Do followers of Jesus obey OT food laws (Mark 7)?

The Sunday lectionary reading for Trinity 13 in Year B is Mark 7.1–8, 14–15, 21–23. We have chewed over the feeding of the 5,000 in John 6, and gathered up every last morsel of the ‘bread of life’ discourse over the last five (five!) weeks—and now our fast from Mark’s gospel is at an end!

Reading from a full Bible, rather than reading the lectionary extract from a sheet or on a screen, tells us two things. First, this whole passage functions as a transition between two sections of Jesus’ northern ministry: on the north coast of Lake Galilee, crossing back and forth between the regions either side of the Jordan, in chapter 4, 5 and 6; and ministry in clearly Gentile territory to the north, followed by a return to Galilee in Mark 7.24–9.29, after which Jesus heads south. The first section is bracketed by two sea miracles, and the second section is bracketed by two child exorcisms. The content of this passage—the implicit debate about food laws, which will have been critical for Mark’s first audience, especially if they are in Rome where these was clearly tension between Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus—also represents a transition, from the Jesus movement being a Jewish renewal movement to something broader and more Gentile. Thus Mark represents in narrative form a transition which was becoming a historical and cultural reality.

Secondly, the lectionary has cut out elements of the narrative to make the passage short enough for a normal reading. The structure overall is as follows, with the verses in bold being included in the lectionary reading:

1–5Jesus and PhariseesPharisees’ challenge to Jesus
6–8Jesus and PhariseesJesus’ first response quoting Isaiah
9–13Jesus and PhariseesJesus’ second response: the practice of korban
14–15Jesus and the crowdDeclaration about defilement
17–20Jesus and the disciples, privatelyReiteration about defilement, with editorial comment
21–23Jesus and the disciples, privatelyExplanation of defilement in moral terms

This selection firstly omits Jesus’ second response/rebuke to the Pharisees and scribes, and the second omission is possible because of the reiteration of the statement about true defilement in private to the disciples. What this misses is the double transition, from Pharisees (who appear to be speaking to Jesus alone) to the crowd, and then the switch again to the private discussion with the disciples. This makes us think that Jesus’ declaration about true defilement is made to the crowd, when in fact it is made to the disciples (and now made public by Mark in disclosing this secret conversation). This forms a parallel with Jesus’ teaching with and about parables in chapter 4, where he talks to the disciples privately about the meaning of the parable of the sower in Mark 4.10, and some later manuscripts emphasise the parallel by repeating Jesus’ injunction ‘Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear’ in the (missing in most versions) Mark 7.16.

The lectionary trim also avoids the rather awkward reference by Jesus to defecation (‘it is expelled’); we might say Jesus was the first person to coin the idea of ‘garbage in, garbage out’! But it also omits the rather important editorial comment by Mark, applying this transitional incident to the key transitional theological issue for his readers (‘Thus he declared all foods clean’). The parallel in Matt 15.17, possibly written to a more consistently Jewish audience, does not include such a comment—and Luke, writing in a more Gentile register, does not include any of the debate about ritual cleanness (What Dick France in his NIGTC on Mark calls ‘The Great Omission’).

The ‘gathering’ of the Pharisees around Jesus has a mildly threatening ring to it, and this is amplified by the inclusion of ‘some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem’. Jesus’ ministry in Galilee had been mostly well received, and Mark emphasises his popularity by the repeated mention of the ‘crowds’. But the investigation from Jerusalem (which has been present from early on, see the mention of scribes in Mark 2.10, and the plotting of Mark 3.6) anticipates the shift from chapter 9 on the journey south and the looming shadow of the cross.

The washing of hands before eating was not part of the Torah instructions, but constituted what later become know as the ‘fence [chumra] around the law‘. Deut 22.8 commands the building of a fence or parapet around the flat roof of a building, so that a person might not accidentally (for example, whilst sleeping) fall off. So the rabbis, reading this allegorically, believed that there should be a protective fence around the law, keeping people away from the danger of transgressing the law by accident. That this washing was ritual rather than hygienic is shown by the terminology; the verb here is baptizo, and its use for repeated ritual cleansing is an interesting contrast with the later use by converts to the Jesus’ movement of the verb for a once-for-all cleansing (as illustrated in Jesus’ rebuke of Simon Peter in John 13.10)—one baptism once to signal that the cleansing by Jesus is wholly effective.

In his first explanatory comment, directed to any readers unfamiliar with Jewish practices, Mark makes this clear: this is part of the ‘tradition of the elders’. This isn’t a comment against the idea of ‘tradition’ (paradosis) as such, since Paul uses the cognate verb positively for the gospel message in 1 Cor 15.3. Rather, it is setting up the contrast between ‘the commandments of God’ and ‘merely human traditions’ (note: the Greek term ἄνθρωπος means ‘human beings’ not ‘male men’), which Jesus articulates at the end of his first response (Mark 7.8) and at the beginning and and of his second response (Mark 7.9, 13). This is the key distinction: we need to note, on the one hand, that the gospels never portray Jesus as anything other than Torah observant; and it is clear from later disputes in Acts 10.9–16, Rom 14.20–21, 1 Cor 8.7–9, 10.27, Col 2.16 and 1 Tim 4.1–5 that the early Jesus community did not immediately interpret Jesus’ teaching here in the way Mark now draws his application.

Jesus’ citation of Is 29.13 (with a hint also from Ezek 33.31) appears to reconfigure the distinction between words of God and human traditions as a difference between outer practice (‘honour with their lips’) and inner disposition (‘their hearts are far from me’) and it is this inner/outer distinction that Jesus develops in his discussion of what happens to food. Topologically, we are all tubes; anything that goes into our mouth passes through our alimentary canal, and it not strictly part of our body. Waste materials pass right through (along with a load of intestinal bacteria!) whilst the nutrition alone is absorbed into our bodies. The true ‘inner’ life is that of our hearts, not in terms so much of affections or emotions, as we might think in our modern construal of the anatomy, but our will, our decisions and our disposition in life. For Jesus, the heart of the matter is the matter of the human heart.

But we need to take careful note of what Jesus is doing here. First, he is not dismissing the Old Testament purity laws out of hand; rather, he is drawing on an observation already made by the prophets about how the people of God can go astray by focussing on the merely outward and ritual, without seeing the connection with the inner and personal.

Secondly, in describing the things that do defile a person, he is drawing on the Torah itself. Most English translations have Jesus listing thirteen vices in Mark 7.21–22, but that is not quite correct; the first term ‘evil thoughts’ οἱ διαλογισμοι οἱ κακοι, is separated from the rest by the verb ‘come out of’ and so functions as an introduction to the other 12 that are listed. The fact that many of these are in fact actions, rather than thoughts per se, illustrates Jesus integrated view of thought and action. The list has a quite close, but not exact, correspondence with elements of the Ten Commandments:

3You shall not take the Lord’s name in vainBlasphemy
5Honour your father and mother(Mark 7.9–13)
6You shall not murderMurder
7You shall not commit adulteryPorneia, adultery, debauchery
8You shall not stealTheft
9You shall not bear false witnessBlasphemy (?)
10You shall not covetThe evil eye’ usually translated as ‘envy’

Such a partial citation of the Ten Commandments, intended to communicate the whole of them, is not uncommon; in response to the rich young man in Mark 10.19, Jesus cites six of the ten. Interestingly, the pattern of six is repeated here; within the list, six commandments are alluded to, and of the 12, the first six are expressed in the plural, and the second six in the singular—surely a rhetorical device rather than a theological point.

But one thing stand out from this list: where the Ten Commandments have only one in relation to sexuality, Jesus amplifies this to three. The first, porneia, is often assumed to refer to sex outside marriage, though most possible examples of that, in a culture where almost everyone would be married, are covered by the second term, moicheiaRather, the first term must be taken as a reference to all the prohibited sexual activities found in Lev 18.6–23.

[T]he porn- group of words relates to any form of unsanctioned sexual intercourse. Porneia is normally translated as ‘fornication’. But this translation obscures a simple fact. In the Jewish context of Jesus’ day, and in the Christian context that grew out of it, homosexual coitus would have been automatically embraced within the scope of porneia.

The third term, aselgeia, has a more general meaning of ‘lack of self-restraint’, but appears to have sexual overtones to it. As John Nolland highlights in his study of such vice-lists, Jesus appears to be just as concerned about sexual morality as he is about justice and care for the poor.

So how does this passage help us in our decision about how to read the Torah for ourselves? One option is to reinterpret Mark’s claim, and decide that all the food laws still apply to contemporary followers of Jesus, even Gentiles? Although this sounds like an unusual approach, it is the one taken by the Worldwide Church of God (rebranded as Grace Communion International) following the teachings of Herbert W Armstrong. Unfortunately, their literalistic reading of the whole Bible leads them to reject orthodox belief about the Trinity and therefore, in effect, reject Jesus’ claims about himself in the gospels. This reading struggles to take the key texts relating to food laws at face value, and instead removes them to the level of exemplary metaphors. (Update: it turns out that WWCG/GCI have actually revised their doctrine to be orthodox, so I wonder if the Church of the Great God split from them for this reason.)

An alternative, more common, approach is to believe that the Torah does not apply to us, interpreting Paul’s statement that ‘Christ is the end of the law‘ (Romans 10.4) in the sense of a termination of the demands of Torah. Therefore, just as we don’t obey all the food laws, we can also set aside the sexual ethics of the Old Testament in some important regards.

The problem with such an approach is evident in this passage: despite what Mark says about the food laws, he is very careful to have Jesus distinguish between the ‘commandments of God’ and human tradition, and continues to appeal to the Torah and the prophets in his teaching—as indeed does Paul. And if the foods laws are set aside, both Jesus and Paul are clear that the core of OT sexual ethics is not.

Three observations might help us here. First, as Sarah Whittle helpfully points out in her chapter on defilement in Reading Mark in Context:

[This passage] reflects both the concern with the universal threat of the danger of impurity and the Pharisees as Jesus’s opponents. All the incidents of Jesus teaching on purity are set in relation to Pharisaic traditions concern eating… As such, it has been claimed that “the synoptics educate their readers on the Jewish purity practices of their main characters”. In contrast, Jesus is portrayed as “the Holy One” (Mark 1.24). Even when confronting sources of defilement, he does not contract impurity, so he has no need for purification rituals. When he engages unclean people, he restores them to cleanness. This aspect of purity is crucial for Mark’s Christology (p 112).

Secondly, we need to read Torah, like any other part of Scripture, in its canonical, cultural and historical context. The Pharisees’ approach involves a literalism which fails to attend to the effect of theological principles in their cultural context; to this extent, Jesus is (as often) challenging them at the level of interpretation. (For a great study on how to read the Law in its context and well, see Philip Jenson’s Grove booklet. Philip points out that within the Torah itself there are different ‘levels’ of law, and some laws are clearly specific, detailed application of other laws which are more general principles.) The food laws were not part of the original creation intention of God, but were given to Israel in its specific context in its life in the land, and so are not continued in the new covenant in Jesus, where there is ‘new creation’. By contrast, the vision of sexuality and sexual relations, in both Testaments, are rooted in the creation by God of humanity ‘male and female’, to be fruitful and multiply. In the first creation, this happens through marriage and childbirth; in the new covenant, it also happens through single celibacy and the generation of ‘spiritual’ offspring through repentance and faith in response to the proclamation of good news—as Jesus and Paul themselves exemplify.

Thirdly, both Jesus and Mark are in this passage pointing to the true goals of both Torah and all spiritual disciples. The slightly secondary goal is the redemption of the human life to live in holiness, not merely to regulate action (note that the Ten Commandments flow out of God’s prior redemption action in calling Israel out of slavery to freedom in the Promised Land). But the primary goal is to direct us towards God.

The law, rightly understood, is the gracious gift of God to allow his people to live in holy fellowship with him, and so it must be received with understanding of that to be its purpose. If the fault of the Pharisees, as depicted in this narrative, is to focus on the outer rather than the inner, then it arises from seeing obedience to Torah as the goal of life, rather then obedience being a means to the greater goal of knowing, living in, and expressing the love of God.

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26 thoughts on “Do followers of Jesus obey OT food laws (Mark 7)?”

  1. Another excellent article, Ian. You have a gift in taking (what can be) complex Biblical truths and communicating them in a way that is clear and easy to follow. Thank you.

    Thanks also for the link to Philip Jenson’s booklet, what a great resource. Do you know if it delves more into the quote below?

    “By contrast, the vision of sexuality and sexual relations, in both Testaments, are rooted in the creation by God of humanity ‘male and female’, to be fruitful and multiply.”

  2. Just a small correction about sexual sin in this piece. ‘Moicheia’, translated as adultery, has a much narrower meaning in the Roman world. It only applies to intercourse with a freeborn woman who is not your wife, and therefore whose honour you are damaging.

    Intercourse with other people was not adultery (moicheia), whether or not you were married. So intercourse with those you enslaved (if you were a master in a household), intercourse with a prostitute, and intercourse with a bar-keeper or female actor (legally these professions had no honour) would NOT be moicheia.

    In contrast, porneia (from an original root for a prostitute) originally was confined to prostitution, but by New Testament times was spreading to mean sleeping around more generally. In particular, it covered the uses above not covered by moicheia.

    There is no good reason to suppose that Leviticus 18 is particularly referenced here. Rabbis did not use porneia to refer to these practices, and one or two are specifically addressed as not being porneia.

    To summarise: you often get moicheia and porneia together to cover both legal adultery and more general sleeping around. The pairing can also be found in early Christian literature.

    • Thanks Jonathan. You seem to be drawing here on Kyle Harper’s argument in JBL 2012. But Harper’s point was precisely that porneia, for Jews, came to mean precisely those illicit sexual relationships prohibited by Torah, and that Christian use then inherited the same meaning—in both cases, much broader than its original sense. If Jewish and Christian readers are not drawing from Lev 18, then where are they drawing from?

      Thus John Nolland comments:

      ‘As indicated above, the porn group of words relates to any form of unsanctioned sexual intercourse. Porneia is normally translated as ‘fornication’.14 But this translation obscures a simple fact. In the Jewish context of Jesus’ day, and in the Christian context that grew out of it, homosexual coitus would have been automatically embraced within the scope of porneia.’

      I think Harper’s argument, contrary to Countryman’s claims, support this observation.

      • Hi Ian,
        Not just his article but also his two books, and also Glancy’s reply (which suggests that until AD 200 porneia may not have covered intercourse with an enslaved person by the enslaver).

        Harper (2012, 378) argues that for Paul in 1 Corinthians ‘This category [porneia] is most readily comprehensible as that wide subset of extramarital sexual activity that was tolerated in Greek culture, the sexual use of dishonored women.’

        More generally, he argues (2012, 374-75) that for Judaism at the time:
        ‘Πορνεία was broad enough to cover sexual sins as diverse as incest and exogamy. But for Hellenistic Jews, in a culture where sex with dishonored women, especially prostitutes and slaves, was legal and expected, the term condensed the cultural differences between the observers of the Torah and Gentile depravity. The Greek root πορν- already suggested the public sexual availability of the prostitute, and it made the association between the term πορνεία and the types of sexual license permitted in Gentile culture practically inevitable.’

        It is worth noting that the sexual use of slaves or prostitutes is not part of Leviticus 18, which is mainly focused on incest (which would not be particularly different from the gentile culture). So the main focus of the expanded use of porneia is not coming from Leviticus 18. As I said, there is absolutely no reason to suppose that Leviticus 18 is particularly in mind here.

        Arguments over whether homosexual coitus is or is not covered can wait for another day: I deliberately did not include the issue in my reply as I wanted to focus on the passage in question.

  3. Does anyone know why God bothered restricting the diet of the Israelites when ultimately it mattered not?

    Was there some danger in eating certain foods at the time?


  4. Ian, can I push you on your take on Jesus and the observance of the Law?

    You say – “the gospels never portray Jesus as anything other than Torah observant” – and Jesus may have been Torah-observant for himself in diet, but Mark is saying clearly that Jesus is saying all foods are clean. Either Mark is re-interpreting and loosening Jesus teaching or Jesus was someone who did not accept all the requirements of the OT.

    Later you say ” if the foods laws are set aside, both Jesus and Paul are clear that the core of OT sexual ethics is not”. That “if” suggests you think Jesus may have set aside the food laws, but whether the food laws can be set aside or not, you claim the sexual ethics were not.

    I am not trying to get the sexual ethics argument going (though it is not irrelevant), but I want to dig at the likely behaviour of Jesus vis a vis the various strands of Torah.

    There are numerous places where Jesus and his disciples seem to challenge the rules – picking corn, healing on the Sabbath – and others where it seems very likely that Jesus overruled the understanding of the Torah; as you say, his claim is that his purity conquers impurities, whether it is a dead person he touches or a sick person who touches him. If the disciples healed the sick did they too touch what was unclean?

    There are debates about the interpretation of the law on divorce, but then these were current in the Jewish community.

    Jesus clearly challenges and denies the rigours of non-activity on the Sabbath.

    There was a view that Jesus over-rode the purity laws but not the moral laws, but I think, with you, that is probably a rather modern way to try and cut the ancient cake.

    If we see the Law as unchanging from when Moses first wrote it down we will assume a more monolithic approach to its interpretation; if we see the Jewish community wrestling with its identity, calling and way of life and the Law to a certain extent a product of revision over various centuries, we may consider the Jewish world slightly more fluidly.

    If we see the 10 Commandments as the core and the rest as interpretation of these then it can be argued Jesus upholds the 10 Commandments but challenges interpretations of application.
    Taken at face value Jesus according to Mark declared all foods clean – whether he himself chose to eat “unclean” food or not is a different matter. This is on the face of it a direct disavowal of the food laws in the Torah stipulating what you may or may not eat. Has Mark attributed to Jesus more than we believe Jesus would have made explicit?

  5. Sorry if this is a silly question at this stage of the discussion. Could I just check that we are all agreed that the last four words of Mark 7:19 are “katharizon panta ta bromata” and that if the AV and Marshall are right (I am not saying they are!) in translating “katharizon” as “purging”, that has a bearing on what the verse means?

    Phil Almond

    • Interesting question. The word katharizon here is a participle, not, as translated, a main verb. That entails that it needs a subject, and the question is, where is it?

      You have given the word as read by the Textus Receptus, which, in my opinion, gives the textually better supported reading (it doesn’t always); the alternative is katharizwn [w = omega]. The ending -on> is neuter, the ending -wn masculine. The ESV goes with the latter, making the masculine Jesus the subject of the verb, but this is difficult, not only because the subject is then 36 words away (legei, he says/said, v. 18), but because the desired sense then requires a main clause (contrary to either reading) plus two interpolations, ‘thus’ (not in the Greek) and ‘declared’ (also not). The ESV (and NIV) can hardly claim that what we are left with is a translation of the actual text. By contrast, the alternative reading katharizwn would agree with ‘the drain’ (ton aphedrwna, neuter), which is not separated from the corresponding participle. The ESV and NIV again fail to translate the word (but see ESV footnote). By the way, the Textus Receptus also has verse 16, which should also not be omitted.

      The sense is: ‘Whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is goes out into the drain, cleansing all foods.’ It is the sewer that does the cleansing, literally, by drenching in water (baptising!) what the digestive process makes dirty. The food might have been ritually clean or ritually clean: when it comes out, it’s all the same.

      This answers Peter Reiss’s final question. I fear that a lot of theological ink has been expended on something Jesus did not actually say – though one might infer that he was, with this teaching, letting it be inferred that all foods were clean. One should note that the question of cleanness arose in connection with whether it was acceptable to eat without first washing one’s hands or the vessels one ate from, not in connection with any distinction between clean or unclean foods.

      Being required to wash/purify/sanitise the hands on entering church, and being frowned upon (even treated as a leper) if you don’t, is perhaps an illustration of how this is still a live issue.

      • Thank you, though I am not sure it fully answers the question I raised.
        It reminds us that the various translations have to make sense of the Greek original and that the original may be disputed in certain places.
        If it is the drain that purifies / makes clean all foods – then Jesus is making a very negative comment about purification in general, deconstructing the whole concept of purification.
        As far as I can see most commentaries do keep the katharizwn version and some explain it as a Marcan editorial, as we have already had in this chapter.
        Thank you for pushing me back to the text – always important.
        If Jesus is deconstructing ritual cleanness, and he says that all foods go through the body and what comes out from the heart either is clean or defiles, then he certainly is challenging the Torah around food laws.
        If Mark is going further than Jesus did, or interpreting Jesus then there is this question why the first Christians made the change against what Jesus said and did.
        I don’t see that the possible alternative reading of the end of v19 actually makes a huge difference.
        This and next week’s passage – Syro-Phoenician woman – need careful reading if we are to preach with integrity.

        • I see that Witherington and Dunn make the primary distinction here between food and speech / attitude, what goes in (Matthew has added the word “mouth” Matt 15:11) and the words that come out. And there are no food laws in the Decalogue interestingly though the Decalogue summarises many of the things that Jesus speaks against in this passage as Ian has reminded us.
          Witherington and Dunn both understand this passage as the over-writing of the Levitical food-laws as well as the wider hedge / fence round the Law from the traditions that had grown up.
          Whatever we make of Mark 7:19 Mark 7:15 is a clear statement against the need to keep food-laws. Whether Jesus chose to keep them of course is different.

          • Peter
            I don’t see how Mark 7:15 “is a clear statement against the need to keep food-laws”. The context of the passage is about eating food with unclean, that is unwashed, hands. Jesus’ point is that anything unclean ingested in this way does not defile a man because it passes into the belly and out into the drain without entering the heart. Rather it is what comes out of the heart that defiles a man.

            Phil Almond

          • I agree that the possible alternative reading of the end of v19 does not make a huge difference – though I would maintain that the received reading is not itself ‘possible’, in terms of what makes for coherent writing. (For clarity, I meant to write ‘corresponding subject’, not ‘corresponding participle’, near the end of the 2nd para.)

            As regards Mark 7:15, construing this as ‘a clear statement against the need to keep food-laws’ seems to me going too far. Jesus gives us no indication that he broke even the letter of the Torah (Matt 5:17f). Later in Matthew we see him excoriating the Pharisees for neglecting the weightier matters of the law, but goes on ‘These you ought to have done without neglecting the other’ less weighty matters. So far as he was concerned, it was more than a matter of choosing to observe them – the Pharisees were obliged to observe them.

            How the apostles got to (e.g.) Acts 15:28f remains a valid question, but I don’t recall Jesus anywhere in the gospels loosening the Law himself, not even in relation to sabbath observance. The point, as in Romans, is that if you are going to base your righteousness on obeying the Law, you have to obey all the Law. Jesus was able to do this, and did do it (Matt 3:15); the Pharisees didn’t and couldn’t.

  6. Completely incidental detail not at all on your main point –

    I coun’t help noting that each time he uses 6 commandments. I don’t suppose that this time it was a significant 6 to do with humanness and failings but it reminded me of something I heard a historian say recently.

    He thinks the Babylonian fondness for sixes and it’s multiples comes from them counting, not on whole fingers to give a base of 5 or 10 but couninti finger bones ie 3 on each finger giving 12 per hand. It simply being Babylonian could be why the Jews didn’t like it.

    Personally, perhaps through having having grown up with imperial till my teens, and I feel a small twinge of superstitious guilt for saying this, I’m really fond of 12s, they’re so versatile and can share easily so I think of them as friendly. I like them even more since I realised how easy they are to count on my finger bones lol I suppose I’m only human after all.

  7. In the table of comparison between the 10 Commandments and the list of the befouling actions, ‘blasphemy’ is used twice. The word βλασφημία is used in Mark 7.22, but most modern English translations, unlike the KJV and its derivatives, translate it differently. A number use ‘slander’, which fits “bearing false witness” better. LSJ has, in addition to that “a word of evil omen, profane speech” as well as “irreverent speech against god”. I would suggest that something like ‘slander’ is a better fit as the others in Mark 7.22 are all ‘horizontal sins.’ It is our actions in relation to our fellow human beings which make us ‘unclean’.

    This is also the character of the commandments which Jesus cites to the [rich,] [young] [ruler]. In Luke’s account Jesus cites five (not six); Mark adds ‘do not defraud’ which is a variation on ‘do not steal’ and Matthew, rather, adds the general ‘love you neighbour as yourself’. I think it is significant what Jesus omits here, which are the four commandments about our relation to God, and the commandment about “do not covet”. Perhaps it was these areas which this man fell short when tested by being told to give away his wealth.

  8. I think the first thing a Christian needs to grasp is that as a believer he is married to Christ not the law. He has no obligation to the law. He is not under the covenant of law. He has died to the law (Roms 71-5). His life of service to God is not based on the law either as a means of justification or sanctification. He serves in the new way of keeping in step with the Spirit and not by way of the written code. If this is not grasped we would all be living an old covenant lifestyle like an Orthodox Jew.

    We do not approach the OT covenant of law as one we must observe. We do however ask ourselves about it as with the rest of the OT what principles we can learn from it that are transcultural. Ultimately the Christian life is one that fulfils (not keeps) that to which the law aspired. The law (mosaic covenant) was given like a rule book to children until spiritual maturity arrived in Christ and the indwelling Spirit (Gals 4).

    We must learn from the code but must be cautious and not simply apply it as universal truth. Take divorce for example Moses allowed it but Christ significantly restricted it expressly contrasting Moses’ permission and God’s creational intention. In other areas laws are slackened or cancelled – their value being to teach God’s people to distinguish and separate because God is holy by means of things that were morally indifferent in themselves.

    Broad strokes, I know, but only when we are clear about how to approach law can we benefit from it and not be ensnared by it,

    • I too don’t find this an adequate broad-brush statement after the first para, even if the blog article were to do with the general relationship between the old covenant and the new.

      In other areas laws are slackened or cancelled. Given that the Decalogue is at the heart of the old covenant, which ones do you think the NT slackens or cancels?

      How do you read Matt 5:19? Are you not in danger of being called least in the kingdom of heaven?

      Paul says that love is the fulfilling of the law, rather than the slackening or cancelling of it. When Jesus talks about love in Matt 5, he does so in the same way he discusses other commandments in Deuteronomy. By emphasising the need to fulfil them inwardly, not merely outwardly, he tightens them – divorce being one such instance, not an exception. One is required to love one’s enemy as well as one’s neighbour and one’s family (those who love us).

      I’m not convinced by the distinction between fulfilling and keeping: Matt 19:17, John 14:15, 15:10. Jesus/John typically reverses Rom 13:10 by saying ‘keeping God’s commandments is what the love of God means’ (I John 5:3). The command to love neighbour and enemy alike gives rise to numerous commandments (Rom 12:9-21).

      This is a complex area of theology, and broad strokes are unlikely to encapsulate it. Scriptural passages may themselves offer broad strokes, but one such passage needs to be balanced against another. John, Paul and James each have their different emphases, and it won’t do to concentrate on certain parts of Pauline teaching and leave the other two aside.

  9. Hi Philip and Steven

    I did say that the law is fulfilled in us as we walk by the Spirit. Fulfilment normally eclipses the type.

    Clearly we are a) not under the authority of law b) our walk is by the Spirit c) we do not ‘keep’ the food lawS, the ceremonial law or even the sabbath which was one of the ten. In fact the one law mentioned in Roms 7, a chapter devoted to demonstrating we are not under law, comes from the Decalogue – you shall not covet.

    The law was a covenant of works from which Israel required to be redeemed (rescued and removed) Gals 3.

    We can learn from the whole of the OT including the law. All Scripture is inspired and profitable…. However, we do not approach the law in the way a devout Jew would do. We do not see these laws and regulations as rules we are obliged to keep. If we did we would be living as devout Jews. We do not circumcise or call some foods unclean. We can learn principles but we will require to be wise about what we impose on ourselves, the church or society.

    The law was given as an interim covenant until Christ came. Paul says stand fast in your liberty and do not submit to a yoke of bondage. James says elsewhere it was a yoke Israel found impossible to bear.

  10. Steven

    A few more comments in response to your comments. I feel given the limitations of a comment box on a blog I presented the big picture especially as it relates to food laws.

    At least one of your references is words addressed by Jesus to a Jew (Matt 19:17). He wants to know what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus tells him what the law says he must do and the law exposes the man’s guilt before it.

    The other verses do not refer to commandments of the law but of Jesus and God. They are Christian commandments. There is of course great continuity between OT and NT morality.

    • The other verses do not refer to commandments of the law but of Jesus and God.I suspected as much. You don’t believe the Law came from God. I wonder how you think you know. And what are those commandments of Jesus and God?

  11. Steven

    Notice that the law is a burden to Israel but the commandments of God are not burdensome. A similar implication lies in Jesus’ words when he says his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Here his yoke contrasts with the yoke of the law.

    • Yes, I’ve noticed. Nonetheless, I have to reconcile what he says in such passages with other words which say that the Way is hard, ‘Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect’, ‘Love your enemies’, ‘Forgive those who trespass against you.’ You may find commandments like this all very easy; I don’t.

      This is where I get uneasy with theological pronouncements. As it says somewhere, true religion consists not in talk but in walking the talk.

      The law is fulfilled in us as we walk by the Spirit. But the evidence that we are walking by the Spirit is that we are keeping the Lord’s commandments. No?

      You didn’t say which commandments you think the NT slackens or cancels. And you did not say how you read Matt 5:19.

      I don’t see that it makes any difference that Jesus apud Matt 19:17 was speaking to a Jew. He was nearly always speaking to Jews, and he said the same thing – “keep the commandments” – elsewhere, as John also did. In this context, the commandments are those of the Decalogue, which you seem to be implying are optional.

      Going back to The other verses do not refer to commandments of the law but of Jesus and God, I wonder what your problem is with the law. Is it:
      – the particular things it commands and prohibits;
      – the perception that the Law does not originate from Jesus or God; or
      – the fact that right action is commanded, as opposed to left to the discretion of the Spirit?

      Apparently not the third possibility, because you imply that one should fulfil – the Greek word is ‘keep’ – the commandments so long as they are Jesus’s commandments.

      It was Peter, not James, who said the Law was a yoke Israel found impossible to bear. He said this is because it is impossible to obey the fullness of the Law, and righteousness before God cannot be attained that way. But this conversation has not been about righteousness and salvation; it has been about whether and in which areas (apart from divorce, your exception) the laws of the Law – particularly the Decalogue – are slackened or cancelled.

  12. Steven

    It is self evident that some are cancelled. I’ve given examples.

    Romans 7 is not about justification but sanctification – bearing fruit for God. The only way to do so according to Paul is to die to the sphere in which the law holds authority – the world. We died to the world in the death of Christ. No we live seeking the things that are above… setting our affections there.

    I agree theological pronouncements can be dangerous. I’m surprised you confess to an unease because you regularly make them. I’m not critical of you making them it is what faith confession involves. Theological pronouncements should be simply truth or faith pronouncements. Without a professed theology we cannot live the life of faith. The life of faith grows out of what we believe. True religion is walking in truth and love. Truth and love walk in harmony. We love in deed and truth. Love rejoices in the truth.

    Re Matt 5:19. I do think it is important who Jesus is speaking to and when. He is speaking to Jews and as such relates things often to the mosaic covenant. At that point the nation was still under the old covenant. Jesus will gradually teach them (particularly his followers) that the old covenant/age is coming to an end. New wine requires new wineskins. The arrival of the kingdom age of the Spirit will bring huge change. Elsewhere he says that worship will no longer be centred at Jerusalem. This is staggering in its implications. In essence the new eschatological messianic community (the church) will have a continuity/discontinuity relationship to the law. The continuity lies in the new covenant kingdom life fulfilling all that the law at heart aspired to. It does not keep the letter of the law but the spirit of it. In Matt 5 Jesus is stressing the continuity between the old and the new age. However, clearly the church is not intended to take up the yoke of law obedience. I have already pointed to some of the texts that make this plain. The council at Jerusalem in Acts 15 clearly agreed with Peter’s (sorry) assessment. Paul in Galatians is adamantly opposed to the imposition of law.

    The continuity lies in the heart of the law being a demand for love which is also the commandment of Christ. But unlike the law what Christ demands he supplies. Love is shed abroad in our heart by the Spirit. We are taught of God to love. Love is an expression of the life of God in our souls. It is not that we love perfectly but that we love truly.

    I know what you mean about the yoke of Christ feeling heavy. I have felt the weight of this on my spirit over the last few years in particular. A few things can be said. Firstly the demands of the law promised no enabling. They said this do and live with no promised enabling grace. In the gospel by contrast what Is demanded is also supplied. At every point in the gospel we stand in grace. I think we fail to grasp just how ‘heavy’ the many (circa 600) laws of Judaism were. They made little allowance for situation and context. Moreover they made these demands not as an expression of life but as a means of life. This must have been harsh. Indeed Paul in Galatians says as much when he describes the law as a pedagogue. A disciplinarian. It generally gave no reasons only commands. The law was not of faith. It did not work on the principle of faith but works or human effort (despite the protests of some in the new perspective).

    Regarding my problem with law. My problem is simply an echo of the NT problem with law. It is inadequate for both justification and sanctification. It is not the rule of life for believers and when we lose sight of the distinction between the period of infancy and the arrival of spiritual maturity we can easily fall into the trap of making it a rule of life. This is a tendency in Reformed thinking (with which I have many affinities). Christ is our rule of life. I suspect the love Christ exhibits exceeds the neighbour love the law demanded. Christ laid down his life for his enemies I don’t think the law demanded this. Grace and mercy take us beyond law. It is often said the law revealed the heart of God. It didn’t. It revealed what was the duty of man. Christ reveals the heart of God. He is full of grace and truth. He shows the light and love that lies in the heart of God. The law is a jailer from which we need to be freed into the full liberty of sonship. To take the law as a rule of life in any serious way is sub-Christian. It reduces obedience to rules. It imposes rules never intended to exist outside of the covenant. It inevitably puts the focus on the law and not on Christ. It means we’re looking more horizontally than vertically. The real secret to godly living is being enraptured with Christ. The mystery of godliness (piety not deity) is Christ.

    Sorry… this has become a longer answer than I intended. I hope it shows where I’m coming from.


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