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Leading Question: “Should believers respond to civil law in the same way that they respond to religious law?

Introduction to the Issue: This week’s lesson gives us the opportunity to look at “law” in a general sense. What is our obligation to “obey” any law? Though there is some overlap, to be sure, one could oversimplify the issue under two headings:

  1. Obedience based on the power of the authority. One should obey a law because of the authority and the power of the lawgiver, whether or not one sees the law as being good. A hierarchy of laws is less important because the breaking of any law shows disrespect for the authority.
  2. Obedience based on the goodness of the authority. One obeys a law because it is good, because a good authority only commands that which is seen to be good. A hierarchy of laws becomes a crucial factor in determining which laws to obey, thus highlighting the responsibility of the ones called to obey.

A goodness-based obedience moves in the direction of an ideal that sees all laws as having a “moral” component. Rendering to God is “morally” significant as is rendering to Caesar (cf. Mark 12:7). A power-based view of law easily links with objective views of the atonement that envision a price being paid for human transgression; a goodness-based obedience links more easily to subjective views of atonement that do not require a price to be paid, but shed light on the character of the lawgiver.

A goodness-based obedience thus leads to a consistent trajectory, one which envisions external law being replaced by internal motivation. Thus the law is written on the heart and external commands have vanished. This is the promise of Jeremiah’s new covenant in Jer. 31:33-34:

33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. – NRSV.

A completely internalized law can never be fully realized in a sinful world, but it was God’s original plan and is his plan for the future. Jeremiah 31:33-34 points to a return to that ideal world, one described in tantalizing form by Ellen White’s comment that when Satan rebelled against the law of God, “the thought that there was a law came to the angels almost as an awakening to something unthought of” (MB 109).

With such a perspective one can see a certain “obligation” to respect/obey all the different categories of law noted in the official study guide for this week’s lesson:

Roman law
Mosaic law: Civic (secular)
Mosaic law: Ceremonial (religious)
Rabbinic law
Moral law

The suggestion here is that the word “moral” applies to more than just the decalogue. The intention of the official study guide is to highlight the importance of the 10 commandments, a laudable intention and one that is fully in keeping with the distinction between the decalogue and the additional Mosaic law as outlined in Deut. 4:13-14:

13 He declared to you his covenant, which he charged you to observe, that is, the ten commandments; and he wrote them on two stone tablets. 14 And the Lord charged me at that time to teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy (NRSV).

An Old Testament Professor at the University of Edinburgh (Graeme Auld), pointed out this passage me, indicating clearly how the decalogue is a notch above all the other individual laws given to Moses. Note the four points applying to verse 13 and the two applying to verse 14:

Deuteronomy 4:13:

  1. The Decalogue was spoken to all the people (the Hebrew word for “you” is plural)
  2. Labeled as “ten commandments”
  3. Labeled as “covenant”
  4. Written on two stone tablets

Deuteronomy 4:14:

  1. The other laws were spoken to Moses alone
  2. The vocabulary changes: the other laws are “statutes” and “ordinances.”

The only other passage needed to make this a complete “Adventist” Bible study on law is the reference in Deuteronomy 31:24-26 describing how Moses wrote the additional legislation in a book, placing it beside the ark, not in the ark where the decalogue was kept.

Such an approach to law and laws allows for the possibility that humans have a “moral” obligation to respect the laws and customs of the people with whom they live and work. The decalogue, to be sure, reflects a higher level of law, one that applies universally, but humans must also respect the laws, customs, and mores of the people inhabiting their community. They may also contribute to the changing of laws and customs, but in an orderly and careful manner so that society is not unnecessarily wrenched by hasty change.

Such a view of “law” also enables us to integrate the presence of “natural” law into the overall picture, an integration suggested by Paul in the memory verse for this week: “For when the Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves” (Rom. 2:14, NASB).

This hierarchical view of law which moves from fully internalized law in a perfect world to increasingly specific (external) laws adapted to human needs in a sinful worlds, allows the full integration of Jesus’ two great commands: Love to God, love to others (Matthew 22:35-40) and the supreme principle of love (Romans 13:8-10) into a kind of law pyramid consisting of the One great principle of love, the Two great commands, and the Ten commands, with all the other laws illustrating and applying the One, the Two, and the Ten. Note how Ellen White develops this commentary on law in Patriarchs and Prophets, thus illumining the concept of a “goodness” based law:

Ellen White’s Commentary on the Nature of Law
Adaptation and Restoration of the Ideal Law of Love

BEFORE SIN IN HEAVEN, THE ANGELS WERE VIRTUALLY UNAWARE OF LAW. “But in heaven, service is not rendered in the spirit of legality. When Satan rebelled against the law of Jehovah, the thought that there was a law came to the angels almost as an awakening to something unthought of. In their ministry the angels are not as servants, but as sons. There is perfect unity between them and their Creator. Obedience is to them no drudgery. Love for God makes their service a joy” (MB 109).

BEFORE SIN ON EARTH, THE LAW WAS WRITTEN ON HUMAN HEARTS. “Adam and Eve, at their creation, had a knowledge of the law of God; they were acquainted with its claims upon them; its precepts were written upon their hearts. When man fell by transgression, the law was not changed, but a remedial system was established to bring him back to obedience” (PP 363).

AS HUMANKIND FELL AWAY FROM GOD, THE LAW WAS ADAPTED TO NEED: “If man had kept the law of God, as given to Adam after his fall, preserved by Noah, and observed by Abraham, there would have been no necessity for the ordinance of circumcision. And if the descendants of Abraham had kept the covenant, of which circumcision was a sign, they would never have been seduced into idolatry, nor would it have been necessary for them to suffer a life of bondage in Egypt; they would have kept God’s law in mind, and there would have been no necessity for it to be proclaimed from Sinai, or engraved upon the tables of stone. And had the people practiced the principles of the Ten Commandments, there would have been no need of the additional directions given to Moses (PP 364).

THE DECALOGUE APPLIED THE PRINCIPLES OF LOVE: “The precepts of the Decalogue are adapted to all mankind and they were given for the instruction and government of all. Ten precepts, brief, comprehensive, and authoritative, cover the duty of man to God and to his fellowman; and all based upon the great fundamental principle of love. ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy strength and with all thy mind and thy neighbor as thyself (Luke 10:27). In the ten commandments, these principles are carried out in detail and made applicable to the condition and circumstances of man” (PP 305).

ADDITIONAL LAWS ILLUMINED THE PRINCIPLES OF THE DECALOGUE: “The minds of the people, blinded and debased by slavery and heathenism, were not prepared to appreciate fully the far-reaching principles of God’s ten precepts. That the obligations of the Decalogue might be more fully understood and enforced, additional precepts were given, illustrating and applying the principles of the Ten Commandments” (PP 310).

ALL THE LAWS WERE FOR THE GOOD OF THE PEOPLE: “The object of all these regulations was stated: they proceeded from no exercise of arbitrary sovereignty; all were given for the good of Israel” (PP 311).

THE LAW IS AGAIN INTERNALIZED: “The same law that was engraved upon the tables of stone, is written by the Holy Spirit upon the tables of the heart” (PP 372).

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