Jesus said “The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So practice and observe everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (Matthew 23:2-3), but under the Lord’s inspiration Paul said “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14). Within the Biblical worldview we know there are no contradictions in Scripture, only limitations on our perspective, so how do we reconcile these teachings? It’s simple: we shift our focus from the letter to the spirit of the law.
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” said the Lord, and in that sublime utterance gave us the key to the law under the New Covenant: the law remains the law but now in Christ, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, we can see that the law is not our master, but our servant. It exists to free us, not to bind us, to the extent we can attune our minds to His and recognize the purpose and intent of the various statutes.
Like a child who comes of age under the tutelage of a benign custodian, and enters into the status of “heir of the estate” with all of its attendant rights and privileges, our relationship to the law changes with our emergence into the spiritual maturity of the New Covenant of Christ. The Sabbath remains the Sabbath, the perpetual “appointed time” established by the Father (Leviticus 23), but through the guidance of the Holy Spirit we can now recognize that God’s primary focus is not on the terms or timing of the rituals (Colossians 2:16), but on His desire to bless us by setting a time for us to meet with Him on a regular schedule.
The essence and intention of the Law remains constant. When, for example, God said “A woman shall not wear man’s clothing, nor shall a man put on a woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 22:5) there was no expiration clause. But we miss the point of the statute if think like black-letter legalists and assume the law’s purpose is to regulate clothing rather than preserve gender distinctions. With the help of the Holy Spirit we can see past the letter of the law to its spirit and recognize its eternal principle: men must be men and women, women and the distinctions between them must not be blurred. That principle has never changed, nor will it “till heaven and earth pass away” (Matthew 5:18).
So we are not bound to the letter of the law – but we remain subject to it’s spirit. We do not need the circumcision of the flesh – so long as we are circumcised in our hearts (Romans 2:29). And while we are technically free in God’s permissive will under the New Covenant not to comply with the spirit of the law, we only do harm to ourselves by that decision – because every statute of God was “made for man” to bless us (Deuteronomy 28, 30).
When I was first learning Christian apologetics in law school and seminary, the favorite example of secularists error was “situational ethics,” meaning ethics and morality with no grounding in absolute truth, so one could basically rationalize sin based on the particulars of a given situation. For example, abortion might be wrong, but if the baby was the product of rape, that situation changed the ethical equation to allow its murder.
Situational ethics is completely unscriptural. However, the reverse of this, viewing the needs of a given situation through the lens of eternally constant legal principles, is exactly what Jesus wanted to teach us in His maxim about the Sabbath: “ethical situationalism,” if you will.
Departing from what the letter of the law prescribes is permissible — IF you are keeping true to the spirit of the law. But conversely, you remain within its reach if you comply rigidly to the letter but violate the spirit. “You’ve heard it said you must not commit adultery, but I tell you this….”
Pentecost, which the Old Testament calls the Feast of Weeks or Shavuat (Leviticus 23:15-22), celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Hebrews when God appeared as a pillar of fire on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 20-32). When Moses came down from the mountaintop bearing the stone tablets of the law and found the people worshiping a golden calf, he smashed the tablets and instructed the Levites to slaughter the idolotors. “And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell. And Moses said, ‘Today you have been ordained for the service of the LORD each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, so that he might bestow a blessing upon you this day’” (Exodus 32:28-29). That was the birth of the Levitical priesthood.
At the Christian Pentecost in Jerusalem, surrounded by Jews from many nations who were making pilgrimage to keep the Feast of Weeks, God again appeared, displaying “tongues of fire” on the heads of the disciples, to bring the Holy Spirit to all who abide in Christ. And on that same day, in response to a sermon by the Apostle Peter, “those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). That was the birth of the church.
Thus in the juxtaposition of these two seminal moments in the history of mankind is the stark contrast between “the ministry of condemnation”… “in letters engraved on stones” and “the ministry of righteousness,” so succinctly summarized by Paul: “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6-8).
But in this contrast we also see the constancy of God’s underlying legal principles producing very different results in two different situations, making clear by the parallels that the feasts He decreed to Moses have never been abolished. Neither have any other of His laws. He is sovereign. His law is perfect. And in His omniscience, His application of its principles is perfectly tailored to the situation of the moment.
Following His example, it is our responsibility to seek out how those same legal principles may apply in whatever situation we are in, and to act accordingly. We have no authority or justification to act as if the intent and purpose of the law has been invalidated, even as we celebrate our freedom from obligation to the letter.