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Israel’s history began with Abraham (Rom. 4:1). God called him out of his pagan homeland in Mesopotamia and promised to make him a great nation, to bless him, and to make him a blessing to the other nations of the world. Israel as the chosen nation was to become the people through whom the Saviour would ultimately be born. But, to understand Israel’s place in God’s salvation history only in this sense is to minimise the significance it was to have on the world stage in preparing the world for the kind of salvation that would come from God.

From the time God gave his promises to Abraham, to the time Israel gathered around Mt Sinai to be constituted as the ‘People of God’, was approximately 430 years (Gal. 3:17). In what way were they to be different to the other nations, and what role were they to play in God’s plans for them, and the world?

To understand the significance of the law in Israel’s life, it is necessary to see the place the giving of the law takes in the chronology of Exodus.

  1. Israel, under Egyptian oppression, cries out to God for help.
  2. God chooses Moses through whom he is going to deliver Israel.
  3. Pharaoh resists God’s order to let Israel go that they might worship him.
  4. The plagues and the Passover loosen Pharaoh’s grip over Israel.
  5. Israel’s deliverance is accomplished.
  6. At Mt Sinai Israel is confronted by God, their Redeemer.

At Mt. Sinai, Israel is constituted as God’s people. They are given their ‘job description’ (Ex. 19:6), and the law, to tell them how to live as his distinctive people.

A relationship of grace

God introduced himself to Israel throughout the Book of Exodus as Yahweh… who brought them out of Egypt. The name Yahweh became associated with their salvation. They were on their way. Egypt, and their slavery and oppression were behind them. The Egyptian army that tried to follow them and bring them back, were at the bottom of the Red Sea. They were free at last! God had saved them. God was about to start shaping them into a people who were distinctively his. They had become God’s people through the act of redemption, before the formal giving of the law. Redemption, or salvation, is the distinctive activity of God.

It was by grace that God saved them. It was his grace that now gave them a law that showed them the only worthwhile path through life. It was grace that protected them, led them, and fed them in the wilderness. And, it was God’s grace that finally led them to their new inheritance in the Promised Land. God’s saving and providential grace worked together to deliver Israel from bondage and put them on the road towards that inheritance.

Israel’s deliverance, however, was never an end in itself. God had delivered them in order to bring them into a relationship with himself. His message to Pharaoh was:

Let my people go, so that they might worship me. (Exodus 7:16; 8:20; 9:1, 13; 10:3).

Israel already belonged to God by virtue of 1) creation (in Adam), and 2) promise (in Abraham). Now, they were to be his even more so, by virtue of 3) redemption. God’s concern was to bring the focus of their trust back to himself.

And when the Israelites saw the great power the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant. (Exodus 14:31).

When Israel came to Mt Sinai, God reminded them of the relationship into which he had brought them.

You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. (Exodus 19:4).

This was followed by,

Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God. (Exodus 19:17).

The relationship Israel was to enjoy with God was based on God’s grace from their beginnings as a nation. Creation was an act of grace. God’s call and promises to Abraham were expressions of grace. Now Israel’s redemption was also an act of grace. The Hebrew word for ‘redeem’ seems to contain the idea of recovering what had once belonged to an original owner, but, which for some reason or other had become cut off. It suggests the return of things to what had been their original position. Having brought Israel back to himself, God tells them how to live as a response to his grace.

Israel had seen God at work in rescuing them from bondage in Egypt. The display of his mighty power was not only to loosen Pharaoh’s grip over Israel, but to persuade Israel that their God was worthy of their trust and obedience. For Israel, the repeated miracles were faith-generating. (Ex. 10:2b; 14:31). Now they were called to respond to God with full faith and trust in the divine goodness that knew what was best for them.

The commandments were prefaced by the statement, I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. (Ex. 20:2). This introduction identified the authority and right of God to make known his will, because he had already acted graciously and with power on their behalf. He was the One who not only had their well-being at heart, but also had the power to protect them, and to provide for them.

People who claim that Israel’s salvation in the OT depended on their obedience to the Law, have not read the Scriptures carefully enough. Salvation for the Israelites was never by ‘works’. The whole story of the OT showed that it was impossible. The whole OT shows that the initiative has always been God’s. That’s what we see in Israel’s rescue. Israel could not have contributed a single thing to their rescue. But, having witnessed God’s saving work, what was to be their response?

Understanding Law

Faith as obedience to grace

Israel’s response to God was seen primarily in terms of personal commitment to God, and trust in him.

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. (Exodus 19:5).

The emphasis in this statement had to do with obedience to the One who was about to tell them how to live as his people.

Throughout the early stages of their journey towards Mt Sinai, Israel had been told to obey those laws that had already been revealed to them. (Ex. 15:25b–26; 16:28; 18:16, 20). Their knowledge of God’s laws was not a new thing. The law about Sabbath keeping went back to Creation. Moses reminded them of this law in Exodus 16:23-29. In Genesis 26 we read that,

Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws. (26:6).

That was hundreds of years before Sinai. After murdering his brother Abel, Cain would have been aware of what he had done. When we are told that Enoch and Noah walked with God, it would have been on the basis of revealed knowledge of what was right. The fact that they are seen as ‘walking with God’, indicated a relationship.

In Exodus we see that God is in a living, dynamic relationship with his people, Israel. Law was not an end in itself, or a cold impersonal set of rules; it had to do with living in harmony with the One who created them for himself, and knew what was necessary for them to experience the best in life as he designed it. They were brought together at the foot of Sinai, to be constituted as the ‘People of God’. The Ten Commandments were given them as the basis of that constitution. What had been passed on orally over the centuries, was now confirmed and formalised for them as a distinct group of people. They were brought into a Covenant relationship with God. This Covenant bound them to God and to each other in a unique way, as a people under God’s rule. Here we see the embryonic concept of the kingdom of God.

Israel’s obedience was to demonstrate trust in God who had created them, called them, and redeemed them for himself. Their calling to be obedient to the Covenant draws them into God’s will for them, outlined to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3. It was to be an obedience of faith, just as it was for Abraham, who believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Gen. 15:6). Abraham’s faith led him to obey God; and Israel, as a community, was to respond to God as Abraham had, i.e. by being faithful to the relationship to which they were brought. They were to trust him, because he had already shown them how much he cared for them, and was able to provide for them. Their obedience to God’s commands was to be the response of faith [See James 2:14–26].

The place of faith in this relationship was completely misunderstood in later Judaism. Let’s remind ourselves of God’s dealings with his own people during the plagues in Egypt.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may perform these signs of mine among them that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and that you may know that I am the Lord.” (Ex.10:1-2).

Following the Passover, God told the people to commemorate the event in perpetuity, as a reminder of their redemption from slavery.

“Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” Then the people bowed down and worshiped. (Ex. 12:24-27).

God’s intentions for his people had always been that they might worship him. Pharaoh was told to let the Israelites go so that they could go and worship God. (Ex. 4:23; 5:1; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3). Worship and obedience go together. But, in order for people to understand the nature of God, they had to experience his saving work. A growing understanding of God comes from within a relationship that he has to establish in the first place.

Worship that is acceptable to God cannot take place without obedience. When king Saul overstepped his role as king of God’s people, the prophet Samuel was sent to him to say,

“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. (1 Sam. 15:22).

Sacrifices can never be a substitute for obedience in true worship. To go through all the formalities of ‘worship’ while living in disobedience to God and his Word, is to contradict what true worship is meant to be. It is the acknowledgement that God is supreme, and that the worshipper is prepared to trust God is whatever way he is called upon to do. It isn’t obedience to the letter of the law, while looking over one’s shoulder to see if that obedience was enough to pacify God as he stood over you with a stick.

Israel’s whole journey through the desert was a test to see if they were prepared to trust God, after they witnessed his greatness in rescuing them from Egypt. The old hymn was quite right when it called on us to “trust and obey”. Trust has to do with faith. Were they prepared to put their faith in God when it involved their pilgrimage to the land he had promised them?

Faith and obedience in the NT

When addressing the Jewish people in the NT, the writers drew their attention, not to Mt Sinai, but to Abraham as the ‘father’ of their nation. Not to the Law given them, but to the faith that earned Abraham the privilege of being regarded as ‘righteous’. James said,

You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. (Jas. 2:20-24).

When Paul was explaining the Gospel to the believers in Rome, he said,

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Rom. 4:1-3).

Paul used the same argument in his correspondence with the churches in Galatia.

So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Gal. 3:6-9).

I am constantly struck by the fact that when the writer to the Hebrews wanted to portray a whole gallery of heroes of faith, he took all his examples from the OT! What was his purpose in doing so? Surely, it was to underline as powerfully as possible that God’s dealing with his people in the OT were around the issue of faith and trust; that without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6). In fact, it is an OT quote that says, the righteous (or, ‘just’) shall live by his faith (Habakkuk 2:4).

The Bible portrays continuity, not discontinuity in God’s expectations. He knows perfectly well that as sinners, having inherited a sinful nature, we are totally incapable of pleasing him. Therefore, when we become Christians, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us in our obedience to him. But, what is that obedience based on? Is it our imagination? Does the Holy Spirit somehow guide us with any point of reference? What is the purpose of the Word of God, if that is that case?

The Ten Commandments were never disposed of. They clarify for us our relationship with God and with others. Because these commandments reflect the nature of God as a moral being, we can never set them aside. To claim that they are disposed of in Christ, is to seriously misrepresent what God has said. Has the command to have no other God beside him disposed of? Are we no longer to love him with our whole being? Are we free to treat others any way we want to?

‘Just a minute,’ someone interrupts. ‘When we have the Holy Spirit, we will want to do the right thing every time.’ Will we? Is there is any understanding in us of what is right and wrong it must surely have come from our knowledge of the Bible in the first place. It is the reference point for the guidance the Holy Spirit gives us. Jesus said,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Mt. 5:17-20).

What Jesus was condemning was the letter-of-the law-type of obedience of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law who failed to understand the spirit that was behind the letter. Obedience has to spring from a love for the Lord. No amount of obedience can compensate for a lack of love for Christ.

Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. (Jn. 14:23).

God’s commands tell us what we need to do, and love tells us how we are to do it. No ethical system is possible without a law that specifies what behaviour needs to be.