Previously we saw from Psalm 1 the importance of God’s law for those who want to be “like trees planted by streams of water” (Psalm 1:3 NRSV). But the Christian might ask “Why would we take “delight” in a law that we do not even follow much of the time? Or should we start following all those rules and regulations we find in the Old Testament?”
Good questions, the last of which became important to the early church and was the concern of an important church meeting in Acts 15. The final decision was quite short and to the point:
For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell
(Acts 15:28-29 NRSV)
If only all church meetings could be kept so simple! You will notice that the “essentials” are essentially those matters in which Jewish ethics would be quite contrary to the practice of paganism that new believers were coming out of. So, no you do not need to become a Jew, but yes, you do need to pay attention to the God of the Jew. So how is the Christian of today to relate to the law as found in the Old Testament? Can we “take delight” in it, and so resonate with Psalm 1? Here are four questions to help us think on it.
First, what kind of instruction are we talking about?
Note the temptation to immediately think of law in negative terms as regulations. When you mention “law” I think of rules, and the first rule that comes to mind is that which limits the speed I can legally attain on my motorcycle. Now since downsizing to a 125, the speed I can legally attain is not so different that the speed I can actually attain, but no matter, some rule maker is trying to spoil my fun!
But what if, when we hear the word “law,” we think, not of rules and regulations, but of instruction. Let’s consider the motorcycle example again. If instead of thinking of speed limits and kill-joys, I think instruction, I will think back to my brother instructing me on the basics of operating the controls, changing the gears, and wot not. And I will think of the motorcycle safety training course which was an absolute hoot to be on. As someone learning to ride, the instruction was something I could take delight in, something I naturally wanted to meditate on. Where we tend to think of what fun we might be missing on by thinking of God’s law as rules, we ought instead to think of the joy it leads us into by thinking of it as instruction for life.
And so we can delight in the law of God as found in the Old Testament. Perhaps we will not set up cities of refuge as the law instructs, but we will delight in that example of God’s provision of justice and compassion, and will seek to be just and compassionate ourselves. We may not keep laws on leaving some crops unharvested, but we delight in learning about God’s love for the poor and foreigner those rules point to. We may eat lobster contrary to the Old Testament law, if eating ocean going bugs is your thing, but we will delight in the holiness of God that all those dietary restrictions point us to. Some of the law will not work in our time and place, but all of it will instruct us on who God is and what kind of people He wants us to be.
Second, what kind of a band is this?
Note the change that happens between the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament law is like the score that a composer brings to an orchestra to perform. It is very specific, each note of each instrument has been chosen by the composer and if any one musician ditches the score, the piece simply will not work. But when the musicians get it right, it is a thing of beauty.
We must be sure to be thinking straight about this, for there is a temptation to say that the Old Testament law was a bad thing that badly needed replacement. Not so. The law of God found in the Old Testament is a beautiful thing, and had the musicians, Israel, kept to the score better than they normally did, then its beauty would have been much more apparent. It would have been seen as the masterpiece that it is:
5 See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. 6 You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” 7 For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? 8 And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?
(Deuteronomy 4:5-8 NRSV)
But now things are different and since the advent of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit God has been doing a new thing. As a follower of Jesus Christ I am less like the bass player I was in Grade nine music class trying to follow a score provided by the teacher, and more like the bass player I was in my former rock bands working on original songs. We never had musical scores, instead I had freedom to come up with my own bass lines. However, I was never free to do anything I wanted. I had to keep in time, play in the correct key, and come up with lines in a style appropriate to the piece. Likewise as Christians we are free from the law, but we are not free to do whatever we want. We need to keep in step with the songwriter. He is not helping us with our song, we are serving His purposes as He composes His song: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:25 ESV)
We are given the wonderful privilege of being invited to make music with our Lord. While we have freedom, we do need to keep in step with the Great Bandleader, so that our part fits in with His masterpiece. But in getting to know our Bandleader, we do well to spend time listening to that great masterpiece He has already provided, the Old Testament law. There is a wonderful “trademark sound” that can be discerned in both the Old and New Testaments. Though we are not required to keep the law in all its rules and regulations, knowing the law helps us know the Lawmaker, the Composer of the greatest masterpiece. And that is something we can take delight in!