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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Law of God

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LAW OF GOD.—We are not entitled to gather from the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels that He made any formal distinction between the Law of Moses and the Law of God. His mission being not to destroy but to fulfil the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17), so far from saying anything in disparagement of the Law of Moses or from encouraging His disciples to assume an attitude of independence with regard to it, He expressly recognized the authority of the Law of Moses as such, and of the Pharisees as its official interpreters (Matthew 23:1-3).

One great aim of His teaching being, however, to counteract the influence of the Pharisaism of the time, under which zeal for the Law had degenerated into a pedantic legalism, which made outward conformity to the letter all-important and caused the true interests of religion and morality to be lost sight of amid the Shibboleths of national ritualism, He sought to concentrate the attention of His hearers upon the true meaning of the Law. In doing this He practically ignored the distinctions of the scribes between greater and lesser commandments of the Law, and between the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms (or ‘the Writings’), and insisted upon the authority of Scripture as the word of God. What God says in Scripture, the inspired record of Revelation, is for Jesus the final court of appeal. ‘The Scripture cannot be broken’ (John 10:35) is a principle never once lost sight of in any controversy.

At the same time, as Jesus Himself taught as One who had authority (Matthew 7:29 || Mark 1:22), quietly but none the less emphatically asserting His right to explain the spirit and meaning of the Divine word, He did distinguish and teach His disciples to distinguish between letter and spirit, that which was permanent and universal in the Law and that which was partial and temporary. It is therefore possible, and even almost necessary, with a view to a clear understanding of Christ’s attitude towards the Law, to distinguish between the Law of God, meaning by the term that which is of universal validity, and those elements in the Law of Moses which are merely associated with a particular dispensation, a temporary manifestation of God’s will.

1. A typical illustration of the propriety of such a distinction is found in that passage in which Jesus, dealing with the question of marriage and divorce, treats the Mosaic law on the subject as an instance of accommodation to an imperfect state of society (Matthew 19:3-8 || Mark 10:2-9). ‘For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female, etc. (Mark 10:5-6 ff.). Here we see at once a distinction made between the Mosaic precept and the Divine law. The former allowed divorce upon certain well-understood grounds. The Pharisees put their own lax interpretation upon this precept, and multiplied the causes of divorce to an extent far beyond what the precept actually justified. Christ’s reply to the question of His adversaries on this point was simply to remind them of the original Divine ordinance, according to which the marriage bond was made indissoluble. The Law of Moses permitted divorce, but the Law of God maintained the sanctity of the marriage bond, and this represented the point of view from which the whole question ought to be regarded. ‘They twain shall be one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together let not man put asunder.’ In this connexion the Law of God and the Law of Moses are to one another in the relation of the spirit to the letter. This typical instance illustrates the principle upon which Jesus proceeded in His interpretation of the Divine law. His aim throughout was to call attention to the true spirit and purpose of the Law, to that in it which was of essential and permanent value. That the spirit of the Law, of which the letter is but the necessarily inadequate expression, is the Law of God, the manifestation of the Father’s will for the moral and spiritual good of His children.

2. The attitude which Jesus adopted towards the whole question of the Law, considered as the Law of God, is well exemplified in the Sermon on the Mount, and in particular in those words which may be fitly taken as the motto of His teaching: ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil’ (Matthew 5:17; see preced. art.). In the contrast between what ‘was said by them of old time’ and His own emphatic ‘But I say unto you,’ we find the distinction between the Law of Moses and the Law of God. In the latter case He clearly speaks as God’s representative, and we are reminded of John the Baptist’s illustration of the difference between Christ and himself, the last of the Prophets: ‘He whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God; for God giveth not the Spirit by measure [unto him]’ (John 3:34). In the one case, the statute which Jesus quotes, we have to do with the letter of the Law, that with which alone the scribes occupied themselves and upon which they founded their casuistical refinements. In the other case, the words ‘But I say unto you’ bid us go behind the letter and get at the root of the matter, ‘for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life’ (2 Corinthians 3:6). Thus, in proceeding to apply the principle which He has just laid down (Matthew 5:17), Jesus starts with the comprehensive statement of Matthew 5:20 ‘For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.’

From this point He goes on to deal with typical instances of the difference between letter and spirit in the Law. He begins with a commandment of the Decalogue, the Sixth, coupled with a corresponding passage from the Mosaic legislation, ‘and whosoever shall kill, shall be in danger of the judgment’ (Matthew 5:21). He says in effect, ‘The spirit of the commandment is this: Anger is murder. I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother … shall be in danger of the Judgment’ (Matthew 5:22). And then, as if still further to emphasize the point that the Law is not satisfied by negative or formal obedience, Jesus shows that brethren at variance must give effect to the positive law of love before they can render acceptable worship at God’s altar (Matthew 5:23-26). Nor is this enough. At a later point in His discourse, in connexion with the law of retaliation, He returns to the subject and insists upon the Divine principle of love, showing that the aim of God’s Law is to make man resemble God Himself. The law of love leaves no room for enemies. A Christian has no enemies; for by loving and praying for them he makes them friends (Matthew 5:38-45).

So again, in another place, Jesus shows that the neighbour to whom the Law of God refers is any one in need whom one can help (Luke 10:29-37). Again Jesus takes up the Seventh Commandment. According to the letter it forbids the sin of unchastity, unchaste actions, unlawful intercourse between the sexes. The spirit of the commandment has a far higher aim. It is only one aspect of the grand law of purity. It demands purity of heart. Every impure thought, every unchaste look, are transgressions of this law of God (Matthew 5:27-32). Jesus deals with the Ninth Commandment upon the same principle. According to the letter, it forbids false swearing. According to the spirit, it is just a form of the law of sincerity and truthfulness. Its real meaning is that God desireth truth in the inward parts (Matthew 5:33-37).

Proceeding (Matthew 6:1 ff.) to the subject of religious exercises, Jesus shows that questions of ritual and outward form, upon which the Pharisees founded their ideas of ‘righteousness’ (δικαιοσύνηνποιεῖν, Matthew 6:1) and meritorious service, are of trifling importance in comparison with the question of the heart’s approach to God. Religion is not a performance, to be judged by what men can see and pronounce their opinions upon, and involving such trivial points as ritual, excellency of speech, propriety of form, reverence and decorum of posture. It is a matter of communion of spirit with spirit, needy souls, humbly conscious of their needs, confessing their wants and desires to One who seeth in secret, the poor in spirit hungering and thirsting after righteousness, and so convinced of their entire dependence upon the forgiveness and compassion of the All-Merciful as to feel that for them to claim the mercy and grace of God is to bind themselves by the law of love to the duty of forgiving as they would themselves be forgiven. From this point of view the essence of worship is prayer,—not sacrifice and offering—the humble, fervent outpouring of contrite hearts (cf. Luke 18:10-14), and cordial surrender to the will of God—not questions of posture or of such material things as rich gifts (Luke 21:3-4, John 4:23-24). Prayer is the kernel; all external ordinances, whole burnt-offerings, sacrifices and the like, are but the husk (Matthew 6:1-18). So the prayers even of the Gentiles are of infinitely more consequence than the temple offerings, and God’s house is a house of prayer for all people (Matthew 21:12 ff. || Mark 11:17 || Luke 19:45-46, cf. John 2:14-16).

In connexion with Christ’s teaching on the subject of heart religion and morality, and the true meaning of the Law considered as the Law of God, an interesting case suggests itself, in which Jesus seems to anticipate the abrogation of the Old Covenant with its laws and ordinances. It is that of His controversy with the Pharisees with reference to the ceremonial ablutions which the disciples were accused of neglecting (Matthew 15:1-20 || Mark 7:1-23). Jesus defends His disciples by turning the tables upon the Pharisees, whom He taxes with setting their traditions above the express commandments of God Himself, and with neglecting in the interest of mere technicalities the weightier matters of the Law (cf. His denunciation of Pharisaic scrupulosity in Matthew 23:4-30 || Luke 11:37-47), and cites as an instance their treatment of the Fifth Commandment and the law of filial affection. But what calls for notice is, in particular, the circumstance that what specially offended the Pharisees, and startled even Christ’s own disciples, was His pronouncement upon the point immediately in dispute, the question of ceremonial ablutions, and the whole Levitical legislation on the subject of the clean and the unclean. In view of the fact that a large portion of the Mosaic law is taken up with and deals minutely with these very points, in view also of the fact that the controversies in the Early Church itself between Jewish and Gentile Christians turned upon these things, our Lord’s treatment of the question is very remarkable, and illustrates clearly the nature of the distinction which, in His revision of the Law, He emphasized between letter and spirit. He practically teaches that the principle of those Levitical precepts is simply the Divine law of holiness. Rightly understood, they only restate in another form the command, ‘Be holy, as the Lord your God is holy’; and they are truly obeyed only by those whose hearts are renewed in every thought by the Spirit of God. The scribes who, forgetting the teaching of the prophets (for here Jesus made no essential addition to Jeremiah’s doctrine of the New Covenant or Ezekiel’s doctrine of the renewed heart and the washing of regeneration, Jeremiah 31:31 ff., Ezekiel 36:25-27), made the external ritual everything, and took no account of heart-religion, were on that account compared to those who should cleanse the outside of the cup and the platter, and be utterly careless as to the condition of the inside. If, on the other hand, the heart were purged from evil thoughts and wicked inclinations, then the life would correspond, as the tree is known by its fruit, and God’s law would be fulfilled in the spirit of it. The Law of God appeared thus as the perfect law of liberty, the worship of God in spirit and in truth. In a word, true religion and true morality, the teaching of which in all their particulars is the grand purpose of the Law of God, are from first to last a matter of the heart. Let the heart be pure. Let it be truly turned to God, in simple faith casting aside every care and anxious thought of the world and things of time, and trusting that God will deny His children no good thing, temporal or spiritual, of which, as their Father, He knows them to stand in need, and there is the secret of the fulfilling of the Law. All else follows from that. The pure in heart see God, the poor in spirit are already inheritors of the Kingdom of heaven (Matthew 6:19-34; Matthew 7:15-27).

Jesus taught essentially the same truth when, in controversy with the Pharisees, He summarized the teaching of the Law and the Prophets. So far from repudiating as a mere matter of Pharisaic casuistry the question often agitated among the scribes as to whether there were any commandments which in themselves summed up the teaching of the whole Law, He was ready to discuss such questions with them; and when, in response to His definition of love to God and one’s neighbour as the essential commandment of the Law, a scribe commended His answer, and said that such love was ‘more than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices,’ He declared that he was not far from the Kingdom of God (Mark 12:28-34).

On the same principle, Jesus at once defended His disciples against the charge of Sabbath-breaking, and vindicated His right to perform works of beneficence on the Sabbath day, by appealing to the spirit of the ordinance. Like other parts of the Law, He showed that this was only an expression of God’s beneficent will for the good of man, a provision for his temporal and spiritual welfare. Therefore in the case of the cripple at Bethesda, He declared that, as God’s providential government of the world recognized no distinction between the Sabbath and other days, so Christ Himself, as Son of God, must, like the Father, seek man’s benefit even on the Sabbath. Again, as Son of Man, He no less emphatically asserted His right to interpret the Sabbath law in the interest of man, for whose benefit it was framed (John 5:17 ff., Matthew 12:1-8 || Mark 2:23-28 || Luke 6:1-5). See also artt. Accommodation, Authority of Christ, Law, etc.

Literature.—Cremer, Bib.-Theol. Lex. s.v. νόμος; Grimm, Lex. Novi Testamenti, s.v. νόμος; Comm. of Meyer and Alford; Wendt, The Teaching of Jesus, i. 261–313, ii. 3–26; H. J. Holtzmann, Lehrbuch der NT Theol. 1. 29–45, 116–146; Beyschlag, NT Theology, i. 37–40, 97–129; Weiss, Ribl. Theol. of NT, i. 107–120; Briggs, Ethical Teaching of Christ, 143; Gore, Sermon on Mount; Bruce, Kingdom of God, 63–84; Dykes, Manifesto of the King [ed. 1887], 203–329; cf. also Literature at end of preceding article.

Hugh H. Currie.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Law of God'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/l/law-of-god.html. 1906-1918.

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