The Law of the Christ
“I am . . . under law toward Christ.”—1 CORINTHIANS 9:21.
1, 2. (a) How might many of mankind’s mistakes have been prevented? (b) What did Christendom fail to learn from the history of Judaism?
“PEOPLES and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” So said a 19th-century German philosopher. Indeed, the course of human history has been described as a “march of folly,” a series of ghastly blunders and crises, many of which could have been prevented if mankind had only been willing to learn from past mistakes.
2 The same refusal to learn from past mistakes figures in this discussion of divine law. Jehovah God replaced the Mosaic Law with an even better one—the law of the Christ. Yet, the leaders of Christendom, who claim to teach and live by this law, have failed to learn from the terrible folly of the Pharisees. So Christendom has twisted and abused the law of the Christ just as Judaism did the Law of Moses. How could that be? First, let us discuss this law itself—what it is, whom it governs and how, and what differentiates it from the Mosaic Law. Then we will examine how Christendom has abused it. May we thus learn from history and benefit from it!
The New Covenant
3. What promise did Jehovah make regarding a new covenant?
3 Who but Jehovah God could improve upon a perfect Law? The Mosaic Law covenant was perfect. (Psalm 19:7) In spite of that, Jehovah promised: “Look! There are days coming, . . . and I will conclude with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah a new covenant; not one like the covenant that I concluded with their forefathers.” The Ten Commandments—the nucleus of the Mosaic Law—were written on stone tablets. But of the new covenant, Jehovah said: “I will put my law within them, and in their heart I shall write it.”—Jeremiah 31:31-34.
4. (a) Which Israel is involved in the new covenant? (b) Who else besides spiritual Israelites are under the law of the Christ?
4 Who would be taken into this new covenant? Certainly not the literal “house of Israel,” who rejected the Mediator of this covenant. (Hebrews 9:15) No, this new “Israel” would be the “Israel of God,” a nation of spiritual Israelites. (Galatians 6:16; Romans 2:28, 29) This small, spirit-anointed group of Christians would later be joined by “a great crowd” from all nations who would also seek to worship Jehovah. (Revelation 7:9, 10; Zechariah 8:23) While not party to the new covenant, these too would be bound by law. (Compare Leviticus 24:22; Numbers 15:15.) As “one flock” under “one shepherd,” all would be “under law toward Christ,” as the apostle Paul wrote. (John 10:16; 1 Corinthians 9:21) Paul called this new covenant a “better covenant.” Why? For one thing, it is based on promises fulfilled rather than on shadows of things to come.—Hebrews 8:6; 9:11-14.
5. What is the purpose of the new covenant, and why will it succeed?
5 What is the purpose of this covenant? It is to produce a nation of kings and priests to bless all mankind. (Exodus 19:6; 1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 5:10) The Mosaic Law covenant never produced this nation in the fullest sense, for Israel as a whole rebelled and lost out on their opportunity. (Compare Romans 11:17-21.) The new covenant, however, is certain to succeed, for it is associated with a very different type of law. Different in what ways?
The Law Belonging to Freedom
6, 7. How does the law of the Christ offer greater freedom than did the Mosaic Law?
6 The law of the Christ is repeatedly associated with freedom. (John 8:31, 32) It is referred to as “the law of a free people” and “the perfect law that belongs to freedom.” (James 1:25; 2:12) Of course, all freedom among humans is relative. Still, this law offers far greater freedom than its predecessor, the Mosaic Law. How so?
7 For one thing, no one is born under the law of the Christ. Such factors as race and place of birth are irrelevant. True Christians freely choose in their hearts to accept the yoke of obedience to this law. In so doing, they find that it is a kindly yoke, a light load. (Matthew 11:28-30) After all, the Mosaic Law was also designed to teach man that he is sinful and in dire need of a ransom sacrifice to redeem him. (Galatians 3:19) The law of the Christ teaches that the Messiah has come, paid the ransom price with his life, and opened the way for us to be freed from the terrible oppression of sin and death! (Romans 5:20, 21) In order to benefit, we need to ‘exercise faith’ in that sacrifice.—John 3:16.
8. What does the law of the Christ include, but why does living by it not require the memorizing of hundreds of legal statutes?
8 “Exercising faith” involves living by the law of the Christ. That includes obeying all of Christ’s commands. Does this mean committing to memory hundreds of laws and statutes? No. While Moses, the mediator of the old covenant, wrote down the Mosaic Law, Jesus, the Mediator of the new covenant, never wrote down a single law. Instead, he lived this law. By means of his perfect life course, he laid down a pattern for all to follow. (1 Peter 2:21) Perhaps that is why the early Christians’ worship was referred to as “The Way.” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:22) To them, the law of the Christ was exemplified in the life of the Christ. To imitate Jesus was to obey this law. Their intense love of him meant that this law was indeed written on their hearts, as prophesied. (Jeremiah 31:33; 1 Peter 4:8) And one who is obedient because of love never feels oppressed—another reason why the law of the Christ may be called “the law of a free people.”
9. What is the very essence of the law of the Christ, and in what way does this law involve a new command?
9 If love was important in the Mosaic Law, it is the very essence of Christian law. The law of the Christ thus includes a new command—Christians are to have self-sacrificing love for one another. They are to love as Jesus did; he willingly laid down his life in behalf of his friends. (John 13:34, 35; 15:13) So it might be said that the law of the Christ is an even loftier expression of theocracy than the Law of Moses was. As this journal has previously pointed out: “Theocracy is rule by God; God is love; therefore theocracy is rule by love.”
Jesus and the Pharisees
10. How did Jesus’ teaching contrast with that of the Pharisees?
10 It is hardly surprising, then, that Jesus came into conflict with the Jewish religious leaders of his day. A “perfect law that belongs to freedom” was as far from the minds of the scribes and the Pharisees as anything could be. They tried to control the people through man-made regulations. Their teaching became oppressive, condemnatory, negative. In stark contrast, Jesus’ teaching was overwhelmingly upbuilding and positive! He was practical and addressed the real needs and concerns of the people. He taught simply and with genuine feeling, using illustrations from everyday life and drawing from the authority of God’s Word. Thus, “the crowds were astounded at his way of teaching.” (Matthew 7:28) Yes, Jesus’ teaching reached their hearts!
11. How did Jesus demonstrate that the Mosaic Law should have been applied with reasonableness and mercy?
11 Rather than adding more regulations to the Mosaic Law, Jesus showed how the Jews should have been applying that Law all along—with reasonableness and mercy. Recall, for example, the occasion when he was approached by a woman afflicted with a flow of blood. According to the Mosaic Law, anyone she touched would become unclean, so she was certainly not supposed to mix with a crowd of people! (Leviticus 15:25-27) But she was so desperate to be healed that she made her way through the crowd and touched Jesus’ outer garment. The bleeding stopped immediately. Did he rebuke her for violating the Law? No; instead, he understood her desperate circumstance and demonstrated the Law’s greatest precept—love. Empathetically he told her: “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be in good health from your grievous sickness.”—Mark 5:25-34.
Is the Law of the Christ Permissive?
12. (a) Why should we not assume that Christ is permissive? (b) What shows that the creating of many laws leads to the creating of many loopholes?
12 Should we conclude, then, that because the law of the Christ “belongs to freedom,” it is permissive, whereas the Pharisees, with all their oral traditions, at least kept the conduct of people within strict bounds? No. Legal systems today illustrate that often the more laws there are, the more loopholes people find in them.* In Jesus’ day the multiplicity of Pharisaic rules encouraged the seeking of loopholes, the perfunctory performance of works devoid of love, and the cultivating of a self-righteous exterior to mask inner corruption.—Matthew 23:23, 24.
13. Why does the law of the Christ result in a higher standard of conduct than any written code of laws?
13 The law of the Christ, by contrast, does not nurture such attitudes. In fact, obeying a law that is based on love of Jehovah and that is obeyed by imitating Christ’s self-sacrificing love for others results in a far higher standard of conduct than does following a formal legal code. Love does not seek loopholes; it keeps us from doing harmful things that a law code might not explicitly prohibit. (See Matthew 5:27, 28.) Thus, the law of the Christ will move us to do things for others—to show generosity, hospitality, and love—in ways that no formal law could make us do.—Acts 20:35; 2 Corinthians 9:7; Hebrews 13:16.
14. What effect did living by the law of the Christ have on the first-century Christian congregation?
14 To the extent that its members lived by the law of the Christ, the early Christian congregation enjoyed a warm, loving atmosphere, relatively free from the rigid, judgmental, and hypocritical attitudes so prevalent in the synagogues of the day. Members of these fledgling congregations must truly have sensed that they were living by “the law of a free people”!
15. What were some of Satan’s early efforts to corrupt the Christian congregation?
15 However, Satan was eager to corrupt the Christian congregation from within, just as he had corrupted the nation of Israel. The apostle Paul warned of wolflike men who would “speak twisted things” and oppress the flock of God. (Acts 20:29, 30) He had to contend with Judaizers, who sought to trade in the relative freedom of the law of the Christ for enslavement to the Mosaic Law, which had been fulfilled in Christ. (Matthew 5:17; Acts 15:1; Romans 10:4) After the last of the apostles died, there was no more restraint against such apostasy. So corruption became rampant.—2 Thessalonians 2:6, 7.
Christendom Pollutes the Law of the Christ
16, 17. (a) What forms did corruption take in Christendom? (b) How did the laws of the Catholic Church promote a twisted view of sex?
16 As with Judaism, corruption took more than one form in Christendom. She too fell prey to false doctrines and loose morals. And her efforts to protect her flock against outside influences often proved corrosive to any remaining shreds of pure worship. Rigid and unscriptural laws proliferated.
17 The Catholic Church has been foremost in creating vast bodies of church law. These laws were particularly warped on matters pertaining to sex. According to the book Sexuality and Catholicism, the church absorbed the Greek philosophy of Stoicism, which was suspicious of all forms of pleasure. The church came to teach that all sexual pleasure, including that of normal marital relations, was sinful. (Contrast Proverbs 5:18, 19.) Sex was claimed to be for procreation, nothing else. Thus church law condemned any form of contraception as a very serious sin, sometimes requiring many years of penance. Further, the priesthood was forbidden to marry, an edict that has given rise to much illicit sex, including the abusing of children.—1 Timothy 4:1-3.
18. What resulted from the multiplication of church laws?
18 As church laws multiplied, they were organized into books. These began to obscure and supersede the Bible. (Compare Matthew 15:3, 9.) Like Judaism, Catholicism distrusted secular writing and deemed much of it a threat. This view soon went far beyond the Bible’s sensible caution on the matter. (Ecclesiastes 12:12; Colossians 2:8) Jerome, a church writer of the fourth century C.E., exclaimed: “O Lord, if ever again I possess worldly books or read them, I have denied thee.” In time, the church took to censoring books—even those on secular subjects. Thus 17th-century astronomer Galileo was censured for writing that the earth orbits the sun. The church’s insistence on being the final authority on everything—even on questions of astronomy—in the long run would work to undermine faith in the Bible.
19. How did the monasteries promote rigid authoritarianism?
19 The church’s rule-making flourished in monasteries, where monks separated themselves from this world to live in self-denial. Most Catholic monasteries adhered to “The Rule of St. Benedict.” The abbot (a term derived from the Aramaic word for “father”) ruled with absolute authority. (Compare Matthew 23:9.) If a monk received a gift from his parents, the abbot would decide whether that monk or some other should receive it. Besides condemning vulgarities, one rule forbade all small talk and jokes, saying: “No disciple shall speak such things.”
20. What shows that Protestantism also proved adept at unscriptural authoritarianism?
20 Protestantism, which sought to reform the unscriptural excesses of Catholicism, soon became equally adept at making authoritarian rules with no basis in the law of the Christ. For instance, the leading reformer John Calvin came to be termed “the legislator of the renovated Church.” He governed Geneva with a multitude of stern rules enforced by “Elders” whose “office,” Calvin noted, “is to have oversight of the life of everyone.” (Contrast 2 Corinthians 1:24.) The church controlled the inns and regulated which topics of conversation were allowable. There were stiff penalties for such offenses as singing flippant songs or dancing.*
Learning From the Errors of Christendom
21. What have been the overall effects of Christendom’s tendency to ‘go beyond the things written’?
21 Have all these rules and laws worked to protect Christendom from corruption? Quite the contrary! Today Christendom has splintered into hundreds of sects, ranging from the exceedingly strict to the grossly permissive. All of them have, in one way or another, ‘gone beyond the things written,’ allowing human thinking to govern the flock and interfere with divine law.—1 Corinthians 4:6.
22. Why has Christendom’s defection not meant the end of the law of the Christ?
22 However, the history of the law of the Christ is no tragedy. Jehovah God will never allow mere humans to wipe out divine law. Christian law is very much in force today among true Christians, and these have the great privilege of living by it. But after examining what Judaism and Christendom have done with divine law, we might well wonder, ‘How do we live by the law of the Christ while avoiding the trap of polluting God’s Word with human reasoning and rules that undermine the very spirit of divine law? What balanced view should the law of the Christ instill in us today?’ The following article will address these questions.
The Pharisees were largely responsible for the form of Judaism that exists today, so it is not surprising that Judaism still seeks loopholes in its many added Sabbath restrictions. For example, a visitor to an orthodox Jewish hospital on the Sabbath may find that the elevator automatically stops on every floor so that the passengers can avoid doing the sinful “work” of pushing an elevator button. Some orthodox doctors write out prescriptions in ink that will vanish in a few days. Why? The Mishnah classifies writing as “work,” but it defines “writing” as leaving a lasting mark.
Servetus, who disputed some of Calvin’s theological views, was burned at the stake as a heretic.
How Would You Answer?
◻ What is the very essence of the law of the Christ?
◻ How did Jesus’ style of teaching differ from that of the Pharisees?
◻ How did Satan use a rigid, rule-making spirit to corrupt Christendom?
◻ What are some positive effects of living by the law of the Christ?
[Picture on page 16]
Jesus applied the Mosaic Law reasonably and mercifully