6. GOD THE LAWGIVER
Then Paul asks the logical question everybody asks: why then did God speak the ten commandments from Mt. Sinai? It was a terror-inducing demonstration with lightning, an earthquake, fire, and a death boundary (vs. 19). God didn’t need to frighten Abraham out of his wits like that! All He had to do for Abraham was to write the ten commandments upon his heart as being so much Good News; then Abraham found his greatest joy in obedience. Why not do the same for Israel when they were gathered at Mt. Sinai on their way to the Promised Land? That would have solved all the problems that Israel had to meet ever afterwards.
h. Paul explains the reason why the law had to be written in stone: “the law … was added because of transgressions, till the Seed [Christ] should come to whom the promise was made” (vs. 19; the word “added” in the original has the meaning of emphasized, underlined, but not the idea of changing God’s “will” made out to Abraham). But what were the “transgressions” that made this new “emphasizing” or “underlining” necessary?
The forming of the old covenant is the answer. Before we get to the fire and earthquake of Mt. Sinai and the writing of the law on stone in Exodus 20, we find that Israel had already made the mistake in chapter 19 of forming an “old covenant.” They wanted to substitute it for God’s new or everlasting covenant. The story is fascinating, for we can see ourselves in it.
When the people gathered at Mt. Sinai, God told Moses to renew to them the same “new covenant’ promises He had made to their father Abraham: “‘Tell the children of Israel: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people”’” (vs. 5).
When He said “My covenant” He was referring to the same covenant He had made with Abraham—His one-sided promise. “Keep My covenant,” He said; that is, cherish it. The Hebrew verb shamar is the same word used in Genesis 2:15 where we read that God put Adam in the Garden of Eden “to tend and keep it.” It couldn't make sense to say that Adam was to “obey” the Garden! There’s a play on words in what God said to Israel: If you will “treasure” My promise to Abraham, I will “treasure you above all peoples.” For us to believe as did Abraham makes God very happy!
And the Hebrew verb shamea translated as “obey My voice” is rendered in the Old Testament as “hear” 760 times, as “hearken” 196 times, but as “obey” only 81 times. The root meaning of “obey” in either Hebrew or Greek is to listen attentively (in Greek it is to bend the ear down low so you catch every syllable). Any parent knows that if you can get your child to listen to you, you’ve probably gone a long ways toward obedience.
Thus the Lord said to Israel, “If you will listen to My voice and cherish or treasure the promise I made to your father Abraham, you will be ‘a special treasure to Me above all people.’” You will be the head and not the tail; there will be no need for great world empires such as Assyria, Babylon, Grecia, Persia, or Rome, to tread down the earth and oppress you. You will be above all nations. Israel will embody the truths of righteousness by faith. “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (vs. 6). Israel’s temple would outdo and outlast Greece’s Parthenon!
But Israel did not understand. They did not have the faith of Abraham. Mired in legalistic thinking, they made a vain promise, something that God never asked Abraham to do. “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8). Thus they formed the old covenant.
What could God do? If they will not keep step with Him, He must humble Himself to keep step with them. A long detour now becomes inevitable.
It was Paul finally who saw the deep significance of this old covenant promise of the people: “Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin [as in a prison of our own choosing], that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:21-24).
The word “tutor” is pedagogue in the Greek, from paideuo which means to exercise stern, harsh discipline. Paul saw the old covenant that the people voluntarily put themselves under as functioning like a stern disciplinarian, a policeman if you please, keeping the people of Israel under custody until such time as they could find their freedom again in the kind of justification by faith which their father Abraham enjoyed.
Since they brought the old covenant upon themselves, God must let them learn through their own history how vain were their promises to keep His law. The law written in tables of stone imposed upon them a burden of “ought,” a never-ending obligation they could not fulfill, never giving liberty, but always threatening punishment if not kept perfectly. It must serve in this long national detour now as a kind of jailer, driving them “under the law” until at last they come to the experience of their father Abraham to be justified by faith and not by their “works of law.”
Thus the difference between the new covenant and the old covenant is simply “who makes the promise.” In the new covenant, it’s God; in the old covenant, it’s the people. And the keeping of the promise depends entirely on who makes it.
In the new covenant, the foundation is solid Rock; in the old, it’s sand. Our salvation (and Israel’s) does not depend on our making promises to God (or keeping them) but on our believing His promises to us.
Believing God’s new covenant promise delivers us from the “yoke of bondage” Paul speaks of. No longer do we serve Him through fear of punishment, or even from hoping for some great reward. The new covenant delivers from the constant sense of futility, that nagging sense of “ought,” “I-must-be-more-faithful, I-must-do-better, I-must-be-more-unselfish, I-must-study-more, I-must-read-my-Bible-more, I-must-give-more, etc., etc.,” all without end. All this sense of compulsion is summed up in Paul’s expression of being “under the elements of the world,” the health-destroying angst or anxiety that all humans know by nature (Galatians 4:3).
The “tutor” or “jailer” of the old covenant drove Israel through the centuries on a relentless history of ups and downs from Sinai all the way to their crucifixion of their Messiah. Prophets, judges, and some kings tried earnestly but in vain to bring in permanent reformation and revival. Samuel’s blessed ministry ended in the people’s clamor for a king like the nations around them; Saul nearly ruined the nation; David may have believed the new covenant; kings such as Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, and finally Josiah tried their utmost to set the people on the right course. But their revivals always were frustrated by the old covenant mentality that produced backsliding and apostasy.
Finally, Josiah was the last good king of Judah, determined to do everything exactly right as “the spirit of prophecy” of his day (the writings of Moses) enjoined. He would save the nation from ultimate ruin. But the youthful king in his 30’s failed. His revival and reformation came to nought, for he rejected the living demonstration of God’s “spirit of prophecy” in the message that came to him through the most unlikely source he could think of—the mouth of the pagan Pharoah Necho of Egypt (a warning to us how easily we can reject divine truth! see 2 Chronicles 35:20-25).
From Josiah it was old covenant history down-hill all the way for God’s people until under King Zedekiah Jerusalem and their beautiful temple had to be destroyed and the people taken captive to Babylon. What a vivid demonstration of how the old covenant “gives birth to bondage”! They never truly recovered the new covenant until they finally lost their nationhood through the crucifixion of their Messiah and the rejection of His apostles. In Galatians and Romans Paul correctly delineates their history, “written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the ages are come” (1 Corinthians 10:11).
What do the two covenants mean to us today?
The two covenants are not hemmed in by matters of time, as though people living anciently were automatically under the old and we today are automatically under the new. There were people in Old Testament times who lived under the new covenant (Abraham, for example); and we today can be living under the old covenant if we don’t clearly understand and believe the freedom-giving gospel.
A gourmet chef can prepare a delicious seven-course dinner with good wholesome food, but if he puts in even a tiny amount of arsenic, it is spoiled. Even if it doesn’t kill us, it will cause paralysis. Even a tiny amount of old covenant ideas mixed in with otherwise gospel concepts can paralyze a healthy spiritual experience and produce the lukewarmness that so characterizes the church in these last days. Lukewarmness in His people is a mixture of hot and cold that produces the nausea that Jesus says makes Him so sick at His stomach that He feels like throwing up (Revelation 3:17, 18). The healing can come only through a full recovery of the new covenant “truth of the gospel.”
It’s astonishing how old covenant ideas can penetrate into our thinking. Even our hymns are sometimes examples, like the beautiful one, “O Jesus, I Have Promised To Serve Thee To the End.” But we can turn it into a new covenant hymn by simply changing one word so it reads, “O Jesus, I Have Chosen …” Well-meaning teachers can fasten innocent children into old covenant spiritual bondage by inducing them to make promises to God, which He has never asked them to do. They promise; and then later perhaps in forgetfulness they break their promise, and then the syndrome of “bondage” develops into spiritual discouragement. Parents sometimes weep their eyes out wondering why we lose so many youth who get discouraged spiritually and leave our churches. All kinds of tragedies can develop in an atmosphere permeated with old covenant “Christian experience.”
But repentance is possible.
Both Abraham and Sarah waded through the discouragement of old covenant thinking. His marriage to Hagar was one such tragic step. Sarah cherished bitterness against God in her heart because she could not get pregnant. “The Lord has restrained me from bearing children,” she complained (Genesis 16:2). Her solution: the old covenant idea of adopting Ishmael as her son, so as to help God fulfill His promise. Finally, we read in Hebrews 11:11 that Sarah had an experience of new covenant repentance. Her heart was melted somehow, by the grace of God. “By faith Sarah conceived …” And finally, Abraham’s faith triumphed when he offered up Isaac as an object lesson, sensing a little of what it cost the heavenly Father to offer up His only Son (Genesis 22).
Correctly understood, the message of the new covenant is part of the light which is yet to “lighten the earth with glory” in the closing hours of this world’s history (Revelation 18:1-4). The message will be centered in a true understanding of righteousness by faith which alone can prepare God’s people for the final time of trouble (see 19:1-14). Many, when they hear its Good News will awaken as from a dream. All of God’s biddings will become enablings, and the Ten Commandments will become to them ten precious statements of Good News. Nothing will be able to stop them from responding to God’s gracious last call, “Come out of her [Babylon], My people” (Revelation 18:4).
May this refreshing “new” perspective on the Ten Commandments bring great joy to your heart.
God’s Ten Commandments Become Good News!
“You shall have no other gods before Me.”—Exodus 20:3.
Careful scholars who have studied the Bible with a depth of insight have made a fantastic discovery.
Rightly understood, the famous Ten Commandments (“Don’t do this!” or “Don’t do that!”) which people have long thought spoil our fun, turn out to be ten categories of Good News if we understand why God gave them. This discovery is lifting heavy burdens from tired hearts all over the world.
For example, when the commandment reads, “You shall not steal!” what it actually says is that God will save you from ever stealing even a shoelace! You’ll never have a problem, even if you’re alone in the treasurer’s office with a million dollars on the desk. God will save you from stealing.
And when it reads, “You shall not commit adultery!” what it actually says is that God will save you from ever falling into that deceptive pit, no matter how alluring a sexual temptation might be. “The mouth of an immoral woman is a deep pit; he who is abhorred of the Lord will fall there” (Proverbs 22:14). The misery you will escape is enormous! The Ten Commandments become what most people have never dreamed of: ten messages of miracles of joyous Good News. (We will study them in depth, one by one).
This discovery of unexpected Good News is quite recent. It is the talked-about topic in some of the highest placed circles of Bible scholars. As the Internet is a discovery that has revolutionized modern electronic communications, so this discovery of Bible truth revolutionizes the preaching of the gospel worldwide. People are waking up as from a dream; the Ten Commandments have become Good News!
Now at last we can experience the freedom that the Bible has been telling us but which seemed so difficult to understand: “Oh, how I love Your law! [not many of us have ever felt that way!] It is my meditation all the day [boring, we have thought!]. You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies.… I have more understanding than all my teachers.… I understand more than the ancients.… How sweet are Your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! [this will be a miracle!] Through Your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way” (Psalm 119:97-104). Most people have never begun to discover this joy.
Even church goers have usually had a love/hate relationship with the Ten Commandments. The law has seemed like a heavy burden, ten precepts carved in cold stone, heavy prohibitions that crush out all the joy of life. Everything that was fun doing seemed to be, “You shall not!” The Ten Commandments seemed like roadblocks in the highway of happiness.
Yet deep in our human hearts we have realized that it’s wrong to break them; suffering must be the result either in this life or in the next. Yet we just couldn’t know how to keep them, let alone love them. They seemed too hard.
Now comes this fantastic revelation: They are actually ten assurances of victory. And what we have to do is different than the “Do this or else!” rules we have thought them to be: our job is to believe the Good News that God has embedded in them. Then faith will work to produce a loving obedience.
First comes an astounding disclosure: probably we have been misquoting the Ten Commandments, without realizing what we’re doing. Whoever taught them to us since we were kids usually has inadvertently left out one verse that God put in at the very beginning before any of the prohibitions. Leave it out and the ten indeed become Bad News, a “yoke of bondage.” Many, even preachers and teachers, have not seen the importance of that preamble verse. Even some who claim to specialize in preaching “the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” have not seen it.
Here it is—the missing verse that belongs at the beginning of any true version of the Ten Commandments: “And God spoke all these words, saying: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage’” (Exodus 20:1, 2).
There are some dynamite-like truths implicit here that can shake the earth:
First, God tells us what His true name is: “The Lord.” In Hebrew that is Jehovah, or Yahweh, a name that has something very special built in to it. It denotes God in His unique relation to fallen mankind. The name of Jesus in Hebrew means, “Jehovah saves.” Thus God is telling us who He is—“the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). In other words, before we even hear the Law itself, He impresses us with gospel Good News. He is not saying, “I am your Judge; your severe taskmaster, your Lawgiver who will punish you for any infraction you do!” A thousand times, No! He tells us, “I am your Savior. I am your Friend. I am on your side. Here is something good for you!”
Second, this neglected verse tells us that He is everybody’s God, “I am the Lord your God.” The “you” is you, right where you are. You may say, “Sorry, I have never worshipped Him. I am a pagan, or an atheist, or a bad sinner. I don’t deserve Him to be the Lord my God, or to have Him tell me any Good News, any more than if He told me I have a million dollars in the bank.” Well, He says to you, “I am … your God. I belong to you, even though you have never known Me, and even though you have acted as My enemy. I am ‘the God of all flesh,’ and when people crucified Me, I prayed, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.’” That prayer of His included you. He forgave you before you asked Him.
Before God even spoke the first commandment of His law, He preached the gospel in those preamble words, “I brought you out of the house of bondage.” When Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father which art in heaven,” He meant for all of us, no matter how bad, to think of His Father as our Father. Here is special Good News: Pray that prayer from your heart, and your life will be changed.
Third, in His preamble God tells us that we don’t belong in spiritual Egypt. That’s true even though we were all “born” there. The land of darkness is not our real home. He speaks in the past tense: “I brought you out of the land of Egypt.” I have already delivered you; you are like a prisoner huddled in your jail cell not knowing the doors have been opened. The message says, “O Lord, truly I am Your servant; I am Your servant, the son of Your maidservant; You have loosed my bonds” (Psalm 116:16). Know this, and believe it, before you start worrying with do’s and don’ts.
Fourth, God has already delivered you “out of the house of bondage.”
Just as He chose Israel to be His “child,” so in Christ He has already chosen you. (Israel never truly were “slaves” in Egypt. The Egyptians made them think they were slaves, and they believed it, and thus they served mistakenly as slaves, but all the while they were a free people waiting for Moses to tell them the truth, “Leave! Get out — to freedom in your own land”).
What the world is waiting to hear is the full truth of God’s past message of freedom. The Father sent His Son with an express mission: save the world! Just before He was crucified, He prayed to His Father, “I have finished the work which You have given Me to do” (John 17:4). How could He say that if He had failed to save the world?
The Samaritans were the first to believe the truth, for they confessed that He is “the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). John said that His sacrifice is a propitiation for the sins of “the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Paul said He is already “the Savior of all men” (1 Timothy 4:10), and that He has already brought salvation “to all men” (Titus 2:11). He died the final death, “the second death,” “for everyone” (Revelation 2:11; Hebrews 2:9). All of that includes you!
Fifth, such Good News is true because the Son of God became incarnate.
It’s very simple. Just as our first parent, Adam, the head of the human race, brought “condemnation” upon “all men,” so now our second Adam, Christ, has brought a “judicial … verdict of acquittal” upon all men (Romans 5:15-18, NEB; all responsible translations say virtually the same). That doesn’t mean that “all men” will automatically go to heaven; it means simply that when Christ died on His cross, He died for “all men,” and unless they disbelieve and throw away the salvation God has already given them “in Christ,” they will be saved eternally. The life we already enjoy is a gift from Him, and He has always intended that it should be the beginning also of eternal life.
When God named Adam, He gave the same name to the entire human race. Not one soul on earth was born on the planet Mars. We are all by nature “in Adam.” But the Father sent His Son into the world to become our new Adam, to fire the first Adam and take his place. God cannot disown His own Son! Therefore it follows that He has adopted the entire human race “in Christ.”
It’s like Jesus brings us home with Him to dinner, and the Father says, “Fine, bring them all in; I adopt them all.” We see this from the story of Jesus’ baptism. When He was baptized in the River Jordan, a voice was heard saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). That same Voice embraced you at the same time! All this is included in God’s preamble to the Ten Commandments. It’s past tense! I brought you out of the house of bondage. Perhaps you have been in “Egypt” all your life and didn’t know your true freedom in Christ!