What Does the Handrail Say?

(Author’s note: I started this post immediately after I read Vascularity’s question, and before the torrent of comments about what The Law says about marriage, divorce, and polygyny. When that back-and-forth kicked into high gear I decided to let that play out before I put this online. If you dare to read it I think you’ll have a good understanding of why I think about The Law the way I do; which I believe keeps with ancient tradition.

If, instead, you take a gander at the wall of text and decide that such an endeavor is ridiculous: Then you’ll truly be picking up what I’m about to put down. That’s not a shot at the commenters as much as it is at mankind in general. This is what we unwittingly asked for when we ate the fruit. I can be as bad as the rest.)

A question in a comment on the previous thread:

I’ve been divorced twice. Is my second marriage in God’s eyes illegal? Am I permitted to get married a third time (not that I would). If my second marriage was sin, I presume I am forgiven. Any Christian clarification is appreciated.

I don’t have enough information to answer this question. To begin, I’d have to know a lot more about Vasc and his ex-wives.

  • Was he Christian at the times?
  • Were either of the wives?
  • Are they or have they re-married?
  • Were they married before they married Vasc?
  • Why does he want to know?
  • Many more…

St. Paul twice said, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful.” It’s my experience that to ask about the legality (the Law of God) of a thing is almost always to ask the wrong question. There are many ways to think about the Law. Here’s one of mine.

The Handrail

The Law is like a handrail along the path that we are to follow towards God. It certainly marks the path, but is not part of it. It is helpful to reach a goal, but not a goal in itself. It can be grasped, leaned upon, and aid you in standing back up if you fall, but it cannot actually move you along, or take you anywhere of its own power. In fact, it’s worth noting that a handrail can reliably be used to lead towards a thing, or away, and sometimes it is hard to tell the difference. Distance occludes our vision, and while we often look ahead to see The Law zigging south into a valley, we do not see it beyond that; zagging back north over the mountains. Who can make straight what He has made crooked?

It serves as a barrier, but only one of choice: It’s function is not to stop you from going where you want to go. Some people like to think of The Law as a fence. If we call it a fence, we would have no choice but to say it’s not a very good fence; because a fence that can be surmounted or subverted effectively ceases to be a fence…at least for whoever goes over or under it. A jumped handrail, though, continues to serve its intended purposes; even for the would-be escapist. In contrast to a fence: The handrail of The Law is fundamentally good however we interact with it; always ready to be of use in each of its intended capacities.

Lastly, we should note that the existence of the handrail of The Law is itself condemnation of the danger of our position and the weakness of our abilities. If we were on open ground there would be no need of a handrail. If we were surefooted, clear-eyed, and attentive the handrail would be superfluous. Its presence is proof that we are in need of salvation because we are bound for damnation.

Keeping these things in mind, let’s look at one of the laws that we Christians have decided is unnecessary for us: Clean and unclean animals.

(Stop lyin’. I saw you with that grilled bacon-wrapped shrimp.)

11 And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, These are the living things that you may eat among all the animals that are on the earth. Whatever parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat. Nevertheless, among those that chew the cud or part the hoof, you shall not eat these: The camel, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. And the rock badger, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. And the hare, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. And the pig, because it parts the hoof and is cloven-footed but does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. You shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall not touch their carcasses; they are unclean to you.

Why these animals? God’s people have never been totemists who believe the clean ones contain good spirits and the unclean one bad spirits. I have done no formal study on this, but it seems to me that even in these foods we find examples of how we should live. Cloven-hoofed animals are sure-footed, and another way to say “chews the cud” is “ruminate“.

Sure-footed and contemplative of God’s word is the goal; not strict legalism. Abraham had no Law. Those who live by faith regard the illumination of the trail that The Law surely provides, yet do not get stuck clinging to one part of it. No one can grasp the whole of The Law anymore than you can grab an entire handrail. It wasn’t meant to be, and we were not meant to.

So, at one place along the way polygyny is lawful, and in another it is not. In one tight climb divorce is not outside righteousness, but in an easy descent it is an abomination. It’s not a matter of “Is polygyny or divorce legal?” (all things are lawful for me…), but a matter of “Is it good for me?”.

Most men are remarkably ill-suited to answer those questions about themselves even if they “know” The Law; sometimes especially because they do! This is why we have the Church. Avail yourselves of It, brothers.

23 thoughts on “What Does the Handrail Say?

  1. I agree, the law is not a fence, it can’t stop you from going contrary to God’s law. But, that said, Jesus says “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” During his life, he upheld things like eating only clean meat, keeping the Sabbath, and many others. It seems today the fast majority of churches have ignored the fact that Jesus ate according to the laws of Moses (and Noah by the way, well before Abraham), attempting to leverage Peter’s vision, which is explained later to be about people not food. (Acts 11)

    Likewise, most churches ignore Sabbath, following Catholic dogma that they moved the Sabbath to Sunday because they hold the authority of God.

    Taken from the Convert’s Catechism of Catholic Doctrine:
    Q. Which is the Sabbath day?
    A. Saturday is the Sabbath day.
    Q. Why do we observe Sunday instead of Saturday?
    A. We observe Sunday instead of Saturday because the Catholic Church, in the Council of Laodicea, (AD 336) transferred the solemnity from Saturday to Sunday….
    Q. Why did the Catholic Church substitute Sunday for Saturday?
    A. The Church substituted Sunday for Saturday, because Christ rose from the dead on a Sunday, and the Holy Ghost descended upon the Apostles on a Sunday.
    Q. By what authority did the Church substitute Sunday for Saturday?
    A. The Church substituted Sunday for Saturday by the plenitude of that divine power which Jesus Christ bestowed upon her! —Rev. Peter Geiermann, C.SS.R., (1946), p. 50.

    And this is sad, because Revelations states that in order to have a hope of getting through the end times, one must keep the commandments of God. (Rev 14:9-12)

    So, are they a fence to hold you in? No. Are they incredibly important? Yes! But, we should follow them out of love for God, out of a willingness to server, and out of respect for His wisdom, now out of some restrictive legalistic mindset.

    That’s my take anyways.

  2. Very good, Cane. Nice analogy and explanation.

    JayDee, you’re exactly missing what I think is Cane’s point (grin). The point isn’t that the Law has or hasn’t changed; the point is that the Law is a guide to goodness, but the Law cannot make you good. Only God is good. In the previous thread I made the analogy that the Mosaic Law is a sketch of God, done in the medium of a Middle Eastern suzerainty treaty and laws, and by studying it we come to know God. Jesus is also (in this analogy) a “portrait” of God and by studying the Gospels we also come to know God. As we know God, we of course cannot help but imitate Him.

    The analogy of the Law as a handrail is excellent, and communicates some things that “the Law as portrait” fails on. It also clings more closely to the Biblical statement that Jesus is “the Way”.

    Both analogies are “only a model”. But they help, I think.

    Hebrews gives us the analogy of the Law as a portrait, but in this analogy, rather than being a portrait of God Himself, it’s a portrait of the atonement Jesus would make.

    I erased from my post a “wall of text” about the functions of the Law. Irrelevant to the original post.

  3. @Cane,

    Very well done. And your opening questions were good ones.


    No solemnity was transferred. I don’t believe the CCC makes that claim, I’ll have to check, Saturday _is_ the Sabbath. Sunday is the “eighth day” of the new creation.

  4. Good post. The church certainly needs to be involved in a decision like this. On a personal level, he needs wisdom. Of course, this largely comes from reading and meditating on the law, and other parts of Scripture (including “wisdom literature” like Proverbs).

    Even without knowing the details, I’d tread very cautiously if I were in his situation. In reality, it’s very rare to have two failed marriages and then find the third one to be a charm. And Biblically speaking, there’s much to consider.

  5. I would bet some of the driving factor behind changing the day the Church considered “the sabbath” (incorrectly) was due to returning the intense hostility from the Jewish leaders and later many of the people to those who followed Jesus. Reading the book of Acts or even looking at how Christians are often treated in Israel today shows a quite intense hostility, at best.

    I don’t think that justifies everything that has and is done, but I think it helps explain it.

  6. Questions that begin with “can I” are troublesome from the start. A lot more to accomplish by asking “should I”, because that takes everything into consideration, The Law, The things that are good, things not good foe the one asking, and things even seemingly outside the spiritual realm (everything is in the spiritual realm).

    Its an awkward inquiry because, even though Vasc or anyone else in that spot may not have arrived there by avarice or malice or any form of wrongdoing directly related to the execution of a divorce (meaning primarily filing), asking this question is still very similar to saying “he/she has done this this and that and will not stop, can I divorce?” Both of these and many more such questions are focused on our circumstances and our happiness. Per se, that’s ok. But normally when they are asked it is not OK nor is the action usually advisable.

    [CC: Good comment.]

  7. @JD & WT

    Likewise, most churches ignore Sabbath[…].

    JayDee, you’re exactly missing what I think is Cane’s point (grin).

    WT has the right of it. In this particular instance not only is JD missing my point, but Christ’s.

    23 One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: 26 how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” 27 And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

    What’s the important point here? Is Jesus a saying the Sabbath is unimportant? Is He saying that the Law is unimportant? Is He saying that sometimes we weigh choices and pick the lesser of two evils? Is He saying some of the Law nullifies other parts of the Law? Is He saying that we should winnow bits of the Law until we find the right one that suits our particular situation?

    Or is He saying that when you walk with Christ (which is done by faith) through the field of harvest (which is this world) that all things are lawful because to walk with Christ is to be with the Law, and that since Christ is lord of man, the fields, the sabbath, and the Law our consideration ought only to be of what is good?

    For you, JD, it may be good to keep fastidiously to the ancient traditions of the sabbath and clean and unclean foods. Still, understand that it is your weakness recommends it; not your strength. This is no bad thing because God delights to use the weak things of the world.

  8. For you, JD, it may be good to keep fastidiously to the ancient traditions of the sabbath and clean and unclean foods. Still, understand that it is your weakness recommends it; not your strength. This is no bad thing because God delights to use the weak things of the world.

    I found this tremendously helpful even though it wasn’t addressed to me. It helped me process some things that I have been contemplating.

    Of course, I’m not sure if it will be helpful to us when we are told (yet again) that we are Hell bound for worshiping on Sunday and going to market on the Sabbath.

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  11. My apologies for dredging up an old thread; I have just started going through your blog, Cane. (And I’m well overdo to do so, anyhow, as I almost always enjoy your posts at Dalrock’s, whether or not in agreement).

    I just wanted to thank you for pointing out to “Lord of the Sabbath” passage and breaking it down for me. I had been confused by how to interpret it, but what you have said makes a LOT of sense and unpacks it very neatly. Your explanation also, then, neatly ties together what Jesus said about the Law in Matthew 5:17-20 with the sayings of Paul and the apostles in latter books, in which it is indicated that we no longer need to observe the Law. I am particularly grateful for this, as I was not sure how to reconcile Jesus’s admonition that “not the least stroke” should “disappear” with Paul’s epistles that “all things were lawful” (and then he goes on to point out some specific thing which are not, i.e. sexual immorality! So confusing for a newbie!). Anyhow, I feel I have a much more harmonious understanding now, and I wanted to thank you for that.

    [CC: Thanks for the kind words, and I’m glad to help.]

  12. Peoplegrowing, I find that Luther has a very good perspective on the role of Law in the Christian’s life. As a brief glance at this thread will show I also think Cane explained this well, but there are nuances he didn’t intend to cover (it was partially a response to legalism in another thread that started this) and would easily trip people up.
    I’m enjoying going through the Book of Concord; although it’s not a confession I’d sign onto it’s very deep and perceptive.

  13. This is a repeat from another blog, but it seems to be needed here.

    The Law of Moses – from which come the 10 Commandments – was given only to the Children of Israel. It was given to no one else. The Gentiles (New Testament Church) were/are bound only by the four requirements listed in Acts 15:20 – which are subsets of the Noahide Law. Any church that does not teach this cannot be considered a New Testament church. See my quotes from the New Testament below.

    If you seriously are interested in how you are not bound by the Law of Moses, read through these two links for an introduction to this. If you already know all of this, then nevermind.


    Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. (Romans 2:14; NIV)

    From Acts 15: (NIV) The early church leaders met in Jerusalem and decided that, indeed, the Law of Moses did not apply to the Gentiles (non-Jew).

    5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”

    6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear [the Law of Moses]? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

    13 When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. … 19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.

    Remember that the period of time covered by the New Testament was a time of the Church sorting out for itself – under the guidance of the Holy Spirit – what it meant to be under the New Covenant of Grace (salvation by faith, and conversation with God/the Holy Spirit), rather than the Old Covenant of Law (salvation by behavior requirements). As seen in Acts 15, there was considerable disagreement over whether and how to bind new converts and old jew/new christian folks to behaviors – behaviors that did not/could not spring from “thus saith the Lord”, because there weren’t any rules or Law imposed by God, post-Resurrection.

    Remember that all of the words Jesus said before the Cross were the words of a Rabbi, bound by the law, speaking to Jewish folks, also bound by the law. That binding disappeared when Jesus said “it is finished” and gave up the ghost, and the curtain in the Temple was torn in two. Jesus spoke very little after the Resurrection, and certainly did not utter rules that bind our behavior. That job was left to those responsible for creating the Church in the years after his ascension. And Acts 15 shows us that well-meaning “Christian” leaders did not all agree on what those rules should be.

    We can see the nature of God in the law he gave to the Children of Israel. We can see the nature of Jesus in the words he spoke to the Jews, as a Rabbi, pre-Cross. But all of that was God and Jesus displaying their natures to the Children of Israel. Truely, what nature does God / Jesus want us to see AFTER the Cross? Are we to cling to their nature as displayed in the Old Covenant? Or are we to model ourselves after their nature as displayed in the New Covenant – that nature fleshed out by the many words of Paul in the New Testament?

  14. Richard, I’m not sure why you say it’s needed here. Did someone contradict it? Looks pretty orthodox to me.

  15. As much as Jesus and Paul quoted from the law, I disagree that we should throw out the 10 Commandments and the rest and just abide by Acts 15:20. While it’s not perfect, I think the distinction between moral, ceremonial and civil law in the OT is helpful…and that the moral law is still instructive to us. This case in Acts is dealing with circumcision in particular, and a larger issue of the inclusion of Gentiles. There’s a lot to get into here, and I suspect Richard is a proponent of “New Covenant Theology,” but I really don’t have the time or inclination for a big debate right now.

    [CC: Agreed]

  16. John, you are correct that the Law is not to be thrown out. (You’re also REALLY correct that salvation was never by behavior requirements.) I’d go further than you and say that none of the Law, even the ceremonial and civil Law, is to be thrown out. (By the way, the Bible nowhere makes a distinction between moral, civil, and ceremonial Law; most laws served several purposes, and a judge was expected to apply the _purpose_ rather than the narrowest text of the law, which is why David sung about meditating on the Law.)

    However, we recognize that the Law was given to the ancient Israelites for many purposes, one of which was to distinguish them from Gentiles so that they could more effectively preach Yahweh to the Gentiles. In Christ that distinction is gone, and that purpose of the Law is therefore counterproductive.

    As we study the Law we come to understand its purposes, and as we love its Creator, we embody its purposes. If we see one of those purposes and do not work for it, that is sin. When Jesus saw that the Sabbath was for man, He saw that the ancient laws against gathering were wrong in their reading of the purposes of the Biblical texts regarding the Sabbath, and therefore had no force. But the same is true of the laws we often apply. The purpose of the regular yearly tithe was to sustain the landless Levites who worked as minstrel/priests, and a tenth of that went to the Temple priests; it was given as food, not money. We have neither landless Levites nor a Temple, so the tithe no longer has its primary purpose; but when we see the ministries of the Levites and priests we see the need for a sustained dedication to ministry, and we also see the need to support those ministers. And of course the landlessness of the Levites teaches us something both about giving and about the ministry.

    But once again, my logorrhea has gotten the better of me. Sorry, Cane. This is too much fun.

  17. No I think that’s a good point and conforms to the OP. We should understand as much of the Law as possible as it all points to Christ. Even burying your dung in the desert. And I mean that seriously. It is the sort of thing he would just _do_ without having to be told and the sort of thing that we should therefore just do.

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