This entry is part of a series called, “The Big Story of God.” We are looking at the overarching theme or narrative running in the Bible from the start to the very end. In previous entries, we saw a personal God that creates everything and desires his creation (you and me) to know him. We saw that humanity disobeyed him, destroying our relationship with him, and allowing sin to enter the world. Even then, God’s desire for his creation to know him wasn’t thwarted.
God made a promise that he would restore this relationship and he began this process by making a covenant, a promise, to a man named Abram. This promise wasn’t just for Abram or even a specific group of people. Ultimately, it was a promise to bless the entire world through this individual and his descendants.
Now, we pick up “The Big Story” with the next really significant event in the unfolding plan of God. After he rescues the Jewish people from slavery, delivers them from the Egyptians, and they are on their way to claim the promise, God gives them the Law.
Background of the
I know this isn’t something we are usually overly excited to talk about. Even this week, I was telling someone that the Law would be our topic today, and they said, “Well, I was going to invite a friend this week, but maybe I’ll wait!”
We don’t have happy thoughts about this topic, because when we think of the Law, we think of all the rules we have to follow and obey. I, more than anyone, understand the human nature that wants to rebel and push back against the rules.
Moses was called by God to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt. While in the wilderness, God led them to Mt. Sinai. While there, Moses went up the mountain, God spoke to him and gave him very clear instructions on how the people were to live. Even if you have never been in church before, you know the result of this conversation between God and Moses. This is the moment where we get the Ten Commandments. No other gods before me. No idols. No misusing the name of the Lord. Keep the Sabbath. Honor your parents. Don’t kill. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t covet what others have. We’ve all heard these before.
What you may not realize is that this wasn’t all of it. God went on and laid out other laws that the people needed to follow. And let me just tell you, based on my morning routine, I am in trouble with what was laid out for them.
As I got up, I picked up some things around the house, so I “worked.” I put on my cotton-polyester blend shirt. (You weren’t supposed to mix fabrics.) I ate my sausage and egg biscuit. . . It was only 10 a.m. and I was already in big trouble.
In fact, God gave over 600 laws, everything from laws dealing with relationships, to what to eat, property rights, business practices, and court proceedings. All these are recorded in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
Now, I don’t know about you, but if you give me just a handful of rules to follow, there is always that little bit within me that wants to push back. It’s the part of me that says, “I don’t need no sticking rules. I can do it my way. My way is a better way.” It seems
difficult to follow a few rules sometimes. And then there is the problem of memory. Sometimes I just forget! So, how were they to follow over 600 laws?
Well, God also gave them something else. He gave them a way to atone for their sin when they didn’t meet the standard. For when they failed, God gave them a system of sacrifices. In Deuteronomy 5, we read this:
So be careful to do what the Lord your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left. Walk in obedience to all that the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess.Deuteronomy 5:32-33
How does this fit into the Big Story of God? More importantly, is this still in effect today? To understand this, we need to see if we can begin by finding purpose behind God giving the Law.
The Purpose of
One purpose I see behind the giving of the Law is that it reveals God. It reveals to us a holy God, a righteous God, a God who desires for his creation to be as he is: pure, and holy, and righteous. Leviticus 11:45 tells of this desire,
I am the Lord, who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am
But, it also tells us of his love and desire for his people to flourish. The laws that God established weren’t just to keep the people from having fun or enjoying life. In fact, it was just the opposite. God put these in place, so if followed, the people would prosper. Deuteronomy 5:33 says, “Walk in obedience to all that the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess.”
It also reveals a God that still desires for his people to live in relationship with him. Even the wording of the first four commandments reveals a personal God, who has a desire to know and be known by his creation. “I am the Lord your God,” “…your God…” “…your God…” God’s plan is still being revealed and the giving of the Law is just another step in this process of restoration.
I believe the primary purpose of the Law has to do with us, humanity, you and me, because the Law reveals something serious about us: the depth of our fallen nature and our sin.
In the letter Paul wrote to the church in the city of Galatia, he says, “Why then was the law given at all?” (Galatians 3:19a NIV) Great question, right? Why have the law at all? And Paul tells us.
“It [the law] was added because of transgressions…” (Gal 3:19a NIV) or as the New Living Translation puts it, “It was given …to show people their sins.” (Gal 3:19a NLT)
So, the main work of the Law was to expose sin. Why was this necessary? Well, I think we have to look no further than the mirror. When we evaluate ourselves, we tell ourselves things like, “My sin isn’t that bad. It certainly isn’t as bad as his. I am ok.” Then the Law comes along and says, “No, you aren’t.” Our sin problem isn’t a small problem. It is a serious problem.
New Testament Scholar John Stott said it this way,
“[God] had to make things worse before He could make them better. The Law exposed sin, provoked sin, condemned sin. The purpose of the law, as it were, is to lift the lid off man’s respectability and disclose what he is really like underneath – sinful, rebellious, guilty, under the judgment of God, and helpless to save himself.”
But the Law revealed a big problem.
The Problem of the Law
The Law revealed our true condition. God provided a system for the people to atone for their sins, but it never lasted.
The Law may have been great at establishing a good society and reminding people of their sin, but there is one thing it could never do. The Law could never save anyone, ever. It could never bring life.
As one illustration I read this week put it, the law is like an MRI scan that reveals our cancer but provides no cure. Just this week we saw another horrific shooting at a school. On the campus of a community college in Oregon, a lone gunman entered the campus and started shooting people. Nine students died, several were injured. What could the law do? Point out the horrific nature of the event? Yes. Reveal the evil nature within humanity that would cause someone to do such a thing? Sure. Show an impending judgment for actions like this? Ok. But apart from revealing this, the law was powerless.
The Law instituted at the time of Moses included over 600 laws. The truth is, we could implement and institute millions of laws and it would never really change anything. Why? Listen to this because I think it is vitally important: The Law could only change behavior. It could never change the heart.
The Law might keep you from killing someone, but it won’t prevent you from hating your annoying coworker. It might prevent you from actually committing the act of adultery, but it does nothing to prevent you from lusting after someone else and thinking about
sleeping with them. The Law might change behavior, but it will never change the heart.
Even though this sounds like a problem, the Law plays a very important part in this “Big Story,” because the function of the Law was not to bring about salvation, but to convince us of our need for it. The Law cannot save, but shows us our need for a Savior. Quoting John Stott again, he writes, “It is only against the inky blackness of the night sky that the stars begin to appear, and it is only against the dark background of sin and judgment that the gospel shines forth.”
So, if the Law reveals this incredible need we have for salvation, but itself cannot save us, what is the solution?
The Solution to the Law
To understand this, let’s go back to what Paul wrote in Galatians 3.
[The Law] was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come…So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.Galatians 3:19, 23
The Law was never meant to be seen as the permanent fix to the sin problem. In fact, it was always only meant to be temporary until that which was promised came. That promise was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
However, we have to understand this: God gave the Law. Its purpose was to reveal our sinfulness and show us our need for a Savior, but once that Savior arrived, the Law was no longer necessary. And for those that do not know Jesus, the Law still has importance to show just how great our need for Jesus is.
Martin Luther said, “The principle point…of the law…is to make men not better but worse; that is to say, it sheweth unto them their sin, that by the knowledge thereof they may be humbled, terrified, bruised and broken, and by this means may be driven to seek grace, and so to come to that blessed Seed [Christ].” (Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians, 316)
And for those that follow Jesus Christ, we are no longer bound to the Law of the Old Testament but rather we are called to a higher law of love. It’s not that the standard has been lowered. In fact, the bar has been raised.
Our Response to the Law
So, the Law reveals our sinfulness and our need for a Savior and points to that Savior, Jesus. What will your response be to the Law?
For some, our response is to ignore it. As long as we listen faintly to the Law, we only feel a little guilty. We choose to live in blissful ignorance, but even in that state we know there is something within that doesn’t add up. When we see tragedies like in Oregon, we know there is evil in the world, we know there is judgment, and it becomes more and more difficult for us to ignore it.
For some, our response to the Law is to embrace it. We see the Law as God instituting a religion, rules to be followed to make us right with him, and we spend our lives trying to live right: go to church enough, help enough old ladies and kids crossing the street, even participating in religious ceremonies like Baptism or Communion. We believe that if we can do just enough good works, we can earn God’s love. We can tilt the scales in our favor. But the harder we try, the farther away we get. We read that even though we
keep nine of the ten commandments, if we stumble in even one, we are guilty of them all. James 2:10 tells us this,
“For whoever keeps the whole Law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of
breaking all of it.”
For some, our response may be overwhelming despair, and we just give up. So distraught at our sinful condition, we throw in the towel.
We can respond in any of these ways, or we can understand the Law for what it really was: God showing us the truth of our condition, and we can run to Jesus. The Law reveals our sinfulness, but it also reveals a God who didn’t stop with the Law. He continued to write this story that leads us to God coming to earth, sacrificing himself in our place for our sin, and restoring our relationship with him.
One final quote from John Stott this morning, “Not until the law has bruised and smitten us will we admit our need of the gospel to bind up our wounds. Not until the law has arrested and imprisoned us will we pine for Christ to set us free. Not until the law has condemned us and killed us will we call upon Christ for justification and life. Not until the law has driven us to despair of ourselves will we ever believe in Jesus. Not until the law has humbled us even to hell will we turn to the gospel to raise us to heaven.”
What this comes down to is the questions the Law asks us: Who are you trusting for your salvation? Yourself? Your good works or Jesus? Your religious experiences or the work of Christ on the cross?
Jesus, the perfect fulfillment of the Law, did what the Law was powerless to do. He went to the cross and brought salvation to those who believe.
Maybe you are still trying to make it on your own. You are trying your hardest to live by the commandments or the Law and you are hoping against hope that you’ve done enough to make it. Can I encourage you today to stop trying? The Law will never save you, but Jesus can and will.
What about those who are here and have been following Jesus for years, but your faith has become something you do almost just out of habit? You do it because you feel like you are supposed to. You still see the Law, and make sure you can check things off the list, as a big reason for the things you do. Can I encourage you today to stop as well?
When we forget the purpose of the Law was to show us how far we were away from God, we lose that passion, that excitement, the right motivation for why we are even doing this Christian thing. Remember that the reason for the Law wasn’t to make you feel bad, but to show you how far God would go to save you, because of his love for you, because of his desire to redeem and restore his creation back to the relationship we were created to enjoy with him.
Whoever you may be today, take a moment to think about what God might be saying to you through this message. Reflect on the incredible sacrifice of Jesus to fulfill the Law, taking the penalty of the law on himself so that we might live.