Monday, September 29, 2014

Law Observance 101 – How to Properly and Successfully Observe the Law

A response to my previous essay on Legalism/Moralism caught my attention, which is about the tendency that some Christians have to observe certain Old Testament laws, such as the food laws and ritual laws etc. This reminds me of a person in the New Testament, who is famous for his outstanding observance of the law. His name is – Mr. Rich Young Man. Perhaps we could all learn from his experience of how to properly and successfully observe the law.

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The Rich Young Man

17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Mark 10:17-31, ESV)


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As Christians, our salvation means the whole world to us, and we’d do almost anything to make sure that our salvation is secured. That is the case with Mr. Rich Young Man as well. As a Jew, salvation also means the whole world to him. That is why he came to Jesus, and asked Him the question – “What can I do to make sure that I will inherit eternal life?”

Jesus answers him, “So as a Jew, you know the laws, right? Such as Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother…to name a few.” Mr. Rich answers, “Yes, not only do I know them, I observe them just fine.” To this, Jesus answers, “Alright, good job! But you know what? There is one thing that you missed – Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” After this, Mr. Rich went away sad. Here, a question must be asked – what is this one law that Mr. Rich missed that disqualified him from inheriting eternal life, despite his outstanding record of law observance of all the other laws? In other words, it seems that there is this one law, if you have failed to observe it, no observance of any other law could save you.

There are two important factors in this passage that we must take a closer look at. First, when interpreting Mark 10:21, people often overemphasize on Jesus’ command to “sell all that you have,” as if Jesus condemns money and possessions. However, when we look at the broader context of its neighboring verses, it seems, by selling our earthly possessions alone will not make us “rich” in heaven. The most important part of this verse should be “give to the poor.” It is by giving to the poor that “you will have treasure in heaven.”

Second, when Jesus commented, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples asked, “Then who can be saved?” Based on the Jewish beliefs that financial blessing is a reward for the righteous, I believe that their real question, then, is, “If it is not those who are blessed financially by observing the law perfectly, who else can be saved? Poor folks like us?” In verses 26 to 31, Jesus indicates that it is those who have given up everything to follow Him will enter the kingdom of God. Looking back at verse 21, we find that Jesus also commanded Mr. Rich to leave everything and follow Him.

Based on these two factors, the implication seems to be that it is by loving Jesus and others over our possessions and comfort that we may find affirmation of our salvation. Which is exactly what, in Mark 12:30-31, Jesus commented as “the most important commandment in the law” – “‘And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

I have to say that this is a very challenging commandment that Jesus gave us, because the command to “sell all that you have and give to the poor” and to “leave everything for His sake and for the gospel” is a lifelong commitment. Personally, I know just how difficult it is for me to give up my super awesome smart phone and access to the internet for the rest of my life for the sake of God and the poor. And for some people, it may be their car, their home theater, or their SPA sessions. Simply put, the reality is, it is really difficult for us to love God and care for others over our own possessions and comfort.

Therefore, the issue at hand is not only with some Christians’ tendency to observe Old Testament laws, but also with most Christians’ tendency to treat the New Testament as the Christian law book. The story of the Rich Young Man shows us that there is this one law that if you have failed to observe, nothing else would do. And that is “the most important commandment of the law.” As a Christian, if you are wondering how that you may properly and successfully observe the law, I suggest that you center your focus and energy on learning to love God and care for others over yourself and your possessions. And you may, then, realize that everything else would just follow, and fall into their places. At any rate, don’t be discouraged even as you fail to observe “the most important commandment of the law” perfectly. We are ultimately saved by faith in Christ alone. It is our faith in Christ that enabled us to pursue “the most important commandment of the law,” and it is not the other way around.

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