The Law of God

Exodus: God's Glory Revealed  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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How many of you have a picture of the Ten Commandments on your wall somewhere in your house? The Ten Commandments are the symbol of the Law of God, which for us represent the Christian ethic. But have you ever considered the origin of the 10 Commandments? Would you ever consider putting on your wall a picture of the basic laws of the Japanese? Why not? Does the law in Japan have any control over the people of Brasil? It's interesting, as we consider the 10 Commandments this week, we will learn that the relationship of Christians to the 10 Commandments is kind of like the relationship of Brazilians to the law of the Japanese. It's not a perfect illustration, but let me explain what I mean.

1. The Law As Covenant

As we consider the 10 Commandments, the Law of God, the first thing we need to remember is the context of what is going on. Remember, we learned earlier that Israel is receiving a Covenant from her King. Kings would exercise their authority in this time period through covenants, and Yahweh was establishing a similar covenant with the people of Israel. In other words, the 10 Commandments are part of the Covenant which Yahweh made with Israel. We discussed a few weeks ago that this covenant had two main parts: "The Ten Words," and "The Judgments." "The Ten Words" are what we call the 10 Commandments, and "The Judgments" are case laws which are based on the Ten Commandments. We find "the Ten Words" and "The Judgments" in Exodus 20-23, which Moses calls "The Book of the Covenant." So when we consider the 10 Commandments, when we consider the Law of God, we must consider the Law as Covenant.

1.1. Covenant and Israel

Who was this covenant made with? Is it important who the Covenant was made with?

1.1.1. Covenant Destiny

The Covenant was intended by God to rule over a people. The Covenant was a constitution of a nation. But this nation was not just any nation: it was a holy nation and a kingdom of priests. It was a spiritual nation and kingdom. So this covenant, this constitution, was not secular. It was sacred and religious. The Covenant was intended by God to rule over a nation; that is, a political entity. Thus the constitution was both spiritual and political in nature. How was this political nation to conduct itself among the other nations of the world? Israel needed orientation on this. Thus we can see that the Law, and particular laws, relate to the nation as a nation belonging to Yahweh. This is important because we understand that the Law and the Covenant are directed to Israel as a People. The Law was not established with the Church. It is very common today to have the 10 Commandments posted somewhere in your house. However, when we consider the destiny of the Covenant, we understand that God didn't make this Covenant nor did He give this law to us as the Church. He gave it to Israel. In order to understand why God gave the 10 Commandments, we must understand that they were not given to us. They were given to Israel.

1.1.2. Covenant Unity (re: religious [ceremonial], moral, civil)

Perhaps you are thinking that He gave the Covenant to Israel, but there is a difference between the religious, ceremonial laws and the moral laws. Obviously the ceremonial laws and the civil laws were for the political nation of Israel to obey. But the moral laws belong to us, right? Therefore we ought to obey the 10 Commandments. But we must understand that the Covenant is unified. We cannot artificially divide the law into "ceremonial laws, moral laws, and civil laws." That is not how God gave the law, and it is not how anyone in Scripture understood the law. In every place, both in the Old Testament and the New, the Law is treated as an indivisible unity. For example, James says in James 2:10, "For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all." And when James said that, he was not mainly thinking about just the ceremonial part, or just the civil part. In fact, he illustrated what he meant by giving the example of "do not commit adultery" and "do not murder." "Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law." James' point is that we cannot divide the law up into different parts. The whole law is established as a unit or broken as a unit. So that means that it doesn't work to say that the 10 Commandments belong to us because they are the moral law and not the civil law. God didn't give the Law broken into parts.

1.2. Morality and God

However, the Law does communicate morality. For example, think about the Brazilian law. The Brazilian law communicates a certain morality. The Brazilian law says that certain things are morally acceptable, and other things are not. Brazilian law says that it is morally acceptable to operate your car within the laws of DETRAN. However, Brazilian law says that it is morally unacceptable, it is morally wrong, to steal. Law by definition imposes a certain ethic or morality. It would be impossible not to. Does that mean that everything that Brazilian Law says is morally right or wrong is in fact morally right or wrong? No. For example, Brazilian Law says it is wrong to murder, but it also says it is wrong for me to defend myself from being murdered. If someone threatens me with a gun, I am not allowed to shoot him to defend myself. Now, that is a contradictory law. Either I have a right to live or I do not. If I have a right to life, that right to life necessarily means I have a right to defend my life. So the Brazilian law is equivocado on this point. So we can see that laws of nations can be immoral, even as they establish a certain morality. But think about Yahweh God. God is the One who actually defines what is morally right or wrong. Things are actually morally right or wrong to the extent that they correspond or contradict the character of Yahweh God. Therefore everything that God commands is by definition morally right. Unlike our laws, there is no equivocação in the law of God. Everything He commands is right. So if we think about the Mosaic Covenant, and the Law contained in the Covenant, we understand that this Law was absolutely morally perfect. However, it was also culturally conditioned. It was morally perfect, but it was given to a certain people within a certain culture. This does not take away from its perfection, but it recognizes that the perfection was communicated within a certain culture and context. There is always a good, perfect reason for the laws which God gave, but the laws themselves are given within a certain culture. One way to say this is to say that the temporal laws which God gave in the Mosaic Covenant were based on the eternal Law of God, the eternal morality of the perfect God, Yahweh.

1.3. Law and Salvation

What was the purpose of this temporal law? Why did God give the Law Covenant to Israel? Did God intend for Israel to earn their salvation by obedience to the Law? Was salvation granted by obedience to the Law? This is a rather popular idea, that God gave the Law for salvation. In fact, this became the common thought of the Jews of Jesus' day. God had given Israel the Law to show His love and favor for Israel, and if Israel was to keep themselves in God's Covenant, keep themselves in God's love, they must obey God's law. This is a kind of salvation by works. I mean, it sure seems as though there is a close relationship between salvation and obedience to the Law, doesn't there? After all, the law is moral. If God gave a list of things which please Him, it sure seems like if we obey that list then we would please Him, right? And if we please Him, then don't we get to go to heaven? It really seems to make sense! But there is a problem with this, and the problem is us. Paul says in Gal. 3.21-22, For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe." Law cannot give life because all are confined under sin. In other words, law cannot give life because no one can or will obey the Law perfectly. And the only way for Law to give life is by perfect obedience. This is the principle which Paul summarized by the citation of Lev. 18.5 in Romans 10.5: For Moses writes about the righteousness which is of the law, "the man who does those things shall live by them." There are two kinds of righteousnesses in the world: righteousness by obedience to the law, and righteousness of faith. Paul says in the next verse, in Rom. 10.6-9, But the righteousness of faith speaks in this way…"the word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart"…that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved. The point is this: if you want to be justified by obedience to the law, you must only and always obey the whole law. But you cannot do this. You are sinner. Scripture has condemned all under sin. Therefore there is no righteousness for us by obedience to the Law. So God did not make a covenant with Israel and give her the Law in order that Israel earn her salvation. Salvation, or right standing before God, never came because of the Law. Salvation has only and ever been by faith in the God who makes promises, and in the promises of God. When Israelites believed in God and His promises, they would be saved. Just like when we believe in God and His Promised Son and Messiah Jesus, we are saved.

1.4. Covenant Purpose

So if the Covenant wasn't given for the purpose of providing salvation for Israel, then why the Law? This question has caused so much confusion and misunderstanding that even Paul had to deal with this question in his day. First of all, God gave the Law, the 10 Commandments, to establish worship. The context of the covenant and the particular laws is worship. Israel was learning how to rightly worship Yahweh. Remember what Yahweh had said to Moses at the beginning of the story: "When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve (worship) God on this mountain." (Ex. 3.12) This was constantly the message to the Pharaoh: "And you shall say to him, 'Yahweh, God of the Hebrews, has sent me to you, saying, "Let My people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness." (Ex. 7.16) Israel was out in the desert to worship Yahweh, and to learn how to worship Yahweh. This covenant with Israel was for the purpose of teaching her how to worship Yahweh. And we saw that in the very context. Israel was to consecrate herself, preparing herself for the presence of Yahweh. When Yahweh arrived, He would enter into covenant with her, and teach her how to be His People. This worship required a certain relationship with Yahweh and with neighbor. Israel was to relate with Yahweh in a certain way, and relate with others in a certain way. All of this not in order to become the People of Yahweh, but because she was the People of Yahweh. So we need to know how to worship God, and so God gave the Law for that purpose. But Paul reveals some other truths related to the Law. For example, in Romans 3.19-20 Paul says, Now 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. In this verse Paul makes it clear that the Law was given to reveal man's sinfulness. God intended for Israel to understand not only what would please God, but also God intended for Israel to understand that she could not please God because of her sin. Sin's point of reference is God. Sin is sin exactly because it is contrary to the will and nature of God. Because of this, the law reveals sin. The law always requires conformity to the will of God. And sin is disobedience to the will of God. So we know what sin is because we know what the will of God is, as revealed in the Law. God does not want us to be confused about our goodness. He did not want Israel to be confused about her goodness. In fact, He wanted Israel to understand exactly just how sinful she was. And not only Israel, but we too see how sinful we are as we consider the morality revealed in the Law. We must understand that we are sinners. Closely related to the fact that we are sinners, God gave the Law to reveal the nature of sin. We mentioned that sin is disobedience to the will of God. Paul makes precisely this point in Rom. 7.8-13. But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me. Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good. Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful. The Law of God commands what is good. The law is holy, just, and good. It must be, since it is the manifestation of the morality of God. God wanted Israel, and He wants us, to know Who He is and what His character is. Not only that, but He wanted Israel, and He wants us, to know exactly what disobedience looks like: not so that we continue in disobedience, but so that we avoid it. If we know what sin is, and we know what displeases God, the proper response to that is to avoid it. Thus God gave the Law to reveal the nature of sin. Notice that Paul called the Law "holy." Is there holiness apart from God? No. Holiness in the sense of consecration and dedication which results in moral purity, only comes from God. Only God is truly holy. Therefore, inasmuch as the Law is holy, the Law reveals the holiness of God. God intends to reveal Himself, to reveal His character, through the Law. Through the Law we get a glimpse of the beauty of the glory of God. Paul explains another purpose for the Law in Gal. 3:23-25. He says, But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. The Law had a protecting influence for Israel. The idea of the "tutor" was not so much to teach as it was to guard and protect. God had planned from the beginning of time to send to earth the Messiah, Jesus. But this was to happen at a certain time, a time long after the founding of the nation of Israel. And so, to protect the young nation of Israel until the time of the Messiah, God gave the Law. Israel was not to mix herself with the idolatry of the nations around her, and the Law was the way by which God protected Israel from the idolatry. So what we read and encounter in Exodus 20 is not just an arbitrary or random list of Laws. Nor is it a list of Laws written for the Church. Exodus 20 is a part of the larger section of Exodus 19-24 which explains the Covenant which Yahweh made with Israel. This covenant was not given so that Israel could be saved or earn her salvation. It was given so that Israel would know how to worship God. It was given so that Israel would understand how she ought to relate to God and to other Israelites. This is the constitution for a political and religious nation.

2. The Law Form

When we consider the nature of the 10 Commandments, we are very accustomed to the form of the commandments. "Não farás isso, Não farás aquilo." Why does it seem like the commandments are so negative? Wouldn't it be better for the commandments to be positive? "Do this, do that"? And why "tu" ou "você"? Why not "vós" ou "vocês"? If the Law is directed to all of Israel, wouldn't it make more sense if it was directed to everyone? The answer has everything to do with how God wants us to think. God does not promote self-centeredness. When we studied the book of Philippians we came across the important directive in 2:4 - "Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others." Yahweh always discourages self-centeredness. He always wants us to be considering others more than ourselves. And this comes out even in the 10 Commandments. One theologian put it this way: "God wants each and every individual person to think first of the inalienable rights of the other person and not first about their own inalienable rights." (Wellum, 369). This is the reason why we read a negative form (thou shalt not) and a second person address (thou). As we memorize the 10 Commandments we learn not only about what our rights are, but we learn to think about the rights of others and not only of ourselves.

3. The Law Division

Before we begin our study of the 10 Commandments, there is one more thing we need to consider. It is widely recognized that the 10 Commandments are made up to two parts, or two divisions. Sometimes we speak of the "two tables of the Law." We know that God gave the Law on two tablets of stone, and so sometimes we speak of this division in the law as corresponding to the two tablets. In the 10 Commandments, the first four commands speak about our relationship with Yahweh and the last six about our relationship with man. We could summarize this division by reminding ourselves of Jesus' summary of the Law: "Love the Lord your God" and "love your neighbor as yourself." That is essentially what the logic of the Law, the 10 Commandments, is.