Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel logo

God’s Word for You

Luke 13:14-17 The endless maze of the law

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, August 31, 2018

14 The synagogue ruler was indignant that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath. He said to the crowd, “There are six days to do work. Come to be healed on those days and not on the Sabbath day.” 15 The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you untie his ox or his donkey from the manger on the Sabbath and lead it out to give it water? 16 She is a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years! Shouldn’t she be set free on the Sabbath day from her bondage?” 17 When he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame. But all the crowds were delighted by all the glorious things he was doing.

We need to learn to tell the difference between law and gospel. If we fail to do this, God’s Word terrifies us. Without the gospel the law becomes a labyrinth which quickly shows that there is no escape, and one who truly reads the Bible despairs of ever being able to please God. The Third Commandment seems clear and binding: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates” (Exodus 20:9-10). We read this command and we’re tempted to think, why is God so long-winded here? Why list all of the people in a person’s life? But God knew his people the Hebrews. He knew that he had to tell a man, not you or your son either, because then worship might become a matter for the father while the son had to stay out in the field. The same would be true if he didn’t mention the manservant: Worship might be the task of the family but not the servants. And if he failed to mention the daughter or the maidservant then worship might be thought to be a matter for men alone. And so he also adds the alien within your gate, although even this was perverted by the Jews in Jesus’ day who thought that if a peddler thrust his hand through your door you could buy from him, since his body was not “within your gate” but only his arm. And God also adds that one’s animals should rest, too.

The people of this synagogue had been led by the Pharisees to believe that work consisted of breaking a sweat in any way, so that if you walked more than a certain distance (a “Sabbath day’s walk” was about ¾ mile, Acts 1:12) you violated the commandment.

The law was put into place so that the people would take worship and the study of God’s word to heart. But the law that reigns over all the other laws is the law of love. God does not require anything of us as much as love toward our neighbor. Jesus placed the value of the second table of the law on the same level as the first table when he said, “And the second is like it” (Matthew 22:39).

The “law of love” as I called it is still not the same as the gospel. This is why it’s so necessary that we learn to tell the difference between law and gospel. The law condemns us and throws us down like a bully who isn’t afraid of anyone. But the law is far more than a bully. The law has real authority. The law can’t be objected to or contradicted. The law cannot be repealed. The law, and by “law” I mean the law of God, the moral law of the Ten Commandments, this law stands forever. The Hebrews had even more laws than this. They also had the civil law, forbidding boundary stones from being moved and which animals, birds, and fish could and could not be eaten and so on, and they had the ceremonial law which protected the tabernacle and described what sacrifices could be made and what could not be made in vivid detail. And they had the terrible example of the results of breaking these laws when Aaron the high priest’s own sons broke the law of the sacrifices and were put to death by God for it (Leviticus 10:1-2), which happened again when another high priest’s sons did the same thing in the days of Samuel the prophet (1 Samuel 2:12-17 and 1 Samuel 4:11).

The gospel is different. Where the law condemns and terrifies, the gospel rescues and comforts. The law crushes us into dust, but the gospel gathers the dust together and raises us to life again. The law tells me that I’m selfish, petty, prone to fits of temper or that I wallow in self-doubt. The law tells me that I don’t truly dig into my Bible as I should. The law tells me that if I spend fifteen hours preparing a sermon, I should really be spending twenty or twenty-five so that the words and even my facial expressions are crafted just so, in order that what I say won’t be misunderstood. The law tears my flesh like thorns and makes me agonize over my failings. The law tells someone else that when they hesitate to go the church because they’re tired or when they don’t want to volunteer to help the church teach the children or to fold bulletins or to watch over the nursery when we have Bible studies that they should feel guilty, that they are failing in their faith, that they are not showing love at all.

But God has not only sent his law. His law, we have said, is a labyrinth from which there is no human escape. But God also sent his gospel. The gospel is not a mere string to show the way out. The gospel is not a trail of breadcrumbs. The gospel tears the roof off the maze of the law and lifts us all completely outside the law and sets us into the lap of God. The gospel is Christ’s blood spattering the cross as the sacrifice to atone for our sins. The gospel is the freedom of forgiveness that tells us all: You are at peace with God.

Knowing that peace, we are ready for love. Maybe it’s a mistake to call it the “law of love,” because it’s really just the response of love—the response to the gospel and to forgiveness, the response that says, “I will love God and my neighbor and yes even myself because Christ loved me.” This is our reply to the gospel that says, “I’m delighted with the law of God because it shows me God’s will. He wants me to worship him. He wants me to help when my church asks. He wants me to prepare for worship faithfully.” And just as a priest in the tabernacle would work and sweat and become exhausted in his work (just like a butcher does), so also a pastor and a Sunday school teacher works and sweats and becomes exhausted in the work of preaching and teaching and setting an example.

The endless maze of the law, apart from the additional corridors and traps of the Pharisees, seems to say that you must not do anything to contradict the law, even at the cost of your own life. The Pharisees and this Synagogue ruler made the bizarre exception that you could do work to get your ox a drink of water, seeming to bring God’s wrath down on your own head, but that was better than making your ox suffer so that it might reduce its health or, and this was really the point, its value for sale. This is why Jesus exploded with his shout, “You hypocrites!”

Know the law—this is the command of God and is to be taken seriously. Know the gospel—this is the rescue from our guilt which is impossible without Christ. Now respond with your life. Live as one who has been released from hell and brought to the very gate of heaven. What you have lost is everlasting agony. What you have gained is everlasting life. Now face the next challenge of your day as a forgiven child of God.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.