I have been asked to elaborate a bit on my understanding of the connection between the ‘ceremonial’ aspects of the Law and death and sin. Rather than merely doing so in the comments of the post that led to the question, I thought that I would write a new post to deal with the matter. In much of the following I am deeply indebted to the insights of James Jordan. Rather than referring you to his work at each stage I will just state that most of the good material that you are about to read is James Jordan’s; the dross is mine.
One of the greatest problems with contemporary biblical scholarship is the manner in which the distinction between the OT and the NT has become reified. Rather than merely treating the OT/NT distinction as a division that is largely just one of convenience, we tend to split the Bible into two entities — the OT and the NT. As a result of this split we have OT scholars and NT scholars, whose disciplines are, all too often, hermetically sealed off from each other. Even those of us who find this unhelpful find it hard not to fall into the error, as you can see from my post categories! NT scholars often have little more than a nodding acquaintance with the OT; OT scholars are unwilling to allow their discipline to be polluted by insights that come from the realm of NT scholarship.
Once this division has been created there are many questions that will not be tackled by either party, as they fall between the two disciplines and demand a degree of dialogue between the OT and NT that seems impossible within the current academic climate. One of the consequences of the split between the OT and the NT is that questions such as the one that is being treated in this post are seldom adequately treated.
The degree to which many Christians feel alienated from the OT was brought back home to me last night at a link group meeting in my hall. We were supposed to be studying the book of Nehemiah and someone remarked that they found it very hard to understand or get anything at all out of the OT. There seemed to be general agreement on the matter. A number admitted that they never really read the OT, but stuck to the NT. The OT felt alien and strange to them. When they did read the OT they read it to find parallels with their personal situation, rather than as an earlier part of an ongoing story in which we now find ourselves.
It’s not surprising that Christians find the OT difficult. In the world in which we live we do not expect God’s revelation to be concerned with recounting genealogies, instructing people regarding the correct placing of entrails upon altars, what to do in the case of certain bodily emissions, the proper construction of a holy tent, the correct ordering of furniture within it and the like. We expect our religious (or ‘spiritual’) literature to come in such familiar forms as the pithy philosophical insights of Zen aphorisms, the inspiring biographies of spiritual masters or the self-help material that infests so many of the shelves in popular bookstores. The OT doesn’t fit in any of these categories (the NT doesn’t fit either, but this is not so immediately apparent).
A few years ago, I tore out the page that separates the OT from the NT — the ‘dividing wall’ that prevents the Bible from being treated as one in Christ. One of the things that inspired me in this action was the realization that Paul was an OT scholar extraordinaire (leaving aside the manner in which the gospels are rooted in the OT for the time being). If Paul talks about the role of the Law as that of gathering sin together in Israel we really will not fully understand what Paul is getting at until we see this being worked out in the OT text. Paul is presenting us with a particular way of reading the OT. The point of this is that we should go back and read the OT and make sense of what is going on. Paul’s goal is not to do our work in this area for us. If I read commentary on Plato, for example, I should be able to show how the commentary makes sense of Plato himself. If I can’t then I haven’t understood the commentary. Reading commentators doesn’t do away with the need to read Plato himself. In the same way, Paul must be read as a commentator on the OT. To the degree that the OT remains opaque to us, we have not understood Paul, because Paul’s purpose is to make the direction of the OT narrative plain to us.
The OT and Paul must be read in dialogue if we are to understand either one of them as we ought to. Just as a computer can go no faster than its slowest component, so a poor understanding of the OT will limit our Pauline scholarship. In many ways, some of the greatest advances in Pauline scholarship in recent decades have come as a result of reading Paul in dialogue with the OT. Richard Hays’ works Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul and The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1—4:11 and N.T. Wright’s reading of concepts such as the righteousness of God in the light of the OT are merely a few examples. If we are to understand Paul we must be ‘whole Bible Christians’. This leads me into the issue of Paul’s understanding of the role of the Law in the OT.
Many understand the relationship between the Law and sin and death as one that is formed as God gave His perfect moral commandments to the people. These commandments were intended to teach people that their works will never be good enough to earn salvation. As they tried to obey the perfect moral requirements they would always fall short. As a result they would come to an awareness of their sin.
There is certainly an important element of truth to this understanding (cf. Romans 7:7). Nonetheless, the revelation of sin was never the primary purpose of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments was the document that God gave to Israel as He liberated them to live in His presence. The Ten Commandments were primarily intended to teach people how to live in God’s presence. Unfortunately, Sin starts to grow in power as it comes into the presence of God. Outside of the presence of God Sin is like a slumbering dragon. When God comes close Sin awakes and starts to rebel. Those who are brought into the presence of God will find that their struggle with Sin becomes more and more intense. This is one of the ways in which God’s Law increases the power of Sin.
The Ten Commandments were not the primary means by which God would teach Israel that they were dead in Sin. The primary means by which death and sin were revealed for what they were was the ceremonial Law. The ceremonial Law was designed to intensify Israel’s awareness of Sin and Death. This happened in a number of ways. One example is seen in Israel’s need to kill animals to blood-cover its sin. Without the killing of animals, Israel could not enter into God’s presence without being destroyed itself. The blood of animals was a powerful disinfectant and covered the pollution of sin. However, animal sacrifices and blood-purifications had to be continually repeated because they could never take away sin, they could only cover it for a time. Sin would soon build up again and need more disinfectant.
Outside of the land of Israel the need for purification was not so pressing. When they dwelt outside of the presence of God in the land Israelites were free to be uncircumcised and didn’t need to make the same sacrifices and have the same purifications as they did when they were in God’s presence. The children of Israel went uncircumcised in the wilderness; they only needed to become circumcised when they were about to enter into the land.
The Law served to separate Israel from the other nations. It gave Israel a distinct priestly status. Israel wasn’t given priestly status for its own sake, but for the sake of the whole world. Israel was supposed to minister to the nations. For Israel to treat its special priestly status as something that made them better than all of the other nations and that justified them ignoring the other nations would be similar to the priests of Israel refusing to have any dealings with average Israelites and starting their own priests’ club all for themselves. Israel certainly needed to be separate from the nations to some degree — as the priests of Israel had to be separate from certain activities that normal Israelites were free to engage in — but they were always separate from the nations for the sake of the nations.
Israel had to observe special purity requirements. They had to separate themselves from certain foods, for examples. This was not because the foods were inherently impure, or something of that kind. Rather the dietary requirements were intended to teach Israel right distinctions. They were only permitted to eat ruminant hoof-cleavers. There are a number of reasons for this. Perhaps the chief thing is that the animals must have safe contact with the earth and must eat in a clean manner. The cherubim around God’s altar have cloven feet (Ezekiel 1:7) and so animals with cloven hooves are seen to be holy. Furthermore, any animal treading on the cursed and unclean earth must have the proper shoes or else they would become unclean. Only when one was brought onto holy ground was one free to take off one’s shoes.
The animals also had to be killed by an image-bearer of God and not have died of natural causes. They had to have the blood separated from the flesh. The blood of animals could not give life. Whilst pagan religions might have sought to gain life by feeding on animals with blood, Israel only fed on dead things. God Himself had an even more limited diet. Whilst Israelites were permitted to eat fish, God did not have fish on His table.
For Israelites to have access into God’s presence they had to have had flesh cut off in circumcision. This was a sign of the death of the flesh and its impotence to bring forth life. The human body is an unrivalled uncleanness machine. Even when pure things go in, unclean things consistently come out. It is the human being that pollutes the world, not vice versa. Bodily emissions, childbirth, faeces, sinful actions: all come out from the body and all make unclean. The members of the body always bring the body into death (the meaning of Romans 7 is quite a lot clearer when one recognizes this OT background). Ultimately it is never what goes in, but always what comes out that renders impure. There would not have been unclean animals had Adam not brought the earth under the curse in the first place. The unclean things in the world are merely the product of the overflow of the sewer of the human being.
As the priests of humanity, Israel had to observe all sorts of purity regulations if they were to be able to have access to God’s presence without being destroyed. All of the ceremonial requirements of the Law were protective boundaries designed to protect Israel from God’s anger at their uncleanness.
The Law created boundaries around Israel to prevent them from becoming unclean through contact with polluted things. The Law served as a quarantine, isolating people from each other to prevent the further spread of infection. Jews were kept at a distance from Gentiles; Israel’s priests were kept at a distance from certain things that the average Israelite was free to do; the High Priest lived in a state of even further isolation.
When people came into the presence of God they had to deal with the death of their flesh and its uncleanness. Animals were killed as substitutes and their blood was used as disinfectant. To enter into God’s presence it was as if one had to pass through a decontamination chamber and be sprayed with the strongest disinfectant available. If you were to interact with anything holy you had to put on rubber gloves and wear a mask.
If you have such regulations you should have a really heightened sense of the death and uncleanness of your flesh. The ceremonial Law was designed to teach Israel that absolutely nothing good dwelt in its flesh (cf. Romans 7:18) and make its death all the more obvious. Of course, the fact that Sin’s activity was heightened by the proximity of God kicked the workings of death in the flesh of Israel into overdrive.
The Jews, however, began to misuse the Law. The Law became a mark of nationalist pride, rather than national service. Rather than seeing the quarantine and disinfectant regulations and other guards against infection provided by the Law as necessary only because they were so unclean and sinful, they began to believe that the Law set them apart as a cut above all the other nations, when in fact the workings of Sin were more pronounced in Israel than anywhere else. They began to multiply the ceremonial separations of the Law, erecting further boundaries between themselves and Gentiles and abstaining from certain activities. Ironically, by so doing they merely succeeded in proclaiming their own death and the hopeless condition of their flesh all the louder.
The works of the Law that Paul talks about in Romans and Galatians are the quarantine and disinfectant regulations of the Torah. They are the things that kept Israel separated from the other nations. Paul’s point is that these regulations are no longer necessary. To continue to employ such quarantine regulations within the Church, isolating Jews from Gentiles, is to deny that the problem of the flesh has finally and decisively been dealt with.
The blood of animals could never remove sins; it could only act as a temporary disinfectant. However, the death of Christ deals with death and sin at their very root, cleansing the conscience. Christian Baptism does not merely temporarily cover the uncleanness of the flesh, but cleanses the person at the core of his being (Hebrews 10:19-22; 1 Peter 3:21). We do not have to continually be rebaptized to wash away new pollutions. The death of Christ, which is applied in Baptism, is decisive and final, not needing any repetition.
The Judaizers in Antioch, Galatia and elsewhere were seeking to continue the practice of circumcision and other works of the Law that separated Israel from the nations. By so doing they attacked the Gospel at its very heart. They were acting as if the problems of Sin and the flesh were still unresolved. If you continue to argue that the cutting off of the flesh in circumcision is necessary for full access into God’s presence, you undermine the truth that the old age of flesh has finally been cut off in the death of Christ. Christians don’t need to circumcise their flesh because their flesh has been crucified (Galatians 5:24) by the circumcision of Christ (Colossians 2:11-12). The flesh problem has been solved once and for all by the death of Christ.
The Law is all about death. It wishes to bring life, but it cannot do so in a fleshly order. The Law can only bring life when it is empowered by the Spirit. Now that the age of the flesh has been dealt with by the death of Christ the Law is free to achieve its glorious purpose in the age of the Spirit (Romans 8:1-4).
True faith is always resurrection faith. Faith always looks beyond the present reality of death to the promise of resurrection. This is what we see in Romans 4:16-22 — Abraham’s faith was resurrection faith, faith in the God who brings life from the dead. In the old covenant people were saved by such resurrection faith alone. The works of the Law could not save anyone. The story of Hebrews 11 is the story of the working of this resurrection faith throughout the OT. This resurrection faith, however, was still awaiting the decisive overthrow of death.
Christ’s faith was resurrection faith and in His resurrection we see the great and decisive victory over Death. His eyes were fixed on a joy set before Him that enabled Him to endure the cross (Hebrews 12:2), looking to the One who would save Him from death (Hebrews 5:7). He is the Initiator and Perfecter of the whole story of Faith that we see in Hebrews 11. His faith completes in Hebrews 12:1-2 completes all that has preceded it. In Christ Faith has come (Galatians 3:23-25). We are saved by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, in which we share by the Spirit, whom He has given to us.
To look to the quarantine regulations of the Law to set us to rights is futile. Only the faithfulness of Jesus Christ is able to deal with our Sin and only His resurrection can bring us into new life. This is essentially how I read Paul. The great contrast that he draws is between works of the Law and the faithfulness of Jesus Christ (not ‘faith in Jesus Christ’) as the means of setting us to rights. Our faith grows out of Christ’s own faithfulness. Whereas unbelieving humanity unravels (as we see in Romans 1), the new humanity of faith is brought from glory to glory and finds life coming from the dead.