Posts Tagged Spirit
Ok; this is a story that I wrote when I got bored with the sermon I was writing on 1 John 4:1-6. Behind John’s instructions to his little churches in Asia there was a major problem going on with the (pre-)gnostic teachers; their very ‘spiritual’ approach to knowledge, and the consequent detachment of ethics from Jesus. But just lecturing about all that seemed very dry, so I made the attempt to give those bones a little flesh. Given the conflation of two distinct (but all too often related!) forms of abuse in the story, several in the congregation found it a very uncomfortable reading. The question I asked at the end of the story was, “At what point did the pastor clearly leave the path?” What do you think?
Ali is feeling good, and tomorrow is going to be even better. She’s moved towns, successfully, shifted into the little sleep-out behind her elderly aunt’s house, started her new job, and got through orientation week without any very embarrassing mistakes, and she’s going to a new church tomorrow.
Sarah, the girl at work who’s been training her, had invited her to come and Ali had leapt at the opportunity; so much better than turning up alone!
Ali is feeling good because she hadn’t been sure she could do it; all her life she’s been plagued by uncertainty; unsure about her own abilities and unable to completely trust people around her.
Perhaps it’s because her dad left when she was little, or maybe it’s just her personality, but trusting other people doesn’t come easily. Nor does Ali trust herself so much. Despite what everyone tells her, she still blames herself for everything; for her parents break-up, for her older brother’s bad behaviour, for her mother’s anxiety and stress…
There’s one person, however, she does trust, and that is Jesus.
Since she encountered him a few years ago, since he’d made himself present to her during that amazing midnight conversation with her best friend, she’s known at the very centre of her being that she is loved, and that she can absolutely trust Christ to stay with her always. She has learned to pause, to step back from whatever uncertainty she’s facing, to slip within herself and to reach out to him, and simply discovering, again and again, that he is always there for her, that his love is unchanged, that he is still who he claims to be, has helped her to overcome her fears.
She had found herself more able to concentrate on schoolwork; had done well enough to get good marks, and go on the training course, and now, here she is, a new graduate in a new job, in a new town, making new friends.
And all because Jesus loves her.
Ali is feeling good.
And tomorrow, she will find out about this new church.
Now it’s tomorrow, and Ali is facing an enormous table, loaded with food; on her left, Mrs Rhees, (“Call me Esme, dear, there’s a love.”) is piling potatoes and corned beef onto her plate, and to her right, Mr Rhees, (“We just call him ‘The Major’, mostly”), is telling her about his years in the territorials, and promising that later, she should see his collection of old medals. Opposite her is their middle-age daughter, Rosie, and her husband, Paul, nodding and smiling as they hear again the stories that are part of the family furniture. And at the end of the table, Pastor Austeer is spooning white sauce onto his mounded plate.
Ali thought he looked especially hungry; not surprising after all the energy he had put into his preaching that morning. She’s not used to sermons that go for more than fifteen minutes, and this one had taken almost an hour – but she’d barely noticed the time flying past, he was so animated and engaging, and, although she couldn’t remember much of what he’d said, she remembered that it had been very interesting. Not surprising that he is staring at his pile of pink beef almost as though he’s about to dive into it teeth first.
His gaze suddenly lifts from his plate to her face, and she feels slightly scorched by the intensity of his stare, before he flicks his eyes away, and, taking Esme’s hand from beside him, and her daughter’s with his other hand, leads them in a prayer of thanksgiving – shorter than the sermon, thankfully – and they begin eating.
Conversation is general at first – they chat about Rosie and Paul’s children, and about a new business opening up in town, and about Ali’s home and family (“So few couples seem to hold together these days”, sniff Esme. “I’d never know what to do if The Major, here, left me.” “Leave you!” he replies. “And have to eat my own cooking!? Not likely, love!”) and then about her new job.
“How are you finding the work, Ali?” asks the pastor. “Not too strenuous?”
“No, the work isn’t too hard at all – yet, anyway. And Sarah’s a real help while I get used to everything.”
“Yes, lovely girl, isn’t she?” says Esme. “Such a pity she had to rush away afterwards and couldn’t join us. You know her mother once helped me with that Drama we did…” and the conversation moves on to the drama society politics, and then on to local body politics, and then turns to the sermon from that morning.
“I didn’t quite get it,” the Major is saying. “What was that you were saying about the Spirit?”
“What God teaches,” replies the pastor, “Is that we all have the Spirit, and the Spirit gives us all truth, and so we all have all truth.”
“I find that hard to get my head around,” comes the objection. “If we have all truth, why are so many Christians so blinkin’ wrong!”
“Clearly,” comes the cool, quick answer, “not all who claim to be Christian actually are.”
Across the table Ali notices Paul fidget uncomfortably for a second, and then go still again.
The pastor continues, “and though we can quickly see that some are false Christians simply because they embrace error in their doctrine, others among us merely need to learn how to hear the Spirit’s voice.”
“So you say I’ve already got all truth, but maybe I’m not listening to it?”
“We all have all truth, but not all of us are able to hear every word of the Spirit. It takes … practice … to learn to recognise that still, small voice.”
“How?” Ali is surprised to hear her own voice enter the conversation. “I mean… sorry, I’m new. How do you practice?”
Pastor Austeer considers her for a second as he dabs sauce from his lips, and then says, “There are various spiritual exercises that help us to ‘tune in’. Would you be interested in learning?”
“Ooh. Say, ‘yes’, Ali, do!” says Esme. “Rosie and I did this course, and it’s really interesting!”
“What does it involve?”
“Mostly conversation, and some guided meditations,” said the pastor. “Don’t worry, nothing spooky. It’s just a useful way of getting rid of stuff from the past that might be blocking our spiritual ears. I have some space in my schedule at the moment. You’d want after hours time, right?”
“Well, yes, if it wouldn’t be a bother…”
“No bother at all. It’s what I’m here to do and I’m glad to do it. Would you like to meet on a Thursday?”
And just like that, Ali finds her life taking a new direction. Her home life is flat and uneventful, as she cooks and cares for herself in her little room, seeing her aunt only as often as she needs to pay her rent. Work was at first challenging and stimulating then became more predictable and even tedious as she quickly masters her tasks. Most of her workmates are older than her, other than Sarah, but Sarah, while friendly, is deep in preparations for her wedding, and lives for the weekends when her fiancé is in town. With no other friends, and certainly no romantic relationships, Ali finds an unending diet of wedding talk grating, and is glad, on Thursdays, to walk home in a different direction, and knock on the frosted glass door of the pastor’s study behind the church.
At their first meetings he’d greet her with a warm handshake, and then seat her on a couch, provide her with a coffee, and take up station behind his desk. Once there he talked at length about ‘doctrine’. He covered all sorts of topics; the responsibility of Christians to tithe and to give, the importance of strong fellowship and regular attendance at worship, the necessity of showing the world how pure their faith was, and the dangers of the world – how the world could distract and confuse young believers, and how the world must be rejected like a rotten apple; good for nothing but compost.
Ali asked an occasional question, or sometimes he asked her something, but mostly she simply let his words wash over and around her, like she was a rock in a stream of words. It was sort of restful and a little bit flattering that he should give her so much individual attention. He talked a lot about obeying the Spirit; he talked of how Saul had been so drenched in the Spirit that he had lain naked and prophesied before Samuel, but also how Saul had disobeyed Samuel, and been rejected by God. He mentioned others, too: Tamar who was moved by the Spirit to dress like a prostitute and so gave Judah the children from whom Jesus was descended, Ruth, who obeyed Naomi and uncovered Boaz’s ‘feet’ (She blushed when he explained that this was a euphemism) and became the grandmother of King David, and Solomon who sought nothing but God’s wisdom and was rewarded with great wealth, many wives, and long-lasting peace as well as world-renowned wisdom, and how God had entered into the temple Solomon had built. “And now YOU,” he declaimed, staring intently at her, “are the temple of the Spirit into whom God has entered!”
He emphasised how God wanted nothing but the best for his children; that was why he gave the Spirit! He was fond of Jesus’ saying about fathers, who were evil, knowing enough to give their children good things, so surely God would give his children good things, too, or, as Luke put it, surely the Father would give the Holy Spirit.
This led them to a discussion about fathers and the first of those guided meditations he had mentioned. He sat beside her on the couch, asked her to close her eyes and relax, and stepped her back, slowly, through her memories of her father. Eventually, painfully, she opened her eyes to find them swimming with tears that slowly trickled down her cheeks, and she quickly looked down so that her hair fell forward to hide them, but he reached out and, very gently, wiped one tear away, then turned to his desk for a box of tissues, and a small pamphlet with a meditation on God’s divine father hood. Then, when she recovered a little, he simply said, “See you next week” and let her out.
She felt that she floated home in a soft mist; slightly cut off from the world around her by the release of that old sorrow, and also strangely touched, intensely aware of the feeling of his fingertip on her cheek.
Their next meeting, he greeted her as warmly as ever, and moved his chair to sit in front of his desk as he spoke about God’s love, and his command that we should love one another, and how love was the greatest gift of the Spirit, but he didn’t mention her tears, and she was grateful for his sensitivity.
Each week she meets more members of the church, and is always impressed by how they all call each other sister, or brother, how they treat each other with obvious affection, and how they could ask each other the most searching questions; “Are you giving as you should be, brother?” “Sister, how are you getting on with disciplining your Jacob, now?” The Major and Esme, however, always make a special point of catching up with Ali, and Esme always asks how the course is going. “Are you hearing the Spirit, yet, dear?” she asks.
“I’m not sure – I mean, Jesus is always with me, I know, and I love to stop and …I don’t know, just be with him, I guess, but…”
“No, no, dear, not Jesus – we’re talking about the Spirit! Have you heard that still small voice, yet?”
Ali blushes and mutters that she’s not sure.
Esme looks at her steadily, and said, quietly, kindly, but very firmly, “You’ll know when you do.” And then she looks around and asks, “Where’s Sarah, today?”
“Oh! She said she was going to go see her fiancé this weekend, and that they were going to go to his church, this time. She’s never been, and he’s been asking her so she said she would.”
Esme looks startled at this, and turns to the Major, behind her. Ali is surprised to see that he is frowning deeply, but he says nothing to her, simply turning and walking away. Esme hesitates a moment, looking as though she might say something, but then just hurries after him herself.
At her next meeting with the Pastor, he greets her with a stiff hug; he’d started to do this each Sunday, and she’d noticed that many people greeted each other with a hug, so thinks nothing of it, and they continue as previously. This time he starts by asking her if she has anything on her mind?
She hesitates, and he quickly says, “You look troubled…”
“Oh. Well, it’s nothing really. Just, Esme was asking last Sunday, could I hear the Spirit yet, and, well, I’m not really sure…”
“Would you like to be more sure?”
“Then sit down, here,” and he moves to sit beside her, again, on the couch. “What you need to understand,” he says, in a low, earnest voice, “is that the Spirit is not of this world, and so the voice of the Spirit can seem quite strange. Even odd. And that is why our obedience is of the utmost importance. If we waited until we understood everything then we would never do anything. We need to be ready to obey even before we understand, no matter how odd the Spirit’s command might be. Do you understand this?”
“Yes, yes, that makes sense.”
“And so, when you begin to hear the voice of the Spirit, you must obey without hesitation. You must not quench the Spirit!”
“Sometimes, what the Spirit asks might even seem wrong, but that is because we are infested by the lies of the world.”
Ali looks at him. He seems to be waiting for some response from her.
“I’m …I’m sorry. What do you mean?”
“Well, consider. If the Spirit said to you to kiss someone, not a member of your family. To kiss a man. What would your mother say?”
“Well …she’d say it was wrong. It was … dangerous.”
“I think you said your mother …she’s not a Christian, is she?”
“No,” Ali admits, in a small voice.
“Then she’s from the world, and “you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.””
“That was the apostle John said that, wasn’t it?” Ali asks.
“Yes. Well recognized. From his first letter. Do you read the Bible much?”
“Yes. Well, most nights.”
“So you know that Paul said that we are “ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”?
“What did he mean?”
“Simply that we shouldn’t let the scriptures bind us, my dear. It is the Spirit that gives life, not dead letters.”
“But, surely the Bible…”
“Oh, yes! The Bible is a voice of the Sprit, too – it is the Bible, after all, that tells us to greet one another with a holy kiss, despite what your worldly mother may think – but it isn’t the only voice of the Spirit, nor even the most important. The most important, is right… here.” and he lays a long finger on her chest, above her suddenly thudding heart. He lets it rest there a moment, as he gazes at her, then returns his hand to his lap, turns slightly away from her, and looks into the distance. “Shall we practice listening to the voice of the spirit, today, then?”
Ali becomes aware that she is barely breathing, and says, in a whisper, “Yes,” without taking her eyes from him.
“And if you hear the Spirit speaking, are you willing to obey him? Are you willing to put aside the distractions of the world, to reject the advice of the world and obey only the Spirit?”
She nods, and he turns back to her, and smiles. “Then relax, and close your eyes, and wait.”
Ali waits, and hears nothing except her heart beating and her breathing slowly returning to normal, and when she opens her eyes again, after perhaps five minutes, it is to see Pastor Austeer smiling at her.
“Don’t be disappointed if you heard nothing. The voice of the Spirit comes as it wills and no-one knows where it comes from. Keep listening throughout the week, and remember, Obey! Even if it seems an odd thing – especially if it seems odd! Even if just a little thing. Don’t ask to understand; just obey.”
He smiles again, and sees her to the door.
Throughout that week, Ali tries her hardest to listen for the voice of the Spirit. She starts to notice lots of little thoughts running through her mind. “Kick the cat,” is one, when a cat crosses the road in front of her. She’s fairly sure that isn’t the voice of the Spirit. When she is brushing her teeth one time, she thinks “Upside down.” as she gazes at her toothpaste. It isn’t upside down, but she practices obedience anyway, and turns it upside down. Going home from work one day, she is waiting at the crossing, and thinks “Go,” though there is a car coming. She closes her eyes, gulps, and doesn’t go. The car roars across in front of her and she walks home in confusion. If she had stepped in its path, would it have stopped? Or is she meant to have been injured and hospitalised, and maybe killed? Is that God’s plan for her life?
What with her wondering, and her listening, and her confusion, she is not as focused on her job as usual, but she’s startled out of a fugue at her workstation on Wednesday, by Sarah saying, “Ali. Ali! ALI!”
“Oh. Sorry, Sarah. I was… daydreaming.”
Sarah grinned. “You’ve got up to the bit about listening for the Spirit, haven’t you?”
“Yes! Is it obvious?”
“A little bit. You should have seen Rosie when she did it. It was a few years ago, now, and I was just a junior in the Youth Group, but I remember her wandering around in a total daze!”
“Have you done the course?”
“No. I don’t know that it’s for me, you know? I’ve talked to a few people who’ve done it, and they say that he just talks to them a lot. Well we get that on Sunday! I’d rather do something in a group. Like a Bible study. Hey! Why don’t we start one? You and me?”
“Ah, maybe. I don’t think, right now, though – I mean, I’d like to finish this course, first…”
Sarah rolls her eyes. “Alright, whatever.”
Ali feels herself flush. It sounds like Sarah doesn’t like hearing Pastor Austeer talking! “I just want to see if I can hear the voice of the Spirit.”
“Well, I guess if you hear the Spirit all the time, like the pastor seems to, then you wouldn’t really need to study anything, would you? The Spirit gives life and the letter killeth, right?”
Ali’s jaw drops open. “How did you know that he…”
“Did he say that to you? Well, he does say it a bit. Usually when someone else is quoting the Bible.” Sarah grins. “Anyway. I still think a group is a cool idea. I think I’ll talk about it to Esme and the Major. They’ve invited me around this evening.” And off Sarah goes, leaving Ali more confused than ever.
As she walks home that evening, she strains her ears for the voice of the Spirit and eventually, throwing open the door to her little room she slumps onto her bed in disappointment, and flops backwards onto the pillows. “Oh, Jesus, help me.” She says to the presence in the quiet behind her eyes, and suddenly, she feels completely at peace. Without knowing how she knows, she knows that it is ok. Jesus is still there for her, despite her inability to hear this voice that the pastor talks about, and Jesus will never leave her. She turns her face to the pillow and sobs, and the next day feels much better.
That afternoon, as she sits on the pastor’s couch once more, she tells him about the cat and she tells him about the car, and she tells him about the toothpaste, and she tells him about her prayer and the immediate relief she had felt in Jesus’ presence. She doesn’t tell him about Sarah, however; she just doesn’t know how to say what she feels.
He is interested in everything she does say, and most of all in the tooth-paste! “That was excellent, Ali, excellent! That was wonderful obedience! Well done!”
“But the car…”
“Maybe that, too, was the voice of the Spirit. Who knows what may have happened! Certainly it was a test of your faith, Ali, wasn’t it?”
He looks at her so intently, she feels her breathing hitch again, and whispers a “yes”.
Without taking his eyes from hers, he pulls his seat up and sits directly in front of her as she perches on the edge of the couch. “Let’s try to hear the Spirit again, now, together. No – keep your eyes open this time. Listen – and obey.”
Ali listens, and finds her mind beginning to fill with the many words spoken here, washing around her; “Love one another…” “What they say is from the world…” “A holy kiss..” “The letter kills…”
And then, blazing to the forefront of her mind, the words, “Kiss Him!”
Her eyes drop from his to the thin lips beneath, and then up again as she replays those words in her mind and hears again their insistence, and so she obeys, leaning into his kiss as he reaches out for her and takes her into his arms.
That evening, as she prepares for bed, and all the next day, she feels like she is in a Rosie-like daze, as she replays in her mind those few, fervent moments. The pastor had confirmed that he, too had heard that command, and that though it didn’t matter what the world thought – they were free in their obedience to the Spirit – it was best to avoid all appearance of evil, and not put any stumbling blocks in the way of weaker brethren, so not to mention it to anyone else just now. Rather, wait, and see what the Spirit might command next time they met.
They see each other at church on Sunday, of course, and Ali blushes slightly as he gives her a warm embrace, and places a chaste peck upon her cheek. He says nothing, but she sees anticipation in his eyes and spends most of the sermon wondering what, exactly the Spirit might say when next they meet.
Afterwards, however, as she talks with the Rheeses, her thoughts are turned in quite a different direction. After asking about Rose, who is pregnant again, Ali remembers that Sarah had been going to see them last week; “How did your evening with Sarah go? Did she tell you her idea about a Bible study?”
The major’s pleasant face turns thunderous again, and he turns away, leaving Esme to answer; “Well, yes, dear, she did, but we don’t think it’s right. You see, she doesn’t hear the Spirit. Her Bible study would be quite wrong. And besides; we can’t meet with someone who’s been dis-fellowshipped.”
“Dis… what? Sorry, I don’t understand.”
“Oh, it’s nothing to worry about. I’m sure she’ll come around. Pastor will explain it to you later this week.” And that was all she would say on the subject.
Sarah wasn’t at church that day, and throughout the following week, Ali gets the impression that she is avoiding her at work. Finally she finds her seated at her workstation, doing data entry. “ ‘Scuse me, Sarah. Where does this account belong?”
Sarah takes a quick look at the file in Ali’s hand, mutters “Give it to Fiona,” and turns back to her work.
“Sarah,” Ali tries again, “Is there something wrong?”
The previously bouncy bride-to-be glances up at Ali, opens her mouth as though to say something, then snaps it shut again. With her lips pressed together in a thin line, she turns back to her screen once more, and shakes her head mutely.
Ali stands for a second, then, with a shrug, returns to her own work. There is a message waiting for her, there. “Pastor Austeer says half an hour later this Thursday”. She reads it, wonders, and then crumples it up. No doubt he will explain when they meet. But that meeting is starting to look very unlike the one she had anticipated.
As she walks up to the frosted glass door on Thursday, it bursts open and an obviously unhappy Sarah steps out, sees her, and swings around to walk back to the road across the neighbours’ lawn rather than come past her. As Ali stands gaping, she sees tears on her friend’s cheeks, her complexion burning brightly beneath them, as though she is deeply embarrassed – or overwhelmingly angry.
As she turns back to the door, she sees the pastor there, spots of colour on his cheeks, too. He reaches out to embrace her, but then drops his arms as she stiffens, and simply stands aside and says, “Come in.” Ali means to ask him about Sarah, and what ‘dis-fellowshipped’ means, but he raises the subject himself; “Ali, does your work require you to talk much with Miss Massingham?”
“No. In fact, she won’t talk to me at all, now, if she can avoid me.”
“Ah. It would be best if you left her alone as much as you could, now. Can you do that?”
“Well… yes, but why? What’s she done? Is this what ‘disfellowshipped’ means? Is this because of her Bible study idea?”
“No, Not because of the Bible study idea – though that was obviously inappropriate – but because she has chosen to walk, once again, in the ways of the world.”
“What’s she done?”
“She is pledged to keep fellowship with us, here, but she has been attending meetings of false Christians where they teach error and confusion. She must not be double-minded, and she will not commit to stay away from them in the future. She is antichrist: “19 They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us.” If I can quote John, again. She has been avoiding you because she was hoping to weasel her way back into our fellowship by not breaking the rules of disfellowshipping. And I suppose she may have been trying to protect you from any taint. Has she succeeded, I wonder? Are you ready and willing to obey the Spirit in this, Ali?”
Ali sags onto the couch, and squeezes her eyes shut, feeling tears pricking behind her eyelids. What is the Spirit saying?
As though reading her mind, the Pastor immediately quotes from Revelation; “15 ‘ “I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. … You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked… 21 To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.’ 22 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying …” Ali, you can conquer this, you don’t have to be poor and blind, you can sit on the throne with God! With me! Let me lead you. Are you willing to obey, Ali? Are you?”
She feels him, kneeling in front of her, just inches away; his hands upon her shoulders tremble slightly. She’s terrified that if she opens her eyes, she will see again the mouth that she kissed just a week ago. In the dark privacy of her mind, she calls out as she had before, “Oh, Jesus help me.” And immediately opens her eyes to look directly into the face before her.
“I… I’m not sure what the Spirit is saying to me, but… but I wonder – I don’t know – where is Jesus in this?”
“Well, yes. He was always so kind when people came to him. I… this… it just doesn’t feel like something he would do.”
“ Jesus! Jesus was just a man. He died, abandoned by God. It is the Spirit of Christ which matters.”
“Jesus doesn’t matter?”
“No. The Nazareth carpenter was just a disguise God used; a suit of clothing that he no longer has any use for. It is the Spirit not the flesh, that we must obey. Will you listen to the Spirit, Ali?”
“But the Bible says…”
“Don’t get hung up on the dead letter! It is the Spirit that counts.”
Ali reaches into her purse and draws out her little Bible, opening it at the marked page with trembling fingers. “I was reading what we were talking about a couple of weeks ago. Just before he says that we are from God and they are from the world, he says this: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.””
“But the deadly letter…”
Ali stands up. “I don’t know what Paul meant by the letter, but I do know that the Spirit he’s talking about is totally different to the one you’re serving! I’ll stick with the spirit of Jesus if that’s ok.”
She turns in the doorway; “Please say goodbye to Esme and the Major for me. They were kind.” and then she leaves.
Ali is feeling good, and tomorrow is going to be even better. She’s moved towns, successfully, she’s doing well in her new job, and she’s going to a new church tomorrow. Sarah, the girl at work who trained her, has asked her to be her bridesmaid at the wedding, and Ali is glad for the opportunity.
1 John 4, NRSV, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.
2 Cor. 3:6
This collection of scriptures is intended for those who are being troubled by fellow believers who seek to make some aspect or other of Torah observance binding for all Christians. The question of Torah (the Jewish Law) was an essential one for the first generation of Christians, and so we have many scriptures that address this question. At that time the main question was one of circumcision, and the texts below reflect this. Today the main questions seem to be about Sunday vs. Saturday worship, or subscribing to a specific view on gender roles.
The important factor that we see clearly in the writings of the first Christians, which have come down to us as Holy Spirit-inspired scripture, is a significant de-valuation of Torah. Not by any means a rejection of it – it is still God’s gift and a clear expression of the mind and will of God in its time – but the times have changed with the coming of Christ. He has opened the door of the Kingdom, and instituted a new covenant for the forgiveness of sins.
This leads to two main messages in the New Testament about the law; one is that salvation does not come from doing the works of the law, and anybody who insists that works of the law are necessary to salvation is denying the work of Christ on the cross. (Against those who argue that Jesus’ new covenant only changes the ‘ritual’ laws, but leaves the ‘ethical’ we have to say that the Bible itself makes no such distinction – as James notes in the excerpt below.) The apostle Paul, especially, was particularly ferocious on this point, saying on many occasions that salvation is through faith in Christ only and that attempts to save ourselves through works of the law are self-defeating.
The law remains, however, as an essential strand in all New Testament thinking. It is frequently seen as a witness to Christ prior to the incarnation. When Paul writes with specific instructions about how to behave as Christians, he will not only quote the law, but even say “the Law says…”! The instructions of all the New Testament writers about how to live are clearly consistent with the spirit of the Jewish law, if not the letter. So while the law can no longer be seen as having the power to save, it is obviously still important as a guide for how we should live. So should we be obeying the letter of the law?
Obviously, no. Perhaps the best illustration of this is seen in the teaching of Jesus. In the first excerpt below, Jesus says clearly that the law will never pass away, “until all is accomplished”, and he says that he has come to “fulfil” the law. “All things will be accomplished”, presumably, when Christ returns and God’s kingdom is established in its fullness in every human heart, making the law completely redundant. But what does it mean that he will “fulfil” the law? Besides the prophetic aspect of the law, fulfilled by Christ, Jesus immediately shows what fulfilling the law means by quoting law – and then setting the letter of the law aside in favour of teaching that goes far beyond a literal application. In some cases – murder and adultery – he raises the bar beyond mere behaviour to a question of attitude. In another case (divorce) he makes the law much more stringent, effectively changing the words of Moses. In a fourth instance (love of neighbour and hatred of enemies) he actually completely contradicts the law, saying that we are to love our enemies as well as our neighbours! Later, when the Pharisees point out that he and his disciples break the laws of the sabbath, or don’t perform ritual washing, or eat with (and actually touch!) religiously impure people, Jesus gives his critics very short shrift indeed. Essentially he makes every law subordinate to the single law of love; and particularly, love of Him (Matt 12:1-8, Lk 7:36-50).
Clearly, for Jesus and his disciples, fulfilling the law, and not abolishing it, is not the same as obeying its every word. The law, in Jesus’ teaching and in that of the apostles, still carries persuasive moral force, but not as individual laws. Rather, every law is considered in the light of Jesus Christ, and of his life and work, and in the light of the presenting situation. Neither Apostles nor our Lord are anti-law, saying “ do whatever you like”. They taught and lived to the highest standard of behaviour; it’s just that the highest standard is no longer a dead document, but a living person.
Legalism has its attractions. It gives a feeling of security; it can be easier to trust that I have ticked all the boxes when pleasing God is as simple as just performing a series of religious duties. It makes things much simpler than trying to follow the living Lord Jesus amidst the complexities of real life, with real people.
Legalism is also attractive to institutions because it provides an easy channel for power and control over one’s followers. So while I have no difficulty with people choosing to follow any specific Biblical law, out of love for God and neighbour, I reject completely the trend to let some Christian leader tell us that we are only saved if we behave in certain ways. The Bible is clear; we are saved because of our faith in Christ and because of his loving sacrifice for us. Nothing else.
Matthew 5… 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks 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. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you…
22… 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 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.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Acts 15 5 But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.”
6 The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. 8 And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9 and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10 Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
… 22 Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers, 23 with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the believers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24 Since we have heard that certain persons who have gone out from us, though with no instructions from us, have said things to disturb you and have unsettled your minds, 25 we have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
Romans 8 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.
10 …. 2 I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. 3 For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness. 4 For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
13 … 8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Galatians 5…2 Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. 4 You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.
7 You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? 8 Such persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. 9 A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. 10 I am confident about you in the Lord that you will not think otherwise. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. 11 But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. 12 I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!
13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.
6 My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.
1 Corinthians 9…19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
Ephesians 2… 11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.
Phillipians 3… 2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh— 4 even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.
Colossians 2… 6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. 9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; 12 when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.
16 Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. 17 These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.
20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? 22 All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.
Titus 3… 9 But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.
Hebrews 7… 18 There is, on the one hand, the abrogation of an earlier commandment because it was weak and ineffectual 19 (for the law made nothing perfect); there is, on the other hand, the introduction of a better hope, through which we approach God.
James 1…25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
2… 8 You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. 
All Scriptures from: The New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.