God created his people, and they sinned. He stayed faithful to them in the Garden, and they sinned some more. He judged the earth with a flood, and they kept right on sinning. He made an amazing promise to Abraham and delivered the people from their captivity in Egypt. And even then they continued to sin.
So God told Moses to take the people to Mt. Sinai. And there, shrouded in thick clouds and surrounded by thunder and lightning, God gave his Law to his people.
That makes sense to me. Obviously the whole grace thing wasn’t working out very well. God had tried being gracious and forgiving, and what did he get? Sin spreading throughout the land and constant rebellion from his people. Clearly it’s time to lay down some law, right?
This leads us to an important part of the story that people often find confusing. And, if we get this part of the story wrong, our understanding of the Gospel is in trouble. For most people, the Law is a bunch of rules and regulations that God’s people had to follow in order to be his people. “Do this,” “Don’t do that,” and “Don’t even think about that one!” God gets things going with the Ten Commandments, and by the end he’s layered on 613 more. And, to most people, that doesn’t sound very much like grace. With all these rules and regulations, sacrifices and rituals, it sounds like God was giving his people a list of things that they needed to do if they wanted to be saved? How could that fit into a story that is supposed to be about grace?
It can’t. And that’s a problem.
We hear that the Law contains a bunch of “rules” and right away we think we know what’s going on. That’s because we have rules for everything. At the beginning of every school year, my wife and I are supposed to go over the school district rules with my daughter. They’re completely unreasonable: no firearms, no drugs, no abusing other children, and no burning the school down. What’s left? Can’t a kid have fun in school anymore? And, if she doesn’t follow the rules, she’ll get kicked out. How unfair is that? The same is probably true for you at work. Your employer has restrictive rules about things like actually showing up for work and not stealing stuff. And, if you don’t follow the rules, you’ll get fired. Driving your car, there are rules about how fast you can go, when you can turn, and why you shouldn’t steer with your knees while eating a hamburger, talking on the phone, and changing your shirt. And, if you don’t follow those rules, you’ll get dead.
We know how rules work. So we read the Old Testament, and we think we know what’s going on. Read rules…check. Follow rules…check. Avoid consequences…check. Okay, we’re all set.
But that’s not what’s going on with the Old Testament laws at all.
Our basic mistake lies in thinking the God’s laws are like traffic laws, rules that we follow to avoid consequences, to make society function more effectively, or to keep some authority happy. There is some truth in that, but it’s a shallow truth. The reality is that God’s laws are more like the expectations that operate in any meaningful relationship. We discussed this earlier when we were reflecting on why God gave the commandment in the Garden. And we saw that the commandment itself was a gift; it created a meaningful relationship between God and his people, a relationship with expectations, a relationship that mattered.
The same thing is happening here.
And, as in any relationship, there is more to meeting the expectations than just checking the boxes. When I get home from work tonight, suppose that I walk in the front door, give my wife a big hug, tell her how much I love her, do the dishes, help my oldest with her homework, read my youngest her bedtime story, and then spend the rest of the evening talking with my wife about our day and our dreams for the future. How do you think my wife would respond to all of this? Well, assuming that she survived the inevitable shock to her system, and then got past a justifiably deep suspicion that I was probably up to something, I’m sure she’d be quite pleased. These are all great things, the things that need to happen if we’re going to have meaningful relationships in our family. And my wife and I each have a right to expect that we’ll both strive to live this way.
But that’s very different from having a relationship that’s based on rule-keeping. Suppose that I do all of the same things, but my wife finds out later that I’m doing them simply because they are on my list of things that husbands are obligated to do. Kiss wife…check. Do dishes…check. Share deep-sounding thoughts about dreams and future plans…check. At the end of the day, if I’ve checked off most of my obligations, I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job. I don’t actually want to do them; I’m just following some set of “daddy rules.”
What do you think? Would you be satisfied with that? I wouldn’t. And I can guarantee that my wife wouldn’t either.
Yet, even though we recognize how silly this would be in human relationships, we often think that this is exactly how God works. “Hey Israel, here’s a long list of obligations for you. If you get them all checked off, you’ll be fine. So get to work.” Okay, let me see, don’t lie…check. Don’t steal…check. Don’t commit adultery…check. Don’t mix two different kinds of cloth…weird, but check. Check. Check. Check.
Checklists are great for taking care of your chores. But they’re terrible for relationships. Love your wife…check. That doesn’t work in marriage, and it doesn’t work with God either.
The Old Testament itself tells us that there is a lot more to it than that. If we look at the great summary of the Law known as the Shema—we read, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:4-5). This is what Jesus refers to when he is asked to name the greatest commandment (Mt 22:36-37). And the Law is full of statements like this (cf. Deut 10:12; 11:13; 30:20). At its most basic level, then, the Law is not about rules; it’s about love.
That’s why the Law places such a strong emphasis on the heart of God’s people. The laws are there to show how God wants his people to express their love for him—they describe his expectations. And, if their relationship with God is important, God’s people should strive to meet those expectations, not as mere rule keeping, but as an expression of their love for him.
So the mistake that we often make is thinking of the Law as a list of Do’s and Don’ts that people followed to keep God happy. That was never true in the Old Testament, it wasn’t true in the New Testament, and it’s certainly not true today. The law was never about establishing a relationship with God, but about expressing one.
So God gave the Law as a way of teaching his people how to express their love for him as his people. Next week, we’ll look more closely at a few other things that God did in giving the Law.
About Marc Cortez
Theology Prof at Wheaton College, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.