There is a question that has been argued by antinomians since the time of the apostles: “If you become a Christian, are you then free to break the law of God?” The New Testament addresses this question after the death and resurrection of Christ.
There is a law that is unchangeable, that is unalterable, that will remain as long as this universe remains. Jesus said, “And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle of the law to fail” (Luke 16:17). A tittle is a word referring to just a part of a Hebrew letter. Jesus here used strong language, for it says in the New Testament that it was Jesus Christ who created everything in the universe (John 1:1–3; Colossians 1:15–17), and He is the One who upholds everything by the word of His power (Hebrews 1).
Everything—the suns, the galaxies, the solar system and everything in space—is held in position by the “word of His power” and He who created it all said that He would destroy the whole universe and start over again before allowing a part of a letter of His law to fail.
Many years after the cross, the apostle James tells us that this law is the standard of the judgment. Every person in the world must face this law at some time. Notice what it says in James 2:10–12: “Whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty.”
All will be judged by this law which James calls the law of liberty. If everybody on earth kept this law there would be no need for prisons, no need for locks on your house, or car, or the necessity to store your possessions in some secure place. How wonderful this world would be if everybody kept God’s law. James makes it clear which law people will be judged by because he quotes the sixth and seventh commandments.
It will not be enough to come to the Lord pleading that you have kept part of it and expect a good pass. James tells us that if you break any point of it you are a transgressor and will be judged by it.
God’s people in the last days will be keeping His commandments. John wrote, “The dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 12:17). God’s people are also described in Revelation 14:12: “Here is the patience of the saints; here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.”
Later in his book, John wrote, “Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city. But outside are dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral [those who break the 7th commandment] and murderers [those who break the 6th commandment] and idolaters [those who break the 2nd commandment], and whoever loves and practices a lie [those who break the 9th commandment]” (Revelation 22:14, 15). We see here that the commandment keepers will be inside the city and saved while the commandment breakers will be outside the gates of the city and eternally lost.
However, in spite of all these very plain declarations, there are still people who are confused, saying, “Doesn’t the New Testament say that the law was abolished or done away with?” When the law was given in Exodus, it says, “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to Me on the mountain and be there; and I will give you tablets of stone, and the law and commandments which I have written, that you may teach them’ ” (Exodus 24:12). There were commandments, a law that God Himself wrote with His finger on tablets of stone. It was God Himself, who spoke and He called it a law. “These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly, in the mountain from the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and He added no more. And He wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me” (Deuteronomy 5:22). In addition to this law, because God’s people had been in slavery for many years, God gave Moses minute instructions so that people would understand the principles of the law that God had written on stone.
You would think it was so plain that nobody could misunderstand. For example, God spoke the 7th commandment, “You shall not commit adultery” and then told Moses to spell it out so that no one would make a mistake as to its meaning. If you read Leviticus 18, and 20, and Deuteronomy 22 you will find that there are people even today who are unwittingly breaking the 7th commandment, not understanding the principle behind it that was explained by Moses in his writings.
Consider the 8th commandment, stealing. There are many ways a man can steal. God wanted to be sure His people understood how abhorrent it was to steal from another human being. He said, if a person kidnaps somebody else and then sells him as a slave somewhere, that person is a thief and breaks the 8th commandment. The penalty is death. (See Exodus 21:16.)
The 5th commandment predicts that in the last days children will be disobedient to their parents (Exodus 21:17). In ancient times the penalty for cursing your father or your mother was death. The same remains true in the final judgment of souls. Many people will be surprised at the record God has of their lives in that day. Moses wrote in a book the principles surrounding the ten commandment law spelling it out in detail. That book was put in the outside of the ark, which held the tables of stone on which God had written His law.
As well as the explanations of the moral law, Moses also recorded many ceremonial laws that were given to the people and designed to point them to a coming Messiah. Those who are living after Jesus Christ came into the world look back to His birth in Bethlehem, His 33 year life, His crucifixion, death and resurrection on the third day and His ascension 40 days later. However, if you lived before Christ came to earth you would have looked forward in faith to His incarnation.
There is only one plan of salvation. Those who lived before the cross of Christ, that will be saved, are saved by the very same merits of Jesus Christ as those who have lived after the cross. The apostle Paul explains that there were some ceremonial laws that would no longer be in effect after Christ came.
He said, “Then indeed, even the first covenant had ordinances of divine service and the earthly sanctuary” (Hebrews 9:1). The first covenant that no longer exists had ordinances of service, religious rituals and services and an earthly sanctuary. Under the new covenant, there is no longer an earthly sanctuary and we look toward what Christ is doing for us as our High Priest in the sanctuary in heaven (Hebrews 8 and 9).
Referring to the old covenant, Paul said, “Now when these things had been thus prepared, the priests always went into the first part of the tabernacle, performing the services. But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people’s sins committed in ignorance; the Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was yet standing” (Hebrews 9:6–8).
“It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience—concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation” (verses 9, 10). He goes on to say that it is through the sacrifice of Christ and His mediation in the sanctuary in heaven that the people from Old Testament times are saved (verse 15).
Notice, “For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshipers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (Hebrews 10:1–4).
If it were possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins, then Jesus Christ would not have needed to come and die on the cross. But the Jewish people had been practicing this now for fifteen hundred years before Jesus was here. If you have a custom or a ritual or a practice that has been in vogue, and has been practiced not only by you, but by your father, your grandfather, and back for fifteen hundred years, that custom would have become firmly entrenched. Even the apostles, who were also Jews, were slow to learn that these ceremonies did not need to be followed anymore.
This fulfilment and therefore discontinuance of the ceremonial law resulted in a huge conflict within the Christian church in the first century. After Paul had been stoned at Lystra and returned to Antioch at the end of his first missionary journey, a tremendous conflict arose. “Certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’ ” (Acts 15:1).
There was no argument amongst them about the need of keeping the commandments. In fact, you will not find any argument anywhere in the New Testament about whether or not God’s law must be kept. All were agreeable to that fact. They understood that the commandments are not alterable and will be the standard of judgment for all time. Even in the last days, God’s people will be keeping them as they were written and will be saved while those who break them will be eternally lost.
The argument in the early church was never about the moral law which all will meet again in the judgment. The argument was about circumcision, a ceremonial law. The Jewish Christians believed that unless the Gentiles were to keep all of the ceremonies that were enjoined in the old covenant they could not be saved.
When this happened, Paul and Barnabas had a huge argument with these people. The Bible says, “Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, describing the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy to all the brethren. And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders; and they reported all things that God had done with them” (verses 2–4).
“But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses’ ” (verse 5). A big controversy was developing from the sect of the Pharisees who had become Christians. At that time, as a result of the missionary journeys of Paul and Barnabas, many Gentiles were becoming Christians. Certain Jews from Judea had raised this consternation in the church in Antioch about circumcision saying, “Nobody can be saved unless they are circumcised.” Paul and Barnabas opposed this position, which resulted in a great controversy.
There was much discussion and want of harmony in the Christian church; so Paul and Barnabas went up to Jerusalem to the council to see how it could be resolved. However, the Jews were not generally prepared to move as fast as the Providence of God led the way. The Jews saw that the Gentiles would eventually far exceed the number of Jews who were Christians. They believed that if the ceremonies and restrictions they had under Jewish law were not made obligatory upon the Gentiles, then the national peculiarities of the Jews would pass away.
The Jews had prided themselves upon the fact that they had divinely appointed worship services and ordinances. That was true, and nobody could successfully argue otherwise. They thought that which had kept them distinct from all the world would finally disappear from those who are Christians. They concluded that since God had once specified the Hebrew manner of worship, it was impossible that God would ever authorize a change in any of the specifications of divine worship. So, they decided that Christianity must connect itself with Jewish laws and ceremonies.
The Jewish Christians were slow to discern the end of that which had been abolished by the death of Christ and that all of their sacrificial offerings had only prefigured the death of the Son of God in type. When Jesus died on the cross, type had met antitype. So, the divinely appointed ceremonies that were part of the Jewish religion and involved the sacrificing of animals, a human priesthood, and an earthly sanctuary, which were all part of the Jewish religion, were no longer in effect. In fact, Matthew records the events just prior to Jesus dying on the cross that signified the end of the ceremonial services. He said, “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split” (Matthew 27:50, 51).
The veil of the temple was not just like some curtain that you may have in your house. This veil was more like a solid tapestry, thick like a rug. It was something that no human being, unless you were Samson, could ever tear apart. But divine power tore that veil in two from the top to the bottom giving a message to the human race that it was no longer necessary to come with animal sacrifices to an earthly sanctuary for the forgiveness of sins.
That system is no longer in effect, since the veil into the earthly Holy of Holies has been torn in two. We are now able, by a new and living way, to approach God by faith in the heavenly Holy of Holies, in the heavenly sanctuary where our High Priest ministers in our behalf.
We can have a Most Holy Place experience; we can go into the courtyard, this earth where Jesus was crucified, and enter by faith into the first apartment where we partake of the showbread—the word of God and become the light of the world. We offer our prayers to our heavenly Father that are fragranced by the Holy Spirit. We then enter behind the torn veil where we see our Saviour before the throne of God. Now there is a new and living way by which we may approach God.
However, these Jews did not understand that. They were dealing with a custom that had been going on for over fifteen hundred years. Paul himself had been very strict in following all of these customs. He had been a strict Pharisee, but after he met Jesus on the Damascus road and was converted, he understood the significance of the former dispensation of the old covenant and the difference between living faith and a dead formalism. Paul still claimed to be one of the children of Abraham and kept the ten commandments in spirit and letter, just as he had done before his conversion to Christianity.
All of the typical ceremonies and ordinances of service of the old covenant had only shadowed forth something that was to happen in the future. Now the light of the gospel was shed upon the world offering a new and better way.
The big question today is, Do you clearly understand what law was abolished by Christ’s death on the cross? Have you gone by the new and living way and approached Jesus as your High Priest and asked Him to deliver you from the guilt and power of sin, and to make you His child so that you can be saved?
(Unless appearing in quoted references or otherwise identified, Bible texts are from the New King James Version.)
Pastor John J. Grosboll is Director of Steps to Life and pastors the Prairie Meadows Church in Wichita, Kansas. He may be contacted by email at: email@example.com, or by telephone at: 316-788-5559.