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The Church Is Not Ancient Israel

But the Law is still her Law.

The Law of God and the Church (2)

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel. Hebrews 12.22-24

A matter of time and place
Believers who are seeking to realize a good conscience by learning and obeying the Law of God need the supportive environment of the local church. Local churches need to understand the place of God’s Law in the life of their community and take up studying and practicing the Law as a community effort.

We have seen that the Ten Commandments and the civil laws of ancient Israel still have binding validity on the followers of Jesus Christ, the latter primarily because of the principles of love and justice they illustrate. But there are some qualifying criteria which we must understand before we go out and start building railings around our roofs, stoning our recalcitrant children, or driving an awl through some employee’s ear.

Simply put, the local church is not ancient Israel; rather, the church is new Israel, a new community established on the foundations of the old one – and, thus, having some similarities with it – but identified by new traits and characteristics which guide it in following the Law of God today.

Promoting a Law-keeping community will be essential to helping each member of the community realize a good and clean conscience. But we cannot approach this challenge merely by writing the case laws of ancient Israel into our local church charter. Again, the church is not ancient Israel.

What are the implications of this? Ancient Israel represented a unique combination of priestly and civil rule. It was designed to be, in the purest sense, a theocracy, in which God ruled His people directly through the work of magistrates and priests. Moreover, ancient Israel occupied a unique setting of time and place, which had an influence on the shape of many of its laws. While some of Israel’s laws can seem harsh and unyielding, they put pagan laws to shame with their practical concern for justice, righteousness, and neighbor-love.

A heart for the Law?
But, most important of all, ancient Israel lacked the heart – the Spirit, we should say – for obeying God’s Law (Deut. 5.29; Deut. 30.1-10; Jer. 31.31-34; Ezek. 36.26, 27). One important implication of this is that the laws of ancient Israel were especially harsh in exacting certain forms of justice; otherwise, the unbridled hearts of the people would run rampant with passion and destruction – as we see in the Book of Judges.

Believers in Jesus Christ have a new heart, a heart for the Law of God, to learn, delight in, and obey the Law as the primary guide for loving God and our neighbors. We may expect that, in this season of grace, in which the Holy Spirit of God dwells within the followers of Christ, some mitigation or modification of the practice of ancient Israel’s laws is to be expected. This is precisely what we find, for example, in 1 Corinthians 5, where Paul substitutes excommunication – a spiritual act of justice, aimed at restoration – for the death penalty, thus leaving room for grace to work repentance and renewal in the sinner.

We must accept that God, by His Spirit, is giving us a heart for His Law, so that as a community we may know and express the wisdom of God as a primary aspect of our witness to the world.

Built on the foundations
In the ancient Middle East, many cities were founded on what are called tells. A tell is a mound or hill on which a city is located, which has been built and re-built on the ruins of ancient cities that went before. Each time a city was razed and a new one erected, archaeologists expect to find certain similarities – the “footprint” of the city, building materials, and some cultural items – but also new technologies and artifacts at each successive level of construction. Changing times demanded changes in social and cultural life, without sacrificing the identity or continuity of the city with its past.

So it is with the Law of God and the church. While the church is being erected on the tell of Old Testament Israel, it is not ancient Israel; therefore, while there are many areas of continuity between the church and ancient Israel, and many similarities of purpose and character, the Law of ancient Israel must be understood  in a new light, and according to new spiritual principles and perspectives, and it must be applied in a manner consistent with the age of grace and the Spirit in which the church is being built.

The Ten Commandments remain in force in exactly the form God gave them; and believers have the Spirit of God to help them know, love, and obey those foundational rules. The civil and spiritual laws of ancient Israel give us examples of how to apply the Ten Commandments; thus, they encode principles of love for God and neighbor which, under the leading of the Spirit and in community together, we may discern and apply with much benefit – as the Corinthians did under Paul’s leadership.

This is a challenge for church leaders, and one they must labor to understand and pursue within the framework of God’s more complete revelation in Scripture, as well as from the practice of previous generations of the followers of Christ. The Law of God has abiding validity for the life of faith in our day, and it plays a crucial role in making for a good conscience and thus, strengthening and nurturing the souls of every believer.

But the Law needs a community to have its maximum impact, both on the members of that community and on the larger surrounding community as well. As local churches take up the task of bringing the Law of God back to its proper place, they need to consider the teaching of the New Testament, as the latest and highest position on the tell of the people of God, to see what can be learned there about allowing the liberating Law of God to have its proper place.

For reflection
1.  What are some ways that the local church today differs from local communities in ancient Israel?

2.  Why, given the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, is it reasonable to expect that we will interpret and apply certain of God’s Laws differently in our day?

3.  While each believer is responsible for learning and obeying the Law of God, why is it important to have a supportive and instructive community to aid us in this matter?

Next steps – Preparation: Pray for your church, that the Law of God may have its proper place in making your church a true spiritual Mt. Zion in the Lord.

T. M. Moore

All the installments in this “Strong Souls” series are available in PDF by clicking here. Check out our newest feature, Readings from the Celtic Revival (click here).

Why does the Law of God still matter? How can we make best use of it? Our book, The Ground for Christian Ethics, addresses those questions in a winsome and conversational manner. Order your free copy 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 the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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