Lessons From the Old Testament: What is the purpose of the Law?

The Ten Commandments, In SVG
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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 house 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.” (Exodus 19:3-6)

Why did God give Israel the Law?  In Exodus 19 we Israel being prepared by God to receive His law and to make a covenant with Him based on that law.  As we look through the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, the books of Moses, we see a lot of attention devoted to the Law and its exposition.  One might get the impression that the way to have a right relationship with Yahweh is through obedience to His commands.  But we need to make some careful observations in this regard.

If we simply think of our relationship with God like we would any relationship, it is obvious that the way two parties behave toward one another greatly determines the quality of any relationship.  If in my marriage I do not treat my spouse with respect and kindness, or if I treat others who matter to my spouse in ways that hurt them, I will not be in good relationship with my spouse.  There are “laws”, if you will, that govern our relationship.  But there is something else that is governing our relationship, and that is a promise.

When I married I made a covenant with my spouse, and she with me, to love each other under all circumstances.  This promise supercedes questions of behavior.  It does not make them irrelevant, of course.  If I want to have a happy marriage I cannot depend on the fact that we made promises to each other and then live a self-centered life disregarding how my behavior affects my spouse.  There will be times when we will fail to love one another and the promises we made will cover for that, but we need a way to know how to please each other, and that is the function of the behavioral “laws” that govern marriage.

And so it is with God.  But there is something else.  Not only must I know how to live in such a way that God is honored by my behavior, I must live in such a way that others are given a clear picture of what it means to be in relationship with God.  After all, He wants this kind of relationship with all humans.  He commissioned Israel to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation so that all peoples might see who He is and might be drawn to Him.  We are His representatives.  So keeping the Law of God enables us to make clear what His character is and what it means to live in relationship with Him.

There is yet another more subtle function of the Law.  When Israel is told that God wants to meet with them and enter into covenant, they confidently assert, “We will do everything the LORD has said.” (Exodus 19:8)  We are privy to what happens merely some days later.  When Moses is up on the mountain receiving the Law they have promised to keep, the people persuade Aaron to make an idol for worship (Exodus 32).  One design of the Law is to show us that we do not have it in us to keep God’s laws.  We desperately need His help to be obedient to His covenant with us.

So the Law shows us how to have a happy relationship with God, shows us how to represent Him to the world, and teaches us to depend on Him for ability to obey.  But there is one more function of the Law.  Because the law of God represents His knowledge of how human beings best function, the law of God becomes our prescription for personal happiness.  God knows that if I do not steal, I will be much happier.  I will be much happier if I honor my parents, love others instead of being consumed with hatred for them, remain faithful to my spouse and not yield to coveting what others have.

You and I have witnessed this over and over again.  Though it may seem that we get benefit from lying or not taking a sabbath, in the end we are harmed, not only with regard to personal prosperity and peace, but in regard to the health of our own souls.  God loves us enough to tell us what will make us most healthy and alive.  Will we trust Him and keep His laws?

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2 thoughts on “Lessons From the Old Testament: What is the purpose of the Law?

  1. Most of us reading less than one chapter of one book in the Bible
    would realize what you said is true, “we do not have it within us to keep God’s laws”.
    Reading Matthew Chapter 5, do we always turn the other cheek?
    Have we given our cloak too, walked that second mile, never turned away someone asking to borrow, loved our enemies, blessed those who curse us, pray for those who use or persecute us?
    Have we ever lusted?

    In that same chapter, as far as I can tell from my reading, is the
    only time in the Bible that God tells us to leave church early.
    It is regarding forgiveness, and can be found in verses 23 and 24.

    Intent matters to God.

    In the book of Obadiah verse 11 says, In the day that thou stoodest on the other side, in the day that the strangers carried away captive his forces, and foreigners entered into his gates, and cast lots upon Jerusalem, even thou wast as one of them.

    What that means is we did nothing, only stood by and watched. To the Lord that makes us one of the evildoers, intent, good or bad, matters to God.

    God knows we will fail, some more than others, but all of us will.
    Jesus died for all of our sins, from the little white lies and personal
    phone calls or computer games on company paid time, to murderers.

    He asks us to follow Him, knowing that at times we will fall, and promising to be here for us, to pick us back up and welcome us.

    Is there someone you need to forgive?
    How about someone you know in need, that you can help?
    Is there an apology that you need to accept, but haven’t?
    Is there is an enemy you need to pray for, sincerely.
    How about someone you need to encourage, or thank?
    Is there something you need to do, instead of just standing by and watching?

    He is watching and listening to us all, and… intent matters to God.

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