THE NATURE AND ROLE OF LAW
PURPOSE OF THE MOSAIC LAW
The Old Testament indicates at least five reasons for the Mosaic Law:
1 – It reveals, in part, the nature and character of God.
2 – It gave Israel the rules for living under the Theocracy.
3 – It exposed sin, thus revealing the need for Christ.
4 – It was Israel’s means of sanctification.
5 – It gave Israel her culture.
THE VARIOUS KINDS OF LAW
There are a number of ways you can divide the Mosaic Law. One of the most common is:
a) – Ceremonial – Those laws dealing with ritual instituted by God on Sinai. Included are feast days, various kinds of sacrifices, and rites of purification.
b) – Moral – Those laws dealing with absolute standards of right and wrong. They are summarized in the Ten Commandments, and elaborated in passages such as Leviticus 18-20.
c) – Civil – These are laws dealing with daily commerce in Israel, not of a moral nature. Included are regulations dealing with how people dress, the care of livestock, and disease.
d) – Dietary – Laws dealing with clean and unclean food.
Another way you can divide the Mosaic Law is:
1) – Laws that cover sins that result in the need for sacrifice, but more commonly, banishment from the community or death. These range from violating the moral law to willfully violating the dietary laws.
2) – Those laws which require sacrifice and rites of purification. These include touching dead or unclean things, women having babies, and vessels coming into contact with leprosy.
3) – Laws God establishes that have nothing to do with sin, but restrict the behavior of people – e.g., a blemished man cannot be High Priest, bastards cannot enter the congregation of the Lord, and none but the Levites can function as priests.
We have no way of knowing why God established many of these laws that restrict people or render them unacceptable for certain privileges. Our reason cannot give an adequate rationale, and God does not explain Himself. But we must constantly remind ourselves that God’s commandments restricting behavior are never punitive, and when we begin to think that they are, we guarantee ourselves a relationship with God that questions His goodness. “What does God have against bastards that they cannot enter the congregation of the Lord? It wasn’t their fault that they were illegitimate.” New Testament believers may be tempted to ask, “Why does God punish women by insisting that they cannot teach or have authority over men? In many cases they certainly are more competent than men.”
What we do know is that God’s covenant with the nation Israel parallels His covenant with the redeemed in the following ways:
1 – God has expectations He insists His people meet, reflected in the Old Testament Law and in the New Testament commands.
2 – Breaking the commandments of God has dire consequences. In the Old Testament, the national consequences had to be temporal; for individual believers in both Testaments, they may be temporal, but they certainly are eternal.
3 – Neither Israel as a nation, nor any descendent of Adam can relate to God by any kind of works, including the works of the Law.
4 – God’s gracious covenant with Abraham ensures both the nation of Israel and the individual believer that sin will not lead to the ultimate rejection of God. Any immediate rejection is redemptive and temporary.
5 – God’s grace does not mean that His laws and commandments can be neglected, altered or considered negotiable. Even in the New Covenant promised through Jeremiah, God says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts.” When God fulfills His promises to Israel in the future, His Law will remain unchanged.
LAW AND LIFE
At the time when God gave Israel the Law, He also expanded the rules and regulations of sacrifices. Until Mount Sinai, each person was able to offer his own sacrifice whenever and wherever he desired. The Law decreed that from Sinai on, only a Levite from the house of Aaron could offer sacrifices. Even more importantly, the sacrifices could not absolve a person when he defiantly broke the Law.
“And the priest shall make atonement before the Lord for the person who goes astray
when he sins unintentionally, making atonement for him that he may be forgiven. You
shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native
among the sons of Israel and for the alien who sojourns among them. But the person who
does anything defiantly, whether he is native or an alien, that one is blaspheming the
Lord; and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised
the word of the Lord and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely
cut off; his guilt shall be on him.”
Even on the Day of Atonement, the one time each year the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies sprinkling the blood of a sacrifice on the Mercy Seat, it was only effective for “sins committed in ignorance.”
“Now when these things have been thus prepared, the priests are continually entering the
outer tabernacle, performing the divine worship, but into the second only the high priest
enters, once a year, not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins
of the people committed in ignorance.”
There was no sacrifice available for those who defiantly broke the Law. When King David committed murder and adultery, he understood that nothing in the sacrificial arsenal could help him. Thus, he prayed, “For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”
From this we learn that if the people became too wicked, God judged them harshly. We also know that if they obeyed the Law, God blessed them. A question remains: How far from the Law can the people stray and still be assured that they will not provoke the judgment of God? There can be no answer. One infraction, no matter how minute, exposes the people to the possible retribution of the Lord.
On a large scale, this is exemplified by the nation of Israel. After receiving the Law on Mount Sinai, Israel, because of sin, wandered in the wilderness forty years. When Moses died and Joshua took his place as leader of the people, God brought them into the Promised Land. The Book of Joshua records Israel’s struggles and victories in taking possession of the land. The Book of Judges records the experiences of Israel living under God’s Law, having established itself in the land. Through the tenure of the Judges, the pattern repeated itself: The people break the Law – God sends the oppressor (the Philistines, Midianites, Moabites, etc.) – the people repent – God sends a deliverer (the Judge) – the deliverer dies – the people sin -….
Because the Law defines sin, and because a Holy God cannot cohabit with sin, every individual loses his assurance the moment he violates the Law. Remember God made no provision in the sacrificial system for willful sin, only that committed in ignorance.
LAW AND CONVERSION
God required of Israel a frequent remembrance of His deliverance from the slavery of Egypt to show their dependence upon Him for that deliverance, in lieu of a personal conversion experience. The Law gave God’s standards and the people were expected to obey. Failure to comply meant either death or banishment from the community. People like King David were not executed because of God’s grace – a grace made possible by the propitious death of Christ. Interestingly, nothing in the Mosaic Law ensured people that if they broke God’s Law His grace would pardon them. David prays, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” Scripture gives no indication where David got such a notion. We believe it came from God because we believe the Psalms are Holy Writ.
God never says the Law is impossible to keep. If, in the Old Testament, God had called for conversion based on an acknowledgment of sin, He would have had to tell the Jews that His Law was impossible to keep – an intrinsic defect in the system He created. If, on the other hand, keeping the Law was key to salvation, two things would be true: 1 – A person could be saved by works, and 2 – God would have to make obedience to the Law relative, for no one can keep the Law perfectly. In such a case the death of Christ would have been superfluous.
Thus, He assumed their ability to obey the Law, and, rather than calling for personal conversion, asked them to acknowledge dependence and gratitude for His deliverance and preservation:
“And thou shalt speak (recite) and say before the Lord thy God, A Syrian ready to perish
was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and
became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous: And the Egyptians evil entreated us,
and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage: And when we cried unto the Lord God of
our fathers, the Lord heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labour, and
our oppression: And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with
an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders: And
he hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, even a land that floweth
with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the firstfruits of the land, which
thou, O Lord, hast given me. And thou shalt set it before the Lord thy God, and worship
before the Lord thy God.”
When the nation failed to acknowledge dependence upon God, violating His commandments, He sent them into captivity, either in their own country, or the country of their enemy. Crushed and humbled, they acknowledged their dependence upon God for deliverance, repenting of their sin. Captivity reminded them of Egypt that reminded them of their dependence upon God. At no time did God leave His people in captivity, and He promises a future restoration of Israel.
There was no call to personal conversion in the Old Testament, only a confessed acknowledgement of dependence upon God based on past history. This deliverance, an act of God’s grace, and Israel’s acknowledged dependence, became the basis by which people could expect to be saved. Nevertheless, only those regenerated by the Holy Spirit (like David) were able to understand, as confirmed by the Apostle Paul: “For they are not all Israel which are of Israel.”
When reading the Torah I am struck with the tediousness of God’s Law. He not only outlines in meticulous fashion the details of what He wants done, He also demands that these details be meticulously followed. There probably are many ways a person registers his dependence upon God. Under the New Covenant, we principally acknowledge this dependency by recognizing our depravity and need of Christ’s salvation. In the OT, that dependence was, in part, acknowledged by faithfully following the minutia of God’s regulations. Thus, we see that it is not the area in which we acknowledge our dependence that ultimately matters, but the fact that we do so. Again, as King David confessed, “a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”
In Deuteronomy 28:1-44 God instructs His people to rehearse the blessings He will bestow upon the nation if they obey, and the curses He will plague them with if they disobey. We disobey God because we think that we gain more in disobedience than obedience; “His Law prohibits me from obtaining what I want, what I feel to be of value.” The blessings and curses of Deuteronomy 28 reveal that obedience is of greater value than disobedience. When I violate God’s Law to obtain what I want, I lose more than what I gain. This, in essence, is the lesson God teaches in Deuteronomy 28. Obedience is always more profitable than disobedience. What we obtain, however, is not salvation, but eternal blessing rather than eternal loss. For salvation is, and has always been, apart from the works of the Law.
In His bonds,
 Jeremiah 13:33
 Numbers 15:28-31
 Hebrews 9:6-7
 Psalm 51:16-17
 Cf., e.g., Exodus 19:5
 Psalm 51:17
 Deuteronomy 26:5-10
 Romans 9:6
 Psalm 51:17