Word Study #37 — The Law (Part 1 – in the Gospels)

Ever since the first Council of the first century Christian church (Acts 15), faithful followers of Jesus have differed in their attitudes toward “the Law”. Some of them point to “verses” by which they demand adherence to the entire Old Testament system, and others resist any standard of conduct whatsoever. There is also a broad spectrum in between those positions. Can we find any coherent pattern in the New Testament? Possibly not; but careful examination can yield helpful principles.

“Law” – nomos – was used, classically, both of established civil or religious codes, and the habitual custom of a group. Aristotle used it of his natural observations, and several centuries earlier, Alcman had applied it to the music used to accompany recitations of epic texts. (L/S)*
Bauer* notes that early writers applied the term to instructions purportedly received from Zeus, Hermes, or Apollo; and therefore the word was naturally adopted in the LXX to refer to the principles codified by Moses. “Since the law and its observance are the central point of Jewish piety, the word became synonymous with their religion.” Actually, the LXX mixed nomos with logos and onoma almost at random (L/S)*, but this does not occur in New Testament writings.
Thayer* adds that over time, nomos was expanded to include the prophets, and all of the “sacred literature”, since the Jews did not distinguish between civil, moral, and ceremonial requirements.
(*See the Bibliography in Translation Notes for reference to these lexicons.)

Out of 195 occurrences of nomos in the New Testament, only 50 are in the Gospels. Only Luke (2:23,24, 39) adds the phrase “of the Lord”, and this appears only in his narrative of Jesus being taken to the temple as a baby. Elsewhere in the same passage, he refers to “the law of Moses” (2:22), or simply “the law” (2:27).
The Pharisees, opposing Jesus, refer to “our law” (Jn.19:7), as does Nicodemus advocating for his fair treatment (Jn.7:51).
Pilate challenges the mob to deal with Jesus “according to your law” (Jn.18:31), to which they respond, “we have a law…”. They also used it as a tool to crush those whom they presumed to dominate (Jn.7:49) “This crowd, that’s not acquainted with the law – they are cursed!”

BUT – let’s get to our perennial question: WHAT DID JESUS SAY? And the answer is, “not very much”, but what he did say was hugely significant. For starters, he never called it “the law of God.”
Five times (Lk.24:44, Jn.1:45, 7:19, 7:23, 8:5) Jesus refers to “the law of Moses,” while John himself comments in his introduction, (1:17) “The law was given through Moses, but graciousness and truth (came into being) through Jesus Christ.”
Addressing his opponents, Jesus pointedly refers to “your law” (Jn.8:17, 10:34); and speaking to the disciples (15:25) he calls it “their law.” Elsewhere, he uses no possessive at all, and says simply “the law.”

As he lays out the “constitution” of his Kingdom, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says plainly (Mt.5:17), “Don’t conclude that I came to destroy the law and the prophets. I did not come to destroy, but to fulfill [make complete]!” He then devotes a large section of that sermon to correcting prevalent misconceptions about the Law. Similar corrections are recorded scattered through Mark’s and Luke’s accounts. Jesus summarizes the true intent of the law (Mt.7:12, 22:36, 22:40, 23:23), as love toward God and one’s neighbor, or turns a questioner to its principles (Lk.10:26, Mt.12:5). The same positive idea appears in Mt.19:16 and parallels in Mk.10:17 and Lk.18:18, but without the word “law.”

There are, however, two strong statements that are consistently overlooked by folks who adhere to a “flat book” interpretation of Biblical authority (assuming equal force and authority between the Old and New Testaments). Both Matthew (11:13)and Luke (16:16) record Jesus’ announcement of a very basic “change of government.” The accounts are worded slightly differently, but the message is clear. “The law and the prophets were (in effect) until John (the Baptist). Since then, the Kingdom of God is being proclaimed!” Things are different now!

Luke follows that declaration by a partial quote, which Matthew recorded elsewhere in more detail (5:18): “Until heaven and earth are done away with [pass away], one iota or accent mark will not be removed from the law, until it all happens [is completed]!” Matthew connects this with v.17, where Jesus declared his purpose to fulfill the law. (Please see the discussion of pleroo and teleioo in word study #13.)
Remember that enroute to Jerusalem (Lk.18:31, 22:37) Jesus had told his disciples everything that was about to happen, “so that everything written … about the Son of Man will be completed [fulfilled]”. Remember also that he had just spent three years sorting out for them which parts of “everything written” were actually “about him”! His “list” differed sharply from that of the powerful religious leaders — and many of the “lists” currently in vogue today.

In John’s account of the crucifixion (remember, he is the only one of the gospel writers who says that he was personally present), he records (19:28) that Jesus “knew that everything had been completed…” and (19:30) surrendered his life with the words, “It has been completed!” – a shout of triumph, not a whimper of defeat! This is a perfect tense (see appendix to the Notes). Luke reserves that conclusion until after the resurrection (24:44) “This is what I told you!”

As we turn in the next post, to consider the “law” in the early church (Acts) and the epistles, please remember that with Jesus’ death and resurrection, a monumental transition has occurred.
“Everything has been completed!” The new Kingdom has been established!

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