Love is the Fulfilling of the Law—The Role of the Last Five
Commandments in the Christian Life
In our lectionary readings for last week, the first week of Advent, one of the texts we read was Romans 13:8–14. This is a special text for a couple of reasons: First as in all of Paul’s letters, they are broken into two major parts, (1) a Gospel section expounding the wonderful truths about our redemption in Christ, and (2) a moral section outlining and admonishing how Christians are to now live in light of this salvation.
Early Christian Catechesis
This text is part of this important second section which begins in chapter 12:1 with the famous words, “I appeal to you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.“
Secondly, these verses, in particular, especially 13:8–10 give us a glimpse of the earliest Christian catechesis. What is “catechesis?” The term comes from Greek and means to train or instruct. Before Christians were baptized, they were first instructed in the commandments of God. This was true of both Judaism at the time of Christ and Christianity. In fact, the practice of pre-baptismal catechesis was taken over by the earliest Jewish Christians from the traditional Judaism they had been reared in.
The “Ten Words”
At the heart of this training lay the Decalogue (meaning “Ten Words”)—the Ten Commandments. What is interesting about this is that Jews and Christians of this time usually only focused on the last five commandments. This is precisely what Paul does here. This was customary for some reason, and we.see it elsewhere in the New Testament. Jesus’s teaching in Matthew chapter 5 of the Sermon on the Mount is set up the same way, so is the book of James 2:11. The earliest existing Christian catechism from the first century known as the Didache (or Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles through the Twelve Apostles) is structured the same way. Take in a quick read:
Rom. 13:8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
Early Christian Meetings
In the latter part of the first century A.D. a Roman Bureaucrat named Pliny the Younger writes a letter to Emperor Trajan. In it, he tells of his attempt to find out what these Christians are doing in their secret meetings where they supposedly eat some man’s “flesh and blood.” After torturing two young Christian women (presumably to death!) he concluded that these Christian meetings are of an innocuous nature. Notably, they included a recommitment of an oath to follow what sounds like these final parts of the Ten Commandments. Essentially, the catechumen committed to being a “covenant law-keeper” swearing a “sacramentum”
The “Cliff-Notes” to the Law
The Ten Commandments are in fact a summary of the Law of God. They were used in ancient Israel and Judaism as a sort of “Cliff-notes to the law. Easily memorized, they served as a quick reference on how to act in the many moral decisions of life. In Matthew Chapter 5, Jesus’ sermon on the mount actually gives an example of the dynamic kind of thinking God expects his people to use in approaching these commandments. God is concerned with his people reading to capture the “spirit of the law.”
Matt. 22:37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And ha second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
When we come to the so-called “summary of the law”—the Two Great Commandments, what we are really dealing with is a summary of a summary!
Why The Focus on the Last Half of the Ten Commandments?
So why focus do many New Testament writers focus on the last five? Well as a pious nation, idolatry, idol-making, etc. were quite out of style. Breaking the first five commandments were socially intolerable. It was in relation to one’s neighbor where hypocrisy was most likely to reveal itself. As reform movements like Christianity and the Essenes upped the bar, the emphasis was put on how one treats his or her neighbor. John puts this best:
1John 4:20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.
For the Apostolic writers, love of neighbor became precisely HOW a person showed his true love for God. This is why Paul refers to the summary of the law, to also summarize the last five of the Ten Commandments: He writes: “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law…” and “and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom. 13:8 & 9–10).
The Love of Jesus Christ is the Fulfilling of the Law
As we celebrate this Advent and Holiday season and look to 2020, let us keep this in mind. Jesus came as the fulfilling of the law—the sinless for the sinful. Jesus came as a man, to save all men because of the Law’s demand. Apart from Jesus, we cannot fulfill the law.
Jesus was embodied in human flesh, the divine donning flesh to save those in the flesh. Through his work, he has given us his Holy Spirit, by which we cry “Abba—Father!” (Rom. 8:14 & Gal. 4:6) Now that Spirit indwells our flesh so that we might incarnate the Gospel before the eyes of the world.
As we do so, ever imperfectly, let us always bear in mind to love, because the one who loves his neighbor fulfills the law!