A Life-Changing Look at the Law

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, 11 in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. – 1 Timothy 2:8-11 ESV

Paul has warned Timothy about a certain group of individuals who had infiltrated the church in Ephesus and were declaring themselves to be experts on the Mosaic Law. These self-proclaimed teachers of the law were creating confusion among the converts to Christianity, propagating a range of dangerous doctrines based on their misguided interpretation and application of the Jewish legal code. Yet Paul flatly debunks their expertise.

…they do not understand what they are saying or the things they insist on so confidently. – 1 Timothy 1:7 NET

On Paul’s third missionary journey, he made a stop in the city of Ephesus where he found a small contingent of newly converted believers. Paul took these 12 men under his wing, baptizing them and laying hands on them so that they might receive the Holy Spirit. And Paul also spent time in the local synagogue, witnessing to his fellow Jews.

Paul went to the synagogue and preached boldly for the next three months, arguing persuasively about the Kingdom of God. Acts 19:8 NLT

But the reception Paul received from the Jews living in Ephesus was far from warm.

…some became stubborn, rejecting his message and publicly speaking against the Way. So Paul left the synagogue and took the believers with him. Then he held daily discussions at the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for the next two years, so that people throughout the province of Asia—both Jews and Greeks—heard the word of the Lord. – Acts 19:9-10 NLT

Paul had been undeterred by the stubbornness of the Jews and continued to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to any who would listen. It is likely that some of the Jewish converts were among those who were trying to use their knowledge of the Mosaic Law to promote a form of legalism among the Gentile members of the congregation. But Paul insisted that these people, while well-intentioned, failed to understand the purpose of the law.

As a former Pharisee, Paul was an expert in the law of Moses. He had studied it extensively and could probably recite much of it from memory. Unlike the wanna-be teachers of the law in Ephesus, Paul had the credentials and curricula vitae to back up his opinions concerning the law.

I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault. – Philippians 3:5-6 NLT

But Paul’s understanding of the law had been radically transformed by his encounter with the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus. Since becoming a follower of Christ, Paul had developed a whole new perspective on the law. No longer was the law to be seen as a set of rules to keep in order to have a right relationship with God. That is exactly what he told the believers in Rome.

Obviously, the law applies to those to whom it was given, for its purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God. For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. – Romans 3:19-20 NLT

What these so-called experts in the law were teaching was a form of legalism. There were promoting a need to keep the law in order to be truly saved. In their minds, the idea of faith alone in Christ alone was not enough. As far as they were concerned, the Gentile converts to Christianity were required to keep the laws given to Moses and practice all the rites and rituals associated with Judaism. But Paul knew this to be a dangerous lie that destroyed the whole idea of salvation by faith.

Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law. – Romans 3:27-28 NLT

In the letter he wrote to the church in Ephesus, Paul reminded them of the incredible nature of God’s grace.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT

This problem of legalism creeping into the church was pervasive. It seems that Paul encountered it in every city where the gospel gained a foothold. As soon as people began to place their faith in Christ, the legalists would appear on the scene, promoting their false doctrine of faith plus works. These Judaizers, as they came to be known, were adamant in their belief that obedience to the Mosaic Law was a non-negotiable requirement for salvation. Yet, Paul vehemently disagreed with their assertion.

…those who depend on the law to make them right with God are under his curse, for the Scriptures say, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the commands that are written in God’s Book of the Law.” So it is clear that no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” This way of faith is very different from the way of law, which says, “It is through obeying the law that a person has life.” – Galatians 3:10-12 NLT

Paul went on to explain to the Galatian believers the true purpose of the law.

Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. – Galatians 3:19 NLT

The law was never meant to save anyone. In the law, God revealed the righteous requirements He ordained for His people, but He knew that they would fail to live up to His exacting standards. That’s why He gave them the sacrificial system. Their inability to live up to the stringent moral and ethical code He established would leave them in a constant state of sin. So, the sacrificial system provided a means of receiving atonement and forgiveness.

The author of the book of Hebrews reminds us that the sacrificial system was never intended to permanently irradicate sin and eliminate guilt. In a sense, it was a bandaid approach to a much more serious problem.

The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. If they could have provided perfect cleansing, the sacrifices would have stopped, for the worshipers would have been purified once for all time, and their feelings of guilt would have disappeared.

But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. – Hebrews 10:1-4 NLT

And Paul emphasizes that this understanding of the law’s role does not in any way diminish its value.

Is there a conflict, then, between God’s law and God’s promises? Absolutely not! If the law could give us new life, we could be made right with God by obeying it. But the Scriptures declare that we are all prisoners of sin, so we receive God’s promise of freedom only by believing in Jesus Christ. – Galatians 3:21-22 NLT

The law was always intended to be a temporary solution to the problem of sin and it was only provided to the people of Israel. God had given His law to His chosen people and it had been meant to be a way of setting them apart from all the other nations on earth. God had given them His code of conduct and demanded that they obey it to the letter. But He had known they would fail. Even as the set-apart people of God and equipped with the law of God, they were unable to live up to His righteous standard. And Paul told the Galatians that the law had always been intended to function as a short-term fix to the eternal problem of sin.

Before the way of faith in Christ was available to us, we were placed under guard by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until the way of faith was revealed.

Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. And now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian. – Galatians 3:23-25 NLT

And Paul wanted Timothy to combat the lies of the legalists who were infiltrating the church in Ephesus. It was essential that Timothy shut down any talk of law-keeping as a requirement for salvation. According to Paul, faith in Christ provides freedom from the requirements of the law.

Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law. – Galatians 5:1 NLT

For Paul, the law was for the unbelieving and unrepentant. It was for all those who had not yet been set free from sin by placing their faith in Christ. And he makes that point perfectly clear to Timothy.

The law is for people who are sexually immoral, or who practice homosexuality, or are slave traders, liars, promise breakers, or who do anything else that contradicts the wholesome teaching that comes from the glorious Good News entrusted to me by our blessed God. – 1 Timothy 1:10-11 NLT

It was Jesus who predicted the sin-defeating and life-liberating nature of His death, burial, and resurrection. Faith in Christ provides freedom from sin and liberation from a life of legalism and law-keeping.

“I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free. – John 8:34-36 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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