Holy Things: Living By The Law
We’re continuing our series called Holy Things and began last week to talk about living a holy life, starting with how to live by the Spirit. In our passage, the Apostle Paul was explicit that the way to live by the Spirit is not just to follow the laws or rules and regulations, because the law is intended to show us our sinfulness not to produce in us the fruits of the Spirit.
But, is there no purpose for the law?
Most Christians would agree that the law is still important even though we have freedom from the law as the church. But, exactly how the law is important is debatable.
I’ll show you with a little game. I’m going to need everyone’s help for this. I’m going to put a law up on the screen and you are going to raise your hand if you think we are supposed to follow that law today as the church. Keep an eye on people around you to see who agrees with you. We’ll start with some easy ones.
1. Don’t murder people. (Ex 20:13)
2. Don’t steel. (Ex 20:15)
3. If anyone cheats his friend out of money or property, he must pay him back plus a fifth as interest. (Lev 6:2–5)
4. If your teenage son is disobedient, then you and your friends are to throw rocks at him until he dies. (Deu 21:20–21)
5. Don’t eat sharks or shell-fish. (Lev 11:12)
6. Do not wear clothing made of two different kinds of material. (Lev 19:19)
7. It shall be a law forever that you don’t eat fat or blood. (Lev 3:17)
8. If a man and woman have sex without being married, the man has to settle accounts with the woman’s father and then marry her.(Ex 22:16)
9. Do not cut yourself or get a tattoo to honor dead people. (Lev 19:28)
10. Women cannot wear men’s clothes and men cannot wear women’s clothes. (Deu 22:5)
11. We must wear blue tassels on our clothes to remind us to do what pleases God and not what pleases ourselves. (Num 15:37–39)
12. If a lizard falls into your water pitcher, you cannot drink it and you must break the pitcher. (Lev 11:29–33)
Most Christians realize that we are not required to follow all the laws of the OT as the church, but if the laws are part of the scriptures then what are we to do we do with them?
It’s not so simple as saying we don’t have to follow the law or saying that in Christ we are free from the law. The reality is, it’s more complicated than that. It’s common to hear someone say that the law was for Israel, but the church lives by the Spirit—that is to disregard the law. But I believe the law is still important for 2 reasons.
• 1) The Spirit of God inspired the Law. It’s God’s law, so I don’t want to dismiss it lightly.
• 2) The church and Israel are not as distinct as you think they are, so it’s not precisely right to say that the law isn’t for the church. So, let’s start there by looking at…
The Church and Israel
…because understanding this relationship is the breaking point for how to deal with the laws of the Old Testament.
It’s easy to think about Israel and the church as if God chose to work through two different groups of people. Maybe God chose Israel in the Old Testament, but Israel failed to be loyal to God, so God called the church in the New Testament in hopes that the church might remain faithful. It’s almost as if God started over with the church.
You can see the thinking. But the Apostle Paul anticipated this question when he wrote to the church in Rome. He wrote,
- Romans 9:6 (CSB) — Now it is not as though the word of God has failed, because not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.
God’s word doesn’t fail. When God made promises for Israel, He did not speak falsely.
He didn’t call them to be his people and then reject them when they turned their backs on Him.
What Paul does in this passage is clarify exactly who is allowed to call themselves and Israelite. You see, ‘not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.’ Not everyone who was born into the nation of Israel by blood is true Israel.
If you read the Old Testament, you see this quite often that God preserves a remnant—or a small part—of people within Israel who remain faithful to Him when the rest of the nation falls away. For example, the prophet Jeremiah said,
- Jeremiah 23:3–4 (CSB) — “I will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands where I have banished them, and I will return them to their grazing land. They will become fruitful and numerous. I will raise up shepherds [pastors] over them who will tend them. They will no longer be afraid or discouraged, nor will any be missing.” This is the Lord’s declaration.
Even in Jeremiah’s time, when Israel was scattered among the nations and Jerusalem was desolate, God said He would gather those who are still faithful and rebuild the nation.
And you can’t miss this, that God said he would place shepherds—same word as pastors—over the people to tend to them so that they will not be afraid or discouraged, but will be courageous and empowered. That sounds an awful lot like the church to me, and it should, because, notice what Jesus said about Israel. Jesus said,
- John 15:1–2 (CSB) — “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. Every branch in me that does not produce fruit he removes, and he prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit.
Jesus painted this picture of a vine, probably a grape vine, with many branches. Jesus said that he is the vine, itself, or you might say the trunk of the vine.
Now, notice what happens with this vine. God the Father prunes it. He cuts off the bad wood that doesn’t produce fruit. The key to this verse is the word, you. Now, [ ⇨ ] you are not the you that Jesus was talking to. He was speaking to the nation of Israel. This was a warning that not everyone who was a Jew was part of God’s people. Being ethnically Jewish didn’t get you into God’s good favor. A Jew in Jesus’s day had to produce fruit or otherwise, be cut off and thrown into the fire.
- John 15:5 (CSB) — I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me.
Jesus is emphatic that you can do nothing apart from Him. There is no one who can walk away from the Lord Jesus and stand before the Father in judgment and claim that He has accomplished anything of eternal value.
No one, not even an Israelite by blood. It doesn’t cut it; you have to abide with the Lord or you will not see God.
Now, in his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul continued this illustration—although he changed it to an olive tree—and gave us some more details. He did so, because Paul wasn’t just talking to Israel. He was also talking to Gentiles, which is just a term that refers people who are not Jewish. So, the Apostle Paul asked the question,
- Romans 11:1 (CSB) — Has God rejected his people? Absolutely not! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin.
Realize Paul’s point here. He is talking on the other side, now, to Gentiles. And they want to know, well, if Israel was disobedient, then were they ALL cut off. They wanted to know, Did God start over with the a new people?
And Paul says, emphatically, “No!” His reasoning that God has not abandoned Israel is that Paul himself is an Israelite. He comes from Abraham. He knows his tribal descent is from Benjamin. And God hasn’t cut him off, so no, God has not rejected His people, not entirely.
- Romans 11:17, 20 (CSB) — Some of the branches were broken off, and you, though a wild olive branch, were grafted in among them and have come to share in the rich root of the cultivated olive tree…They were broken off because of unbelief, but you stand by faith.
In other words, many who were of Israel were broken off and cast away because of their unbelief, but the Gentiles who come to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ are grafted into the tree.
There is ONE tree. And there is ONE people of God. That’s why the Apostle Paul said to the Galatian church,
- Galatians 3:26–28 (CSB) — Through faith you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus…There is no Jew or Greek…since you are all one in Christ Jesus.
I don’t think this teaching can get any clearer or more obvious than that.
There are some people who will criticize this teaching and call it “replacement theology,” believing that I am teaching that the church replaces Israel. But, it’s not replacement at all. It is, actually, that the church is included in Israel. Call it “inclusion theology” if you like, but it’s not replacement. What Paul is saying is that no longer are only Jews part of the assembly of God, but everyone who follows Jesus—Jew or Gentile—is part of God’s people.
We’re talking about the law, though, and this is important because—wait for it —the law was given to Israel and you are Israel if you follow Jesus Christ. So then, if the law was for Israel, is it not significant to us today?
Yes it is! — Stick with me, because Jesus changed the way we follow the Old Testament law.
Jesus said that…
The Law [was] Fulfilled
…in Him. It wasn’t negated. It was not discarded. It was fulfilled.
- Matthew 5:17–18 (CSB) — Don’t think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all things are accomplished.
Jesus said that the law is not abolished, but fulfilled in Him. And in case that’s confusing, he makes it very clear that the law still has a very significant purpose for the people of God, at least until the end comes when the universe—heaven and earth—pass away.
And remembering that we are branches of Israel, that means that Israel’s law has a place for us.
But, remember, everyone knows that we don’t have to follow all the laws, right?
So, what are they for?
Well, that is all tied up in one little word: fulfill. What does it meant that Jesus fulfilled the law?
First, let’s think about the meaning of fulfill. Fulfill means to make complete or to satisfy and both of those definitions will be helpful when looking at the laws given to Israel.
People have broken the laws up into three categories and these categories aren’t perfect because they aren’t given to us in the scriptures, but they are helpful as they allow us to think about the laws categorically.
First, there are judicial laws. These are laws that had to do with maintaining social order. They are judgments and primarily have to do with the application of God’s wisdom for specific situations.
How did Jesus fulfill the judicial laws?
Well, in Jesus we have access to the wisdom and council of God through the Holy Spirit. Now, not always as individuals, but as the church we can rely on those gifted with wisdom and discernment to guide us in God’s wisdom just like Israel relied on the wisdom God gave to Moses.
Second, there are ceremonial laws or sacrificial laws. And there is basically a whole book of the Bible dedicated primarily to this subject. The book of Hebrews goes into great detail on how Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament when He died on the cross. So now, when we read the laws regarding sin and sacrifice, we look to Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice and fulfillment of the sacrificial demands. We don’t keep the sacrificial laws because Jesus is Israel’s perfect sacrifice, but we still read the laws because they point us to Jesus.
And third, there are moral laws, and this is where most of the work needs to be done.
Jesus fulfilled the moral law by showing us God’s heart behind His law. In other words, there is a lot more to ‘Do not murder’ than just not killing people. In Matthew 5, Jesus goes on to give a number of analogies of what it means that he fulfilled the moral law. You can read it, but I’ll summarize three for you.
• First, Jesus said that to lust is to make you guilty before God of adultery.
• Second, Jesus said that to anger in your heart is to make you guilty before God of murder.
• And third, Jesus said not to swear an oath because your word should be honest and true whether you swear or not.
Now, I want to clarify that these are the standards of God. The motive of lust is the same motive as adultery, so God hates it. But, that does not mean that lust and adultery should be the same for us. Similarly, the motive of angry outbursts and murder are the same, so God hates it. But, that doesn’t mean we should prosecute people who get angry as murderers. And God expects your words to be honest and true, all the time, so maybe there is no point in swearing an oath to God, but there are multiple times in the Old Testament where Jews were commanded to swear an oath or take a vow by God Himself, because of what it meant towards men. So making promises and taking vows are still meaningful, even though God expects integrity whether we swear a vow or not.
Jesus’s point here is that the moral laws of the Old Testament reflect God’s heart. And as you read the moral laws, you should be searching for the heart of God behind the law so that you can be convicted of your lust or anger or whatever covetousness lies in your heart. You do this, not so that you can make a new list of laws, but so that you can run to the God who even fixes hearts and plead for repentance and freedom from sin. Jesus demonstrated the impossible standards of God in the law so that we would run to Him.
In Christ the law is fulfilled not so we can discard it, but so that it will direct us to God.
But, wait! There’s more! God then takes the law and He places…
The Law in Us
You may be confused, somewhat, about the impossible standard of the law. You may not understand how to read the law and understand it or get from it what you need to in order to understand how Jesus fulfilled it. You read, “Do not boil a goat in it’s mother’s milk,” for instance, and you have no idea what you are supposed to do or not do because of it. And I think that’s fine—you’re very normal. Look what the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the nation of Israel.
- Jeremiah 31:31–33 (ESV) — Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
We live under the New Covenant that God made with His people, Israel. And that means that the law is no longer just an issue of a written text—although, the written law is still very good for learning the heart of God, the wisdom of God, and the purposes of God. Under the New Covenant, God has placed his very law within you and written it on your heart.
What I take that to mean is that, the heart of God that underlies the laws written in the Bible, becomes accessible to you. It means that you have access to the wisdom of God, the morality of God, and the purposes of God within yourself.
But, I want to be careful here, because that doesn’t mean that anything you feel is right, is right. Neither does it mean that everything you think is right, is right, because our feelings and our thoughts can still deceive us.
James, the brother of Jesus, tells us that there is a war going on inside your body. As a Christian you have competing passions. On one hand, the heart of God within you is calling you to righteous living, and wisdom, and purpose. And then the flesh and the influences of the world are calling you to turn away from God’s righteousness, wisdom, and purpose.
And God is a jealous God. He won’t share devotion with your sinful flesh. So, James wrote,
- James 4:5 (CSB) — Do you think it’s without reason that the Scripture says: The spirit he made to dwell in us envies intensely?
God’s Spirit that dwells within you intensely envies your devotion to the sins of the flesh. So, you are called as a Christian to be devoted to God and resist the flesh.
So, the question is, How do I know what to do? How do I know how to live by the law that God placed inside of me if I’m influenced by both the law and my flesh? I feel torn between two worlds!
I have a couple thoughts.
The first is, I think most of the time you know what is right, but you just aren’t thinking about it. If you are a Christian and the law of God is written on your heart, then most of the time, you would know what is right to do if you were intentional about thinking about what to do. Pick your favorite deadly sin.
• Consider gluttony. If you take the time to ask, “Should I eat a third piece of cake?” you have probably just answered your question. But, if you don’t ask, you’ll eat the cake every time. You know what to do, you just don’t always think about it.
• Consider lust. Did you click the questionable link on the website out of habit? What might have happened if you asked yourself if God approves? I bet you know the answer.
• Consider sloth. Did you call out sick from work or stay home from church because you couldn’t go, or just because you didn’t feel like going?
• How bout, wrath. When was the last time you yelled at someone and thought, “I’m glad I did that!”? In most of these things you just need to think about it and the law on your heart will be revealed.
• Envy—you know, it’s one thing to want something. But, when you want something someone else has and it’s effecting your relationship with them, you probably know that’s envy. But, are you thinking about it? Or are you just letting envy wreck your relationships?
• Lastly, greed might be more tricky, but Did you buy something because you needed it or because you wanted it in the moment? Or, did someone go hungry so that you could have a new car, tv, widget, whatever? Did you give God’s money to go on vacation? Ask questions like that.
Certainly, you won’t be able to discern all of the time what thoughts and feelings come from the law written on your heart and what thoughts and feelings come from the flesh. Most of the time it’s obvious if you think about it, but other times it might take some training in wisdom. And that’s where I actually think the written laws of the Old Testament can prove helpful.
So, for the rest of our time, I just want to peruse the section of the law we call the…
The 10 Commandments
…and try to show you the ways that the written law can provide wisdom to live by.
Remember, it’s not that we live by the written law, but by the heart of God that is behind the law. It takes time to learn to discern that. It’s why we have teachers in the church. But, as you grow as a Christian, you should learn to do this to a degree for yourself.
- Exodus 20:1–6 (CSB) — Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery. Do not have other gods besides me. Do not make an idol for yourself, whether in the shape of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow in worship to them, and do not serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the fathers’ iniquity, to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing faithful love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commands.
This passage is obviously about worshiping only God. But, let me make a few observations.
• First, God’s reason that He alone should be worshipped is that he is the savior of Israel—He brought Israel out of Egypt.
• Second, God punishes those who don’t worship Him and he rewards those who obey Him as Lord.
• And Third—this is not clear in the English—but, in the Hebrew it’s clear that God refers to Himself by name. The literal translation from Hebrew is, “I am Yahweh your God.” He says, “I Yahweh your God, am a jealous God.” In contemporary Western society we are used to thinking about gods as if there is only one God and all other gods are inventions of the human psyche. But, the ancient Israelite was not a monotheist in the same way that most people are today, because they believed in many gods. They only worshipped one.
With that said then, What’s the command?
He says not to make an idol in the shape of anything earthly or otherworldly and bow down to worship it. Do we do that? Some of us, maybe.
Consider a dollar bill. Is there an image on a dollar bill? Sure, there is. It’s George Washington. Now, some people would say we shouldn’t use money at all because it’s idolatry. I’ve heard that many times. But, notice, the issue is not whether it has an image or not. It’s whether or not you worship it. Do you worship the almighty dollar? Or do you worship the almighty God, Yahweh? That’s the question of this text. What do you give allegiance to?
Another issue of the text is the question of many gods. It’s becoming increasingly popular for people in our society to believe that all gods of all religions are all basically the same god as perceived by different groups of people at different times. It’s not that there are many gods, just many incomplete pictures of the same god.
But, that’s not what God says about Himself in this text. He fully acknowledged the presence of other gods and then claimed Himself as the only one worthy of worship. Why? Again, because Yahweh is the only God who saves.
And if you’re hung up there, because you thought Jesus was the God who saves, that’s good, because Jesus is the only God who saves as well. What got Jesus in trouble with the Jews in the first place was that He claimed to be Yahweh, Lord God, but they didn’t believe Him. — That’s a story for another day though.
So, the next time a friend tells you that they are very spiritual or that they have their own religious beliefs, and you don’t know what to say, there’s wisdom here. Share with them that God says there is only one God worthy of worship and that if that god is not Jesus Christ, then they await the punishment of God not the favor of God.
So, that’s what is called idolatry.
The Lord continues,
- Exodus 20:7 (CSB) — Do not misuse the name of the Lord your God, because the Lord will not leave anyone unpunished who misuses his name. Again, do not misuse the name of Yahweh your God.
My last name is Delgado and all through my childhood and also through years of being a youth pastor, I’ve had to listen to people mock my name by calling me Del Taco. And if you’ve ever had a Del Taco taco and then had an asada street taco with cilantro, and onions, and guacamole, you know why that’s offensive.
You don’t misuse names in order to show honor to the person with the name. You do it to tear people down, even if it’s all in good fun. And that’s why God says not to misuse the name of Yahweh, and naturally, we need to add to that Jesus, as well. We don’t speak well of Jesus when we use His name in contexts it doesn’t belong. I mean, what are you saying when you shout out Jesus Christ after stubbing your toe. If you have to shout a name, shout ‘damn the devil’ — no don’t do that. But, don’t shout Jesus Christ, because consciously or subconsciously, you are communicating to others around you that you don’t honor or respect Christ himself when you misuse His name.
Use the name of God properly. You know, say Oh my God and mean it if you’re watching a tornado descend from the sky, ready to destroy a town. But, don’t say Oh my God if someone ate the last slice of pie.
So, let your speech honor God—that’s the principle of this written law. But, notice the heart of God that underlies this. God is worthy of all honor and praise and glory forever.
Looking back at Matthew 5 where Jesus talked about adultery and murder, Jesus just as well could have said that to misuse the name of Jesus is to commit idolatry in your heart. To misuse the name of Jesus is to betray Christ in your heart. Like, saying Jesus Christ without reverence shares a heart motive with worshiping the god Baal in the temple of Baal or sacrificing a child to the god Molech. To men, this is no big deal. It’s whatever. But, to God, it’s just that serious.
So, are you seeing the way that the heart of God undergirds the written law?
We don’t have time for all the commandments, but one more, quickly.
- Exodus 20:8-11 (CSB) — Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy: You are to labor six days and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. You must not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female servant, your livestock, or the resident alien who is within your city gates. For the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy.
So, the principle, God told the Israelites to rest on Saturday—the 7th day—and not do any work and not to let anyone else in their midst do so either.
The reason God gives is that he rested from creation on the 7th day and therefore he has blessed it and declared it to be holy.
God commanded the Israelites to rest in order to be a living example of how God rested after creating the world. They were to go about the work that the Lord had given them for six days and then take the seventh day as a rest to reflect God’s rest after creation.
Many people take that to mean that we need to take a whole day of rest, on Sunday because God said so. Other’s say, no, the rest needs to happen on Saturday, because that’s the actual day commanded. But, what are we to do with it if we are not bound to the letter of the law, but the heart of the law?
We get a lot of help from church history on this front. What’s interesting is the first generation of the church in Jerusalem, who were all Jews and grew up keeping the Sabbath on Saturday. They had a problem, because they held worship in the temple courts—at the Jewish temple—because they knew that being a Christian didn’t make them any less Israel. But, the Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus were at the temple worshiping on Saturday so the Christians couldn’t. — Histories first church building conflict.
So, they said, “that’s fine” and began to worship on Sunday, the day that Jesus came back from the dead. They immediately understood that the principle of the Sabbath had nothing to do with the day. The heart of God was that the Israelites would remember that Yahweh is the God who created the universe and thus no other god deserves the honor and glory that Yahweh does, and no other God has the power that Yahweh has. It’s not about the day. It’s not even about rest. It’s about living as though Jesus is God.
And I think there are parallels to this. My friends who are not Christians know very well that I am not available on Sunday mornings, and not just because I preach, but because church worship is so important to me that I have to be completely incapacitated to miss it. My commitment to church is a testimony to my circles of influence that there is none other than Jesus who is worthy of praise and glory and honor.
So, that’s what the Sabbath is, for us as Christians.
The law is a guide for us, not because we are called to rigidly follow all of the regulations, but the law is a guide for us as Christians because God’s heart is revealed through the law.
• So, we read of the sacrificial systems of the Old Testament and we remember the sacrifices of Christ.
• We read of the judicial systems of the Old Testament and we are reminded that social order is our responsibility, and so we feed the hungry, cloth the naked, fight for the oppressed, and free the captives.
• And we read the moral laws and we are reminded that God’s perfection is so great, his purity so fantastic, that there is no way that we could ever enter into His presence except by the blood of Jesus Christ.
So, then, daily we come and we fall at the feet of Jesus, thanking Him for His mercy and begging his power of repentance so that we might live according to the heart of the law which He has graciously given us as grace upon grace.
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