In the last post we discussed some of the different aspects of the Law of Israel. We noted that it was primarily a national constitution for the nation of Israel that acted as a relational contract (i.e. covenant) between God and Israel. It also provided them with a culture, religion, legal system and moral code to call their own. In this post we want to touch on other reasons gave the Torah (i.e. Law of Moses).
Stemming the Tide
Besides being a national covenant (i.e. constitution) it was also given to Israel to curb the corruption of sin. God desired to bring Christ the Savior into the world at the right time, but first he had to set the stage. Israel was chosen to be the nation that would bring this salvation into the world (John 4:22). This was the second part of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. But God’s stage could not be set without some semblance of righteousness. So before the Word of God became flesh in order to renew the nature of men through His resurrection and the second birth, God would have to give them something to hold back the tide of sin. For this reason, God gave them commands written on stone along with strict punishments for breaking it.
This law code could not change the hearts of the Israelites, but it could restrain the corrupting influence of sin. In many cases the breaking of the social laws would result in the death penalty. Those that committed adultery or murder were to be put to death by the testimony of two or three witnesses. The murderer or adulterer was given no chance to “reform” himself because he had already been corrupted by the influence of rebellion and this leaven was not to be given a chance to infect the rest of God’s people. The punishment of the offender did not only stop him from influencing others, the example that was made of him would have the added benefit of discouraging those who were being tempted to commit similar crimes.
A Weak Law
We must recognize that this law system had limited uses. First its ability to stem the tide of sin through strict punishment was only good for maintaining some semblance of righteousness in kingdoms that accept the authority of the Torah. Wherever the ruling powers do not accept the Torah’s authority the punishments of the Law cannot be enforced, and so it does not limit the spread of sin’s corrupting influence among the population. The Torah needed to be enforced on the whole nation, or it was not effective and stemming the tide of corruption. This limitation can be seen in the struggle that the first century Jews had in enforcing the Law of Moses while under the Roman Empire’s thumb (John 18:31). This same limitation is a noticeable missing link among those groups who say the Torah should be kept by Christians. It is even lacking among orthodox Jews in modern Israel. Neither of these groups practice the punishments of the Torah because the governments of our day forbid it.
The law given to Moses was able to keep sin at bay, but it was not able to demolish its power or reverse its influence. Even when God would supernaturally bring about a revival of obedience in Israel, the corruption of unregenerate hearts would quickly revert to forgetting God. It was for this reason God commanded Israelites to wear tassels on their garments and write the commands of the Torah on their doorposts; they were slow to remember and quick to forget (Numbers 15:39, Deuteronomy 6:9). The Law of Moses had no power to reform corrupted hearts from the inside out; it could only restrain sin from the outside.
Matthew 8:1-4 gives us a good picture of the limitation of the Old Covenant and the power of the New. When Jesus meets an unclean leper he reaches out his hand and makes him clean with this touch. He then tells him to go to the temple to let the priests examine him and declare him legally clean. The Old Covenant system was able to declare someone clean or unclean, but only Christ has the power to make them clean!
A Compromised Law
“They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”
The Law of Moses was given to restrain the corruption of fallen men. Human culture had already been corrupted by darkness and idolatry. God’s original righteousness had been nearly completely erased from human hearts. But it could not reform their hearts. So when God called Israel to be set apart to him, He had to give them laws that were possible for them to obey. These were not the true standard of righteousness that God demands of the Body of Christ, but they were a step up from the corrupt practices of the surrounding nations. They were imperfect, but they contained principles of true righteousness.
The surrounding nations were not faithful covenant keepers. They could easily divorce their wives. But this was not God’s original plan. He had created marriage to be a life-long covenant. But The Israelites had hard hearts and would never be able to live up to God’s righteous standard. If God commanded them not to divorce, they would have quickly become unfaithful to Torah and God would have been required to punish the nation. But since He desired the nation of Israel to remain until the right time for Christ to be revealed, He gave them a standard that they could live up to. In the command to write a certificate of divorce there was some restraint placed on divorce in Israel. This helped slow the process of corruption, but it could not root it out all together.
This principle can be seen throughout the Law of Moses. We could never condone a Christian taking a female prisoner of war and forcing her to marry them after killing her family, but this was allowed under the Law of Moses (Deut. 21:10-14). This was already a common practice, so God put some restrictions on it to make it at least slightly more humane. But it was a compromise of God’s righteousness with the hardness of human hearts. Israel was also commanded that when they swore, and God knew that they would, that they should do so only in the name of the Lord (Deut. 6:13). But we know that the complete honesty of God’s righteousness does not have any room for swearing oaths (Matt. 5:33-37).
An Incomplete Law
The last limitation we want to point out about the Law of Moses is that it is incomplete. It doesn’t cover every circumstance of life in all cultures at all times. One can extrapolate principles from the social aspects of the Law but different people disagree about how to do this. This is why people who try to live by the Law of Moses are always arguing about the right way to practice Sabbath, how to make their tassels or how long their beard has to be. These things must be obeyed to the letter or one will be in rebellion to the Law. This is not the case for those who follow the Law of the Spirit in Christ. The Spirit can and does guide followers of Christ into how to love God and people in any and every circumstance. This is why “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:14). And it is why “the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4).
Besides curbing sin, there is another reason for some aspects of the Law that is closely related to the first. God limited what Israelites could eat and which nations they could intermarry with in order to keep them quarantined from the idolatrous nations around them (Lev. 20:25-26, Deut. 7:1-4). I have lived among Muslims for decades. And I can tell you that the Muslim food laws, which are based on the Torah’s food restrictions, have done their job of keeping Muslims separate from non-Muslims. It is not just that they eat at different restaurants but they also shop at different markets and will not be found eating at a non-Muslim’s home.
Again, because of God’s plan to bring the Savior through Israel, and in light of the wayward hearts of men, God had to do everything he could to keep Israel as righteous as possible until the time the new creation in Christ had come. If they had fellowship with idolaters they would not only learn their ways, but they would also begin to develop covenants with them that would lead to intermarrying with them. This would not only cause them to become idolaters, but it would cause the nation to lose its distinct culture, the culture God had designed for them. And ultimately it would lead to their destruction under the wrath of God (Deut. 7:4).
Once Christ came and renewed our hearts we are no longer quarantined from the nations of the world, we are only to remain untainted by the spirits that guide them. We are to be in the world, but not of the world. We are not only allowed to eat with unbelievers, eating what is set before us without fear, but we are encouraged to reach out to them (1 Cor. 10). We are no longer so susceptible to corruption, but have been given power to be witnesses to the ends of the earth.
11 Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.
– 1 Corinthians 10:11 NKJV
16 So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.
– Colossians 2:16-17 NKJV
The culture God ordained for His chosen nation under the Old Covenant was a prophetic picture written down for the instruction of his New Covenant people (1 Corinthians 10:11). This is why Paul tells us that the food restrictions, required festivals, and the Sabbath days were a “shadow” of the reality that is found in Christ (Colossians 2:16-17). And it is also why the writer of Hebrews says that the whole temple system was a “copy and shadow” of the heavenly things of the New Covenant (Hebrews 8:5). This is why Paul could say, “Christ is our Passover lamb” and why Jesus could speak of his body as the “temple” of God (1 Corinthians 5:7, John 2:19-21). It is why John the Baptist could say, “Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world,” and why both Paul and Peter could call the Church God’s temple (Ephesians 2 and 1 Peter 2). In Matthew 11:28-30 Jesus declared himself the Sabbath rest of God’s people and in Mark 7 he explains that things from the heart, not food are what truly make men “unclean” in God’s eyes.
In the Old Testament types and shadows the eternally predestined people of God (i.e. the Body of Christ) is given instructions about how to govern itself and take the land Christ commands us to take. In Matthew 18 we are told how to deal with those that live in open sin in the Church. Christ doesn’t tell us to stone them, but he does tell us to let the witness of two or three people be sufficient to discipline our members. In 1st and 2nd Corinthians we see this principle put into practice. A man who slept with his father’s wife was kicked out of the church (1 Corinthians 5). This behavior in the Old Covenant carried the death penalty (Leviticus 20:11). This was because of the lack of redemptive power in the Old Law. But under the New Covenant there was hope for redemption, and in 2 Corinthians chapter 2 this is just what took place for the man who was cast out of the Church in 1st Corinthians. The “rebellious son” of the Church was taken to the “elders at the city gate,” but instead of being stoned to death, he was cast out of the Church so that he could be brought to repentance (Deut. 21:18-21, 1 Cor. 5:5).
Besides giving us principles about Church government, we also see the Gospel clarified for us in the history of the Old Covenant people. One day when my oldest child was 6 years old he asked me if it was painful when people died. I said that sometimes it was. He began to cry saying that he was afraid. I asked him if he remembered when David fought Goliath. He said he did. I then asked him if Israel was afraid of Goliath before David defeated him, and he said they were. “But were they afraid after David killed Goliath?” I asked. “No,” he replied. I went on to remind him that after Goliath was defeated the Israelites were so brave they chased their enemies and the enemies ran from them. From there I began to show him that Goliath represented death, and that our heavenly David, Jesus, had defeated him by rising from the dead. Now we no longer need to fear death, but could trust in the resurrection.
Above I mentioned the command in the Torah that allowed men to take female prisoners of war as their wives, but instructed them that if they divorced them they could not sell them as slaves because they had already humiliated them (Deut. 21:10-14). We must ask, what on earth can this teach the Christian?! Well we admittedly have to dig pretty deep, but what we find at the core of this command is that God wanted the Israelites to be more compassionate than the nations that surrounded them. Of course under the Law of Christ we are commanded to love our enemies and turn the other cheek, so we could never find ourselves in a place where we need to practice this command. Not only do we refuse to attack our enemies, but we also refuse to get divorced.
What we find hidden in the unrighteousness of the people of Moses’ day is the heart of God trying to lead people towards some semblance of compassion. And we find that by obeying the law of love commanded by Christ, and letting Christ be formed in us by walking according to the Spirit, we not only fulfill the righteous requirement of the Torah, but we surpass it. The social laws of the Old Testament will not always be up to the standard that we have been given in Christ, but the principles at the heart of them still teach us, though only in shadow form, about the righteous character that God requires of us.