These Days After Pentecost: On Law & Spirit

In the Christian Church Calendar, we are currently in a season that is numbered according to the Holy Day of Pentecost, the day we celebrate the Holy Spirit falling on the apostles fifty days after Jesus’ death (hence the name Penta-cost).

Jesus had told the disciples to go out into the world ministering this Gospel to the world, but first, to wait. What would be so important as to put the brakes on the mission of God in the world?

The Holy Spirit.

Jesus tells them to “stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” And so they do, and fifty days after the cross, the Holy Spirit comes and clothes them indeed: people got tongues of fire above their heads and start speaking in weird other languages.

But Pentecost was a festival even before this. The Jews had been celebrating it for many, many years prior to this as the celebration of God giving his law to Moses on Mt. Sinai fifty days after the Exodus. So… a festival celebrating the Law is the time that the Spirit decides to come?

This seems like a curious connection for God to make in the history of his people. I mean, don’t we associate the “Spirit” with freedom and unexpected turns and manifestations of God, while we see “Law” as static, concrete, and “expected”? But didn’t God say through his prophet Jeremiah

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt…. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.

This melding together of Law & Spirit then begins to make some sense now, doesn’t it?

Law is a picture of the character of God, and it marks God’s people out as his own. The Law is what preserved and prepared God’s people for the Age to Come.

But all the Law can do is ethnically separate God’s people from others, all while reminding them of their failure and neediness for God. Again, it preserves them, but it also reminds them of their utter reliance on the mercy and grace of their God. Yes, even Jews believed in a religion of grace. Because (as Paul says) the Law didn’t have the resources in itself to help God’s people live up to it.

This is why that above Jeremiah passage is quoted in Hebrews 8 as a mark of condemnation against the old law: “In speaking of a new covenant [in Jeremiah], he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”

But only two chapters later, the writer of Hebrews shows us what makes “Spirit-Law” different: Jesus. They begin showing us once more the failings of the old law:

For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

As the walking embodiment of Israel itself, Jesus obeys where Adam/Israel failed, doing God’s Law and taking on the curses that come with God’s people breaking the Law. So when this New Adam/Israel breathes his Spirit into us, he joins us to himself and his family, and declares the legal sentence that we are vindicated, justified, made right.

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,

“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body have you prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’”

When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all….

But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.

And that same Jeremiah passage is quoted again, except this time, rather than using it as a proof for condemnation, it bears witness to our hope, our relation to God, and our life together:

And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,

“This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws on their hearts,
and write them on their minds,”

then he adds,

“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”

Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

And this is why, even though Easter is months behind us, all of life is Easter. So continue to dance, sing, worship, praise, sin, confess, rejoice, absolve, forgive, fellowship, and love.

And this we will hold onto until our eternal Pentecost comes: that day when not only God’s Spirit, but God’s entire self, will dwell not only in, but among his people and world. And he will be ours. And we will be his.

Indeed, even now, we are.


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