What is the Law?

For the past two months, we’ve been studying Moses. Over the last two weeks, we watched The Prince of Egypt, to help catch up the rising sixth graders, on the story of Moses. But that movie ends at a critical part. It ends with Moses coming down the mountain carrying down some tablets.

When Moses went up on that mountain—as we studied—he spoke to God for a long extended period of time—so long that the Israelites actually thought he might have died. But during that time God told him a lot of stuff. One of the most important things God gave him was the Law, which he wrote down on tablets to bring to his people.

When we studied Moses we kind of skipped over what exactly was on those tablets, what it was, and what it meant, because that’s actually a huge topic. So today that is what we’re talking about. What is the “Law?” This is something referenced all over the place in the Bible—not just the Old Testament, but Jesus is constantly talking about the Law. The apostles also argued constantly about the law, who should obey it, who shouldn’t. Jewish people today even have long discussions and disagreements about to what extent they are required to follow the law: which one of the big divisions between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed Jews. So this discussion of “What is the Law and who must follow it” is something that has been debated since Moses all the way until today. For over three thousand years people have been discussing this very topic.

So today we’re going to talk about it. Obviously we can’t get through all the nuances in an hour, but I want to give you guys a decent understanding of what the Law is and why we as Christians don’t follow it today.

Please go get your Bibles.

Before we open to anything who can remind us what God’s covenant with Abraham is? [Let them answer.]

That’s right, God made a covenant with Abraham to be his God and the God of his people and to make him the father of many people. At this point we’ve seen how Abraham’s descendants have become many people. You have Ishmael whose descendants formed their own people group. You have Esau, whose descendants became the Edomites. We didn’t study this—but after Sarah died, Abraham remarried and had more children who went on to become different people’s. Also now we have the Israelites who are descended from Jacob, Abraham’s grandson.

God made the initial covenant with Abraham—to be his God—and then renewed it with Isaac, Abraham’s son, and then Jacob, Abraham’s grandson. After all those years in Egypt—over four hundred—it’s possible the Israelites may have worried that the covenant no longer held. But obviously, God went to great lengths and performed many miraculous acts to free them from Egypt. In case that wasn’t enough, God also re-established the covenant in words. Please turn in your Bibles to Exodus 19:3-6.

3 Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: 4 You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”

God reiterates that the Israelites are his people—that they are the children of the covenant. And that he will make them a “priestly kingdom,” they are to be the example of God in the world. For their end of the deal? They just have to obey his voice and keep the covenant. So the men must be circumcised, and all of them must listen to God.

For Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God basically had a one-on-one relationship with them. God could tell them what they should do or what they were doing wrong, and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob needed to listen to that voice. But now we’re talking about thousands of Israelites. God could talk to each of them individually, he certainly has that power, but instead he is choosing to make himself known through a single prophet—in this case Moses. That’s a set up we’re going to see go on for a while in the history of Israel. There is one single prophet who talks to God and relays God’s thoughts to the people. This prophet is then the leader of the people—in both a religious and government sense. Israel is the definition of a theocracy at this time—it is both a nation and a religion. The idea of separation of church and state is completely foreign to them.

To underscore this, we have the Law. God gives Moses Laws which are both religious and civil laws. These are the laws of the nation of Israel. And it covers everything from their relationship with God, to what do you do if an animal you own accidentally hurts another person, to what sort of crimes merit the death penalty. So for the Israelites to keep the covenant, in addition to circumcision they must obey the law.

The initial revelation of the law is also the most famous: The ten commandments. Let’s turn to Exodus 20:1-17.

20 Then God spoke all these words:

2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me.

4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 You shall not murder.

14 You shall not commit adultery.

15 You shall not steal.

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

We can already see from these laws alone that God is concerned not just by our relationship with him but by our relationships with others. The first four are God laws. Don’t have any other gods. Don’t make any other idols. Don’t use God’s name in vein. Remember the Sabbath.

The others are people to people laws. Honor your parents. Don’t murder. Don’t have an affair. Don’t steal. Don’t lie or gossip about your neighbor. Don’t covet other people’s stuff.

These all seem pretty basic how to lead a good life while following God rules. But God also gives Moses more law later. The entire book of Leviticus is basically nothing but laws. Someone read Leviticus 2:11.

11 No grain offering that you bring to the Lord shall be made with leaven, for you must not turn any leaven or honey into smoke as an offering by fire to the Lord.

This is one verse from a whole section on offering grain to God. And it basically says that any bread offering made to God can’t have yeast in it. It needs to be flatbread. That’s super specific right? And definitely a religious law—a law dictating an appropriate sacrifice to God.

Someone read Leviticus 13:3-4

3 The priest shall examine the disease on the skin of his body, and if the hair in the diseased area has turned white and the disease appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous disease; after the priest has examined him he shall pronounce him ceremonially unclean. 4 But if the spot is white in the skin of his body, and appears no deeper than the skin, and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest shall confine the diseased person for seven days.

This section? This is a leprosy test. Leprosy is a skin disease that could be very contagious and detrimental. So this section basically tells people that if they think they have leprosy to go before a priest. It then tells the priest what to do to determine if it is or is not leprosy and then what to do with the person in either case.

Someone read Leviticus 19:23.

23 When you come into the land and plant all kinds of trees for food, then you shall regard their fruit as forbidden; three years it shall be forbidden to you, it must not be eaten.

This is a law about when it’s cool to eat the fruit from a tree after you plant it.

What I’m getting at here is these are a lot of laws that cover a lot of topics. Laws on how exactly to celebrate specific holidays. Not just like “Christmas is cool, you should celebrate it.” But like “here are the very exact things you must do to celebrate Passover.” There are laws on who you are and are not allowed to marry. There are laws about how to treat a poor man and laws about how to treat strangers. There are laws about what they’re allowed to eat and what they’re allowed to wear. The Israelites couldn’t eat—still don’t eat—pig, and they couldn’t wear mixed material clothes. And there are very specific laws on how to treat and worship God. These are a lot of laws.

There were even laws on who is allowed to be a priest. And I don’t just mean like now how we have church bi-laws about how to select a pastor and what sort of education one does or does not need to be a pastor and whether or not women are allowed to be pastors. I mean only people of the house of Levi where allowed to be priests at all, and of those, there were a few very critical things that only people directly descended from Aaron were allowed to do as like High Priest.

And if you went against these laws, there were punishments, and some of those punishments were you would die. If the wrong person touched the wrong holy object? They would be struck down dead instantly.

Now some of these laws it might be easy to see why we don’t follow anymore. God was giving them laws for running a nation, something they had never done before. So some of these civil laws are all about maintaining law and order. We live in different countries now. We have different civil laws, that makes sense.

Some of the laws, like the tree one about not picking fruit for three years, that’s just some basic agriculture sense that God was trying to give them because they didn’t necessarily understand agriculture yet. So that also makes sense.

But what about the other laws? The ones that are moral, or seem to be. And who decides what’s a moral verses civil law anyway? Because it’s not like they had any separation of church and state! They were all tied up in each other! Who are we to tell the ancient Hebrews that eating fruit in the second year isn’t immoral?

So why? Why don’t modern Christians follow the law?

This is actually something that the first Christians actually argued bitterly about. Like there were factions, and it was one of the first major divisions of the early church. Were people who were not Jewish required to follow Jewish law, once they became followers of Jesus? And even ahead of that, some people were concerned that Gentiles shouldn’t be allowed to be Christians at all! The Jewish people were God’s people after all. Jesus came for them first, the Gentile second. So why waste time on Gentiles when there were still Jewish people to be saved?

Please turn to Acts. Acts is the history of the early church and chronicles a lot of these debates and discussions. In Acts there is a story about a Roman man named Cornelius and Peter.

Cornelius was a Roman centurion, so basically an officer in the Roman army. Despite that he believed in God and basically deeply respected the Jewish people. One day he’s going about his business when he has a vision and in the vision God tells him to send for Peter—who was on of Jesus’s disciples and now one of the early leaders of the Christian church. So Cornelius dispatches some trusted servants to go get Peter.

Meanwhile Peter has a vision of his own. Can someone read Acts 10:9-16?

9 About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.

Peter has a vision where he sees a large sheet covered in all sorts of animals, specifically the sorts of animals he’s supposed to eat. In the vision God tells him to kill and eat the animals, and Peter is like “no way God, I’d never do anything that would make me unclean.” Because remember it would have been against Jewish law to eat some of these animals. And doing so would make you basically dirty in the eyes of God. There was a long drawn out process to get clean again.

But then the voice said “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

It happens three times and Peter is confused by this. He has no idea what it means. Then Cornelius’s servants show up to get Peter.

Now a Jewish guy hanging out with some Romans? Not cool back then. But Peter goes with them because he realizes what the vision means. He says it in Acts 10:28.

28 and he said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.

The vision wasn’t about a food. I mean it is okay to eat whatever. God isn’t going to call you unclean because you ate bacon this morning, even though eating pig is against the Jewish law. But this vision wasn’t about the food. It was about the Gentiles. God told Peter not to call unclean what God has made clean. And that’s the Gentiles. Before this, Peter would have doubted any Gentile could really follow Jesus.

The Jews were God’s chosen people, but through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, God made a way for Gentiles to come to God.

Peter later had to declare this decision in front of the whole Christian council. Because there was a huge argument on whether Christians had to follow Jewish law to be saved. Turn to Acts 15.

Some context. This is a council that is being held in Jerusalem where basically the argument boiled down to whether or not Gentiles had to be circumcised. Remember circumcision was the mark of the covenant God made with Abraham, the only thing God required of Abraham. Circumcision was a painful medical procedure—remember these are not people with modern medicine and ways to numb skin. This medical procedure basically requires removing a large area of skin. Painful.

Needless to say most of the Gentiles didn’t want to do it. However, many of the Jewish people were adamant. If this was the sign of the covenant, didn’t Gentiles have to do it to? Didn’t God require it of them too?

Alright let’s read Acts 15:6-11.

6 The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. 8 And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9 and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10 Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

Peter is basically like “You guys know God sent me amongst the Gentiles to preach to them.” The Cornelius story was the start of that. And he’s like God made them clean. This is the whole let no one say is unclean what God made clean. And Peter is like “No one was able to ever fulfil the whole law anyway, we all always messed it up. So why put this burden on these people when we weren’t even able to handle the burden? And last point: we’re saved by grace alone.” Mic drop. Walk off the stage.

We’re saved by grace alone might be a phrase you hear a lot and you might be uncertain what it means. It basically means that Jesus’s actions covered us, and it’s not our actions of keeping the law or doing the right things that work our way into heaven or being Jesus’ followers.

We are not part of the Old Covenant that covered the Jewish people. We are part of the New Covenant.

This can all be rather confusing. It can seem like God changed the rules. In the beginning people had to do all these things and actions to be right with God. Now we’re just covered, free and clear because we believe in Jesus! It seems a lot easier, and it seems a lot different. And the answer—as with most things in the Bible—is both yes and no.

Let’s look back at what Jesus says. Turn to Matthew 5:17-20

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus says he didn’t come to abolish the law but fulfil it. And he also says whoever breaks the commandments will be the least in the kingdom of heaven and whoever holds them will be great. But also that it’s basically impossible to uphold them. That’s what he’s seeing with that last part. Your righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees who are the most righteous among us!

That’s also what Peter was referring to when he said that no one was able to keep the law. It was always impossible. That’s why in the law there are requirements of sacrifice—to cover the sin and breaking of the law that people did. Without those sacrifices to cover people’s sins, without that loophole, people would be separated from God because of even one breaking of the law, one sin.

And then Jesus came and he was the ultimate sacrifice who covered all of us. That’s why we don’t need to do animal sacrifices anymore. We’re covered by the ultimate sacrifice. Of God’s own son.

And if that is all still confusing to you and you’re still befuddled over whether or not we should follow the law, let’s go back to a section we’ve studied before. Matthew 22:34-40.

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

The whole law boils down into two laws, as we saw in the Ten Commandments. The first four are about loving God and the last four are about loving your neighbor. Because in the end that is what we’re called to do, love.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

If we keep those commands, we are keeping the intent of the law. But your salvation, your covering by Jesus is not requisite on you doing that. Jesus loves us no matter what we do. We are saved by grace, a gift we can’t and haven’t earned. But if you want to keep the heart of the law, the heart of what God was trying to do by giving the people of Israel these laws: then love God and love your neighbor.

Simple but not easy. And it is something we should always strive to do.

Jesus even says this again later in his farewell address to his disciples. It’s the night before he’ll be betrayed and he’s giving a farewell speech—though they don’t know it. In John 13:34-35, Jesus says “34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Most of us (all I think) in this room are not Jewish. We are not descended from Jewish people and no one in our family is Jewish. We are by definition Gentiles. The law is the Jewish law for the ancient Jewish nation of Israel. But we are followers of Jesus and therefore we are called to do this new commandment Jesus has given us. We are to love another. It is our love and kindness and gentleness and grace with each other that should mark us as followers of Jesus to the world.

It’s the hardest thing to do. To be kind to that annoying kid in your class. To practice grace and gentleness with the bully who picks on you. Sometimes it’s impossible. But it is what we are called to, and that and loving God are the only two laws that for us ultimately matter.