This week we are diving into the Law! Our story began in the beginning, with God’s good creation. This good creation was broken through human sin. God launched a rescue operation, calling Abraham to bring blessing to the nations. Abraham’s descendants, Israel, ended up enslaved in Egypt and God liberated them. We must always remember that Abraham and the Israelites were chosen for the benefit of all people as is Israel. God’s ultimate goal is to redeem all of creation. And, of course, just as the first humans messed up so we know Abraham and the Israelites are broken vessels, unable to fulfill this call. Or, to move into our story, God gives them the Law but they will break it over and over again.
Pause: What do rules and laws have to do with your faith? What do your friends think of when they hear things like “God’s Law” or “God is holy”?
In our last episode we learned about God’s dwelling with the Israelites in the tabernacle and later the temple. We traced this theme of God’s dwelling the whole way through to God dwelling in Mary as a sort of new temple, to God’s presence on earth as Jesus and the community of Jesus’ followers as filled with God’s presence. Today we need to go back and pick up our story with the Israelites just having been liberated from Egypt. As we learned last week, Exodus 25-40 is filled with instructions on how to build the tabernacle.
Along with this, God gives them the Law. We are going to spend two weeks on God’s Law, because it is both important and tricky. Let’s start with a basic point: This Law instructed the Israelites on how to live. The Law was not a universal Law instructing us on how to live for all time; it was given to Israel in a specific context. The Law certainly has meaning in other contexts, but it is best to begin within our story and recognize this Law is for Israel first. It was incredibly detailed filled with instructions on how to sacrifice and bathe and clean mildew and what to do when people get in conflict or if your bull hurts someone. So we know it was for Israel first, because when we have mildew in our bathtubs we do not follow this law. We call the mold experts! That said, we may learn something from studying even those passages about cleansing mildew. Sadly, we are not doing an in depth study of the mildew passages this week! Next week, we will touch more on what the law means for us. If you’re interested, the mildew passage is in Leviticus 14.
The second thing I want to say about the Law, along with its contextuality, is that though it was instructions on how to live, the Law was not given for the people to earn God’s love. This is a common misperception Christians have, thinking the Old Testament was all about work but then grace came with Jesus. The reality is, God’s grace is there from the beginning. God did not say to the people, “If you want to be in relationship with me, follow all these laws and if you do well then we’ll be friends.” Notice when the Law is given – after the people have been saved by God and brought out of Egypt. God acted to save them not based on anything they had done, but solely out of unconditional, unearned love.
Christians emphasize that it is by grace we have been saved, not by our good works. Yet if we think this was a new way of acting by God when Jesus came along, as if there God all of a sudden began relating to creation differently, we are mistaken. Grace, unconditional love towards the undeserving, is always how God has acted. God saved the people first, in the Exodus, and then gives them the law on how to live. God is entering into a covenant relationship with Israel. Simply put, a covenant is an agreement between two parties where both sides have obligations to carry out. The more powerful party, whether kings or in this case, God, would agree to protect the weaker party. The weaker party, the Israelites, kept loyalty by obeying God. It is an act of grace for God to enter a covenant with Israel. Again, the law was not obeyed to get into relationship. It was obeyed because of, or a sign of, the relationship. We can see a list of blessings and curses – blessings if they obey, curses if they do not, at the end of the Law. Again, obedience was not to ear God’s love but was a sign they were in the covenant with God.
In other words, the Law was a gift. The Israelites were privileged to know exactly what God required. Contrast this with the fickle gods their neighbors worshiped. Life in the ancient world under the various tribal deities could lead to great anxiety because you never knew for sure what the gods wanted. If you had a good harvest, you would give an offering of thanks to the gods. But if the next year was a poor harvest, does that mean you had not thanked them enough? Do you give more? You were never quite sure what the gods desired. The ancient gods often seem like just more powerful versions of humans. Humans tend to be a bit schizophrenic and unpredictable. So too were the gods.
The key here is to emphasize that God did not change the way God related to humans. God has always begun with grace and followed the acts of grace with law. Grace has always come first. Christians belief that in Jesus the fullness of God’s grace is most clearly revealed. But it is a revelation of what is always there, not a new way of acting by God.
Our introduction to the law comes in Exodus 20 with the giving of the Ten Commandments, which you are probably familiar with. Following this are plenty of other laws through Exodus 24. Then there are the instructions on the Tabernacle in the rest of Exodus, which we mentioned last week, as well as the worship of the golden calf which illustrates how the Israelites are breaking the Law even as they receive it. We get lots of Law in Leviticus and much more in Deuteronomy. Numbers is right between those two with a census, some further narrative (like when the guy’s donkey talks to him) and other fun and interesting stories. Obviously we cannot get into all the details of all the specific laws. Next week though, we will take a bit of time to look at how to interpret the Law. I want to spend the rest of this podcast discussing how the Law relates to God’s original call to Abraham to be a blessing to the nations. Before giving the Law in Exodus 20, we get a fascinating passage in Exodus 19:3-6:
“Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
Priests functioned as mediators between humans and the gods. In most cultures, there was a special group of people who were priests. They were a sort of higher class; eventually there will be a special class of priests in Israel. Here at the beginning though, we see that the entire nation of Israel, every single person, is called a priest. They are to be a “kingdom of priests”. This picks up on a theme from the creation story where all humans, rather than just a select few, are created in God’s image. Other ancient cultures would tell creation stories that ended up justifying the rule of a special group, with this special group basically favored by the gods from the start. The Bible story emphasizes that all people are created by God and given a mission and purpose. All of Israel is to be priests. To pick up on the theme of Abraham being chosen to bring blessing to the nations, we see Israel as a kingdom of priests is still carrying that mission. The whole nation of Israel is to mediate between God and the rest of humanity.
This same theme appears in Deuteronomy 4:5-7:
“See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”
Here we see that the purpose of the Law is not merely to set Israel apart and make them different then the other nations. Instead, God’s desire to be in relationship with the entirety of creation shines through. The hope is that in obeying the Law, other nations would see and be intrigued and, ultimately, come to worship. Israel receiving the Law is not separate from God’s mission to restore all the nations, rather, their obedience to the Law is part of this mission. They are to be a light for the world.
The Law was given so the people could model for the world what it looked like to live in relationship with God.
Unfortunately, over time the people forgot what the purpose of the Law was. We might say they stopped seeing the Law as a means to an end (becoming the people God wanted them to be, being holy, being a light to the nations) and saw the Law as the end. With this pride crept in, their obedience to the letter of the law made them look down on others who were not as well behaved. The prophets picked up on this. One example comes in Isaiah 58:1-14 where the prophet emphasizes that God is not interested in fasting and other practices of the Law by themselves. If you obey the letter of the law, but fail to do justice and love mercy, then you are breaking the law. In other words, if you come to consider obeying the Law as an end itself rather than a means to a greater end, you miss the point.
The Spirit of the Law is more vital than the Letter of the Law.
Christians often question the purpose of the Law for us today. Is the Law from the Old Testament bad and we should just ignore it? Do we jettison some laws but strictly obey others? The apostle Paul addresses this topic often. One especially helpful passage is in Romans 7:7-13.
What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. 9 Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. 11 For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. 12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.
Here Paul, a lifelong Jew, continued to see the good in the Law even after he converted to a follower of Jesus. But the Law, like Abraham, was infected by sin and could not bring humanity to where we needed to be. There is a tension inherent in the Law – it was given to bring life, but when lives are held up against it, it is revealed to bring death. Sin has corrupted the Law. Yet Paul refuses to reject the law, calling it holy and good. The Law is good but in failure to obey it, Israel brings those curses mentioned in Deuteronomy.
This is where Christians emphasize Jesus as fulfilling the Law. Just as Jesus fulfilled Abraham’s call to bring blessing to the nations, so Jesus is the only one who perfectly lived out the Law. This, of course, does not answer all our questions about the Law. But at the minimum, we recall that Jesus emphasized the entire Law hung on the two greatest commandments: Love God and Love Neighbor.
Further, when Jesus called his disciples to be a light to the nations, we recognize the call to be a kingdom of priests and a blessing to the nations. Israel is expanded through Jesus, not replaced, as all people are welcomed in. We are called to live as Jesus’ disciples so we, as Israel was called to be, can be a light to the nations. The point of following Jesus is not so we can take pride in our holy status, but rather, we live outward focused, demonstrating the love of Christ to others. I think of the early chapters of Acts where it describes the church community as having no needy people among them. We live lives of generosity because being generous is objectively better for us than being greedy; we also live such lives to reveal who God is to the world – our generosity reflects God’s. Or at least, that’s the dream and goal. That’s who we should be! How well the church is doing, I leave to you to think about in the context of your own local church community. Know I am praying for you to be a kingdom of priests, a light to the nations, people blessed to be a blessing.
We will continue to explore the Law in the next chapter. For now we can emphasize that the Law was a gift from God to the Israelites, following the grace of salvation in the exodus. Further, the Law is not perfect but is still worth reading and studying today.
Questions and Action Points:
What purpose do you think the Law of the Old Testament might have for us today?
As Christians we take pride that we are saved by grace and do not follow the law. Yet, on a practical level, how might laws and rules help us in our daily lives? On the flip side, though helpful, how might such rules and laws end up being dangerous?
Make a list of the things you are proud of. Throw it in the trash.
Heavenly Father, we know you are a holy God – a set apart, unique, perfect and all good God. We admit the Law in the Bible is sometimes difficult to understand. Open our eyes to what the purpose of the Law is in scripture and what it means for us today. Help us to know that we have done nothing to earn your love and grace. Through this, help us not to look down on others in what we think is their sin. May we know that apart from your grace, we are nothing. Give us the strength to live the way you desire us to live, to be people of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control. Most of all, help us to live this way not out of fearful obligation, but out of love to you, our loving God. Amen.