There are lots of tasks I have no desire to “take on”. I have no real desire to climb a mountain or parachute from a plane. I don’t want to bicycle around the country or swim the English channel. These are tasks that seem insurmountable and don’t interest me in the least.
Trying to expound the laws contained in the first five books of the Old Testament on Sunday mornings is another of those insurmountable tasks. The Rabbis identify 613 different laws in these chapters. To do justice to such a study would take us so long that I’m afraid most of us would never enjoy seeing the end of the study.
So, rather than expound the individual laws I want to look at the laws of God in general. What is their purpose? What are Christians to do with the Law of God. Must we obey these laws? Should we ignore these laws? Why should we love the law of God?
Before we can answer these questions we need to make some distinctions. There are three kinds of laws found in the Bible.
DIFFERENT KINDS OF LAW
There is the Civil law or national law. These laws were designed to meet needs in a specific culture at a specific time and circumstance. There are laws that governed what the Israelites could eat and how they could eat it. Civil laws also talked about property issues, mandatory sentencing, perjury, how to deal with accidental death and much more. Every society needs these kinds of laws.
Some of these laws are somewhat strange to our ears. For example in Exodus 23 we are told that you are not to cook a goat in it’s mother’s milk. It’s a rule many don’t understand. In Leviticus 11 there is a whole list of foods that are considered “unclean”. Among these is pork. What needs to be understood is that many of these prohibitions had to do with health issues and with the fact that these animals were used in pagan rituals. But the commands seem foreign to our ears.
When you read various commands about mandatory sentencing they may strike you as excessive.
- Anyone who attacks his father and mother must be put to death (Ex. 21:15)
- Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death (Ex. 21:16)
- Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death (Ex. 21:17)
- If you have a bull that is habitually getting loose and attacking people and it kills someone then the bull AND THE OWNER are to be put to death (Ex. 21:29)
- Anyone who does any work on the Sabbath must be put to death (Ex. 31:14)
- If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property. (Ex. 21:20-21)
The list could go on and on. Unfortunately we don’t always know the context of these laws. Laws about slavery were not meant to condone slavery as we know it. In Bible days slavery was different than the Civil war days. The Bible laws simply regulated an existing situation in the land.
Many of the civil laws had to do with the fact that this was a new nation and they had to build respect and authority. Many of the laws also had to do with the pagan practices of the nations that surrounded them. God was helping Israel be pure and holy in their dealings. Civil laws often need context for the laws to be understood.
Many people today use these laws to ridicule some of the moral stands that Christians take today. If you don’t like what Christians believe then pull out some of these civil laws and imply that all Christian laws are obscure and outdated. But any society has civil laws that seem very strange years after they were written. Let me give you some examples of laws on the books today in some of our states,
- Any motorist driving along a country road at night must stop every mile and send up a rocket signal, wait ten minutes for the road to be cleared of livestock, and continue. (Pennsylvania)
- You can be legally married by introducing a person as your wife or husband in public three times. (Texas)
- It is unlawful to annoy any bird in a public park. (Hawaii)
- It is illegal to get a fish drunk. (Ohio)
- People who make ugly faces at dogs may be fined and/or jailed. (Oklahoma)
- If two trains meet on the same track, neither shall proceed until the other has passed. (Kansas)
- Any marriage where either of the partners is an idiot or a lunatic is null and void. (Rhode Island)
- It is illegal to whistle underwater. (Oregon)
Civil laws change with changing circumstances.
There are also Ceremonial Laws. These laws regulate the worship of the Israelites. They regulate the sacrifices. They spell out the religious feasts and festivals. They describe the attire of those who serve at the tabernacle. And these laws explain how to atone for sin. They teach how God desires to be worshipped.
Ceremonial laws usually employ a ceremony or some symbolic action which is designed to point to some moral lesson or objective. Most of the ceremonial laws were rendered unnecessary with the coming of Christ. Jesus made the perfect and final sacrifice for sin. We no longer need these rituals any more. Ceremonial laws are interesting when you notice how they point to Jesus.
Finally, there are the Moral laws. These laws reveal the standard of behavior that God expects from His people. These laws transcend time. The principles of justice, mercy, honesty, respect for what belongs to another, appropriate retribution, respect for parents, appropriate and inappropriate sexual relations, guidelines for marriage, principles of labor and many other moral laws are still in affect today.
The question that most people ask at this point is: “How do I tell the difference between a moral, civil or ceremonial law?” Let me give you a few guidelines,
- if the law or principle is affirmed in the New Testament, it is a moral law
- if the law is something that was embraced by the early church it is more likely a moral law
- if the law “makes sense” it is most likely a timeless moral principle
Theologian R.C. Sproul says,
We certainly don’t want to relativize or historicize an eternal truth of God. My rule of thumb: We are to study to try to discern a difference between principle and custom. But if after having studied we can’t discern, I would rather treat something that may be a first-century custom as an eternal principle than risk being guilty of taking an eternal principle of God and treating it as a first century custom. [R.C. Sproul NOW, THAT’S A GOOD QUESTION p. 515]
WHY WE SHOULD LOVE THE MORAL LAW
God did not give us the law so we could be saved through it. From the earliest days of Genesis God pointed to a Savior who alone could save us. So, if God didn’t give us the law so we could earn salvation, why did He give it to us? The law has three basic purposes
First, the law restrains sin
By giving us the moral law God helps to restrain sin. A society without moral law is considered anarchy. Everyone does what they feel like. Their motivation is only to advance and promote themselves. The law of God points us toward a higher standard and thus reigns in sin. The very threat of eternal punishment for breaking God’s law has some measure of restraint on our society.
Consider laws against speeding. You may think the law unnecessary. You may disobey the law frequently. But, you don’t drive as fast as you might if the law was not there. That possibility that a trooper is just over the next hill restrains your need for speed. It may restrain much, or it may restrain but a little . . . but it does exercise some restraint against your sin nature. This is one of the purposes of the moral law.
Second, the law makes us aware of sin and our need for grace.
When we read God’s law we see that God describing a measure of obedience and holiness that we do not attain. The law acts like a mirror that reveals the flaws in our own character. Without God’s law we would just continue to change the standard to condone our desires rather than adjusting our desires to God’s standards. We see this tension in our own society. Popular opinion is constantly seeking to water down God’s standards on morality, ethics, and character. God’s law tells us the truth we don’t want to hear.
Romans 7:7 What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.”
As we read the law of God we see the perfect standard of a holy God. Take the Ten Commandments as an example. If you remember our study of the ten commandments you will remember that my assertion was simple: rightly understood (taking into account the exposition of these commands by Jesus), we have not fully obeyed ANY of the ten. Remember Jesus tells us to even look at another with lust is to commit adultery. And we are told that hating someone violates the command not to kill. Remember also that we can steal by misusing copyright laws and by taking credit for something we didn’t do.
There is only one who has kept God’s law fully. His name is Jesus. This is why Jesus is qualified to be our Savior. He alone is without sin. The law, then shows us our sin and makes us aware of our need for grace. We would not receive Christ as Savior if we did not realize that we NEED a Savior. Paul again says,
So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:24)
Let me give an example. Consider all those guidelines that are set up as to what is an acceptable cholesterol level, the ideal weight, the appropriate amount of fruit and vegetables in our diet, and the amount of water we need to drink every day. We have all these guidelines and most of them only show us what we aren’t doing right. But that awareness is necessary before we will make any changes in our lifestyle.
The law of God helps us see the truth about ourselves so that we will be willing to receive the salvation that is presented to us in Christ. This is one of the reasons we should “love the law”. The Law truly leads us to Christ.
Third, the Law Reveals the Heart of God and the Duty of Man
The third purpose of the law and the third reason we should love the law is because it teaches us about the heart of God. The law reveals what God considers right behavior. The law shows us God’s desire for our life and character. The law tells us the right way to live. It is still the standard that serves as our goal.
It is true that we cannot get to Heaven by obeying the law. We can’t keep the law perfectly and that’s what is required. Those people who hope that they will get to Heaven because they are doing their best . . . are heading down a dead end street. Your best is not good enough. God demands perfection.
As we have already said, the law shows us the need we have for grace. The Bible tells us that believers are free from the curse of the law. What that means is that we are free from the condemnation that the law brings into our life. The law no longer taunts us with our sinfulness.
But that doesn’t mean that we should disregard the law. The law of God still defines God-pleasing behavior. It still tells us how God wants us to live. It alerts us to dangers and pitfalls. The law of God helps us develop the right attitudes and focus on the right issues. We need to listen to the law of God, not so that we might get to Heaven but so that we might know how to live appropriately. This is a difficult concept so let me quote Jerry Bridges,
Some people believe that, under grace . . . we have been freed, not only from the curse and condemnation resulting from breaking the law, but also from the requirements of the law as a rule of life. They believe that to insist on obedience as a requirement for a Christian is to teach legalism instead of grace. . .
I believe such a view is a misunderstanding of grace. God’s grace does not change the fundamental character of God’s moral law. . .Legalism… is to seek justification and good standing with God through the merit of works done in obedience to the law — instead of by faith in Christ.
…the fundamental character of God’s law has not changed. What has changed is our reason for obedience . . Under grace, obedience is a loving response to salvation already provided in Christ. [Bridges TRANSFORMING GRACE p. 91-92
In other words, if you want to know how to please God in your living, read God’s law. If you want to live a life that brings God’s blessing on your life, follow God’s law. If you want to get to Heaven, you must trust His grace. Grace and law are not incompatible. They work hand in hand with each other.
Let me give you a practical example from school. Often when a student goes into a classroom they are interested in one thing: one must I do to get a good grade. Whatever must be done they try to do. They spit out the expected answers, they engage in the required behavior. They do so to get something.
As a semester goes on, students often become acquainted with the teacher. They come to respect and like the teacher as a person and not just as a means to a certain grade. At this point their reason for their behavior changes. They still look for the right answers and still engage in the right behavior but now they are doing this to please the teacher. Out of respect for the teacher they now behave appropriately in class and often will be seen urging others to behave correctly as well.
That’s the difference between trying to be saved by the law and seeking to please God by obeying the law. The behavior may be the same. The motivation is different.
We have focused on explanations and distinctions this morning. But what difference should these things make in our lives.
First, I hope our discussion reminds you that we are dependent on the grace of God for our salvation. I suspect every one of you is trying to live the best life you can. I wish I could tell you how many times I have asked someone on what basis they had for believing they were going to Heaven. Way too often the answer I receive is this: “I have tried to live the best life I can live. I have tried to live by God’s standard.” Friends, this is no basis for the hope of Heaven.
You may very well be living the best you can. But it’s not good enough! God’s standard is not that you try to even out the bad with good . . . God’s standard is that you do ONLY good. And not a single one of us here would dare claim that we have achieved this standard.
Our ONLY hope for Heaven is Jesus. He obeyed the law perfectly. He went to the cross in our place. Our sin was given to Him and His perfection was credited to our account. This is the only way we can have any hope of Heaven. We must trust what Jesus has done for us.
What is your basis for hoping for Heaven? Do you think you are good enough to get in? Friend, take an honest look at your life. Do you really think you have met God’s standard? You and I both need a Savior. We need someone who can pay for our sin and infuse us with new life through God’s Spirit. That someone is Jesus.
The Scriptures declare that you must “believe” in Christ. This is more than believing the facts about Jesus . . . it is putting your trust and confidence in Him. It is relying wholly and solely on what He has done for us. It is trusting His direction in life and grace for eternity. If you haven’t done that, I urge you to take a moment right now and settle this matter once and for all. Come to God honestly. Admit your sin. Receive His grace. That’s your hope for Heaven. Trust nothing else.
Second, I hope you will read the law of God. Read through the many laws in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Take your time. Some of the laws won’t apply to your life. Some will focus on ceremonies and civic duties. Skim those laws and notice any principles that might be there. But pay close attention to the moral laws. These laws speak to us about areas of life that need to be spoken to. These laws urge us to consider the needs of others, to respect what others own, to be pure in our sexuality, to be honest in our dealings, to be compassionate toward the poor, to be diligent in avoiding the occult, to avoid any form of idolatry and so much more.
Taking time to study the law of God is a very beneficial pursuit. Avoid the tendency to dismiss these books of the Bible. We are saved by grace but we are still instructed by the law. Make it a point to read through these chapters of Exodus during the next week. God’s law is designed to enrich our life, not burden it. Study and obey His law not to earn His favor but because we have His favor and we want to show Him that we appreciate what He has done.
If we understand the purpose of God’s law and embrace it as the expression of God’s heart, then we will be able to say like David, “O How I love your law!” (Ps. 119).