Paul and the Law: A Very Basic Analogy

I am working on a very basic article on Paul and the law in Galatians and I wanted to offer a simple analogy which would represent both the positive aspects of the law and also why Paul was so concerned that his converts don’t slavishly (!) try to obey the Mosaic Law for justification.  Here it is: (I encourage feedback, but be aware that any illustration is going to be limited and only offer insight into one or two areas.  Also, I want to keep it simple!)

Imagine that Israel is like a car going on a trip.  Sin is like a rusty nail that punctured a tire and Israel is slowing down even to the point that the flat tire is doing some damage to the car.  The spare tire is like the Mosaic Law- a gift!  Something that will enable Israel to make the car drivable and to get to a safe place (using backroads, of course).  The car is ‘whole again’ with the spare tire (the Law).  But – a spare tire, for how useful and necessary it is, IS A TEMPORARY SOLUTION!  In fact, once you have driven the 50 miles that the spare is built for, if you continue on with it, it has become a liability and will eventually place you in a dangerous situation.  Also, a spare tire (the Law) is not meant to go on highways and drive at higher speeds – it has a limited usefulness, though it is necessary.  If the car (Israel) wants to complete its trip, it must have a new tire so it can get back on the highway…

The problem with Israel was that she was guarding and encouraging the ongoing use of the spare tire, even when the new tire had been acquired (‘when the time had fully come…’).  But because Israel had to get off of the highway to the destination and take backroads for safety, she was never going to get there without doing what was necessary to make highway driving possible again.  So, while the spare tire (as a concept) is both good and necessary, it fulfilled its purpose in the PAST and to force the continual use of it past its intended travel time is dangerous and counter-productive.

[There are lots of thorny issues about why the law is dangerous (see Philippians 3), but this analogy gets at the heart of the eschatological problems with the law.  I am influenced by Richard Hays in his work on this subject, though I think Wright would conceive of this similarly]

20 thoughts on “Paul and the Law: A Very Basic Analogy

  1. Nijay:

    I think one issue with this analogy surrounds the importance of obedience to God. The Mosaic Law (for all of its staunch supporters) was GOOD, it was necessary and helped elevate the Israelites into the people of God. The problem with the Pharisees and others was that the point of the Law (elevation into the people of God) was lost, and their worship and obedience went to the Law instead of to God.

    In terms of your analogy, I think the Law was a real (not spare) tire that, in trying to get it perfectly straight, the Keepers of the Law knocked out of alignment. They began thinking that cars were meant to drive at an angle because that’s what the Law (this tire) “made” them do – when in actuality it was them who aligned the tire incorrectly, causing bumps and bruises to the car and its passengers, and further damaging the ability of the car to move forward. Jesus is more like an entirely new undercarriage (or axels, or something) – the Law (tires: obedience to God, physical actions, sacramental living) is good, but they only work in connection to the rest of the vehicle via the undercarriage.

    I think this better describes how different Jesus was and how good the Law is.

    (Note: this entire discussion, I think, assumes that we’re talking about the Mosaic Law and that “the Law” referenced by Paul in Galatians is not the metonymn for “circumcision” that N. T. Wright purports it to be in “Justification”.)

  2. Nijay, I like your analogy. It is helpful in an area that is quite troublesome for some Christians.

    I wrote a sermon on Gal 4:1-7 and here is the analogy that I used:

    “My wife, who works for the local drug and rehabilitation center, had just gotten back from the detox unit where she had experienced something disturbing. She described a tall Caucasian man, well-dressed who stumbled into the glass door way of their waiting room. His wife was with him; she was weeping and shaking almost as much as he was. He made his way clumsily over to the receptionist’s window to fill out the intake information. The man, now leaning against the counter, hands shaking took hold of the pen with one hand and with the other steadied himself. He tried to fill out his paperwork but after a few minutes gave up and handed the paperwork off to his tearful wife, who had to calm herself down before she too could write with clarity. His face was grimaced with disgust and pain, for he had fallen to the addiction of painkillers and other drugs. The very drugs that were prescribed by the physician to help him now hinders him. The depravity was worn on his face. The very substances he at one time used for good, and by all intensive purposes at one time they did serve him, now serve him as a master. The tables are turned and what at one time was a servant has now become his master that he serves. His identity, who and what he does, is bound up in it. What was meant for serving became a master.”

    In the Gal. the heart of Paul’s argument ultimately revolves around identity, the Law and God’s promises.

    Anyway, I feel that we will continue to grapple with proper analogies and ultimately fail as every analogy fails. But we can give a trajectory to see Paul’s direction and grapple with his eschatology and ecclesiology.

    Grace & Peace,

    Chris Kuhl

  3. Nijay,

    Paul was so concerned that his converts…

    Small point: I think it’s anachronistic to talk about Paul’s converts. Aren’t all usages of the term “convert” in the NT references to converts to Judaism (via circumcision)? Whereas this is the very thing Paul was taking pains to persuade his “dear children” (4:19) in the churches of Galatia not to do?

    But – a spare tire, for how useful and necessary it is, IS A TEMPORARY SOLUTION! In fact, once you have driven the 50 miles that the spare is built for, if you continue on with it, it has become a liability and will eventually place you in a dangerous situation.

    I think likening the law to a temporary solution creates as many exegetical problems as it solves. Paul’s statement in Galatians 5:3 seems to imply that the circumcised (i.e. Jews) continue to be obligated to keep the Law–otherwise this statement would have no force whatsoever. If Paul wasn’t Torah-observant, then the Galatians could simply respond, “Paul, you’re circumcised but you don’t keep the Law–we just want to be like you.”

    I’m influenced by the readings of Mark Nanos, Mark Kinzer, Marcus Bockmuehl, (lot of Marks I guess) and David Rudolph here–they postulate that the Jewish Christ-followers continued to see themselves as obligated to Torah observance (in fact, their observance was renewed and redoubled in Christ–Acts 21:20…perhaps reflecting their belief in Ezekiel 37:24ff?).

    1. Thanks, Yahnatan. Converts: I ran into this problem with my dissertation and I still went with “converts” because the academy of NT scholars has general accepted this label despite its limitations because there is nothing better than is still succinct.

      As for the concern over the temporal nature of the law, I know this is controversial and I don’t think that Christians are anti-nomian or lawless. Still, I can’t help reading 3:19 in the way of the Mosaic Law finding its binding-end: ‘Why then was the law given? It was added because of transgressions, until…’. Ok – what happens AFTER the until? Once the offspring has come, what happens then?

      I guess, in the end, if you disagree with my reading of Galatians, you will disagree with my analogy! While I respect other perspectives on Paul and the law, I don’t want to really get into a debate about it – I have to write a 500 word article on Paul and the law in Galatians and I can’t really get into the debate over it – I have only enough time to explain and assert one position -MINE! I wish it were otherwise and I could hash some things out, but I cannot…

      In any case, thank you for the food for thought and I will continue to refine my analogy in ways that keep some of these subjects we have been talking about the get nailed down to the exclusion of others.

  4. Nijay, fair enough, thanks for your great response!

    FWIW, I don’t think that Christians are generally anti-nomian or lawless either (it certainly continues to be foundational for Paul even after Gal 3–like in 5:14). The main issues only really come up when it comes to the “ceremonial” or “Jewish” aspects of the Law. For this reason, though it may be a huge exegetical and theological shift for Christians to acknowledge the continuing validity of the Torah for the Jewish people, practically I don’t think it’s that much of a change for most Christians–except in the way they view Judaism and relate to the Jewish people.

  5. Regarding Gal. 3: I won’t deny that this passage is challenging to parse under my reading. Still, reading a binding-end to the Mosaic law in 3:19 seems, at least on the surface, to contradict Matthew 5:18. Since I’d prefer, if possible, to find readings that find Paul and Jesus in agreement, I continue to study. 🙂

  6. Hey Nijay,

    I like how this analogy illustrates that the law is temporary. I’m with you on Gal 3: the law seems to have a beginning (430 years after the promise to Abraham) and an end (until the seed comes), but I do wonder whether this analogy, insofar as it suggests that law makes the ‘Israel car drivable’, obscures some of the functions Paul ascribes to the law (working wrath, increasing the trespass, imprisoning all in disobedience, etc). Just a thought.

    Yahnatan, don’t forget that Matthew 5.18 has an ‘until’ too: ‘not a dot, not an iota will pass from the law *until* all is accomplished’ (and 5.17 names Jesus, the seed [?] as the one who came to fulfill the law).

  7. >> Yahnatan, don’t forget that Matthew 5.18 has an ‘until’ too: ‘not a dot, not an iota will pass from the law *until* all is accomplished’ (and 5.17 names Jesus, the seed [?] as the one who came to fulfill the law).

    Jonathan, good point. I find “all is accomplished” to have a number of possible interpretations, but “until heaven and earth pass away” seems much more limited. (I suppose you could read that phrase symbolically, but I’m not convinced that a symbolic reading is even appropriate in that context…) The Jewish believers’ continued adherence to the Law (depicted most clearly in Acts 21) reinforces my thinking on this.

    Put it this way: if Jesus wanted to make it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was not overturning or abrogating the Law, what more could he have said? I can’t think of anything…which indicates to me that it’s our interpretations of other passages which are guiding our interpretation of this passage, rather than its clearest meaning in context.

    That’s not necessarily wrong (after all, that’s what systematic theology is all about!), but I’m just saying that we might just as easily find a different way to read Paul as interpret Jesus in this way. The ultimate test for me is whether it makes more sense of the text in its context or not.

  8. To bring it back to Nijay’s original topic (Paul and the Law in Galatians): Nijay, you pointed out that this is a simple illustration (that’s what makes it effective), and that it has limitations. Here are some possible limitations I’ve thought of:

    In order to explain your tire analogy, your focus is really on “the problem with Israel.” In the analogy, the problem is that Israel has kept the spare tire on, when they should have switched to a full set of brand new “Michelin Messiah” brand tires.

    However, Paul’s primary concern in Galatians (as I read it) is not explaining “the problem with Israel.” No, that topic is implicit at best. (I think Romans 9-11 is the best we have from Paul on “the problem with Israel”.)

    In Galatians, Paul’s primary topic (and I don’t think he strays too far from it) is the impending decision of the Galatians to get circumcised. Thus, he’s centrally concerned in chapters 3 and 4 with explaining how the Gentiles can be justified by faith and be sons of God and heirs with Abraham of the promises…without the Law.

    Thus, it’s not clear to me how your analogy actually maps to the situation/problem facing the Galatians. After all, they’ve already got the Michelin Messiah brand tires on, right? And in their mind, they’re not thinking of switching (i.e. taking those tires off and putting the old flat tires back on)–otherwise why would Paul have to emphasize that “if they let themselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no use to them.” If they were consciously thinking of abandoning Christ, then Paul’s words there would be pointless; rather, he has to make it clear that they can’t have both.

    To summarize: I think the weakness of your analogy is that its primary concern (“the problem with Israel) is totally different than Paul’s primary concern in Galatians (“convincing the Galatians not to be circumcised”)…so much so that it’s difficult to see how the analogy maps to the situation of the Galatians.

    That’s my attempt to be more helpful, instead of hijacking your post! 🙂

  9. I like the analogy. I think it’s simple, effective, and memorable which makes it especially helpful for the type of people who would likely read and benefit from that book.

    Are there other analogies you’ve heard other than car ones, that you think are good? I remember hearing an analogy comparing the Law to scaffolding used to build something which has stuck with me and which seems to make a lot of sense. It highlights the purpose aspect of the law and its use until it accomplishes what it was meant to: the building of something new that didn’t exist before. The tire analogy seems to imply that the spare is just a temporary bandaid for when something went wrong and the new tire is just like the old tire before it got a hole in it. In fact to some ears it may sound no different than rigging something until you can replace it. Still I do think it’s a good illustration but it does seem to have a few problems now that I think about it.

  10. Thank you everyone for your thoughts. I recognize that the illustration has its limits. Paul’s thoughts can hardly be summarized well in one analogy. It is like parables – there are lots of “theological” problems with the parable of the shrewd manager or the story of the midnight friend in Luke 11! However, I was trying to show the eschatological dimensions of the law and that Paul was showing how it is really the promise that is important; the law was a way of dealing with sin and transgressions until the Seed would come. The Law was a necessary solution to the problem of sin for Israel, but in the form that it was, it could not be the final solution.

  11. Hey Nijay, you have such a great blog… Thanks for this! I was actually coming to the blog to see your recent bibliographical comments on John’s gospel, but then I saw this post and could resist reading–and now commenting!

    Four ridiculously brief statements:

    1) Even if unintentionally, I think the analogy will undoubtedly be misunderstood to mean ‘replacement’, which is unfortunate as this is not what Paul is saying. This isn’t as much about the ‘limits of the analogy’ as it is about it’s ‘inability to do theological justice to this huge issue.’

    2) This can, however, be fixed somewhat…if you don’t replace the tire with a new one, but simply have the old one restored! This is the language of the prophets: ‘restoration’ not ‘replacement’.

    3) I think Yahnatan is right on the “mark” in his comments, particularly on the ‘pastoral issue’ in Galatians

    4) Have you read the way I make sense of the exegesis of Gal 4.1-11, which, although not solving the complex chapter 3, at least poses an alternative to the common view: ‘Law is over so how dare you Gentiles rush to it through Jewish calendar; that’s tantamount to returning to your former paganism’. Obviously, I disagree with that very common way of reading this whole section in Galatians.

    1. Thanks, Justin. I appreciate your comments and I will need to check out your research on this.

      A couple of rejoinders, but tentative ones and this exercise (and the writing of the article) only encourage me to continue to reflect and refine.

      1. Keep in mind, I am trying to give a one-dimensional analogy. You say that it is liable to being taken the wrong way – again, think of the parables! Unless we careful take only one point from the parable of the shrewd manager, we might end up thinking that greediness and cheating are OK.

      2. Replacement versus restoration. The problem with Galatians is that Christ does not restore Torah on face value (at least not on my reading). Otherwise, he wouldn’t say that circumcision counts for nothing (5:6;6:15). I guess, yes, I am saying that Paul (in Galatians) is referring to a sort of replacement. But, I think you can have it both ways (in the car analogy). The new tire is replacing the spare, but both the spare and the new tire are meant to RESTORE the car to full functionality, in the way it was meant to be – to make the car functional. Only the new tire (faith/Christ) can get the car to the destination.

      1. Great responses, of course, Nijay! I should clarify, again very briefly.

        1. My point about the analogy is not to say that ‘it is liable to be taken in the wrong way’, but that it inadvertently points the hearer in the wrong way. If you “replace” the replaced tire with a “restored” tire, then you could avoid the analogy pointing in a “replacement” direction. Of course, people may continue to misunderstand, but at least you’ve removed all the obstacles possible on your end. Make sense? (Of course, you may want theologically to have the tire replaced in which case the analogy will work…but I don’t think this is what Paul is doing)

        2. On replacement v. restoration, I’m thinking of Ezekiel’s prophetic expectation that the new covenant would mean that they could keep the Law through God’s Spirit, which is precisely what Paul states in Gal 5–6. This, of course, gets into all sorts of tricky issues re: Paul and the Law and life in the Spirit, but at least this is what Paul seems to be doing in Gal 5–6.

        3. Remember Paul is talking about Gentile inclusion when he says that circumcision counts for nothing. That he circumcised Jewish Timothy (Acts 16) but refused to circumcise Gentile Titus (Gal 2) is a case and point. (yes, I think Acts is historically reliable here–and elsewhere).

        Great discussion here…feel free again to refute!

  12. I like the analogy, the only thing I’d add to clarify to your audience is “covenant” and that the Gentiles get to hitchhike in Israel’s (remmant) after its been to the service station for repair of the right sized tire! LOL

  13. Justin – since I respect your expertise in all things Galatians, I am happy to continue in this useful discussion, though I don’t think we will end up in the same place!

    Basically, I think we need to work through, in the analogy, what the tire actually corresponds to. If it is the covenantal relationship, then yes – it needs to be restored. If it is the Mosaic law and its commands, I can’t really see that being restored for Gentile Christians.

    Using your Ezekiel example, what do we mean by “keeping the Law” – if it is the heart of the law, then I think you are right and replacement is not appropriate. If Keeping it means keeping its time-bound forms of circumcision, Sabbath-observance, dietary restrictions, etc.., then I think we are again dealing with ‘replacement’, though I don’t prefer that term either.

    I tried to manage the restoration end of the analogy by focusing on the fact that it is the SAME car, the spare tire served the same kind of function as the old blown tire and the new tire that comes after the spare. The CAR is restored, but the tire is replaced.

    Part of the problem with the analogy is that sometimes we are not sure with Paul’s language of law, when he is referring to it in the most specific sense (commands and regulations of the Mosaic law), when he means it as Torah in general, and when he is talking about the Jewish Scriptures as a whole. In my analogy, I try to focus basically on the most restrictive senses, but to include all the senses would take a complex analogy.

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