by Mike Zachary
In the Beginning
We must start, as always, “in the beginning.” Not only does the book of Genesis provide a profound introduction to the entire Bible, our Lord Jesus Christ pointed out that there are certain decisions that cannot be made without understanding how things were in the beginning. Matthew 19:8 records one of the many instances where Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, demonstrating how they had actually misconstrued God’s purposes:
He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so (emphasis added).
Though the Pharisees were known as men of great learning, Jesus pointed out that they misunderstood the issue at hand greatly because they had not properly taken into consideration how things were in the beginning.
In Genesis 2:16–17, we find the first rules.
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
Not only did God give the rule, He also gave His explanation for it. Why did He forbid Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Because they would “surely die” the day the day they did so. A thinking reader might wonder whether Adam and Eve would surely die for breaking the rules because (a) God is cruel and would delight in punishing them, or (b) God is love and wanted to protect them.
An examination of the verses preceding and following Genesis 2:16–17 might help to clarify this point.
- Genesis 2:7 states that, after forming man from the dust, God breathed into him the breath of life that would elevate him from a mass of dust into a living soul.
- Genesis 2:8 states that God placed man in the Garden of Eden, and Genesis 2:9 hastens to add that in that garden the Lord God made every beautiful tree to grow.
- Genesis 2:18 states the Lord noticed that it was not good for Adam to be alone in this world, and the following verses explain what God did to create Adam’s wife.
Taking all these facts into account, it is not surprising that the Apostle John, writing more than a thousand years after Moses penned the Pentateuch, would declare that “God is love” (I John 4:8). It seems obvious that God was greatly interested in placing Adam and Eve in an environment that would foster human flourishing.
With all this in mind, it seems that when God said you shall surely die, He was lovingly letting Adam know that the rule was given in order to prevent him from experiencing terrible consequences, not because God found some kind of strange delight in punishing people for breaking rules.
- God gave this rule to help Adam and Eve, not to humiliate them.
- God gave this rule as a part of His plan to create a pleasant environment for Adam and Eve, an environment where they could flourish.
- God gave this rule as evidence of His love for Adam and Eve, not as evidence of His heavy-handed rule over them.
In this utopian Edenic environment, we must remember that the rule was given to strengthen the relationship between man and God, not to give Adam “bragging rights” that would enable him to show his wife, the only other living human being, how righteous he was.
When Adam and Eve violated this rule, it broke the fellowship between them and God (Genesis 3:9–19); but even then, God Himself made them “coats of skins, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21). Through it all, our loving God was doing everything in His power to help Adam and Eve. Even after Adam’s willful sin, God’s tender loving care was strongly shown. From the viewpoint of the rules, it is evident that “in the beginning” they were devised by a loving God to help His people have pleasant, joyful lives.
The Mosaic Law
Through Moses, the man of God, the Lord instituted a national system. By any standard, this system in its entirety was complex and sophisticated. Some of its finer details were complicated enough that differences of opinion arose as to their exact meaning.
The Decalogue, commonly known as the Ten Commandments, are laid out in Exodus 20. Though it incredibly difficult, yea impossible, for a man to keep them all, they are fairly easy to comprehend. Commands like “thou shalt have no other gods before me” and “thou shalt not steal” are straightforward.
Beyond the Decalogue, the complexity of the Mosaic system is well known. Impatient readers and readers who struggle with literacy often lament the difficulty of reading the book of Leviticus. Ranging from how and when sacrifices should be offered to the details of whether or not “strangers” (non-Israelites) were required to participate in the Day of Atonement, the Mosaic Law is difficult.
A careful reading of the Law, however, finds evidence of the same loving God who gave Adam and Eve a simple rule in the Garden of Eden.
- Exodus 15, which technically records the time period shortly before the giving of the Mosaic Law, shines a light on the love of God.
If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and wilt give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the Lord that healeth thee. Exodus 15:26
Just as God had lovingly tended to Adam and Eve in the Garden, He lovingly tended to the people of Israel, showing them a path whereby they could avoid the punishments and afflictions that had come upon the people of Egypt. Clearly remembering the chaos, pain, and heartache that man’s sin had brought into this world, God lovingly reminded His people that He was their healer. “Follow these rules,” He was saying, “so I can bless you richly, so you can lead flourishing lives.”
- Deuteronomy 4 records an extremely significant and interesting rationale for the complex laws that God had given to the people of Israel. Addressing the people of Israel about the statutes and judgments of the Law, Moses said,
Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day? Deuteronomy 4:6-8
Moses told the Israelites that one of the benefits of having the “rules” was that people of other nations would deeply respect the nation of Israel, thinking of them as a “wise and understanding people.” Just as the rule given to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was designed to make them flourish as individuals, the law given to the nation of Israel was designed to make them a nation that was “so great.”
No one can read the Mosaic Law carefully without realizing that it was given by a gracious God who greatly loved His people. It was given to make their lives better, to keep them from the dreadful consequences of sin so well known in the pagan societies around them, to give them a good reputation among the nations of the world, and to give them concrete evidence of God’s love for them, a love which extended to some of the most minor aspects of their day-to-day lives.
Even after the famous blessings and curses of Deuteronomy 28 where the Lord demonstrated the rewards of doing right and the consequences of doing wrong, God carefully outlined a path back to Himself for those who had turned away from the Lord. It is easy to see the same tenderness that had placed Adam and Eve in such a beautiful and ideal situation as you read Deuteronomy 30:19–20,
Therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live: that thou mayest love the Lord thy God, and that thou mayest obey his voice, and that thou mayest cleave unto him: for he is thy life, and the length of thy days: that thou mayest dwell in the land which the Lord sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.
Just as God had cared about placing Adam and Eve in a beautiful Garden, He was concerned about placing the people of Israel in the Promised Land. It is exceedingly clear that God was dearly hoping to have a warm, personal relationship with the people of Israel, hoping they would live long and prosperous lives, hoping they would allow Him to take care of them.
- Exodus 15 indicates that God’s rules were designed to heal His people, not to hurt them.
- Deuteronomy 4 indicates that God’s rules were designed to honor His people, not to humiliate them.
- Deuteronomy 30 indicates that God’s rules were part of His plan to create a pleasant environment for the people of Israel, an environment where they could flourish.
The Law was not given so the people of Israel could arrogantly demonstrate their moral and spiritual superiority to their fellow citizens. The Law was given so the children of Israel could experience a warm, loving relationship with God Himself, so that they could love the Lord their God (Deuteronomy 30:20).
Guilty Before God: Paul’s Evaluation of the Law in Romans
Under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the great theological mind of the Apostle Paul gave a succinct, yet sophisticated, evaluation of the purpose of the Law in Romans 3:19,
Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God (emphasis added).
One of the significant aspects of the Mosaic Law was to point people to God’s plan of salvation. No one was ever saved by keeping the Law because no one ever perfectly kept it. But many people were redeemed when they realized that there was no way they could keep the Law and that they needed a Saviour who could redeem them from their sins.
By using the phrase guilty before God, Paul specifically demonstrates that the purpose of the Law was to show a man his sins before God, not to humiliate the man in the presence of his peers. God’s rules seem to be specifically designed to enrich the relationship between God and man, not so men can attempt to impress each other with their rule-keeping righteousness. In thinking about God’s rules, we see that the purpose of them is to help establish a good relationship between God and man, not to help mankind to impress his fellows. God’s rules are designed to help us love God, not to help us lift ourselves up in pride above our peers. In that sense then, it is important to remember that God’s rules are about the God-to-Man Relationship, not about the Man-to-Man Relationship.
Obviously, God’s rules definitely deal with man-to-man relationships. Even in the Decalogue, we are commanded to honor our parents. But the primary purpose of God’s rules is to help us establish a loving relationship with God. When God’s rules help us realize our sinful condition, we understand that we need to come to God, acknowledging our guilt so that we can be redeemed. Once we are redeemed, our salvation allows us to establish a loving relationship with God—something that has been on His mind since the creation of the first man.
Misusing God’s Law
Because of the limitations of our knowledge and the sinful inclinations of our hearts, we humans often take the gifts God has given us and misuse them. The pistol that was designed to keep a man safe from attack is misused when its owner uses it to rob the local convenience store. Likewise, the rules that God gave us to establish a better relationship with him can be misused. One of the most common misuses of God’s rules is when we use the rules to built our pride instead of using the rules to build our humility.
Building Pride Before God
In contrast to using the Law to become “guilty before God” as Paul described in Romans 3:19, many people use the Law to declare themselves not guilty. An excellent example was the rich young ruler described in Matthew 19:16–22. Jesus, knowing full well that the purpose of the Law was to make us realize our guilt and knowing full well that “whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point…is guilty of all” (James 2:10), easily detected that the rich young ruler was completely misusing the Law. Instead of realizing his sinful state, the rich young ruler proclaimed that he had kept all the laws from his youth up. Instead of realizing his needy condition before God, he proudly asked, “What lack I yet?” (Matthew 19:20).
Paul made an astute observation about these people, declaring that they go “about to establish their own righteousness,” and their action of doing this demonstrates both their ignorance and their stubbornness.
For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. Romans 10:2–3
There is no doubt that many of the Jews of Jesus’s day went to great lengths to practice the religion of Judaism, nor is there any doubt that an impartial observer could fail to recognize how these people allowed religious rules to permeate every aspect of their lives. To return to the pistol analogy, they were skilled marksmen; but they were shooting the wrong target. They used the Law to prove how great they were instead of using it to prove how very much they needed a Saviour.
Building Pride Before Man
In the first-century Jewish world, class structure was clear. Certain groups, such as the Pharisees, were highly esteemed; other groups, like the publicans (tax collectors), were highly despised. In the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, Jesus laid bare the way that the Pharisees misused the Law. Not only did they use the Law improperly, never admitting guilt, they used the Law improperly to celebrate their status. As blatantly as some would say, “I am glad I am in the upper middle class, and I despise those who are poor,” the Pharisee of Luke 18:9–14 rejoiced that he was better than others.
The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. Luke 18:11–12
As though all of life were in convenient categories, the Pharisee said, in essence, “There are those who are extortioners, and there are those who are not. I am not.” He said, “There are those who are unjust, and there are those who are not. I am not.” He said, “There are those who are adulterers, and there are those who are not. I am not.” He said, “There are those who are publicans (tax collectors), and there are those who are not. I am not.”
Here, we see another example of how God’s rules were misused. When God gave a rule in the Garden of Eden, it was not so Adam and Eve could prove how great they were. When God gave the Law through Moses, it was not so one Israelite could arrogantly proclaim that he was a better man than some other Israelite. The use of the Law to celebrate categories is foreign to its original intent. “From the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8).
It was a complete and utter misuse of God’s rules for a Pharisee to say, “I am a Pharisee, and you are not. I fast twice in the week, and you do not. I follow the strict law of tithing, and you do not. I am in the right group, and you are not.” God’s rules were not given for the purpose of establishing our own righteousness. They were not given so we could celebrate how good we are. And when people of any place and any time use God’s rules in this way, they demonstrate zeal without knowledge. They demonstrate a heart that has not submitted to God (Romans 10:2–3).
A Shocking Misuse of the Law
In the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John, we find the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery, a story that is sometimes technically referred to as the pericope adulterae. This episode appears in John 8:3–11. Keeping in mind what we have already learned about God’s loving purposes for giving us rules, let us think of those thoughts as we read the story.
As we begin, let us remember that God gave us rules to help people, not to humiliate them. The story opens with the Pharisees demonstrating an astonishing lack of discretion.
And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, they say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. John 8:3–4
There is no hint of concern for this lady on the part of the Pharisees. For them, she was little more than an object lesson. When we recall the loving heart of God who prepared “every tree that is pleasant to the sight” for Adam and Eve, it is easy to recognize the Pharisees’ flagrant disregard for this woman’s welfare.
When God gave the Law, He gave it to help us have a closer relationship with Him. When we are thinking about the purpose of the Law, we should never forget the phrase that thou mayest love the Lord thy God. The Pharisees, however, were not motivated by any such ideas. Instead, they appear mostly interesting in how this lady’s difficulties could create a theological debate. They were hoping to trap Jesus in His words.
Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. John 8:5–6
There is an incredible distance between God, who lovingly planted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and gave them rules for their own well being, and these monstrous Pharisees who cruelly brought in this lady as an object lesson in a theological debate, a debate that was actually designed to harm our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ! It is hard to imagine any use of God’s Law further from its original intent!
Jesus answered the uncouth, unsubmissive, and self-serving Pharisees in the best possible way. He said nothing. Though He said nothing, His silence said everything. For right-thinking people, such a silence creates an opportunity of self-correction; but the Pharisees would have none of it. For right-thinking people, such a silence would be a stunning rebuke of the argument and all its premises. While the Son of God Himself was quiet, the Pharisees stubbornly continued in their heartless chatter.
But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself. John 8:6–7
When Jesus finally answered them, He not only pricked their conscience, He brought them back in line with one of the great purposes of the Law in the first place, so that they themselves could become guilty before God (Romans 3:19). The Pharisees flagrant misuse of the Law was demonstrated in they way they used it to condemn someone else and in the way that they used it as a debate tool. When Jesus responded to their theological nonsense, conviction set in; and they began to see themselves as God saw them: sinners who needed a Saviour.
He lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last. John 8:7–9
Here, Jesus masterfully turned the tables on the Pharisees. And the story, far from providing cover for sinful behavior, is entirely consistent with the Bible’s teaching about God’s rules. God gave us His rules to help and to heal us, not to humiliate us. In an awkward and ungodly effort to establish their own righteousness, the Pharisees had made “the word of God of none effect” (Mark 7:13) by mishandling, misusing, and abusing the Law of our loving Lord. The same love of God that was clearly evident in Deuteronomy 30, saying, “that thou mayest dwell in the land which the Lord sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them,” is evident once again in Jesus’s words to the lady.
When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. John 8:10–11
As we think about the reasons God gave us His rules in the first place, we may find several places in our own hearts that stand in need of correction.
- As parents, are our rules for our children designed with love? Are our rules designed to help our children flourish? Have we, by chance, created some rules because of a spirit of animosity that is in our hearts?
- As Christian leaders, are our rules for those in our churches, in our Christian schools, and in our various church ministries designed to nurture our people in a godly, loving environment? Are our rules designed to create an environment where human flourishing is possible? Have we, by chance, created a set of rules that generate “gotcha” moments for people who have the ability to irritate us?
- As we deal with people, even people in other churches, do we use our own rules to draw lines of distinction between “good people like us” and “bad people like them,” or do we have a heart that makes us want to do all we can to help other people grow in grace (II Peter 3:18)?
It may be that too many of our words, too many of our deeds, too many of our websites, and too many of our social media posts are, unfortunately, misappropriations of God’s rules. We may, in fact, be spending too much time using rules to demonstrate our own supposed spiritual superiority, too much time subtly or blatantly destroying the lives of others, too much time in the carnal act of determining who is in the “right group” and who is in the “wrong group” (I Corinthians 3:3). Could it be that we sometimes are using God’s rules as weapons to harm others instead of as tools to draw ourselves closer to the Lord?
Could it be that our thoughts and words have traveled too far from the Divine Lawgiver Himself? Could it be that we have forgotten His purposes and His tone when He said,
Therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live: that thou mayest love the Lord thy God, and that thou mayest obey his voice, and that thou mayest cleave unto him: for he is thy life, and the length of thy days: that thou mayest dwell in the land which the Lord sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them. Deuteronomy 30:19–20