Chapter 1: Torah
YOU ARE STANDING amid a great multitude—perhaps two or three times the population of Adelaide—and staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the most fearsome sight you have ever beheld. Mount Sinai, to which your nation’s leader, Moses, has brought you, is in a state of upheaval. Bolts of lightning are crashing down on it like cosmic missiles. Thunder is reverberating out from above it and rippling across the darkened sky. The whole mountain is shuddering violently; you can feel it in the air and under your feet. The summit of the mountain is covered in a thick cloud and immersed in fire. Plumes of smoke are billowing up from it as from a furnace, and an ear-splitting trumpet blast is piercing the atmosphere. Your whole body is filled with alarm. You don’t know whether to continue gawping at the frightening scene unfolding before you, or turn on your heels and flee.
The LORD Almighty, who pledged himself on oath to your nation’s fathers—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—has descended upon the mountain to establish his covenant with you. Inside the fiery cloud, the sovereign Creator of the heavens and the earth is personally dictating to Moses the commands and decrees by which you, his chosen people, are to live. With one voice, you have already agreed to do everything he tells you—a prudent decision in view of the fearful display in front of you and his spectacular efforts to rescue you. He sent signs and wonders—great and terrible—on your former captors, the Egyptians, forcing Pharaoh to let you go. And when the army of Egypt came after you in anger, you saw the power of the God of your ancestors at work once more: he divided the mighty Red Sea and shepherded all of you safely across on dry ground, drowning your pursuers behind you.
‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt,’ the LORD has said, ‘and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’
The need to be holy
Before God declared you holy, he showed you his kindness and favour: he saved you from slavery in the land of sin and brought you to himself. More than that, he promised to give you the lush land of Canaan as your very own—his fulfilment of the oath he had sworn to your ancestors. Now he wants you to obey him—not to pay him back for his goodness to you, but as a key part of what he wants to give you: the gift of holiness, so that he can come near to you. He has already come down, down, down from the heights of heaven to the top of the mountain. Incredibly, though, he wants to come down even further and live among you, right in the beating heart of your community.1 But that will be no simple thing: the pure radiance of his holiness would reveal your unholiness and your resulting ineligibility for his hallowed presence. You would not, could not, endure. If God is to be your neighbour, you must be holy. But how? You surely can’t make yourselves holy; only God is holy in himself. There is but one solution: you will have to be made holy by God.
God, however, won’t be content to just stamp your foreheads with the word ‘HOLY’; he wants you to cooperate with him by living according to his law—in Hebrew, tôrâh, meaning ‘direction’ or ‘instruction.’ That’s why God has called Moses to the top of the mountain: to provide instruction on the way of life that you, his people, are to follow and so be holy in practice. Unlike the pagan nations, who don’t love their gods and are not loved by them, your obedience is to be prompted by deep, authentic, reverential love. God has already shown you his love. Now you are to love him in reply—‘with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.’2 And since God loves your neighbour too, so must you: you are each to love your neighbour as yourself.
The law in summary
The twofold theme of love for God and neighbour is the pillar on which the whole law hangs. It is unmistakably evident right from the law’s opening synopsis, the revolutionary Ten Commandments,3 written by God himself on two tablets of stone:
- You shall have no other gods before me.
- You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.
- You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God.
- Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
Love your neighbour:
- Honour your father and your mother.
- You shall not murder.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.
- You shall not covet (desire) your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.4
Other parts of the law emphasise the need for you to celebrate God’s saving action at set times of the year, to live morally, to obey your earthly masters faithfully, to treat your slaves with dignity, to rest the land regularly, to provide compensation to those who suffer undeserved injury or loss, to conduct your business honestly, to attend to the needs of the poor and defend their cause, to judge cases in the law courts fairly, to punish the guilty according to the gravity of their crimes, to be ceremonially and hygienically clean, and to seek forgiveness for your sins by bringing lambs and bulls without blemish or defect to the LORD your God and sacrificing them to him in the proper manner.
The law is a light
God’s law is imbued with principles of righteousness, mercy, justice and love—values and practices that speak of the eternally holy character of God. As such, the law is trustworthy guidance in holy living. One of your nation’s future kings—David, a man after God’s own heart—will celebrate the law with these poetic words of delight:
The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes … The decrees of the LORD are firm, and all of them are righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb. By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
There will indeed be great reward for you and your compatriots if you keep your promise to God and do everything he tells you. Virtuous living in his sight will be ample reward in itself, yet there will be further reward: God will bless your nation greatly,5 set you in praise, fame and honour high above all the other nations that he has made,6 and walk among you as your God. All this God will gladly do for you if only you will fear and love him with all that you are, always being careful to obey him.7
Disobedience and failure
The heart-rending truth, however, is that God won’t get his wish. Your nation’s story will soon degenerate into a pitiful saga of disobedience, moral decay, and ultimate failure. Even before Moses comes down from the mountain, you will begin worshipping idols. In the days that follow, you will grumble against your God-appointed leaders, pine for the ‘good old days’ of Egypt, and refuse to enter the Promised Land. Forty years later, God will usher your children into the land, but most of their descendants will rebel. They will spend century after wretched century worshipping pagan gods, practising depravity, pursuing dishonest gain, exploiting the poor, shedding innocent blood, ignoring the LORD’s festivals and Sabbaths, and engaging in insincere religion. For all but a few fragments of your people’s history, you will decline to love God and neighbour as the law requires. God will send scores of prophets to you, each with a warning—‘Repent from your sins or suffer the consequences!’—but you will stubbornly decline to change your ways.
Finally, the verdict will come in: God gave his law to your nation with the good intention that you would obey it and be his holy people, but you persistently flouted it—and so it will condemn you as guilty. What a disaster. Of all the peoples on the face of the earth, God chose you to be his treasured possession—but you abandoned him and chose instead to worship other gods.
What will God do in response? The law itself contains hints of what God will do.8 Nearly one-and-a-half-millennia later, at just the right time, God makes his move.
Chapter 2: A New Lawgiver
YOU ARE STANDING amid a gathering of truth-seekers from all over Palestine and beyond, listening intently to the most radical preacher you have ever heard: Jesus of Nazareth. He has been touring around Galilee, proclaiming the arrival of God’s everlasting kingdom, healing every disease in sight, and casting out demons. It is no surprise that he is generating enormous interest, but you can see that he isn’t merely someone to marvel at; he is the fulfilment of God’s ancient promise to raise up for Israel a prophet like Moses—a messenger whose words will be those of God himself. Today, swamped by a sea of eager faces and hungry souls, Jesus has climbed a mountainside, just like Moses did all those years ago. You and your fellow disciples—perhaps a few hundred or so—have followed him up the mountain, leaving the hullabaloo behind you. Jesus is sitting casually on a rocky ledge further up the slope from where you are standing. Every eye is focused on him, and every ear is attuned to his voice. You crane your neck to see him more clearly, and in that moment he looks your way.
Holiness through human effort?
‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago,’ Jesus announces, ‘“You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.” But I tell you’—he pauses for emphasis—‘that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgement … And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell.’ You all gasp. There is no fire on the mountain, no lightning or thunder above it, and no shuddering inside it, but your orthodox world is rocking. Those four words, ‘But I tell you,’ carry the weight of divine authority. Jesus is revising and intensifying the law as if appointed to do so by God himself. Murder is a capital offence, but that has never troubled ordinary folk like you, since you are not likely to deliberately kill someone. Yet Jesus has just made it worryingly easy for you to bring upon yourself the condemnation that would be yours if you had killed someone. All you have to do is despise or disparage someone in a flash of anger, and you will be as guilty of sin as a murderer.
As you continue to listen, Jesus gives similar treatment to the law against adultery—another offence to which Moses attached the death penalty. Committing this offence has always required physical contact, but now you, even you, can become a fully-fledged adulterer—unclean in the sight of God and worthy of death—simply by looking at another person with lust in your heart.9 Everyone around you falls into sober silence. You dare not move.
But Jesus isn’t done yet. He forbids divorce except in instances of sexual immorality, abolishes the time-honoured practice of oath-taking, and then makes his most sweeping amendment yet. Ever since the days of Moses, you have had the legal right to inflict on an attacker whatever injuries they inflict on you: eye for eye, tooth for tooth, bruise for bruise. Not any more, says Jesus. Now, you are not even allowed to defend yourself against such a person. Rather, you must go to the opposite extreme and allow them to injure you in whatever way they wish. If they force you to do some work for them, you must do even more than what they want; and if they demand something from you, you must give them even more than what they demand. No longer are you to love only your fellow Israelites. ‘Love your enemies,’ says Jesus, ‘and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.’ His words sink forcefully into your belly, sit there uneasily for a moment, and then explode. Loving your enemies means associating with people who are unclean in the sight of God. It means showing care and concern for people whose values and beliefs offend your deepest loyalties, passions and convictions. It means serving and blessing those who annoy you, provoke you or mistreat you. Keeping the law never just meant shunning sin, but now more than ever it also means acting with extreme kindness toward others—particularly those who behave with extreme nastiness toward you. If you don’t love your enemies in this uncompromising way, you are a lawbreaker.
Jesus’ ground-breaking commandments shock you to the core. How can you possibly obey them with the flawless consistency that God requires? He has raised the bar of acceptable behaviour up, up, up into the stratosphere. You have always been a faithful adherent of God’s law, but the game has suddenly become unwinnable: holiness is out of reach. How can you ever hope to be righteous enough for the Most High God, the Holy One of Israel?
ONLY A FEW short years later, Jesus answered this conundrum decisively. In fact, he demonstrated that he is its answer—the answer intended by God since before creation. This is good news not only for the Israelites but for us Gentiles too, since God’s law also exposes our sin. We, like the Israelites, have turned away from God and trusted in ‘idols’ (money, possessions, lifestyle, achievements, status, popularity) for a sense of identity, security and wellbeing. And we, like the Israelites, have poured scorn on our neighbour, harboured unclean thoughts about our neighbour, failed to care for our neighbour. We humans are a proud lot: we like to claim that we don’t need saving; if we have a problem, it’s one that we can fix on our own. But the LORD’s radiant commands—including those decreed by Jesus—give light to our eyes when otherwise we would be in the dark. They show us that, without God’s help, we don’t measure up to God’s standard of holiness; we are infested with sin and undeserving of his sacred presence.10
The end of the law
Enter Jesus Christ, who has saved us from the guilt pronounced upon us by the law. He has fulfilled the law perfectly, so bringing it to completion and robbing it of its power to condemn us. Here’s how he did it. First, he showed by his obedient life that he was ‘a lamb without blemish or defect’—the one who could serve as the faultless sacrifice for our sins. Then he went to the cross and, in keeping with God’s law, became ‘a sin offering for us’—a sacrificial ‘lamb’ who would take away the sins of the world. Although he was innocent, he took the full weight of our sins upon himself and suffered the sentence dictated by the law: Death. He thus fulfilled the law conclusively, and so brought it to a state of final accomplishment. The law’s finger-pointing was finished forever—but Jesus wasn’t finished at all. Having absorbed the lethal sting of the law on our behalf so that it couldn’t sting us again, he went on to win a crucial victory for each of us: he overcame death itself by rising from the grave. If there was any suspicion that our sins were still stuck to him or that he wasn’t entirely righteous, this suspicion vanished when he ascended into heaven. God had received him (and us with him) into the inner sanctuary, where only the holy can dwell.
The supreme purpose of God’s law, then, was always this: to illuminate our imperfect condition and so highlight our need for Jesus Christ, our perfect Saviour. If we claim to have never sinned, the perfect light of God’s law shows up our defects. But if we have faith in Jesus to save us from our sins, we are included in him and have a full share in his righteousness. We are not obliged to keep the law of Moses, since Christ has brought it to perfect completion.11 Rather, we are to fulfil the ‘law of Christ’ by carrying each other’s burdens. If we love our neighbour in this way, we will be fulfilling the whole law—not so that we can be saved, but because we are already saved through Christ’s death, resurrection and eternal life.
So, here’s what to do: Put your faith in Jesus Christ and love your neighbour, knowing that you have been saved from your sins and made eligible to live in God’s holy presence forever.
- Further on in the story, we read that it was Moses’ practice to take a tent that he called the ‘tent of meeting’ (Exodus 33:7) and pitch it outside the camp of Israel, some distance away. Inside the tent, ‘the LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend’ (Exodus 33:11). Later, the Israelites constructed a new tent of meeting called the ‘tabernacle’ and, in keeping with God’s instructions, set it up in the midst of the Levites (Numbers 1:50,53) among the tribes of Israel.
- After the Israelites had spent the better part of the next forty years wandering in the desert—their punishment for grumbling against God and refusing to enter the Promised Land—Moses commanded their children, who would be going into the land, to love God wholeheartedly (Deuteronomy 6:5; see also Deuteronomy 11:1,13,22; 19:9; 30:16,20). A little later, Moses twice reiterated this requirement to his young successor, Joshua (Joshua 22:5; 23:11).
- The Ten Commandments appear again in Deuteronomy 5:7-21 because Moses later repeated them to the next generation of Israelites just prior to their entry into the Promised Land.
- For the sake of expediency, some of these commandments are stated in abridged form.
- These promises of blessing were later repeated by Moses to the next generation of Israelites (Deuteronomy 5:29,33; 6:1-3,17-19,24; 7:12-15; 8:1; 15:4-6,10; 23:20; 24:19; 28:1-13; 30:9-10,16; 32:46-47). And later in Israel’s history, God made similar promises to its leaders. Some examples are Joshua (Joshua 1:7-8), David (1 Kings 2:3), Solomon (1 Kings 3:14; 9:4-5) and Jeroboam (1 Kings 11:38).
- This statement was spoken by Moses to the next generation of Israelites as part of their preparation for entering the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 26:19).
- God was so keen for the Israelites to remember his commands—and seemingly resigned to the reality that they would forget them—that he instructed them to use memory devices (Numbers 15:38-40; Deuteronomy 6:8-9; 27:2-8).
- The law contains numerous references to the future Messiah (or Christ), who would come into the world at the appointed time and save the Israelites from their sins. Jesus expected people who were well-versed in the law to be able to see him in it. ‘If you believed Moses,’ he told some antagonistic Jewish leaders, ‘you would believe me, for he wrote about me’ (John 5:46). Here are just a handful of ways in which God’s law testified about Jesus’ forthcoming appearance and work:
- Moses wrote that the Israelites were to consecrate their firstborn sons to the LORD (Exodus 13:2,12-13; 22:29; 34:19-20; Numbers 3:13; Deuteronomy 15:19) and redeem them by means of a sacrifice. This was a pointer to Jesus’ future sacrifice on a cross, by which all believers would be redeemed, and to his subsequent resurrection: he, the Son of God, would become ‘the firstborn over all creation’ (Colossians 1:15)—the first of many to rise from the dead.
- Moses wrote that once per year, the high priest was to enter the Most Holy Place and sacrifice a goat to make atonement for the sins of the people (Leviticus 16:3-34). This prefigured Jesus, our high priest, who would allow his own blood to be shed to purify us from our sins. Jesus would then enter the perfect sanctuary of heaven—the dwelling place of God himself—on our behalf (Hebrews 4:14; 6:19-20; 8:1-2).
- Moses wrote that a person who killed someone accidentally could flee to a city of refuge to avoid being killed in retaliation. He was safe as long as he remained inside the city of refuge; then at the death of the high priest, he could return to his family without fear of reprisal (Numbers 35:6-28). This was a reference to Jesus as our high priest, to whom we would be able to flee from our accuser (Satan), and whose death on a cross would atone for our sins and free us everlastingly from guilt (Hebrews 2:17; 7:26-27; 9:11-15,24-28; 13:11-12).
- Moses wrote that ‘anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse’ (Deuteronomy 21:23). At another time, he made a bronze snake and fixed it to a pole so that any of the Israelites who had been bitten by a snake—God’s punishment for their grumbling—could look at the snake and live. Jesus would one day allow himself to be hung on a ‘pole’ (a cross) where he would embody everything in us that is offensive to God and under his righteous curse. He represented it all to God and put it to death within himself (Romans 6:3-4,6; 2 Corinthians 5:14; Galatians 2:20; Colossians 2:20; 3:3; 2 Timothy 2:11). As a consequence, we can look to Jesus and live.
- Moses wrote that if a woman’s husband died without giving birth to a son, her brother-in-law should serve as her kinsman-redeemer: marry her and provide her with a son in the name of her deceased husband (Deuteronomy 25:5-6), so saving her from the social disgrace of childlessness. This instruction prefigured Jesus as our kinsman-redeemer: he, our human brother, would choose us as his bride, save us from the shame of our barrenness, and provide us with a place of belonging forever.
- Jesus gave this command to men with regard to women, but in our modern egalitarian society it is equally important for women to take heed of it too.
- Even those who are not aware of God’s law are guilty of sin. Many non-Christians have a good instinct as to what God requires, or at least a built-in moral compass that they feel obliged to follow. Like us, however, they haven’t always lived up to what they sincerely believe is right (Romans 2:14-15). Accordingly, by their own standards—let alone God’s—they too are guilty.
- People who believe in Jesus are not required to do any of the following in order to be saved:
- abstain from particular foods (Leviticus 11:4-42; Matthew 15:11,17-20; Mark 7:15,18-19; Acts 10:10-15);
- avoid working on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11; 23:12; 31:12-17; 35:1-2; Leviticus 19:3,30; 23:3; 26:2; Matthew 12:1-13; Mark 3:1-5; Luke 13:10-16; 14:1-5; John 5:6-9,16-17; 7:21-24);
- practise circumcision (Leviticus 12:3; Romans 2:25-29; 3:30; 4:9-12; 1 Corinthians 7:18-19; Galatians 5:2-3,6; 6:15);
- uphold standards of ceremonial cleanness (Matthew 15:1,19-20; Luke 11:38-41);
- make sacrifices to God so that our sins can be forgiven (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12,25-26; 10:1-4,11-12,14,17-18).