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  • Writer's pictureRick LoPresti

The law is spiritual

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

God has made several different covenants with man throughout history. The two that the Bible focuses on most are the law of Moses and the gospel. The law of Moses is described in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. It is said that it contains 613 commandments. There are three main areas of the law of Moses. There are ceremonial laws regarding the Levitical priesthood and the rituals therein. Those laws were symbolic of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Gal 3:24, Heb 8-10, etc.). They are thus fulfilled in Him. That is why we no longer offer animal sacrifices. Jesus took care of that once forever with His death. There are also civil laws which we no longer carry out. These are mostly punishments for offenses. There are also moral laws which reflect the holy nature of God which does not change. That is why things such as murder and adultery are still wrong and always will be. The law of Moses is in the part of the Bible called the Old Testament, and the gospel is in the part of the Bible called the New Testament. The words testament and covenant are synonyms. Although the books called the four gospels are in the part of the Bible called the New Testament, the actual new covenant did not go into effect until after Jesus died, rose, ascended, and poured out His Spirit, and it was formally declared on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2 (Mt 26:28, Lk 24:47-49, Acts 11:15, Heb 9:15-17).

There is much misunderstanding about the similarities and differences in the covenants which leads to much false doctrine. One common misunderstanding is that the law was replaced by the gospel. The gospel did not replace the law. It fulfilled it (Mt 5:17-20, Acts 3:18). The church did not replace Israel. It is a spiritual fulfillment of it. However, there is still a place in the prophetic plan of God for Israel (Rom 9-11). Some say that the law was just a bunch of external rules and had no spiritual component; and that the spiritual component is only in the New Testament. That is also a misunderstanding. Paul spoke in many places about the superiority of the new covenant. He talked about how the law could not fulfill the righteousness God intended, but that is not because there is a flaw in the law. The weakness is in our own sinful flesh which does not keep God's commandments (Rom 6-8). "For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin (Rom 7:14)."

A part of the discourse of Jesus in what is called the sermon on the mount is often cited as an example of how the law only dealt with outward actions, and that Jesus raised the bar in the New Testament to also address what is occurring in the heart. Particularly, Matthew 5:21-48 is cited. While it is true that the new covenant is superior because of the atonement of the blood of Jesus and because of the empowering of the Holy Ghost, it is not true that the law had no spiritual component and did not deal with issues of the heart. Jesus begins this passage by saying that He did not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it (Mt 5:17-20). He said not to break "these commandments" which is the law. The gospels were neither spoken nor written yet. The Lord then gives six examples of references to the law and how He expected them to be fulfilled.

The first is comparing murder with unjustified anger (vs 21-26). Murder was certainly not acceptable in the Old Testament, but neither was unjustified anger. The book of Proverbs warns repeatedly of the dangers of uncontrolled anger and the virtue of controlling it (12:16, 14:29, 15:1 & 18, 16:32, 19:11 & 19, 21:14 & 24, 27:3 & 4, 29:8, 30:33), and the Old Testament has many examples of people sinning in anger such as Potiphar (Gen 39:19), Simeon and Levi (Gen 49:7), king Saul (1Ki 18-26), Haman (Est 3:5), and Jonah (Jon 4). "Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools (Ecc 7:9)." The law took into consideration not only outward deeds, but also the intent of the heart. A clear example is the cities of refuge (Num 35, Deut 19:1-13). If someone accidentally killed someone, they could flee for refuge to the nearest of six designated cities to avoid being put to death as one who murdered premeditatively with hatred and intent. Another example is rape versus fornication (Deut 22:23-29). If a woman was caught having sex voluntarily, it was fornication committed by both the man and the woman; but if she was forced by a man in a place that was too far away to cry for help then she was a victim of rape and only the man was guilty.

The next comparison Jesus made was adultery and lust (Mt 5:26-30). This needs some clarification. Jesus was not condemning natural attraction for the opposite sex, nor the normal passing glance. It is the lingering, ogling look that allows the fantasy to develop in the heart. As has been said, birds can fly over your head, but you don't have to let them made a nest in your hair. That is the danger of pornography, and its addictive property. The Old Testament also dealt with this, not just the outward act. The tenth commandment is, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's (Ex 20:17)." To covet is to desire or lust after. "They were as fed horses in the morning: every one neighed after his neighbour's wife (Jer 5:8)." "Lust not after her beauty in thine heart; neither let her take thee with her eyelids (Prov 6:25)."

The third issue is divorce. Divorce was allowed in the law of Moses (Deut 24:1), but it was also taken too far by man (Mal 2:10-17, Mt 19:3-9). They had abused this statute and made marriage too easy to end. Jesus referred them back to Genesis 2 and reminded them that God defined and instituted the sacred bond of marriage, and man ought not tamper with it so lightly. Paul also wrote that if one spouse is not a believer and leaves the marriage, the Christian spouse is not under bondage in that case (1Cor 7).

Jesus then brought up oaths (Mt 5:33-37). He said it is better to avoid them and to keep our communication simple. There is a difference between being a man of your word which is in both testaments (Ps 15:4, Jam 5:12), and making unbiblical oaths. He also addressed the errantly prioritized vows of the religious hypocrites (Mt 23:16-22). As a practical application today, we should avoid joining organizations that require secret oaths and rituals, although promising to tell the truth while testifying in legal matters is certainly a Biblical value (Ex 20:16).

The Lord next brought up getting even versus suffering wrong (Mt 5:38-42). Although Jesus quoted the law of Moses directly (Ex 21:23-25, Lev 24:19-20, Deut 19:16-21), the original context was not people seeking personal vengeance but statutory punishments for offenses after a hearing before a judge which was a Levitical priest. Personal vengeance was not allowed in the law of Moses (Lev 19:18).

The sixth thing Jesus addressed was loving only those that love you in return versus loving all as God does, even your enemies (Mt 5:43-48). Loving your neighbor is not a new concept. When Jesus was asked which is the greatest commandment in the law, He said it is to love God and quoted Deuteronomy 6:4-5. He continued that the second is like it, which is to love your neighbor as yourself, and He quoted Leviticus 19:18 (Mt 22:26-30, Mk 12:28-31, Lk 10:25-28). It is also noteworthy that Jesus also responded to the next question about who our neighbor is with the story of the good Samaritan (Lk 10:29-37). He closed the story with the command, "Go, and do thou likewise." "If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink: For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the LORD shall reward thee (Prov 25:21-22)." There are also examples like David and Saul (1Sam 18-26), Elisha and Syria (2Ki 6:8-23), and Hosea and his wife (Hos 1-2).

So the principles Jesus taught in Matthew 5:17-48 were not new nor foreign to the law of Moses. It was the legalistic interpretation of the law of Moses by the hypocritical Jews that Jesus was addressing. The law is spiritual and addresses both the inward heart and the outward actions, but it can be twisted into carnal commandments in the hands of outwardly religious people (Mk 7:1-13, Mt 23). The law spoke often of the issues of the heart. God told Samuel, "Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart (1Sam 16:7)". The law addressed hardness of heart and its uncircumcision (Gen 6:5, Lev 19:17-19, Lev 26:41, 1Sam 6:6, 1Ki 8:39 & 58, 1Chr 28:9, 2Chr 6:14, Ps 7:9, Ps 90:12, Prov 17:3, Prov 21:2, Jer 17:9-10, Jer 31:33, Zech 7:12, Zech 8:17, etc.). The law also talked about the Spirit of God (Gen 1:2, Gen 6:3, Ex 31:3, Num 11:29, Num 27:18, Jud 3:10, Jud 6:34, Jud 11:29, Jud 13:25, 1Sam 10:6, 1Sam 16:13, 2Sam 23:2, 2Chr 15:1, 2Chr 20:14, 2Chr 24:20, Is 61:1, Eze 11:5, Eze 36:26-27, Joel 2:28, Mic 3:8, Zech 7:12). The Old Testament speaks of angels, and also evil spirits (Jud 9:23, 1Sam 16:14, 1Sam 28:7, 1Ki 22:21, Is 19:14). The God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament, and He does not change (Mal 3:6). He is a Spirit (Jn 4:24). His covenants, whether old or new, are a reflection of Him. He IS the Word (Jn 1:1-14, Jn 14:6, Rev 19:13).

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