So, if God is love, and He loved us so much that He sent Jesus to save us and bring us into an abundant life of grace and rest, why did He ever give the law in the first place, if He never meant for us to keep it and He knew we couldn’t anyway?
The answer lies at the end of the question – it’s because He knew we could never keep the law. We, on the other hand, didn’t have a clue.
Let’s take an example – suppose you are a strong swimmer, and you have a friend who works as a lifeguard at your local swimming pool. Your friend dares you to swim across the length of the 50-metre pool, promising to buy you a good meal if you can do it. You think to yourself, “piece of cake”, accept the challenge readily, and jump straight in, swimming confidently.
Unbeknownst to you, your friend had a tougher challenge in mind. He turns on the wave machine just before you reach the halfway point, and the placid surface of the pool starts to roll and slosh about as though you are in the ocean. You think, “O-kay”, but aren’t terribly fazed, because it’s still a relatively short distance and you think you can certainly do it. You swim harder against the waves, gaining ground.
Then your friend really cranks up the machine and switches the direction of the waves so that they are coming right at you. You struggle with all your might against the waves, not wanting to lose the bet. But ultimately you find your strength flagging, your legs cramping up, and the impossibility of you ever drowning in a swimming pool becomes a frightening reality as you begin to go under. Your friend turns off the machine, jumps in and fishes you out. (N.B. this is just an illustration – do not try this at home or at any wave pool.)
All of us are like that. We all like to think that we can do more and do better. We train, we practise, and we try. Again and again. We pride ourselves as triers and not quitters. After all, that’s what we’re taught in school and by successful motivational speakers, right?
Well, there is one area where we shouldn’t never apply the principle of trying and trying harder, and that is in keeping God’s law. Because we would simply end up failing and drowning in it. For sure.
At the foot of Mount Sinai in Exodus 19, God issued a similar “challenge”, if you will, to the Israelites. He told them if they would obey His voice and commandments, they would become a special people treasured above others by God. And they, out of a sincere and earnest heart, out of their own sense of pride and self-righteousness, agreed to accept God’s terms, before they ever heard a single commandment. If it had been any of us, we’d probably do the same.
Was it really necessary for the Israelites to make the pledge to God and switch to a covenant of law? God had just finished bringing them out of the Red Sea, defeated their enemies the Egyptians completely before their eyes, brought water out of the rock so they could drink, and rained manna from heaven so they could eat (Exodus 14-17). They were already a special people to God, treasured above all other nations.
God was treating them based on the covenant He had made with Abraham their forefather 430 years earlier, a covenant in which He promised unconditionally to bless and prosper Abraham and His Seed – Christ – and to curse his enemies (Genesis 12, Genesis 15, Galatians 3). And it was an infallible covenant of promise that God signed Himself, on both ends, passing through as a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire, while Abraham was put into a deep sleep. We who are Christ’s today still qualify to enjoy the blessings given to Abraham.
So when the people chose to commit to a covenant based on their obedience at Sinai, God had no choice but to go ahead with giving the law. And He used the law to its fullness, that every mouth may be stopped by it, and everyone confronted with the full law would come to the end of themselves and surrender to their need for a Saviour (Romans 3:19-31).
That’s why Jesus, in His Sermon on the Mount, restored and taught the law in all its full and absolute standard. He wasn’t trying to remind the people of how important the law is and showing them the next level which they had to seek to attain. He was showing them just how far they had failed by God’s true standards and how they could never hope to even come close to achieving it to save themselves from God’s certain judgement, so that they could see how much they needed Him, the Saviour sent by God.
That is the sole purpose for which God gave the law – to point people to their need for the Saviour, Jesus Christ. It was never meant to be taught to people as something they should keep, whether before or after they receive Jesus. That is as insane as jumping into the pool to try battling the waves again and again after you have already been saved out of it. Jesus has not destroyed the law, but fulfilled it to the full on our behalf – just receive and rest in this truth.
The law was never God’s main agenda for man. Instead, it was something that came alongside – the Bible says that the law entered that sin might abound (Romans 5:20). The Greek word for ‘entered’ here means to “come in secretly or by stealth, or to enter in addition or come in besides”. God’s grace and promises given through Jesus were always His design for us.
Does that mean laws are redundant today? No, we still need laws to govern our society and maintain order. But only the love and grace of God through Jesus will transform us from within to live holy by His Spirit even in the absence of laws.
Does that mean we don’t try or prepare for exams or interviews or major presentations? No, we still do whatever we need to do, but our trust has to be in the Lord and His grace upon us, not on the merits of our efforts.
Only resting in Jesus’s finished work for us can bring us supernatural acceleration and progress, and move us right where we need to be without sweat or repeated fruitless efforts.
Because when we encounter Jesus, we encounter grace.