The Law of Moses: Some Metaphors Considered

By Wayne Jackson

The law of Moses was given by Jehovah to the Israelite nation some fifteen centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ (Deuteronomy 5:1-5). It was never designed to be a permanent legal system. Accordingly, it was abrogated as a binding law almost two millennia ago. And yet, tragically, many people are still attempting to observe its precepts today, to one degree or another.

There are numerous New Testament passages which affirm the termination of the Mosaic economy. The Jewish regime was certainly included in Jesus’ statement from the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30). In his letter to the Romans, Paul affirmed that we are “dead to the law”; indeed, we are “discharged” therefrom (Romans 7:4,6). Men have been “set free” from the Hebrew system, and attempts at justification through its rituals are a manifestation of apostasy (Galatians 5:1,4). The law of Moses was abolished forever by means of the death of Christ (Ephesians 2:15; Colossians 2:14).

Sometimes concepts are easier to apprehend if we see them in “pictures.” A metaphor is a word-picture. Let us, therefore, consider several metaphors employed in the New Testament, which set forth some vivid concepts relative to the law of Moses.

A Burdensome Yoke

As the first-century church rapidly grew beyond the pale of Judaism, certain Jewish believers from Judaea sought to impose circumcision upon the Gentiles. They contended that without this fleshly ritual, one could not be saved (Acts 15:1,5). Accordingly, a meeting was convened in Jerusalem to discuss the matter. During this session the apostle Peter argued against binding circumcision. His case was that God had already authenticated Gentile inclusion into the church—without the requirement of circumcision. This was evidenced by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon Cornelius and his associates in Caesarea, with no circumcision being imposed upon this Gentile officer (Acts 10).

Peter then asked his Hebrew brethren: “Now therefore why do you put God on trial by placing a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). Note the use of the term “yoke.” Later, Paul, speaking also of the Mosaic system, would say: “Do not become entangled again in a yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1).

There was a sense in which the term “yoke” applied to the law in a noble way. The figure could suggest the binding responsibility Israel sustained towards the Creator. It was in this light that Jeremiah rebuked certain rebels of his day, who had “broken the yoke, and burst the bonds” (Jeremiah 5:5). Jesus urged men to take his “yoke” upon them, and learn of him; he promised that the “yoke” would be easy to bear (see Matthew 11:28-30).

The Pharisees of the first century, however, had gone far beyond the legitimate dictates of the Mosaic law. By the addition of human traditions, they had created a legalistic system that became an unbearable burden. As the Jews increasingly came in contact with foreign powers (e.g., during the period of the Babylonian exile, and later in association with the Greeks and the Romans), they felt a burning need to preserve the religion of their ancestors. Around the Torah (the written law) there thus evolved a body of oral teachings, called the “traditions of the elders” (Matthew 15:2; Mark 7:3,5). It was to the law, cumbered by this oppressive tradition, that Peter described as a “yoke” in Acts 15.

Consider, for instance, the Sabbath regulation. The Hebrews were to refrain from labor on the seventh day of the week (Exodus 20:8-11). The Pharisees went far beyond the text of the law, however, in regulating the Sabbath; they had numerous nitpicking interpretations that bordered on the ludicrous. The Jewish rabbis detailed thirty-nine different kinds of work from which the Hebrews must refrain on that sacred day (Schurer 1891, 98ff).

It was not lawful, for example, to untie a knot—unless it could be untied with one hand! The law forbade kindling a fire on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:3); the rabbis went further, contending that a fire might not be extinguished on that holy day, including lamps! One would have to hope his house did not catch fire on Saturday. If a Hebrew broke his leg on the Sabbath, it might not be attended to until the following day. On and on the traditions went. It was argued that a woman should not look into a mirror on Saturday, the reason being, she might see a gray hair and be tempted to pluck it out, thereby violating the “work” law. There was even controversy as to whether the Pharisee could eat an egg laid on the Sabbath. One supposes that some argued that such was unlawful since the hen labored; others possibly contended that eating the egg was permissible since the “lady” was sitting down! (see Gundry 1970, 48-49).

Human tradition must never be allowed to become a parasite upon the revealed will of God. The Almighty simply does not need our assistance in giving divine law.

A “Schoolmaster”

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul described the law of Moses as a “schoolmaster” (KJV) or a “tutor” (ASV), the purpose of which was to bring us “unto Christ” (3:24). The Greek word is paidagogos, the basis of our English term “pedagogue” (though not with the same meaning). In the Greek and Roman culture of the apostolic age, the term denoted a slave who was given charge over young men from their early, formative years until about the age of sixteen. The paidagogos was not primarily an educator; rather, he was responsible for his lad’s behavior. One of his functions was to conduct the child to school (Arndt and Gingrich 1967, 608).

There are several points we should emphasize in this connection.

First, the law of Moses was not an end in itself. It was crafted by Jehovah to lead men to Christ. This it did, among other things, by:

  • calling attention to the horrible nature of sin (Romans 7:7-13), thus the need for relief;
  • demonstrating that no one could keep the law completely—hence, humanity needed a deliverer; and
  • directing attention to the coming Messiah by embodying more than three hundred prophecies detailing the life and mission of Jesus of Nazareth (cf. Luke 24:44; John 5:46), therefore providing a method of positive identification.

Additionally, the very fact that the role of “tutor” was temporary was an apt illustration of the temporary nature of the Old Testament economy. As the apostle plainly says: “We are no longer under a tutor” (Galatians 3:25). Sadly, there are countless thousands, professing Christianity, who seem perfectly oblivious to this fundamental truth, as evidenced by the fact that they ever are attempting to justify their current religious practices by an appeal to the Old Testament record.

A Bond Containing Ordinances

In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he deals with a multi-faceted false doctrine that has come to be known as “the Colossian heresy.” One element of it was decidedly Judaistic. Accordingly, the apostle was forced to argue that the law of Moses was no longer operative. In that connection Paul declared: “. . . having blotted out the bond written in ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us: and he hath taken it out of the way, nailing it to the cross” (2:14).

The Greek term for “bond” is cheirographon, which denotes a hand-written document, specifically “a certificate of indebtedness” (Arndt and Gingrich 1967, 889). The expression “blotted out” translates an intensive, compound Greek term which means to completely remove, to obliterate. Professor Adolf Deissmann thought this passage might hint of an ancient practice of canceling a debt by crossing out the transaction with the Greek letter Chi (X). A.H. Sayce, professor of Assyriology at Oxford, reckoned that it might refer to an antique custom of impaling debt slips on pegs of wood or nails, after payment was made (cf. Deissmann 1995, 332-34). Others dispute this (Moule 1977, 106).

Paul may have been suggesting this: over the course of one’s mature life, he has progressively sinned. These sins existed (in the Colossian context) in relation to a “bond written in ordinances” (cf. Ephesians 2:15), namely the Jewish law. By implication, of course, there was an extension in principle to that law to which Gentiles were subject as well (Romans 2:12-15; see Moule 1977, 106). That law, if it was to effect human justification, required perfect obedience. As Paul said elsewhere: “Cursed is every one who continues not in all things that are written in the book of the law, to do them” (Galatians 3:10). Since no one could keep the law perfectly, all were condemned thereby. In discussing this matter, E.F. Harrison described the law of Moses as the “full documentation” of sin (1971, 62).

Moreover, that legal system had no ultimate remedy for sin. It had only the sacrifices of animals, which could not atone for evil permanently (Hebrews 10:1-4). Thus, as long as the former regime stood, there was no hope of total redemption. Christ, therefore, completely canceled that “bond” by his death upon the cross; we are therefore not judged by that standard today (Colossians 2:16).

When we submit to the gospel plan of redemption, “having been buried with [Christ] in baptism, wherein [we] were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12), we are made free from the guilt of sin (cf. Romans 6:3-4,17-18).

Incidentally, when Paul affirmed that Jesus “has taken” away the law (Colossians 2:14), he employed a perfect tense form in the original text. The perfect tense has to do with a past action that has an abiding result. A.T. Robertson observed: “The perfect tense emphasizes the permanence of the removal of the bond which has been paid and canceled and cannot be presented again” (1931, 494). This certainly negates the dispensational view that the Mosaic law will be revived in that so-called “tribulation period,” prior to the supposed earthly reign of Christ. (For a more thorough study of this matter, see the author’s book, Revelation—Jesus Christ’s Final Message of Hope: Select Studies from the Apocalypse.)

A Middle Wall of Partition

In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul shows that whereas the Gentiles were at one time alienated from God, provision was made for them to be “one” with the Jews in the spiritual body of Christ (2:11ff). This oneness has been accomplished, in part, by the breaking down of “the middle wall of partition” (v. 14).

The phrase “middle wall of partition,” it is believed, is a reference to a certain feature of the temple compound in Jerusalem. Herod the Great had begun a reconstruction project on the Jewish temple in about 20/19 B.C., which work continued until around A.D. 64—only a half dozen years before the sacred complex was destroyed by the Romans! Standing apart from the holy sanctuary was a great open courtyard, with colonnades along the sides, where anyone—regardless of ethnic background or religion—could enter. In this area teaching was done and other business was conducted.

In the middle of the courtyard there was a low stone wall, about four and one-half feet high. No one but Jews could pass beyond this wall into the sacred area. Warnings were posted along the wall, in Greek and Latin, stating that any Gentile passing beyond the barrier would be subject to death (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 15.11.5; Wars of the Jews 5.5.2; 6.2.4). In 1871 an example of one of these warning signs was discovered by archaeologists in Jerusalem. It was engraved on a block of limestone twenty-two and one-half inches high by thirty-three and one-half inches long. The inscription read:

No foreigner may pass the barrier and enclosure surrounding the temple. Anyone who is caught doing so will be himself to blame for his resulting death.

Part of another fragment came to light in 1936; it reveals that originally the carved letters were painted red so that they would show up clearly on the creamy-white stone (Millard 1985, 180-181).

In Ephesians 2, Paul borrows from this situation. The law of Moses was a barrier, separating the Jews from the Gentiles. [Note: This, incidentally, shows that the Gentiles were never under any portion of the law of Moses—including the Sabbath law—contrary to the assertions of some religious groups, e.g., the Seventh-day Adventists.] As long as the law stood, there could be no oneness between these two elements of the human family. But the “middle wall of partition,” i.e., the Mosaic law, was done away when Christ, through his blood, abolished “in his flesh” that system (Ephesians 2:13-15). Hence, all men may now be united, by virtue of their obedience to the gospel (2 Thessalonians 1:8; 1 Peter 4:17)—joined in the one, spiritual body of Christ, the church (Ephesians 4:4; 1:22-23).

Surely a consideration of the metaphors considered above will help to clearly establish the fact that the Mosaic system, as important as it was (and the Old Testament Scriptures still teach us many lessons—cf. Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:6,11), is no longer a religious obligation.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Arndt, W. F. and F. W. Gingrich. 1967. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
  • Deissmann, Adolf. 1995. Light From The Ancient Past. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
  • Gundry, Robert H. 1970. A Survey of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Harrison, E. F. 1971. Colossians—Christ All-Sufficient. Chicago, IL: Moody.
  • Millard, Alan. 1985. Treasures From Bible Times. Oxford, England: Lion Publishing.
  • Moule, H. C. G. 1977. Studies In Colossians & Philemon. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel.
  • Robertson, A. T. 1931. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. 4. Nashville, TN: Broadman.
  • Schurer, Emil. 1891. A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ. Vol. 2. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.