The Incomplete Mosaic Law

A verse that has always, at least to some degree, puzzled me is Jn. 1.17:  For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ.(NET) What does this mean: Was the Law of Moses untruthful? No, since Rom. 7.12 states: So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good. (NET)

The solution for me came about by continuous and systematic reading the bible which I suggest solves many seeming quandaries which occur when only reading one section without taking the whole into consideration.

The image of a concept that is projected in our modern mind is often fallacious if we fail to read the bible closely and carefully think what the text is saying. One such concept is “law”. When many Christians read “law” they think of regulations governing behavior primarily between individuals. The 10 Commandments is an example of such regulations and deal with relationships to God, towards oneself (keeping the Sabbath holy was designed for rest as well as reflection and reinforcing both societal and family bonds), and others. The Mosaic Law however covered more than regulations of relationships, they carefully set “the laws of the sacrifices”. This is what John, the gospel writer, speaks about when saying: Grace and truth came about by Jesus Christ. 

So, as I noted: The commandment is holy, righteous, and good, but the problem was us since we couldn’t perform the regulations perfectly. Furthermore, and importantly, we incurred guilt. It is one thing to strive to overcome a specific sin and many folks are able to discipline themselves to not do certain things which are sinful. But this is not enough since one breaking of the commandment results in guilt (this is not about ‘feeling guilty’ rather ‘judicial guilt’). It is important to note that the Mosaic Law has “guilt offerings” as well as “sin offerings”.

Heb.7.18-19 brings out this concept of human need and the Mosaic Law: On the one hand a former command is set aside because it is weak and useless, for the law made nothing perfect. On the other hand a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God. (NET) So it is easy to see how the regulation is perfect but unable to perfect erring people. The text of Hebrews goes on to explain how a better High Priest was needed who Himself could conquer death and graciously offer life (both abundant temporal and eternal) to humans.

Returning to John 1.17: For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ. So how do grace and truth of Christ differ from the Mosaic Law? Firstly, when someone broke a command given through Moses, they would bring an offering to the Aaronic Priest and the supplicant would place their hands on the sacrificial victim’s (animal) head symbolically transferring punishment (death) for the sin to the victim. But Christ was different! He gave Himself for our behalf: a gracious sacrifice we did not provide! Absolute, pure grace!

Additionally, Christ was the truth. The book of Hebrews again helps to make this idea very clear: For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin (Heb. 10.4 literally translated from Greek). Animal sacrifices were never intended to remedy human sin, instead, they pointed to the ultimate sacrifice of Christ for the sin of humanity. The Mosaic sacrifices (and those before Moses) were ‘types’ that supplicants offered in faith toward God. Jesus was the Truth, the antitype to which all the former sacrifices pointed. Therefore, so while Moses gave the Law of commandments and sacrifices, Christ was the true object the sacrifices pictured. Further, Christ kept all the commands blamelessly so to be an unblemished (perfect) offering to God.

By viewing the Mosaic Law correctly as containing both commandments and ‘laws of the sacrifices’ one can see how Christ was both gracious (He alone pleased God and now offers the New Covenant to all people on the basis of His sacrifice) and that He was the Truth to which the sacrificial types pointed.

“Before Abraham was , I Am” (John 8.58)

Michael Kruger effectively proves early Christian communities held to the divinity of Christ in addition to the original witness of the apostles.

Did the Earliest Christians Really Think Jesus Was God? One Important Example

Jesus paintingOne of the most common critiques of Christianity is that some of its major tenets are late inventions. Core Christian doctrines, we are told, were never believed in the earliestphases of the church but were developed only at a later time period. Orthodoxy, therefore, was not early but late.

The most obvious example of a doctrine that was purportedly added later (we will cover another such doctrine in a future post) is the divinity of Jesus.  The popular internet-level narrative goes like this:  Jesus was not God, nor did he claim to be God. He was just an ordinary man.  At a later point, his followers began to assign attributes to him that were semi-divine–like an angel.  And it wasn’t until even later, around the fourth century council of Nicea, that Christians began to conceive of Jesus as the one and only creator God of the universe.

Of course, this is not the place for a full-scale assessment of early Christology. But, it is worth noting that some of our earliest Christian sources outside the New Testament don’t at all seem confused about the divinity of Jesus, but affirmed that he was fully God in every sense of the word.  One example is the second-century Epistle to Diognetus, a popular early Christian work that affirmed a very high Christology.  Here are a few select passages:

But the truly all-powerful God himself, creator of all and invisible, set up and established in their [Christians’] hearts the truth and the holy word from heaven, which cannot be comprehended by humans.  To do so, he did not, as one might suppose, send them one of his servants or an angel or a ruler…but he sent the craftsman and maker of all things himself, by whom he created the heavens, by whom he encloses the sea within its own boundaries, whose mysteries all the elements of creation guard faithfully, from whom the sun was appointed to guard the courses that it runs during the day, whom the moon obeys when he commands it to shine at night, whom the stars obey by following the course of the moon, by whom all things are set in order and arranged and put into subjection, the heavens and the things in the heavens, the earth and the things in the earth, the sea and all the things in the sea, fire, air, the abyss, creatures in the heights, creatures in the depths, and creatures in between–this is the one he sent to them. (7.2)

This is a remarkable description of Jesus–especially so early. Notice that the author expressly states that Jesus is NOT an angel, or any other divine servant.  Moreover, the author goes out of the way to say that Jesus is the very creator of the universe.  Indeed, the author drives this point home by examining every part of creation–heavens, see, sun, moon, stars, animals, heights, depths–and showing that Jesus made it all.

Although angels received many attributes that made them seem semi-divine, there was one thing they were never given, namely the status as creator.  For Jews, that was an attribute that God and God alone possessed.

In the very next passage, the epistles goes on to say:

So, then, did he [God], as one might suppose, send him [his Son] to rule in tyranny, fear, and terror? Not at all.  But with gentleness and meekness, as a king sending his own son, he sent him as a king; he sent him as God; he sent him as a human to humans.  So that he might bring salvation. (7.3-4).

Here we see the epistle invoke plain language that Jesus is the “Son” of God, and then expressly state that Jesus was sent “as God.”  Ehrman’s translation of the Epistle to Diognetus translates this as “a god” (indefinite article and lower case) but there is no warrant in the Greek text for doing so. In fact, the original 1917 Loeb edition of the Apostolic Fathers translated this phrase as “he sent him as God.”

It is also worth noting that while the author fully affirms the divinity of Jesus, he also affirms the full humanity of Jesus when he says God “sent him as a human to human.”  Here we see the beginning of the doctrine of the incarnation, namely that Jesus was fully God and fully man at the same time.

A final example:

The Word appeared to them [the apostles] and revealed things, speaking to them openly.  Even though he was not understood by unbelievers, he told these things to his disciples, who after being considered faithful by him came to know the mysteries of the Father.  For this reason he sent his Word, that it might be manifest to the world. This Word was dishonored by the people but proclaimed by the apostles and believed by the nations. For this is the one who was from the beginning who appeared to be recent but was discovered to be ancient, who is always being born anew in the hearts of the saints.  This is the eternal one who “today” is considered to be the Son, through whom the church is enriched and the unfolding grace is multiplied among the saints. (11:2-4).

The author’s use of “Word” (logos) suggests he is familiar with John’s gospel, or at least teaching based on John’s gospel. His high view of Jesus as the pre-existent God is evident from the phrase: “the one who was from the beginning who appeared to be recent but was discovered to be ancient.” What a fabulous, and profound, way of describing how Jesus is both God and man.

Although more patristic sources could be called as witnesses, it is at least worth noting that this patristic source, the Epistle to Diognetus, has a view of Jesus in the second century that supposedly was not invented until the fourth century.