Today, in the fifth of our 8-part series “Taking the Bible Seriously,” we would be looking at the Law and the Prophets.
I am not sure how you all feel about the series so far – most of the time, I only receive the positive feedback, and the negative feedback – well that expressed when people vote with their feet. I hope that you are patient with me, and with us as we go through this important series, and as we experiment with a better way of learning that includes questions and answers at the end of the sermon.
I can imagine Jesus preaching during his time – people then would interrupt, challenge, ask questions the whole time. They didn’t sit quietly and obediently listening. They were engaged and they were in conversation.
I am considering adopting this format for all my sermons. This has been as enriching for me as I get to glimpse at what some of you might be thinking, and what you are concerned about. Instead of guessing what you might be thinking, I now have direct feedback, and we can get to engage – something I have been struggling to find a solution to do what Rev Yap has been pressing me to do. It is important that we engage differently – and because we are not as tied down to tradition, we are able to be agile and adapt.
We need to change with the times, and we need to discern what would be helpful for us to grow spiritually as Christians. I am grateful for teachers and lecturers like Kenny and Paul who have shared with me their perspectives, their knowledge and the tools they know. And even if you are not a teacher, your perspective matters because you are a student – and I want to do better to help you get what you need.
We often forget we live in the most connected era in humankind’s existence. We live in a time with the highest literacy rate, we live in a time we don’t have to wait for the postman or messenger or pigeon to deliver our messages – we have it at our fingertips. Yet much of the church service – especially the preaching – have remain how it was decades ago, with the exception of the use of powerpoint presentations, ignoring the changes in our society, our culture and technology.
Bear with me while I grapple with these questions about the method, while being faithful to the substance of the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
TL;DR. I first read it online, and wondered it meant. Too Long; Didn’t Read.
Isn’t that how we may look at the Bible, especially the Law in Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers?
The Law has been one of the many parts of the Bible I would skip. Like many of you, I have wondered – “what has laws from a different culture, thousands of years ago, relevant to us today?” The Prophets on the other hand, have been easy for me to connect with, and connect to. They were addressing issues of that time, and very often those issues are still relevant today.
Generally, the law here is translated from the Hebrew word “torah.” Kevin A. Wilson in the book from the series published by Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars “Conversations with Scripture: The Law,” writes:
The word has come to be translated “law” in English because the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, used the Greek word nomos as the equivalent of torah. But while “law” is a faithful rendering of nomos, it is not the best translation of torah. “Law” implies a connection with an official set of rules by which the courts try cases. But the nature of the law in the Old Testament is something very different. A better translation – more faithful to the Hebrew as well as to the character of the law in the Pentateuch – is the word “instruction.” The torah is God’s instructions to the people of Israel. Just as a human teacher can instruct students (Ps 78:1, Prov 1:8) so can God instruct Israel. God’s law informs them how they are to live as the people of God, a people established through the exodus from Egypt. The law in the Bible sets out the principles by which the people of God were to order their lives, both as individuals and as a community.
Some scholars, like Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, writers of “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth,” interpret the Old Testament law by grouping them into 3 categories – the Israelite civil laws and the Israelite ritual laws, and the moral/ethical laws. They argue that some of these Old Testament laws still apply to us, but the first two categories – the Israelite civil and ritual laws – do not. So do we just skip the civil and ritual laws?
I don’t think so. I think if we are to take the law (and the Bible) seriously, we cannot simply skip some parts. Like one of the questions asked last week – “Since there are so many versions on Genesis. How are we to be motivated to take the bible deeply?”
I think one question that would be on our minds is: why should we take the Law seriously? How are we to be motivated to take the Law seriously?
Matthew 5:17-20 (NRSV)
The Law and the Prophets
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,[a] not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks[b] 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.
What does Jesus mean when He said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill”?
Very often I have heard Christians say that Jesus fulfilled the law by His death on the cross, and we are sanctified and saved. Basically, in a nutshell, it is the idea that Jesus is the ultimate offering for all the laws we have broken, and all the laws we will ever break, through His sacrifice on the cross.
But that, I think, is not correct.
Prophets come to reveal God and God’s heart
Jesus as prophet came to reveal / correct our ideas of God
God isn’t the one who changed / is changing, but humankind’s ideas of God that is changing.
This is my approach to the law, and my understanding of what Jesus meant by fulfilling – fulfilment of the law is revealing the spirit of the law.
He came to show us that we need to understand the spirit of the law.
The law, like what I said earlier, is better understood as instructions. Instructions guide us. But sometimes, instructions fail us – when do instructions fail us?
When situations fall outside of the norm. When there is a higher imperative.
I was speaking to Rain earlier this week, and I think connecting with parents, and feeling in some way like a parent being a pastor, I understand some things in a new perspective.
When you teach a 2 or 3 year-old, you just give instructions. “Do not play on the road” While we would like to explain to them the dangers, they are at that maturity that they can only understand things as they experience it. I don’t think that anyone wants a child to experience an accident so that the child can understand why we tell them “Do not play on the road”
But when the child grows older, it is not sufficient to just give rules or instructions. We teach them the rationale behind these rules. One, they would be more likely to obey when they understand the rationale and that it is for their own good, but also, they can discern when the rules can be broken when there is something more important and more pressing.
We have a rule – more like a guideline – that we hope folks refrain from dating within the first 4-6 months after getting to know someone in church. Some of you know the rationale, some of you can guess, some of you have seen or experienced how this can have an impact not just on the 2 people dating, but on the community itself.
That doesn’t mean you cannot break the rule. I have had people come up to let me know they are going out on a date. I didn’t kick up a fuss – I thanked them for letting me know. They were not asking for permission, and the permission isn’t mine to give anyway. It is about accountability and maturity – they are saying to me – “hey miak, we understand why you have this rule in church. We have given this much thought and this isn’t some fling – we are seriously interested in one another. It may not work out but we are serious are matured adults and we can take care of ourselves and handle this in a matured way.”
My concern is when people don’t let me know. Why the secrecy? Why the shame and guilt? If they have considered thoroughly and faithfully,
When the Israelites were first freed from Egypt, they were given the law. It guided them as a young nation, as a young people. It was a way of creating their identity and setting them apart from others as the ones God delivered from Egypt with whom they have a covenant with.
When we were young, or young Christians, we were told the rules. It guided us as we were new to the faith.
But as we grow older, and as we want to grow spiritually, we need to learn more about the spirit of the law.
We cannot be blindly following the rules. We cannot just follow the rules without understanding the spirit of the rule.
Sometimes, we have followed the law for so long, we have forgotten the spirit behind the law. Why was it there in the first place? While I was growing up, many Christians were very observant of the Sabbath law. Many shops were closed on Sundays. Do you remember the time CK Tang was closed on Sundays? I do.
Why do we observe the Sabbath? Because it says so in the Bible?
So what if we rest on Sunday – doesn’t majority of people take Sundays off as well?
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”
Jesus replied, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for them to eat, but only for the priests.
Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and yet are innocent? 6But I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.
If only you had known the meaning of ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. 8For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
Mark 2:27 “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
The rule / law is a guide – we need to understand the spirit of the rule / law – the spirit of the law, and not the letter of the law.
I think the Sabbath law is a special time we set aside to be with God. God is present with us all the time, but we are not always present with God. I think there were a few days I spent more time playing Pokemon than being with God.
The Sabbath is also about resting and not working and not worrying about work. It is recognising and trusting that God will provide. Too many people keep working and keep busy 7 days a week because they are afraid. They are afraid that if they stopped working for a day, they would not be able to provide for themselves and their family. But that is not putting God as priority and not trusting that God will provide.
When we recognise what the Sabbath is for – the spirit of the law – then we understand that it is about prioritising what is important – putting God first.
The same is the case for other laws. If we understand the spirit of the law – and follow the spirit of the law, then we may decide to break those laws – we may be wrong, but we have given it serious consideration before breaking the law.
I often think about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Lutheran pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident, and key founding member of the Confessing Church. He was part of a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and he was arrested and imprisioned for a year and a half and executed just before WWII ended. I wonder what went through his mind before deciding to violate the law that we shall not murder. I don’t know if he was right or wrong. All I know is this – he tried to be as faithful as possible and he did a lot of reflection.
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (NRSV)
4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.[a] 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Yet, when asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus answered with two.
“This is the most important: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord, 30and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’e 31The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’f No other commandment is greater than these.”
I cannot go through all the laws in the Bible today and show how this two commandments are the spirit of the law. I would just use the one we are most familiar with: the Ten Commandments. The ten commandments fall neatly into 2 sections – the first 4 deal with our relationship with God, and the last 6 deal with our relationships with others. Our relationship with God cannot be separated from our relationships with others.
1. You shall have no other gods before Me.
2. You shall not make idols.
3. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.
4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
5. Honor your father and your mother.
6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not commit adultery.
8. You shall not steal.
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
10. You shall not covet.
How are you doing right now? If I were sitting in the congregation now, I would be thinking : Oh dear. Today is the Law and the Prophets and Miak is just done with the Law.
Don’t worry I am on page 10 of 12.
Let us move to the Prophets.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro:
The Prophets in the Old Testament were human beings God spoke through to call for people to return to God. Prophets challenged the people then, and us to turn inward, free ourselves of the distortions we worship and engage the world justly, kindly, and simply. They call us to free ourselves from the false gods we worship.
The prophets relentlessly attack on form for form’s sake, on ritual as a way of controlling God, on a theology that is at root manipulative, reducing God to a puppet pulled by priestly strings, is in effect an attack on your own egocentric thinking.
Jesus criticised the Pharisees for making the Law into an idol, following the law for law’s sake, instead of understanding the spirit of the law. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
When the prophets address the people, can you hear them addressing you? What are the idols of today? What are our idols? What are your idols?
“You may not call the false gods of your life gods, but they are gods nonetheless. Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism are modern gods of chaos and violence that steal your ability to see people as individuals, and treat them justly and kindly. Avarice, workaholism, self-loathing, and conceit are gods of inner turmoil that rob you of compassion. Drugs, sex, alcohol, and the rest of modernity’s addictions are all gods of despair that make joy and freedom impossible.”
“Today’s idols are the objects of a systematically cultivated greed: for money, power, lust, glory, food, and drink. Man worships the means and ends of this greed: production, consumption, military might, business, and the state. The stronger he makes his idols, the poorer he becomes, and the emptier he feels. Instead of joy, he seeks thrill; instead of life, he loves a mechanized world of gadgets; instead of growth, he seeks wealth; instead of being, he is interested in having and using. As a result, modern man has lost any comprehensive system of values except those idolatrous ones; he is anxious, depressed, hopeless, and ready to risk nuclear self-destruction because life has ceased to make sense, to be interesting, and to give joy.” Eric Fromm – On Being Human
I can say we can summarise the prophets to Micah 6:8 – “God has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?”
But what does justice look like? What does mercy look like? How does walking humbly with God look like?
That is what we are called to examine deeply ourselves, and as a community.