Does God’s Law Ever Change?

Covenants, priests, plants, and pigs... Does God's Law ever change?

All laws are an extension of the lawgiver’s character. God’s character never changes, therefore his Law has always existed and can never change.

Yet, we have God telling Noah that he can eat animals and telling Moses to set up a national priesthood for Israel and restricting all sacrificial worship to a single location.

Clearly something changed. What gives?

House Rules

Your mother likes a clean house and she has rules to keep it that way: Take your muddy boots off before you come inside. Don’t eat on the sofa. If she lived in the city, her instructions might include leaving your raincoat and umbrella by the front door. If she lived near a river in the wilderness, she might say to clean your fish and game outside and away from the house and not to leave trash where it might attract bears.

These are your mother’s house rules, but, as you can see, the specific rules she chooses to spell out might be different, depending on circumstances. If she replaces her wood burning stove with a gas fireplace, some of the rules are going to change because the things that the rules governed have changed.

But Mom’s character hasn’t changed, only the circumstances into which her character is expressed have changed. The specific rules she spells out are instructions for aligning your actions with her character in a specific time and place–her torah–so they might shift somewhat over time. However, Mom’s character dictates that many of those rules are going to be constant across all circumstances. Don’t spit on the floor. Say please and thank you.

God’s Law Is an Expression of God’s Character

God’s Law and instructions are similar. The rules he gave Moses are an expression of God’s character in a specific set of circumstances. If God gave them today, they might talk about coveting your neighbor’s car instead of his donkey. That doesn’t mean that his Law changes, only that how it was expressed might have been different if it had been given at a different time, to different people.

This is confusing in part because God’s character is too huge, too complex to explain to us in a list of rules, so we have a list of rules, plus lots of stories of how he has interacted with people over time. One thing we can learn by reading the stories in the Bible is that the relationship between man and God requires a priesthood. We are tainted by sin and direct exposure to his presence would destroy us, so we appoint mediators, build altars, and offer sacrifices to facilitate approaching him. (How exactly sacrifices and priests accomplish that is another topic.)

Changing Covenants and Priests

In the patriarchal era, the head of the house or one of the sons would act as the family priest. When God made a covenant with the nation of Israel, that covenant required a national altar and priesthood. Enter the Tabernacle and the Aaronic priesthood. The New Covenant that was hinted at throughout the Torah and made explicit in Jeremiah 31 requires yet another priesthood. In the New Covenant, God’s Law is written on our hearts, and our relationship to him is mediated by the Priest-King Yeshua (aka Jesus).

When Jeremiah said that God’s Law would be written on our hearts, he didn’t mean that the words God gave Moses at Sinai would be literally carved into our flesh, of course. He meant that the principles on which those words were based would be implanted in our minds and spirits so that we would know God’s character instinctively. Nobody will ever need to explain God’s rules to us, because we will simply know them, just as we instinctively know the rules of our own earthly father whose character we have studied since we were infants.

This writing of God’s character, his eternal Law, on our hearts isn’t an instantaneous event. It’s a process that has taken two thousand years so far and will likely never be complete until our Priest-King Yeshua returns to reign in person. There is still so much we don’t understand and even very much that we have forgotten! Clearly we still need to be taught how to behave in God’s kingdom.

As God and Moses carved the Ten Commandments into the stone of Mount Sinai with the fiery presence resting on its head, God, through the Holy Spirit, is now carving his character into us. In a sense, Yeshua’s disciples became the new Mount Sinai in the upper room at Pentecost, with the fire of God resting on their heads too.

In the Sinai Covenant there is a hierarchy within the priesthood. There is one high priest who is the only one authorized to perform some functions, such as entering the Holy of Holies at Yom Kippur. Then there are the sons of Aaron who have some other special duties, such as offering sacrifices on the altar. There are also the Levites, who serve various functions around the Temple and across the nation, but don’t offer sacrifices. Finally, the whole nation of Israel is intended to be a priesthood to the world. In the New Covenant there is also a hierarchy, with Yeshua as our High Priest and every believer acting as a lower sort of priest to the whole world.

These changes in priesthoods don’t represent a change to God’s eternal Law, because they are all in alignment with his eternal character. Rather they represent the application of his Law within the circumstances of a specific covenant.

Changing Dietary Regulations

Another “change” that often confuses people is in our diet. In the Garden, God gave Adam the plant kingdom for food. The plain text says “every plant”, but clearly God didn’t mean every green thing because he explicitly forbade eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. After the flood, God gave Noah the animal kingdom for food.

Did God change his mind about what we could and couldn’t eat?

I don’t think it was that God changed his mind, but that our circumstances had changed so much that a change in the rules was necessary simply to allow life to continue. The Scriptures show that something materially changed in our quality of life after the flood. Lifespans decreased dramatically each generation until we reached a plateau of about 70-90 years. Whether this was due to genetic deterioration caused by increased solar radiation or some other factor is beside the point. However it happened, we are not nearly as healthy as those who lived before Noah’s flood.

I believed that God recognized that if we were going to survive at all, we had to add meat to our diets. Plants alone were insufficient for sustaining the human race, and God’s character dictates that the preservation of life must trump many other considerations. He didn’t change his mind about what we could eat. The principle on which his instructions were based was always to give us what we needed to survive.

No explicit instructions as to which animals could be eaten and which not are recorded in the text of Genesis, so it’s not entirely unreasonable to assume that God gave Noah permission to eat every animal that exists, but I’m convinced that’s not correct. When God told Moses what animals the Israelites were not allowed to eat, he didn’t just say “Don’t eat these.” He said that they are abominable (Deuteronomy 14) and that Israel is also to consider them abominable or detestable (Leviticus 11). Not eating forbidden animals is an important part of being holy, just as God himself is holy (Leviticus 11:44).

Noah knew which animals were clean and which were unclean as offerings to God, which means that God considered those unclean animals to be detestable at the time he told Noah he could eat of the animal kingdom and still does today. God’s character doesn’t change.

On the other hand, if you were faced with a choice between eating pork or starving to death, then by all means, eat the pork. This too is consistent with God’s character. Remember what Yeshua said about healing and rescuing animals on the Sabbath. The preservation and restoration of life supersedes most other considerations.

God Never Changes

God’s character–and therefore his deeper, eternal Law–doesn’t change, but how he interacts with us and what instructions he gives us sometimes do change based on changing circumstances.

Priests are mediators between God and men within the context of a covenant. A different covenant requires a different priesthood and this shift is entirely within the character of God and consistent with his Torah as expressed in the first five books of the Bible.

Idolatry, murder, fornication, and theft are clearly contrary to God’s eternal character independent of any covenant, so they will be wrong in all times and places. Despite what you might have been mistaught about these topics from Bible verses taken out of context, eating unclean animals and laboring on the Sabbath are also wrong in all times and places, except where it is necessary to preserve or restore life and relationship with the Creator.

There is a temporal law, the expression of God’s character in a time, place, and circumstance, and there is an eternal law, which are the principles that extend from the unchanging nature of God himself. Whenever it appears in Scripture that God has changed his Law, consider three things:

  1. Could I be misinterpreting what the Scriptures are teaching?
  2. Is this actually a change in God’s Law or merely in the application of his Law to a different circumstance?

The Oil, the Spirit, Good Works, and the Light of Israel

Let your light so shine before men, so that they see your good works and praise your Father who is in the heavens. Matthew 5:16

Speak to the people of Israel, that they take for me a contribution. From every man whose heart moves him you shall receive the contribution for me.
Exodus 25:2 ESV

The materials to build the Ark and the Tabernacle were to be donated. That particular collection was a one time event, and no one was forced to give anything.

The olive oil for the Menorah was different. God said, “And you, you are to command the children of Israel to bring you clear oil of pressed olives for the light, to cause the lamp to burn continually.” (Exodus 27:20 TS2009) In order to fulfill the purpose of the command, this had to be an ongoing tax to be collected for as long as the Menorah should remain burning.

If you didn’t have olive trees of your own, then you would have to work out a deal with someone who did. Maybe you would donate some labor or your community would all pitch in together to buy oil. However the gathering and donation of oil happened, it wasn’t optional. God didn’t give the people a choice.

I am reminded of two of Yeshua’s commands. The first command is this:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Matthew 5:14,16 ESV

The second command is this:

Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.
Mark 16:15 ESV

Oil, the Menorah, and light are all metaphors of the Holy Spirit, and James told us that good works are the evidence of the working of the Spirit. We are to continually be a light to the world by preaching the gospel and doing good works wherever we go. We can never say, “I told someone about the Gospel once, so I’ve done my part.”

In order for the oil of the Spirit to be constantly replenished and our light to continually shine, we must always be looking for opportunities to serve, to tell of God’s faithfulness, to show his love to the world around us. Those good works are the visible light of the Spirit within us.

Did the New Covenant Make the Old Covenant Obsolete?

Did the New Covenant make the Old Covenant obsolete?

In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first [old covenant] obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

Hebrews 8:13

In the course of a respectful (not sarcasm!) conversation on Facebook, a friend made this statement:

Based on other interactions, it’s clear that you hold that the New Covenant did not make the Old Covenant obsolete, and therefore you must have an alternative explanation to Hebrews 8:13 which – in English – appears to plainly state that the New Covenant DID make the Old Covenant obsolete.

I thought readers of American Torah might also appreciate my reply:

It depends on what you mean by “obsolete”. Whatever the author of Hebrews meant, it seems that he didn’t mean it was completely gone (annulled) at the time he wrote, decades after Jesus’ resurrection, because he wrote that the “old is ready to vanish away”, not that it had already vanished away.

In my opinion, Hebrews is the second most misunderstood book in the Bible (Revelation being the first). I’ll use a couple of metaphors to explain two core concepts that the writer discusses.

One, the writer compares Jesus’ priesthood with Aaron’s. Two, he compares the New Covenant with the Old (Sinai) Covenant. (I say one and two, not first and second, because he jumps back and forth and all around in making his points, which convinces me that Paul was the author, possibly through an intermediary.)

Two Priesthoods

Metaphor One: Think of the two priesthoods as a hammer and screwdriver. A hammer is great for driving nails, but terrible for driving screws. In fact, if you try to use a hammer to drive a screw, you’re likely to make a mess of the wood and break the screw, possibly a finger as well. Hammers were intended to drive nails, and that’s fine as long as you’re only nailing things together. But if you have a new task that requires driving screws, you’re going to need a new tool to drive them.

If the task at hand involves certifying a leper as clean or making a burnt offering in worship, you go to Aaron. That’s what he’s good for. The Aaronic priesthood is fine for what it does, but it was never capable of mediating eternal salvation. Aaron was completely incapable of permanently removing the stain of sin and restoring us to a right relationship with God for all eternity. If that’s your goal, then you need a new tool, a new priesthood: Jesus.

Hebrews doesn’t say that the Melchizedek Priesthood replaces the Aaronic. It says that, if you are dealing with a different covenant, altar, and domain, then you need a different priesthood too. One doesn’t replace the other, but operates in parallel on a different, higher level.

Two Covenants

Metaphor Two: Picture the Sinai Covenant as a full moon and the New Covenant as the rising sun. As the sun rises, the moon doesn’t cease to exist. It continues to “rule the night” and to influence the tides, but it does fade in comparison to the much brighter light of the sun. The moon gives light both at night and in daytime, but when the sun rises, the moon’s light becomes superfluous–osbsolete, one might say–as if it has faded with age.

Just like the moon, the Old Covenant has no light of its own. It is a reflection of a much greater covenant, that the Scriptures anachronistically call the New Covenant. It’s “new” because, although it was promised and existed in principle from the very beginning, the sacrificial blood that sealed it was shed relatively recently, and it is still not fully risen. Until the promise of Jeremiah 31 (quoted in Hebrews 8) is fulfilled, we can’t really say that the New Covenant has reached its zenith:

“And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”

Hebrews 8:11 & Jeremiah 31:34

When Will the New Covenant Be Fully in Effect?

According to Jeremiah and Hebrews, one of the distinctive qualities of the New Covenant is that God’s Law will be written on the hearts of the people. They will no longer need a written Law because they will know God’s character instinctively, and will know right from wrong without having to be told. This presupposes that the Law as written in the Old Covenant is an accurate reflection of God’s character and what he considers to be moral behavior.

As we internalize his Law, we obey what the Law says without having to continually reference the written word. This absolutely does not mean that we are free to throw out all of the moral standards detailed at Sinai because we have the Law written on our hearts. If we believe that, then it is clearly NOT written on our hearts and we still need to be told what to do.

“The Law was written for sinners, not for the righteous.” But “If any man says he doesn’t sin, he’s a liar and the truth isn’t in him.”

I believe that when–or sometime after–Jesus returns, he will complete the process of establishing the New Covenant. We will finally have God’s Law fully written in our hearts and nobody will need to tell anyone “Know God” because we will all know him at every level. When that happens, we can say that the Old Covenant has finally become completely obsolete because its light and purpose has been fully subsumed into the light of the Sun of the New Covenant.

More Information…

A related post on Galatians: Galatians and Torah, the short version.
And for more on the false dichotomy of “Grace vs Law”: Grace vs Law.

God’s Olive Grove

Every faithful believer supplies oil for the Menorah that shines God’s Light into the world.

 

You shall command the people of Israel that they bring to you pure beaten olive oil for the light, that a lamp may regularly be set up to burn. In the tent of meeting, outside the veil that is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a statute forever to be observed throughout their generations by the people of Israel.
Exodus 27:20-21

Sometimes I wonder if I am completely insane, because of all the crazy stuff I see in Scripture. Do you see the parable of the talents in this passage? The gifts of the Spirit? Homeschooling? Mentoring and apprenticeship? I see all of those things, and I wonder if I’m hallucinating.

There are several different metaphors in those two verses.

Olive oil is healing, comforting, enlightening, a picture of the Holy Spirit, the Ruach haKodesh, and beaten oil is deliberate refinement in/of/by the Holy Spirit. That this oil for the Menorah is to be supplied by the people is a picture of every faithful believer’s priestly role in God’s service.

God has given everyone resources which they are required to use for the profit of his kingdom. We all have a gift, a calling, a special skill that can be made available to the Kingdom of God. Paul listed some of those gifts in 1 Corinthians 12, but he did not intend for us to take that list as comprehensive. He described three categories of contributions (gifts, services, and activities), and only expanded them in part. I believe that teaching and counseling could be included alongside faith and healing, as well as musical talent, mechanical aptitude, writing, and every kind of artistry and craftsmanship.

With the right refinement, all of those things can be fuel for God’s Light in the world.

Like its organic counterpart, the fuel God has implanted in each of us doesn’t come straight off the tree, ready to use. It must be harvested, pressed, and refined. Nor does it suffice to pour it into any lamp or onto just any fire. It must be channeled into the right reservoirs and tended by God’s appointed authorities.

Parents, first of all, and then pastors, educators, priests, and people of all kinds of skill and talent are to instruct their successors in serving God and using their spiritual gifts to the profit of God’s kingdom. Men with special skill in the engineering of homes and office buildings must mentor apprentices into building to God’s glory. Those with extraordinary artistic talent must work with the next generation of painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians, etc., use their gifts in ways that enlighten God’s kingdom rather than corrupting it.

God’s appointment of gifts is also like olive oil in this respect: it is counter-productive to isolate a single ingredient or aspect. Each person is a complex interaction of flaws and talents, and we need to seek a balance. While one of us might have a more beautiful voice than others, that isn’t a license to ignore character development in favor of breathing exercises. Olive oil is valued for its scent, flavor, color, and combustibility. It isn’t enough to achieve maximum caloric output. It must be an attractive, multi-dimensional output that allows God’s character to show through us.

As the keepers of God’s olive grove–and we are all both keepers and trees–he will hold us responsible for how we managed his oil. Are you a talented musician who can play any instrument he touches? Then play for God’s glory, and use your talents to encourage other musicians to use their talents for God’s glory. Are you a leader who can take the full measure of a man in minutes? Then lead God’s people, identify the potential leaders around you, and mentor them also into righteous, productive leadership of God’s people.

You are the priests in the tabernacle of your own family and community.

You are the people of God supplying the oil for the Menorah. You don’t possess even one skill or experience that is solely for your own benefit. God has entrusted you with a valuable treasure, and he will demand an accounting of it one day. He has not asked for volunteers, but has commanded every single one of us to produce or be cut off.

Beauty in the Eyes of God

One artist's idea of what the High Priest's uniform would have looked like. Source unknown.
One artist’s idea of what the High Priest’s uniform would have looked like. Source unknown.

God loves beauty. Gold, silver, jewels, fine craftsmanship…The wilderness Tabernacle was embroidered and bedecked with the best that those humble, recently freed slaves had to offer. (Perhaps I should say with the best that they had liberated from their former masters.)

Consider the uniform of the high priest. For his outer layer, he wore a gold crown, shoulder pieces of carved onyx, a gold breast plate covered in jewels and attached to a multicolored, embroidered tunic with gold chains. Beneath that he wore a blue robe fringed with golden bells and little, cloth pomegranates. If all of this wasn’t flashy and extravagant enough, would that you could see what he wore next to his skin!

Plain, white linen. That’s it. Simple, clean, and beautiful.

The high priest wasn’t elected. He didn’t run for office or volunteer. Out of all of Moses’ cousins, some of whom wanted the job badly, God picked Aaron for his purity of heart and attitude of service. Hebrews 5:1-2 says that the high priest wasn’t a proud man. Although his successors weren’t always like him, Aaron was a kind and merciful man of the people. Like Moses, he was a simple man who would have been as happy ministering to slaves as leading the worship of an entire nation, and this is what God found most beautiful about the man he chose to be high priest.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, they say, but what if the one looking on can see past everything you’ve built up on the outside to fool the world? God knows you, and your gold and jewels can’t fool Him.

God loves finery, but what He loves most of all is an obedient & merciful heart.

Is there someone you know (or knew) who exemplified this spiritual ideal of inner purity?