In my neck-of-the-woods, there is a common reference that all the locals know. Whenever someone who has spent any length of time in Washington State hears the reference, “the Mountain”, they instantly know to what the speaker is referring.
We have many beautiful mountains here, often glistening white with glaciers and snow, but they are typically spoken of by using their name. There is only one, that deserves the shortened label of “the Mountain”, and everyone here knows which one that is. Outsiders, will not be familiar with this, because it is by common acceptance that those who know this mountain which towers above all others in this area, know that it is the only thing meant by the shortened label. There is no other mountain implied.
Whenever the question is asked, “Did you see the Mountain this morning”, all locals know that the question is about Mount Rainier.
This is the exact same thing the writers of Scripture do when referring to “The Law”. Those who were familiar with the context, would be in no doubt about the reference. Everyone familiar with what the speaker was familiar with would immediately know that they meant the Mosaic Law, also termed the Old Covenant Law, and the Jewish Law, and the Law given to Ancient Israel.
There was no confusion about what the speaker meant when referencing “The Law”. It always referred to that one, very familiar law. The Apostle Paul often uses this shortened phrase, because as he stated: “I am speaking to those who know the Law.” There was no doubt about the specific reference. The Law only and always meant The Old Covenant Law given by God, through Angels, to Moses, for the ancient people of Israel.
Outsiders would not understand this. They could easily think that Scripture was speaking about laws in general, or about legal systems, or about all statements in the form of commands. But that would be in error. The Law only meant one thing, and all those familiar with the territory would know exactly what the writer was saying.
The key to recognizing the meaning behind shortened labels is getting to know the locals. When someone speaks about Dad, it should be recognized that they are specifically referring to their own father and not anyone else’s dad. When someone says, “I’ll meet you at church”, it should be clear that the speaker and the intended hearer would be familiar with which church location, because it would be common to their experience. When someone comments about the President, or the King, or the teacher, they are not giving general references; the context will demonstrate the obvious reference to whomever is President to that group at that moment, or their specific King, or the teacher of their common class.
Since the Protestant Reformation, this reality has somehow been missed.
Those who wrote commentaries and taught in their newly minted congregations out of books like the Letter to the Romans, often added their own foreign context to the shortened label. When the Bible spoke about “The Law”, they tended to expand the meaning. What was meant to refer specifically to the Old Covenant, became statements that could be used to apply to any legal system or commanded obligation.
When Scripture declares that Christians are no longer under Law, but under Grace, the new idea became that believer were no longer under any legal obligation before God. When it says we have been set free from the Law, these teachers shifted the locally-familiar meaning to include being set free from needing to follow any form of law. In this way indulgences, penance, authority, and even taxes could be resisted, in the name of Scripture.
This is how the concept of legalism entered Christian theology. It is commonly assumed that legalism is some bad thing, something that ought to be cautioned against, something that actually exists, but it was manufactured out of a misunderstanding about “The Law”.
God doesn’t address legalism in Scripture. The entire concept is man-made, a straw-man theory that has been set up in the minds of believers as something that should be avoided and attacked at all cost.
Whenever a person reads a passage, like forgive your brother or you will not be forgiven, the command is often softened into just advice and not something legally expected upon a believer who desires to be saved. If a person suggests that it is necessary to do what God says, or to be concerned about warnings cited in Scripture to believers, they are very often rebuked as a legalist.
In fact, I heard a pastor tell the men at a Bible study that “the 10 Commandments were just more like Fatherly advice”. Another teaching elder stated that “anyone who tries to obey the words of Jesus is just a legalist”.
But the locals know better. They all know the voice of their Shepherd and are not misled by foreign ideas. They know that when the Bible says, “The Law”, that it is referencing the Mosaic Law that had dominated the landscape of that day and those early converts to Christianity.
Those locals of the Kingdom of God also know that Paul made a clear distinction about what he meant when saying that believers are no longer under Law, but Grace. Christians are not under the Jewish Law, but by the grace of God we are under the legal boundaries of “Christ’s Law”.
“To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.” (1 Cor 9:20-21)
Have you seen The Mountain today?