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 (Exodus 19:16-18). 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 (Genesis 12:2-3; 15:5,18-19; 17:4-8; 22:16-18; 26:3-4,24; 28:13-15)—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 (Exodus 19:8; see also Exodus 24:7)—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 (Exodus 7:14-11:10; 12:31-32). 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 (Exodus 14:5-22).
‘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’ (Exodus 19:4-6).
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 (Exodus 6:8) as your very own—His fulfilment of the oath He had sworn to your ancestors (Genesis 17:8; 26:3-4; 28:13). 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 (Exodus 31:13; Leviticus 20:8; 21:8; 22:32).
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 (Leviticus 11:44,45; 19:1; 20:7,26; 21:6; Numbers 6:5) 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 (Exodus 20:6; 34:6-7; Numbers 14:18-19; see also Deuteronomy 4:37; 5:10; 7:8-9,12-13; 10:15; 23:5; 33:3). Now you are to love Him (Exodus 20:6) 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 (Leviticus 19:18).
The law in summary
The twofold theme of love for God and neighbour is the pillar on which the whole law hangs.3 It is unmistakably evident right from the law’s opening synopsis, the revolutionary Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17),4 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.5
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. (Psalm 19:7-11)
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,6 set you in praise, fame and honour high above all the other nations that He has made (Exodus 23:25-26; Leviticus 25:18-19; 26:3-12),7 and walk among you as your God (Leviticus 26:12). 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.8
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 (Exodus 32:2-6). 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.
- 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).
- Jesus nominates these two themes as central to the law in Matthew 22:36-40 and Luke 10:25-28.
- 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.