Catenary: The Curve of a Hanging Chain

I learned it from Meredith Kline (The Structure of Biblical Authority), who got it from George Mendenhall. We’ve had it wrong on the “two tables” of the law. It’s not that the law is divided in two; it’s that each stone tablet had a full copy of the law. One copy was for God, and one copy was for Israel, like ancient suzerainty treaties and modern contracts.

There is no division in the actual text of the Ten Commandments, either in Exodus or in Deuteronomy. It’s an imposition to assign some commandments to the “love of God” and others to the “love of neighbor.” When Jesus says, “On these two commandments hang (krematai) the whole law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40), he means that the whole law hangs on both, not some on one and some on the other. Each commandment is a link in a single chain that hangs in a catenary from both.

The obvious example is the Sabbath law, which is for the service of both God and one’s workers. But the second commandment, “graven images,” is also for love of neighbor. Your neighbor is God’s chosen image, and you should serve this image with your gifts rather than lay them before a graven image. With the sixth commandment, the reason you may not kill is ultimately for love of God. “I am the Lord,” says God in the Holiness Code at Leviticus 19:18. You can ring the changes yourself for the other seven.

What has this to do with Pentecost? While Pentecost was the Jewish holiday of the First Fruits, over time it also became the celebration of the reception of the Torah. The theophany on Sinai happened fifty days after the first Passover. And so fifty days after Easter, the Holy Spirit created out of the disciples a new version of Israel. The law was now in their hearts, in fulfillment of the new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31–34. We know that the first part of Acts 2 describes the phenomenon of the fiery gift of the Spirit, and the second part repeats the sermon of Peter. But the balance of the chapter describes the no less remarkable and no less miraculous outpouring of love among the believers.

Pentecost completed Easter’s revelation of the Holy Trinity. We can look back on the Torah with new eyes. We recognize that the love of God is at one with the love which is inside God, the interactive love among the persons of the Trinity, the love of the eternal other. That interpersonal love within the Trinity is the source of neighbor love in us. I love my neighbor precisely because my neighbor is not me–so much so that I rejoice in my neighbor having things I do not have, and I do not covet them.

Love for neighbor expresses the love of God. Love for the Triune God is always love for the other. The unity of love and the texture of love both come from God. The Christian Pentecost is a celebration of empowerment, and the power we celebrate is the power of God’s love.

Back in the day, I was the only student reading Meredith Kline at New Brunswick Seminary. But a few of us were also reading A. A. van Ruler, who said that God practices what God preaches. We are God’s neighbors. And God rejoices in us being us. That’s how God celebrates Pentecost.

Daniel Meeter is pastor of Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York.