What is your view of the Law of the Old Testament? Do’s and Don’ts? Strict adherence to the Ten Commandments? An overbearing family member? If it is, then you might find the notion of Christian obligation to be a burden. This Law is crushing down upon you, and you might feel the need to work very hard to keep all of its demands. You may also think that in the Old Testament, the Law which is better known as the Torah and includes the first five books of the Bible, is something out of date and redundant–the very thing you were freed from when you accepted Christ. Many people think that the Torah has no bearing on their life because now, in Christ, they have received grace. Some may even be so bold to suggest that what we do doesn’t matter since we now have grace. Yet, is this the case? Are we really free from the Torah and obligations as Christians? Does it really matter what we do as Christians? What is interesting is that we find it difficult to feel the intense and burning passion of the Psalmist as he says, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psalms 119:97). Here, I hope to dispel the false idea that as Christians we are not called to follow the Old Testament Law, and more positively, that as Christians we are called to fulfill the Law by the Spirit and live a life that displays the beauty of God to the world.
To begin, we must properly understand the Old Testament Law as it was given. As Christians living in the 21st century, we are miles and millennia away from the historical context of the Torah. We have the tendency to view the Law as just that, a law–a list of do’s and don’t’s that govern the way we live in a particular society. Yet, just as some of our laws and customs don’t make sense to societies around the world, or even our colonial forefathers, neither do the laws and customs of the 2nd millennium BCE make sense to us. The Torah, which is better translated as “instruction”, was not particularly designed to construct a list of do’s and don’t’s to govern the way one would live in a particular society. Instead, the main purpose of the Law was chiefly to reveal the character of the Lawgiver. If the law commanded that one should not mistreat or act unkindly to the downtrodden and oppressed (Ex. 22:22-23), it would have communicated that the Lawgiver was compassionate and valued the widows and orphans. God, as the same Lawgiver, reveals through the Law that he is compassionate and values the widows and orphans of our world.
Another purpose of the Old Testament law was to create boundaries or guidelines for God’s people. It wasn’t a strict list of rules, but a complex guide that served every area of life. For example, the purpose of the many laws regarding punishment simply shows the extent of justice. In other words, it would show the extent that one was allowed to punish wrongdoing. The often quoted verse, “Eye for an Eye” (Ex. 21:24) was not communicating a hard and fast rule. Instead, it sought to limit unjust retribution: a beheading for a slap. Furthermore, those seemingly harsh commands that called for the death of the Lawbreaker (Ex. 21:12,15,16,17) communicated the extent of justice. Yet, the harshness of the command may be softened by a better translation: he may be put to death. In the Torah, there was always room for mercy and grace. There are actually few cases where the death penalty was used for a law breaker in the Old Testament. Here, one can see that the spirit of the Law, the underlying intent behind the law, was what was designed to be followed. In the instance above, God’s people were to act justly. Again, these commandments were not designed to create a sort of social contract for society, instead they created a covenant relationship between the Lawgiver and his people.
God had quite a different purpose for the Law than we might think. What must be noted is that the Torah was given to the people of God. The receiving of the law and the fulfillment of it was not about salvation.It wasn’t about “getting in.” Israel’s redemption came when God rescued them from slavery by the Exodus. That was salvation for Israel. The Torah was for Israel’s sanctification, or better said, it was about shaping the people of God into the image of God himself. “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel” (Exodus 19:5-6). The purpose of the Torah as instruction was primarily to create a community of faith that would proclaim the character and person of God to the nations. Thus, the instruction of the Lord contained a missional aspect as well as an ethical one. W. Ross Blackburn’s The God Who Makes Himself Known makes this very point, “The missionary impulse behind the law becomes clear–Israel is set apart that she might, in imitation of the Lord himself, live in such a manner that she faithfully represents him to the nations.” (Blackburn 102.) God’s purpose in giving the law to Israel was to create a kingdom of priests. Priests were dual representatives as they mediated both the people to God and God to the people. Israel was created to represent God—the kind and gracious God who created the heavens and the earth and also redeemed his people from slavery—to the nations in order that they might come to know that same God.
In summary, the Torah is instruction. It reveals God for who he actually is and not just who we think he is. Who is God? He himself answers, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7). Here we see the very heart of God: He is merciful and gracious, yet also just. In the Torah we also understand the obligations that come with being the people of God: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). This holiness is commanded for God’s people must reflect and imitate their God. In doing so, they become the light to the nations; in fulfilling the law they become missionaries to a broken world.
Unfortunately, Israel did not fulfill this missionary purpose. They continually rejected the Lawgiver and followed after other false gods. They became in need of redemption themselves, and no amount of haphazard attempts to follow the law would work. If they would not seek after the Law, then the Law would seek after them. Jesus picks up the mission of God to make his name known to the world and comes to his own people. In the gospel of John, he is described as the Word of God, who makes the Father known (John 1:1-18). It is in Jesus that we, as the people of God, receive the clearest picture of who God is. Through his life and work on the cross we see God as he is: “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty” (Ex 34:6-7). The Father displays both his infinite grace and his justice as Jesus suffers the consequences for our failure to represent God as holy, and he graciously forgives and reconciles us to the Father.
Now that we are in Christ and reconciled to God, what is our relationship to the Law and the mission of God to make his name known? Are we to keep on sinning because of the grace we have received? Paul says “No way!” (Romans 6:2). The New Testament does not separate the church’s mission from that of Israel’s. Instead, the people of God united in Christ are called to participate in that same mission. Jesus calls us to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). The process of making disciples (and being made into a disciple ourselves) is the same process of being transformed into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:15-18, Rom 8:29). Furthermore, Peter picks up the mission stated in Exodus and appropriates it to the Church. “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10). Here, the Church is called to participate in God’s mission as that same royal kingdom of priests that Israel was called to be.
The mission of God to make his name known has flowed through the law to Israel, but there it was hindered when sin took hold of the law and used it to condemn Israel (Rom. 7:7-12). Jesus came as the fulfillment of the Law, that is to say, as the one who makes God the Father known without the obstruction of sin. In Jesus, God condemned sin and he set us free so that we are now able to fulfill the mission of God. Looking back at that missional calling found in 1 Peter, the verses following clarify how we are to fulfill that calling. “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:9-12). The author is calling his readers to live a holy life so that the world may see and glorify God. These verses not only declare to us what the mission is, but call us to participate in it. We participate in the mission of God to make himself known to the world by living a holy life that reflects the very nature of God.
The mission of God will be finally accomplished when Jesus returns again as King of his creation. Unlike a status you achieve or a trophy you can put on your shelf, the mission of God is a lifelong calling to continually be holy as God is holy. You may right now be feeling a growing sense of burden and dread as you think about the lists and lists of things you need to do to get your life on track to participate in this mission. Others of you might be feeling despair, for you believe that you are not even capable of participating in this mission. Yet, brothers and sisters, the mission of God is not fueled by our own strength. Who reached out to us first? Who revealed himself through his Word and through his Son? That same God does not leave us without hope; He leaves us with the Spirit. Romans 8 gives us a wonderful picture of what life in the Spirit is like. In short, the Spirit empowers us to live the Christian life. The problem that Israel encountered was that they were trying to fulfill the Law without the Spirit. But, this is not our problem, for Jesus left us with the Spirit (John 16:1-14). If you feel burdened under the law, the Spirit will remind you that Jesus’ instruction is light and easy (Matthew 11:30). If you feel like you are not capable of participating in the mission of God, the Spirit will strengthen your hands for the work. The Spirit will comfort you, guide you, reassure you, love you, illuminate God’s word to you, direct you, and even pray for you. “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). If we live life in the Spirit we will fulfill the Law and proclaim the majesty of God to our world.
So does it matter what you do? Are we still under the Law? Of course! But no longer is this a burden, but our joy. As the people of God charged to declare the glory of God we are obligated to live a holy life. This doesn’t mean we can’t eat bacon, work on Saturdays, or wear clothes of two different materials (Leviticus 11:7; 19:19; Exodus 20:8). No, by the Spirit, we are able to fulfill the spirit of the Law–the underlying intention behind the law–which can be summed up in the word’s of Jesus: Love God; Love Others (Mark 12:29-31). This obligation should not lead to despair when we fail to represent God well with our actions. Just like in the Torah, there is always grace and mercy; it is because of grace that we are even able to attempt this participation. God has been on a mission since the beginning, and now, wherever you find yourself, he is calling you to join the mission. We get to participate in that mission by proclaiming who God is with our words and also with our lives. Yet we are not without an example and a guide:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:12).