What Do You Mean - The Spirit of the Law?
Good News Magazine
January 1984
Volume: VOL. XXXI, NO. 1
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What Do You Mean - The Spirit of the Law?
Victor Root  

How well do you perceive the purpose and intent of God's law?

   It was Saturday, the Sabbath. Jesus and His disciples had entered the synagogue in order to worship.
   Jesus noticed a crippled man sitting among the worshipers. One of the man's hands, terribly deformed, hung useless at his side.
   The man turned and recognized Jesus. This was the wonder-worker from Nazareth! Summoning up all his courage, he called out to Jesus: "Master! Will you heal me?"
   The Pharisees watched intently. Was this their chance to get rid of Jesus? For weeks they had been hoping to see Jesus break one of the many traditions that governed Judah's civil and religious life. Then they could haul Him into court! Would Jesus heal the man? This would break the holy Sabbath of God, according to their interpretation of the law. The Bible relates what happened: "They asked Him, saying, 'Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?' — that they might accuse Him" (Matt. 12:10).
   The letter of the law was clear regarding the Sabbath: "In it you shall do no work" (Ex. 20:10). But was divine healing "work"? Did God consider it work?
   Have you ever asked yourself questions like these? About God's Sabbath — or about any other of God's laws?
   Very likely you have. Beyond vague Sunday-school memories of the Ten Commandments, few today know much about the Creator's wonderful system of laws and commandments.
   Thousands, however, are learning the truth about God's law through this Good News magazine, or other literature of the Worldwide Church of God! They are learning that the laws of almighty God are no antiquated code of conduct. Instead, they are timeless, immutable principles determining how all nature and society operate.
   Are you aware, as increasing numbers are, that your success on the job, in your marriage and family and in relationships with other people, and even your personal health depend on keeping certain laws of God? (Our popular, free booklet The Seven Laws Of Success will tell you more. You may have a copy by writing to our address nearest you.)
   However, it's not just material success that is at stake! Properly keeping God's laws brings spiritual blessings, too.
   For example, the commandment keeper learns to think like God thinks. He begins to develop the very character of the Eternal! And, as he learns more and more of God's great plan for mankind, he discovers that his own future responsibilities in the soon-coming government of God on earth depend to a large extent on his using God's law wisely today.

The key to keeping God's law properly

   How can you reap these blessings of God's law? The answer: Learn to keep the law as Jesus Christ did. So let's return to that tense moment in the synagogue nearly two millennia ago.
   Jesus quickly perceived the deadly intent of the Pharisees' query: "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" Angered, He exclaimed: "What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath" (Matt. 12:11-12).
   Jesus then commanded the crippled man to stretch out his hand. Before the awestruck audience, the misshapen limb became perfectly sound!
   Think back to what Christ said just before this miraculous healing: "It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath." This was a truly monumental statement! How so? Because here Jesus Christ pointed to the spirit of the law.

God's laws have purpose

   This is the vital key to keeping God's laws properly: We must learn to recognize the spirit of the law. The spirit of the law means God's original intent or purpose behind each law.
   Take the Sabbath, for example. When God blueprinted the Sabbath, He intended it to be a blessing to man — a refreshing pause, a chance both to recuperate physically and to draw close to the Creator, in worship as well as in love for one's fellowman. (To see what you may have been missing, read our free booklet Which Day Is The Christian Sabbath?)
   Jesus knew the spirit of the Sabbath commandment. Therefore He knew that the split second of divine effort involved in healing was a valid use of time on this Holy Day.
   Because of Jesus' insight into the divine purpose behind the Sabbath, the crippled worshiper was freed of his burden. He experienced a blessing he'd scarcely dared to dream of, because Jesus recognized the spirit of the law.
   God's law always becomes a blessing to those who recognize the spirit of the law. This applies to the 20th century as well as the first. The following true story illustrates this:
   The old man ran breathlessly into the house. "Frank, come quick!" he gasped. "Look what happened!"
   His son Frank leaped up and raced out into the backyard. There he saw it — his father's mobile home leaned at a crazy angle. One side of the undercarriage had collapsed.
   Frank caught his breath. This would have to happen now — the morning of the Sabbath! Frank knew God's law forbade work on the Sabbath.
   However, Frank didn't wait around. He grabbed his tool kit and set to work. After several hours the damage was repaired. Frank's dad was wide-eyed. He'd been skeptical of his son's new religion, with its "Sabbaths" and "Holy Days." Yet Frank had dropped everything to help him when he badly needed it. On Saturday — the Sabbath.
   This experience made Frank's father think. He began to study the Bible. Ultimately, he became converted and was baptized.
   Frank knew the spirit of the Sabbath law allowed him to "do good" on the Sabbath. He understood the principle of the "sheep in the pit." He knew what a real emergency was. Therefore he went ahead and repaired the trailer undercarriage. Thus he helped pave the way toward his father's conversion. What a terrific result of perceiving the spirit of the law!

Ministers of the spirit

   On the other hand, ignoring the spirit of the law can have devastating results.
   Remember the Pharisees? They only had eyes for the so-called letter of the law, the exact wording human servants of God had used in writing down God's divine instructions. They were therefore more concerned with a doctrinal technicality than with ending the misery of a suffering human being.
   Jesus said of them: "They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders ... Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you... have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith" (Matt. 23:4, 23).
   Part of Jesus' divine commission was to point out that God's laws were more than mere rituals: "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law... I did not come to destroy but to fulfill" (Matt. 5:17).
   Jesus wanted to fulfill, or fill full, the missing dimension in the comprehension of the law. He showed there was a weightier aspect to the law than superficial guidelines of conduct based upon analysis of precise spelling, wording and phrasing. He pointed to the spirit of the law!
   Christ emphasized the importance of the spirit of the law to His disciples. Paul later wrote, "[God] hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit" (II Cor. 3:6, Authorized Version).
   The apostles decided matters of doctrine as well as questions regarding Christian conduct only after carefully considering the spirit of the law. This was, of course, particularly necessary in cases such as the question of circumcision, where there was no letter of the law applying directly to the case in point.
   The same applies to God's Church today. Christ's apostle, Herbert W. Armstrong, and the other true ministers of Jesus Christ base decisions regarding doctrine and conduct on the spirit of the law.
   Christians realize this when there is occasionally no specific letter of the law associated with a new Church ruling.
   Despite His emphasis of the spirit of the law, Christ continued to uphold the letter as well. He clearly stated, "Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled" (Matt. 5:18). Here Jesus referred to the very punctuation and pronunciation marks contained in the written law!
   Yet most modern theology discards the letter in favor of the spirit. One extreme is as bad as the other, though. The Christian needs both the written letter of the law as well as the spirit in order to keep it properly.
   We find the letter of the law, the written Word of God, in our Bibles. Yet we have clearly seen how vital it is to recognize the spirit of the law. So how can we learn to recognize it?

Recognize the spirit of the law

   Realize this first: Without the direct help of almighty God, not one of us could truly grasp the spirit of the law. We read, "The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit" (I Cor. 2:14).
   Therefore, God grants those He is calling insight through His own Holy Spirit: "Now we have received... the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God" (verse 12, AV). Moffatt translates I Corinthians 2:15 this way: "The spiritual man... can read the meaning of everything."
   The Bible records that King David perceived the divine meaning in God's law. For example, David was able to see past the letter of the sacrificial law to the spirit beyond it:
   "You [God] do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God an; a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart — these, O God, You will not despise" (Ps. 51:16-17).
   David recognized that the sacrificial system was not an end in itself. Instead, it was to help the Israelites wake up to the high cost of sinning — and to stop sinning. David knew the source of his insight. He pleaded with God during one crisis in his life, "Do not take Your Holy Spirit from me" (verse II). Without God's Spirit, David would have been as spiritually blind as the rest of Israel.
   David's writings also show what he did to activate the spiritual insight God offered through the Holy Spirit. There are three things we must do in order to grasp the spirit of the law.

First: Meditate and study

   Set aside time to think deeply about each of God's laws. David did. He wrote, "I have more understanding than all my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation." (Ps. 119:99).
   Ask yourself, "Why did God make this law?" Or, in the case of a new Church ruling, "Why did God inspire His ministry to make this decision?" Realize from the onset that God's mind — not man's — conceived the ruling. Seek to determine how the law fits into God's great program to develop His character in us.
   Study the Bible to see how men like David understood and applied God's laws. Most important, look at Jesus Christ's example. Do the gospel accounts throw light on the spirit of the particular law you are concerned with?
   Don't lose heart if you are still somewhat unfamiliar with using the Bible. The publications of the Worldwide Church of God are designed to help you study God's Word and get answers to your personal questions. Likewise, the ministry of the Church is willing and able to help you learn how to keep God's laws.

Second: Pray for insight

   Spiritually speaking, human beings have a restricted field of vision. Ask God to widen yours. Pray for God to grant you insight into the spirit of His law.
   David constantly spoke with the Eternal about God's laws. He implored: "Teach me, O Lord, the way of Your statutes, and I shall keep it to the end. Give me understanding, and I shall keep Your law; indeed, I shall observe it with my whole heart" (verses 33-34).
   Remember that only if we are really serious in desiring this insight will God give it to us.

Third: Obey the law

   What if we meditate and pray, and still do not immediately perceive the spirit of the law? May we delay our obedience until full comprehension comes?
   Did David ever delay in obeying? Notice verse 60: "I made haste, and did not delay to keep Your commandments."
   God did not promise us complete comprehension of the truth in this life. Paul concluded: "At present we only see the baffling reflections in a mirror, but then [when we are born into God's Family in the resurrection] it will be face to face; at present I am learning bit by bit, but then I shall understand, as all along I have myself been understood" (I Cor. 13:12, Moffatt).
   Mr. Armstrong did not immediately receive full comprehension of God's Holy Day laws, for example. Nevertheless, he and his wife, all by themselves, proceeded to obey those laws for seven long years. In response to their unquestioning obedience, God gradually expanded their comprehension. Mr. Armstrong came to recognize that the Holy Days reveal God's fantastic plan for mankind. (Have you read Mr. Armstrong's book-length explanation of this foundational truth, The Incredible Human Potential? If not, write in for your free copy.)
   Experience shows that God grants the great gift of spiritual insight only after He has evidence that we will obey Him even in the absence of insight. As David wrote, "A good understanding have all those who do His commandments" (Ps. 111:10). Often, full understanding of God's laws comes only after we begin to keep them.

A key to spiritual growth

   To grow spiritually, we must learn to discern the spirit of God's law. This is vital, if we want to keep the letter of the law meaningfully and joyfully.
   So remember: Study each law and meditate on it, then pray for comprehension through the Holy Spirit and, finally, obey! Thus shall God's law truly become for you a "law of liberty," as James put it (Jas. 1:25, 2:12).
   Don't forget: James had probably witnessed that healing in the synagogue. He had seen a crippled man liberated from his suffering. The law of the Sabbath had become a law of liberty for the cripple, and all because the One who healed him grasped the spirit of the law!

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Good News MagazineJanuary 1984VOL. XXXI, NO. 1