Why They Followed the Law (Part 2)

Read the series so far.

God’s people have always followed the law because they love Him, and want to serve Him. That’s the only proper motivation for serving God. Always has been. Always will be. This isn’t a “New Covenant” distinctive, or an “Old Covenant” distinctive. It’s a “believer” distinctive. I’ll explain that in this brief survey.

It Is Moses’ View

Moses, the man himself, told the Israelites God wanted them to fear Him, and do what He said (Deut 10:12). They should love Him, and therefore serve Him with everything they have – keeping His commandments and statutes, which were given for their own good (Deut 10:13).

Why should they do that?

Because God, to whom all creation belongs, “set his heart in love upon your fathers and chose their descendants after Him …” (Deut 10:15). In other words, they should serve God because they’re really grateful for His mercy, grace, love and kindness.

So, what does this mean?

It means they must circumcise the foreskin of their hearts (Deut 10:16; cf. Rom 2:25-29), and serve Him in sincerity and truth (Deut 10:17-22). That means doing what the law requires. You love God, so you do what He says. There is no works righteousness here. There is only loving obedience.

It Is Joshua’s View

After the Israelites conquered the promised land (well, part of it, anyway!), Joshua dismissed the 2.5 tribes who preferred to stay on the eastern shore of the Jordan. They’d done their part, and it was time for them to be gone. Joshua’s parting instructions are critical. What did he tell them?

Take good care to observe the commandment and the law which Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you, to love the LORD your God, and to walk in all his ways, and to keep his commandments, and to cleave to him, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul. So Joshua blessed them, and sent them away; and they went to their homes (Josh 22:5-6).

Interesting. I sense a pattern here. He reminded them to follow the law. Fair enough – but why should they follow it? What motivation did Joshua impress upon them? He told them to love their God, to live according to His ways (i.e. to be holy), to keep His commandments — to cleave to him (cf. Acts 11:23, KJV), which means to serve Him with every fiber of their being.

He told them to serve God because they loved Him.

It Is Samuel’s View

God command Saul and the Israelites to destroy the Amalekites. He told them to leave nothing alive (1 Sam 15:2-3). Saul and the people didn’t listen; they saved “the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good,” (1 Sam 15:9).

God wasn’t pleased. He sent Samuel with a message. Saul’s opening salvo was a pathetic justification; “the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice to the LORD your God,” (1 Sam 15:15). Samuel’s answer was devastating:

Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king (1 Sam 15:22-23).

Sacrifice and rote, external conformity is useless to God. Pointless. Vain. A waste of time. He’d prefer that fearful, loving obedience produce authentic action. Rebellion is just as bad as witchcraft, and stubbornness is just like iniquity and idolatry. Outward conformity without sincerity of heart is pointless. It has always been about motivation. God knows. He’s always known.

It Is Isaiah’s View

Judah before the exile was a bad place. A nasty place. A hypocritical place. God didn’t want their sacrifices or their rote external conformity to His law. He hated it all. He said:

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of he-goats (Isa 1:11).  

Why did God say this? Because He hates hypocrisy. If you “go through the motions” without sincerity and reverence, then you’re insulting God and wasting your time. He’d prefer you just didn’t bother. Get out. Just leave. At least that’s more honest.

It Is Hosea’s View

The Northern Kingdom. It was a time of brief prosperity for the Israelites. Everything seemed to be going well. But, all was not well spiritually:

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away. Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, I have slain them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light. For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings (Hos 6:4-6).

Their love for God was fake. It comes and goes like a vapor, like a morning cloud, like dew that vanishes in an instant. So, He sent prophets to cut them down, to speak His words which should have cut their very hearts in two. Why? Because God wants steadfast love, not rote, external ritual. He wants them to know Him, not bring burnt offerings like robots.  

God observes, “they do not cry to me from the heart,” (Hos 7:14). It’s always been about the heart (cf. Prov. 4:23), which produces loving obedience. If you don’t love God and prove it by sincere action, you don’t really know Him at all (cf. Hos 8:1-6; Amos 5:21-24, 8:4-6).

It Is Malachi’s View

After the exile. The temple had been re-built. Surely, the people had learned their lesson! Now, they’d serve Yahweh in sincerity and truth, right? Wrong. God had a dispute with the priests. They despised Him, and didn’t show Him honor.

How so!? they asked, astonished. He told them how so:

By offering polluted food upon my altar. And you say, ‘How have we polluted it?’ By thinking that the LORD’S table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that no evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that no evil? Present that to your governor; will he be pleased with you or show you favor? says the LORD of hosts. And now entreat the favor of God, that he may be gracious to us. With such a gift from your hand, will he show favor to any of you? says the LORD of hosts. Oh, that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire upon my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the LORD of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand (Mal 1:7-10).

The pattern continues. The Levite priests had fallen down on the job. They profaned the Lord by their careless and flippant attitude. He’d prefer they shut the doors to the temple and pack it in.

The burnt offering maintained fellowship with God. It atoned for general sins, and renewed a believer’s relationship with his holy God. It wasn’t being treated that way. It was a routine obligation, a nuisance to be dealt with. They had it all wrong; it wasn’t about the sacrifices at all. It was about a love for Him, which should naturally produce a desire to do what the law requires. Jesus knew that (Mt 9:10-13).

Why? Because they didn’t do their job the way the law said. Why didn’t they? Because they didn’t love Him, therefore they didn’t serve Him in spirit and in truth.

It Is John the Baptist’s View

John was a popular fellow. People came from the entire region to hear him preach. What did he tell his largely Jewish audience? He told them if they were really repentant, they’d prove it by their actions. What actions are those? they asked. Well, by doing what God’s word says, of course! (Lk 3:7-8).

Don’t trust in being an Israelite; that’s meaningless, in and of itself (Lk 3:8b). Instead, show brotherly love (Lk 3:11). Don’t extort and steal (Lk 3:12-13). Don’t rob and use your position as leverage for intimidation (Lk 3:14).

In other words, start following the law like you should have been doing all along. John had nothing revolutionary to say on that score. He didn’t tell them to head for the temple, queue with their sacrificial animals, and square things away. He told them to repent, and prove it by their actions.

It Is God’s View

To be sure, the Old Covenant was a very different way of life. Even now, scholars struggle to understand all the nuances of the sacrificial system. It was a covenant that promised everything, in exchange for loving obedience to a very detailed law.

But, it didn’t stand alone. It flowed from the foundational Abrahamic Covenant; the root from which all God’s blessings flow. The Abrahamic Covenant promised the Israelites salvation and an inheritance; the Mosaic Covenant kept them in line until Christ would come to achieve it for them. It taught them the truth about themselves (about ourselves, too), about God and His character, and it gave them several object lessons about the Messiah who would come and fulfill it all for them (and for us, too). It taught them about sin, righteousness and judgment – and the One who would come and solve each of those problems for His children.

God never rebuked anybody because they didn’t offer enough sacrifices, or follow the law precisely enough. After all, a mechanism for actual atonement and forgiveness was built into the Mosaic Law! No; He rebuked people because their hearts were far from Him — despite what they might say:

I will stretch out my hand against Judah, and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priests; those who bow down on the roofs to the host of the heavens; those who bow down and swear to the LORD and yet swear by Milcom; those who have turned back from following the LORD, who do not seek the LORD or inquire of him (Zeph 1:4-6)

God’s people have always done what He says because they love Him. He never accepts any other motivation. Never has. Never will.

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