Barking up the Wrong Tree

Some people say that there is little love in the world because there is so much focus on, or preoccupation with, “lists and duties” to do, instead of simply “loving” God and neighbor as oneself. This preoccupation is often called “religion” as opposed to true “spirituality.” And because such a religion has often caused pain and heartache – even alienation among family and friends because of judgmental and perfectionist attitudes – it has been labeled as “toxic religion.”

True spirituality, these people say, has to do with having a “personal relationship” with God and Jesus Christ – not a list of do’s and don’ts. And they will quickly point to Christ condemning the scribes, Pharisees and teachers of the law of His day as having a form of religion but no true spirituality. These Jewish leaders had their list of rules, but they surely had no positive personal relationship with Jesus. In fact, they engineered His death by crucifixion in the hands of Roman soldiers!

There are indeed religious people like that – even in our age – and they are rightly and deservedly to be censured, as Jesus censured the religious leaders of His day. But it is a completely different matter when those who sincerely obey the laws of God – both in the Old Testament and the New – are labeled, by others who think differently, as propounding or purveying a “toxic religion.”

I must say, this is barking up the wrong tree!

A world of difference

We need to see clearly the line between God’s law and man-made rules! There is a world of difference!

Jesus condemned the way in which the religious leaders of His day worshiped God, as “vain.” The reason: “ ‘…in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’  For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men  (Mark 7:7-8, NKJV throughout, unless noted otherwise). Jesus condemned the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees and teachers of the law because they had laid aside God’s commandments, and instead they had held on to their many man-made commandments and traditions.

Jesus told the multitude that followed Him, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  Therefore whatever they tell you to observe [that is, according to the Law of Moses], that observe and do; but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do” (Matthew 23:2-3). Jesus condemned them as being “full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:28) — not really obeying God’s law — while appearing outwardly “righteous” because of the “religious” traditions which they kept.

The crowds of Jews who were under the influence of their religious leaders were told upfront by Jesus: “Did not Moses give you the law, yet none of you keeps the law” (John 7:19)?

The first Christian martyr Stephen told the Jews: “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit…you…who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it” (Acts 7:51-53).

The Apostle Paul echoed this observation when he referred to the “Judaists” among the Christians then:  “For not even those who are circumcised keep the law…” (Galatians 6:13).

What “law” did Paul mean?

Some might argue that by “law” Paul was referring to The Law of Christ (Galatians 6:2) – not the Old Testament law or the “Law of Moses.” But Jesus clearly said He didn’t come to abolish or destroy that Law of Moses (Matthew 5:17-19). Rather, He came to “fulfill” the law – to “fill it full.”

Jesus came to magnify (or “exalt,” NKJV) the law, as Isaiah 42:21 prophesied of the Messiah. How?  He magnified the law by making it applicable not only in the letter or outward manifestation in behavior, but more importantly in the intents of the heart and mind (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-45).  [See: Moses and Jesus — Are They Contraries?]

In fact, it was the God who later became the Christ that was with the children of Israel in their journey from Egypt to the Promised land (1 Corinthians 10:1-4).  [See: The True Christ and Peter Knew “The Holy One.”] He was the Rock who gave them not only the miraculous water and food that sustained them in their wilderness journeys. This Rock also gave them, through Moses, the law they were to live by.

He was “The Holy One of Israel” who told Israel that had they “heeded My commandments…then your peace would have been like a river” (Isaiah 48:17-18).

This is that law that points out what sin is (Romans7:7) – what is contrary to God’s will and displeasing to Him, and what righteousness is (Psalm 119:172). This is that law that God, through a transformation which He works in man by His Spirit, writes upon the “tablet” of man’s hearts (Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 8:10; 10:16). If something good, just and holy (Romans 7:12) is written on our hearts, how can it be “toxic” and wrong or undesirable?

To think so makes it difficult for one to appreciate the psalmist who was “preoccupied” with the laws, commandments, statutes, judgments and precepts of God (Psalm 119). It would be hard for such a one to imagine how a person can so delight in God’s law and love it that he meditates on it the whole day (Psalm 119:77, 97). Such a one would be hard put to believe that a man whose “delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2) could be so “blessed” and not oppressed.

We have people in whom we “delight,” who are “close to our heart,” and whom we love. Many years ago there was a song, “You Are Always in My Heart.” When we have a loved one in our heart, we don’t cast him or her from our heart – we treasure the loved one very much. We would not forget that person.

So it is with God’s law, which God promised to write [or put] in our hearts – not with pen and ink but by His Spirit. We would love that law dearly, and we would not want or even think to cast it aside as vile and undesirable. We would have that law “always in our heart.” We would remember it always.

Who relates well with God

Who can relate better with God than one who loves Him? And how does Jesus describe one who loves God? “If you love Me,” Jesus tells us, “Keep my commandments” (John 14:15). “He who has my commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him” (verse 21).

The true Christ will only show Himself to one who loves Him and keeps His commandments  – or one who, at least, is going in that direction [see: The True Christ and  I Never Knew You!”]. The real Jesus – through His promised Spirit – will also help one to understand which parts of the Law of Moses were “added because of transgressions” (Galatians 3:19). “Transgressions” here refers to sins “under the first covenant” which Christ came to redeem mankind from (Hebrews 9:15). [See: Law Added to Law TransgressedTransgressions Under the First Covenant, and The Two Laws in Hebrews 10 .]

The true essence of the Law of God, then, is love: love for God and love for neighbor. Paul exhorts us: “Owe no man anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of [compliance with, not contradiction to; not abrogation of] the law” (Romans 13:8-10).

“He who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8). And here’s how we can know for sure that we do love, especially our brother in the faith: “By this we know that we love the children of God [not just the feeling of “loving” emotion, but], when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:2-3).

Millard J. Erickson made this amazing statement about God’s law:

“In effect, the law is something of a transcript of the nature of God. When we relate to it [the law], whether positively or negatively, we are not relating to an impersonal document or set of regulations [;rather,] it is God himself whom we are obeying or disobeying. Disobeying the law is …actually an attack upon the very nature of God himself….the law is to be understood as a means of relating to a personal God. (Christian Theology, published by Baker Book House Company, 1985, page 803, emphasis added)

Since the natural mind of man is “carnal” and thus “is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (Romans 8:7), man cannot truly love God and neighbor without the power of God’s Holy Spirit. That Spirit has to be given to man, as a gift from God, in order that a man can have “the love of God” [obedience to God’s commandments and laws] “poured out in [his heart]” (Romans 5:5;  Ezekiel 36:26-27). With that Spirit, obedience comes with joy and not compulsion. [See: God’s Spirit and Obedience and The Higher Law of the Spirit.]

Because many false “Christs” and false prophets [see: Beware of False Prophets!] have appeared in this world (as Jesus warned, Matthew 24:5, 11, 24), lawlessness has increased today and, as a result, the love of many has turned cold (verse 12). Love starts to turn cold when we cool off with God’s law, for that law defines how we are to love God and our neighbor.

Let’s not allow that to happen to us. And one good safeguard is to stop barking up the wrong tree!

Instead, let’s follow the Apostle Paul’s instruction: “Test [or “Prove,” KJV] all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21), using God’s Word as our standard for truth (John 17:17; Isaiah 8:20).

As we do, we have the assurance of a positive answer to Paul’s wish: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).


Pedro R. Meléndez, Jr.