The great irony of this passage is that we’ve worked our way through Hebrews, with all its resounding affirmations of the unique supremacy of Christ and its unyielding insistence that we are not and cannot be saved by obedience to law, but only through the atoning sacrifice of our Lord Jesus—and then we get here, and if we’re not careful, old habits kick in and we read it as law. We’re so used to thinking of life in terms of following commands in order to earn rewards that if we don’t stop and catch ourselves, we’ll see this and be right back to law; we’ll read this as things we have to do to earn God’s pleasure, just as if the first twelve chapters of this book had nothing to do with it. Even for my part, I should know better, but if I don’t stop and think, I’ll preach it that way.
Which isn’t good, because there are things here we need to learn that we won’t learn if we do that—and not just about grace, but about law. We were talking about this in our small group last Wednesday, with respect to the Sermon on the Mount, because Christ does come as the lawgiver; it’s something Matthew emphasizes. Jesus firmly dec-lares that he hasn’t come to get rid of the law, but to fulfill it, and Matthew is structured to present Jesus as the new and greater Moses. Hebrews, of course, does something similar, arguing that Jesus is superior to Moses. Our Lord is far from indifferent to what we do or how we do it; those who claim the name and authority of Jesus to throw out biblical commands they don’t like clearly don’t understand him, or the holiness of God.
What we need to understand, though, is that Christ is a lawgiver in a profoundly different sense from any human lawgiver, or even from Moses in the giving of the divine law. Human laws are about compelling outward obedience; they don’t go any further than that. Indeed, they really shouldn’t, given human limitations. In the hands of an all-knowing God who is love, however, it’s a very different matter. He doesn’t simply want us to acquire a certain code of behavior—he’s on about something far better and far greater for us, nothing less than our total redemption and re-creation; and so he comes to us as lawgiver, yes, but rather than giving us behavioral standards which we have to meet in order to earn rewards, he gives us the perfect law—the law of love, the law of liberty.
Now, these phrases are biblical—James uses the latter a couple times, and he and Paul both say that love is the fulfilling of the law—but they fit strangely with how we think of law, and we aren’t quite sure what to make of them. The problem is, we’ve missed the first lesson: what we think is freedom isn’t. We learn, in this world, to define freedom as doing whatever we want; we understand law as defining the limits of our freedom, restricting our freedom in this area and protecting it in that one by restricting the freedom of others. We see it as a balancing act, and something of a zero-sum game, that all really boils down to one question: how much are we going to be allowed to do?
The Bible comes along and says no, this is all wrong. Doing whatever we want isn’t freedom at all, it’s slavery—slavery to our desires, to our whims, to the sin that has rooted itself so deeply and so insidiously in our hearts. It is the ability to give in to our desires, to let them rule our lives and dictate our actions; it is the corresponding inability to rise above them, to go beyond them, and thus to become more than just the sum of our appetites. It is the soft slavery of the patient tyrant—and as the Bible shows us, there is a tyrant here indeed, for the desires that rule us are not truly our own, nor are they truly oriented toward our own good; we are being manipulated by our ancient enemy, the Father of Lies, who is perfectly willing that people should never realize that they are in fact puppets on his strings so long as they continue to be puppets. Such do our desires make of us, as long as our main concern is whether or not we can do what we want to do.
Which it usually is, most of the time; not that we’re all completely selfish or trying to get our own way at any cost, but this way of thinking is just how we naturally frame our decisions and our opportunities. Out of this comes our basic understanding of law as something which restrains us, something which compels us to act against what we want to do. Even when we think that restraint is a good thing, whether for us individually or for our society, we still understand it in those essentially negative terms; we see laws as existing to prevent us from satisfying our desires, and thus forcing us to act against our nature. They are external objects which serve as instruments of coercion.
If we stop and think, though, we realize that this isn’t the only kind of law we know about. We also acknowledge and respect physical laws, such as the law of gravity, which are very different. The law of gravity isn’t something externally imposed on us, or on other objects—it’s simply the way things work; it’s not a law created to control the behavior of people or things, it’s a law we recognize that describes our behavior. If I hold this pencil in mid-air and let go, it drops, and that was every bit as true before anyone ever came up with the word “gravity” as it is now. It’s just what naturally happens; it’s a law of internal reality. The law of love is much the same, though in a different way: if we are full of true love, which is the love of God our creator, how will we naturally behave? If our lives are governed by love for God and for other people, what will they look like? Put another way, if the love of God sets us free from slavery to our desires, what will we seek instead, and how will we act? This is the perfect law, the law of liberty.
And it’s what this passage is about, because it’s all about love—specifically, keeping our love rightly ordered. It’s about love for those who belong to us—our family, our friends, our brothers and sisters in Christ—which calls us to seek their good, even (or perhaps especially) when it costs us something. More, it’s about love that goes beyond that circle to those in need, especially those who are strangers among us and have no one on whom they can depend; whether we know them or not, God does, and he loves them, and he calls us to share his love with them and meet their needs. It’s about not pretending sexual desire is love, or using that pretense to justify immoral behavior. Our society loves to do that, and many marriages have been defiled and destroyed as a result; we need to understand that love must sometimes oppose desire, and put it to death, if love is to be true and stay true. We won’t necessarily make friends by saying that, but it’s the truth, and sometimes love requires us to say it.
And finally, it’s about loving God rather than money. This might seem disconnected, but it really isn’t; it’s another area in which we can easily let love for God come in second, and it’s one which helps us to see that part of the problem here is trust. “Keep your life free from love of money,” why? Because God has promised to take care of us. So much of what drives us to the pursuit of pleasure, to the accumulation of wealth—or to hoarding wealth in an effort to make sure we always have enough—is the fear that if we don’t, we’ll lose out. We don’t trust God to provide what we need or give us what’s best for us if we aren’t striving to make that happen; this fear and mistrust chokes out joy and pushes us to seek things instead of God, the gifts ahead of the giver. But the author knows that God’s perfect love casts out fear, as 1 John 4 says, and so he reminds us that we have every reason to trust God.