24 February 2013
Week 2 - Guided by God's Law
Exod 20:1-20 (‘Ten commandments');
Rom 13:8-10 (‘The law of love')
Discussion: ‘What laws do Christians have to keep?'
Topic for local radio: A personal journey towards a different life
More than three months after escaping from Egypt, the Israelites come to Mount Sinai which has traditionally been identified with Jebel Musa in the Arabian peninsula. This is where the events which constituted the Israelites as, in a unique sense, the ‘people of God' take place. In Exodus 19, we read of thunder and lightning, cloud, fire and smoke, and the blast of a trumpet on the mountain, when the Lord descends to meet with Moses and Aaron. This is where they are given the ten commandments (Exod 20:1-17) to guide the people.
In the Exodus story, a more detailed series of commandments is given (chapters 20-23) before the pivotal account of the establishment of the covenant between God and the Israelites. The Israelites commit themselves to keep the law of God, and Moses and Aaron, with seventy-two of the Israelite leaders (24:9) receive on the mountain a vision of ‘the God of Israel' in his heavenly glory (24:10). Moses is also told precisely how to make the tabernacle or ‘tent of meeting' in which God is to be worshiped and how to consecrate priests who will pray and sacrifice on behalf of the whole people.
Moses is away so long that Aaron and the people turn to idolatry (a sin against the first commandment). They make a golden calf and begin to worship the idol they have created (32:1-8). On his return, Moses is horrified: he smashes the stone slabs on which the commandments are written and pulverises the golden calf (32:19-20). Israel must be totally purged from its sin. Only then can Moses return to God in penitence on their behalf and receive, once more, the tablets of the law. The Israelites must now set out from Sinai, having renewed their covenant with God, carrying with them their ‘tent of meeting' or ‘tabernacle', guided by God in a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night (13:21-2, cf. 40:38), and committed to the keeping of God's law.
In the New Testament, Jesus shows immense respect for God's law, but he also shows a freedom of interpretation that means (despite Mt 5:18) he is not bound to the ‘letter of the law'. His actions - such as healing on the sabbath (cf. Mark 3:4) - show he is committed to observing the ‘spirit of the law', using the law to guide him and his followers in doing God's work (Mt 5:17ff.). Paul follows this line in his extended discussion of the relation between law and grace in the Epistle to the Romans (and more briefly in Galatians). A Jew himself by race, he claims that in what he now says about Christ, ‘we uphold the law' (Rom 3:31). In speaking of his ‘kindred according to the flesh', he says, ‘They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the
promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah' (9:4-5).
What he goes on to say, though, is that he is now concerned not so much with the ‘flesh' as with the ‘spirit'. What concerns him, in discussing the law, is the ‘spirit of the law'. This he sums up in Romans 13:8-10 in one word: ‘love'. In saying this, Paul is echoing what Jesus says, when he is asked ‘Which commandment in the law is the greatest?' and he replies, ‘"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets' (Mt 22:36-40).
Paul echoes Jesus's teaching on the first commandment in Romans 12:1 (‘present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship') and then he echoes Jesus's teaching on the second
commandment when he says, ‘Love does no wrong to a neighbour ... for love is the fulfilling of the law' (13:10).
From the early days of the church, those who were going to be baptized as adults were prepared very carefully, to make sure they understood what the church teaches about Jesus and about the Spirit before they publicly committed themselves by being baptized into Christ and opened themselves publicly to share in the Holy Spirit. Much of this teaching concentrated on the Apostles' Creed, which begins ‘I believe' and which summarises what it is that someone who becomes a Christian gives their free assent to: in summary, that ‘Jesus is Lord'. An important part of this teaching was - and still is - teaching about how to follow Jesus in daily life. This is where the teaching of the ‘ten commandments' comes in. All our lives as Christians we go on learning, often through our mistakes, how God's commandments - such as the ten commandments and the ethical teaching of the New Testament - can be our guide in life. We learn by experience how to identify when we have strayed off the path that they show us. Sometimes, we can't see how they apply in particular difficult situations and we are genuinely uncertain how to follow the ‘way of love'. At such times we need to pray for the guidance of God's Spirit. At other times, the way to follow God commandment is quite clear but we don't want to obey. Then we need to pray for the strength of God's Spirit. The New Testament teaches that God's law is a gift to all people, and especially to those who are bound in covenant to him, but that, if we are to be guided by God's law, we need God's Spirit to keep us on the right path.
Questions you may wish to use in discussion
- Should religions be telling us which laws we have to keep today?
- Is it right that the ten commandments are a gift to all people, or are they only for Jews and Christians?
- What does it mean, in practice, to ‘love God'?
- Saint Augustine said, ‘Love and do what you like.' Was he right?
- What should be taught about ‘God's law' in church schools?
- Do Christians always have to keep the law of the land?
- Are there ways in which the members of your group can see the stories we have discussed this week reflected in their own journey of faith?
Lord God, who gave your covenant people the gift of the law to guide them on their journey, may we go on learning, as we journey on in faith, how to love you with all our heart, soul and mind, and our neighbours as ourselves, through the power and guidance of your Holy Spirit, Amen