A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on October 7, 2012.
O God, our Father, we thank you that in your loving kindness toward us you have given us your law. Teach us to delight in it and to incline our hearts to keep it. May we know it well enough and love it enough to teach our children and our children’s children. Hold your law before us as a light that reveals the path on which we should be. Hold it before us as a shield to protect us from the results of evil and sin. In those moments when we fail and when flesh is weak and our desires control our lives, even in those moments when our hearts are darkened and no one but you sees the depth of our failure, grant us your grace for we know that it is your grace and the righteousness of Christ that substitutes for our failures and without which it would be impossible to please you. Remind us that this life and your love are all about grace. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
It is easy to see that to let a person do exactly as he likes might well be the worst possible thing for him; and to let him do as he likes would be, not to love him, but to spoil him. God loves us, and for that very reason God laid down the right rules for life, and we suffer for it, if we break them.
—William Barclay in The Old Law and the New Law
We are on a guided tour through Great Themes of the Bible. Some of these themes are like the thread in a tapestry that appears in one part of the fabric and disappears for a bit only to reveal itself somewhere else. Other themes are like great rivers, like the Colorado or the Mississippi, that seem to flow forever. It is there from beginning to end. If we look at some of these themes from afar, like the law which we look at today, it appears that the river is a straight line. If you look at a map of the United States, it looks like the Mississippi flows north to south and cuts the country in two, but if you have ever flown down low enough over the Mississippi, you can see the bends and the winds and it is not all a straight journey. There are a lot of different places to stop and take a look.
In my mind, of themes we have looked at so far, the law may be one of the hardest to capsulize and try to get a hold on. You will find in Exodus and Leviticus a list of things we are supposed do. Do you realize if you have on a shirt like mine that is made of cotton and polyester, that is against the law? You are not supposed to mix fiber in a garment according to Old Testament law. If you have on a nice wool-silk jacket today, you are breaking the Old Testament law and you better take it home. Shrimp is a no-no, not just because your doctor told you not to eat it, but it says not to eat any fish without scales. Shrimp, lobster, and crab meat are all taken out.
Also, we are supposed to stone disobedient children. We might have been tempted to do that, but I don’t think any of us really would.
Then along comes Paul who says we are free from the law, and in between there is Jesus who says, “not a jot or tittle,” not the smallest letter or what it would be like if you crossed a “t” or made a capital “O” into a capital “Q”, will pass away until the law is fulfilled. How are we to make this journey down this river? How are we to follow this theme and understand what the law holds for Christians in this early part of the 21st Century? What about those mixed fibers, shrimp, and things like that? Bear with me.
The law was given by God through Moses at Mt. Sinai and included the Ten Commandments. It was given to former slaves, people who had never had to rule or govern themselves before. They were of the same ethnic cut, but they had always had the taskmasters of Egypt to tell them what to do. They were in the desert, and they needed help with everything. Some of the instruction was ethical and moral. How do God’s people live together if they don’t understand what the rules are? You don’t lie. You don’t steal. You don’t kill each other. You don’t envy what another person has. These are the ethical and moral rules that they need to know in order to live together, but in part, some of these rules are to create a community together and to make the people stand out in the many cultures in which they live. Some of the things they did, some of the things that they ate, some of the things that they did not touch, were an effort to make them a body of people that had a common identity.
By the time we get to the Gospel of Mark in the New Testament, Mark is already adding a commentary to something that Jesus said, and by thus, Jesus indicated it was OK to eat anything. In the Book of Acts when Peter is on the roof at Cornelius’ house and he has this great vision, he realizes that God is telling him nothing is unclean and he can eat it. By the time we get to other places in the New Testament, even Paul tells us that we do not have to keep the non-ethical parts (the parts that were culture and custom) any more. They are not a mark of the body of believers and we don’t have to abide by them.
We find out there are some laws that last forever, things like the Ten Commandments and others, but we see that scripture has given us guidance regarding some laws that we can lay aside. I feel much better about my shirt after hearing that this morning.
We need to remember that God gave us the law for our protection. Would any of us here today deny that life can be dangerous or that life can be unpredictable? Would it not be just like God to give us some help in advance? Would it not be just like God to let us know in advance the things that we should avoid, the things we should do, and to know where the danger lies?
Think of the law like a guard rail and life like a treacherous mountain road. The guard rail is there to tell us when we are in danger of going over the cliff. Stop. Slow down. Don’t go this way. Keep it in the middle of the road. If you go over here, you are going to fall off and you are going to be in great trouble. It tells us what to avoid, and it tells us those places where the most danger is.
Just because we keep every bit of the law is no guarantee that nothing will happen. If you want to push the analogy, you can have a wreck in the middle of the road by following too closely. If you want to get a running start, you can go over the guard rail, but the law is there to guide and protect us. How many of the pains of life that we have experienced could have been avoided if we had followed God’s law? How many things have taken place in our lives where we recognize that the various sins we have committed have put us in the position where it has hurt us and other people?
Sometimes it is not even our sin. Sometimes it is the sin of others. An expression I have found helpful in my life is to understand that sometimes we get caught in the wake of other people’s sin. Sometimes it is the sin of someone who is passing by in our lives (a neighbor, a co-worker, another family member) that we are caught up in, and it is the sin of disobeying God’s law that puts us in a position to be hurt. God has given us the law for our protection.
If you have small children, either your own children or a niece of nephew or grandchildren, there is a good chance that you have a child gate somewhere. The child gate is designed to stop children from going upstairs, downstairs, or out the door when we are not looking. Do we not insert those plastic things into an electrical outlet to make sure our children don’t stick their fingers into the outlet? They are designed to protect, and if we have enough foresight to protect the children in our lives, does God not have enough foresight to protect us and give us the law in this way? The law, in large part, is given to us to say, “Protect yourself. Don’t go there. Slow down. If you go over this, you are going to fall off and it is really going to hurt.” We do it for our own children, and God does it for us.
The next point I would make is that the ultimate purpose of the law is for us to be able to live out God’s will. This is why Jesus said he did not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it. He came to make complete our opportunity to live out God’s will in life. Jesus attacked the weakness of the law in that so many times, people in Jesus’ day and in our day, still try to keep the letter of the law without any love being involved, and that will never work, and because of that, we miss the purpose.
You have heard the part about “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” That was given as a way to limit retaliation. We all know how retaliation works. If you kill my mule, I am going to kill your cow. If I kill your cow, you decide you are going to kill my whole herd of cows. If you kill my herd of cows, I decide I am going to kill one of your children. If I kill one of your children, you then decide that it is all out war. Pretty soon, we are like the Hatfields and McCoys. We are in a mob war where nobody can remember how it got started, but we are determined to do more harm than was done to us before. The law “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was given to say, “that much and no more.” It limits retaliation. Is that all God really intended? The answer is no.
Then Jesus comes along and says, “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I tell you that you should turn the other cheek. I tell you that you should forgive. I tell you to stop it right here.” That is the will of God for our lives. The way we get to that place is only by adding love to the law. The law can tell us, “Don’t kill a stranger,” but only the law plus love will tell us to bind up the wounds of the enemy. It is only law plus love that can teach us to pray for our enemies, to forgive those who speak spitefully against us and accuse us falsely. It is only when we add love that we can even begin to keep the greatest commandment which states, “We should love the Lord our God, with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our strength.” It is the only way we can keep the second great commandment, “To love our neighbor as ourselves.”
Jesus came not to say, “We will just throw out the law and everybody do as you please,” but that we might fulfill what God really intended when the law was given and to add love to what is written down so that we can have the spirit of Christ in our hearts and can reflect the character of God in the world as God’s people.
Those of you who are really good Bible scholars may be thinking, But what about Paul who says that we are freed from the law. Paul was not saying that we do not have to keep the Ten Commandants or the other laws any more. What Paul is saying is that we shall not be saved by trying to be good. There is no amount of personal righteousness, there is no amount of keeping the law that is going to earn us salvation. This is the great argument that Jesus had with the Pharisees.
The Pharisees believed that if every person in Israel kept the law for one day on the same day, the day of the Lord would come, the age would close, and all would be peace and light in living in God’s presence because they believed that a relationship with God was all about keeping the rules. Paul says we are free from that. I don’t know about you, but I will never be good enough. Paul says, “It is by grace you are saved through faith. It is not of your own doing lest anyone should boast.” I could say, “I’m saved because I got a 98 on keeping the law during my lifetime. You got a 94 and that is not good enough.” It is not so any of us could boast, but it is by the grace of God.
When it comes to how we come into a relationship with God, it is through believing in Jesus Christ, not through being good. It does not mean that the law is thrown out. It is still a means of perfection. It is still a way that we reflect God’s life in the world as God’s people.
Stanley Hauerwas says, “The Ten Commandments review the kind of people that the God of the Bible is able to make.” Isn’t that a good thought? When the world looks around, shouldn’t there be more people who say, “I understand what God is like because I see the lives of the people of God.” People who live a certain way reflect the character of God. Isn’t it wonderful that God has given the law to us so that we might know what would hurt us, what we should refrain from, and where we should keep it in the middle of the road? Thank goodness God does not require perfection to love us. He only requires that we love Jesus Christ. The law plus love fulfills what God has intended for us and what Christ intends for us as well.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.