An Overview of the Law

January 28, 2024 / No. 4230

Dear Radio Friends,

God revealed His law to Israel in Exodus 20, and again in Deuteronomy 5. By law, I refer especially to the ten commandments. How well do you know those commandments? And do you think they are relevant to your life today? Are they for Jews only, or must Christians also keep them? In the conviction that they are binding on God’s people everywhere and at all times, we begin a study of the ten commandments today.

The more to see their relevance, we will see how Jesus understood them while He was on earth; in other words, our starting point will be the gospel accounts, not the Old Testament books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. Taking the gospel accounts as our starting point allows us to do several things. First, it allows us to see that Jesus viewed these laws as relevant in His day. If we are going to be like Jesus, we will have to view them as relevant in ours. Second, it helps us see that Jesus understood the real meaning of these ten commandments, even better than some of the Jews in His day. The Pharisees had their interpretation of the ten commandments—an interpretation that allowed them to sin against the ten commandments in obvious ways, yet think that they were more righteous than the tax collectors and the prostitutes of their day. When speaking to and about the Pharisees, Jesus often came back to His understanding of the ten commandments that they governed the heart and mind, the thoughts and motives, the secret places of man. Third, by taking the gospel accounts as our starting point we are, as it were, sitting at the feet of Jesus Himself, as our teacher. In fact, I compare what we will do in the next several weeks to a student, sitting at the feet of the greatest teacher in a certain subject, soaking in whatever that teacher teaches. We are going to school; the subject matter is the law of God; and the teacher is Jesus Christ Himself. And the student is the citizen of the kingdom of heaven, redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, filled with the Spirit of Jesus Christ, eager to live as a child of God and citizen of His kingdom.

In this first lesson, then, we will take an overview look at the law, and see that the ten commandments are relevant for the lives of God’s people everywhere and always. Our starting point is Matthew 5:17-20. In the King James Version, these verses read: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

What is the law of God? Broadly speaking, God’s law includes each and every precept that He spoke to Israel through Moses. God’s law in the Old Testament had three parts. First, it included ceremonial laws regarding sacrifices, feasts, and other aspects of worship. Second, it included the civil laws regarding how the Israelites were to live as a nation; this included building codes for their houses, and judicial punishments that would come on them for various sins. And third, it included the moral law, that is, the ten commandments themselves.

The ceremonial laws and civil laws were really further applications of the moral law. The ten commandments are divided into two tables: love God, and love your neighbor. The ceremonial laws, regarding how to worship God, were really applications of the first table, and the civil laws, regarding national life, were applications of the second table. This is important to recognize, for Christians today all understand that the ceremonial laws and civil laws are no longer to be kept in the letter. We can read about them and study them to learn gospel truths and to learn principles about the Christian life, but Jesus has fulfilled them. For this reason, some suggest that the ten commandments are also null and void, and need not be kept. By understanding the ceremonial and civil laws to be applications of the ten commandments, we more readily see that Jesus removed the outer layers of the law, but insists on our keeping the heart of the law.

As mentioned, the form of the moral law are ten commands, written on two tables of the law. The first lesson we learn from this is that we have two primary relationships in life—our relationship with God who is greater than we (vertically), and our relationships with other humans who are like us (horizontally). There is not a third table regarding how we treat rocks, trees, animals, and pets. Implied in the first table of the law, and the eighth commandment that prohibits stealing, are principles regarding how we treat God’s creation. Nor is there a third table that regards how we treat ourselves. Implied in the second table of the law, particularly the sixth commandment that prohibits murder, is the calling to love ourselves, not selfishly and egotistically, but as a creature and child of God. So the form of the law teaches us that we have two primary relationships in life—our relationship with God, and our relationship with other humans.

A second lesson is that our relationship with God is primary; it governs all other relationships. For the table that treats how to love God is the first table of the law. And the second table of the law, regarding love for other humans, follows from and flows out of the first. The first and second tables are related this way: NOT that we first love God, and then after we have loved God we turn around and love our neighbor; BUT that we see that our love for God must be primary and encompass all our life, and when we do that, we WILL love our neighbor; loving the neighbor still is loving God.

A third lesson is that God’s law governs every area of our life. The number ten suggests this; it is the number of completeness. God’s law is complete. God did not give nine commandments, nor eleven; had He given nine or eleven, the impression would be given that God’s law governs some, but not all, of our life; or that it governs an arbitrary number of things. But God’s law is complete; it governs our whole life. In every circumstance or situation that arises, God’s law applies. It applies to outward actions, prohibiting murder, adultery, and theft; it applies to our words, requiring us to speak reverently of God and honor those in authority over us; and it speaks to our heart, forbidding us to covet.

Having taken lessons from the form of the law, let us turn now to its content: love. Scripture teaches clearly that this is the heart of the law; consider the words of Jesus in Matthew 22:37-40: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In these verses Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, showing that even in the Old Testament the heart of the law was the command to love. Again, listen to what Jesus said in John 13:34: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” Love is a new commandment, not in that it had never before been a commandment, but that Jesus was making plainer than ever that it was the heart of the law.               To love is to live in a relationship with another, in which we seek another’s well-being. To love God is to promote His glory and praiseworthiness in all things. To love our neighbor is to desire his bodily and spiritual good, to be ready to sacrifice or suffer for her, to be patient and kind to them, in all things. To love is not to do these things because they are in our self-interest, but to do these things because we truly desire others.

What a different conception of love, and of what God’s law requires, than the Pharisees had! Their view of law-keeping was not that of having friendship with God, but having a place in God’s kingdom on the basis of their own obedience and righteousness.

What a different conception of love, and of what God’s law requires, than the extensive law of Moses suggested! The Mosaic law was law upon law, regulating all the details of life, in war and peace, at work and rest, regarding marriage, clothing, food, houses, what to bring to the temple and when; it seemed a code. But Jesus suggested it was about love.

And what a different conception of love, and of what God’s law requires, than you or I might have. God’s law might seem to interfere with our own pleasures and delights, and might seem to be a nuisance. But it isn’t; it is the rule for showing love, and in that way enjoying the salvation that God has provided us in Jesus Christ.

So the law is relevant, that is, it still governs the lives of God’s children today, and still prescribes the kind of life that must characterize citizens of God’s kingdom today. Especially against the idea of some who say that Christ has finished the law, that it was only for the Old Testament, let us see this relevance.

Jesus impresses on us the relevance of this law in Matthew 5:17-18. He Himself says He came to fulfill the law. By this He means that He came to fulfill the law, that is, to fill it up, that is, to obey it. He came to obey the law perfectly, and to teach that the law required love. He came to do this on behalf of sinners, humans who could not keep the law, and who deserve to experience the wrath of God. Having kept the law perfectly, even to the point of loving us by dying on the cross for us, Jesus could present Himself and His righteousness before God, on our behalf, and earn for us a place in God’s kingdom.

In fulfilling the law, Jesus did not abolish it, did not render it irrelevant for us. He makes this clear: He did not come to destroy the law. Rather, in the rest of the sermon on the kingdom, He emphasizes how relevant the law is, even more so than the Jews may have thought in Jesus’ day. The law is permanent; it was written in tables of stone, unchanging and indestructible. Jesus emphasizes this in verse 18: “Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot and one tittle will by no means pass from the law.” The words “jot” and “tittle” refer to the Hebrew alphabet; the smallest letter was a jod, similar to our letter I. The word tittle refers to a stroke, or a mark; think of the fact that we make a d with a circle and a mark extending upward; or a p with a mark extending downward. It refers to a part of a letter. Not a single letter I, and not a single part of a letter, will be destroyed as long as the earth remains. The law is relevant for us; it is in force.

In one other gospel passage the relevance of the law is driven home. The apostle John wrote in John 1:17: “For the law was given by Moses; but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” Here the Holy Spirit appears to present a contrast between the law and grace; but that is not the full meaning. Nor will I exhaust the full meaning of the verse with what I say. But part of the point of this passage is that the law as an outward code could not save; there is no grace earned by the keeping of the law. We need Christ; He gives grace. But for what does He give grace? To keep the law, not by it to earn grace, but by keeping it to show gratitude for salvation.

This lesson about the law’s relevance we must take to heart. It is easy for us to think at times that the law of God is beside the point, that it does not speak to the situation we are in. Perhaps I am poor; but the law of God still prohibits me from stealing! Perhaps I am oppressed; but the law of God still prohibits me from killing my oppressor. Or, perhaps disobeying the law will bring me earthly pleasures now; if we view Sunday as a day to do what we want rather than a day of rest, or if we view the seventh commandment as meaning only that when married, we must be faithful to our spouse, but until married, we may engage in sex freely, we are suggesting that the law does not bind us.

In addition, we are prone to pick and choose which commandment we want to govern us in what situation. We then set ourselves forward as keeping the law in an exemplary way, while we are violating it in an equally obvious way. Perhaps we are speaking ill of our authorities or parents, but insist we are telling the truth; or put forward whatever obedience we have manifested as the whole of our obedience, which is a lie.

To guard against sin, and to receive God’s law as a spiritual light to guide us in a world of darkness, we need God’s law. And He has provided that law. We must therefore confess that it is relevant to us.

When we confess that it is relevant, we are saying that it applies to every aspect of our life, our thoughts and motives included. Viewing it as relevant, we not only confess that we are subject to it, but that we have transgressed. We recognize that the punishments that the law prescribes should fall on us. We need Christ’s righteousness to deliver us from God’s wrath.

There is more. When we confess it is relevant, we also are saying that Jesus Christ not only kept the law perfectly on our behalf, but also that He arose from the dead, and now gives us His new life and strength, and enables us to begin to keep the law. We can keep the law–not perfectly, this side of the grave, but with a true beginning–to manifest that Jesus Christ lives in us.

Because the law is relevant, we need to learn it. We need to learn it, so that we can learn more about God, who reveals Himself in the law. We need to learn it, so that we understand more how we are to love God and our neighbor. We need to learn it so that we can more readily show true gratitude to God for all He has done for us in Christ, in saving us from certain death on account of our sins, and in renewing us to keep the law. We need to learn it and keep it, the more consistently and genuinely to show that we are the children of God and citizens of His kingdom.

So we will go to school; we will sit at the feet of the Master Himself. And here is an amazing truth: this master can drive the subject matter home! Even the most energetic teacher, who understands how to convey the subject to children in a classroom, realizes that he cannot make the children understand, or make them see that the lesson is relevant. But Jesus Christ can. By His Spirit He will not only inform our minds and understanding, but will drive the lesson home and show us its relevance. He will cause us to live to God’s glory, and to love our neighbor genuinely. For our Master, our Teacher, is not only our great example; He is also the living Savior from sin, who empowers His students to learn and apply the instruction to our lives.