The Old Commandments and the New

Did Jesus come to destroy the Law?

Holy, Righteous, and Good (3)

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13.34, 35

Saved for good works
In this series we’re unpacking the clear teaching of Scripture which says that Christians are called to do good works. We are not saved by good works; we are saved unto good works. We are saved by grace through faith, by believing in Jesus and the work of salvation He has accomplished for us. We come to believe in Jesus as we hear the Gospel explained and God sends His Spirit to give us a new heart (Ezek. 36.26, 27); empower us to confess Jesus as Savior and Lord, and God as our Father (Gal. 4.6); and begin the work of remaking us in the likeness of Jesus (2 Cor. 3.12-18).

Christians who do good works become increasingly like Jesus, Whom they follow as His disciples (1 Jn. 2.1-6). The question we are particularly addressing is “Which works are good works?” Put another way, “How do we understand, amid all the various works we might imagine, which of those are the good works for which we have been saved and to which we have been commissioned?” Are we free merely to do whatever we think is good? Are our best intentions to be the standard of goodness? Or has God given us more help and guidance in this matter?

Paul says the good works appointed for us are those “which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2.10). The word “beforehand” points us back to some previous work of God in outlining and detailing the kind of good works that should characterize those who believe in Him and are members of His household. In this series we are insisting that those “beforehand” works are the works of the Law of God, which Jesus fulfilled and taught us to learn and obey (Matt. 5.17-19); and which the Spirit teaches and empowers us to live within those general categories of love for God and love for others (Rom. 8.5-8; Matt. 22.34-40). We want to see why embracing, learning, and working these good works liberates us into the full and abundant and powerful life of the Kingdom of God.

Again, we don’t keep the Law of God and walk the path of good works it stretches before so that we may be saved. We who are saved keep the Law and do the good works it prescribes because we have been saved, and we desire to realize more of the good life God has beforehand prepared for us.

But what about Jesus’ “new commandment”?

The new commandment
On the night of His betrayal, Jesus gave His disciples a “new commandment”: that they should love one another as He has loved them.

Some Christian teachers insist that it is precisely at this point that Jesus consigned the old commandments which God had given beforehand to the dustbin of history and spiritual life. No longer are we to love one another as we want to be loved; we must love as Jesus loved, and that, we are told, is much richer, clearer, and more significant than loving according to the Law of God.

However, Jesus Himself, quoting Old Testament Law (Lev. 19.18), taught precisely that we should love one another (Matt. 22.34); and Paul echoed and affirmed this teaching of Jesus’ after Jesus had given the “new commandment” (cf. Rom. 13.8, 9). It’s difficult to see how the “new commandment” could negate or deny the old one, when Jesus and Paul affirmed the Old Testament teaching without qualification.

Indeed, the “new commandment” should beg a question in our minds: Since we are to love one another as Jesus loved His disciples, how did Jesus love His disciples? In John 13.1, the apostle reports that Jesus had loved His disciples throughout His time with them, and He would continue to love them “to the end.” Jesus loved His disciples not by destroying the Law of God – and all the rest of the Old Testament – but by fulfilling it (Matt. 5.17). He fulfilled all the Law of God in terms of the demands of righteousness it requires of us; and He fulfilled all the Law of God by bearing the sanctions and judgment of God for disobedient sinners such as we.

Jesus fulfilled the Law. This is how He loved His disciples. So when He says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another”, it is not possible that Jesus could be annulling the very standard by which He Himself loved us.

So what did He intend?

The Old in the New
An old saying to guide us in interpreting Scripture is attributed to Augustine: “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is by the New revealed.” This helpful insight makes some important points about the Old and New Testaments. First, it indicates that their message is harmonious and not contradictory. They work together. The one does not supplant or replace the other.

Second, the two Testaments need each other if their true meaning is to be fully understood. This is a point Richard B. Hays has made very well in his book, Reading Backwards. Without the Old Testament, we can’t really understand important New Testament teachings, such as why Jesus is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world, or how the Kingdom of God is a Kingdom not of this world. And without the New Testament, much of the Old Testament remains a locked vault of revelation: Who is this suffering Servant about Whom Isaiah wrote so eloquently and hopefully?

And this is especially true when it comes to Jesus. Jesus taught that all Scripture is about Him (Jn. 5.39). When He said this, He was pointing to the “beforehand” Scriptures of Israel – the Old Testament. All the Old Testament is about Jesus. Should we set aside any of the Old Testament, since all of it can help us in knowing Jesus? No, of course not.

But Jesus is also turning a light on the Old Testament by saying this. Those who know and follow Him experience a kind of “Aha!” as they read the Bible in the light of Jesus. In the light of Jesus, those ancient sacrifices, which could never save, make perfect sense as preparation for Jesus’ coming (Heb. 7-9). Now we understand why David’s Kingdom is more a type than a prototype of the Kingdom Jesus has given to us. As we read the Old Testament through Jesus, looking for Jesus, and allowing Jesus to be the key to understanding the Old Testament, difficulties in interpreting the Old Testament begin to smooth out. Troubling places become clear. Truth comes to its fullest light.

In giving the “new commandment”, Jesus was not replacing the old commandments of God’s Law. He was teaching us how truly to understand and obey them, just as He had done, so that the love He showed for us might be in us and come through us to others, radiating the glory of Jesus and filling the earth with His Presence, promise, and power (Eph. 4.8-10).

Jesus did not jettison the Law of God. He kept it. Taught it. Told us to learn, obey, and teach it. And gave us in Himself the quintessential interpretive key for living love for God and neighbors through good works in every aspect of our lives.

For reflection
1.  Why must we see Jesus as the key to interpreting all of Scripture, and to knowing how truly to love?

2.  Obeying the Law as Jesus did empowers us to love as He did. Did Jesus obey the Law in a merely outward way?

3.  The Law can be difficult to understand, and even more difficult to apply. But if we look to Jesus and His teaching and example, we can learn, obey and teach the Law. Why is this so?

Next steps – Preparation: Think of some of the ways Jesus loved His disciples. Think of the ways He shows His love to you. Give Him thanks and praise for all these ways, and ask Him to help you love more like that.

T. M. Moore

For additional insight to the contemporary relevance of God’s Law, download the three studies in our Scriptorium series, “The Law of God: Miscellanies” by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
Books by T. M. Moore