Sunday, November 14, 2021

Law on the Inside

In the countryside beyond the city limits of Rome, Hermas had no idea what was about to happen to change the course of his life. It was the tail end of the first century, and Hermas was a young Christian. He might've been born a few years before the great persecution under Nero, in which the Apostles Peter and Paul both gave their lives to seal the destiny of the Roman church. Hermas might have been a foundling, abandoned by the side of the road but discovered and taken in by another family who raised him as a household slave. The one who raised him initially had then sold him, as a boy or even a teenager, to a young wealthy woman named Rhoda, whom Hermas had served faithfully for a few years. Later on, Rhoda too sold him, and another master had – in time – manumitted him to freedom. Somewhere along the way, whether as a slave or as a freedman, Hermas became a Christian. Probably he was baptized in the Tiber River. And in the congregation, he'd found Rhoda as a fellow member – she, too, was a Christian.

Well, Hermas happened to think he was pretty good at it. He was a kindly man. He did well in business, honest in his dealings, and gave faithfully to the collection. He listened to the discipline of the church. Each week, he aimed to put into practice what the preacher read and said. He didn't murder. He didn't steal. He didn't go back to the idols of Rome. He kept his hands clean. He married, and stayed faithful to his wife. He had kids. He was a merry man, well-liked in church and community. An all-around upstanding guy, that Hermas.

Which is why what happened in the countryside took him so by surprise. At least, if we're to believe what our friend Hermas wrote. On the road one afternoon, as he listened to the birds sing and looked at the hills and the fields, as he glorified God, he began to feel awfully sleepy. Before he knew it, he'd found himself somewhere he couldn't remember going, and didn't see how he could've gotten there: a little crevasse in the rock carved out by a stream. Hermas crossed the stream, found a patch of level ground, got to his knees, and started praying. That's when it happened, he says. That's when the heavens opened, and he heard a voice. And he saw a vision.

It was Rhoda! Rhoda in the sky! Oh, Hermas was so happy to see her. See, she'd died a few years back, and Hermas had missed her terribly. Though he'd once been her slave in his old life, in their new life she'd been like a dear sister to him – not that he hadn't thought about more. And now there she was, bidding him a heavenly hello. But Hermas was confused. What was this all about? Rhoda said she'd come to confront Hermas about his sin – his sin against her. God, she said, was angry with Hermas because of his sin against Rhoda.

Now, that put Hermas on the defensive. He was mighty confused and dismayed. What had he ever done to her? Obviously it couldn't be something from his days as her slave, before he was baptized, because any sins there had been washed away. But when they got reacquainted, Hermas had never hurt Rhoda, never laid a finger on Rhoda, never stole from Rhoda, never said even an unkind word to or about Rhoda. “Have I not always honored you as a sister? Why do you malign me, woman, with these evil and unclean charges?”

Hermas was cut to the quick by Rhoda's response, which reverberated through the heavens. She laughed at him, in his vision, and said, “The evil desire arose in your heart!” She reminded him of a time when, helping her out of a bath, he'd admired her beauty and her status and been filled with longing for a wife like her – a wife that good-looking, a wife whose social standing would elevate his, a wife who'd fulfill him. Though Rhoda was a married woman, Hermas had coveted her and coveted her estate. Hermas had never said a word, never betrayed even by a look what was on his mind. But now that she was in heaven, now that she was represented in a vision or a dream or whatever this was, Rhoda knew all about it – and was none too pleased. “Don't you think it's an evil thing,” she went on, “if an evil desire arises in the heart of a righteous man? It is a sin – a great one! The righteous man has righteous intentions. So long as his intentions are righteous, his honor stands in heaven..., but those who intend evil in their hearts draw down upon themselves death..., especially those who acquire the things this world has to offer and rejoice in their riches and don't take part in the goods of the world to come. … They've given up on themselves and their true life. But you, pray to God, who will heal your sins and those of your whole household and of all the holy ones.”1

The vision ended. Rhoda disappeared. The heavens closed up. And Hermas tells us it left him grieving and in total shock. He'd never dreamt God was concerned with that sort of thing. And Hermas thought, “If this sin is on record against me, how can I be saved?”2 Hermas got an answer in short order, so he says. He sure spilled a lot of ink over it. But the point I want to get across here is this: God's law didn't work the way Hermas thought it did. He thought it was a matter of the actions he committed – the way he talked, the way he walked, the things he did and didn't do. But Rhoda set him straight.

And what Hermas learned is something unique about the Ten Commandments. Up until the end, you could see it as a fine list of moral principles and actions, a law code like you might find elsewhere. But then you reach this last one, and it retroactively opens up everything that came before it. I've spent my share of time reading the law codes used in all the countries around ancient Israel. The laws of ancient Babylon? I've read 'em. The laws of the Assyrians, the laws of the Hittites? I've read them too. And they'll tell you not to murder, not to commit adultery, not to steal, not to bear false witness – or, more to the point, they'll remind you what should happen to you if you do. But one thing you'll never find in their laws is anything approaching “Thou shalt not covet.” None of the nations had a law that could reach into your soul, scan your insides, pass judgment on the guts of your life that never see the light of day. Neither did the laws or the courts of Rome, as Hermas well knew. No, not a one of them had a law against anything that stayed within the private bounds of yourself.3

And that's because the laws of Babylon and Assyria and Hatti and Greece and Rome were merely man-made. Oh, they reflected something deeper, but they themselves knew the limits of their power. But the laws of Israel alone stretched further than what any earthly court could dream of prosecuting, because they knew that no mere man – not even Moses – had brewed it up from his own head. They heard the voice of heaven. As one medieval theologian (Thomas Aquinas) explained it: “There is this difference between the divine and the human law: that human law judges only deeds and words, whereas the divine law judges also thoughts. The reason is because human laws are made by men who see things only exteriorly, but the divine law is from God, who sees both external things and the very interior of men..., for with God, the intention is taken for the deed...”4

Of course, Rhoda and the medievals were only following what the Bible told them. Samuel heard about how “the LORD sees not as man sees: man sees to the eyes, but the LORD sees to the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). David later reminds Solomon that “the LORD searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought” (1 Chronicles 28:9). Psalmists and prophets give the same witness. One psalmist addresses God as “you who test the hearts and kidneys” (Psalm 7:9). And Jeremiah is all over that picture: “O LORD of Hosts who judges righteously, who tests the heart and the kidneys” (Jeremiah 11:20); “I the LORD search the heart and test the kidneys” (Jeremiah 17:10); “O LORD of Hosts, who tests the righteous, who sees the heart and the kidneys” (Jeremiah 20:12). Paul agrees with Samuel and David, speaking of God as “he who searches hearts” (Romans 8:27) and as “God who tests our hearts” (1 Thessalonians 2:4). And when John finds himself face-to-face with the exalted Christ in his glory, Jesus makes it totally obvious that he's the Jehovah God of Jeremiah by roaring, “I am he who searches kidneys and hearts!” (Revelation 2:23).

What do they mean? Today, you're likely to think of your heart as the shape you make a Valentine's Day card in – or that thing people tell you to follow. And what are people saying? Follow your desires, do what you feel. But to David or Jeremiah, your heart was your inner control center. It's where you formed your decisions. It's the seat of your mind, your reason. It's where you pledged your allegiances from. In Israel, the heart wasn't for all that mushy, gushy stuff. An Old Testament person thought from the heart. Where'd they feel from? The kidneys – those tender organs they only saw when an animal's were exposed for sacrifice.5

Under normal circumstances, you can't see your neighbor's heart, though you might hear a heartbeat; and if you can detect their kidneys, something's gone very wrong. You can't even look at, detect, or feel your own, most of the time. Put together, heart and kidneys stand for the utmost insides of a person. To us, especially before the development of modern surgery and X-rays and all that, even physically those regions are dark and murky. Nor do we find it any easier to inspect our insides morally or spiritually. So we have a tendency, when we wonder what kind of a person we are, to look at our outer behavior. And when we do that, as Hermas did, we can easily use the Law like a defensive shield. Like the Pharisee at the temple, we brag, “I'm not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers... I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all I get” (Luke 18:11-12). Like the rich young man in the Gospels, we rattle off the commandments and preen ourselves and shout with joy, “All these I have kept from my youth!” (Mark 10:20; cf. Matthew 19:20).

But what both should've already understood from the Law itself, and what Jesus brought home with the force of a supernova, is that keeping the letter of the law in its externals, while good and (when it comes to its moral demands) absolutely necessary, isn't enough if it fails to turn our darkness into light. By adding this final word on covetousness, the Law “cuts deeper down into the moral life. … It reminds us, then, that God's Eye is on our heart; it carries us at once into regions where no human eye can pierce. … Man takes cognizance of the outward life, but Almighty God of the inward life,” it's been said.6 Our will, our desire, our attachment, our emotion, our subconscious thoughts and plans, our real moral and spiritual standing – those things are actually dark to us, even in ourselves, let alone in the others we might be tempted to judge. We know less about our inner life than we pretend to – and that inner life matters morally. That's why Paul had to say, “I'm not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted: it is the Lord who judges me” (1 Corinthians 4:4). To God alone, “even the darkness is not dark” inside us: “The night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you” (Psalm 139:12). For that reason, “no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13). So, as Moses said, “Take care, lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart!” (Deuteronomy 15:9).

But how can we take care if our own heart falls so far outside our field of vision? Here enters “the word of God [which] is living and active..., discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). The word of God exposes to you a glimpse of what God sees as really inside you after all. And these Ten Commandments we've been hearing – they are that active word of God, they can be used to discern not just your outer behavior but your inner state of heart, too. In the first commandment, we're told to have no other gods before the LORD. In obeying that, it's one thing to pray a prayer. It's another thing to make a habit of coming to church on Sunday – both very good and necessary acts. But God's seeing, searching, scanning, testing your heart, your kidneys. Are your affections yet unmoved by his redeeming love? Have your guts forgotten the exodus from slavery into a boundless promise? Is your will detached from faith in the Creator who made you and who gave his only-begotten Son to share life eternal with the world? Where does your inner allegiance lie? Or, to take another commandment, we're told not to murder. In obeying that, it's one thing – an easy thing – to keep your hands clean of your neighbor's blood. It's another thing, more commendable still and also necessary, to avoid violence in what you do and what you say, coercing no one, detracting from no one's life or health. But God's searching and testing your heart and kidneys. Are your affections twisted up in anger at somebody? Do your guts burn with prejudice or contempt? Is your will a hateful one that separates anybody from the image of God they bear?

All the outward actions of hand or voice, everything the Ten Commandments condemn on the surface – they flow “from within, out of the heart of man,” as Jesus said – and first and foremost are “evil thoughts” (Mark 7:21). “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person,” even when they don't leak out to where your neighbor can see them (Mark 7:23). And that's intimidating! Hermas himself had misgivings – he wondered if it was really possible for a human heart to obey the law: “I don't know if these commandments can be kept by someone,” he said. “They're very difficult!”7 That's why, even in the Law itself, Moses practically begged Israel in his last words: “Circumcise therefore... your heart, and be no longer stubborn!” (Deuteronomy 10:16). It wasn't enough to just outwardly receive the sign of the covenant, symbolically pruning the flesh and its power. No, the inner reality signified by the sign had to follow. Israel needed to prune from the heart, from the center of will and desire, everything incompatible with their calling toward holiness, everything imperfectly compliant to God's invitation, everything that sandbagged his tidal wave of love for them.

Realizing this, one early Christian summed up the “divine law” of the Ten Commandments in one sentence: that “only the real God who made the universe is to be worshipped, with holiness of heart and a sincere mind.”8 And to that, Hermas adds what he learned: that “where holiness dwells, there – in the heart of a righteous man – lawlessness should not enter.”9 What we need is for the Law to somehow reach our hearts and our kidneys, to get inside us, to prune and cut and burn. And that's exactly what God promised. Through Jeremiah, the God of Israel explained that a new covenant was on the horizon, a new deal between him and humanity: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the House of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my Law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). This distant law, this law that seemed only able to help the outside of us, was finally going to be put inside a person, to make a difference at the core that goes beyond what you or I can see. But it would take something bigger and better than Sinai to get it there.

And, to make a long story short, that's exactly what God did in Christ. Jesus' blazing heart of love, radiant and gushing life, was opened for us on the cross, at the point of a Roman spear. That heart flawlessly kept the Law, embodied the Law, fulfilled the Law. And as the spear thrust all our lawlessness into his heart, lawlessness drowned in the flood. From that heart's torrent flows the water of our new birth. From that heart bleeds the blood of our communion. From that heart shines the grace of our enlightenment. And our hearts are kindled with flame from his holy heart when we receive his Holy Spirit. For after dying for our sins and rising for our vindication and ascending into heaven, then on the anniversary of Sinai – a day called Pentecost – his heart poured forth his Spirit to burn his Law of the New Covenant onto the hearts of all who will receive him.

So, on the other side of that, the apostles tell us that we're like living letters dictated by Jesus through their pens, “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the Living God.” And what's the medium? Paper? Parchment? An e-mail? Rock? No, “not on tablets of stone,” like Moses carried down the mountain. Now it's “on tablets of human hearts,” at long last (2 Corinthians 3:3). With his Spirit of burning love, the Spirit from his heart, Jesus writes his story on our hearts, chiseling and charring the Law of Christ there, making sure these foundational commandments are written in our deepest depths beyond where we can see. He simply calls us to surrender and cooperate – to not flinch away from his Spirit's fiery work, to lean into it, to turn your heart where he's writing. You may not see it. You may not read it. But it's being written there, and can be kept there, and must be.

Because God deserves and demands your inside, not only your outside. If we study the Ten Commandments and only learn behavior modification, we'll have done some good – but not yet enough. God wants your guts, God wants your kidneys, God wants your heart, God wants your whole soul to be conformed to his law, his life, his love. God will not be satisfied until his Law is on your inside, so that from within, out of a human heart, can flow not evil thoughts but good thoughts, not foolishness but wisdom, not pride but humility, not wickedness but righteousness – things that purify instead of defiling.

God has aims for us so much higher than we aim for ourselves. And he may well be accomplishing them even beyond what you can see or tell. Only let God's word be a lamp unto your guts and a light unto your heart (cf. Psalm 119:105). Examine yourself, where you can – not to prematurely acquit yourself, but to cooperate better with the Spirit. Attend to what's within you. Don't neglect it. Where you find unholiness inside you, repent and pray. Pray for the fire of Jesus' love to fall from heaven on the altar of your soul, and there offer God your inner life as a living sacrifice, harvesting for the Lord holy kidneys and a holy heart and a holy mind. Embrace your true life. Seek honor in the heaven to which your whole soul is transparent. May God heal our innermost sins and forgive us and lead us to the greatest glory of everlasting life. Amen.


1  Hermas, ShepherdVisions 1.1.1-9

2  Hermas, ShepherdVisions 1.2.1

3  Mark F. Rooker, The Ten Commandments: Ethics for the Twenty-First Century (B&H Publishing, 2010), 164; David L. Baker, The Decalogue: Living as the People of God (IVP Academic, 2017), 149; Carmen Joy Imes, Bearing God's Name: Why Sinai Still Matters (InterVarsity Press, 2019), 55.

4  Thomas Aquinas, Collationes in decem praeceptis [Conferences on the Ten Precepts], article 11.

5  E.g., Gerald Eknoyan, “The Kidneys in the Bible: What Happened?”, Journal of the American Society of Nephrology (2005): 3468.

6  B. W. Randolph, The Law of Sinai: Being Devotional Addresses on the Ten Commandments (Longmans, Green, & Co., 1896), 179-180.

7  Hermas, ShepherdMandates 12.3.4

8  Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycum 2.35 (late second century)

9  Hermas, ShepherdMandates 4.1.3

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