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Moses is your District Attorney


By the time Jesus was born, Judaism had become centered on the Torah. The word Torah means “teaching” and was used mainly to designate what was taught with authority — that is, the five books of Moses. When the Jews of Alexandria translated the Pentateuch from Hebrew to Greek, beginning in the 3rd century B.C.E., Torah became Nomos, the Greek word for law. As the giver of the Law, Moses then came to be considered the greatest of the prophets.

After the resurrection the disciples of Jesus realized that this event marked a cosmic turning of the ages, a New Creation. The crucifixion had not been merely a Roman execution but a sacrifice for “the sins of the world.” As a result, the centrality that the Law had in the lives of Jesus’ followers became problematic. It became obvious to them that Christ’s sacrifice was the central event of human existence, and the death and resurrection of Christ was the only source of life. Until then, however, that central place had been occupied by the Law. Many Psalms proclaimed the Law as the agent of life, and Deuteronomy insisted that life and prosperity in the land depended on obedience to the commandments, the ordinances and the statutes of the Law.

The letters of Paul, our earliest Christian sources, make clear the problem created by the new act of God in Christ; it relegated Moses the law-giver to a secondary position. In Judaism, on the other hand, Moses had been and remains preeminent to this day. Paul claims to be involved in a ministry whose glory surpasses that of Moses, the one who received the Law from God at the top of Mt. Sinai. As one who brings the Gospel to people, Paul thinks he is involved in a ministry that is greater than that of Moses (2 Cor. 3).

Since the Gospel is the power of God to give life (Rom. 1: 16), its authority is paramount. Paul actually denies that the Law given by God to Moses was ever intended to give life. He makes the point in a well structured second class conditional sentence. Since the protesis is contrary to fact, theapodosis does not follow: “If a law had been given which could make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law” (Gal 3: 21). Paul’s point is that righteousness cannot be by the law because, as a matter of fact, the law that came down through the mediation of Moses and angels (Gal. 3: 19) was not intended to serve as the source of life. As far as Paul was concerned, while the Law and the prophets witness to the righteousness of God, God’s righteousness operates apart from the Law (Rom. 3: 21). The law’s main function is to objectify the sinfulness dormant within human beings who live in a Fallen Creation (Rom. 7: 5), but the law is not a tool for the salvation of human beings. Rather, it is a tool for their condemnation. It is not related to righteousness and life, but to sin and death (1 Cor. 15: 56). It puts in operation God’s wrath as it identifies transgressions (Rom. 4: 15).

No doubt, the Law is of divine origin and fulfilled a valuable role during a limited period of time within the Fallen Creation. In the era from Adam to Moses, sinning was taking place in the world, but sin was undefined. With the giving of the Law sinners became sinful (Rom. 7: 13). Sinful acts could now be identified; they could be called by name. After God fulfilled his promise to Abraham by sending the Son to bring about a New Creation, the law that works in the Fallen Creation has no role in the world of the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead. In the New Creation righteousness and life are by faith. “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14: 23). That is the Pauline definition of sin for those who live in Christ.

Until the Parousia, the New Creation is contemporaneous with the Fallen Creation. In Pauline terminology, those who live “in Christ” live now also “in the flesh,” side by side with those who live only “in the flesh.” Those human beings who live “in Christ” do so by the power of the Gospel that energizes them to live by faith, hope and love. In the New Creation, the Law which in the Fallen Creation energizes God’s wrath has no power to condemn. Those who live “in Christ” have been “discharged from the law . . . which held [them] captive” (Rom. 7: 6). They fulfill the “law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21) instead, a law which they find quite agreeable.

The trouble, however, is that disciples of Christ do not quite live fully “in Christ,” or “in the Spirit.” They live also “in the flesh,” and thus they find that while they “delight in the law of God” they find themselves “captive to the law of sin” which dwells in them (Rom. 7: 22). This is the struggle of living “in the flesh” and “in Christ.” It is the struggle of living “between the times,” between the Resurrection and the Parousia. It is the struggle of the person who is alive with Christ in his Resurrection and dead in sin by nature. It is the challenge of the disciple of Christ who joyfully lives by the power of love that fulfills the law of Christ (Rom. 13: 10), but has a hard time experiencing the freedom with which Christ has made us free from the law of the Fallen Creation (Gal. 5: 1; Rom. 7: 6). Still, to those experiencing the tensions of life “between the times” Paul confidently says, “There is . . . no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8: 1).

If we look at the gospels we find a similar situation. Both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of John point out the tension that exists between Christ, the source of life, and the Law of Moses, which had come to be considered the source of life by the Jews.

The Gospel of Matthew charts a new path to perfection. It is an alternative that avoids the reactionary response of those who insist that while heaven and earth stand “not an iota, not a dot will pass from the law” (Mt. 5: 18) and the cavalier attitude of those who claim that it is possible to “relax” some commandments and still enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 5: 19). The alternative is spelled out by the antitheses found in the following verses (Mt. 5: 20 – 48). The obedience that is considered “perfect” is one that denies the extremes of a formulaic absolutism and a capricious relativism. It insists on obedience to standards that come from Jesus rather than from Moses. The six elaborations of “you have heard that it has been said . . . . But I say unto you . . . ” do away with both a strict and a relax literalism. They establish the terms of that “higher righteousness” (Mt. 5: 20) that is not based on an object, but on a person’s example, none other than that of God’s ways of acting. This righteousness is not “legal,” but moral. In the Matthean version of the Great Commandment it is said that love of God and love of neighbor is the pin on which “the law and the prophets hang” (Mt. 22: 40). In other words, the law and the prophets, the basic Scriptures recognized by all Jews, no longer stand on their own. They take a second place to the commandments singled out by Jesus.

The Gospel of John deploys a more explicit polemic to establish the centrality of Christ as the only source of life. Three times Jesus refers to the Law of Moses as “your law” (Jn. 8: 17; 10: 34; 18: 31), in this way disassociating himself from it. At the trial, “the Jews” appeal to their law in order to establish the need for a death sentence (Jn. 19: 7).

In the controversy that followed the healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda on a Sabbath, Jesus points out the inability of “the Jews” to believe because they refuse to accept him as the one sent by the Father. Instead of coming to him to receive life, they insist on looking for life in the Scriptures. That is a fatal mistake. According to “the Jews,” Moses, the giver of the law, is their Advocate (parakletos). Regrettably, “they have placed their hope” in him, but they should come to terms with reality. Moses is their District Attorney (kategoros, Jn. 5: 45 – 46). Moses’ role was not that of mediator of the source of life, but that of witness to the Son who is the source of life (Jn. 5: 38 – 39)

In the Prologue of the Gospel of John, Moses and Jesus Christ are contrasted in a most significant, radical way. “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came to be in Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1: 17). Here three things are set in apposition: the law vs. grace and truth, “was given” vs. “came to be,” and Moses vs. Jesus Christ. The intent is to point out the superiority of the three second elements over the first three. The most telling contrast is that while the law is an object given through a mediator, grace and truth were themselves present in a personal subject. Grace and truth cannot be objects handed over. They exist only in living subjects.

The New Testament witnesses agree that the coming of the Son to live among humans has radically changed the conditions of life on earth. The Law cannot be considered the preeminent manifestation of grace and truth for those who believe Christ to be the one sent by God to redeem them from the dominion of sin and death that is powered by the Law. As the apostle Paul says, “Christ is the end of the law” (Rom. 10: 4). Whether “end” is understood in temporal terms or in terms of purpose or goal is academic; once a runner reaches his or her goal the race is over. The Law’s preeminence came to its “end” with the death and resurrection of Christ. Those looking for life in the Law are spending their energies in a misguided endeavor. The letters of Paul, the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of John make the point as forcefully as it can be made. If these witnesses present Christ as a law giver, it is only to make a contrast, to offer an alternative. The “law of Christ,” however, does not consist of commandments, ordinances and statutes. It consists of “dos,” not “don’ts.” It is formulated in the broadest of terms as the one commandment — the commandment to love. Love is the actualization of faith and hope in the activities of those who imitate God’s ways of acting. According to Paul, they live “in Christ.” According Matthew, they are “perfect,” and according to John, they mutually “abide as one” in the Father and the Son.

The core of the differences between Christianity and Judaism is not whether or not Christ is the Messiah. It is whether in order to be “perfect” before God one is to live by the Law of Moses or one is to live “in Christ,” “abiding in Him.” 

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