The Role of the Law for Christians (Exodus 20:1-24:18)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
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It can be a challenge for a Christian to draw a point from a verse in the book of Exodus or especially Leviticus, and then suggest how that lesson should be applied today. Anyone who tries this should be prepared for the comeback, “Sure, but the Bible also permits slavery and says we can’t eat bacon or shrimp! Plus, I don’t think God really cares if my clothes are a cotton-polyester blend” (Exod. 21:2-11; Lev. 11:7, 12; and 19:19, respectively). Since this happens even within Christian circles, we should not be surprised to find difficulties when applying the Bible to the subject of work in the public sphere. How are we to know what applies today and what doesn’t? How do we avoid the charge of inconsistency in our handling of the Bible? More importantly, how do we let God’s word truly transform us in every area of life? The diversity of laws in Exodus and the Pentateuch presents one type of challenge. Another comes from the variety of ways that Christians understand and apply Torah and the Old Testament in relationship to Christ and the New Testament. Still, the issue of Torah in Christianity is crucial and must be addressed in order for us to glean anything about what this part of the Bible says concerning our work. The following brief treatment aims to be helpful without being overly narrow.

The New Testament’s relationship to the law is complex. It includes both Jesus’ saying that “Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law” (Matt. 5:18) and Paul’s statement that “we are discharged from the law…not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:6). These are not two opposing statements, but two ways of saying a common reality—that the Torah continues to reveal God’s gift of justice, wisdom, and inner transformation to those he has brought to new life in Christ. God gave the Torah as an expression of his holy nature and as a consequence of his great deliverance. Reading the Torah makes us aware of our inherent sinfulness and of our need for a remedy in order for us to live at peace with God and one another. God expects his people to obey his instructions by applying them to real issues of life both great and small. The specific nature of some laws does not mean God is an unrealistic perfectionist. These laws help us to understand that no issue we face is too small or insignificant for God. Even so, the Torah is not just about outward behavior, for it addresses matters of the heart such as coveting (Exod. 20:17). Later, Jesus would condemn not just murder and adultery, but the roots of anger and lust as well (Matt. 5:22, 28).

However, obeying the Torah by applying it to the real issues of life today does not equate to repeating the actions that Israel performed thousands of years ago. Already in the Old Testament we see hints that some parts of the law were not intended to be permanent. The tabernacle certainly was not a permanent structure and even the temple was demolished at the hands of Israel’s enemies (2 Kgs. 25:9). Yet Jesus spoke of his own sacrificial death and resurrection when he said he would raise the destroyed “temple” in three days (John 2:19). In some important sense, he embodied all that the temple, its priesthood, and its activities stood for. Jesus’ declaration about food—that it is not what goes into people that makes them unclean—meant that the specific food laws of the Mosaic Covenant were no longer in force (Mark 7:19).[1] Moreover, in the New Testament the people of God live in various countries and cultures around the world where they have no legal authority to apply the sanctions of the Torah. The apostles considered such issues and, under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, decided that the particulars of the Jewish law did not in general apply to Gentile Christians (Acts 15:28-29).

When asked about which commandments were most important, Jesus’ answer was not controversial in light of the theology of his time. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31).[2]

Much in the New Testament confirms the Torah, not only in its negative commands against adultery, murder, theft, and coveting, but also in its positive command to love one another (Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:14). According to Timothy Keller, “The coming of Christ changed how we worship, but not how we live.”[3] This is not surprising, given that in the new covenant, God said he would put his law within his people and write it on their hearts (Jer. 31:33; Luke 22:20). Israel’s faithfulness to the laws of Mosaic Covenant depended on their determination to obey them. In the end, only Jesus could accomplish this. On the other hand, new covenant believers do not work that way. According to Paul, “We serve in the new way of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:6 NIV).

For our purposes in considering the theology of work, the previous explanation suggests several points that may help us to understand and apply the laws in Exodus that relate to the workplace. The specific laws dealing with proper treatment of workers, animals, and property express abiding values of God’s own nature. They are to be taken seriously but not slavishly. On the one hand, items in the Ten Commandments are worded in general terms and may be applied freely in varied contexts. On the other hand, particular laws about servants, livestock, and personal injuries exemplify applications in the specific historical and social context of ancient Israel, especially in areas that were controversial at the time. These laws are illustrative of right behavior but do not exhaust every possible application. Christians honor God and his law not only by regulating our behavior, but also by allowing the Holy Spirit to transform our attitudes, motives, and desires (Rom. 12:1-2). To do anything less would amount to sidestepping the work and will of our Lord and Savior. Christians should always seek how love may guide our policies and behaviors.