Law (Exodus 19-40)

We continue this morning in our study through the Bible.  We looked last week at Exodus chapters 1-18.  This morning, we want to finish out the book of Exodus.  Let’s watch together this video on chapters 19-40, and then I want to talk with you about what I think is one of the most important themes in this part of scripture.

            Show VIDEO (

            So, in the first 18 chapters of the book of Exodus, we saw how God miraculously delivered the people of Israel out of Egypt.  Then, when the Israelites came to Mt. Sinai, God invited them to enter into a covenant relationship with him.  God’s presence covered the mountain in a dark cloud and Moses climbed the mountain as a representative for the people to receive God’s law, which we have come to know as the Law of Moses.

            Out of all the laws in the Law of Moses, we are most familiar with the Ten Commandments, but the Law of Moses contained many more laws.  Altogether, there were 613 laws in the Law of Moses.  And those laws would govern the people of Israel for about 1300 years until Christ came.  Paul tells us in Romans 3:19 (NLT) that “the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised”, and that child, of course, was Jesus.

            Now, when you look at all of the laws contained in the Law of Moses, you find some laws that were extremely important.  Like, “You shall not murder.”  That one’s a biggie, one that we can all agree on.  But, then, there were some other laws that don’t seem to make much sense to us today, things like, “You can’t wear any garment that’s made of two or more different kinds of cloth.”

            And when you don’t understand the reason for a law, it can be somewhat perplexing.  I think about some of the laws we have in this country.  Most of them make sense.  I understand the need for cars to stop at a red light or a stop sign.  But there are also some very unusual laws which were passed years ago which are still on the books, but are not enforced any longer, for reasons that should seem obvious.

  • For example, in Arizona, it’s against the law for donkeys to sleep in bathtubs (I know many of you have been tempted to break that law!).
  • In Massachusetts, it’s against the law to have a gorilla in the back seat of your car.
  • In Georgia, it is against the law to carry an ice cream cone in your back pocket on Sunday.
  • In Lebanon, Virginia, it is illegal to kick your wife out of bed (apparently wives can kick their husbands out of bed, but husbands are not allowed to kick their wives out)
  • And in North Carolina, it is against the law to use an elephant to plow your cotton field.
  • I also understand that there is a law which makes it illegal to sing off key in the state of North Carolina.  Don’t worry, we won’t be issuing any citations this morning.

I would love to know the origin of those laws, because you know at some place, at some time, something happened which caused those laws to need to go into effect.  And at the time, they may have made perfect sense, but now they just seem downright silly.

So, let me ask you, “How do you feel about laws?”  And, most likely, your answer will depend on some past experience.  If you’re like Joey and you’ve had to deal with permits and inspections and engineers just to build a barn that you could build with your eyes closed, laws probably seem like an unnecessary hassle.

But if, on the other hand, you see a drunk driver pass a car on the highway crossing a double line and coming close to getting several people killed, you probably think laws are a good thing and maybe even feel the need for stricter laws.

            So, let ask you this — How do you feel about the concept of law when it comes to religion?  And again, you may find it difficult to give a quick answer to that question.  You may think of such passages as Romans 6:14 where Paul says, “you are not under law but under grace.”  So, we think, grace is good, law is bad.

            But then you have passages like Psalm 119:97, where David says to God, “Oh!  I love your law!”  In fact, that whole psalm — the longest of all the psalms — is completely dedicated to praising God for giving such a wonderful law.

            So, what kind of attitude should we have toward law?  And it doesn’t help that we see people around us, maybe even in the church, who seem to have a distorted view of God’s law.

            On the one hand, there are some who are legalists who seem focused on nothing but the law – what does the law teach?  What does the law forbid?  Let’s make sure we have a complete list of do’s and don’ts.  Be careful, you’ve broken the law once again!

            And then, on the other side, there are some folks who say, “I don’t even want to hear you mention the word ‘law’.  Don’t tell me I can’t do that.  I can do whatever I want to do.  Let’s not talk about law.  Let’s talk about grace.”

            And you get the feeling that the proper attitude of a Christian lies somewhere in between those two extremes.

            Now, we need to understand that the word “law” is used in different ways in the New Testament.  Sometimes, when Paul talks about “law”, he’s talking about the old law, the law of Moses.  Other times, Paul is talking about the concept of law in general.  And sometimes, Paul seems to go back and forth between the two and it’s difficult to know which one he has in mind. 

            But, for the purpose of our study this morning, it really doesn’t matter.  Because the problem with the Law of Moses, the reason the Law of Moses could never make us right with God, has to do with the very concept of law itself.

            I want to spend some time in Romans chapter 7 this morning to see what Paul had to say about God’s law, and what he says here may surprise you a bit.  First of all, Paul tells us what God’s law is like.  This is what the Law of Moses was like.

I.          What God’s Law is Like

            “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” (Romans 7:12)

            First of all, Paul says that God’s law is holy. I remember one class in college where we talked about the relationship between God and his law.  The teacher said that sometimes we have the idea that God is above the law – that is, one day God sat down and he made up a list of rules for us.  And he went down the list, “Let’s see, murder.  That one definitely should be forbidden.  While we’re at it, let’s go ahead and toss in adultery and lying and put them on the list of no-no’s.” 

            But that’s not it at all.  God didn’t arbitrarily make up a list of do’s and don’ts.  God’s law emanates from the very nature of God.  Lying is wrong, not because God decided to make it wrong, but because it violates the very nature of God. 

When God gave the commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, everything that happened demonstrated the holiness of God.  And God’s nature rubs off on everything that belongs to him. God’s word is holy, his name is holy, his day is holy. And his law is holy.  In fact, as I said last week, it is impossible for us to understand holiness apart from God’s holiness, and God’s law helps us to understand God’s holiness because it shows us the boundary between what is acceptable to him and what is not.  Because God is holy, God’s law is holy.

            Paul also says that God’s law is righteous or just.  It doesn’t make any unreasonable demands.  God isn’t a tyrant.  It is entirely reasonable for God to demand exclusive worship, to demand a response of commitment from us, to demand the highest standards of morality and ethics.  God’s law is just.

            Then Paul says that God’s law is good.  We shouldn’t put grace in opposition to law.  It’s not that grace is good and law is bad.  In fact, God’s law is full of grace, it is full of the mercy and kindness of God.  God never gives his people laws in order to restrict them, but in order to show them how to live in such a way that will bring them the most happiness, and bring them the greatest blessing.  God’s law is good.

            Then, in verse 14, Paul says, “For we know that the law is spiritual”.  Now, we don’t usually think of the law as spiritual, but it is. The law is what the Holy Spirit uses to convict us of sin, to teach us, to bring us closer to where God wants us to be.  Those are spiritual goals that are accomplished through God’s law.  The law is spiritual.

            Now, all of those statements make it clear that the law is not something bad.  It’s something wonderful.  That’s why David was able to say to God, “I delight in Your law…..The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver coins…..Oh, how I love Your law!  It is my meditation all the day.” (Psalm 119:70,72,97).

            But Paul also tells us here in Romans 7 what the purpose of law is, what the purpose of the Law of Moses was.

II.        The Purpose of the Law

Beginning in verse 7, “What then shall we say?  That the law is sin?  By no means!  Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.  For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Romans 7:7).

            Paul tells us that one of the purposes of the law is to show us what sin is.  The truth is, we would never know what sin is, unless God had revealed to us in his laws what behavior is acceptable to him and what behavior is not.  God’s law is like an ultraviolet light shining in our lives to reveal all the disgusting stuff we need to get rid of.

Because, you see, if we’re doing something wrong and we don’t know what God’s law is, that doesn’t change the fact that we’re still living in sin, because we are.  We need God’s law to reveal to us that what we’re doing is wrong.

            It’s like talking on your phone while you’re driving.  In North Carolina, you’re allowed to do that unless you’re under 18.  But suppose you’ve just moved to the area, and you need to go on Ft. Bragg for some reason.  Now, as I’m sure most of you know, on Ft. Bragg, cell phone use while driving is prohibited.  But, if you didn’t know that the law is different once you pass through those gates, you might use your phone while driving without giving it a second thought. 

            But there might be a very nice M.P. who will take the time to pull you over and explain to you that you’ve broken the law.  You might even be given a ticket and fined.  But you won’t know that what you’ve done is wrong unless someone tells you what the law says.  The law reveals to you what’s right and what’s wrong, and sometimes it reveals to you that what you’ve been doing is wrong.

            Paul says that’s the way it is with covetousness.  If we didn’t have God’s Word, I don’t think any of us would say, “You know, I just feel like it’s wrong to want something that somebody else has.”  We would never even realize that coveting is wrong.  It still would be, because it’s opposed to the very nature of God.  But we wouldn’t know it.  The law doesn’t make us sinners, but it reveals to us what sin is and it tells what the consequences are for violating the law.  And that’s a good thing.

            But then notice what Paul says in verse 8: “But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.”  (Romans 7:8).

            Paul says not only does the law reveal sin to us, it actually causes us to want to commit sin.  It leads us into more sin.  The command that’s meant to make us better people, actually stirs up sinful desires.

            You may have heard the story of the little old lady who objected to reading the Ten Commandments in church “because they put so many ideas into people’s heads.”  There’s some truth to that. 

            There is something about law that produces a rebellious spirit within us.  I’ve told this story before, but I think it illustrates this so well.  Several years ago, there was a beautiful hotel that was built in Galveston, Texas, which jutted out over the water in the bay.  It had these large plate glass windows that allowed you to look out over the Gulf of Mexico.  And the balconies on each room made an ideal fishing pier!

            It seems that right after this hotel opened, there was a fisherman who took his rod and reel and tried to cast out into the water.  Somehow, though, he managed in his clumsiness to knock out some windows in the room below him.  The hotel very quickly put up signs in every room of the hotel that read: “No fishing from balconies.” 

            Guess what happened?  People who had never given any thought to fishing from their balconies suddenly thought that was a great idea!  So, everyone decided to try it!  And they broke lots of windows which was costing the hotel some big money.  Until finally, one manager came up with the idea of removing the “no fishing” signs.  Now guess what happened?  People quit fishing!

            You see, the law brings out the worst in us.  It seems to dare us to do it.  It exposes our sinful nature. Once we know what the law forbids, we want to do that which is forbidden.

            That’s what Paul means when he says in I Corinthians 15:56 that “the power of sin is the law”.   Paul’s not contradicting himself. The law is still good; the law is still holy; the law is still spiritual.  The problem is not with the law; the problem is with us.  As Paul said in Romans 7:14 (NLT), “the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin.”

Paul says, “I know how easy it is to want to do what is wrong.”  And the law can’t change that.   There is something within us, what Paul describes as our sinful nature, that wants to do that which is wrong.  We want to do what is forbidden.  And again, the problem is not with the law.  It’s with us.

And so, the result is, as Paul says in verse 10, “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.” (Romans 7:10).  God’s law is intended to help us to live fulfilled lives, but the trouble is, I fail.  Time and time and time again.  And God’s law tells me what the consequence is.  “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23).  And so, there’s not much comfort in the law.

I think there are a lot of people who hesitate to become Christians because they see it as an impossible task.  They see only the rules and regulations, which seem impossible to keep.  They see the rules as a hardship, and life is hard enough without piling any more difficulties.

That’s a lesson the Jews had hundreds of years to figure out, but very few of them actually did.  The Jews, and even the Jews that became Christians, figured the way to get right with God, the way to make yourself a better person, was to work harder at keeping the rules.  And so, they had the Law of Moses — the rituals, the rules, the Ten Commandments; and they figured all they had to do was keep them better than most other people and they’d be in.

The trouble is, Paul says, it doesn’t work.  And you know that if you’re honest with yourself. Because, number one, keeping the rules doesn’t necessarily change what you’re like on the inside.  And, number two, no matter how good you are, you’ll never succeed at keeping all the rules.

And again, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with God’s law.  Rather, there’s something wrong with us.

Ultimately, one of the shortcomings of law is that it can do nothing to make us any better.  It’s like the speed limit law which says, “You are not allowed to drive any faster than 55 mph.”  That law can tell you what you not allowed to do, it can tell you what the punishment is for doing it, but that law will never make you a better person. 

And that’s why the Law of Moses wasn’t intended to last forever.  “Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised.” (Galatians 3:19, NLT)

       And in Romans 8:3, “For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin.”


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