The Law is the Law Ė Or Is It?

Jesus and the Law

Jesus on the Law of Moses
Nazirite Law
A Brief Overview of Dietary Laws

More on the Law

Copyright information, disclaimers, and sponsors
Return to homepage

The Sermon on the Mount, Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1598, 
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
The Sermon on the Mount, by Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1598.
Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Jesus is teaching, but are we listening?
Matthew 5:17-20, Luke 16:16-17, Jesus on the Law (3/26/18)

Jesus had the highest esteem for the Law of Moses (usually just called "the Law"). He said that he came to fulfill the Law, not to abolish it. He said that every tiny portion of the Law will last, if not forever, at least longer than earth and heaven.

Even the most casual observer of Christianity or modern Judaism, however, notices that many of the Laws laid down by God in the Old Testament are no longer observed. Why not? This study will examine which laws are no longer in effect for Jews or Christians for one reason or another, and which of the Old Testament laws apply to Christians because they are reaffirmed (or not negated) by the New Testament.

Matthew 23:1-3, 23-28, Jesus on the Law (3/27/18)

Even though Jesus had great esteem for the Law itself Ė or maybe because he did! Ė he wasnít too impressed with the way it was followed in 1st-century Judea. Youíve heard the saying, "Donít do as I do, do as I say!" Jesus says that his listeners should apply that maxim to the teaching of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. They were experts on the Law; do as they say. They didnít follow it themselves; donít do as they do. Jesus was particularly concerned about the Phariseesí tendency to follow some nit-picky detail of the Law while completely missing the point of why the detail was there.

Have I mentioned lately that you need to read the Bible for yourself, and not take my word for anything? I donít want to be a blind guide like the Pharisees and teachers of the Law!

Matthew 22:23-40, John 10:32-38, expertise of Jesus in details of the Law (3/28/18)

Naturally the "experts" on the Law were unhappy when Jesus criticized them. Their favorite method of counter-attack was the trick question. They tried to come up with questions whose answers would damage Jesusí reputation, no matter what he said. For example, "Which husband will she be married to in heaven?" No matter which brother he chose, many people would think he was wrong. "Which is the most important Law?" There are more than 600, so no matter which one he chose, many people would think he was wrong.

The problem that the experts had was that Jesus knew the Law better than they did, in the letter, in the spirit, and in the related cases. For every trick question, Jesus had an answer that made them look foolish, not himself.

Deuteronomy 22:23-24, John 8:2-11, more expertise of Jesus on the Law (3/29/18)

You all know the story of the woman caught in the very act of adultery. Doesnít it seem to you that there must have been a man there? Why didnít the Pharisee and teachers of the Law bring him to Jesus as well? Under the Law of Moses, both parties should be stoned, not just the woman.

We donít know what Jesus "wrote on the ground." The Greek word used is very rare, but it may mean "draw pictures." Jesus might have just doodling, giving the womanís accusers some time to think about what they were doing. The form of the word could also mean "write against," so maybe Jesus was writing a list of sins that they might have committed (vss. 7-8). My favorite idea (because I thought it up) is that he was writing out the Law, Deuteronomy 22:23-24, so that they could see that they were in the wrong to bring only the woman for judgment.

Luke 10:25-37, "What is written in the Law?" (3/30/18)

I read in a commentary that the rabbis routinely debated fine points of the Law and that often we see Jesus engaged in these debates. When an expert asks him, "What must I do to have eternal life?" Jesus says, "Well, what do you think about it? What does the Law say?" What was probably meant as a trick question turns into a discussion of the very heart of the Law, the relationship between Law and salvation, and how to apply the Law in life.

Take a good look at vs. 29. I said the other day that Maimonides codified the Law of Moses into 613 commandments. Over the 1300 years or so between Moses and Jesus, many additional written regulations, called the Talmud, had been developed, and some sects of Jews also had a rich oral tradition of regulations. So the Law is, "Love your neighbor as yourself." In the best traditions of rabbinical debate, the lawyer asks, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus tells him, the person you see who needs help that you can give is your neighbor.

Numbers 6:1-21, Nazirites (4/2/18)

When fellow-reader Deanna R. suggested a study of the Law and when or whether the laws apply today, one of the first things I thought of was the Law for Nazirites. Nazirites are almost a people within a people: the Jews were to be separate and holy to God, and the Nazirites were to be even more separate and more holy. I always assumed (never assume!) that the reason we have no Nazirites today is that we have written scripture, and we no longer need to be reminded of the necessity for holiness by seeing Nazirites.

Silly me! The Law for Nazirites is still on the books, and either Jews or Christians could take the vow of the Nazirite. However, take a careful look at vss. 13-14. The Temple of the Jews was razed by the Romans in the year 70. You can no longer go there, and you can no longer make a sacrifice there. That means that if you take the Nazirite vow Ė which you are free to do Ė you are a Nazirite for life. Rabbi David Cohen (1887-1972) took a Nazirite vow around 1914; he was a much holier person than I am. The rabbi at Ask the Rabbi doesnít know of any Nazirites in our generation, although I suppose if you or I were to take such a vow, probably no one outside our own churches would know. I suspect that most rabbis and pastors would recommend against taking such a vow today.

Judges 13:1-25, Birth of Samson (4/3/18)

Samson is undoubtedly the most famous Nazirite of all time; unfortunately, he was a bad Nazirite. He was dedicated as a Nazirite to God from the womb (as were the prophet Samuel and John the Baptist). He touched dead bodies (Judges 14:8-9, 15:15) and people died near him (usually because he killed them), and he didnít shave his head and renew his vow (Judges 16:17). Although the Bible doesnít say he drank, he did throw at least one big party (Judges 14:10), and itís hard for me to imagine Samson and self-control at the same party. But the main thing to notice here that that you can take the vow, or your parents can take it on your behalf before you are born.

Judges 16:14-30, A vow broken and restored (4/4/18)

I can never read the story of Samson without shaking my head. I say, "Samson, how could you be so stupid??" But then the next time I read it, he still tells Delilah how to weaken him after she has tried to trick him on three previous occasions. Even though he didnít have his head shaved on purpose, he is no longer a Nazirite, not even a bad one. The strength he was given on condition that he stayed a Nazirite (Judges 13:3-5) fails him, and he is captured. His humiliation at the hands of the Philistines finally brings him to his senses. His hair regrows, but more importantly, he turns to God for strength (vs. 28). Samson dies as a true Nazirite.

Quick! What is the number of the Laws of Moses? When I mentioned this in Sunday School, the number I got was "six hundred mumble-mumble." It sounded like "mumble-mumble" because everybody was giving a different number, and thatís right ! There is no agreement on the number! Who knew? Iím using the 613 Laws as presented by the great medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides. (Of course we arenít going to look at each one individually.)

Luke 1:5-17, Acts 18:18, John and Paul (4/5/18)

Maimonides has 10 commandments about Nazirites, all drawn from the passage in Numbers that we read on Monday. The reason I mention this is that I can see where these all come from, but for many of the commandments, the relationship between the Law of Moses and the commandments presented by Maimonides is less clear. Iím not saying heís wrong, just that I often donít get it. For example, thereís only one sentence in the Law about meat and milk, but Maimonides has two laws, neither of which is the same as Mosesí. By the time you get to modern Orthodox Jews, there are totally separate dishwashers, flatware, dishes, and stoves for meat and milk. Iím still not saying theyíre wrong, just reminding you that Gentile Christians donít have prayer of figuring out what the rules are. Weíll come back to this point later.

There is widespread, although not complete, agreement that John the Baptist was a Nazirite from the womb, just like Samson. The difference is that John didnít go around breaking his vows all the time. Paul apparently took a Nazirite vow for a limited period of time, which was the usual procedure. The Nazirite vow is the only one I can find that involves shaving the head at the end, which is what makes people think this was the vow he made. It is a little odd that he shaved at Cenchreae and not at Jerusalem, where he would have had to make the sacrifice to finish the vow.

Acts 21:17-29, more Christian Nazirites (4/6/18)

After considerable discussion (Acts 15), the Jewish Christians Ė under the leadership of James Ė decided that the Gentile converts did not have to follow the entire Law of Moses, on two grounds: (a) the Law hadnít saved them, Jesus had (Acts 15:11), and (b) it was too complicated for the Gentiles to understand (Acts 15:10, 19). They were given four simple rules that cut to the heart of the Law (Acts 15:20).

In spite of Jamesís decision and the letter that was sent to the Gentiles, some of the Jewish Christians criticized Paul for not following the Law. The Church leadership suggested that he demonstrate his own commitment to the Law. From the shaved heads and offerings, we deduce that the men whose expenses where paid by Paul were Christian Nazirites (Numbers 6:1-21).

Leviticus 11:1-19, unclean animals, a sample (4/9/18)

Everybody who knows anything about Judaism knows that Jews arenít supposed to eat pork. Actually, the dietary commandments in the Law of Moses are much more complicated than that. Maimonides simplified the dietary commandments quite a bit more than he did the ones about Nazirites. If he had done them in the same detail, there probably would have been 613 commandments on diet alone! He summarized them in 33 commandments. Weíre going to read parts of what God told Moses about what can be eaten and what canít.

For starters, Jews arenít supposed to eat any unclean animal, and the list of unclean animals is very long Ė longer than we are reading today. The thing is, most of them are animals we wouldnít want to eat anyway, like bats, so we just donít notice that Jews arenít supposed to eat them. Dietary laws are still in effect for Jews, although they are observed to a greater or lesser extent among modern Jewish denominations.

Genesis 9:1-6; Leviticus 3:17, 7:26, 17:10-14; Deuteronomy 12:16, 12:23, blood (4/10/18)

Aside from not eating unclean animals, the Lawís major dietary concern seems (to me) to be not eating blood. The life of an animal (or person) is in the blood (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 17:11, 14; Deuteronomy 12:23), and it belongs to God (Genesis 9:5-6, Leviticus 17:11-12). This law is still on the books and applies to all of humanity, not just the Jews, because the commandment was given to Noah, many centuries before the time of Moses.

As a practical matter, Jews have developed certain means of slaughter of animals that ensure rapid and complete draining of the blood from the body. Any meat purchased from a kosher butcher will have been treated in this way. There are also means of treating the meat of animals whose means of slaughter is unknown or suspect, but since this isnít a cookbook, Iíll skip them. Again, this law is observed to a greater or lesser extent among modern Jews. A quick perusal of "blood recipes" on the web, however, turned up only blood sausage, which seems to be the same as black pudding. Both call for pigís blood, so this is not only a no for all of us, but a no-no for Jews.

Exodus 23:19, 34:26, milk and meat (4/11/18)

Only two identical verses in the Law talk about separation of meat and milk, and they are pretty specific. Maimonides generalized to "Not to cook meat and milk together." Modern Orthodox Jews (and many Reform and Conservative Jews) have implemented this commandment by using totally separate dishes, cookware, cutlery, ovens, and dishwashers. They want to be certain, and being certain that you are obeying Godís Law isnít necessarily a bad thing. Knowing what the Law actually says probably isnít a bad thing, either.

Exodus 21:28, 22:31; Leviticus 22:27-30; Deuteronomy 12:21-23, 14:21, improperly slaughtered animals (4/12/18)

Remember when I said that there is a set of instructions for the proper slaughter of animals? (Itís not in the Bible, but itís based on the biblical commandment not to eat blood.) It may be (it seems to me) that the commandments not to eat animals that have stoned, killed by wild animals, or died naturally are related to not eating blood: those animals will not have been properly drained of blood when they died. That doesnít explain not killing a female and her young in the same day, though.

Leviticus 19:23, 23:14, Deuteronomy 22:9, plants (4/13/18)

Not all dietary laws are about meat. Some are about plants or plant products.

Acts 15:1-29, Dietary Laws (4/16/18)

We have seen that the Law is complicated when it comes to what Jews may and may not eat. Maimonides summarized the Law into 33 commandments. Do you remember that we read a long list of unclean animals, and that it was only part of the list in the Law? Maimonides' commandments about that are basically "learn how to recognize unclean animals" and "donít eat them." Then you have the oral tradition, which adds a protective layer on top of the Law to make sure that people donít violate the Law even by accident. (By the way, U.S. laws and regulations work exactly the same way.) So we Gentile Christians donít have much hope of understanding it.

The early Church recognized this problem around the year 60. After much discussion, they came to two conclusions. First, the burden of the whole Law was so great that even the Jews werenít completely successful in bearing it. Second, it is faith in Jesus that saves both the Jews who were discussing the problem and the Gentiles. Except for three special cases, they decided that the dietary laws could be repealed for Gentile Christians. Many Jews, many Messianic Jews, and a very small percentage of (Gentile) Christians continue to keep the dietary Law in whole or in part. Strictly speaking, the Law is still on the books for Jews and for Messianic Jews who started out Jewish. Gentile Christians who keep the Law are doing so voluntarily.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13, a sample of Dietary Laws (4/17/18)

Iím really allergic to pork, so much so that Iím a lot more cautious about eating pork products than most American Jews. But hereís what I want to talk about: when Iím eating with friends, they are very cautious about serving anything that might contain pork products. They make my allergy into their dietary restriction.

Paul says that we should do the same type of thing for people who are newer or weaker in the faith than we are. Paul knows that idols are nothing (vss. 4-5); and there isnít really anything wrong with eating meat sacrificed to nothing (vss. 8, 10). However, while we are eating with someone who doesnít know that Ė they have an "allergy" that breaks out as a weak conscience Ė we need to make their weak conscience into our own dietary restriction (vss. 9, 12).

P.S. Itís not just about the meat. This principle applies to everything we do.

Mark 7:1-23, a sample of Dietary Laws (4/18/18)

We saw that the Law of Moses declares some plants and animals "clean" and others "unclean." "Clean" foods may be eaten, or sometimes used as offerings, and "unclean" foods canít. Read this whole passage, and then reread vss. 18-19 carefully. Most scholars agree that "By saying this, Jesus meant that all foods were fit to eat" Ė "clean" in most translations Ė is a "gloss." Somebody, either Mark or a scribe, added a clarification of what Jesus said. The gloss is certainly scripture. It is possible that Jesus repealed the dietary laws for everyone, by saying that all foods are clean. Itís certain that he meant that clean foods are no use to people with unclean hearts and minds.

More on the Law
Jesus on the Law, Nazirites, Dietary Law
Signs & Symbols, Civil Law, and Mixtures
Times and Seasons
Sacrifices and Offerings, Priests, and Firstborn
The Ten Commandments, 1 - 3
The Ten Commandments, 4 - 10
The Greatest Commandments

Copyright 2021 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved. This page has been prepared for the web site by RPB.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

Our Sponsors:

St. John's United Methodist Church, "Transforming Lives Through Christ."
2626 Arizona NE, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87110

St. John's Music Ministries now has a YouTube channel, bringing you free concerts and choral music. Check it out!

Traditional worship services are held Sundays at 8:15 and 11:00 a.m. in the sanctuary.  Casual worship services are held Sundays at 9:30 a.m. in the Family Life Center.  Jazz Vespers are held monthly on the second Saturday at 5:00 p.m. in the sanctuary. St. John's feels especially called to the worship of God and to the service of our neighbors through our music program.

Storm Dragon SoftwareTM

Ducks in a Row, Inc.

This website is supported in part by the generosity of Mrs. J. Jordan.