The Old vs. The New
There are two ways to relate to God –each governed by a law. The first illustration of these laws is found in Genesis chapter 3 –through the story of two trees in the middle of the garden of Eden.
Laws have two parts –an action and a result. The "action" for both was the eating of fruit. The "result" of the action was dependent upon which tree's fruit was eaten. Eating the fruit from "the tree of life" resulted in life while eating the fruit from "the tree of knowledge of good and evil" resulted in death.
Romans 8:2 gives those laws descriptive names. "Because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death." God has given each one of us the choice of which law we use to determine our relationship with Him.
Mankind Naturally Chooses to Live Under the Old Covenant
The Law of Sin and Death is "If you sin, you shall surely die!"
After experiencing life in the garden with God, Eve chose to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The serpent said to the woman. "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil ." When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. (from Genesis 3:4-6)
She's typical of us all –wanting to be godlike in our choices –deciding for ourselves what is good and what is evil –claiming that our own way is right and anyone who disagrees with us is wrong. (Adam and Eve explains the implications of their choices.)
Israel was faced with the same choice. The people had a fresh start after coming out of Egypt, following Moses. But it wasn't long before they wanted to live their lives as they thought best. Time after time, they were urged to live life by faith –dependent upon God to lead them and to provide for them. After their many rebellious acts, He gave them the law so that they could see for themselves how ungodlike their wisdom really was. It was a very frustrated Moses that went before the entire assembly that day and said "Today I stand in front of you offering life and death, choose life!" (Deuteronomy 30:19)
We overuse those words –in pursuit of changing the world's behavior– to the extent that they have lost their ever-so-critical meaning. He gave three speeches in Deuteronomy. In chapters 1 through 4, Moses recounted Israel's history to the people. And in chapter 4, verse 44, through chapter 31, he re-told the Law –with even more details than in Exodus. It's in this re-telling that Moses said "today I set before you life and death –choose life." You might read Deuteronomy 30 –it's only 20 verses and that's where those words are quoted.
Here's the context of the passage. The nation had just ended its forty-year wandering through the desert-wilderness and was preparing to enter the Promised Land. Moses already knew that he wasn't going to be one of those crossing the Jordan and it was his last time to speak to the whole assembly before his death.
After the people left Egypt, they began complaining about everything –about their leadership –about God –about each other. Moses was the only one they went to with their many, many disputes. They went to him saying "we want to know what God's will is for us in this matter." His father-in-law, Jethro, saw that Moses was worn out from all this and suggested a solution. Moses should tell all the people what God's standard was –and then appoint judges to listen to the disputes. That way, judging would be based on God's standard –which all the people would know. It was then that God gave the Law to Moses –and Moses told it to the people. When they heard it, they wholeheartedly agreed to do it all (Exodus 19:10-17). A while later, when it was written down on stone tablets, they agreed to it two more times saying "we will do everything that God has said" (Exodus 24:3-7).
Moses' goal had been to take the people from Egypt to the land of their inheritance –the land that God promised to Abraham's offspring. When they reached the border, they were apprehensive –a polite way of saying "untrusting"– and sent in spies to search it out. Upon hearing the report of ten –also untrusting– men, the people decided to not go in –it was too frightening. God refers to this decision as Israel's rebellion. He announced then that those people would never be allowed in –never! They would die in the desert-wilderness.
A census had been taken not long before –the number of people (the fighting men of that generation) was 603,550. It's recorded in chapter one of Numbers. They died during the forty-year period in the desert. It was their children that was allowed to enter –but not following Moses (the law-giver). They would enter following a new leader –Joshua (the life-giver). He was one of the spies who had been there before and knew the goodness it contained.
Symbolically, Moses is representative of the Law, the Promised Land is eternal life, and Joshua is grace and truth. Joshua is Jesus' Hebrew name –we pronounce it Yeshua –and it means "the Lord's salvation." The Law cannot give life to –save– anyone. Only Jesus can do that. Like Joshua, He had already been in heaven and knew the goodness it contained before he came to lead us there.
When Moses summarized the Law in Deuteronomy, he made his "choose life" charge to the people. Again, remember this is his last speech. It was his last chance to encourage them to make the single most important decision that they would ever make. They were to enter into the Land and live. This is the opposite of the decision that their forefathers made –they decided to not enter the Land and that was a choice of death.
What's not so obvious, is this: When they first heard the Law from Moses –they agreed to do it all. That people could have fallen to their knees and cried out, "Who can live up to all this wonderful standard that God has set before us? Please God, grant us another way!" Instead, they proudly proclaimed that they would do it all. It was only a few weeks later, when Moses was up on the mountain getting the tablets, they made the golden calf as their god and it was even under the sponsorship of the official religious head –Aaron.
At least three times they proudly said they would do it all –two were after receiving the tablets. That Law was intended to humble them, but it failed. They only gave it lip-service with their sacrifices and offerings (Hebrews 10:5-10). I'm speaking in generalities here. Of course there were the few who lived by faith. But the nation as a whole rejected God's way and followed their own. In the same way, Israel rejected Jesus yet a few did receive Him.
Through Moses, God offered them one more opportunity. They could either display a broken and contrite heart for their wicked ways and turn to Him –living by faith. Or, they could remain proudly independent –attempting to be in control of their own lives –living by self-righteously obeying the law. With a single voice the entire nation shouted "We will obey God's law." They chose the list of fundamental standards of behavior –along with its death penalty for any violation. In the context of Romans 8:2, they chose to relate to God through "the law of sin and death" rather than "the law of the Spirit of life."
The passage below is from the first chapter of Romans. It's a summary of the law's standards along with its inseparable penalty of death for failing to fully comply with them.
They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (Romans 1:29-32)
Jesus explained that the extent of the law was not limited to outward actions, but more importantly, it applied to the attitudes of the heart. When a person comprehends the law's fullness, all self-righteousness and all excuses are obliterated. No one can honestly say that they aren't guilty of committing at least one violation –thus deserving death. Those who choose to live under the Old Covenant –the law of sin and death– are waiting for Judgment Day when that death sentence will be carried out.
God's New Covenant: Grace
The Law of the Spirit of Life is "If you possess the Holy Spirit, you shall surely live eternally!"
Knowing that mankind would never be able to live up to the strict demands of the law, God provided a new way –a New Covenant– that does not in any way rely on our goodness, but instead relies totally on His grace and mercy. The new way doesn't just improve the old one –or add more to it. The New Covenant is a complete replacement of the Old. The book of Hebrews clearly spells this out.
Since that time [Jesus' death and resurrection] he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: "This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds." Then he adds: "Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more." And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin. (Hebrews 10:13-18)
The Hebrews 10 passage above quotes Jeremiah 31. The words "after that time" refer to when the perfect sacrifice –Jesus, the Lamb of God– was to die. Even in the Old Testament, God was telling us that His Son's sacrifice is what makes us perfect and holy forever! Under the New Covenant, God refuses to even think about our sins. He remembered them one time –the day when His Son was executed on the cross. For you and me, He looked into the future and saw each and every sin we would ever commit. At the same time, He also saw that Jesus paid for them all –and He will never think about them again!
The message of the New Testament is this:
Because of Jesus' sacrifice, God no longer counts our sins against us.
He took away everything that could cause spiritual death so that
we can receive His everlasting life without fear of losing it ever again.
The modern term for testament (or covenant) is what we call a "last will and testament" –or more commonly, a "will." And of course, a will only becomes effective after the person who made it is dead. For that matter, only the last will that the person makes is the one that actually goes into effect.
In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living. (Hebrews 9:16-17)
The gospels (Matthew through John) document Christ Jesus' life –concluding with His death and resurrection. The life experiences described in the gospels were before that "last will and testament " had gone into effect. Jesus was the One who made that will –and He hadn't died yet.
Did you ask yourself, "So what does that matter?" It matters because the familiar page identifying "The New Testament" –found in your Bible between Malachi and Matthew– really belongs between John and Acts! Again, you might ask, "So what?" The significance is that we have used that page –which claims to separate the Old and New Testaments– to shape our lives. We say that we are New Testament Christians, yet we miss what defines the New Testament by including the Old.
The Old Testament established in great detail, the requirements to remove the sin barrier between man and God –even to the extent of foreshadowing the One who would be the remedy for sin once and for all. The gospels focus on Jesus' life work of fulfilling all of God's requirements –the law– for holiness and righteousness. The final payment for "the law of sin and death" was made at the end of the gospels. The Old Testament concludes –at the end of the gospels– with the slaughter of His perfect Lamb so that there could be everlasting forgiveness and redemption for all who put their trust in Him.
Although the Old Testament is filled with hints and foreshadows of a life of faith in the One who was to come, that life is disclosed in the New Testament –beginning after the gospels. That is where you can read about how to live in a relationship with God that is completely based on trusting Him to be all that He has promised.
Why Do We Gentiles Want the Ten Commandments?
The Israelites were shown to be set apart from all the other nations of the world by their God-given law. The legal aspect of the law (based on the Ten Commandments) set up a system to determine offenses, rules about the testimony, and the punishment associated with the offenses.
The law is plainly laid out. Under it, anyone who is found to be guilty of breaking a single one of those commandments is to be punished. And "breaking one commandment" doesn't mean one today and another tomorrow; it means that he is to be punished if he ever breaks even one commandment in his entire lifetime! Every commandment has the same purpose. They each show that people choose to be god over the decisions in their lives –just like Eve and just like the Israelites.
The punishment for not totally obeying "the Ten" is death. It's not the sacrificing of an animal or saying a prayer begging for forgiveness. It's being stoned to death at the city gate! Isn't it strange that we Christians want so much to be under the law that we forget that God says that anyone who lives under the law is under a curse?
All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law."1 Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, "The righteous will live by faith."2 The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, "The man who does these things will live by them."3 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree."4 (Galatians 3:10-13)
This passage in Galatians pieces together a most important truth quoting references from the Old Testament. The numbers in the passage above correspond to the numbered notes below.
It begins with Deuteronomy 27, explaining that if a person lives under the law –tries to obey the law– then he is to never deviate the slightest, else he will receive the curse –he will receive God's wrath. That person must continue to do everything the law demands –and that includes accepting the death sentence it prescribes.
The next piece comes from Habakkuk 2:4 which states that righteousness can only be received by living in faith –trusting in God's redemptive plan. It brings out that attempting to follow the law only puffs up a person –feeding his pride.
Leviticus 18 emphasizes that the person who tries to obey the law will make his life-choices based on those commandments –and failing to comply with any one of them will bring about his death.
Lastly, Deuteronomy 21:22-23 depicts the worst kind of death that the law requires. The one who is convicted of a capital offense must be hung on a tree. (It even says that he is not to be left on that tree overnight –a foreshadow of the crucifixion.) No one can fulfill those demands –and live. That's why Jesus took on the curse –hung on the cross– for us all.
There is no reason for Christians to wave the Israelites' Ten Commandments like a banner to set us apart from the rest of the world. We are set apart by something so much greater. We have the law of the Spirit of life in our hearts and written on our minds. God provided His Spirit to that lead us every step of our lives. The world will recognize us by our love for one another (John 13:35). Love –God's agape love– can not be commanded to happen. His love flows freely from Him –and then freely through us to others –all without compulsion.
Law (Legalism) vs. Grace
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. (1 Corinthians 15:56 - NIV)