastor Stam is saying. First, he recognizes that the core of the Great Commission in Matthew is to teach God’s laws. Second, he equates God’s laws with the law of Moses given solely to the nation of Israel. Here is the essence of his mistake: there is more to God’s laws, and more to the Old Testament, than just the Mosaic law.
Did God know who the Mosaic laws did and did not apply to? Of course. Did Jesus know this, too? Of course, for He is God. OK then, as a starting matter, don’t assume Jesus is going to tell a primarily Gentile Church to teach laws Jesus knew darn well were given exclusively to ancient Israel. Give Him a little credit. If Jesus/God is telling us to teach His laws to the world, then by definition He is telling us to teach only those laws that apply to everyone.
God would never tell the Church to teach the nations about laws He never gave them for their governance. That would make God the author of confusion, which we know He is not. 1 Cor. 14:33.
Now, let’s address one final concern raised by those who argue in favor of a Pauline expression of the Great Commission. It may surprise you to learn that some Christians believe the Church age didn’t really begin until Paul’s conversion, and the New Covenant in Christ didn’t become effectuated at the crucifixion but was delayed for seven or so years thereafter. Yes, there are actually Christians who hold to this position, but it is an extreme position that calls into question so many basic assumptions about the nature and origin of the Church that it would take a separate essay just to refute them all. Here, I will only summarize the problem with that view.
In the working out of the plan of God, the effects are not always immediate. By tearing the temple veil at the crucifixion, God showed that access to the throne of God has been thrown open to all nations, and impliedly, that Israel had been thrown down from its position of privilege among the nations. Just because Jerusalem wasn’t destroyed until 40 years later in 70 A.D., doesn’t mean the die had not been cast, and Israel demoted in the heavenly places as of 30 A.D.
When Jesus said in Acts 1:8, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth,” it did not mean all that would happen immediately. In fact, the disciples worked for several years solely in Israel before Paul came along and took the gospel elsewhere. The whole book of Acts is in reality a transition period when everyone was trying to work out how Jesus’ words would be accomplished. But that doesn’t mean Jesus’ instructions were anything other than immediately in full force and effect.
Paul was undoubtedly an instrument of God for the sake of the gospel, but the Church is not the body of Paul, the New Testament does not record the new covenant in Paul, and it wasn’t the death, resurrection or ascension of Paul that gave rise to the gospel message. The Church started with Jesus – not Paul. Paul gave us some of the Church’s core doctrines, but guess what? They were true even before Paul said them.
Yes, I know God revealed doctrinal secrets to Paul that up to that point had been hidden. 1 Cor. 2:7, Eph. 3:9, Col. 1:26. But that does not mean, brothers and sisters, those secret things only came to be operational after Paul said them. The body of Christ concept was revealed to Paul, but it did not only come into existence with Paul. It was there, fully functioning before Paul laid it out, even though people were unaware of it.
In fact, when something is secret it infers that the secret thing already does exist – people just don’t know about it. If the body of Christ did not exist until Paul came along, you would never refer to that idea as hidden – there wouldn’t be anything to hide. You can only hide something which already exists. To speak of hiding something that does not yet exist is nonsensical.
When a treasure lies hidden somewhere and is only discovered hundreds of years after it was lost, you don’t speak of the treasure as something that originated with the one who found it. And when someone invents something that no one ever has before, you don’t speak of the invention as having been hidden.
Consequently, just because certain doctrines were first revealed to Paul does not mean those things originated with Paul, or that they only came into being when he was told about them. The exaltation of Paul as the starting point of the Church is misplaced at best. At the very least, it falls into the error of the Corinthian church which Paul spoke very forcibly against.
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 1 Cor. 1:10-13.
The questions Paul asks are rhetorical. The obvious answer to each is the same. Is Christ divided? Of course not. Was Paul crucified for you? Of course not. Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? Of course not. To you who hold to this unbiblical view, I am calling you out. Stop it in the name of Jesus. You are not helping the cause of Christ, you are hurting it.
How is it hurting the cause of Christ? By minimizing, if not completely ignoring, the most important set of instructions Christ ever imparted to the Church, that is, the Great Commission recorded in Matthew. Jesus, the risen Son of God, did not assert all authority in heaven and on earth to make a world changing statement just so people could ignore it in favor of the teaching of a later disciple.
Now, let’s assume the words of Jesus in the Great Commission mean what they say. What does it mean to teach all nations to observe all that I have commanded you? In other words, what are the commands of Jesus that we should teach?
God’s Laws Are Jesus’ Commands
Let’s start with the obvious. Jesus is God, thus, Jesus’ commands are God’s commands, and vice versa. Remember who Jesus is:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Col 1:15-17.
This is the same Jesus who said,
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Mt 5:17-19.
Scripturally, there is a strong connection between Jesus, the creation, and the laws of God which existed before His birth in Bethlehem. Thus, His commands are not limited to things said in His First Advent, but include all of the laws of nature and nature’s God. Who are we, to limit the scope of His commands to things said while He was in the flesh, when His authority extends to all things past, present and future?
Look at the words in Mt 5:17-19 and re-read them carefully.
1. When Jesus said He would fulfill the law rather than abolish it, many people read that as though Jesus would bring the law to completion, and usher in something new (i.e., grace) to replace it. Functionally, that would mean the law has been terminated, which is the same thing as abolished. But since Jesus said He did not come to abolish the law, that cannot possibly be a correct interpretation of these verses.
2. The better way to understand these verses is to use another definition of fulfill, namely, to keep the law or carry it out. Not only is this more consistent with not abolishing the law, it makes verse 17 more consistent with verse 18. Thus, Jesus’ whole ministry was undertaken with the goal of honoring the prior law and adhering to it. That makes what Jesus said in the Great Commission a lot easier to understand, doesn’t it?
3. Verse 18 says not one part of the Law will pass away: a) until heaven and earth pass away; and b) until all is accomplished. Arguably, both of those phrases refer to the same thing, i.e., the end of time. In other words, the laws Jesus is referring to both pre-date His First Advent and they are eternal, meaning they are still applicable today because heaven and earth have not yet passed away. The laws Jesus came to keep are still around, folks!
4. When Jesus said He would fulfill the Law and the Prophets, do not assume He was mainly or exclusively referring to the Mosaic laws. We know the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law have been obsoleted (Heb. 7:12), so if Jesus was talking about aspects of the Old Testament laws He knew would be around forever, He must have been talking about laws other than the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law. In other words, Jesus must have referred to laws applicable to everyone, and not just the Jews. Namely, the laws applicable to all men under the laws of nature and nature’s God.
5. Notice the penalty and reward statements in verse 19, and coordinate them with the Great Commission. If you obey the Great Commission and teach all nations to observe God’s laws, you will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. If you fail to do this, you will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. In the latter case, you will still be saved, but you will have failed to do what God wanted you to do. Wait – don’t tell me you thought your heavenly reward will be based on how many people you evangelize!? Oops!
Some of you are no doubt thinking that what I have just said cannot possibly be true. You have had it drummed into your head all of your church-going life that God’s laws were relevant in the Old Testament, but not the New Testament. But you have been sold a bill of goods. Teaching and following God’s commands is not a concept negated by the N.T., but rather embraced by it. Let’s allow the scripture to speak for itself.
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 him, and he in them. 1 Jn 3:23-24.
By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. 1 Jn 5:2-3.
I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we were commanded by the Father. And now I ask you, dear lady not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning that we love one another. And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it. 2 Jn 4-6.
First, just because we live in the age of grace does not mean that obedience to God’s commandments has somehow become irrelevant. God has commandments that still apply to Christians and He expects us to still obey them.
Second, notice these three texts use the commandments of Jesus, the commandments of God, and the commandments of the Father interchangeably – they are all equivalent terms for each other. Don’t fall into the trap of making distinctions that have no real difference. Just because different words are used does not mean there are three different sets of commands (Jesus’ commands, God’s commands, and the Father’s commands) containing different rules for different people or different ages. The scripture uses over a dozen different names or titles for Jesus Christ – not for the purpose of dividing Him, but to give us a greater range of perspectives of the same person. Same here.
Third, notice how well 1 Jn 3:23-24 tracks with Matt. 22:37-40:
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.”
1 Jn 3 tells us that we should: 1) believe in the name of Jesus Christ; and 2) love one another. Matt. 22 tells us to: 1) love the Lord your God; and 2) love your neighbor as yourself. Are these two sets of unrelated commandments; or are they in fact the same commandments expressed with slightly different words? Aren’t they the same? And isn’t that what we should expect? “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Heb. 13:8.
So in other words, the commandments under the law (referred to in Matt. 22) are the same as the commandments in the age of grace, i.e., love God and your neighbor as yourself. No change. What’s more, the commandments of Jesus comprehend all the Law and the Prophets – it does not exclude them, but includes them (yet only as they are applicable to all men under the laws of nature and nature’s God).
Fourth, notice the phrase, from the beginning in 2 Jn 4-6. Don’t get sloppy – it doesn’t mean from the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. It means from the beginning of time. From the beginning when Jesus was God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jn 1:1.
Are you beginning to get the picture? All of the laws of nature and nature’s God are the laws Jesus came to fulfill and which His entire earthly ministry were based around. These same laws are the commandments of Jesus, and these are what the Church is supposed to be teaching the nations pursuant to the Great Commission. And whether we teach these laws to the nations is the criterion by which God will determine who is least and greatest in heaven.
But, Lord help us, the Church is NOT teaching the laws of nature and nature’s God to anyone, much less the whole world. In fact, just the opposite. Asserting the pseudo-argument of law vs. grace, we negate the Great Commission and do the very opposite of what Jesus commanded – all while we claim to be doing His will.
The last thing you will ever hear a sermon on in the modern Church is the laws of God, and this is to our everlasting shame. Why our shame? Because this is the essence of apostasy in the end times – that our love has grown cold as is demonstrated by our ignorance and reckless disregard of the laws of God. Because if we truly loved Him, we would teach and follow His laws. But how can we do that, when we don’t even know what they are? Shame on us.
Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth
Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. 2 Tim. 2:15 (KJV).
Not everything God or Jesus has said is a commandment, or a law. Not everything the patriarchs, prophets and N.T. saints did are examples to us of rules and practices to follow. Not everything God laid out as a pattern for a particular group of people is a pattern for the rest of us. We need to observe the differences between orders, rules and admonitions, and recognize the role of liberty.
For example, when God told Abram to go from his father’s house to the land He would show him (Gen. 12:1), that was not a law, but an order. Similarly, when Jesus told the disciples to go to Jerusalem and prepare the Passover meal, that was an order. An order is a command to a particular person to do a particular task.
A law, on the other hand, is a rule of conduct that all men must abide by. Sometimes rules can be directed to the people of a particular nation (such as Israel), but of course in fulfilling the Great Commission we want to identify rules applicable to all nations. I’ll come back to the question of how we identify these rules in a couple of minutes.
Both orders and rules are distinguished from mere admonitions. An admonition is generally a word of caution or advice to avoid something, or an urging or reminder to perform a duty. See dictionary.com. Examples of biblical admonitions: pray without ceasing, do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together, put on the whole armor of God, etc. Yes, what I am saying is that none of these examples is a rule of conduct, i.e., a law. If church attendance really has a law attached to it, then Heb. 10:25 is merely a reminder of it, but the law itself has to originate elsewhere. But where is such a law to be found? Nowhere.
Mere admonitions, firstly, are unenforceable. No one can truly tell you how often to pray, no one else can actually know how often you pray, and no one can do anything about it if you aren’t praying enough. I would even go so far as to say that failing to pray without ceasing is not a sin. Just pray often and make it a regular part of your life, but don’t ever feel pressured because you aren’t meeting someone else’s standards for praying. This is not a matter in which one person can judge another. And God, for His part, is not your mother, saying, “You don’t talk to me enough.”
Ditto for church attendance and spiritual preparedness. That’s right – there are no actual rules for prayer, church attendance or spiritual preparedness, or any of a host of other general behaviors. When people make up rules for things that are actually a matter of individual choice and liberty, it is called legalism. And legalism is always a bad thing to be avoided.
Second, and I mean this seriously, something is not a law of God or of scripture unless God is speaking in a legislative (i.e., a rule-making) capacity. When is God speaking in a legislative capacity? Either when implementing a divine covenant, or when issuing a statute under or pursuant to that covenant. These instances are pretty easy to identify because there aren’t that many of them.
The only other time God has spoken in a legislative capacity is via the laws of nature. Since the laws of nature all have their origin in the creation of the world, any rule of conduct tracing back to creation is a good potential eternal law of God applicable to all people.
Thus, when God condemned the Canaanites for various sexual offenses in Lev. 18, the whole list of offenses can be seen as an enumeration of violations of the laws of nature. Why? Because the Canaanites never received nor were they ever under the Mosaic law. So the question is what law did the Canaanites violate, and how could God condemn them except that they had violated some law applicable to all nations? In other words, the law of nature was in view in Lev. 18, not the Mosaic law. I have treated this topic in great detail in the essay, Sex, Crimes and Punishment.
Let’s jump to the N.T. Several times Paul invokes the law of nature to make arguments about things most Christians don’t like to talk about. Thus, in 1 Cor. 11:2-16 Paul discusses headship in the family, head coverings while praying, and hair length for men and women. But all of these are tied to each other, and all of them are ultimately tied to the manner and order of creation of Adam and Eve. Paul is making a clear case based on creation laws and we only denigrate and do a disservice to the scriptures when we cast the whole debate as a product of the times or the local culture.
When Jesus said “whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven,” the denigration of Paul’s argument in 1 Cor. 11 is exactly what Jesus was talking about.
Similarly, in 1 Cor. 14:33-35 Paul states that “women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak.” How many churches do you know, where that practice is observed? Or taught? Or discussed? Or treated without open contempt? Yet, Paul makes this statement in verses 37-38: “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.”
So what is Paul really claiming? That his teaching on women in the church is a command of the Lord, and as such, a rule of conduct which is part of God’s laws. And if it is a command of the Lord, it is one which Jesus came to fulfill, one which God expects all Christians to obey, and one which the Great Commission requires us to teach all nations, or else we will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. So don’t be so quick to dismiss what Paul said. You can be sure that if something is a command of the Lord, then God takes it quite seriously.
Looking for Law in All the Wrong Places
Paul’s argument is not a claim that he is speaking in a legislative capacity. Paul is not claiming the rule originates with him, he is claiming (under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit) that the rule originated with God. Paul is just calling attention to it for a disobedient congregation. Thus, the rule could either have originated in something Jesus said, or more likely, in the nature of marriage and family (which traces back to creation). I will not expound on it in detail here, but nothing in the rules and procedures for the Church ever trump the family order. If anything, it is the reverse (because the family came first and is more fundamental).
Thus, we need to avoid erroneous teachings, such as the belief prevalent in some churches to the effect that whatever customs and practices were observed by the early disciples in the N.T., and sometimes even the people of God of the O.T., if those customs and practices were “approved by God,” they become not only a model and an example for us, but form the boundaries and limits of what is acceptable behavior on our part.
Such teaching is wrong on all sorts of levels. First, just because so-and-so in the Bible exercised their liberty to worship or serve God in a particular way and this was acceptable to God, does not mean our liberty has been constrained. Jesus said He came to proclaim liberty (Lk. 4:18), not put us in a behavioral straight jacket. Thus, we have our own liberty to exercise as we see fit, and whether our actions are acceptable to God or not will have nothing to do with what someone else may or may not have done.
Second, this teaching inevitably tends to produce a ceremonial law for the Church, even while its proponents deny any intention of doing this. Nonetheless, proponents draw principles from many examples based in the Mosaic law itself, or from Israel while it was under the tutelage of that law, and attempt to extrapolate those so-called principles into the Church age. Now I admit it is reasonable and possible to extract principles of universal law applicable today from the experience of ancient Israel (I will expand on this idea below), but only to the extent you can trace those principles to the law of nature.
Going back to 1 Cor. 14 for a moment, in verse 40 Paul says, “But all things should be done decently and in order.” Yet, notice he never stipulates what that order should be, or that there is only a limited number of decent orders of worship. Even Paul, in calling for order, leaves the practical working out of that order to our Christian liberty, for Christ has set us free. Gal. 5:1.
Third, this teaching completely corrupts the nature of rule-making. Thus, for example, when the early disciples held all possession in common (Acts 4:32-37), this practice did not establish a rule of conduct, even though it may appear to have been “approved.” And the scripture itself shows us what a disastrous result this practice produced – a continuing decline of poverty for an entire church for many years.
As a starting proposition, actions of men do not – and cannot – establish laws of God. God reserves the right, as part of His sovereignty, to establish His own laws. The principle of Isa. 33:22 is as true today as it was so long ago: “For the Lord is our judge; the Lord is our lawgiver; the Lord is our king; he will save us.” And when God acts this way, He doesn’t leave it to implication or innuendo, He comes right out and says, “this shall be a statute.”
My point is that not everything stated by Paul in his various epistles or written by other New Testament writers is to be taken as a rule of conduct issued by the Lord as part of God’s laws. When that is the case, the writer clearly indicates it in the text and does not leave it to implication. So we should not construe all N.T. admonitions as rules of conduct. But when the writer does make the argument that such-and-such is a law of God, we had better treat it as one. God is watching, and He will hold us accountable.
Interpreting the Mosaic Law
Historically, Christians have approached the Mosaic law from two general perspectives, both of which have serious pitfalls. On the one hand, Christians tend to import aspects of the old Jewish law (such as the tithe) into the Church environment when those things have no rightful business in the Church. On the other hand, Christians tend to regard every law of the Old Testament as dead and gone, when there are plenty of O.T. laws having nothing to do with sacrifices and priesthoods that we Gentiles should be paying attention to. It is crucial that we sort these things out properly.
To establish a more balanced framework for understanding the Mosaic law, let me quote a brief excerpt from my essay on Tithing and the Law of God:
The Mosaic law is commonly regarded as having three basic components: 1) the eternal moral law (the law of nature); 2) the ceremonial/ redemptive law (the law of the priesthood); and 3) the civil or judicial law (the theocratic or governmental laws). Of those, the eternal moral law was perfect from the beginning and never needed a correction. To the extent the Mosaic covenant verbalizes the law of nature, of course, it applies to everyone.
But it applies to everyone not because it is stated in the Mosaic covenant, rather, it applies to everyone because it is our universal nature. The covenantal expression doesn’t make the moral law more binding than it was without the covenant. And the natural law doesn’t expand the covenant to make it universally applied to everyone. The covenant simply agrees with the law of nature, and to the extent natural law binds everyone, it binds them because of nature, not because of the covenant.
So the bottom line question is: How do we know which parts of the Mosaic law pertain to the theocracy and the priesthood, and which parts reflect the law of nature? I have already stated the general rule for knowing the law of nature when you see it: To the extent a legal principle or rule is based upon the nature or event of creation it is a part of the law of nature applicable to all people.
The Eternal Moral Law
Prime examples of the law of nature (i.e., the eternal moral law) in the Mosaic law are the Ten Commandments. This is why public displays of the Decalogue are so contentious – attacks on the Ten Commandments are an attempt to overthrow the laws of God in an effort by the ungodly to escape God’s rule. See, Ps 2.
The commandment that gives people the most problems is probably the fourth – to keep the sabbath. Yes, I know what the N.T. says about the sabbath, but remember this: you can’t find a rule of conduct more rooted in the nature of creation than the sabbath. I don’t recall that Jesus in His life, death or resurrection did anything to redefine the week, so you had better assume that is one of the laws He came to keep, wants us to obey, and we will be accountable for. Yet, at the same time, its observance (as taught in the N.T.) is a matter of personal liberty no one can judge us for.
Which illustrates this key principle: in deciphering the applicability of the Mosaic laws, you have to treat separately the rule of conduct itself, man-made regulations adopted to enforce it, and any punishments prescribed to the nation of Israel concerning it. All man-made regulations adopted by the Jews are, by definition, not applicable to the Gentile nations and are to be ignored. All punishments attached to various offenses are by definition part of the theocratic laws of Israel and are not binding on nations today.
That just leaves the rule of conduct itself, which for the most part people have complete liberty to implement as they see fit. Just because I say the Ten Commandments are part of God’s eternal moral laws applicable to everyone today, does not mean anyone should enact them as statutes or as a matter of public, municipal or civil law. Nonetheless, the Ten Commandments are rules of conduct the Church should be teaching all nations to obey, with the Church leading the way in modeling obedience.
I never said deciphering the Mosaic law was easy. I only say it is achievable, and it does take some skill and practice. So it can be done. But it will only be done if Christians get back in the habit of analyzing the scriptures, reading them carefully, and making and testing arguments for or against a principle.
We need some more of that iron sharpens iron mentality in our churches, and for people (especially ministry leaders) to stop being so thin-skinned that they can’t tolerate any criticism or dissent. It is no one’s job to fall in line with anyone else’s teaching. Each person should be fully convinced in his own mind. Rom. 14:5. The burden is on the preacher or teacher to prove his point, not on the hearer to submit to it. And if your first inclination is to quote Rom. 13:1-7 back at me (“be subject to the governing authorities”), you need to go back and reexamine that text. Nothing in that text relates to preachers or teachers in any way whatsoever.
The Theocratic Law
I suggest the following are examples of the theocratic laws of Israel, which are useful for understanding the special place Israel has in history (and in prophecy), but are not rules for the governing of the Gentile nations. No, I am not going to prove any of these here, I merely suggest them and leave the proof to another time.
The command not to intermarry with the people living in the land before the Israelites possessed it reflects an ethnic and spiritual purity which Israel was to maintain as a holy nation. Deut. 7:1-8.
The command not to wear clothing made of two materials is symbolic of the ethnic and spiritual purity which the Israelites were to maintain. Lev. 19:19 and Deut. 22:11.
The infliction of capital punishment for offenses against God is unique to Israel, because only in that nation would an offense against God also be an offense against the civil ruler.
The laws relating to the throne of Israel, including the Davidic covenant, are unique to the polity of that nation. Deut. 17:14-15 and 2 Sam. 7:1-29.
The land laws of the Jews reflect the theocratic nature of the nation. The land, as the unique possession of Israel, reflected the fact that Israel was God’s unique possession. Lev. 25:8-17,25; and Num. 36:7-9.
Ceremonial Laws (Laws of the Priesthood)
As for examples of ceremonial laws which have been obsoleted, many of these are easy to identify, such as laws relating to the composition of the priesthood, priestly duties, and behavioral rules for priests. Included among these are any similar rules pertaining to the calling out of the Levites from among the other tribes. Obviously, all laws pertaining to sacrifices and offerings, feasts and holy days, and rules pertaining to the tabernacle or temple, are among the ceremonial laws.
Perhaps less obvious, but no less important to understand and appreciate, is the law of tithing, which has been obsoleted by the priesthood of Christ. No, the tithe is not God’s mechanism for funding the Church. Oh, what great wickedness has been perpetrated in the name of Jesus by shackling His body with a burden that was never theirs to bear. For a full account and explanation (and proof) of this point, see my essay on Tithing and the Law of God.