What was the purpose of the Law?
This post is a chapter from Dr. Timothy Tennent’s book, 30 Questions: A Short Catechism on the Christian Faith available for purchase from our store. This resource makes for a great teaching tool in local churches, especially for catechesis purposes. We’re featuring a chapter each week in hopes of encouraging you to pick up the book and share it with others as well.
When God brought the people of Israel out of Egypt with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” that deliverance from slavery to freedom became a central orienting event in the minds and hearts of God’s people. The Exodus was celebrated and remembered every year at Passover, and it became the focal point of their identity as a people. They were the people whom God had redeemed from slavery, who had experienced the mighty testimony of his judgments against their captors and his miracles of provision on their behalf, and who waited in hope for a Messiah who would bring an even greater deliverance, of which this one was just a forerunner.
God’s purpose in delivering them was much greater than just delivering them “out” of something, namely oppression and slavery. His purpose was also to bring them “into” something—a life of holiness by which they would truly reflect his image in the world. In order to instruct and form this newly redeemed people into a faithful covenant people, God gave them the revelation of the Law at Mount Sinai. Through the Law, God was demonstrating his own holiness and covenantal love, and also revealing to the people of Israel how they were to live and act as his covenant people. You can think of the Law as providing a tangible picture, through words, of what life is meant to look like when lived in proper obedience to our loving heavenly Father.
There are 613 laws in the Old Testament. However, they are all expressions or further explanations of the Ten Commandments. Thus, the Ten Commandments are the great summary of God’s Law. They show us how we are supposed to live, and give the broad parameters of a life which is faithful to God and our neighbor. If you look at the Ten Commandments, you will see that the first four commandments focus on our relationship with God. The last six focus on our relationship with our neighbor. You might say that the Ten Commandments represent the basic grammar or alphabet of the holy life. They are God’s way of clearly setting forth the basic need for a human reorientation towards God and neighbor which sin has distorted. Sin turns us away from God and neighbor, whereas the Law reorients us back towards God and neighbor. This is why many centuries later Jesus said that the entire Law, including the 613 and the Ten Commandments could be summarized as simply, “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.”
Our inability to fulfill or live out the Law is a testimony to our need for salvation, which is why Paul declared in Galatians 3:24 that the Law was a “tutor to lead us to Christ” (nasb). Just as Moses led the people out of their captivity in Egypt and into the Promised Land where they lived under the covenant and Law of God, so Jesus has led us out of an even greater captivity (sin and death) and brought us to a lasting promised land (New Creation). Jesus is the fulfillment of not only the priesthood and the sacrificial system, but also of the Law itself. Thus, the deepest purpose of the Law is not only to show us the holiness of God, but to lead us to Christ.
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