The origin and outworking of the Law
Pp Mark 12:28-34
The two pairs of tables of the ten commandments
Following the previous question and answer (Mtw 22:23-33) in which the Sadducees had been silenced (Mtw 22:34), the Pharisees appear to have come together where Jesus was teaching within the Temple (Mtw 22:34 - a clear echo of Ps 2:2) and continued to argue with Him on grounds which have gone largely unrecorded (Mark 12:28). That there were many more questions and disputes than appear in the record in the Gospels is certain and, from asking ‘secretly’ their questions they appear to have openly begun to take issue with Him.
Luke omits the following question which was posed by one of the scribes and concludes his record of the religious leaders’ questioning of Jesus by stating (Luke 20:40) that
‘...they no longer dared to ask Him any question’
This statement is echoed in Mtw 22:46 at the conclusion of the question which Jesus posed to the religious leaders and crowds (Mark 12:34 has a similar statement at the conclusion of the answer to the current scribes’ question) and we shouldn’t take Luke’s statement as being a consequence of the answer given to the Sadducean question regarding the resurrection of the dead. That the arguments continued even after they’d left the area is certain from both Matthew and Mark (Mtw 22:34-35, Mark 12:28) which has the scribe ask his question as a response to the discussions which were continuing
Matthew uses an unusual word here and which the RSV renders as ‘lawyer’ (Strongs Greek number 3544) but which tends to obscure the general meaning of the word employed because our own, present day, concept of such a label conjures up in our minds the picture of one who would argue a case in a court of law on behalf of the defendant or prosecutor. Kittels defines the word as having the literal meaning
‘according to law’
and goes on to state that, in its present context and usual usage
‘...the word occurs as a noun for Jewish leaders concerned about the administration and understanding of the law...’
The word seems, from this description, to have been virtually synonymous with the more regular label of ‘scribe’ which is used in the parallel passage (Mark 12:28) and can be seen to be employed in a couple of other places where the more likely phrase ‘scribes and Pharisees’ would be expected (Luke 7:30, 14:3) and in parallel passages where each of the two words are used for the same type of person (Cp Luke 5:17 [the more definitive word denoting a ‘teacher of the Law is used here - Strongs Greek number 3547 - a compound word from the same root as the word translated simply as ‘lawyer’] with Luke 5:21, Mark 2:6 and Mtw 9:3).
The person asking the question, therefore, should be seen to be not just one of the Pharisees who recorded the decisions being reached by the Pharisaic discussions but one who was commissioned to teach the precepts and interpretations based upon the Mosaic Law thus reached.
If we take only the record in Mark’s Gospel, it becomes possible that the lawyer/scribe asked his question from pure motives for we read there (Mark 12:28) that
‘...one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another and, seeing that He answered them well, asked Him...’
Jesus going on to be recorded as seeing that the response to His own answer was a sincere confession that he saw something in Jesus’ words which accurately reflected the position of the Law as he understood it (Mark 12:34). But Mtw 22:35 specifically states that the question was asked of Jesus
‘...to test Him’
where the same Greek word is employed in Mtw 22:18 to describe the question posed Him jointly by the Pharisees and Herodians concerning whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar (Strongs Greek number 3985). It would appear, then, that the scribe came up to the arguing group and offered a question which was immediately a test to undermine Jesus’ position but that, with His answer, he also suddenly realised the truth of the reply that, instead of service to God being merely external observances, it was fundamentally a matter of the heart which would ultimately overflow through a believer’s life.
Mattask considers the three similar passages (he includes Luke 10:25-37 which is obviously a record of a separate incident) as
‘...three different traditions’
rather than as three separate ‘incidents’ but such a position seems to be untenable simply because we’ve seen in previous passages how each writer chooses which details to both include and omit and yet, at the same time, allow for a harmonisation with the other directly parallel passages. Both Mark and Matthew, therefore, should be seen to be selective records of the one event while Luke taken as a record of a totally separate incident (as Matfran also observes).
What Luke 10:27 does show, though, is that the running together of both principles of the Law may not have been an entirely original formula, for the response to the question concerning the Law is what Jesus here espouses to the religious leaders.
I guess that the lawyer was about the nearest we ever read of Jesus bringing one of His enemies to the point of conversion to the NT teaching of the Kingdom of God, even though we know that some of the Pharisees did go over to the disciples after the resurrection and ascension (Acts 15:5) while still retaining their belief that the Mosaic Law was binding on all new converts.
But what of the scribe’s question? How was it that such a question could be asked of Jesus to ‘test’ Him? What pitfalls were there for Jesus to avoid in the phrasing of His answer?
Mattask answers this question by stating that
‘...they hoped that Jesus in His reply would say something unorthodox and startling which would render Him liable to a charge of blasphemy’
Indeed, He does say something which is startling but not in the way which they might have imagined. The real thrust of the question, however, lay more on the consideration of what was ‘important’ within the Law over and above the other precepts and it’s this which we must consider by referring to two verses from the Mishnah. Aboth 2:1 instructs the disciple to
‘...be heedful of a light precept as of a weighty one for thou knowest not the recompense of reward of each precept...’
and Aboth 4:2 that the server of God should
‘...Run to fulfil the lightest duty even as the weightiest...’
Even though the Pharisees discussed which of the summated total of the 613 commandments of the Mosaic Law were weightier (more important) or lighter, they considered the importance of each one as nothing less than any of the others (Matcar cites a few later Rabbinic authorities which he asserts state that no one commandment was to be taken as any more important than any other but he’s quick to point out that there may have been a difference of opinion amongst such Jewish religious leaders and that seemingly contradictory statements may have been correct in their differing contexts).
Jesus’ answer could have given the Jewish leaders cause to claim that He taught against the Law by elevating one ‘light’ precept above another that was demonstrably more ‘weighty’ and the command of Deut 4:2 that
‘You shall not add to the word which I command you nor take from it; that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you’
would have been a distinct possibility. However, as we shall see, what Jesus actually does is to pinpoint two specific commandments which are recorded within the Torah and announce that all the other laws and regulations are simply outworkings of these two principles. And yet, even here, Jesus speaks of the ‘first’ and ‘second’ commandments where love towards God is seen as the greater of the two guiding internal principles of the heart (Mtw 22:38-39). It’s unlikely that any Jew would have disagreed with the ordering of the commandments this way but such a statement that murder, for instance, was the most important command of the Law would have immediately left Jesus open to an attack that He was neglecting service towards God Himself. Matmor comments that
‘There is no effective yardstick for measuring one commandment against another so that whatever commandment Jesus selected for the first place would certainly have been placed lower by others. The lawyer was initiating a discussion that might lead anywhere and that in his view would certainly provide a strong possibility of damaging Jesus’ reputation’
Why Jesus uses these two principles seems straightforward enough - the Jews who prided themselves on the correct interpretation of and external outworkings of the Law in each person’s life was immediately seen to be only the overflow of an internal command which needed to be present within and, in so doing, transformed law observance from external legalistic perfection to internal attitudes which would promote correct conduct in each and every situation in which the believer was to find himself.
Far from elevating one commandment above another, Jesus actually confirms the whole Law’s importance to show the underlying principles of a believer’s life where no man could ever witness but where the all-seeing eyes of God could penetrate. When the Jew approached each and every command of God directed towards him, Jesus was urging him to see the underlying principle of love directed towards both God and man and, therefore, to outwork love regardless of the Rabbinic interpretations which attempted to cover every eventuality.
The origin and outworking of the Law
The Pharisees, as previously noted above, stressed the external observance of the Law which was often devoid of any inner reality within the person’s heart. Whether this was their intention from the earliest foundations of their religious sect is impossible to say but one only has to read some of the Mishnah to realise that there was a great emphasis on getting external commandments perfectly performed in order that God might be pleased.
But the Law was founded upon the internal attitudes of love which were required to be present within the heart as Jesus points out in His reply to the scribe’s question. From these two most basic of commandments to love God (Deut 6:4-5) and to love mankind (Lev 19:18), all the other vast array of regulations stem.
It’s these two principles of the Law which could be considered as being both foundational and internal. This is the reason for the positioning of ‘Love’ as a reflection of the heart of God at the very base of the diagram below and that, from God’s character, both of the love principles were expressed through the vast array of differing regulations and ordinances contained in the Torah.
But, both love principles were primarily internal requirements of the believer’s heart and were not to be taken simply as religious rites and observances devoid of any real presence of love within.
Mtw 22:39 records Jesus as saying that, after the requirement of love towards God, the second principle ‘is like it’ and, if the first exists then the second must also necessarily be present (I John 4:20-21). Both laws are connected and interrelated simply because they flow from the same source of the heart of God. If one is fulfilled then it necessarily implies that there will be a fulfilment of the other for it’s not sufficient to simply say that one loves God but not mankind, for love for mankind is love for the image of God put there at Creation (Gen 1:28).
While it’s true that no man is the perfect image of the invisible God save Jesus alone, to actively love God by re-establishing the image of God through the work of Christ in men and women’s hearts is a declaration of love for mankind that they might be restored back into a right relationship with the Creator.
These two commandments (‘love God’ and ‘love man’) are ‘concepts’ (that is, matters of the heart) more than they are ‘deeds’ (that is, legal works). From the heart that’s filled with the reality of these two commandments will flow, however, all manner of ‘deeds’ that will be outworkings of what’s contained in the heart (Mtw 12:34 - see also Rom 13:8-10, Gal 5:14, James 2:8 which all deal with the fulfilment of ‘love man’ as opposed to the principle of ‘love God’)
The chart above then goes on to show how, from the internal fulfilment of the Law, both internal attitudes and external observances will flow which, devoid of any real witness within, would only degenerate into tacit observance of a written code which may look very good on the outside but which would be death itself.
Therefore, in Is 1:11-20, we read of God’s objection of His people’s perfect observance of the rules and regulations handed down to them through the annual festivals and the offerings of sacrifice because they needed once more to address the great issues of the Law. It propels God to command them to
‘...learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow’
and, in Micah 6:6-9, after refuting the idea that God would be delighted with myriads of offerings sacrificed to Him in strict observance of the Law’s requirements, concludes by stating that
‘He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’
attitudes of heart which, though they may overflow into action and religious observance, can exist without the need to perfectly obey a written code. The Law, although an expression of the heart of God, can never be made to be the be-all-and-end-all of religious experience for it’s what goes on within a man that either justifies or condemns him and which will overflow through the life into the world around them.
The Law came from the love of God - but observance of its legalistic demands all too easily stripped the underlying principles away from it. This is something which the scribe who asked the original question suddenly perceives as being true (Mark 12:33) though whether he ever went on to enter in to the Kingdom of God is impossible to determine (Mark 12:34).
But Jesus also observes that not just the Law but the entire body of OT Scripture is built upon these two commandments (Mtw 22:40) making any interpretation of Law which the Pharisees might care to bring into force an irrelevancy before God’s internal requirements of His followers.
The reader should also consider my notes on the 'Love of God' where I’ve showed that both reactions of love for God and love for man are not primary in the Gospel but, rather, God’s love for man out of which both of the former principles flow. The New Covenant, therefore, becomes not another rigidly observed law which depends on man’s strength of character but upon the free gift of God’s love being received which is reflected both upwards and outwards.
The two pairs of tables of the ten commandments
This section is added to the exposition of the scribes’ question not because it’s particularly related to it but because it emphasises an important differentiation between the two pairs of the tables of Law which were given to Moses at different times in the nation of Israel’s history.
Firstly, in Ex 24:12 we read of the Lord commanding Moses to
‘...Come up to Me on the mountain and wait there; and I will give you the tables of stone with the law and the commandment which I have written for their instruction’
and echoed in Moses’ direct recounting of the incident in Deut 9:9-10 where he mentions that he went up the mountain to receive the tables of stone which were written by the finger of God. At the conclusion of the incident in Exodus, the record again is plain (Ex 31:18) that God
‘...gave to Moses, when He had made an end of speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God’
These first pair of tables, engraved with the ten commandments, were the product of God’s own work both in the origin of the stone and the writing which appeared upon them. This may seem like a strange statement to make and the reader may be wondering why there should be any significance in this but it lies in the fact that, after Moses had destroyed the first pair (Ex 32:19), the origin of the second pair was wholly different. In Ex 34:1 we read the Lord’s command to Moses to
‘...Cut two tables of stone like the first; and I will write upon the tables the words that were on the first tables, which you broke’
where Moses also confirms the action by his recollection of the event in Deut 10:1-4 towards the end of his life. In this second giving of the commandments, then, it was Moses and not God who provided the stones upon which God wrote the ten commandments on both occasions.
It may seem like an incidental in the giving of the Law but, when viewed correctly, it teaches the believer an important principle in the dealings of God with mankind.
The first tablets, then, were a present command - ‘This is the Law which is on My heart - keep it!’
Being God’s stones, the material represented God’s heart where the text which proves such an association of the tablet with the heart is II Cor 3:3, Paul observing that the Corinthian believers (my italics) are
‘...a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts’
Here at Sinai, God was revealing His heart to the Israelites, showing them what was on His heart expressed in commandments which reflected His love (see the previous section).
But man cannot keep God’s holy Law in his own strength (Rom 7:7-20) and, when the Israelites broke God’s Law (Ex 32:7-9), they inevitably broke also God’s heart, Moses demonstrating the consequences of their actions by breaking the original tablets of stone (Ex 32:19).
Before it had even begun, man had broken the covenant with God and it represented the end of man trying to keep the Law in his own strength (even though the Pharisees were going at it with great zeal and purpose!). The second tablets of stone, however, spoke of a different covenant - one which was still to come and of which the Law was but a shadow (Heb 10:1).
The second tablets, therefore, were a prophetic promise - ‘This is the Law that will be on your heart - you will keep it’
God’s external written code could not be obeyed by unregenerate man and had to become internal and a part of his very being. It was a prophetic insight into the covenant which God was to seal in Christ where total provision for the obedience of men and women would be made by the work of the cross, resurrection and ascension.
Therefore, speaking of the new covenant to come, the prophet Jeremiah recorded God as saying (Jer 31:33 - my italics)
‘...this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days...I will put my law within them and I will write it upon their hearts...’
where the internal position of the Law becomes a part of the new believer’s very nature and, instead of attempting to observe perfectly external demands which contradict the internal workings of man’s heart (Mtw 15:19), the existence within of the right way, coupled with the power of God’s presence to live out God’s requirements, give the believer the assurance that, no matter what life may throw at them, they will be able to reflect God’s nature into the world.
Even in the giving of the Law, then, there was a prophetic insight into the ultimate end of all external rules and regulations which mankind would fail to observe. The new covenant is, therefore, not based upon a new external Law such as that which is contained in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) but on a radically new position of the same OT categorical Law which are written within a follower of Jesus and which cause them to walk in the way and will of God almost naturally.
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