God’s law set in our hearts

ש Sin and Shin

Rulers persecute me without cause,
but my heart trembles at your word.
I rejoice in your promise
like one who finds great spoil.
I hate and detest falsehood
but I love your law.
Seven times a day I praise you
for your righteous laws.
Great peace have those who love your law,
and nothing can make them stumble.
I wait for your salvation, Lord,
and I follow your commands.
I obey your statutes,
for I love them greatly.
I obey your precepts and your statutes,
for all my ways are known to you.

Psalm 119:161-168

There may be a secondary and maybe even basic way in which God’s law is set in the human heart by creation, with the sense of right and wrong that comes with that. But since humans are so flawed in their sin, the primary way is surely in the promise in Jesus of a new covenant in which God will write God’s law on the human heart. God’s people in the first covenant experienced a good measure of that as is evidenced here in the psalmist’s words.

I say that to say this: God’s love as evident in “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5) sets the agenda for this law, with specifics spelled out along the way in God’s written word: Scripture. We can be sure by God’s Spirit that has God not only written his law on our hearts, but that God confirms it day after day. It’s always in the way of love, bringing righteousness, peace and joy. And when we experience it, we long for it all the more in our hearts and lives. In and through Jesus.

 

 

paying attention to God’s commands

Blessed are those whose ways are blameless,
who walk according to the law of the LORD.
Blessed are those who keep his statutes
and seek him with all their heart—
they do no wrong
but follow his ways.
You have laid down precepts
that are to be fully obeyed.
Oh, that my ways were steadfast
in obeying your decrees!
Then I would not be put to shame
when I consider all your commands.
I will praise you with an upright heart
as I learn your righteous laws.
I will obey your decrees;
do not utterly forsake me.

Psalm 119:1-8

It seems hard and almost old fashioned, at least open to question nowadays, the necessity or even importance of keeping God’s commands. For one thing we live in a relatively Bible illiterate day, when it seems like year after year, people who attend Bible teaching churches know the Bible’s content less and less. At least that has been the case. And we live during a day when there’s a major cultural shift arguably accompanied with a hermeneutical shift, how Christians interpret the Bible. With the obvious changes from the Old (or First) Testament to the New (or Second, we could say Final) Testament such as found in Leviticus, for example the prohibition of sowing two different fabrics together to make clothes no longer being in effect comes the protests that sexual mores have now been changed as well. The idea that sexual relations are confined to a woman and man who are married is considered odd and a thing of the past, almost taboo at least among many in their practice.

Among Christians who fall prey to none of that, there can be such an emphasis on grace, that keeping God’s commands is nearly beside the point. Impossible since that is considered falling under the law, which is only meant to indicate that we’re sinners, incapable of keeping the law. With others it might be a decided shift in emphasis due to priorities which determine more what we’re to do and not do than Scripture itself. It’s almost like Scripture is present to help achieve what is considered most important, often referring to priorities in one’s personal life, or from the political sphere.

May I just suggest that I think all of us Christians and churches ought to stop, back up, and go to square one. We need to return to the plain words of Scripture, of course read faithfully and in light of God’s revelation given to us in Scripture of Christ. We might be surprised at just how traditional it might come across. Not the air of today’s “brave new world” but the fulfillment of the old creation in the new creation in Jesus as spelled out in the Final “New” Testament itself. Something to which we should aspire, even as with the psalmist we lament in not arriving to perfection in this life. In and through Jesus.

the new covenant replacing the old covenant

For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

Romans 10:4; NRSV

When Jesus cried out on the cross, “It is finished,” (John 19:30), not only did that mean his time and travail on the cross, but surely as well, and perhaps primarily, the work he had come to do, which would be vindicated by his resurrection from the dead.

What specifically was accomplished at that point was the end of the old covenant, and the beginning of the new covenant. This change is in terms of fulfillment and completion of the old, and out of that, the metamorphosis into the new.

Jesus by his death brought in a new order in which the requirement of the Law might be fully met in those who have faith and live according to the Spirit rather than the flesh (Romans 8). And so also is fulfilled the greater, deeper righteousness Jesus was talking about in the Sermon on the Mount. Far from relegating that sermon to a different time and people, the heart of it is fulfilled both in terms of the true meaning of the Law, and how it’s supposed to be lived out now. Of course we have to read that sermon in context, so that not every line in it lines up with today (e.g., the altar in it). But the essence of it is surely apt, fulfilled in the new covenant: an internal righteousness that goes right to the heart to change the life.

So there is both continuity and discontinuity. Surely a radical newness along with a fulfillment of the old covenant, which itself is actually called imperfect (Hebrews) and even flawed, seemingly because of its dependence on sinful humans for its fulfillment (Jeremiah). Jesus’s coming and specifically his death sealed in the new covenant, which is dependent on God and God’s promises fulfilled in Jesus and from that by the work of the Spirit mark the start of a new resurrection life, the new creation. If we doubt such a claim, thinking it too radical, and perhaps think that this awaits the after life, then we need to read again the entire New Testament and compare it with the Old Testament. All of this in and through Jesus.

understanding scripture’s story

One of my favorite biblical scholars and theologians, N. T. Wright has explained scripture in terms of a five part story:

  • Creation
  • Fall
  • Israel
  • Jesus
  • Church

I would like to add a sixth part which would would have to do with Jesus’s return, sometimes called the Second Coming, and maybe a seventh part could be added (to make it seven parts in all?) which would have to do with the final outcome, the eternal state.

To understand any part of scripture, one needs to see it in context, its immediate context, certainly, but also in the context of the whole, the entire Bible and witness of scripture.

I am leery of simply writing off any scripture as completely irrelevant for us today, since the New Testament, including the letters written to the churches clearly suggest otherwise. At the same time, we obviously don’t read the story well when we read it in what has been called a flat way, as if all of it has precisely the same application as when it was written. For example the rules in Leviticus 14 about mold in homes certainly do no apply in the same way for us today.

The cross, Jesus’s death is certainly a “game changer”, but what leads up to it does impact what follows. For our application today, we may need to especially emphasize what follows, but to understand that well, we need to see what preceded it. There is so much here that Christians don’t quite see or apply in the same way. But it’s a grave mistake on the one hand to think for example that the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John don’t have profound meaning for our understanding of the faith today, and even how we understand the letters written to the churches. Jesus was speaking mainly to Israel, but he was pointing out to them just what kind of kingdom he was bringing, certainly clearly anticipating what was to follow. On the other hand, it’s also a grave mistake to think that the cross in Jesus’s death did not make a profound difference in what followed: no less than the beginning of the new covenant of course in Jesus’s blood.

We have to keep working at, which means taking it all seriously, but seeing it in the context of the whole. The fulfillment coming, of course, in and through Jesus and through his death, the resurrection following.

Jesus’s nonsensical message

I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.

John 10

For us raised in church and in Sunday school, we often shake our heads at how slow Jesus’s disciples were to understand Jesus. But to their credit, and certainly because of God’s grace and the work of the Spirit, they hung in there. And the Pharisees who were considered among the most religious Jews of Jesus’s day, and in fact are considered by scholars to be the group within Israel that were most like Jesus, were divided over Jesus, but the majority of them it seems were obstinate against Jesus’s message. We think they should have known better. And we wonder why they didn’t understand that Jesus had to die for their sins, as well as the sins of the world. And we shake our heads, thinking that they just didn’t understand God’s grace, and sought salvation by works. After all, that’s what we were taught from the cradle, so we take it for granted. And there is actually a grain of truth in it.

But reality was that what Jesus said did not line up with their teaching at all, not in the least. And what the disciples had been taught did not prepare them for Jesus’s teaching, either. At least not very much. Sometimes we pick up from some sources like in the Apocrypha, that there was a bit of what Jesus would bring seeping in. But by and large it made little sense against the backdrop of their Judaism. Though if one took their scriptures, they could find hints of it throughout, that something different was coming. Their view of God was not complete, in fact one might argue even off track to some extent. Jesus did tell the Pharisees that they didn’t know the Father. It’s interesting how the NIV (click link above) begins this section with Jesus addressing these words to the Pharisees.

John 6 is another more stark example of Jesus’s message making no sense to his disciples, so that many of them no longer followed him.

We don’t read the scriptures well enough ourselves, if we don’t see the difference between Jesus’s teaching, and what had come before him. Jesus was bringing in a new covenant which in some respects fulfilled the old, but often cancelled out what was in it. What the New Testament tells us about that is a mixed bag, actually reflecting what had been said in the Old Testament prophet. The Law given through Moses was of a covenant which was not perfect, and not the end. A new covenant was to come, something which would fulfill the words and aspirations of the old covenant, but in a new way. Jesus is the one who brought that, and fulfilled it in and through his death. The resurrection following in which the new life of the new covenant is ultimately to be lived in the Spirit and by the grace of God.

Jesus’s life, teaching, death, and resurrection, with the ascension and promise of his return following is what marks us as Christians, no less and no more. We read and treasure all of scripture, but we find where we fit in the story in the New Testament, particularly after the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost, and the spread of the gospel throughout the known world of that time, and even then into remote places.

And hence just a hint of the difference that the faith through Jesus brings. And why we should no longer be surprised at how unprepared anyone was during Jesus’s time to make any sense of his ministry and words, particularly his death on the cross. Yes, hints were in their scripture, those hints teaching us to read those scriptures differently, even as we see them interpreted quite differently in the New Testament.

All of this in and through Jesus.

the Spirit implicitly very present in Psalm 119

Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees,
    that I may follow it to the end.
Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law
    and obey it with all my heart.
Direct me in the path of your commands,
    for there I find delight.
Turn my heart toward your statutes
    and not toward selfish gain.
Turn my eyes away from worthless things;
    preserve my life according to your word.
Fulfill your promise to your servant,
    so that you may be feared.
Take away the disgrace I dread,
    for your laws are good.
How I long for your precepts!
    In your righteousness preserve my life.

Psalm 119

Against one of our simplistic, inaccurate descriptions of the old covenant compared to the new covenant, I found unexpectedly this morning a needed breath of fresh air as I continue to work through the longest chapter of the Bible, Psalm 119 (at least the longest in the psalms). The fact that the psalmist longs to be faithful to God’s law, and sees as much as he or she saw, is certainly an indication of God’s work of grace in their life, as is true of so much else we see in the First/Old Testament.

But the passage quoted above goes beyond that, as the psalmist prays essentially that God would write his law in their hearts, a promise of the new covenant to come in Jeremiah 31, but certainly known in a true measure by all the First Covenant saints, or people of God, set apart to him. Although it is God’s word which over and over and over again is mentioned in Psalm 119, the point made in the above passage reminds us of the Holy Spirit, and his work in our lives. Without the blessed Holy Spirit, we will neither long for, nor experience anything of the true life which is promised to us from God, a life of faithfulness and obedience out of love for God, lived out in God’s love. All in and through Christ for God’s people now, and a needed lift for me this morning, as I continue on slowly through this great psalm.

the circumcision of Christ

Today on many church calendars we remember the circumcision of Christ. On the eighth day in keeping with the law given through Moses, Joseph and Mary took the baby Jesus to the priest to be circumcised (Luke 2:21). Circumcision was the sign of belonging to God’s people, the mark and sign of the covenant.

In becoming human, Christ entered fully into God’s will for humanity, into the covenant by which God would save the world. Christ was subjected fully to obedience to the law, in other words he went through what it meant to be completely complicit to the old covenant.

In doing so, the goal of that covenant could be realized: the end result in part being a circumcision performed by Christ himself on all who are baptized and have faith. The circumcison of Christ is something he does, not us. Because of that we can live accordingly, in fact we are responsible to do so. Christ performed on us what he alone could fulfill as both God, and as the fully obedient human. By the Spirit, God’s work of circumcision is performed on us in and through Christ, the one who was circumcised as a little baby boy so many years ago.

In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.

Colossians 2:11-12

 

hard hearts

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Matthew 19

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

Ezekiel 36

Hardness of heart is part of what God promised to address in the new covenant given to his people. A heart compliant to God in both truth and love is what is needed in us all. To love God with all our being and doing, and to love our neighbor as ourselves is at the center of that.

On the way to such a heart (and we’ll always be on the way in this life; hopefully growing, but never fully arriving), we will have the need for a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51). A deep work of repentance over no less than the hard heart we have, and the sin of our hearts is what is needed. The Spirit and the word in and through Jesus and the gospel will do that work. We need to not only be open to that, but desire it. By faith over time we will be seeing God do the work. And yet God’s people are told to get a new heart themselves. In other words we are to be engaged in that work as well. Knowing at the same time that it is God’s work which makes this possible by the Spirit in and through Jesus.

(This new WordPress format which has started this week, is making my blogging a challenge since I’m confined to the tablet I have. So that I’m not able at the moment to do well what I ordinarily do on posts.)

Fulfillment in Jesus through Israel

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.”

Therefore Israel will be abandoned
until the time when she who is in labor bears a son,
and the rest of his brothers return
to join the Israelites.

He will stand and shepherd his flock
in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
will reach to the ends of the earth…”

And he will be our peace

The story of Israel needs to be told if we’re to understand the gospel. Jesus is the fulfillment of that story, and God’s fulfillment of blessing the world through Abraham and through his seed, which ends up being in and through Jesus himself.

Often we see the gospel as simply salvation from sins due to Adam’s sin. Jesus taking that sin on himself and dying in our place, and then rising again, so that we may be forgiven and have new life. That’s true, but it fails to take into account a large portion of scripture. And making much of prophecies, such as the one in Micah here, to support this truncated version of the gospel, fails to do justice to God’s word and revelation to us in Jesus.

If you don’t read the old covenant, the Hebrew Bible, what we commonly call the Old Testament, then you won’t understand as well the new covenant, the “New Testament.” Although in simply reading the New Testament, if one does so carefully, one can’t help but notice how the old covenant is referred to time and time again, and unpacked. Yes, Jesus’ fulfillment comes in unexpected ways, and yet we can see the essence of what he fulfilled when we read Genesis through Malachi (the order in our Bibles).

In this wonderful passage in the book of the prophet Micah, we see Jesus’ fulfillment within Israel, as a part of Israel, a fulfillment not confined only for the blessing of Israel, but for the ends of the earth. That latter point is made certain by other prophecies we find in the Old Testament, and is hinted at, here. This is a blessing from God through Israel, the church being the new Israel I take it, or the renewed Israel in and through Jesus. All Jews and Gentiles who put their faith in Jesus as Messiah and Lord constitute this new or renewed people of God. It is therefore both a revelation that is grounded in God’s calling to Abraham, and is carried on in its fulfillment in the church, Christ’s body, the people of God.

Bethlehem. Wonderful. We love to think of the story of our Savior’s birth in that lowly place. In God’s care and love for the world. Which goes on in Jesus even through us in him, together for the world.

longing for the fulfillment in Jesus

I am in the habit of listening to scripture being read, something I’ve done, as I recall, most years since I’ve been a Christian. Going over scripture in that way as I do (now through The Bible Experience) there are parts of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible which are just fine to hear over and over again. But there are other parts, and a good number of them in which I do grow weary, and am glad to get through them, even though I believe they’re important for us to read and listen to. The book of Judges comes to mind with all the apostasy of Israel, even the great prophet Elijah in calling down fire from heaven to consume two companies of fighting men, Jeremiah and the long prophecy of doom and gloom but with that, as always, hope in anticipation of the fulfillment of God’s promises (somehow I have really identified with Jeremiah, particularly as read in The Bible Experience). Every book and part of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is important for us, no doubt. That’s why I keep going over it. As N.T. Wright suggests, it’s a part of our breathing as God’s people, to do so.

But the reading, and primarily for me, listening of the Old Testament serves all the more to remind me, and even makes me long for the fulfillment in Jesus, which in reading scripture begins in the gospel according to the evangelist Matthew (in the sequential order of books in our Bibles). It comes as a breath of fresh air, and both braces us for and embraces us into the new life Jesus brings. And the fulfillment of the Old Testament in which Israel was called to be God’s people in and for the world. So that Jesus fulfills that calling, yes in surprising ways as one might well expect from God. But in ways that make complete sense on hindsight, not to say that some parts of that are  not clearer than other parts. And which awakens in us something of anticipation in the completion yet to come.

Of course life itself prepares us and actually produces in us through Jesus a longing for the completion of the fulfillment that is now present in him. We hardly have to go into detail to express why. Just an honest look at ourselves is enough. We must begin there. And then we look around us, and we can only say in the words Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

We get glimpses and glimmers of that completion now, even as we live in the beginning of the fulfillment through the new covenant in Jesus.  And we do so not just for our own benefit, but for the benefit of others, indeed for the entire world, since that is the breadth of King Jesus’ kingdom to at long last be fully realized in the completion of the new creation, renewed earth, and new world to come.