Sunday, March 22, 2009

I Love the Lower Law

As Christians, and especially as Latter-day Saints, we have a tendency to get carried away in our rejoicing in the gospel to the point that we disparage all other faith traditions. One common target of our scorn is Judaism, especially the Jews of Christ’s day. We insult them for their failure to recognize Christ as the Messiah. We accuse them of spitefully deleting Messianic passages from the Bible (passages we can rarely prove were ever part of the Bible). We revile them for creating a “fence around the law,” forgetting that the Sermon on the Mount did exactly the same thing and that our prophets today engage in similar behavior.

We also have the tendency to be simultaneously too deep and too shallow in our reading of the scriptures. In our desire to see all of scripture through the lens of our theology, we look for “Bible bullets” to prove our doctrines in sacred writ that others see as simple stories. We look too deeply and read too much into the texts. In stretching scriptures to fit our mold we do the stories, their authors, and ourselves a disservice, because in doing so, we fail to allow the scriptures to speak for themselves, to say what they want to say; we denigrate the authors and other believers in the same sacred texts because they don’t find the same meaning; and we fail to appreciate other themes of the scriptures because we’re so busy squishing them into a particular mold that we miss their stand-alone richness and depth.

We can sometimes be too shallow when we dismiss the Old Testament and especially the Law of Moses as an outdated, cruel relic of the Stone Age. In the Church especially, sometimes we are so eager to congratulate ourselves on belonging to the “only true church” and having the “fullness of the restored gospel” that we forget that we are not the only ones who have been taught the gospel, in whatever degree of fullness. In our zeal to speak well of the restoration, we make sharp contrasts between our own commandments and the law of Moses, speaking of the law of Moses as a cumbersome, overwrought law code that over-stepped its bounds, whereas our own “higher law” teaches us correct principles and lets us govern ourselves (with all the self-righteous smugness that entails).

We forget that the law of Moses was not a bad law—it was a good law, and it was given by Jehovah, the premortal Jesus Christ, to bring His chosen people—people He loved—closer to Him. It was so detailed because it was intended to bring the people to remember Christ daily in conjunction with ordinary events. The law of Moses infused the mundane with holiness.

It is also important to realize that the “higher law” of the gospel did not come into existence in a vacuum. It was based on the teachings of Apostles and Prophets who followed, and encouraged their people to follow, the Law of Moses. Even our beloved Book of Mormon speaks well of the law, “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God...And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled” (2 Nephi 25:23-24). The Book of Mormon prophets found Christ in the law of Moses, and kept the law because it brought them closer to Christ.

Likewise, Jesus Christ, in His earthly ministry, encouraged the people of His day to keep the law of Moses, and to keep it with more zeal than the Pharisees did: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot [the smallest letter in the alphabet] or one tittle [a scribal decoration on a letter] shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. ” (Matthew 5:17-18). When asked the conditions to inherit eternal life, Christ told a lawyer that he need look no further than the law for his answer: "What is written in the law? how readest thou?" (Luke 10:26), and when the lawyer quoted the law, the Lord agreed with his conclusion, "Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live" (v. 28). The Lord never went on the record as an opponent of any legitimate part of the law--on the contrary, He defended the law against the Pharisees, saying, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone" (Matthew 23:23).

Since Christ gave the law of Moses, supported the law of Moses in His public teachings, and fulfilled the law of Moses, which had been given to point to Him, it seems foolhardy to insult the law. In fact, Christ said, "Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 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" (Matt 5:19-20).

Instead of focusing on stretching Biblical stories to provide Christ-types (though I don't dispute that legitimate Christ-types exist in the lives of prophets), perhaps we should look for Him most earnestly in the very law He gave. Phillip and Nathaniel found Him there, and said, "We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph" (John 1:45).

The Law of Moses gives us the most potent symbols of our religion. Christ tied His mission to symbols found in the Law—symbols that our culture would have lacked had it not been for that much-maligned “lesser” Law of Moses. Without the Law of Moses, we would not have the concept of Christ as the “lamb slain from before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). We would not think of Christ as the “Great High Priest” (Heb. 4:14). We would not have the symbolic foundation to say, as Paul did, “Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ out Passover is sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7). The most beautiful symbols that Christ applied to Himself are those found in the Law. Had Israel accepted the higher law at Sinai, our religious discourse would have been bereft of the most beautiful symbols of our faith.

The Lord is the same yesterday, today, and forever. His laws are the same. His purposes are the same. He is to be found in the symbols and even the finer points of His law. I believe that the Old Testament contains the fullness of the gospel because it brings people unto Christ. It allowed Saul the necessary foundation to be converted. It prepared the way for Christ to come to His people. It created the climate into which He was born.

Christ gave the law of Moses. He kept the law of Moses. He loved the law of Moses. And He fulfilled the law of Moses. And one day He will return to His people who still keep the law of Moses, and will renew His covenant with them, “And kings shall be [their] nursing fathers, and their queens [their] nursing mothers: they shall bow down to [them] with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet; and thou shalt know that I am the Lord: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me” (Isaiah 49:23). Those that wait for Christ and keep His law will not be ashamed, even those who wait for a Messiah who has already come.

"Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets" (Matthew 7:12).

1 comment:

  1. But is not the process of squishing the scriptures into some sort of mold (in our own image) not likening the scriptures unto ourselves? I ask this question with a slight tone of facetiousness because I agree with you. I love your phrase "stand-alone richness and depth."