A LAW TO LIVE BY:
The Mosaic Covenant
Exodus 19–24; Deuteronomy
• More than Ten Commandments
• God’s choice of consequences (Deuteronomy 28:1–68)
• Law never a way of salvation
• OT believers and the Law
• Did Jesus change the Law?
• Are Christians obligated to keep OT Law?
• Summing up the Mosaic Covenant
Every family needs rules. In a healthy family, the rules are designed to provide a structure within which children can grow to maturity. Without rules—without structure during the growing years—maturity can be slow in coming.
So it was with biblical Israel. God had chosen Abraham’s descendants to be His covenant people, but more than 400 years had passed since God made His promises to Abraham. It was time for the Lord to provide the rules, the structure, that Israel would need to mature in their faith and in their relationship to Him.
God’s call of Moses and His intervention on the Israelite’s behalf was in harmony with a clause in the Abrahamic Covenant which promised the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants. As God told Moses, “I have also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan.” And so God promised “I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you as a heritage” (Ex. 6:4, 8).
The story of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt is among the most familiar in the Bible. Moses led about two million people out of Egypt and into the Sinai Peninsula. God showed His continuing presence with the Israelites, opening the Red Sea for them, providing them with manna to eat, and guiding them by a visible cloudy-fiery pillar.
That pillar led the Israelites to Mt. Sinai and there, in one of the most significant events recorded in the Old Testament, God through Moses gave His people a law to live by. That law is referred to in several ways in the Bible. It is called the Mosaic Covenant, the Old Covenant, the Law of Moses, and frequently just “the Law.”
While the law given Israel by God was a berit, or covenant, it differs significantly from the Abrahamic and later biblical covenants. These others were unilateral covenants of promise, in which God bound Himself to do what He promised, regardless of what recipients of the promises might do. In contrast, the Mosaic or Law Covenant is a bilateral agreement, which specifies the obligations of both parties to the covenant.
Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai.
THE CONTENT OF THE MOSAIC OR LAW COVENANT
When the Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai, Moses was called to the mount and given a law for God’s Old Testament people. While many think of the law simply as the Ten Commandments, much more than a moral code was included in biblical law. The Law of Moses had rules for deciding civil and criminal cases. The Law of Moses ordained a priesthood for Israel, and set out a sacrificial system. The Law of Moses defined “clean” and “unclean” foods, which could and could not be eaten by Israelites. The Law of Moses regulated marriage and family life, military operations, worship and religious holidays, borrowing and lending, farming, the care of the poor, relationships with aliens, hygiene, men’s and women’s clothing, the treatment of infectious skin diseases, and many other matters. All the major events of a person’s life, from birth to marriage to child-rearing to old age and death, were dealt with in Moses’ Law.
Jewish tradition says that there are not just Ten Commandments in Moses’ Law: the Old Testament contains 613 commandments that the Israelites were to observe!
Perhaps the best way to sum up Mosaic Law is to say that it gave complete instructions to Israel on how they were to live in fellowship with God and one another. No wonder Moses’ words to the Israelites recorded in Deuteronomy 4 celebrated the Law as a gracious gift.
Surely I have taught you statutes and judgments, just as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should act according to them in the land which you go to possess. Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the Lord our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him? And what great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day? (Deut. 4:5–8).
In this passage Moses stated a truth reflected in Romans. Whatever one may say about Old Testament Law, it “is holy, and the commandments holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12).
THE HISTORIC FUNCTION OF MOSAIC LAW
We noted earlier that both the Noahic and the Abrahamic covenants state what God intends to do in the future. There are no ifs, ands, or buts.
God committed himself to Noah and all living creatures. As long as earth remains, season will follow season and no cataclysm will wipe out all life (Gen. 8:21, 22).
God committed himself to Abraham and his descendants. God would plant a Hebrew nation in Canaan, bless those who blessed and curse those who cursed His people, and through Abraham bless all the families on earth (Gen. 12:2, 3).
Each of these covenants was in essence a statement of God’s intent—a promise which God was committed to keep.
In contrast, the Law Covenant is not a statement of God’s intent. The Law Covenant is not a promise. In making the Law Covenant, God called on Israel to agree to live by His rules. And Israel did agree! Yet in that agreement, by which the people gave their consent to be governed by God’s Word, God did spell out what He would do when Israel was obedient to His commands. And God did spell out what He would do when Israel was disobedient to His Word.
We can perhaps look at these statements of consequence as promises, for they do tell just how God would react to the choices made by His people.
How then is the Law Covenant related to the promises stated in the Abrahamic Covenant? Simply, the Law provided a way for any Israelite generation to experience that covenant’s blessings.
In an earlier chapter I suggested an analogy. A person has been promised $100 million to be given to her at age 50. At age 25, she can only look ahead with some frustration. The $100 million is hers. But it does her no good here and now.
But what if the bequest to the $100 million included a way for her to draw out the interest on the principal each year? What if she could draw the interest only if she continued to live in the family home at least nine months of the year?
This analogy helps us understand the historic function of Mosaic Law and its relationship to the Abrahamic Covenant. God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants will be completely fulfilled at history’s end. Yet, each generation of Israelites could access the promised blessings in their own day—if they were loyal to God and lived by His Law!
The historic function of Moses’ Law, then, was to provide a way for each generation of Abraham’s descendants to know blessing in their own time.
THE COVENANT STRUCTURE OF MOSAIC LAW
The covenants of promise, such as the Abrahamic Covenant, did not quite fit the normal pattern of covenants in the ancient world. The covenants of promise are unilateral covenants: they state what God intends to do, no matter what. In giving these statements formal expression as covenants, God bound Himself alone. The promise covenants are one- party agreements, not two-party agreements.
The Law Covenant is a very typical covenant that does fit the pattern of Middle Eastern covenants.
THE COVENANT STRUCTURE OF EXODUS 19–24
When we come to the Law or Mosaic Covenant, we find that there is a clear parallel between its statement in Scripture and another two-party agreement well known in the ancient world. The first statement of the Law Covenant in Scripture, in Exodus 19–24, follows the pattern established by the Hittite suzerainty treaty. This type of covenant was executed between a superior and an inferior. The superior, possibly a ruler or a dominant nation, stated the conditions of the relationship, and the inferior agreed.
Each of the elements of this kind of treaty are found in the Exodus passage. These elements are:
In the Exodus passage, God identified Himself as “the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 20:2). God then presented Ten Commandments which Israel is to obey, and illustrated their application by specific cases (Ex. 20:2–23:19). The Lord then stated the consequences of covenant keeping and breaking, by stating what He would do in each case (Ex. 23:20–33). The Israelites responded by accepting the covenant with its stipulations and conditions: “All the words which the Lord has said we will do,” (Ex. 24:3).
The covenant was then formally executed, as animals were sacrificed and their blood was sprinkled on the altar and the people (Ex. 24:5–8).
THE COVENANT STRUCTURE OF DEUTERONOMY
The Law Covenant included more than the Ten Commandments listed in Exodus 20. Elements of the Law, and thus of the Law covenant, are found in four of the five books of Moses.
In fact, the entire book of Deuteronomy is written as a covenant. The historical prologue is contained in Deuteronomy 1:6–3:29. Basic stipulations are given in 5:1–11:32, followed by detailed stipulations in Deuteronomy 12:1–26:19. Blessings for keeping the stipulations are listed in 28:1–14, and the consequences of breaking the covenant are spelled out in 28:15–68. Deuteronomy 29:1–30:10 reviews the entire treaty between God and Israel.
The Preamble – Prologue – Stipulations – Consequences – Oath
THE CONSEQUENCES OF KEEPING AND BREAKING THE LAW COVENANT
The consequences of obedience and disobedience spelled out in Deuteronomy 28 are significant. Here we sense echoes of the promise covenants, for God states in clear and unmistakable terms what He will do for those who keep the Law, and to those who break it.
Because of these provisions, we can perhaps call the Mosaic Covenant a unilateral covenant, for it does contain statements of what God intends to do and most surely will do.
Blessings for obedience (Deuteronomy 28:1–14).
The blessings God promised for keeping His law are available to any generation of Israelites. “All these blessings” God promised, “shall come upon you and overtake you, because you obey the voice of the Lord your God” (Deut. 28:2). Moses went on, “And the Lord will grant you plenty of goods, in the fruit of your body, in the increase of your livestock, and in the produce of your ground, in the land of which the Lord swore to your fathers to give you. The Lord will open to you His good treasure, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season, and to bless all the work of your hand” (Deut. 28:11, 12).
Curses for disobedience (Deuteronomy 28:15–68).
The list of consequences for failure to obey God’s law is much longer than the list of blessings for obedience. To those generations which turn away from the Lord and His way of life, “The Lord will send on you cursing, confusion, and rebuke in all that you set your hand to do, until you are destroyed and until you perish quickly, because of the wickedness of your doings in which you have forsaken Me” (Deut. 28:20).
Among the list of disasters ordained for continuing rejection of God and His ways, Deuteronomy promises that God “will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other.” The text adds, “Among those nations you shall find no rest, nor shall the sole of your foot have a resting place, but there the Lord will give you a trembling heart, failing eyes, and anguish of soul. Your life shall hang in doubt before you; you shall fear day and night, and have no assurance of life” (Deut. 28:64–66). How tragically Israel of the Old Testament and modern Jewry has seen this prediction fulfilled.
“The Lord will grant you plenty … in the produce of your ground.”
Choosing actions, not consequences.
The list of blessings and curses spelled out in the Mosaic Covenant brings us face to face with one of life’s realities. Today as in biblical times we choose our actions. But we cannot choose our consequences. Yet, the contemporary fiction that human beings can make sinful moral and spiritual choices without experiencing painful consequences seems to be embedded in our culture. TV and movies depict promiscuity for pleasure as a natural and normal way of life. But in real life, those who follow the example set in the media learn too late the pain that follows—if not in unwanted pregnancy or disease, certainly in personal corruption, guilt, and broken relationships.
We can choose our actions.
But we cannot choose our consequences.
Consequences flow from all actions, and those who develop a habit of wrong choices rush assuredly toward personal disaster.
The lesson taught in the Mosaic Covenant’s delineation of blessings and curses is a gracious one. God warned Israel of the consequences of disobedience in order that His people might choose wisely. Even the terrible consequences which came upon disobedient Israel were gracious in intent. For God intends such consequences to turn hearts away from sin and back to Him.
The tragedies experienced by Old Testament generations that turned their back on God are evidence of His love—gracious urgings to return to the One who is the source of all blessing.
THE RELATIONSHIP OF THE LAW COVENANT TO THE ABRAHAMIC COVENANT
The role of the Law Covenant and its relationship to the Abrahamic Covenant have often been misunderstood. Yet as we explore the Bible several things become clear. The Law Covenant did not replace the Abrahamic Covenant. The Law Covenant was never a way of salvation. And the Law Covenant had a limited and specific function in the Old Testament.
THE LAW COVENANT DID NOT REPLACE OR ANNUL THE ABRAHAMIC COVENANT
Writing in Galatians, the apostle Paul declared, “The law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect” (Gal. 3:17). God had told Abraham what He intended to do, and had even stated His promises in legally binding covenant form. The introduction of the Law had absolutely no effect on the promises made to Abraham. Those promises continue to stand.
It is important to remember that the Abrahamic Covenant, like other promise covenants, is eschatological. This means that complete fulfillment of the promises to Abraham awaits God’s action at history’s end. During the Old Testament era, many generations of Israelites abandoned God and His ways. In the time of the prophet Elijah, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of Israel even attempted to stamp out the worship of Yahweh and to make Baal the northern Hebrew kingdom’s official deity. They almost succeeded! At one point, Elijah felt so isolated that he was encouraged when the Lord reported that out of the hundreds of thousands in Israel, there were yet “seven thousand … whose knees have not bowed to Baal” (1 Kings 19:18). In the whole nation, nearly everyone had apostatized!
Again and again, the Old Testament reports of periods when God’s people turned away from Him to worship idols, abandoning the precepts in God’s Law. Did the unfaithfulness of these generations annul the promises given to Abraham? Not at all. Throughout the Old Testament era, God stood behind His promises, no matter what God’s chosen people did.
The Mosaic Law, then, has no effect at all on the covenants of promise. God’s promises to Abraham were never annulled or even threatened by the apostasy of different generations of Israelites.
THE LAW DID NOT PROVIDE A WAY OF SALVATION
In Galatians, Paul points out another important truth about the Law. It is not a faith kind of thing. “But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident,” Paul writes, “for ‘the just shall live by faith.’ Yet the law is not of faith, but ‘the man who does them shall live by them’” (Gal. 3:11, 12).
Law is a works kind of thing. And, as Abraham’s own experience with God demonstrated, God accepts our faith in place of a righteousness which no human being possesses. The Law, then, cannot be a way of salvation, since salvation is by faith and not by works.
THE MOSAIC LAW HAD A LIMITED AND SPECIFIC FUNCTION IN OLD TESTAMENT TIMES
Commentators have noticed a fascinating fact about the statement of the Ten Commandments in Exodus. Each is expressed in the second person singular: “you.” The use of the singular pronoun is best understood as a way of speaking to all Israel collectively. It focuses on the way in which a group of people is to act and think, as if the group were one person.
While it is obvious that individuals were responsible to keep God’s Law, the use of the singular here is significant. The Mosaic Covenant was made with Israel collectively, and not simply with individual Israelites. Thus, the blessings and curses defined in the Mosaic Covenant were collective blessings and curses. They were based on how the people as a whole responded to the Lord in any given generation.
We can see why this must be. Among the curses to be experienced by generations which abandoned the Lord were famines and foreign invasions. These were national, not individual, disasters. Even a godly person must suffer when the rains fail and crops dry up in the fields. Even a godly individual must suffer when a foreign nation invades his homeland, looting and killing and taking captives. Thus, the fate of a godly individual may be determined by the ungodly neighbors among whom he lives.
God, in giving the Mosaic Covenant, fully understood this reality. And the language of the Ten Commandments tells us that God made the Law Covenant with the people of Israel, the whole community or nation—not with individuals! The blessing or His curses as defined in the Law are national blessings and curses, not blessings or curses to fall on individuals.
This is not to say that the Lord made no distinction between the godly and the sinful person in times of national crisis. Yet we must understand that the Law Covenant was a covenant between God and the whole community of Israel, not between God and individual members in the community.
This explains the distinctive function of the Law Covenant as it relates to the Abrahamic Covenant. When a given generation of Israelites was faithful, God blessed. When a generation of Israelites turned their back on the Lord, God disciplined His people to turn the nation back to Him.
The limited and specific function of the Law in relation to the Abrahamic covenant, then, was to determine when a given generation should be blessed by God, and when a specific generation should be punished. The nation’s experience of the blessings promised to Abraham’s descendants was determined by how a generation of descendants related to God nationally.
THE RELATIONSHIP OF MOSAIC LAW TO THE INDIVIDUAL OT BELIEVER
The Mosaic or Law Covenant was made with corporate Israel. The blessings and curses that were decreed for keeping or breaking the law were national rather than individual. Today, living in a culture that emphasizes the individual and individual responsibility, we tend to miss this fact. Yet when we scan Deuteronomy 28, it is clear that national rather than individual consequences are intended.
The fact that the Mosaic Covenant is between God and corporate Israel does not imply that Moses’ Law was not for individuals. But how did Moses’ Law impact believing Israelites—those who were descendants of Abraham both biologically and spiritually?
THE TRUE BELIEVER DELIGHTED IN GOD’S LAW (PSALM 119)
The covenant which God made with the community incorporated a Law which was the possession, and the obligation, of individual members of that community. For the true believer, the Law was welcomed as a loving word from God. The Law marked out a path that was not only right but good. The individual who lived by the Law found it a guide to a harmonious relationship with God and his or her neighbors. It is no wonder, then, that in his great psalm celebrating God’s Law, David expressed utter delight in meditating on and keeping God’s Law.
How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to Your word.
With my whole heart I have sought You; Oh let me not wander from Your
Your word I have hidden in my heart, That I might not sin against You (Ps. 119:9–11).
Give me understanding, and I shall keep Your law; Indeed, I shall observe it with my
whole heart. Make me walk in the path of Your commandments, For I delight in it (Ps. 119:34, 35).
Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies; For they are ever with me. I have more understanding than
all my teachers, For Your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the
ancients, Because I keep Your precepts. I have restrained my feet from every evil way, That I may keep Your word. I have not departed from Your judgments, For you Yourself have taught me. How sweet are Your words to my taste, Sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through Your precepts I get understanding; Therefore I hate every false way (Ps. 119:97–104).
GOD BLESSED THE TRUE BELIEVER WHO HONORED HIM AND HIS LAW (PSALM 32; EZEKIEL 18)
While the Law Covenant itself was made with the community of Israel, and the blessings and curses defined in that covenant were national, the Old Testament believer who lived by the Law could and did expect to be blessed. God would surely honor the person who honored Him.
This truth is expressed in another psalm of David, in which he celebrates the guidance God gives, and claims the blessing awaiting the person who walks in God’s way.
I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with My eye. …
Many sorrows shall be to the wicked; But he who trusts in the Lord, mercy shall surround him.
Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, you righteous; And shout for joy, all you upright in heart! (Ps. 32:8, 10).
A striking example of the implication of individuals keeping or breaking God’s Law is found in Ezekiel 18. There the prophet responded to those who heard his message of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem, and shrugged. Why should they change their ways? If God has decided to judge the community because of the sins of the preceding generations (Ezek. 18:2), what can an individual do about that?
The Lord decisively rejected this argument, and decreed that “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:4). God is not speaking spiritually or of eternal judgment. This verse is about biological death, and of the coming fall of Jerusalem. When the Babylonians invade and raze the city, God will distinguish between individuals. The person who has “walked in My statutes and kept My judgments faithfully—he is just; he shall surely live!” (Ezek. 18:9). God will guard the life of the individual who has kept God’s Law, in spite of the corporate sin of Israel which has brought judgment on the nation. On the other hand, the person who has violated the law, “He shall surely die!” (Ezek. 18:13).
Thus, while the Mosaic Covenant was between God and the whole community of Israel, individuals who faithfully kept God’s law could expect Him to guard them, even when punishment was decreed for the nation as a whole.
The Mosaic Law, then, had direct application to individual Israelites. The true believer, who approached relationship with God as Abraham had—with faith—found God’s Law a delight and was eager to follow its precepts. And the true believer who responded in this way to God’s Word could and did expect to be blessed by the Lord.
“Your law … is my meditation all the day.”
THE RELATIONSHIP OF JESUS TO THE MOSAIC LAW
Jesus Christ was born a Jew, and He lived as a Jew during His life on earth. In fact, Christ alone of all human beings perfectly kept God’s Law. Hebrews 4:15 reminds us that as a true human being, Jesus was “in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
While Jesus lived a perfect life under the Law, His teaching about the Law challenged the understanding of its purpose held by the people of His day. The by-faith nature of relationship with God displayed by Abraham was ignored, and the religion of the day was rooted in the belief that salvation came through biological descent from Abraham plus merit earned by keeping Moses’ Law.
Jesus challenged this understanding of Moses’ Law, and put its function in clear perspective.
JESUS EXPLAINED THE TRUE MEANING OF MOSES’ LAW (MATTHEW 5:17–48)
In Matthew 5, a section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke plainly about Moses’ Law and His own role in relation to the Law.
“Not to destroy” (Matthew 5:17).
Jesus’ teachings seemed radical to His contemporaries. It was natural that they would feel threatened by the young prophet from Nazareth, whose fame was spreading rapidly (Matt. 4:24). In this passage, Jesus made it plain that He posed no threat to the Law.
Assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:18, 19)
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount
“But to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).
Rather than setting out to destroy the Law (a term frequently used of the entire works of Moses, and of the Old Testament as a whole, as well as of the commandments imbedded in them), Jesus came to “fulfill” the Law.
Western commentators have discussed how Jesus fulfilled the Law. Some have taken this statement to mean that Jesus kept the Law perfectly. Others have suggested it means that Christ fulfilled the prophecies the Old Testament contains. But Jesus’ listeners understood exactly what Christ meant. For it was the desire of every sage and rabbi to “fulfill” the Law, in the sense of explaining its true and complete meaning.
What Jesus announced was that rather than being a threat to the Old Testament revelation, and specifically to the commandments it contained, He had come to explain the real, true, and underlying meaning of the words that God had given Moses so long ago.
With this introduction, and with Jesus’ clearly stated confidence in the Old Testament as the authoritative Word of God (Matt. 5:18–19), Jesus was ready to unveil the Law’s true import.
“Righteousness [that] exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” (Matthew 5:20).This third preliminary statement of Jesus must have stunned His listeners. The scribes and Pharisees were highly respected in Judaism. The scribes were the trained group who spent their lives studying Old Testament Law and its interpretation by earlier sages. The Pharisees were members of a small group who had a reputation for keeping God’s commandments down to the last detail, as those details were spelled out by the sages. In first-century Judaism, the scribes and Pharisees were viewed with awe by the general population, who agreed that if anyone had a chance at heaven, these people did.
To hear Jesus declare that to enter the kingdom of heaven a person’s righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was stunning indeed.
The problem, of course, lay in the fact that the righteousness of the scribe and Pharisee was a works-based righteousness. Scribe and Pharisee alike assumed that the merit of being Abraham’s descendants, plus merit earned by keeping God’s Law, was the basis for acceptance by God. What Jesus said next challenged the underlying assumptions of first-century Judaism!
“You have heard … but I say to you” (Matthew 5:21–48).
The rest of this extended section is composed of illustrations drawn from the Law. First Jesus quoted from the Law. Then Jesus gave His own “but-I-say-unto-you” exposition of the commandment’s true import.
The Law says, “You shall not murder.” But Jesus says, “Whoever is angry with his brother without a cause” is in danger of the judgment (Matt. 5:21, 22).
The Law says, “You shall not commit adultery.” But Jesus says that “whoever looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
The series of statements continues in this vein.
What Jesus did here was to shift the Law’s focus from behavior to motive, from actions to the heart. When God gave the Law through Moses, that Law regulated behavior. But Jesus tells us that what God was really concerned with was the human heart.
The Law said “Do not murder,” but in so saying, it should be clear to us that the anger which moves a person to harm another is just as sinful as the act itself. The root, not just the fruit, is sinful.
The Law said, “Do not commit adultery,” but in so saying, it should be clear that the lust that gives rise to adultery is just as sinful as the act itself. The root, not just the fruit, is sinful.
The righteousness that is required for membership in God’s kingdom exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, because in their focus on behavior they ignored or denied the stirrings of sin in their hearts, and assumed that they were righteous. They convinced themselves that they pleased God because they observed the Law outwardly, never realizing that the commandments they tried so carefully to keep had already condemned them!
In shifting our attention from the external behavior defined in God’s Law to the source of that behavior within the human heart, Jesus stripped the scribes and Pharisees of the basis for their claim of spiritual superiority. They kept the Law outwardly, but within they were as sinful as every other human being.
In this reinterpretation of the Law, Jesus laid a foundation for our need of His redeeming work. If God judges not only our actions but the thoughts and motives of our hearts, we must be changed within. And while law can regulate behavior, law can never transform the human heart.
THE MEKHILTA OF RABBI ISHMAEL
The Jewish rabbis assumed that righteousness came from keeping the Law. This commentary on the Law [Torah] goes even further. It indicates that the very possession of the Law by Israel proved that Israel was righteous in God’s sight! Here Rabbi Ishmael envisions the response of other peoples to an approach by God offering them the Torah. All refuse it. All except “righteous” Israel.
8.A. Therefore the nations of the world were approached, so as not to give them an excuse to say, “If we had been approached, we should have accepted responsibility [to keep Torah].”
B. Lo, they were approached but did not accept responsibility for them, as it is said, “The Lord came from Sinai” (Deut. 33:2).
9.A. The Lord came from Sinai (Deut. 33:2):
B. When the Omnipresent appeared to give the Torah to Israel, it was not to Israel alone that He revealed Himself but to every nation.
C. First of all He came to the children of the wicked Esau. He said to them, “Will you accept the Torah?”
D. They said to Him, “What is written in it?”
E. He said to them, “‘You shall not murder’ ” (Ex. 20:13).
F. They said to Him, “The very being of ‘those men’ and of their father is to murder, for it is said, ‘But the hands are the hands of Esau,’ (Gen. 27:22). ‘By your sword you shall live’” (Gen. 27:40).
G. So he went to the children of Ammon and Moab and said to them, “Will you accept the Torah?”
H. They said to Him, “What is written in it?”
I. He said to them, “‘You shall not commit adultery’” (Ex. 20:14).
J. They said to Him, “All of us are the children of fornication, for it is said, ‘Thus both the daughters of Lot were with child by their father’” (Gen. 19:36).
K. So He went to the children of Ishmael and said to them, “Will you accept the Torah?”
L. They said to Him, “What is written in it?”
M. He said to them, “‘You shall not steal’” (Ex. 20:15).
N. They said to Him, “This is the blessing that was stated for our father: ‘He shall be a wild man’ (Gen. 16:12). ‘For indeed I was stolen away from the land of the Hebrews.’” (Gen. 40:15).
O. But when He came to the Israelites: “From His right hand came a fiery law for them” (Deut. 33:2).
P. They all opened their mouths and said, “All that the Lord has said we will do, and be obedient” (Ex. 24:7).
Q. “He stood and measured the earth; He looked and startled the nations” (Hab. 3:6).
JESUS REINTRODUCED THE GOOD NEWS OF A FAITH-RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD
The apostle John wrote that “the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). Matthew in his Gospel declared that “all the prophets and the law prophesied until John” (Matt. 11:13), and in Luke 16:16 Jesus added to this comment. “The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached.”
It is clear from these few verses that with Jesus something new and different from the Law of Moses was introduced. The Old Testament and its Law were placed in fresh perspective and, as we will see in chapter 5 when we look at the New Covenant, Jesus reintroduced the basic reality that served as the foundation of Abraham’s relationship with God and the covenant given to him. Salvation, including a vital personal relationship with the Lord, is possible only through faith in the promises of our God.
THE RELATIONSHIP OF THE CHRISTIAN TO MOSES’ LAW
One of the most surprising things in the New Testament is its apparent negative attitude toward the Law of Moses. First Corinthians 15:56 says, “The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.” Galatians 3:12 says, “The law is not of faith,”and Galatians 3:13 adds, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law.” In Romans 6:14 Paul is even so bold as to write, “Sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.”
How can something which the true believer in Old Testament times found such a delight seem to the writers of the New Testament to be a curse from which we are freed by Jesus?
THE THREE FUNCTIONS OF LAW
Christian theologians have identified three functions of the Law of Moses, and especially of the Ten Commandments as its moral foundation.
Law reveals God’s character.
This is the first function of the Law, and it is a beautiful one. As we look at the standards that God established in the Law, we discover so many wonderful things about Him. The Law reveals God’s character.
Does God say, “You shall not murder?” This is because to God every human being is precious, and every life has incomparable value. What a contrast is drawn in this law between our God, who cares for people, and the pagan deities of Old Testament times, who had no compassion for their worshipers.
Does God say, “You shall not commit adultery?” This is because God is loyal to His commitments and He values loyalty in others. Our unfaithfulness hurts Him, because He is utterly faithful to those whom He loves. His commandments thus reveal God Himself as a loyal and trustworthy being.
The Law then became a window through which we can see our God.
The Law shows us ourselves as we really are.
Law reveals sin.
New Testament writers emphasize this aspect of the Law’s ministry. In Romans 3:19, 20, Paul wrote, “We know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”
If the first function of the Law is to be a window through which we can catch glimpses of God, the second function of the Law is to be a mirror in which we can see ourselves clearly. When we honestly measure ourselves by God’s standards, we see how far short we fall. And we turn away from works to find a new and different way to God.
Thus, Paul in writing to Timothy says, “We know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites [homosexuals], for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers” (1 Tim. 1:8–10). We use the law lawfully when we use it to show sin to be sin. We understand this use of God’s Word when we realize that the Law was given to sinners to show them they are sinners, not to make sinners good.
To lead the believer into a holy life.
This is what theologians call the third function of Law. It is this supposed function toward which the New Testament is so negative.
The passages quoted at the beginning of this section link being under the law with sin, not with holiness. Romans teaches that believers died to the Law with Christ (Rom. 7:1–4), and so are released from the Law—so that we can serve God in the new way of the Spirit (Rom. 7:6). Thus, Christ is the end of the Law for us (Rom. 10:4). Even the Jerusalem church came early to realize that the Law of Moses was a yoke that “neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” (Acts 15:10), and that Gentile Christians should not be asked to assume.
What these passages point out is that the Law, as an external standard, has no power to transform the inner person. Law can cry “do” and “do not.” But Law cannot create a desire to love and to obey God.
As a tool to lead human beings into a holy life, then, the Law failed. And God in Christ has introduced a new and better way for people to be made truly good. For this reason, we are to turn away from the Law and law-keeping as a path to practical righteousness. We are to find a faith-pathway to living truly righteous lives.
THE LAW AND RIGHTEOUS LIVING TODAY
It frightens many believers if we say with Scripture that the Christian is not under the Law. Too many have visions of believers running amuck. If we don’t have to keep God’s Law, they assume that we won’t.
But to say that the Christian today is not responsible to keep God’s Law in no way implies that God doesn’t expect us to live righteous lives. Romans 8:3 reminds us that Jesus died and condemned sin “that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
No, the point of the Christian’s release from the obligation to keep the Law is simply that trying to keep the Law will not work! No one who tries to live up to God’s Law will ever lead a truly righteous life. The secret of living a holy life is to respond not to the Law but to the Holy Spirit, who motivates us to love God and who enables us to obey Him.
God’s Law is wonderful—as a window through which to see God’s character.
God’s Law is effective—as a mirror in which to see ourselves measured against His standards.
But trying to keep God’s law is not the way Christians experience transformation within or become God’s holy and righteous people. The secret of inner transformation is revealed not in the Mosaic Covenant, but in the New Covenant, under which Christians now live.
WHAT WE HAVE LEARNED ABOUT THE MOSAIC COVENANT
The Mosaic Covenant was executed at Mt. Sinai, between God and the Israelites as a people. Unlike the covenants of promise, this covenant follows a pattern long established in the ancient Middle East.
THE MOSAIC COVENANT DEFINED WHAT GOD EXPECTED FROM THE ISRAELITES
The Law Covenant was a two-party suzerainty covenant, like that used to define the relationship between superiors and inferiors. In this covenant, God is the acknowledged superior, and the Israelites are His subjects. As in all such covenants, the superior’s expectations are spelled out, along with the consequences of obedience and of rebellion by the subjects.
THE MOSAIC COVENANT DEFINES MORE THAN MORAL CONDUCT
While we tend to think of the Mosaic Law as the Ten Commandments, it was far more. The Law defined how Israel was to worship God, established a priesthood and sacrificial system, identified social responsibilities, set up institutions to protect the poor, specified what could and could not be eaten, and in general governed the way of life of the Israelites.
THE MOSAIC COVENANT DID NOT REPLACE THE ABRAHAMIC COVENANT
The Abrahamic Covenant was a unilateral covenant in which God stated what He intended to do in the form of promises given to Abraham and his descendants. The promises in that covenant are to be completely fulfilled at history’s end. The Mosaic Covenant is a bilateral covenant, in which the people of Israel as a community agree to obey God’s commandments. Under this covenant, God commits Himself to bless Israel when the nation/community is obedient to Him, and to punish Israel when the nation/community is disobedient. By keeping God’s Law, any generation of Israelites had access in their own time to the blessings guaranteed to Abraham’s descendants at history’s end.
THE MOSAIC COVENANT AND THE INDIVIDUAL ISRAELITE
The Mosaic Covenant was made between God and the whole people of Israel, rather than between God and individuals. However, individual Israelites who loved and trusted God took delight in following God’s laws, and also were blessed by Him. Even so, individuals suffered when the nation sinned and God brought famine or sent foreign enemies against the land.
THE MOSAIC COVENANT AND JESUS CHRIST
Jesus lived as a Jew under the Mosaic Law, and He obeyed the Law perfectly. But Jesus challenged the view of the Law held by the religious leaders of His day. The religious leaders saw keeping the Law as a way of earning merit with God. Jesus pointed out that ultimately the Law is not about behavior, but about the human heart. To be acceptable to God, a person must be transformed within, so that his or her heart and motives are totally pure. Such a transformation cannot come through Moses’ Law.
THE CHRISTIAN AND THE MOSAIC LAW
Christians are called by God to live righteous and holy lives. Such a life will surely be in accord with the moral standards revealed in the Mosaic Covenant. However, Christians are not under the Law. Our relationship with God does not depend on what we do, but it is rooted in God’s forgiveness and His grace.
Rather than demanding that we try to keep the Law, God invites us to rely on the Holy Spirit to change our hearts and lead us in God’s ways. The Christian who lives by the Spirit will live a holy life, with both motives and behavior purified by God.
Today we can read God’s Law, and see God’s holy character revealed. We can read God’s Law, and by measuring ourselves against God’s standards see areas in our life we need to ask God to transform. But Christians cannot expect that, by trying to keep the Law, we will either earn God’s favor or grow spiritually. Instead, we seek to love God more and be responsive to the Holy Spirit as He speaks through God’s Word, and within our hearts.
Richards, L. (1998). Every promise in the Bible. Includes indexes. (40). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.