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Exodus 20:22-24:18: God in the Law Print E-mail
Sunday, 30 August 2009

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The character of God is not something we study just so that we can know more about God.  Granted, we do want to know about Him and we want to learn this through faithful study of His Word, where He has revealed Himself to us.  Yet, this is not the only reason to study Godís character.  Another reason is so that we can know how to live as His followers.  Through the work of Christ we are being re-created into the image of God.  We are being transformed more and more into the image of our Savior.  Thus, as we study what the Word reveals about God, we are studying what it means to live out our faith in Him.

We see this in the history of Israel that we have been studying in Exodus.  They have been rescued out of slavery in Egypt, brought through the Red Sea, and provided with food, water, and victory.  Last week, we saw that they had arrived at Mt. Sinai.  The Lord gave them the 10 commandments and called them to a life of fear and obedience.  But the commandments do not stop with just the ten.  No, beginning in 20:22 and going until 23:33 the Lord gives them further instructions about how they are to live. 

This section is probably the ĎBook of the Covenantí that is referred to in 24:7.  It is more than just further explanation of the 10 commandments, although there is some overlap.  It deals with various issues, ranging from the building of altars to laws about property to what to do with a sorceress.  It obviously does not deal with every situation or every circumstance that might come up in life.  But it does cover a wide enough variety of things so that Israel can know how to live.  Of course, the difficult question for us is what do we do with these commands?  That is not an easy question to answer and I will not solve all the problems that surround it in this sermon.  Yet, the approach I want to take is in asking another question, namely: what does the law teach us about God?  I want to answer this question first and come back to the other question as we close.  So then, what does the law teach us about God?

First, it teaches us that God is holy.

In one sense we could say that this goes without saying, right?  I mean of course God is holy.  We know that.  Yet, when we read and study these texts in the Old Testament, we need to take the time to notice just how Godís holiness is described.  As with so many things, we have a tendency to downplay Godís holiness.  However, going back to what we said earlier, if we are called to reflect Godís character in our lives, then it would do us good to meditate on the holiness of our God.  Thus, letís consider how this passage describes the holiness of God.

First, in the instructions for the building of altars, we see Godís holiness in a few ways.  As was clear in the Ten Commandments, God tells them not to make any images of Him, neither out of gold or silver.  Then He gives them instructions about building altars of stone.  Look at 20:25.  God is so holy, so other than we are, that if they use their tools on the stones they will profane them.  Not only that, they are told in verse 26 to not build steps to avoid being exposed when they sacrifice. 

Second, in His commands against a sorceress, bestiality, and worshipping other gods we see His holiness.  Look at 22:18-20.  It seems that all of these commands are possible references to how others worshipped their gods.  God will not tolerate that among His people.  I should note at this point as well that God does this for the good of the people.  False gods and false worship would lead them astray.  His holiness, as seen in His commands, protects us from ourselves at times.  We see more commands concerning worship in 22:28-31 and 23:13-19.  Look at 23:13-19 with me.  Israel is not to worship other gods and they are called to worship the true God in the ways that He has prescribed, namely the three Feasts mentioned here.  In keeping these feasts they are to do what He says: use no leaven, bring only the best of the firstfruits, and do not boil a young goat in its motherís milk.  Some of these make more sense than others, but we see the emphasis on obeying Godís command to worship Him in His way.  One more part of the passage speaks of Godís people steering clear of other gods.  In 23:20-33, the Lord tells the people that He is leading them to Canaan to give them the land.  Yet, look at His warning in verses 23-24.  Look also at verses 32-33.  God commands that His people worship Him and Him alone for their good and because of His holiness.  The Lord is holy in the details.  He is not to be worshipped as other gods are worshipped.  He is set apart.  His holiness is never to be taken lightly.  These are some of the lessons concerning His holiness that we see in the Law.

Second, the Law teaches that God is just.

God expects His people to be just in their dealings with one another.  We see this in numerous places.  First, we see justice emphasized in the sins that are punishable by death.  Look at 21:12-17.  All of these sins are to be punished by death.  This is not the place to get into arguments over the justness of the death penalty, but it is hard to avoid some conclusions here.  God commands that these sins be punished in a just manner.  Of course, verse 17 may seem harsh, but the idea here is more serious than the English communicates.  However you take it, we see again the importance of honoring our father and mother. 

Second, we see justice emphasized in the commands concerning striking another person.  These run from 21:18-27, but just look at verses 22-25.  This is the famous Ďlex talionis,í the eye for an eye approach.  Again, much could be said here, but I just want us to note the principle of justice here. 

Third, justice is emphasized in situations of irresponsible action.  At times, an ox would injure someone and kill them.  If this was the first time, then the ox would be killed.  Yet, if the ox was known to do this, then the owner was responsible as well.  Look at 21:29-32.  The owner is held responsible for not handling the situation properly.  Fourth, justice is repeatedly the principle behind the commands concerning restitution.  Whether itís an animal, or a field, or money, or whatever, the people are to deal justly with one another. 

Finally, the Lord commands that there be justice in the courts.  Look at 23:1-3, 6-8.  These commands help us understand the ninth commandment concerning not bearing false witness.  Notice verse 3 and verse 6.  You shall not be partial to person because they are poor, nor are you to pervert the justice that is due them.  The Lord expects and commands His people to treat each other with justice.  He is just and commands justice.

Third, the Law teaches that God is compassionate.

After our look at Godís command to be just, we might be wondering if God is loving and merciful at all.  He is.  We see His compassion toward several different groups in these chapters. 

First, He is compassionate and expects compassion toward Hebrew slaves.  Look at 21:1-11.  Before we comment on these verses, we must first ask a hard question: why is slavery even allowed among the Israelites?  Part of the difficulty in understanding these passages regarding slavery is our misunderstanding of the culture.  In this culture, if a person could not provide for themselves or their family, then they could sell themselves into slavery to provide.  In this sense, slavery is more service or work.  This does not answer all of the difficulties, but it at least lets us see that slavery was not forced.  In fact, look at 21:16.  This verse alone shows that what we know of slavery is different from what is going on in the text.  Thus, we must not read our understanding of slavery back into the text.  Also, notice the compassion that God has on these slaves.  They are only to work for six years.  If they are married before, then they will keep their wives.  If they were married during that time, then they can choose to stay with their wives.  Likewise, daughters who were sold to other families as Ďslavesí were protected as well.  I know this does not answer all of our questions, but hopefully we can see the compassion even in this.

Second, God is compassionate and commands compassion toward sojourners, widows, and the fatherless.  We looked at this earlier this year in my sermon on adoption, so let me just mention it here.  Look at 22:21-24.  The Lord is serious about caring for these people and He commands His people to be as well (see also 23:9).  Likewise, He is compassionate towards the poor.  Look at 22:25-27.  They are not to make money off of lending money to the poor.  They are not to keep a manís cloak as a pledge so that he freezes at night.  No, the Lord is compassionate and He commands compassion be shown (see also 23:10-11).  The Lord also commands that His people show compassion even towards their enemy.  Look at 23:4-5.  When Jesus calls His followers to love their enemies, He is not correcting the actual law, but a false interpretation of the law that said: ĎYou shall love your neighbor and hate your enemyí (see Matthew 5:43-47).  The Lord commands His people in the Law to show compassion toward their enemies. 

Finally, God is compassionate toward His people.  The Law is not a burden, but another act of Godís kind provision for His people.  He is telling them how to live together as followers of Yahweh.  He is doing this to prepare them for life in the Promised Land.  Look at 23:25-31.  The Lord is going to give them Canaan.  He is going to drive out their enemies and keep His promise to Abraham.  He does not have to do this, but He is compassionate towards His people.  He initiates the covenant with them.  He not only redeems His people, but He graciously instructs them in how to live for their own good.  He is compassion towards them in calling them to be compassionate towards one another.

So we see in these commands that the Lord is holy, just, and compassionate.  He calls His people to reflect His character in the ways that they live together.  Yet, what about us?  What about those who have repented of their sins, trusted in the work of Christ, and live after His glorious resurrection?  Do we keep the Law?  Again, this is not an easy question to answer.  Some say that we should follow the Law even as Israel did.  Some say we should pick and choose and only follow the ones that Ďapply to today.í  Some say we should see the principles behind the Law and follow them.  In some sense, all of these could be supported by the New Testamentís use of the Law. 

My approach is to focus on what the Law teaches us about God and let that be our guide in application.  Obviously, we are to obey where the New Testament repeats (like honoring our parents).  There are times when the specific commandment will not apply, but the principle does (see Paulís argument in 1 Corinthians 9:9 and 1 Timothy 5:18).  Yet, if we remember that the Law teaches us that God is holy, just, and compassionate, and seek through our faith in Christ to be holy, just, and compassionate (like our Savior), then I think we will be moving in the right direction.   So then, may our repentance and faith in Christ lead us to being people who reflect the character of God just as it is revealed in His Word for our good and His glory.  Amen.  

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 08 September 2009 )

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