Our problem with the law
A few days after we got back to Australia from England, my wife had an experience that made us realize that we were well and truly back home. She was driving along Redbank Road in North Richmond, and a car coming in the opposite direction flashed its headlights at her. In England, if somebody flashes their headlights at you, it means they’re being polite and courteous—they’re letting you in to a line of traffic. But in Australia, flashing your headlights means something very different. It means: traffic cops ahead!
Aussies and English people have a very different attitude to the law. The Brits take comfort in the law. They love the police. They want the law to be visible. They feel safe when they see lots of police, everywhere, on the beat, on the roads, upholding the law. But when we see the police out and about, it just makes us edgy (it must be our convict heritage)! Aussies have a problem with the law. We don’t like it, we try to avoid it, it makes us uncomfortable.
Now it’s one thing to have a problem with the laws of New South Wales. But as we approach our Bible passage, there’s another kind of problem with the law that confronts us. It’s possible, isn’t it, to have a problem with the law of God?
Shaun spoke to us last week about God’s Law. We learned that God’s law is good, because it truly expresses God’s character. We learned that we should listen to the law, because it is truly God’s word. But God’s law isn’t something that applies directly to Christians. God’s law was originally intended for a particular nation: the nation of Israel. So what does it have to do with Christians?
- In Matthew 5:17-18, Jesus says that he came to fulfil the law and the prophets.
- Romans 10:4 says that Christ is the end of the law.
- Romans 6:14 say that Christians are not under law (and see 1 Corinthians 9:20-21).
- Galatians 3:10, in fact, says that everyone who is defined by works of law is under a curse!
The upshot of this, as Shaun explained last week, is that we’re not under the law because the law was always intended to point to Christ. Christ died for our sins, to take the curse of the law on himself, to make us free from the law, to bring complete forgiveness. That means our job as Christians is not to keep Israel’s law. It is our job as Christians to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. But that’s not the same as keeping Israel’s law.
So that might leave you with some problems when it comes to God’s law. You might have a problem because you think that God’s law is a bad law. You want to avoid it, and warn people against it. Or you might think God’s law is just a bit ridiculous! Leviticus says don’t eat pork or prawns. What’s with that? Or you might think God’s law is plain confusing. Maybe you want to listen to it, maybe you want to take it seriously, but you don’t really know what to do with these various laws.
Questions to ask when listening to the law
Today we’re going to take a bit of time to look at parts of God’s law, from Exodus 20-23. And we’re going to practice listening to the law, without being under the law. We’re going to take a few examples from these chapters. For each example, we’re going to ask some questions–questions that help us make sense of the relationship between God, Israel, Jesus and us.
What did it say to Israel?
The first question we should ask when we read the law is this: What did the law actually say to Israel? Since the law was given to a particular nation, at a particular point in God’s plan for the salvation of the world, it’s important to just understand what the law was actually saying at that particular time, in that place, to those particular people.
What does it say about God and what he loves?
But of course, this law isn’t just some curious old set of rules for a random ancient country in the Middle East. This law is actually God’s word. Even though we are not bound by the law, the law reveals God to us. It tells us something about God, and it tells us something about what God loves and cares about. So we’re also going to ask: what does it say about God and about what God loves?
How does it point to Jesus?
In particular, the New Testament says that God always intended the law to point to his Son Jesus Christ. Christ fulfills the law; Christ was born under the law; Christ is the purpose of the law. So whenever we approach the law, we should always ask: “how does it point to Jesus?”
How can we love what God loves?
When we’ve asked all those questions, then we can turn to ask what the law has to say to us. It’s not really enough for us to ask whether we “should we keep this or that rule?” Rather, a much better question to ask at this point is this: How can we love what God loves? After all, Christians are God’s forgiven children. We are people who have been made sons of God through God’s perfect Son Jesus Christ. And God’s children love what God loves. That’s what children do, don’t they? They learn from us what we love, and they learn to feel and act the same way as us (well, that’s the ideal—it doesn’t always work like that!). But that’s how we should treat the law. Since the law truly tells us something about God and what God loves, we can learn through the law to love what God loves. So now, for the rest of our time, we’ll take some examples, and we’ll ask those questions.
Worship (Exod 20:22-26)
The first example is from the start of our passage, Exodus 20:22:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites this: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold. Make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. (Exod 20:22-24a)
What was God saying to Israel at this point? He was telling them how he wanted Israel to worship him. It’s like he’s giving a bit more detail to the first two commandments. And he said, here are the rules for worshipping me:
- You must only worship God, and nobody else.
- When you do worship God, you can’t representations him using statues or human creations. You can only worship God using a very simple altar made of earth. Nothing flashy; just a pure, simple and holy altar. And you should make sacrifices on it.
What does this say about God and what he loves? Well, it says two very profound things about God, doesn’t it? Firstly, it says that God is in heaven. And secondly, it says that God is a speaking God! He speaks from heaven. And so, do you notice, Israel’s worship is supposed to reflect the nature of God? God is in heaven, so can’t be represented on earth by statues. And God is a speaking God, So he can’t be represented by images. The right way to worship God isn’t to make a statue of him, but to listen to him, and to bring acceptable sacrifices to him on a simple, pure altar.
How does this point to Jesus? Well, actually, the whole idea of altars and sacrifices points very strongly to Jesus, doesn’t it? The book of Hebrews says that Jesus is our ultimate, once-for-all, final sacrifice and priest.
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” Then he adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin. (Hebrews 10:11-18)
All the sacrifices and altars in Israel were there to point to the one, final, never-to-be-repeated sacrifice of Jesus. That means, of course, that it would be utterly wrong for us to keep this law about altars and sacrifices! This is one of the things the reformation was reacting too. Even now in official Roman Catholic teaching (i.e. the Catechism), the bread and wine of the mass are understood as an offering in a sacrifice which a priest performs on an altar:
Then, sometimes in procession, the bread and wine are brought to the altar; they will be offered by the priest in the name of Christ in the Eucharistic sacrifice in which they will become his body and blood. It is the very action of Christ at the Last Supper – “taking the bread and a cup.” “The Church alone offers this pure oblation to the Creator, when she offers what comes forth from his creation with thanksgiving.” The presentation of the offerings at the altar takes up the gesture of Melchizedek and commits the Creator’s gifts into the hands of Christ who, in his sacrifice, brings to perfection all human attempts to offer sacrifices. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 220.127.116.11.4, paragraph 1350).
The Reformers understood that we must not have a physical altar to make sacrifices, because doing this actually denies the full, perfect, all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus. So you must not keep this law of God literally!
But still, we must listen to this law. It teaches us about God, and what he loves. It teaches us that God is in heaven, and that God speaks. How can we love what God loves? The New Testament tells us that our own true worship is to listen to God’s word and to obey it. When we hear of Jesus’ sacrifice, we must ourselves turn away from our idols–the things we serve instead of God–and offer our very selves as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1-2). This isn’t building a new altar, but giving up our lives for the sake of Jesus.
Protection of slaves (Exod 21:2-11)
Let’s now turn to the laws about slavery in chapter 21, verses 2-11. Rules about slavery do seem very strange to our modern ears, don’t they? That’s because when we think of slavery, we have a particular picture in our mind. We’re most likely thinking of those Africans, stolen from their homes and transported to the USA to work on cotton farms. We think of the chains, the terrible injustices, the abject humiliation of black people. But slavery in ancient Israel wasn’t really that kind of thing. I’m grateful to my friend Mike Russell for showing me that slavery in ancient Israel has a lot of parallels with our own prison system. In our own society, there are certain people who we decide must have their freedoms taken away: murderers, thieves, fraudsters; and to a lesser extent bankrupt people. There was no developed prison system in ancient Israel, but what they did have to deal with these people was the slavery system. There were a number of ways you could end up going into slavery. Burglers had to be sold into slavery to pay off what they’d stolen (Exod 22:3). In Leviticus 25:39, we read about people who sold themselves into slavery, which they had to do to pay off massive debts.
Of course, there was also a completely illegitimate and wrong way for people to go into slavery: being kidnapped. Exodus 21:16 says:
Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death. (Exod 21:16)
In fact, biblical laws like this are part of the reason we don’t have slavery at all any more! Fast-forward more that 3,000 years from the Law of Moses to 18th century England and America. At this time, the prison system had been developed to deal with debtors and criminals. They didn’t need slavery, but there was still slavery. Slavery in the 18th century had very little to do with the ancient legal slavery system for debtors and criminals. The only people who were slaves in the eighteenth century were the people whom the Bible says shouldn’t be slaves: i.e. people kidnapped and forced into slavery. And it was actually evangelicals like William Wilberforce (the same one who had the town close by here named after him) who made the slave trade illegal in England through lobbying and acts of parliament. And they did it because they listened to the Bible’s teaching at this point.
A while back I was looking through my father-in-law’s small collection of very old newspapers and found a little piece in the London Gazette (Monday August 26, 1768, Number 118; Twopence-Farthing):
ABHORENT PRACTICE OF SLAVE TRADING: The hunting of Human Beings for the purpose of making slaves of them is a practice to be much abhored. It is therefore of great comfort to Englishmen of Christian Ideals to note that the group of Evangelicals continues to be active in condemning the trading of slaves. It would be approximate to say that some 50,000 Negro slaves are transported a year from the Continent of Africa to the American colonies, in conditions of the most appalling suffering. We are sure all thinking men will deem the work of the Evangelicals to be of ultimate necessity and will encourage them to continue in it.
Good for Wilberforce and the evangelicals! Because they listened to the law, they wiped out slavery! Of course, we should never forget that the slave trade is still going strong in many countries. Especially in South-East Asia, it’s a gigantic problem. And it is right to oppose it. But at least now it’s against the law. And that means we live in a world where many of the laws in Exodus 21 aren’t so relevant any more!
Now of course, that doesn’t mean these laws about slavery are irrelevant to us. We can still learn a lot from them. What do they say about God and what he loves? Well in fact, they are very compassionate laws. For example, they say that slavery has a time limit. It says that slave women must be respected and given rights to prevent them being disadvantaged. This tells us a lot about God’s view of people; we’ll come back to that in a moment.
The picture of slavery we get from the Bible also helps us to understand what Jesus has done, doesn’t it? One of the great pictures the Bible gives us of what it means to be a Christian is that we are rescued slaves. Jesus, by his death on the cross, paid the price for us, brought us back, gave us freedom. That’s what the word “redeemed” means!
So what does it mean to love what God loves? It means that we recognize that we are rescued slaves. And it means that we remember that all people have basic rights and dignity, no matter what their economic circumstances or how they got there.
Murder and other capital offences (Exod 21:12-25)
Now let’s look at some of the laws about murder. These laws appear in the middle part of chapter 21, and we’re going to concentrate in particular on a law in verses 22-25:
If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Exod 21:22-25)
This is a law about aggravated premature birth or miscarriage. What does this law say to Israel? This is an example of what we call “case law”. It starts with a particular case—a specific scenario about a brawl in which a pregnant woman gets injured–and then it ends in general principle: Eye for eye, tooth for tooth. In other words, the punishment must fit the crime. Retribution is proportional.
What does the law about murder say about God and what he loves? Well the whole of chapter 21 shows how much God cares about every individual human life. There are laws covering justice for the death or injury of slaves, women and children in the womb. This tells us that life is precious to God.
How does it point to Jesus? Well, we could say a number of things here, but one thing to say is that the more we understand how precious human life is to God, the more we see how precious Jesus’ own death was. If God cares about the death of the least in Israel, how much more was it a sacrifice for him to give his one and only son?
How does this law apply to us? On the one hand, this law is no excuse for personal revenge. In Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus’ picks up this very phrase: “eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” and Jesus shows that you can’t use it as an excuse to take revenge on somebody who hurts you. Loving our neighbor is more radical than that, and involves giving up our rights for others.
But we can learn from this law to love what God loves. This law teaches us that we need to keep affirming that all human life is precious to God, don’t we? According to the law, slaves are just as precious as freedmen, women are just as precious as men, and, in this example that we just read, do you see how unborn babies are just as precious as fully grown adults! Our own society has forgotten this, hasn’t it? How often do you hear people talk about an unwanted pregnancy, as if that changes what we do with the baby? Human life is precious to our world only if it’s wanted, or if it’s big enough to fend for itself. A tiny collection of unwanted cells doesn’t matter to our world. Why? Because it’s small, and because nobody wants it, so we can get rid of it. But God does not believe that life is expendable just because it is small or because nobody wants it. God loves the unloved; he wants the unwanted, and he cares. And this is something we should care about too, isn’t it?
Seduction (Exod 22:16-17)
Now let’s look across to chapter 22, verses 16-17. There is a law here about seduction:
If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins. (Exod 22:16-17)
What’s this law all about? At first glance, it does seem a bit strange to our modern ears, doesn’t it? In fact, frankly it sounds a bit mercenary! What’s all this about a “bride price”? It seems to be saying that girls are like assets, sold by a man to another man for a price! Well again, we need to go beyond superficial caricatures and look at what’s really going on here. This is a law which is designed to make men face up to their real economic responsibilities towards women. Women are not just things that men can use for their sexual gratification. Women must be respected, and they must be cared for properly. And that’s true even in a case that involves what you might call “consent.” Do you notice it’s the man who has to pay here? What a contrast this law is with the attitudes to women in some other parts of world, in many places which operate under Islamic principles today, for example, the woman is often the one who is blamed for too seductive. But here, in God’s law, it is entirely the man’s responsibility. The Hebrew word for “seduce” actually means to “take advantage of somebody who is foolish.” But even if the woman is foolish, it’s the man who has to pay. He’s got to marry her, because he may have ruined the girl’s chances of getting married to someone else. He’s got to pay the price.
What does this law say about God and what he loves? It says that God believes sex is precious, and that sex belongs in a recognized, stable relationship called marriage. Sex is never a casual thing, and it’s always to be seen in the context of wider human good and society. That means marriage and, yes, actual financial provision! Our own world constantly bombards us with the lie that sex is just a private thing with no real consequences. But sex always has consequences, and sex outside marriage often has devastating consequences, and those devastating consequences often land on women (not always, of course, but often). So this law is about men facing up to their responsibilities when it comes to sex and marriage. And that principle also applies for adultery, or any kind of sex outside of marriage. Jesus basically said the same thing: adultery and divorce, it’s not just a naughty peccadillo you can laugh about. Sex outside marriage ruins people, and it ruins lives.
How can we love what God loves? Well men, if you claim to love God—man up! If you’re a man, don’t be a boy, be a man. Realize that you cannot be involved in sex outside of marriage without creating consequences, often devastating consequences, not just for you, but especially for your wife, or your future wife, not to mention whoever you’re involved with or want to be involved with who isn’t your wife. Sex outside marriage ruins lives, not just privately, but economically and socially. It devastates people, and so often it is women who come out worse. You cannot claim you love what God loves and engage in any kind of sex outside of marriage. And if you do, you pay the consequences.
Foreigners (Exod 22:21 + Exod 23:9)
Let’s look now at some of the laws about foreigners:
Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt. (Exod 22:21)
Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt. (Exod 23:9)
This stuff about foreigners is so important God mentioned it twice! What did this law say to Israel? Israel was a place where there were various foreigners living, like today: traders, travellers, migrants, refugees. Foreigners are particularly vulnerable to oppression, because they don’t have the same economic benefits as long-term residents. So, there is a law here protecting foreigners from oppression. What reason does God give Israel for this law? It’s an important one:
For you were aliens in Egypt:
Remember, Israelites, that you are no better than foreigners. Remember Israelites, that you are here in this land by grace, you are rescued and redeemed.
What does this say about God and what he loves? God loves the vulnerable people, the helpless people, the foreigners.
How does it point to Jesus? Ephesians says that one of the great effects of Jesus’ death is to bring foreigners like us near to Israel. Jesus has died for those who were far off.
And how can we love what God loves? Just think about our own modern Australian asylum seeker issue for a moment. There are incredibly complex issues here, aren’t there? There are problems of people smuggling and not wanting to add incentives and everything else. In one sense, it’s not straightforward. But let me ask you, what’s your first gut reaction when you think about asylum seekers coming into our country? Is your gut reaction the same as God’s? Is your gut reaction, your first instinct, generosity and compassion? That’s got to be our first reaction, regardless of what our second reaction, or third reaction is. Whatever our policy, whatever we decide has to be done, however we vote or lobby or whatever, Christians must do it from a spirit of generosity and compassion. And there is absolutely no room here for Christians to think we are somehow better or more deserving than these asylum seekers. We’ve got so many blessings in Australia, but it’s not because we deserve these blessings. We are not good people, we deserve nothing ourselves. Many of these people who risk their lives to come here have suffered deeply and traumatically already. We need to at least feel God’s compassion for them, don’t we?
Widows and orphans (Exod 22:22-24)
Exodus 22:22 has a law about very vulnerable people: orphans and widows:
Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless. (Exodus 22:22-24)
Do you notice the extreme, emotional, even violent reaction of God against oppressors of these most vulnerable people in our society? God hates it when small people are taken advantage of.
If we love what God loves, we will do the same. In fact, this is an example of a law that translates quite directly into the New Testament:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)
Widows and orphans were the most vulnerable people in Israelite society, and it’s not that different today. Just recently, a widow I know needed to get her sofa fixed. She’s elderly, and relatively frail. She called a tradesman; he came to her house, turned the sofa upside down. He looked at it, said she’d have to give him $250 to fix it, and then walked out without even turning it back over for her! The story has a happy ending: a member of this church actually went to help her and to fix it for nothing for her. There’s true religion for you!
So Let me ask you: how do you look out for the interests of vulnerable people? What about when you are about to do a transaction with them? It’s easy to take advantage of elderly people, isn’t it? And it’s going to become more of a problem as our population ages. Think twice as you’re buying or selling property, for example. If a cheap property comes up for sale, do you think you should check it’s not at the expense of a widow? It is worth asking, isn’t it?
Israel’s special role (22:29-31, 23:14-19)
Finally, let’s look at the closing verses in our passage today. How about that final half verse, chapter 23, verse 19b:
Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk. (Exod 23:19)
It sounds a little bizarre, doesn’t it? But this is why we need to understand what Israel’s role was when it came to God’s purposes. This an example of a special law for Israel. There were certain laws, especially law about food, that made Israel a special, distinctive people. These laws set them apart from everybody else, because Israel was a special people, with a special job to do. These laws were like Israel’s uniform. These distinctive laws were like Israel’s badges to show they were “priests” in the world, as it says in Exodus 19:6. They were people with a job to do for God. Israel’s job was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus. Their entire existence as a nation gave birth to God’s Son Jesus Christ. And Jesus, in his death for our sins, was the savior of all the world.
We are a new holy people, of course. But our holiness isn’t found in not eating or cooking certain foods. Instead, our “holiness” or “sanctification” is found in moral purity and love:
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honour, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. (1 Thess 4:3-8)
Being sexually pure really does seem bizarre and strange to our world, doesn’t it? But we shouldn’t be surprised. Like the weird laws about how to cook a goat, but even more profoundly, our sexual purity is our badge, our uniform; it is our “holiness” to show we are God’s holy people.
Conclusion: a good law
How, then, are we supposed to listen to the law? We often have a problem with the law, don’t we? We can easily that God’s law is pretty bad, and that we’re pretty good. But we need to recognize with the apostle Paul that the opposite is true. God’s law is good, but we’re sinners. We’re fleshly, sold as slaves to sin (Romans 7:14). And one key thing the law does for us, is that it convicts us. When we read the law, we are convicted. We see how bad we are. We realize we don’t really love what God loves, we see that we can’t be right with God by being good, and we need to turn to Jesus. We need to confess our sin and beg for forgiveness, don’t we? If you haven’t done that, there’s no point even attempting to think about doing or loving what God loves. You need Jesus first.
But if you do know Jesus, realize that you aren’t a slave to sin. You’re free, and you’re a child of God. And the law is still God’s word, it is our Father’s good word. It tells us about God, and what he loves, and so we should listen to the law. But we don’t listen to it as our master. We do listen to it as God’s word to Israel, fulfilled in Christ. And so we learn what God loves, and we learn more and more to love what God loves.