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The Law of God as a Gift

I thought it would be a good idea to supplement this week's podcast episode tackling the top 3 misconceptions about the law of God with this article. The focus over here is keying in on the scene of the giving of the law of God at Mount Sinai and what we should take away from the original meaning of the law.

If we observe the conversations among Christian circles to explain the purpose and intent of the Old Testament law, there would certainly be a number of differing opinions on the subject. Some may even say that considering the law is an exercise in futility, as it is now irrelevant to us.

But what about the Old Testament’s own account of the giving of the law? How does the Old Testament tell us to think and identify the function of the law? Surely there wasn’t an irrelevancy to God’s design of the law for the Israelites. Rather, we can see from the biblical account that the law and order prescribed by God to the Israelites was not a matter of irrelevancy or legalism, but of blessing and gift.

To see this, let’s look at the giving of the law from several significant angles.

The Background of the Law at Mount Sinai

First, we come to Mount Sinai, where God appeared to Moses saying “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (English Standard Version, Exodus 20.2).

What is significant about the place in which this is said? We see that Sinai and Horeb are both revealed as different names of the same place “the mountain of God” (Exodus 3.1; 4.27; 18.5; 20.2), signifying that God intentionally gave the law in the same place that He originally called Moses to be a deliverer to His people through the burning bush experience. This announcement as “the LORD your God” is also reinforcement of how God revealed Himself initially to Moses as the covenant-keeping God “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3.14).

In “Telling God’s Story”, the authors pick up on this moment of significance, saying that such a revealed name implies a personality (Vang & Carter 65). So then, God gives the law upon the mountain as a gesture of covenant commitment, tracing a long line of generational commitment as “The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob” (Exodus 4.16).

The Function of the Law Towards the Promised Land

Second, we can observe the function of the law-gift as a blueprint of how to serve God. We remember that serving God was the endgame to which the Israelites were to be delivered: “Let my people go, that they may serve me.(emphasis mine)” (Exodus 8.1).

And the law was an extension of fulfilling that deliverance, so that Israel was not left in their own ignorance in learning and inventing ways to serve God, but were informed and taught explicitly how to do so in a way that pleased the LORD.

This of course is a gracious thing, that God not only intended to deliver Israel, but teach them and lead them through means of the law. One example is in the observation of the command to honor father and mother. This law explicitly carries a characteristic of blessing, saying “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (Exodus 20.12).

The law then was a gift of preservation in the promised land- a gift of identifying the means to long days of dwelling.

The Global Gift of the Law

But this concept of blessing and gift did not restrict itself to Israel. In “Introduction to Biblical Interpretation”, the authors make note that “God gave the law to serve as a paradigm of timeless ethical, moral, and theological principles. In other words, the Law is more than a temporary, dispensable cultural phenomenon” (Klein et al. 345).

This shows that the law’s function of timelessness is a “gift that keeps on giving” if you will, serving as instructive principles to all people groups, and thus, we have our third angle as the law’s blessing to the entire world. As the biblical narrative continues to unfold, we come to the example of the prophet Isaiah who, in his prophetic ministry, calls Israel to repent for their forsaking of God’s law, and gives a promise that such a testimony will serve as “a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49.6).

In other words, the giving of the law to Israel set the stage for God’s gift of grace to extend to all nations, in His sovereign design and orchestration.

The Present of the Law as the Presence of God

The final angle of the gift of the law is in terms of God’s presence to Israel. Klein et al. picks up on this concept and its relationship to the giving of the law, stating that “Their purpose was to teach the Israelite fundamental values- what it means to live all of life in the presence of God- not to provide them with a handy legal reference tool” (345).

This was a very significant concept for the Israelites, since from the moment of their deliverance, God’s presence dwelt among them in the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire. They already were in God’s presence; they needed help in learning how to live in awareness of and response to His presence.

What to Conclude About the Law of God

The law’s function then was a gift of upholding an appreciation for God’s presence. Even the summary of the Ten Commandments for Israel was a blueprint for how to actively love God and to love those alongside them who had been redeemed (Deuteronomy 5.4-5, Leviticus 19.18).

In the last portion of the Exodus narrative, we see that the Israelites began to understand God’s presence as a gift to them, a gift that was only realized through the upholding of the law. Upon God’s sore displeasure of Israel’s all-too-soon disobedience, Moses was told “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, let I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people” (Exodus 33.3).

This was definitive blow to the joy of the Israelites, and Moses’ response to God captures the idea of their desperate need for the gift of God’s presence in upholding their obedience to His covenant law: “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33.15-16).

The wonderful relationship between the law and God’s presence was a gift so significant to the Israelites, that they’d rather forego entering into the promised land, than to lose the presence of God among them. Thus, God’s presence was the gift behind the gift- the chief end of the law as a gift.

So, from a variety of angles, we can distinguish that God’s law, although possessing a multiplicity of functions and utilizations, was chiefly to be seen as a gift unto Israel, and indeed a gift to all nations- the revelation from darkness to light.

Sources Used

  • The Bible. English Standard Version, Crossway, 2008.

  • Klein, William W, Craig L. Blomberg, Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Rev. ed., Thomas Nelson, 2004.

  • Vang, Preben, and Carter, Terry G. Telling God’s Story: The Biblical Narrative From Beginning to End. B&H Publishing Group, 2013.

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