The Hidden Fences of the Law
Fences of the Law are not modern phenomena. They also existed in Jesus’ day. Much of His conversations with the Pharisees centered on the Law and tearing down the fences they had erected. Fences that kept people out of the kingdom of God and away from the Gospel. We can find one of these conversations in which Jesus seeks to kick down the fences in Mark 7:1–23 and Matthew 15:1–20.
Driving this discourse between Jesus and the Pharisees, are two levels of Law. One, the Oral Law, referred to in Mark and Matthew as the “tradition of the elders.” The other is the Written Law, more commonly known as the Law of Moses.
In view in this discussion is the Written Law in a narrow sense; that is, the collection of laws and commands God gave to His people. It included the Ten Commandments and other civil laws for keeping order among God’s chosen people and those sojourning among them. The Written Law, in a wide sense, refers to the entire Torah which contains not only God’s commands but God’s gracious and merciful revelation of Himself.
The Written Law, in the narrow sense, is the definitive, knowable command of God. When we use the term Law (as in Law & Gospel), this is the Law we speak about. The Written Law reflects God’s will for our lives. It is the way of living in relationship with God — loving Him with all our heart, soul, and strength — and with our neighbors — loving them as ourselves.
The other level of law at work here, the Oral Law, was understood by pious Jews of Jesus’ day, at least in part, to also come from God on Mt. Sinai, but was passed on orally instead of being written down. These Pharisees used the Oral Law, what Jesus calls, “the traditions of men” (Mark 7:8), to build a fence around the Written Law to keep people from breaking it. In a parenthetical sentence, Mark lets us in on some Pharisaical fence building. “For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly” (Mark 7:3). “Properly” typically entailed washing with closed fists to prevent one palm from polluting the other. Vigorous diligence demanded washing up to the wrists; others, in the name of total and complete thoroughness, would go as far as the elbows. If one washed up to their elbows, there could be no doubt about the cleanliness of their hands.
The Pharisees held to a strict observance of the Law. They believed they could usher in the restoration of Israel’s independence and power as in the days of David by fulfilling God’s Law. For that reason, they upheld the fence of the Oral Law and desired for the people to do the same. They believed this would put them in God’s favor and restore Israel to what they thought was its rightful place.
Like the Pharisees, as well-meaning, contemporary Christians we too can often add fences to God’s Law. As in Jesus’ day, these modern-day fences quickly become a law unto themselves, replacing that which they were designed to protect. God says, avoid drunkenness. The fence says, don’t drink. God says, don’t commit adultery. The fence says, don’t dance. God says, don’t lie about your neighbor. The fence says, don’t be associated with anyone who lies. And, just as quickly, these man-made laws become damnable offenses.
These fences can also be well hidden; an invisible electric fence waiting to shock the Christian living in the freedom God has gifted them in Christ. Where once alcohol was to be avoided, now one shouldn’t even think about it. In addition, these fences constantly move further and further from God’s Law. It soon becomes a sin to associate with anyone who does drink because that could appear as an endorsement of alcohol which has become equivalent to sin.
These fences have little to do with loving God and loving neighbor. Rather, they are about avoiding personal condemnation. They move the Christian beyond the love and freedom they have to serve their neighbor in Christ back into living in constant fear of the imminent wrath of God.
Jesus will have none of that. C.E.B. Cranfield summarizes Jesus’ discourses with the Pharisees, “Jesus challenges the authority of the oral law radically. It pretended to be a fence to protect the Law from infringement, but in fact, it tampered with the Law. Jesus charges the Pharisees and scribes with actually disobeying the Law of God through their exaggerated reverence for their oral law.”
Jesus demotes the status of the Oral Law. He takes it off the divine pedestal and exposes it for what it really is: mere human precepts and teachings. The root problem with these fences of the Law is that they make God’s Law seem manageable, even doable. They burden people; not simply by adding more things to do and avoid, but by adding the belief that the Law can be accomplished.
Many Christians and non-Christians alike assume that because God commands it, we can do it. But in fact, it’s the opposite. As Philip Melanchthon wrote, “On the contrary, it is precisely because he commands it that it is not in our own power. For he commands the impossible to commend his mercy to us.”
By rendering the traditions of man worthless, Jesus knocks down our fences and raises our view of the Law to its proper place — from a low view to a high view. A low view of the Law says that it is manageable, that you and I can fulfill it, that if we try a little bit harder, we can get it done and earn favor with God. A high view of the Law rightly states that it is impossible for us to fulfill the Law no matter how hard we try.
Jesus strips us all of the last remaining confidence in our own abilities. In raising our view of the Law, He also lowers our view of humanity : from a high view, which holds that humans have it within themselves to fulfill that which God commands, to a low view, which rightly sees that we have no good in us with which to obey God’s commands. He relocates our source of self-righteousness from works of the hand to works of the heart. “It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come…All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23). In turn, Jesus raises our view of our sin — from a low view of sin that believes that you and I can make up for the sins we’ve committed by doing more good, to a high view of sin that correctly states “my sin is so great only the Son of God can cover over these wrongs.”
Under the high and inescapable accusations of the Law, Jesus gives us nowhere else to turn but Him. We have nowhere to turn but to His perfect life lived for us, nowhere to look but His sacrificial death for us. And nowhere to hope but in His resurrection from the dead for us. It is because of Christ that our sins are forgiven, that we are made righteous, and that our life is made new. With the fences cleared away and the Law properly in view, Christ’s Gospel also finally comes into view.
Jesus, by accurately portraying the Law as impossible to keep because of our sinful human hearts, correctly shows us how great our sin is. It's Christ who turns us from theologians of glory who believe we humans can ascend to God by pleasing Him with works, to theologians of the cross who believe Christ has paid it all for us and that we are under God’s favor despite the evil that comes from our human hearts.