Free in Christ – Chapter 5, Something Greater than Law

by Cecil Hook


Even the most rigid of God’s laws were not always inflexible. There are examples showing that in certain circumstances there was elasticity in the most absolute laws. In this lesson we shall look for the principles which take precedence over law.

These references call for respect for Old Testament laws. “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it,” God warned Israel (Deut. 4:1f). The writer of Hebrews reminds us that “every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution” (Heb 2:1f). “A man who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy…” (Heb. 10:28). Jesus adds His warning about tampering with the law, “Whosoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19).

Similar warning is given concerning observance of Jesus’ teachings. “He who rejects me and does not receive my sayings has a judge: the word that I have spoken will be his judge on the last day” (John 12:48). While making disciples, the apostles were to be “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). James adds rigidity to those words, saying, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10).

These passages seem plain enough. We must respect God’s laws. But there are also examples of flexibility of God’s laws. These have been overlooked usually. Let us investigate some of them.

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex. 20:16) is God’s law against dishonesty. The rigidity of that law is reinforced by God’s treatment of Ananias and Sapphira who lied (Acts 5:1-11). But the Bible gives record of other persons who were dishonest and were not punished. I choose this one example because it is approved. Rahab lied and deceived in protecting the spies (Josh. 2:1f). Yet she is listed among the heroes of faith for that very reason. “By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given friendly welcome to the spies” (Heb. 11:31).

The articles of furniture in the tabernacle were holy, and they were to be touched by no one (Num. 4:15f). The twelve loaves of bread placed on the table of showbread were holy also and were to be eaten only by Aaron and his sons. Uzzah was killed instantly by the Lord when he touched the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam. 6:6f). But David and his soldiers ate the bread of the Presence, and Jesus gave His approval of the action (Matt. 12:1f, Mk. 2:23f; Lk. 6:1f).

A Test Case

The Jews accepted the Sabbath law as rigid and arbitrary. Out of respect for it, they made the most technical definitions of what could or could not be done on the Sabbath. In the time of Moses the test case had been made of the Sabbath law which the Jews interpreted as proving its rigidity. However, Jesus chose the Sabbath law as a test case to show its flexibility and elasticity, giving way to the weightier matters of the law. Six times Jesus did things on the Sabbath which were called in question by his legalistic critics. Jesus was deliberate in this, making an emphatic point. He was showing the true nature of law. Jesus was denying the arbitrary nature of law, declaring that there is something greater than law. Jesus was saying that God thinks more highly of mercy extended to a cow or donkey than to the Sabbath law (Luke 13:10f; 14:1f). It is hard for a Pharisee to grasp that!

If you are bedfast, must you assemble with the saints? Where do the Scriptures excuse one because of “providential hindrance,” as though God would hinder anyone? Jesus rebuked the legalists of His day for tithing with absolute strictness while leaving undone the “weightier matters of the law” of justice, mercy, faith, and love (Matt. 23:23f; Luke 11:42). The demands of law are met by demonstration of love (Rom. 13:8f). If we understand a law to conflict with mercy and love, we have misinterpreted the law. The fundamental principles should prevail, for they are the purpose of the law. Jesus made a deliberate issue of this, using the Sabbath law as the test case. The most rigid of laws was chosen to set forth the principle.

In the three illustrations used earlier, this principle prevailed. Rahab was promoting the causes of justice and faith by her deceit. David and his famished men, fighting for a just cause, could not have been denied the only available food with mercy. Jesus’ actions on the Sabbath were all unselfish expressions of mercy, which mercy could be shown to an unfortunate, suffering animal on the Sabbath.

It would be too tedious and would require too much space to include the Biblical narrative of each of the six Sabbath confrontations. We will list them here for your more thorough investigation.

1. In the grain-field (Matt. 12:1f; Mk. 2:23f; Lk. 6:1f). “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” “The Son of man is lord of the Sabbath.” “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” 2. Healing the man with the withered hand (Matt. 12:9f; Mk. 3:1f; Lk. 6:6f). “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 3. Healing at Bethesda (John 5:1f). 4. Healing of the blind man at Siloam (John 9:1f). 5. Healing a woman with an infirmity (Lk. 13:10f). “Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger, and lead it away to water?” 6. Healing the man with dropsy (Lk. 14:1f). “Which of you, having an ass or an ox that has fallen into a well, will not immediately pull him out on a Sabbath day?”

Jesus was showing that the Jews proclaimed rigidity but accepted some elasticity in law, just as we do. Jesus justified his actions by these accepted examples.

1. David ate showbread which was unlawful for him to eat (Matt. 12:4). 2. Priests work in the temple on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:5). 3. Priests circumcise on the Sabbath (John 7:22f). 4. A sheep would be lifted out of a pit on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:10). 5. Animals are untied and led to water on the Sabbath (Luke 13:15). 6. An ox or donkey would be pulled out of a well on the Sabbath (Lk.14:5).

Was Jesus justifying “doing evil that good may come” (Rom 3:8)? These actions were not evil. These “violations” became good because of the higher motives which prompted them. The purpose of the law — the weightier matters of the law — was served. The laws of God are against neither animals nor men. Jesus went to great length to put this message across, but we are slow to grasp it because we have been conditioned to the keeping of arbitrary details for our justification.

Jesus explained, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” The law was made for the good of man. Man was not made to fit arbitrary laws. If, in a specific instance, our efforts to keep a law hinder or prevent the principles of justice, mercy, faith, or love, then the higher principle must take precedence. The principle is greater than the law intended to promote it.

When we come to making application of this to specific situations, we find that there are many hard decisions. Sometimes it is easier to keep legal specifics than to make responsible decisions. In making decisions, we must be sure that we are making the most unselfish and loving choice, serving the best interest of the most persons involved.

To demand that a person assemble when ill or leave a dying loved one to attend services would be unmerciful. It would likewise be unmerciful to demand that a person with laryngitis sing, or to deprive aged parents or destitute neighbors in order to be able to “lay by in store.”

It would be unjust, unmerciful, and unloving to refuse to save your family from a deranged or criminal attacker either by deceit or use of force which might take the life of the attacker. You may protest that no one has the right to kill, but that the attacker should only be scared away or injured. But where do you get permission to deceive the attacker by scaring him with an unloaded gun or to injure him?

It would also be unjust, unmerciful, and unloving to fail to defend loved ones, home, and country from invaders. This kind of defense might take many forms.

“Pulling the plug” has become a topic of many discussions and some court decisions. Some of us have been called upon to make a decision as to the extent of heroic effort to be made to keep a terminal case alive. We are not “playing God” when we make responsible decisions, for God has put life and death in our hands. To bring life into the world irresponsibly is as immoral as to end life irresponsibly. When the cause of love, justice, and mercy has been served, God has always respected man’s decisions and actions, even to the taking of life.

Our fox terrier was a part of our family for thirteen years. You know the feeling for such a pet. He became hopelessly diseased with leukemia. My family made the decision. We gave Ol’ Cisco a tearful farewell and let the veterinarian put him to sleep. If we can show such compassion to an animal, can we not let one whom we love dearly die with dignity and mercy? We are not defending euthanasia or assisted suicide.

Perhaps we should re-appraise the matter of suicide in this context. Suicide is not dealt with in the Scriptures, so it must be judged by principles. Some have taken their lives out of psychotic compulsion. God will judge them mercifully because of that mental disorder.

Although they did not perform the acts of violence which took their lives, many have given their lives as a loving act, choosing death for the highest reasons. Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Of His own choosing to die, He said, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:17f). He consented to die and accepted the responsibility for it in a totally loving and unselfish choice.

There is an example of one person performing the violent act which took his life, and his name is recorded in Inspiration’s Hall of Fame because of it. It was an unselfish act promoting the cause of justice for God’s people. That man’s name was Samson.

At this point you may be wishing to remind me of 1 Corinthians 3:16-17: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are.” This has been our proof-text against destroying our bodies by smoking, drinking, and other vices. But that is a misapplication, for the whole context reveals that it refers to the church rather than the human body. At Corinth they were destroying Christ’s body by sectarian divisions. First Corinthians 6:19-20 does refer to the human body as a temple, but it does not speak of its being destroyed. It concludes, “So glorify God in your body.” That’s what Samson did in his self-destruction.

Abortion is a big issue now. It is not mentioned in the Bible. No one can prove when life begins by the Bible. And that is not necessary, except for the legalist. In each circumstance, a decision can best be made by asking, “What is the most loving, just, and merciful choice for those involved, both for the unborn and the mother?” It is not an easy decision, but it will be a responsible one.

Jesus did not give us who try to be marriage counselors all of the easy solutions for the marriage-divorce-remarriage problems. In many cases the involvements are so complex that we can only ask what decision serves the purpose of the law best.

Can we go too far astray when we in all circumstances make decisions based on the “weightier matters of the law”? Some may decry this as situation ethics or brand it with some other prejudicial disparagement, but Jesus deliberately took the Sabbath law as a test case to teach this lesson. Our preoccupation with legal justification has blinded our eyes to this great truth. Yes, there is something greater than law.

In Christ we are free to make responsible decisions in the world of men with the assurance that God recognizes our unselfish and loving motives and smiles His approval.

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