Christ's Church and the Law

Stephen Terry


Commentary for the June 21, 2014 Sabbath School Lesson


“As the ark of God was entering Ekron, the people of Ekron cried out, “They have brought the ark of the god of Israel around to us to kill us and our people.” So they called together all the rulers of the Philistines and said, “Send the ark of the god of Israel away; let it go back to its own place, or it will kill us and our people.” For death had filled the city with panic; God’s hand was very heavy on it. Those who did not die were afflicted with tumors, and the outcry of the city went up to heaven.” 1 Samuel 5:10-12, NIV

In 1st Samuel, beginning in chapter four, we have the story of a great battle that took place between the Philistines, who occupied the coastal plains of Canaan and the Israelites who occupied the mountains along the Jordan River. The Shephela or low hill country between the two is where many of their battles, including this one, occurred. During the course of the battle, when the Israelites were doing poorly, they decided that bringing the Ark of the Covenant into their battle lines would turn the tide in their favor.

The Ark was central to the Israelite system of sacrificial worship. It held some manna from their wilderness travels. It held Aaron’s almond-wood rod that had miraculously budded and produced almonds. Perhaps most significantly, it also held the stone tablets upon which were written the Decalogue or Ten Commandments. This Law had been given to the descendants of Jacob who had fled slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses. Every Jew had sworn obedience to this Law on the borders of Canaan. Standing on the Mounts of Blessings and Curses, they acknowledged their obligation and the consequences of failed obedience.

As part of their system of worship, the Ark had been hidden away in the most holy place within the tabernacle. Only someone with proper authority and ordination could enter the room and look upon the Ark. How far the Israelites had fallen in their relationship to this sacred object can be seen when they not only brought the Ark out of that secluded refuge to be seen by every Israelite that cared to look upon it, but it was also uncovered to the gaze of the Philistines, who had no practical knowledge of the significance of the items within.

Sadly, the problem was not with whether or not the Ark was present for the battle. The problem was with the Israelites themselves and the remainder of the conflict went badly to the extent that the Philistines not only defeated Israel, they also captured the sacred Ark. The symbolism of what happened next is astonishing and reverberates to the present.

At first, the Philistines considered the Ark just another religious cult object that should properly be stored in their own temple dedicated to the fish god, Dagon. However, over the course of two days, the statue of Dagon was found first to have toppled and then later, both toppled and beheaded, but this was only the precursor. People began to sicken and die. The Philistines sent the Ark to different cities they ruled, but death traveled in its wake. Finally they decided to set the Ark on a cattle cart and let it go wherever the cows might take it. The cows made a beeline for the Israelite territory.

The Ark came to the Philistines carrying the Law of God. That Law could not benefit them. It could only bring condemnation and death.[i] The Philistines, who were outside the Law because it was given only to the Jews in the wilderness, lived according to their own lights, either excusing or condemning one another without the Law. When the Law entered their lives symbolically through the presence of the Ark, they died.

We are like those Philistines. We should not deceive ourselves into thinking we are Jews. We are not. Truly the Bible says we are grafted in when we accept Christ.[ii] However, that which is grafted in does not become the same as the root to which it is grafted. For instance, if one grafts several varieties of apples into a single apple tree, those grafts will continue to produce the varieties they are taken from, even though nourished by a different root. In other words, even though we may be nourished spiritually by the Jewish root of the Old Testament, we do not cease being Gentiles, who were outside the Law, simply because of our spiritual grafting.

According to the Bible, we are children of Ham, Japheth, Lot, Ishmael, or Esau, all of whom were outside the Law. The Law which was given at Sinai was given long after the birth of these individuals. As their descendants, we have more in common with the Philistines than the Israelites. Yet for some reason, we continue to see our spiritual salvation with a Jewish perspective which would emphasize obedience to the Law of Sinai as opposed to the salvific righteousness that comes solely by faith.[iii]

There might be several reasons for this. First, Jesus, our Savior, was born a Jew. Maybe adopting a Jewish viewpoint might be like cheering for the quarterback of a particular football team. If you like the quarterback, you root for the team he plays on. However, once he is inducted to the Hall of Fame, it becomes more about the individual than about the team. Jesus certainly occupies a prominent place in heaven’s Hall of Fame.[iv]

Another reason might be because all of the early Christians had previously been Jewish and continued to follow Jewish faith and practice after conversion. Even Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, who of course was Jewish, continued to participate in the temple sacrificial system long after Jesus’ resurrection.[v] Although many Gentiles came into the church as a result of Paul’s evangelizing, it was not until after the Jewish revolts, when Jews were banned from Jerusalem that the influence of the Gentiles became ascendant. At that time, Antioch, a primarily Hellenic church became a main center for Christianity. A few small churches remained in Jerusalem, but they also were now run by the Gentiles, due to the Roman proscription regarding Judaism.

The Romans, who destroyed the Temple, opened up the Holiest of Holies in much the same way that the Israelites had exposed the Ark to the Philistines. This was also symbolized in the rending of the curtain that hid the Most Holy Place from view at the death of Jesus.[vi] No matter the symbolism, the Law that had been hidden behind a veil of Jewish privilege was now loose in the world, and that meant only condemnation and death for all. Fortunately, grace was set loose at the same time through the doorway of the cross.

Grace began to flow outward like waves. First it reached out to the Jews at Pentecost[vii] and thousands responded. Then it traveled to Antioch and from there to the Roman world. As it reached the Gentiles, it went first to those who were aware of the Law because of their association with the Jewish communities in the various cities; then it gained a life of its own as Gentile reached out to Gentile. One might wonder why, seeing the flow of grace was from Judaism to the Hellenic world why some would want to return to the legalistic Judaism that had hidden grace from the world in the first place. Even Paul puzzled about this. According to him, the entire world had to come under the Law that grace might have the ability to save the world from condemnation.[viii]

Some would have us believe that the Law saves us. As a result they preach obedience, obedience, obedience until the mountain of their words becomes as dry as the Hills of Gilboa.[ix] Grace, however, pours down like rain on that dry, thirsty ground that can produce no fruit of itself and brings forth fruit in abundance. Obedience to the Law will save no one. First, because no one is obedient,[x] we all are condemned to death.[xi] As the knowledge of the Law increases, it becomes apparent we do not keep it. Although some would have us believe that obedience comes with repentance and baptism, practice shows otherwise. This makes no sense theologically either. If we were to become obedient somehow, then our need of a Savior to deliver us from condemnation and death would end. However, the Law continues to condemn us until death[xii] or the Parousia, whichever comes first.

Most of us acknowledge that we need the grace of Christ daily, but perhaps we do not understand what we are implying by that. Such a statement is an admission that we continue to need grace because we continue to be condemned by the Law. We continue to seek life from God because we continue to die as sinners. How wonderful that “where sin increased, grace increased all the more.”[xiii] Perhaps that is why it is often called “The Blessed Hope.”

[i] Romans 7:9-11

[ii] Romans 11:17-21

[iii] Romans 1:17

[iv] Hebrews 1:3

[v] Acts 21:20-26

[vi] Mark 15:38

[vii] Acts 2:14-41

[viii] Galatians 3

[ix] 2 Samuel 1:21

[x] Romans 3:10

[xi] Romans 6:23

[xii] Romans 7:1

[xiii] Romans 5:20



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