Covenant: God’s Plan to Restore Relationship

How Did you Become A Christian?

Take a moment to think about how you became a Christian. Or, if you’re not yet a Christian, what prompted you to check out more about it? Odds are there was a person in your life who first told you about Jesus. There are, of course, exceptions, but the overwhelming majority of believers have someone in their life who first introduced them to faith in Christ. For me, it was my parents. I would suggest that the norm has always been that God would draw people to himself, bless them, and they would, in turn, have the responsibility to bless others.

CORRUPTION IN CREATION 

Scripture opens with the story of creation. In the first couple chapters of the Bible we read that God created the world and when everything was put together and functioning as it should, God looked at it and said it was very good. But then sin entered the world and that which was very good got corrupted, the effects of which we still see today.

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As the opening chapters of Genesis roll on we see that by chapter 11 things have gotten so bad that people are being scattered across the face of the earth and there seems to be no hope for the unsullied relationship between God and people that were presented in Genesis chapter 2.

GODS PLANThen we roll into Genesis 12 and we read of God’s plan to begin restoring his relationship with people. He calls Abram, later Abraham, and tells him to go to the land God will show him and that God is going to bless him and make his name great and that Abram’s job is to be a blessing to the nations. The basic idea is that God is

  • pulling Abram aside
  • pouring out his blessing on him
  • commanding Abram to be a blessing to the nations.

This was God’s missions plan to reach the nations. People would look at Abram, see that he was being blessed, and desire to know who his God was.

GOD MAKES A COVENANT 

Fast forward to Exodus 19 and we see the same basic idea on the national level. Here we have the nation, freshly released from slavery in Egypt, gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and God is going to make a covenant, a treaty, with them to bless them so they can be his representatives to the nations.

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 descendants 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.”

So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the LORD had commanded him to speak. The people all responded together, “We will do everything the LORD has said.” So Moses brought their answer back to the LORD. –Ex 19:3-8 (NIV)

SAVED FROM SLAVERY The first thing to notice from this passage is that the people are already saved from slavery. They could go their own way at this point, but God is giving them the option of entering into a treaty relationship with him where they will be his people and He will be their God. The law comes in the next chapter because God has always been about drawing people into a relationship with himself prior to addressing issues of behavior. In other words, we shouldn’t expect unbelievers to act like believers prior to coming to faith.

GOD PROMISES

There are a few key promises God is making to the Israelites in this passage.

  1. They will be a holy nation. This simply means that they will be set apart from the other nations to be God’s special people.
  2. They will also be a kingdom of priests. In other words, they are to be his representatives to the nations. Just like Abram, they will be blessed by God and they will in turn be a blessing to the nations.

SPECIAL AND SET APART

The next big concept in the passage is that Israel will be God’s special possession or his ‘special treasure.’ The word here indicates that Israel will be what the special treasure was to kings in the ancient Near East. The Assyrians were masters at this. They would have foreign dignitaries walk down special halls full of unique, exotic treasures and wall reliefs depicting the many Assyrian military victories. The goal was that by the time the delegate reached the presence of the Assyrian king he would be completely overwhelmed by his majesty. It’s a similar idea to a foreign ambassador visiting the White House. They don’t typically go to McDonald’s. Rather, they have a lavish meal at the White House designed to show off the wealth and prosperity of the US. What God is saying to Israel is that she is to function like the royal treasure, showing off to the world how amazing the Lord is.

This was God’s missions plan to reach the nations, and it’s the same for us today. Peter wrote,

As you come to Jesus, the living Stone, rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him, you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

–1 Peter 2:4-5, 9

Peter was writing to believers scattered through the provinces of Asia Minor and his message holds for us today. We are built into a spiritual house, which likely means we are made into a house for the Spirit of God. As we are built into this house, we are to be God’s special treasure that he uses to show his glory and draw people to himself. Our job–our mission–is to declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness and into his wonderful light.

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Passover

In Exodus Chapter 12, we come to the Passover. The Passover is still a major Jewish holiday. In fact, you may observe it or know someone who observes Passover every spring. If you’re not Jewish, my guess is that you might not know much about the Passover, except that around Easter, grocery stores advertise specials on matzo and lamb.

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Passover is surprisingly relevant to our understanding of Jesus. Jesus’s death and resurrection took place during Passover and early Christians used Passover as the central metaphor for understanding his life, teaching, death and resurrection. Familiarizing ourselves with the Passover story in Exodus offers another chance for us to add dimension to our understanding of Jesus.

Setting the Scene for the First Passover

As we’ve already discussed, Moses delivers God’s command to Pharaoh to “Let my people go.” Pharaoh responds by doubling down on the oppression. The first nine plagues sent by God fail to change Pharaoh’s mind. Then God says to Moses, “I will bring one more plague on Pharaoh and on Egypt. After that, he will let you go from here, and when he does, he will drive you out completely.” (Exodus 11:1) This sets up the crucial moment when God liberates his people from Egypt.

 So Moses said, “This is what the Lord says: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again. But among the Israelites not a dog will bark at any person or animal.’ Then you will know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.” (Exodus 11:4-7)

Next, the Lord gives Moses a set of instructions for the Israelites to prepare them for a quick exit from Egypt. These preparations mainly have to do with the last meal the Israelites will eat before they leave the land of their enslavement. It seems a little strange that God would put so much emphasis on the preparation and eating of the Israelite’s final supper in Egypt, but it makes sense when you consider that God is setting up the meal as a ritual to be recreated yearly by later generations of Israelites. (Exodus 12:17) More importantly, God is putting in place a symbolic event that would foreshadow the work of Jesus.

The Lamb

The Lord’s instructions put special emphasis on two parts of the meal: the lamb and the bread. In preparation for the Exodus, the Lord tells Moses that on the tenth day of the month, every Hebrew household is to take a one-year-old male lamb without any blemish and keep it until twilight of the fourteenth day of the month, at which time they are to kill it. If there aren’t enough people in the house to eat a whole lamb, they are to share the lamb with another household. It is important for them not to have meat left over after the Passover meal.

It goes without saying that the first Passover was a radical event. In the midst of issuing a warning about his judgment on the Egyptians, the Lord gives his people instructions on how to survive the night in Egypt. The lamb isn’t just to provide a quick bite of dinner on the way out the door; it provides the Israelites with a protective mark, a sign to show they are the people of God. In Exodus 12:7, God instructs the Israelites to take the lamb’s blood and smear it on their door frames to mark them as distinct from the Egyptians.

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Does it seem odd that you would gather with your family every year to celebrate the killing of a lamb and the smearing of its blood in order to have the wrath of God pass over you? Actually, it shouldn’t be too hard to imagine. We call it Easter. In fact, early Christians commonly connected the death of Jesus, who was called the Lamb of God, with the Passover.

 

The Bread

The second key element of the Israelite’s last supper in Egypt is the bread. The Passover is the first day of a longer celebration that God is instituting called the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Notice again that while God is giving the Israelites instructions on their preparation to leave Egypt, he is also giving directions on how to remember and re-create the Passover meal for future generations. Each element in the celebration serves a symbolic purpose. Exodus 12:15 lays out the requirements for baking and eating the bread:

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For seven days you are to eat bread made without yeast. On the first day remove the yeast from your houses, for whoever eats anything with yeast in it from the first day through the seventh must be cut off from Israel.

For emphasis, the rules for preparing and eating bread during are repeated in verses 17-20.

“Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I   brought your divisions out of Egypt. Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. In the first month you are to eat bread made without yeast, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day. For seven days no yeast is to be found in your houses. And anyone, whether foreigner or native-born, who eats anything with yeast in it must be cut off from the community of Israel. Eat nothing made with yeast. Wherever you live, you must eat unleavened bread.” (Exodus 12:17-20)

In between these two lists of regulations about the bread, God issued another command that no work be done during the festival. (Exodus 12:16). I don’t know about you, but a seven-day rest period sounds really good. God also mandated a special time of worship on the first and last days of the festival for all the people. The only work permitted was the preparation of food.

Why all this talk about the unleavened bread? It was to facilitate the Israelites’ quick exit from Egypt. If you’ve ever wondered why some churches today serve flavorless crackers or cardboard-like wafers that melt on your tongue, it goes back to Exodus and this passages describing how the Israelites needed to be ready to hit the road. They couldn’t take the time to let their bread rise.

For Now and Later

So this section of Exodus is about now and later. The Israelites are to follow the Instructions that Moses has laid out while they are in Egypt as the angel of death literally passes over their homes, and later as they remember the Exodus.

“Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” Then the people bowed down and worshiped. The Israelites did just what the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron. (Exodus 12:24-29)

God is setting up this holiday because he knows that getting the people out of slavery in Egypt is going to be a core memory that has to be rehearsed in order for ancient Israel to have an identity.  In the years, decades and even centuries to come you continually see this reminder from the Lord: “I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt. Even when future generations of Israelites who never lived in Egypt are thinking, “That was like 500 years ago. I was born right over there,” it doesn’t matter. God is going to continue to say, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt because there’s a community identity, and the identity of the Nation of Israel is we were delivered from the hands of the Egyptians, and it was our God who delivered us from slavery.

Identity and Purpose

And God knows that they have to continue to rehearse that memory year after year for over a thousand years, because if the Nation of Israel loses sight of that identity they lose their purpose. If you read further in the Old Testament you see that’s exactly what happens. They lose their purpose. They lose their way because they forget.

I’ve been walking with the Lord long enough now that I’ve watched believers drop like flies. When circumstances of life come at you, it is so easy to forget. When you’re a mom and you can’t even get a moment to breathe, because your life is being poured into your children who demand constant attention, how do you take a slice out of life to even be able to pause and remember just for a few minutes? It becomes incredibly difficult and everything in our lives is screaming at us to distract us, to keep us remembering who we are in Christ and what God has done in our lives.

We need the rehearsal of those stories, we need those moments in our lives where we pause just to remember that God has done amazing things for us. That’s a necessary part of the Christian life. For all of us there will come times, whether is a dark time or more often it’s a distracted time, when we begin to lose sight of what God is doing in our lives. We have to build in rhythms that allow us to remember. God knows this and this is why he institutes the Passover for his people.

PRESENCE IN ABSENCE

If you’ve ever felt as though God is not active in your life, the book of Exodus is for you. If you’ve ever felt abandoned by God, the book of Exodus is for you. If you’ve ever wondered where God is in your life, what happened to the miracles, why he seems so distant or unconcerned, the book of Exodus is for you.

What’s the book of Exodus about? The easy answer is that it’s about the exodus, and this is true. The exodus is referred to in scripture more than any other event because it sets the paradigm of God’s saving work for his people. But the exodus is over by chapter 15 of a 40 chapter book, which begs the question: What’s the book of Exodus about?

 

Pillar Seminary, Exodus Series, Where is God, Is God Real. Does God Care

GOD’S PRESENCE

I contend that the book of Exodus is about the move from God’s apparent absence to his tangible presence. At the beginning of the book, the people are in slavery, wondering if their God cares. By the end of the book, God is in a tent in the center of the camp.

In the first two chapters of the book, God is conspicuously absent. In 1:8 we are told that a new king has come to the Egyptian throne who has no regard for Joseph and what he did for the nation (recorded in Genesis 41) and, in turn, for the Hebrews living in the land. 1:11-14 tells us the Hebrews are put under slavery and harsh oppression, ruthlessly forced into slave labor. By 1:15. the situation has gotten to the point wherePharaoh is ordering the death of Hebrew children! We get a hint that God at least knows what’s going on when we’re told in 1:20 that he was kind to the midwives who didn’t cooperate with Pharaoh in the killing of babies, but the Hebrews are still left to wonder how they got into the situation in the first place. And finally, in chapter 2, we’re told of a mom who has to place her child in a basket and send him down the river in order to save his life.

WHERE WAS GOD?

All of this would have the Israelites wondering:

  • Where was God when we were becoming slaves?
  • Has God abandoned his covenant with Abraham?
  • Has God Forgotten it?
  • Is God too lazy to follow through?
  • Is God angry with us?

This is why 2:23-25 is so critical to the theme of the book: The Israelites groaned under the harsh yoke of their slavery and their cry for help went up to God. God heard their groaning, remembered his covenant with their ancestors, and took note, a very Hebrew way of saying God is about to take action.

GOD IS WITH HIS PEOPLE

By the end of the book of Exodus God is in a tent in the middle of his people. In fact, the bulk of chapters 25-40 concern the construction of the tabernacle, God’s tent. Exodus ends by telling us that the cloud representing his presence covered the tent and that his glory filled the tabernacle such that Moses was not even able to enter. There was a cloud by day with fire in it by night to tangibly represent for the people that their God was in their midst. So we see that the bookends of the narrative of the book of Exodus go from God’s apparent absence to his very tangible presence.

GODS LAW BRINGS UNITY

There are two parts of the book that we as Christians typically overlook that were of special concern to ancient Israel. This first is the giving of the law in chapters 20-24. The law was not a stodgy list of rules to keep. Rather, it was that which gave Israel identity as the people of God. It allowed them to have a strong sense of national pride and unity, similar to what the constitution is for the United States. While in slavery in Egypt, they were not a true nation. Yes, they were a clan of people with an ethnic identity, but they were not a self-governing political entity that could properly be called a nation. God promised Abraham that he would make him into a mighty nation. It is the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai as recorded in chapters 19-24 that serves as the official fulfillment of that promise.

BLUEPRINTS FOR THE TABERNACLE 

The second is the regulations for the construction of the tabernacle. Now that God lives in us via his Spirit, the tabernacle is no longer an issue. But for ancient Israel, the building of God’s house and the realization that he was going to be living in their midst was certainly a very big deal. This is why there is an almost annoying level of detail about the finest points of construction in these chapters. They were building God’s house, and this realization was a source of pride as well pressure to take the utmost care in construction. Their national identity was wrapped up in being the people of Yahweh and thus the construction of the tabernacle was a source of national pride.

GOD IS PRESENT IN HIS ABSENCE

So the next time you open the book of Exodus, think about where the story is at in terms of the broad theme of the book. It’s about the exodus event, yes, but a more thorough view reveals that the swath of the narrative is about moving from a seemingly absent God to a God who is living in the midst of his people. God is present in his absence. Though it seemed he did not care, he was, in fact, orchestrating events for the good of his people.

The same is true today: Even in those times where circumstances scream the absence of God, he is in fact present.

Why I Love Leviticus

There’s nothing quite like the book of Leviticus for getting a feel of what scripture means when it calls God holy. When I was doing my doctoral studies my dissertation advisor, Gordon Wenham, told me that in all his years of being an Old Testament scholar the thing that had the biggest impact on his faith was writing a commentary on Leviticus. Why? What are we supposed to get out of Leviticus?

Leviticus Teaches that Holiness is a Real Thing.

If I had to boil the book of Leviticus down to one sentence it would be: How does a holy God live in the midst of an unholy people? Holiness in ancient cultures was not an intangible, abstract notion of ethics or morals as it is for the modern west. Holiness was just as real to them as nuclear or biohazardous waste is for us and the measures taken to prevent outbreak were tangible.

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They would fear an outbreak of the holy the same way someone living near a nuclear reactor might fear an outbreak of radiation from a meltdown. Think of the response of sheer terror of the Israelites towards Achan when he took some of the things devoted to Yahweh. The book of Leviticus makes God’s holiness concrete.

Leviticus Shows that God Actually Likes People.

The whole point of the sacrificial system introduced in Leviticus is to figure out how God can be near his people. I go back to what the book is about: How to have a holy God live in the midst of unholy people. The story of the construction of the tabernacle in Exodus is a story of going from a seemingly absent God (Ex 1-2) to Yahweh living in a tent in our midst (Ex 40). The tabernacle was a tangible way God could remind people of his nearness to them. Yahweh loves people and desires to be with them.

Leviticus Brings a Deeper Understanding of Christ.

Just as the sin offering in Leviticus was meant to cleanse the tabernacle, Jesus’ blood sacrifice is meant to cleanse people so God can live in them via his Spirit. People become the tabernacle and the sacrifice required to cleanse people is above and beyond what was required for the tent. Knowing Leviticus gives clarity to the flow of thought in Hebrews 9-10, a couple of the most epic chapters of scripture.

I wrote about this in chapter four of my book Jesus Prequel. I hope you’ll take a look at it. If it inspires you in your faith even 1% of how much writing it inspired me it will be worth your time.

God Commanding the Watery Chaos

Genesis 1:2 presents the world in watery chaos. How is Yahweh going to bring order? Why a watery chaos? Ancient Israelites would have seen a watery chaos at the beginning of a story as a genre trigger for a creation story (what we call a “cosmogony”). In the same way we think, This is going to be a fairytale, when we hear the words “once upon a time,” an Israelite would think, This is going to be a creation story, when they heard “watery chaos” (i.e. “now the earth was formless and void and darkness was over the surface of the deep”).

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There are four elements at the beginning of creation that find close parallel to Egyptian beliefs about creation (a separate post will look at Mesopotamian parallels): Emptiness (i.e., an earth that is “formless and void”), darkness, the deep (i.e., the primeval sea), and the spirit of God (some translations have “mighty wind,” – but that’s a post for another day). Egyptian texts (more specifically, Hermopolitan texts) feature four deities that are frequently called “the chaos gods”: Nu, whose name means the watery one and who is called the father of the gods (His name is later rendered Nun from the Egyptian word for inert.); Huh, whose name means infinity or boundlessness; Kuk who is darkness; and Amun, the god of wind, whose name means hiddenness.

J. Hoffmeier, an evangelical Egyptologist, and bible scholar propose the following parallels:

Nun = the deep

Huh = the earth that is ‘formless and void’

Kuk = darkness

Amun = spirit (or wind) of God

The image portrayed both in Genesis 1:2 and in Egyptian texts is that of a cosmos that is without proper form. The creative activity of the deities brings order and function out of the initial inert chaos. Which god is actually doing the creating varies in Egyptian texts. No attempt is made to explain the origin of the watery chaos in any text from the ancient Near East. Apparently, they didn’t care. However, there is general agreement that life springs from the primeval sea.

What’s the point?
Two things:

1) We need to understand that ancient Israelites, especially the Exodus generation, were not monotheists. They needed to be taught that their God, Yahweh, was in fact the creator God. They needed to understand that their God put each facet of the created world into its correct place, for a specific purpose.

2) For us, I think it’s helpful to see that God enjoys and is capable of bringing order out of chaos. God has an ability to make things, even seemingly crazy, chaotic things in our lives, work together for good.

What Does “Fear of the Lord” Mean?

‘Fear of God / Yahweh’ is a consistent theme of wisdom literature. Proverbs famously asserts, “Fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). But there seems to be a fair amount of confusion about what scripture means when it exhorts us to fear God.

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With or Without God

In my opinion, the easiest way to understand the concept of fearing God is to think about what it looks like not to fear God. Someone who does not fear God has no concern for accountability for actions. To fear God is to live with a healthy sense that we will have to give account for our actions. As Ecclesiastes says in summing up the message of the book: The very essence of what it means to be human is to fear God and keep his commands (Ecc 12:13-14). Going through life with no regard for the fact that God cares about how we live our lives is what it means to live without fear of God. However, the one who fears God is consistently cognizant of the fact that God is present, watching, and concerned for how we represent him in the world.

Fear of the Lord

The word translated ‘fear’ can run the gamut from respect all the way to outright pee your pants horror and it is difficult to come up with a direct English translation. Most uses of the phrase in the Old Testament have a positive spin, but some scholars believe there are instances where fear of God is a negative, particularly in Ecclesiastes 3:14. Although the phrase ‘fear of God’ is usually positive, there are times when God tells people not to fear him, as when Yahweh appears to Isaac (Gen 26:24). This indicates that when the phrase ‘fear of God/Yahweh’ is used the idea is not one of dread or horror since this is what God attempts to alleviate when he says, “Do not fear.”

Fear Leads to Wisdom

The important thing is not the exact meaning of fear, but the object of the fear: Yahweh.
To fear God is to realize our creatureliness in light of the
sovereignty of Yahweh over all his creation. Fear of God leads to wisdom simply because our realization that we are creatures utterly dependent on God naturally results in seeking him, the source of wisdom and understanding.

Finding Favor

 

When we tell our kids the story of Noah and the ark, we tell it in its simplest form, a high-level overview of someone who obeyed and trusted God. But if we will look closer at this Old Testament story, we find answers to some of our big questions about what it means to walk with God.

God Has Second Thoughts 

As we edge into chapter 6 of Genesis, we find that things are starting to get really bad for humanity. We see that the wickedness on earth is so extreme that every intention of the thoughts of people is only evil all the time. That’s quite the indictment. We read that God, grieved in his heart, regrets having created people. As a result, he decides to take action saying he will “blot out man” from the face of the earth (verse 7).

One Guy. Really?

Then we find a fascinating statement: “But Noah found favor in the eyes of Yahweh” (Genesis 6:8). In the midst of things being all evil all the time, one man finds favor in God’s eyes. Why? Was he super righteous? Really good looking? A master at giving great sacrifices? In chapter 7 we are told, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God” (verse 9).

There it is! Noah was righteous and blameless. Apparently walking with God is connected to being righteous and blameless. But we still might wonder, “What does that look like, and who could really achieve that anyway?” Jesus says that no one is good except God (Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19). If that’s the case, why does Genesis say that Noah was righteous? Was Jesus just wrong? Had he never read Genesis?

Don’t Skim Over the Best Part

Genesis 6:14-7:5 gives God’s specific directions for constructing and outfitting the ark. We like to skim over this section the same way we skim over a genealogy because we’re not sure why it’s there. I’d argue that the instructions are included so that we can see that Noah followed them just as they were given. What seems at first to be the boring plan for a construction project is in fact a picture of what it means to walk with God: Obedience to his word. The bottom line on walking with God is that you listen to what God says and do it.

Here’s the point: Noah was righteous because he believed God and demonstrated his belief by obedience. This is what set him apart from the wickedness surrounding him and it will do the same for us. We can complicate this message all we want but it really can be that simple.

The Law and My Ditch

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It’s hard to stay on the road in regards to Old Testament law. We tend to veer off into one of two ditches. The first is legalism.

Why the Legalism Ditch is So Inviting

Let’s be honest; most of us just naturally tend toward some sort of legalism because it feels safe. If I have really clearly delineated dos and don’ts, it gives me a sense of comfort to follow the dos and don’t do the don’ts. An easy example of this is the command, “Don’t take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” In the intertestamental period, the Jews said, “Hey, if I never take the name Yahweh at all, I’ll never have to worry about taking it in vain.”

It’s this kind of legalism that develops when we put a hedge around the law to ensure that we don’t break it. The tendency is to go beyond the actual intents of the laws and put extra dos and don’ts in our lives. This tendency toward legalism is a very common thing and it can get in the way of a proper understanding of God’s grace.

Or We Could Just Reject it All

The opposite extreme of legalism is what in Church history is called Marcionism. It’s the idea that the Old Testament is completely irrelevant. That was for them and now that we are Christians the Old Testament no longer applies. It’s basically an outright rejection of anything in the Old Testament including the law.

I have to be honest and say that even though most of us say that all Scripture is super important, we act as though it’s not. Frankly, the Old Testament is tougher to get into. It’s easier to read to read a letter from Paul—say Paul’s letter to the Philippians—and apply that to our lives than it is to dig in to something like Exodus 21-23. There’s a bigger cultural barrier, and that sort of makes us into pragmatic Marcionists—pragmatically ignoring the legal sections of scripture.

This is a problem because honestly, God calls all sections of Scripture useful and profitable and all of those sections of Scripture reveal something about who God is that I think is quite important.

Let’s start by being honest about which ditch we’re in and challenge each other to try to live with balance in regard to the law.

The Law is About Works (and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves)

 

As I talk with people who read the Bible and in general believe what it has to say, I often hear three common misconceptions about Old Testament law.

God Didn’t Really Mean It, Or Did He?

The first common misconception is that God never really intended for anyone to keep the law. Now the problem with this view is that God explicitly states, “No, I’m intending for you to keep these laws.” Look at Deuteronomy 30:11.

“Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14, TNIV)

So we can’t go around claiming that God just never even expected anyone to keep the law.

No One Can Do That, Or Can We?

The second misconception is the idea that no one ever actually managed to keep the law. But look at this Scripture from Luke:

“In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” (Luke 1:5-6, TNIV)

Or what about what Paul said in Philippians?

“…though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If others think they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” (Philippians 3:4-6)

So we can’t just say that no one ever managed to keep the law.

Grace Replaced Law, Or Did It?

The third common misconception is that law is all about works but the New Testament is all about grace. In regards to this one, I would just take you back to Exodus 19 where God shows up and says, “Hey guys, you’re saved. It’s done. It’s delivered. But if you want to be my representatives to the world, then here are some regulations of how you can represent me well.” When viewed from this perspective, you realize that grace is tied into everything that’s going with the law from beginning to end.

So that leaves us with viewing the law as what it is; part of God’s revelation of himself.

The Unexpected Commission to Harden Hearts: Jesus

 

Here we are, absorbing the idea that sometimes God chooses to divide people and force a choice—follow God or walk away. Some will walk away. I’m not suggesting that we are called to divide, but we need to understand why twice in the Bible it was necessary. In the case of Isaiah, his prophetic words set the stage for exile, which in turn resulted in the healing and redemption of God’s people.

Delivering a Vague Message

Let’s turn our attention to Mark 4 where Jesus teaches the parable of the sower. This simple lesson in agriculture illustrates what happens to seeds when a farmer sows them—some grow, some don’t. The crowd of people crammed along the shoreline to listen to Jesus likely sensed that he was using a metaphor, though Jesus chose to leave the meaning unclear. Jesus later explained to the disciples that his message was purposefully ambiguous. “They may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.” (Mark 4:10-12)

Tearing Down the Middleman

Why would Jesus be so exclusive and leave people so confused? Jesus did this for the same reason that Isaiah preached decisively and with the mandate for action. While the initial result was the rejection of God, the bigger goal was to bring God’s judgment to fruition.

Jesus’ ministry sought first to bring judgment to the temple system, not because the system was flawed but because human sin made it unsustainable. The temple system, exposed to sin and legalism, destroyed the very thing it was meant to protect—the relationship between God and his people. The people made it their middleman, relying on the temple system to cover their sin and facilitate their relationship with God, so it had to go; Jesus’ death rendered it obsolete.

Forcing the Issue

Jesus’ second objective was to bring judgment upon the sin of human beings; his obscure parables hardened hearts and provoked hearers to stop wavering and make a choice. Their rejection would bring about the fulfillment of God’s judgment and it would be poured out, not on the people, but on himself. Jesus would take on all the wandering, rebellion, and foolishness that prevented people from knowing God; he made it possible for people everywhere, not just those living among the temple, to live in relationship with their Creator.

When I consider all this, my response is worship. God set up the temple system to engage in relationship with us and then when we ruined it, he replaced it with the infinitely more glorious work of his son.