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12. The Preamble to Israel’s Constitution (Exodus 19)


There is a contemporary Christian song which has become popular recently, which goes something like this: “take another lap around Mt. Sinai …” This, of course, refers to the wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness, due to their disobedience. If we were to relate the lyrics of that song to Exodus chapter 19, it would go something like this: “take another lap up Mt. Sinai,” and it would be addressed to Moses, not the Israelites.

When I read Exodus chapter 19, I have a somewhat silly picture which plays in my mind. It is the picture of a profusely sweating Moses, huffing and puffing his way up and down Mt. Sinai. (I have to confess that in my mental movie, Moses is wearing a jogging suit and tennis shoes, not the flowing robes which we read about in the Bible.) Four times in the chapter Moses ascends and descends that mountain. Now I realize that Mt. Sinai is no Mt. Everest, but nevertheless it must have caused Moses to feel every one of his 80 plus years. As much as my mental picture causes me to smile as I read this chapter, there are other impressions which are far more important, and much more deliberately designed.

The 19th chapter of Exodus serves as a preamble to the commandments given by God to Israel through Moses in the following chapter. It informs us as to the purpose of the commandments, as well as to the perspective we should have toward them. There are many opinions as to how the Christian of today should relate to these commandments. Some would suggest that the Law is really a curse, and not a source of blessing. Some would tell us that the Law has absolutely no relevance or application to the Christian, since we are “not under Law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14). I suggest to you that our text in Exodus chapter 19 strongly implies that the commandments which are about to be given through Moses are to be taken seriously by every believer, in every age.

This chapter divides into three major sections. In verses 1-6 we have the preface to the chapter, highlighted by the words of God to Israel, spoken to Moses in verses 4-6. Verses 7-15 constitute the second division, which pertains to the preparations required of the Israelites before God’s appearance to them on Mt. Sinai. The third section is made up of verses 16-25, which describe the appearance of God in splendor and majesty on Mt. Sinai. All of this is to set the scene for the deliverance of the Ten Commandments in chapter 20.

I am convinced that we will not appreciate the significance of the commandments in chapter 20 apart from a careful consideration of the “preamble” which is recorded in chapter 19. Our application of the Law will directly flow from our attitude toward the Law, and the purpose of chapter 19 is to shape our attitude toward the laws which follow.

God’s Purpose for the Decalogue

Verses 4-6 are the heart of the section, and some would go so far as to say they are the heart of the Old Testament revelation of God pertaining to His covenant with Israel. The first three verses set the stage for the pronouncement which God is about to make. Perhaps it is the third month “to the very day” (v. 1, cf. Exod. 12:41) that Israel is said to have arrived in the wilderness of Sinai. It may be that the Holy Spirit is reminding us by these words that Israel was right on schedule. They were precisely where God wanted them, when God wanted them there. It was here that the reunion of Moses’ family took place (Exodus 18:5). It was here that Israel would remain for 11 months (cf. Numbers 10:11).

Apparently it was not necessary for God to summon Moses. Verse three implies that Moses went up the mountain without any overt prompting from God. This may very well be due to the fact that it was here, on Mt. Horeb (which seems to by synonymous with Mt. Sinai) that Moses first encountered God (cf. Exodus 3 and 4). At the burning bush, God promised Moses that the nation would come to worship Him “at this mountain” (Exodus 3:12). Thus, Moses seemed to know that he was to ascend the mountain to speak with God.

From the mountain, God spoke some of the most significant words found in the Old Testament,201 words which Moses was to proclaim to the Israelites (vss. 3, 6b): “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6a).

These words convey several important truths:

(1) Israel’s history is proof of God’s faithfulness to His covenant, for He distinguished the Israelites from the Egyptians, delivering them and making them the special object of His care. In verse 4 God reminds the Israelites of the contrast between their fate at God’s hand at the exodus and that of the Egyptians. God brought about Israel’s deliverance, while at the same time He destroyed the Egyptians.

God uses a beautiful image here, that of the eagle’s care for its offspring. In the Book of Deuteronomy Moses explains the image more fully: “Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, That hovers over its young, He spread His wings and caught them, He carried them on His pinions” (Deuteronomy 32:11). While there were times when God seemed (to the Israelites) to have abandoned His people, in reality, God, like the mother eagle, was simply stirring up the nest, forcing the Israelites to “try their wings.” When Israel thought she was about to perish, God swooped beneath her, bearing her up. What a beautiful picture of the loving and compassionate care of God for His people. Israel’s past proved that God had dealt graciously with her, while at the same time He destroyed the Egyptians.

(2) Israel’s deliverance was for the purpose of being brought to God, so that the nation could be His prized possession and to serve Him as a priestly nation. In the Abrahamic Covenant, God promised Abraham that Israel would become great as a nation, the special object of His blessing. The blessing of Israel was also meant to be a source of blessing to all nations (Genesis 12:2). While this would ultimately be fulfilled by the coming of Messiah, there was also a more immediate application. God purposed to bless the nations by establishing Israel, His Servant, as a mediatorial people, who would be a “light to the Gentiles,” sharing with the nations the way of entering into fellowship with God.

(3) In order to maintain this privileged status, Israel must keep God’s covenant (as defined by the Law). Israel’s calling was to a position of both privilege and of responsibility. To whom much is given, much is required. Thus, in order to enjoy fellowship with God and to serve Him as His representative to the nations, Israel must reflect His holiness and purity. Israel was thus given the commandments, so that Israel would be distinct from the nations and God-like, so that they could fulfill their priestly calling.

Preparations for the Appearance of God

Moses conveyed the words which God had spoken to him on the mountain to the people (v. 7).202 Unanimously, the people responded, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” (v. 8) It is noteworthy that the Israelites agreed to do all that God commanded in principle, rather than in particular. That is, the Law has not yet been given. To this point, God has only indicated that the people must keep their covenant by obeying the laws which He is about to set down. This indicates to us the eagerness with which the Israelites anticipated the Law, as well as the implicit trust they had in the character of God, so that they could commit themselves to obedience without knowing what it is that they would obey.

Moses returned to the top of the mountain to convey the words of the people to God.203 Before he was able to speak, however, God revealed to Moses that He would appear to Moses in a thick cloud. The purpose for this appearance is not what we would have expected: “Behold, I shall come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe in you forever” (v. 9). God was going to speak with Moses as Israel watched and listened, so that his leadership would be evident to the people. In light of later (not to mention earlier) events, when Moses’ authority would be challenged, God purposes to clearly establish Moses’ position and authority publicly. His appearance to Moses will accomplish this purpose.

Verses 10-15 outline the steps which the Israelites must take in order to purify and prepare themselves for the appearance of God on the third day. During the two day interval, a number of things were to be done:

(1) Boundaries were to be set, barring both man and beast from coming in contact with the mountain (vss. 12-14). Any man or beast which touched the mountain was to die. Death was not to come from the hand of God, but from the hand of the Israelites (vss. 12-13). Execution must occur in such a way that no one would touch the executed person (v. 13).

(2) The people were to consecrate themselves by washing their garments (vss. 10, 14).

(3) The people were to abstain from sexual intimacy prior to God’s visitation on Mt. Sinai (v. 15). There was, of course, nothing evil or defiling about normal marital sexual relations, but, as the Law would later spell out, there was a ceremonial uncleanness. Thus, until God’s visitation sexual abstinence was required.

What is it that makes violating the boundaries God has set such a serious matter? Why would God demand that anyone who touches the mountain be put to death? Usually we think of “capital punishment” as the penalty for a grievous sin, such as murder or adultery. Why would execution be required here, however? Is this not unduly severe? And why would God require the person to be killed by the Israelites? Why would he not be stricken dead by God?

The text does not provide us with the answers to these questions directly, but I would like to make several suggestions, which would help to explain the severity of this offense of overstepping the barriers which were set up at the base of the mountain.

(1) We must acknowledge that the offense of violating the boundaries is an offense of the highest order, and thus worthy of the same punishment as a murderer would receive. The severity of the penalty is our clue to the seriousness of the violation. The violation here is one that must be most serious, if not in our eyes, it is at least so to God.

(2) The sin which is punishable by death appears to be that of irreverence. The barriers which were constructed at the foot of the mountain made it impossible for one to inadvertently wander onto the mountain. The reason stated for pressing past these barriers is that of gazing (v. 21)—we would say “gawking.” In other words, it was curiosity which would have motivated people to draw too close to the mountain.

To press past the barriers which were constructed to satisfy one’s curiosity would be to demonstrate an attitude of irreverence. It is this irreverence which God finds such a serious sin. If you are not inclined to agree with me as to the seriousness of irreverence, let me remind you that it was irreverence which resulted in Uzzah being struck dead, even though his intentions (to keep the ark from falling from the ox cart) were well-meaning (2 Samuel 6:6-7). It was also Moses’ irreverence (in the striking of the rock) which kept him from entering into the promised land (Numbers 20:12).

But why was it irreverent to touch the mountain? The answer to this question is clearly given in our text. The mountain was to be constituted a “holy mountain” due to the fact that God would manifest Himself to Moses and to the Israelites there. Thus, just as the ground around the burning bush was holy (Exod. 3:5), so the mountain was holy as well. This is the reason why the mountain was to be “consecrated” by placing boundaries around it (v. 23).

If irreverence is such a serious sin, it is surely one about which we should be most sensitive. And yet, I find few (including myself) who are conscious of this evil, let alone sensitive to it in their own personal relationship with God, or in their worship.

(3) Irreverence is the byproduct of an inadequate sense of the holiness of God. The Israelites did not, as yet, have an adequate grasp of the holiness of God. The manifestation of God on Mt. Sinai was a spectacular demonstration of God’s power and majesty. His coming necessitated preparatory consecration, and it also motivated continual consecration, as men could see themselves in the light of His glory and grace. The purpose of this passage is intended, I believe, to serve as an antidote to irreverence. Let us therefore consider the final section of the chapter, which highlights the majesty and holiness of God.

The Manifestation of God on the Mountain

Don Curtis, one of my friends with whom I have studied this text, shared with me that he has come to view chapter 19 something like a wedding ceremony. First, there is the engagement, the announcement of the purpose of a man and woman to be married and to enter into a new and wonderful relationship. Then, before the wedding ceremony, there is a period both of preparation (making plans, perhaps making the wedding dress, showers, etc.) and of anticipation. Traditionally, the groom does not see the bride before the ceremony, heightening the sense of expectation. Then, there is the ceremony, a time of beauty and joyous celebration.

Don’s suggestion caught my attention, for this is very much what we see in this passage. The first section (vss. 1-6) contains God’s announcement: His purpose to have a unique relationship with Israel, set apart from every other nation. The second section (vss. 7-15) describes the preparations which were required for the appearance of God to come. And now, in this final section, we are overwhelmed with the splendor and the majesty of God as He manifests Himself to Israel on the mountain. Here is the grand finale, the manifestation of God in all of His majesty, purity, and power.

The sights and sounds are impossible to fully comprehend, and not easily brought to our conscious minds as we read the chapter. But let us use our imaginations for a moment and try to recreate in our minds what it must have been like to have been standing at the base of that mountain as God descended upon it.

On the morning of the third day, you are already tingling with the sense of expectation your two days of preparations have produced. While still in your tent, thunder and lightning commence (v. 16). A thick cloud encompasses the mountain. Then, the piercing blast of a trumpet fills the air. Along with all the other Israelites, you begin to tremble, with excitement, but mainly with fear.

At the command of Moses, you gather with the whole congregation of the Israelites at the base of the mountain (v. 17). As you look on, the Lord descends upon the mountain in fire, with smoke billowing from the mountain (v. 18). Suddenly, the whole mountain quakes violently. The trumpet begins to sound again, each time getting louder and louder (v. 19). Moses speaks and God responds with thunder. It would seem that all of the forces of nature have been summoned to salute their Creator, as He manifests Himself to His people on Mt. Sinai.204 If the sight of the burning bush was awesome to Moses, what impact must this scene have had on the Israelites? Other portions of Scripture205 signal the fact that this made a great impression on the people of God.

Moses alone was summoned to the top of the mountain to meet God (v. 20). He was told to go back down to the people and to warn them not to draw too near to the mountain to gaze at the spectacular scene which was taking place (v. 21). The priests,206 too, were to consecrate themselves, lest they be smitten of God (v. 22). When Moses descended this time, he was to return with Aaron (v. 24). Their leadership was thereby confirmed.

The Problem With Our Passage

If we grasp the mood of Exodus 19 as one of glory and splendor, then we must come to the conclusion that the way the giving of the Law is portrayed here is in contrast to the way we look at the Law from the perspective of the New Testament. The problem we face is this: the giving of the Law was not the tragic imposition of a horrible system upon a reluctant nation, but rather the glorious giving of the Law by God to His people, in an occasion marked by splendor and the glory of God. The problem with acknowledging this fact is that it seems to fly in the face of the New Testament, which, we believe, speaks disparagingly of the Law, and describes its coming more in terms of a curse than a blessing. In the New Testament we do find texts which seem to disdain the Law:

But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved in stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, how shall the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory? (2 Cor. 3:7-8).

For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them.” Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “The righteous man shall life by faith.” However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “He who practices them shall live by them” (Gal. 3:10-12).

But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain (Gal. 4:9-11).

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law (Gal. 5:18).

For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under Law, but under grace (Rom. 6:14).

Our problem, then, is to attempt to reconcile the positive perspective of the Law which we find in the Old Testament with the negative connotations it has in the New. Our approach will be to gain a broader grasp of the Law, as it was viewed in both the Old and the New Testaments. We will begin by considering the Law as a corporate entity, defining the relationship between God and the nation Israel, and then as a private source of revelation and inspiration to the individual Old Testament saint. From here, we will move on to the New Testament perspective of the Law as indicated by our Lord’s attitudes and actions, and those of the apostles.

The Law was Israel’s corporate covenant with God and her constitution as a nation. Repeatedly, the Law which God gave Israel through Moses was referred to as a covenant (Exod. 19:5; 24:7-8; 34:10, 27-28; Deut. 4:23; 5:2). The three principle covenants of the Old Testament were the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12:1-3), the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7:11-16; 1 Chronicles 17:10-14), and the Mosaic (or Sinaitic) covenant. The Mosaic covenant is different from the other two covenants.207 This was a covenant which was provisional, and which was to be replaced by a “new covenant” which would be an eternal covenant:208

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My Law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34; cf. also Isaiah 55:3; 61:8; Ezekiel 37:26).

The Law contained not only the regulations of God, but also the account of God’s mercy and grace in saving and keeping His people. Each generation was to teach the next generation the goodness of God, and each new generation was to ratify the covenant for itself:

For He established a testimony in Jacob, And appointed a Law in Israel, Which He commanded our fathers, That they should teach them to their children; That the generation to come might know, even the children yet to be born. That they should put their confidence in God, And not forget the works of God, But keep His commandments (Ps. 78:5-7).

Thus, the second generation of Israelites was reminded of God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt, and of God’s care and protection up to the time of their entrance into the promised land (Deuteronomy 1-4; also the account of the exodus, as recorded in the Book of Exodus). It was necessary for this new generation to ratify the covenant for themselves (Deuteronomy 5). Later, when the Law was misplaced and then discovered, that generation also ratified the Law (2 Chronicles 34:14ff.). The Israelites who returned to Jerusalem upon their return from captivity heard the Law and accepted the covenant for themselves (Nehemiah 8 and 9; cf. especially 9:38).

The Mosaic covenant was never given as a means of earning righteousness by Law-keeping. The covenant was given to the Israelites after God had delivered them from Egypt. The Law could not be kept, except by God’s grace, and provisions were made (the sacrificial system) for men when they would fail to abide by the Law. The new covenant was promised because the Mosaic covenant could not be kept by Israel (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Whenever Israel failed with regard to the Law, it was not just a matter of violating the Law in some minute particular, but it was a result of unbelief: “Therefore the Lord heard and was full of wrath, And a fire was kindled against Jacob, And anger also mounted against Israel; Because they did not believe in God, Nor trust in His salvation” (Ps. 78:21-22; cf. also, vss. 32-33, 37).

The proper interpretation and application of the Law can best be determined by a study of the Old Testament prophets, whose task it was to call Israel to obedience to the Law. These prophets persisted in fighting a legalistic interpretation and application of the Law. They always sought to focus upon the essence of the Law, rather than upon mere particulars of its expression:

For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. But like Adam they have transgressed the covenant; There they have dealt treacherously against Me (Hosea 6:6-7).

With what shall I come to the Lord And bow myself before the God on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, With yearling calves? Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, In ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my first-born for my rebellious acts, The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8).

The Law (in its broadest form—the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible) was intended to serve as a record of God’s faithfulness to His promises and to His people. The ten commandments, along with the rest of the laws of God, was given to serve as the covenant between God and His people, and as their national constitution, by which the nation would be guided and governed.

The Law was also God’s personal revelation to individual saints. In addition to the public, corporate role of the Law as Israel’s (collective) covenant and constitution, the Law also had a private role to play in the life of the Old Testament saint. This role of the Law is readily seen in the Psalms. We shall focus our attention on two specific psalms, Psalms 19 and 119. Notice the crucial role the Law has in the life of the individual saint, as reflected by the psalmist in Psalm 19:

The Law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether. They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them Thy servant is warned; In keeping them there is great reward (Psalm 19:7-11).

Let me suggest some of the specific ways which the Law applied to the individual saint:

(1) The Law was seen as a source of personal edification, through which God spoke personally to the individual saint: Restoring his soul (19:7); Making the simple wise (19:7); Rejoicing his heart (19:8); Enlightening his eyes (19:8); Providing guidance (119:105); Reviving him (119:154); Convicting him of sin (119:80, 126, 133; Ps. 19:11-14).

(2) The Law was a revelation of God’s character (Ps. 119:138, 156).

(3) The Law was a promise of future salvation (Ps. 119:166, 174). The psalmists never view the Law as the standard they must keep in order to be saved. In fact, they viewed salvation as something which the Law anticipated, but did not produce itself. Thus, the psalms look forward to a future salvation, one which the Law itself will not bring about.

(4) The Law was a consolation to the sufferer, but it was not viewed as a means by which one could earn blessings or avoid adversity (cf. Ps. 119:67, 71, 75). Rather than seeing the Law as the means to keep him from suffering, the psalmist saw suffering as God’s means of bringing him to the Law.

(5) From the Law the psalmist learned that he could neither understand nor apply this revelation, apart from God’s grace (Ps. 119:68, 73, 124-125, 144, 169). The psalmist understood that the Law required God’s grace to understand and to apply.

(6) The Law was simple, yet profound. It would not be grasped quickly and easily, but only through study, prayer, and meditation (Ps. 119:114, 123, 147).

New Testament Perspectives of the Law

There is great continuity between the New Testament and the Old in terms of their perspectives of the Law. We will focus our attention on two dimensions of the New Testament perspective of the Law: that of our Lord, and that of the apostles (primarily Paul).

Our Lord and the Law. Some think that our Lord disdained and disregarded the Law, based upon a misunderstanding of two events. When our Lord was confronted with the self-righteously indignant scribes and Pharisees, who demanded that Jesus stone the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:2-11), Jesus refused to do so. This is taken by some to mean that He refused to comply with the Old Testament Law. Note, however, that Jesus did not forbid them from stoning her, only that those who were without sin should do so (thus exposing their hypocrisy). But our Lord was without sin, why then did He not stone her? The reason is not that Jesus came to set aside the Law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). This He would do by living up to all of its demands, which proved Him to be sinless and also qualified Him to die for the sins of men, thus bearing the penalty which the Law pronounces on all men. This woman who was guilty of adultery would not be stoned by our Lord because He had come to die in her place. The requirement of the Law for her sin (and that of all men) would soon be met on the cross of Calvary.

The second source of misunderstanding is the misconception of our Lord’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. The frequent expression, “You have heard … but I say” is not our Lord’s overturning of the Law. He did not mean, “The Law formerly taught … but I now teach.” Instead, He is correcting the wrong interpretation of the Law, as believed and proclaimed by the scribes and Pharisees. “You have heard” therefore refers to the pharisaic interpretation of the Law. “But I say” indicates our Lord’s interpretation of the Law, indeed, that interpretation which God had always intended men to understand.

When you compare the Lord’s interpretation of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount with that of the Old Testament prophets, you find them to be virtually identical. Both the prophets of old and the Lord focused upon the essence of the Law, both in motivation and application, while the legalistic scribes and Pharisees “majored on the minors,” the details of the Law.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:23-25).

One need only compare these words with Micah 6:6-8, and then to note how Jesus reiterated the words of Hosea 6:6 (Matthew 9:13; 12:7) to see that there was no discrepancy between His interpretation of the Law and that of the Old Testament prophets.

As I have reflected on our Lord’s teaching on the Law of the Old Testament, I believe it is safe to say that our Lord placed much more emphasis on the private or individual use of the Law than He did on the corporate function of the Law, as Israel’s covenant and constitution. This is consistent with the fact that this dimension of the Law is soon to be set aside, replaced by the new covenant. The private use of the Law, that is, the individual use of the Law as demonstrated in Psalms 19 and 119, would continue on, and thus would be that function our Lord would emphasize.

Most importantly, however, our Lord’s coming to earth and His sacrificial death on Calvary was the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise of a new covenant. Thus, our Lord instituted the “Lord’s table” as a commemoration of the “new covenant” which was accomplished through His shed blood: “And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood’” (Luke 22:20; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:25). Our Lord did not disdain the Law, but He affirmed it, affirming its demands, fulfilling them completely, and then dying on behalf of all those who could not meet its requirements. If the Law were evil our Lord would not have complied with it, taught it, and died in accordance with its demands.

The apostles’ attitude toward the Law. No apostle is more outspoken about the Law than Paul. Because of his negative statements about the Law, we often fail to overlook his favorable comments. It is Paul who spoke of the glory with which the Law was first given: “But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, how shall the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory?” (2 Corinthians 3:7-8).

Paul also defended the Law as that which was “Holy,” “righteous,” “good,” and “spiritual” (Romans 7:12, 14). At the first reading of 1 Timothy chapter 1, one might conclude that the Law was good, but only with regard to those who are evil (cf. 1 Timothy 1:8-10). A more careful reading informs us that Paul not only included himself as one of those “evil” people who needed the Law in the past (v. 13), but that he still considered himself as “chief of sinners” (v. 15). Thus, Paul saw the Law as applicable to himself, even as a saint.

What, then, are we to say of those texts which seem to condemn the Law as something which is evil (at worst) and worthless (at best)? First, we must see that Paul speaks demeaningly of the Law (the old covenant) only in contrast209 to the new covenant which was implemented by the death of our Lord. Thus, in 2 Corinthians chapter 3 Paul contrasts the glory attending the giving of the Law with the greater glory associated with the ministry of the Spirit. This is not a contrast between what is evil and what is good, but rather between what was good and that which is far better. The Law is therefore viewed by the apostles as that which was prophetic—it foreshadowed the better things to come (Colossians 2:16-17; Hebrews 10:1), and that which was provisional and preparatory (Galatians 3 and 4).

When Paul speaks absolutely disparagingly of “the Law” it is not of the Law as given by God and properly interpreted and applied, but the Law as interpreted and applied by the Judaizers, who sought to pervert the Law into a system of works-oriented righteousness. It is vitally important to approach each passage which deals with the Law in the light of its context. In Romans chapter 7, for example, the context is living the Christian life. Paul is showing that the flesh is incapable of resisting the power of sin and thus of producing righteousness. The problem is not the Law, for it is “holy, righteous, and good” (7:12). The problem is the flesh, which is weak (vss. 18-24). The solution to the problem is not to do away with the requirements of the Law, but to fulfill the Law by walking in the Spirit. Those who walk in the Spirit fulfill the requirement of the Law (Romans 8:4).

In the Book of Galatians, Paul is fighting the false doctrine of the Judaizers, who insist that men are saved by submitting themselves to the Mosaic covenant, as signified by circumcision. This is nothing less than heresy, and must be adamantly rejected. The “Law” to which Paul refers in Galatians is thus the “Law” as interpreted and applied by the legalizers. Thus, Paul can write, “And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by Law; you have fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:3-4). In this context “Law” refers to the legalistic doctrine of the Judaizers.

In order to refute the false teaching of the Judaizers concerning the Law, Paul finds it necessary to teach the proper perspective of the Law. When Paul interprets the Old Testament Law, he does so in a way that is completely consistent with the Old Testament prophets and our Lord. The Law, writes Paul, was provisional and preparatory, and was superseded by the new covenant. The Law (as given by God) was not bad, it was good—but the new covenant is far better. With this conclusion the writer to the Hebrews agrees (Hebrews 8:1-13; 10:1-18). The verdict of Christ and of the apostles is unanimous, and consistent with the viewpoint of Moses and the prophets.


We can say with conviction that the giving of the Law as described in the Book of Exodus was a glorious occasion. The Law was a gracious provision of God for the nation Israel, albeit a temporary one. The new covenant would be far better, but the old covenant was a necessary prerequisite and preparation. What, then, are the practical outworkings of our text? These can best be seen in the light of the differences between the old covenant and the new.

The old covenant was introduced in a blaze of glory. All Israel beheld the manifestation of the glory and power of God as He descended upon the mountain. There was an immediate sense of the holiness of God which gripped the entire congregation of Israel. It was not so difficult for the Israelites to appreciate the distance which God kept between Himself and the people. Indeed, the people urged Moses to intercede and to mediate between them and God, fearing to be near Him (cf. Exodus 20:18-20; Deuteronomy 5:22-27). Whether due to the boundaries established at God’s orders, or to the fear of the Israelites of God, the people kept their distance.

The new covenant was introduced quite differently. The old covenant was commenced with a public appearance of God to Israel, displaying to all His majesty and might. A select few enjoyed intimate contact with God (namely Moses, Aaron, and the elders, cf. Exodus 24:9-18). The new covenant was introduced by the appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ to Israel. His coming was quite the opposite. He came as the child of poor parents, who could not even find suitable housing, so that the child was born in a cattle trough. His glory was manifested to a very few. At His birth and in His early life, a few humble people were given a glimpse of His majesty and power. Later, at His baptism and transfiguration, only a select few were privileged to witness His glory. Rather than the barriers which kept men away from God, on threat of death, the multitudes pressed upon on the Lord and touched Him.

Thus, in the first covenant God’s majesty and might were manifested to all, but a select few could draw near. In the new covenant, all who wished could draw near, but only a few beheld His majesty. The first manifestation of God on Mount Sinai portrayed the marvelous truth of the holiness of God, and the separation which that demands. The second manifestation of our Lord (on Mount Calvary) revealed the marvelous grace of God, by which He drew near to men and by which we may draw near to Him. How careful we must be to keep both the holiness and the grace of God in perspective. There are some that stress the grace of God to the point of diminishing the truth of His holiness, and of our need for purity. There are others (not many) who so emphasize the holiness of God that men despair of ever having intimate fellowship with Him. The coming of our Lord makes it possible for men to have intimate fellowship with the same God who was manifested on Mt. Sinai.

The message of the gospel is evident in what we see here. The barriers which were, of necessity, constructed to keep men from God at the giving of the old covenant have all been taken away by the institution of the new covenant. The veil which kept men from the presence of God has been severed. The barrier of our sins has been torn down. This is because the holiness which the Law requires has been fulfilled by the Lord Jesus Christ, just as the penalty of death which the Law pronounces on every sinner has been born by the same Savior, on the cross of Calvary.

Let all those who would point to the gentle Jesus, who refused to cast the first stone at the woman caught in adultery, comforted by His refusal to condemn her, be reminded that He is the same God who was so holy that men dreaded even to approach Him, let alone offend Him on Mt. Sinai. Let them also be warned that this same Lord will, one final time, manifest Himself to men on a mountain, in the same splendor and awesome power that God appeared on Mt. Sinai:

And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which is in front of Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives will be split in its middle from east to west by a very large valley, so that half of the mountain will move toward the north and the other half toward the south. And you will flee by the valley of My mountains, for the valley of the mountains will reach to Azel; yes, you will flee just as you fled before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the Lord, my God, will come, and all the holy ones with Him! (Zechariah 14:4-5).

In that day, those who have trusted in God will rejoice in the presence of God, but His enemies will flee. The God who has drawn near in Jesus Christ will return in splendor and glory, to reward the righteous and to render judgment on the wicked. Let us rejoice in the holiness and in the grace of God. Let us look forward to His appearance because we belong to Him. And let us, like Israel, prepare for His appearance by the purification which He requires, and which His Spirit accomplishes.

A final word on the application of the Law to the lives of Christians today. Surely we can see that the standard of the Law is still valid, as indicated in Romans 8:4. Also, we should be cautioned about trying to apply those aspects of the Law which have been done away with by the new covenant. We should not attempt to apply the Law to our nation and our government (as a covenant and a constitution) in the way Israel was commanded to do. Nevertheless, we are now the kingdom of priests, having been given that holy task which Israel was given and failed to fulfill. We should therefore understand that the standards for God’s kingdom of priests would be the same. The means of reaching this standard is not that of human effort at Law-keeping. It never was, and it never will be. We can never fully meet this standard, but in Christ it has been met. We can never achieve it in this life, but since Christ lives in us, we can expect evidences of righteousness because He is at work in us to will and to do His good pleasure.

The personal application of the Law, as seen in Psalms 19 and 119 is still valid and necessary for the Christian today. We should therefore come to a love of God’s Law and a delight in it that approaches that of the saints of old. Let us learn to love God’s Law and to see its beauty, because it is holy, righteous, and good, and because it has been fulfilled in Christ.

201 Gispen cites others to show the importance of the revelation contained in verses 4-6: “These words were spoken out of unfathomable love, which have been considered the center and theme of the entire Pentateuch (e.g., by Rupprecht, a conservative German Old Testament scholar, and Dillmann, who calls vv. 3-6 ‘the classic pronouncement of the Old Testament concerning the nature and purpose of the theocratic covenant’).” Gispen, p. 180.

202 This was done by means of the elders (v. 7). Due to the size of the nation, the elders would be told the message by Moses, and they would then convey it to the rest of the nation.

203 The mediatorial role of Moses is evident here, for God surely did not need to be told what the people had said. Notice that in verse 8 Moses returned to convey the words of the people to God, but that were reported as spoken by Moses in verse 9b. Before Moses spoke, God informed him of His appearance in a thick cloud, an appearance which would reveal the majesty and splendor of God (v. 9a).

204 The manifestation of the majesty of God on Mt. Sinai serves, I believe, as a commentary on these words of our Lord, spoken in response to the rebuke of the Pharisees for receiving the praise of the people as He entered Jerusalem: “I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!” (Luke 19:40). Nature responds to the presence of God, even when men are ignorant of it.

205 Cf., for example, Deut. 4:10-15; 5:2-6; Psalm 18:8-16.

206 We might be caught by surprise to see priests referred to here, since the priesthood had not yet been established. Let it suffice to say that many of the things formally established by the Law given at Sinai were already existent in some form already. Sacrifice, for example, predated the inauguration of the sacrificial system of the Law. Sabbath rest (cf. Exodus 16:22-30) predated the commandment to observe the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11).

207 “… most Old Testament scholars link the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants on royal grant types of treaties. … But the Sinaitic covenant is placed on a different footing even though it shares much of the same substance with the Abrahamic and Davidic promises. It is not modeled on royal grant treaties, but on a vassal treaty form.” Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1983), p. 76.

208 Cf. Ezekiel 16:60; 37:26; Isaiah 55:3; 59:21.

209 In summary form, here are some of the contrasts between the old and the new covenants: Mosaic Covenant: (1) Provisional; (2) Partial (a shadow); (3) Taken advantage of by Law (Rom. 7); (4) Prophetic/prototype; (5) Good; (6) Written on Stone; (7) Conditional; (8) Condemnation. New covenant: (1) Permanent; (2) Complete; (3) Nullifies the condemnation of Law; (4) Final, fulfilment; (5) Best; (6) Written on hearts; (7) Unconditional; (8) Justification.

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