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Monday, October 16, 2017

The thief on the cross and the end of the Law

The End of the Law

When did the Law come to an end?  This becomes a lively issue in arguments over baptism.  They always trot out the thief crucified alongside Jesus as proof that salvation may even be had without baptism.  If the thief got to Paradise without being immersed, they argue, then it must be non-essential.  Our stock answer draws upon an exact chronology of when the Law ended.  The Law ends the very instant when Jesus died on the Cross (Col. 2:13-15).  That means, since Jesus was still living when He promised Paradise to the thief, then this actually happened in the waning moments while the OT Law yet prevailed.  The New Covenant, sealed in Jesus’ blood, was so close, but not here yet and that means baptism was not required for him.

Our response seems valid, at first glance, but is that really when the Law ended?  I want to explore that, but notice first that we don’t need the chronology suggested above to explain why the thief got by without baptism.  I think a better response exists.

First, Jesus had authority on earth to forgive sins (Mark 2:10 and parallels).  Truly, Jesus could forgive with or without baptism—and He did.  And that would have made sense for this man for whom baptism was not a possibility—listen, he was nailed to a cross!  At best, the thief might then serve as a valid example that only is valid when baptism is simply impossible.[1]  Some press us:  “What if a man in a desert reads Scripture and comes to faith, but dies of thirst before he can be baptized—can he be saved?”  But such circumstances are unusual, hardly ever happen, and cannot be used to establish what is normative and required for ordinary conversions.  The necessity of baptism for salvation stands.

We have argued this point correctly:  baptism was not yet in effect when the thief was saved[2].  You see, baptism had to wait until something significant took place—and the end of the Law was not it.  No, baptism could not come until the Holy Spirit was outpoured on Pentecost!  That is what kept the disciples waiting in Jerusalem.  The Father had made a promise and it could be considered kept only after the experience of power from on high.  Baptism would bring salvation not only by remitting sins, but by imparting the Spirit (Acts 2:38)—and this was not possible until Pentecost.  The Spirit was unavailable before this (John 7:37-39).  It was futile to consider baptizing the thief before that occurred, because that baptism would not have imparted the Spirit to him[3].  This is the real reason why his non-baptism is not an issue.

So, when did the Law end?

According to the Bible, when did the Law end?  The Law of Moses, as it was expressed in OT Scripture, when did it lose its jurisdiction?  When did it become obsolete and invalid?  Was it replaced, with the New Covenant taking over from the Old Covenant?  Did it happen in an instant—the end of the Old and the advent of the New?  And, if so, when?

Colossians 2:13-15 seems pretty plain and straightforward:  “And you, being dead through your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, you, I say, did he make alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses; having blotted out the bond written in ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us: and he hath taken it out that way, nailing it to the cross; having despoiled the principalities and the powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it.”  And although some expositors and interpreters would suggest that the “bond written in ordinances” is something different than the Law—that it might be some other written document that contains the record of our sins, the parallel to this passage in Ephesians 3:15 makes identification with the Law undeniable:  “For [Jesus] is our peace, who made both one, and brake down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in the flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; that he might create in himself of the two one new man, so making peace.”  Both passages declare the ending of the Law came with the Cross-death of Jesus.  The Law had become the instrumental cause of spiritual death (Rom 7;5; 8:2; 1 Cor. 15:56; Gal. 2:19), and salvation in Jesus by necessity then entailed abolishing that Law.

So the Cross marks both the beginning of the New and the removal of the Law.  However, it would seem that the precision of that transition is not so punctilious that we can suggest two successive epochs or ages, one for each covenant, and identify that the same exact moment that begins one and ends the other.  We cannot say that each covenant is exclusively operative, separately in time, because we also find other passages suggesting an actual overlap between the Old and the New.

Overlap of the Covenants

I really wish there had been a moment of exact replacement.  I would love the simplicity of being able to claim that so long as the Old Covenant was operative, the New Covenant was not yet.  Or, if and when the New was operative, that necessitated that the Old was done away.  I wish that the covenants were mutually exclusive according to time.  But I find evidence in the NT that, for a time, the Old and New Covenants were both operating simultaneously.  They overlap.

First, if there had been sharp closure of the Old that began at Jesus’ death, don’t you think the early post-Resurrection church would have preached that?  The perfect place for that to be declared would have been when Peter, Paul and Stephen spoke to other Jewish people. For example:  Paul begins his apostolic ministry by preaching Gospel in the synagogues.  The Gospel was given “first to the Jew; then to the Greek (= gentiles)” (Romans 1:16), just as Jesus had first given His efforts to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6; 15:24).  If Good Friday spelled the end of the Law, Paul should have really driven it home, perhaps like this:  “Listen up, fellow Jews and my brothers according to the flesh:  Your Law on which you rely was brought to an end at the crucifixion of Jesus!  Keeping the Law no longer brings reward from God!  The Law passed on from our forefathers has been nailed to the Cross!”  But Paul never preaches that; nor Peter; nor Stephen.  Their message is not the end of the Law, but its fulfillment.  Jesus, especially in His death and resurrection, was God’s sure answer to the Messianic promises made by the Prophets.  The promised Messiah was Jesus—that was the message!  If the Law really ended when Jesus died, a valuable opportunity to say so was missed, wasn’t it?

Second, we find two Scriptures that discuss Old and New Covenants, and the transition from one to the other.  Both would seem to have a strong motive to declare the Law to be ended, abolished, past-tense.  But neither of them do so. 

The first passage is 2 Corinthians 3.  Paul reflects on OT glory that suffers in comparison with the NT glory through Spirit.  Nowhere in this extended discussion is any declaration that the Law is done away, even though this is written after the Crucifixion!  I wish it had.  I applied all of my Greek skills to make it say that, consulted the best grammars, and it just isn’t in there—not one clear declaration that the Law is now kaput.  I might hope for some past-tense form like an aorist, or perfect, or pluperfect applied to the ending of the Law, but the Law has present-tense continuation.  The end of the Law’s glory is attached not to the Cross, but to the act of one who turns to the Lord (v. 16).  Paul describes in v. 9 “what is passing away” (present tense).  Every indication is that the Law somehow continues, fading glory and all, “to the present day” (vs. 14 and 15).  The Law is going away; however at the time of writing, it is not yet gone.  Every indication is that both Covenants are operating so as to overlap in time.

The second passage is Hebrews 8.  Similarly to the previous passage, it compares the Covenants from a post-Cross perspective.  The New is clearly superior, and the Old has faults, but again there is no absolute declaration that the Old has passed.  In v. 13 we read:  “In that he saith, A new covenant he hath made the first old.  But that which is becoming old and waxeth aged is nigh unto vanishing away.”  Doesn’t sound like the Law is yet gone, does it?  The ASV replicates into English the underlying Greek so closely that my Greek professor claimed he could fairly reproduce that Greek by looking at the English.  The ASV shows the writer of Hebrews describing the Law as “becoming old” and being “nigh unto vanishing away”—and this statement comes decades after the death of the Christ!  Again, we do not find the past-tense that we would like.  The indication here also is that the Law continues and overlaps with the New Covenant.

The “Personal End” of the Law

The Scriptures actually set forth two ways that the Law is brought to an end, one personal and the other historical.  We had expected to find the Law terminated by the death of Jesus.  However, I notice in several Scriptures that the Law may be terminated by someone else’s death.

One enters union with Christ by sharing His death.  Paul declares that he had been “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20).  We are baptized into His death (Rom. 6:3).  He took up His Cross and, responsively, we take up our own Crosses.  Although He dies first historically and we die after, it is as though Christ and His follower share a common death-experience.  In some sense, our baptismal death-experience transports us back into His death-experience on the Cross.  We die with Him, even if much time separates our experiences of death.

What I find is that the death-experience of a Jewish believer[4] (who came under the Law because of being Jewish) comes to the end of the Law at the instant of dying with Jesus.  In other words, it is the death of the believer that ends the Law rather than the death of Jesus (but in saying that, it must be remembered that the Jew shares death with Jesus).  This conversionary experience brings a “personal end” to the Law for that Jewish Christian.

·         2 Cor. 3.  We saw earlier that Paul here refused to say the Law ended at the Cross.  What then brings the end?  He suggests a veil shielding God’s true revelation in the reading of the Old, and suggests that “only in Christ is it set aside” (3:14).  He notes that the veil remains to this very day at the reading of Moses, but “when one turns to Christ the veil is removed” (3:16).  It is not the Cross per se, but a personal making the Cross one’s own that sets aside the Law and replaces its diminished glory.  Paul would see that decisive moment taking place when one dies with Christ.

·         Romans 7.  Paul begins by noting on analogy that as a woman is bound to her husband only until his death, so in like manner those who “die to the Law through the body of Christ” (7:4) in order to belong to another, to Christ.  Now, he says in v. 6, we are discharged from the Law, dead to its captivity so as to transfer slavery from “the old written code” (v. 6) to new life in the Spirit.  All of that happens not because Christ died on the Cross, But now we have been discharged from the law, having died [this is plural] to that wherein we were held.”  Again, the death of the believer that brought union with Christ, that death brought discharge from the Law, a “personal end” to the Law.

·         Galatians 2.  Paul draws contrast between justification by “works of the Law” (2:16) and by “faith in Christ” (or better, by “the faithfulness of Christ”), and relates personally.  He apparently had “once tore down” such a justifying role for the Law and determines not to rebuild it (or his reconstructive activity would thus be transgression).  Stepping out of the Law like this positions a Jew like Paul with Gentile sinners, necessitating their justification in Christ.  When describing his actual departure from the Law, Paul does not draw attention to the death of Jesus, but ”through the Law I died to the Law” (v. 19).  He then makes explicit his death-with-Christ experience, “I have been crucified with Christ” and declares that his life in the flesh (rather than continuing with “works of the Law”) is lived by “faith in the Son of God” (or better, by “the faithfulness of the Son of God”).  Once again, Paul broke with the Law through his own death-with-Christ.

·         Colossians 2:8-15.  Notice:  this is the passage that normally is cited as proof that the Law ended with the Cross.  However, as with the passages above, a close reading ties the end of the Law to an in-conversion dying with Christ.  It is the believer’s spiritual-death which enters oneness with Jesus’ death on the Cross—and that spells the Law’s end.  That end is conditioned on both deaths—not just on the Cross.  The baptismal-death also is a factor.  A circumcision done without human hands takes place in one’s burial of baptism—here is the death.  That death brings a resurrection; we are raised with Jesus because we died with Jesus.  The death and raising-up we share with Jesus spells our “personal end” of the Law, and we read: “having been buried with him in baptism, wherein ye were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, being dead through your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, you, I say, did he make alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses; having blotted out the bond written in ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us: and he hath taken it out that way, nailing it to the cross.”

Each of the passages above declares the end of the Law.  That end is not placed with the death of Jesus on the Cross[5].  Rather, the law comes to an end for each person who dies with Jesus.  That means that Old and New operate together in overlapping fashion, but one may leave the Old and enter the New by sharing death with Jesus in baptism.  The end that the Law meets is personal rather a matter of chronology.  Put another way, the two covenants are distinguished by exclusively different memberships rather than by exclusively different historical eras.

One question remains:  is the overlap of Old and New Covenants temporary or permanent?  Does the Old (with its Law) continue in perpetuity?  Or does it come to some historical finality?

The “historical end” of the Law

The OT order of things ends when God brings final judgment over it in 70 AD[6].  The Romans besiege Jerusalem and destroy the Temple.  This effectively ends the priesthood and sacrificial system.  Jesus foretold this judgment (Matthew 24 and parallels) and it spells the end of the Old Covenant as a means to join with God in a saving relationship.

A span of about 40 years then was allotted for the Jewish people to respond to the preached Gospel and to enter the New Covenant with God through Jesus Christ.  It seems fitting to call this a “grace period.”  Before this ends in 70 AD, the Old Covenant people are not yet cut off from God.  Some (the faithful “remnant”) responded and these Jews became the early core membership of the church of Christ.  Others rejected the Gospel and when judgment fell in 70 AD, it fell upon them.

Thus, it is not accurate to call the first Covenant “Jewish” and the second Covenant “non-Jewish” or “Gentile.”  Both Covenants are Jewish at the core.  The New Covenant means of entering relationship with God is the fulfillment of promises that belong to the Old.  Those promises were made to and belong to the Jews, the Old-Covenant people of God.  And God never broke His faithfulness bound up in these promises to the Jewish people.  God never stopped loving them.

During the overlap of Covenants, how would God handle the mixed response from Israel to Christ Jesus?  The complex answer is spelled out by Paul over sixteen chapters in the book of Romans, and to that I will neither add nor take away.  But those who died with Jesus in baptism came to a personal end with the Law.

And the thief on the Cross?  We might presume him to be an Old-Covenant Jew, who was under the condemnation of that Law for violation of the eighth of the Ten Commandments.  That Law would have condemned him rather than providing a reason for Jesus to offer Paradise to him.  That is why he is fixed to a cross.  The New Covenant would not be offered until Jesus breathed His last.  Why then did Jesus show him grace and pardon?  This grace for God’s covenant people in Israel was generated by the same love and covenant-loyalty that also generates the New Covenant, with grace and pardon extended beyond Israel to all of humanity.  It is the same grace that would attach to baptism both remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The thief, however, would be a new arrival in Paradise before that baptism would first be offered.





[1] Those who deny baptism often reveal their awareness of this limitation of their favorite proof.  Notice in popular Christian movies (like Fireproof or God’s Not Dead) that, almost always, the converts who are saved—without baptism—by praying some “Sinners’ Prayer” or by “accepting Jesus as Lord” are “death-bed conversions” (i.e. people so close to death that baptism would be impossible).  They seem reluctant to show a baptism-dodging conversion for any person who clearly could be baptized, and saved thereby.  They know the thief is useless to them here.
[2] Of course, John’s baptism of repentance for remission of sins was already practiced not only by John, but by Jesus and His disciples.  This baptism was not optional (Luke 7:29-30).  We have no indication whether or not the thief heard their preaching and had been offered this baptism.
[3] Notice that this means that there was a period of several weeks following the inauguration of the New Covenant before Christian baptism, a new-birth of water and Spirit, became available.
[4] Non-Jewish Christians were never under the Law because they never entered an Old Covenant relationship with God.  Paul, however, writes to churches with membership mixed with Jewish and non-Jewish Christians (see especially Galatians) and yet describes the reality of life under Law in an inclusive plural—that was “our” experience.  Some think that Paul is counting Gentiles into Israel’s history now that they have been grafted into the spiritual heritage that originally was exclusively Jewish.  That heritage now is shared jointly by Jew and Gentile in Christian fellowship.
[5] Note that the writer of Hebrews (9:16-17) ties the Cross to the beginning of the New Covenant, but does not tie it to the end of the Old.  Again, an overlap of the Covenants is made possible. 
[6] See The Reign of God by Jim McGuiggan, published in 1979.