Form or Substance

[taken from my commentary on Romans, Chapter 14]

With the crucifixion and resurrection of the Savior came revolutionary changes in the interpretation of Torah law. 613 laws, 365 negative, 248 positive, both ceremonial and moral, have been for religious purposes—at least for Gentiles—happily discontinued in one way or another. The ceremonies connected to the Exodus now would no longer be the supreme example of God’s power and salvation. The Temple sacrifices would become, ceremonially speaking, obsolete under the New Covenant ratified by the Savior’s death. “In that He says, A new covenant,” The writer to the Hebrews exclaims, “He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” [Hebrews 8:13]. The Moral law could be summarized now in a word—love, agape love, “the fulfillment of the law” [Romans 13:10].

It is a marvel we understand as much as we do about whatever passion seemed to drive God to such extremes as to require His only son’s crucifixion to save us. 613 commandments after awhile might become second nature to us following them, but that was not their purpose… ever!. Religious people, though, seem to find reason to replace them, to materialize worship, to give it form, a ritual, a list of do’s and don’t’s, or an orchestrated routine that more than symbolizes devotion to God but becomes the very essence of spirituality.

To miss a Wednesday night Bible study when my wife and I were newly weds seemed next to blasphemous because we were told that this service was for those who truly loved God and not just church. So when we skipped out for a jaunt to the market one Wednesday and got a flat tire, I knew it was God’s punishment. Well, it wasn’t. I know that now. Wednesday night was the form not the substance of our love for God.

In writing to the Romans, Paul dedicated the entire 14th chapter to this one subject: distinguishing between the form and the substance. He would not condemn religious form because every idea, even our worship, must have some expression, and often that is how we know what worship is [3 songs and a chorus]. A table is a table not because it is made of wood (it might be metal), nor because it has legs (ask the Japanese) but because of its function to eat off or whatever else we use a table for. We must discover in our own experience what the difference is between the table and its function, between a church service and our worship while in it.

In Paul’s world, some believers were strict vegetarians; some brought a ham roast to fellowship banquets. There were a number of injunctions about eating in Torah law. I am glad he addressed this conundrum.

Oh, I mentioned 613 injunctions now discarded. But did you know they were replaced with what I call the 614th one. Matthew 6:14, forgiveness. And the 615th? Romans 6:15 “we are under grace, now!”

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