Coming to God’s Defense
Coming to God’s Defense
by Lonnie Lane
I’d like to come to God’s defense, not that He needs me to. I often hear it said, and even preached, that God gave Israel the commandments, all 613 of them, to teach us that we can’t keep them. As if that statement sums up the whole of the Law and God’s entire motive for giving it to Israel. But was that how Yeshua saw the Law? The Law, we are often told, was to show us how much we need Yeshua. Of course, we need Him. Entirely and completely. But let me ask you this? Would God as Yeshua revealed Him to us demand of His people what they would be incapable of? Would Abba set it up so that anyone who longed to do His will would live in constant frustration, failure and fear of the consequences of displeasing Him? Is that what your heart tells you is true of the God you know and love?
But what if it was true? Let’s see, the Commandments were given to Moses, according to some estimates, approximately 1491 B.C. That would mean it would be about 1500 years till Yeshua’s resurrection and the Holy Spirit was given when His followers were counted by God as having kept Torah “in Him” because He fulfilled it completely. Let’s consider 40 years to be a generation; that would be 375 generations – millions of people – attempting to observe the commandments unsuccessfully. Why would people continue such a futile endeavor generation after generation? Perhaps a more important question is, what would such unrealistic requirements say about God and what kind of relationship He supposedly would be wanting with His people if it were true?
Perhaps some of you feel that God is always expecting of you what you seem to be unable to fulfill but should be able to. That would foster an awareness of something you need to do to somehow get right with God, yet you just never get there. That’s what it feels like to live under a demanding God whom you cannot satisfy. Does that kind of consciousness of failure make for a loving and trusting relationship in which you find rest in Him? Or does it leave you always somewhat stressed, continually conscious of how you’ve missed the mark He’s requiring of you? That is what it’s like to live under what we call legalism. But legalism is what comes from adding to God’s commandments, not from the commandments themselves. Unless, of course, God really did mean for Israel to live in continual exasperation until Messiah came. Their relationship then would be like demanding of a paralyzed man that he get up and walk on his own, knowing he is incapable of doing so. That’s irrational. Well, we certainly wouldn’t say that about Yeshua. He’s not irrational! But neither is His Father. If we somehow, even a little bit, envision the God of Israel as the irrationally demanding God of the Old Testament (Covenant), that is likely to bleed into our concept of what God expects of us under the New Covenant, despite how good we may see Yeshua. Could how some of us see God in relation to the Law be the cause for difficulty in entering into Yeshua’s rest?
When we consider that God is “the same yesterday, today and forever,” (Hebrews 13:8), if He’s a loving God in the New Covenant, He had to be a loving God in the Old Covenant. Here’s how I see it, or rather see “Him” which is the real issue. God gave to Israel the ways to live as close as mankind can to godly peace, joy and righteousness without the Spirit of God indwelling them when He gave them the Commandments. Without those “instructions” which is closer to the word in Hebrew than commandments, humankind was without true knowledge of God or His ways. But since humans were created with an internal homing device that looks for input from God, men devised alternative gods and ways to appease or worship their gods, not having the One True God to worship and rely on. When God chose Abraham, He did so knowing He could count on this man to teach his children God’s ways. Without those who will teach future generations God’s ways, all is lost. Abraham conveyed what He knew of God to his son Isaac, who conveyed it to his son Jacob who then attempted to teach God’s ways to his 12 sons, but as the Genesis account tells us, they learned some hard lessons until they came to a place of repentance before God – and their brother Joseph (who is a prototype of Messiah in many ways.)
Fast forward some 400 years, when the family had been under Egyptian rule and dominance for some 100 generations. That’s a long time. America wasn’t even a nation 400 years ago. God rescued Israel from Egypt which was the most powerful nation in the world at the time and set them entirely free. Only they weren’t really free, because they still had a slave mentality. Plus they had picked up numerous Egyptian inclinations, like, for instance, worshipping golden calves when things got tough hoping said calf would come to their aid. Or like being afraid of people who seemed stronger than Israel felt they were, so that they refused to take the promised land despite all they had seen of God’s power. With the exception, as we know, of two men, Joshua and Caleb, who believed God and somehow were of “a different spirit and followed Him fully”(Nu 14:24). (I want to be like them, don’t you?) Well, what was God to do to transform this oppression-minded people into the kingdom of priests He planned for them to become?
This is where the Law comes in. He gave to Israel a covenant that would transform their entire paradigm of life, of their worth as a people and of their value in His plan for humankind. (Note the words “worth” and “value” are not exactly how slaves would have seen themselves. God changed their corporate self image through the Law.) These commandments would teach them to honor and respect each other, to raise children that would honor and respect their parents so that their own children would honor and respect them. Respect. Honor. Integrity. Dignity. All that is built into the way God ordained for Israel to live as a community before Him in godliness. Oh yes, and healthy too. By various and many health-related laws Israel was the healthiest nation on the planet: “If you will give earnest heed to the voice of the LORD your God, and do what is right in His sight, and give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have put on the Egyptians; for I, the LORD, am your healer“(Exodus 15:26).
Did God just make a promise to Israel He wouldn’t have to bother to keep because they wouldn’t be able to “keep all His statues” anyway? Of course not. It is a fact of history that Israel has been healthy when other nations were succumbing to horrible illnesses, like during the plagues in the Middle Ages. Or how about when a Jewish doctor in the 1800’s told the other doctors they could stop the spread of rampant disease in the hospital maternity ward just by washing their hands between patients. The idea of sterilization came from a knowledge of God’s commandments for cleanliness. God does know best.
Maybe we’d have a greater awe for what God the Son actually did for us.
Okay, yes, there were times when the people sinned and some even sinned greatly. None are exempt for “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). That is what the sacrifices were all about –blood to enable sinners to be made acceptable to God. The blood of the Old Testament sacrifices was to “cover” the sins of the people: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered” (Paul quoting David in Romans 4:7). In other words, God made a way so those who sinned could come before Him to the extent that Israel was able to come under the Old Covenant and be accepted as if they had not sinned. This was made possible by the sacrificial atoning blood – not just a little blood, but the entire blood supply of each animal was required. Sin is a bloody mess as was the temple area where the sacrifices took place. Bloody! Because all the blood of an animal had to be drained from it, we can assume that when Yeshua died upon the cross, He had to have bled out just about completely because His was the atoning blood for all mankind. Likely the spikes in His wrists pierced the artery, similar to slitting one’s wrists. The lack of blood would be the reason for the blood and water (lymphatic fluid) when His side was pierced: “One of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out” (John 19:34). Yes, it was bloody. That’s the reality though our modern day theology has rather sanitized the crucifixion so we’re not so shocked by it. Maybe we should be shocked by the gore of it all. Maybe we’d have a greater awe for what God the Son actually did for us.
Blood pays for sin. God told Israel, “The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement…. For as for the life of all flesh, its blood is identified with its life. Therefore I said to the sons of Israel, ‘You are not to eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood’” (Leviticus 17:11, 14). God wanted Israel to know that sin was connected with death as the consequence of sin. An animal had to die because of someone’s sin. Years later, Paul who was a Torah compliant Pharisee-turned-believer put it this way: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Something or some One had to die for the sin. But still, weren’t the sacrifices expressions of God’s mercy, not His judgment?
The rest of the world was unaware of violations against God for they did not know God, nor His word. Once God gave the Torah (the Law) to Israel, sin was defined. Sin is that which violates God’s Torah. Apart from Torah, there is no sin, even for the church. Once defined, Israel was accountable to keep the Law. In fact, they agreed to do so: “Then Moses came and recounted to the people all the words of the LORD and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice and said, ‘All the words which the LORD has spoken we will do!’” (Exodus 24:3, 7). They didn’t seem to think it was something they couldn’t do. They didn’t seem threatened by the requirements. Their hearts desired to do God’s will.
Yes, it’s true that they didn’t keep God’s commandments all the time, and they digressed from them and from obeying Him a distressing number of times. I’m not winking at their sin by any means, nor attempting to make it sound like Israel under the Old Covenant had the same privileges and relationship with God we do as born again Believers. But my point here is, they were willing and desiring to obey God and to do what He asked of them, expecting God’s favor, just as He promised them. And no doubt God was pleased with the desire of their hearts to please Him just as He is with ours. Allowing the blood to cover their sins, He forgave them as they observed the requirements. They weren’t saddled with an constant oppressive awareness of their sin. As the psalmist wrote (or sang), “You forgave the iniquity of Your people; You covered all their sin” (Psalm 85:2). Note: That’s “all” their sins.” If God gave Israel the Law only to frustrate them until Messiah would one day come and they would satisfy His requirements, they were not aware of anything but His forgiveness for transgressions and favor when they sought to follow Him.
He wasn’t instituting a religion, but was forming a people for Himself.
Remember, most of what God asked of Israel was a life style, not religious rituals. He wasn’t instituting a religion, but was forming a people for Himself. Yes, there were rituals but they were mostly related to the sacrifices and yes, one had to do their three-times a year visit on Shavuot, Sukkot and Passover to the temple. But most of life was about living in godly ways in relationship with one another as prescribed in the Torah. While it may seem to us like living under the commandments must have been a wearisome keeping of minutia having to remember all those laws, to those who are raised with them and who lived in a community where the Laws are the norm, they are a way of life. We live with our own set of commandments, our own cultural and even our church laws of do-this and don’t-do-that. We know what’s expected of us and for the most part we comply. Put them all in a document and you’d see how many ‘laws’ we actually do live out, some of us more than others. I was surprised to find that my first church seemed to have more laws than my synagogue ever did: don’t dance, make sure you only have a certain version of the Bible, be sure you dress a certain way, and women, wear your hair a certain way, don’t lift your hands in church, never say “Amen” out loud in a service, agree with whatever the pastor says… and then there’s the ‘law’ about communion always being grape juice because surely Jesus wouldn’t drink wine. Hey, He was Jewish. He drank wine at Sabbath dinners, folks, and on Passover. The laws go on and on…. man-made laws that have nothing really to do with the Bible. Added legalism. But aside from those which came later, you do see, do you not, how God’s commandments to Israel would easily become a life-style so they weren’t continually stressed about whether they were doing it right or not. For the most part, they just lived it.
But yes, violations did take place. Life happens. The Law provided for ways of dealing with what we would call crimes and for what to do when these occurred. Through the sacrifices the sin was covered and they could come to God to the extent that Israel was able to come into God’s presence. But what they did not experience, however covered their sin might have been, was a born-again experience in which the sin nature everyone is born with is changed as a person accepts Yeshua’s atonement for their sins and is then indwelt by the Holy Spirit. God may have used the Torah as a tutor for us to learn His ways of righteousness, and like a good Father, He set in place loving discipline that provided a way to restore the person to a place of being acceptable to come to Him. His motive for it all is always redemptive. Where there appears to be judgment and no mercy, it is only because the well-being of the community was threatened by the crime. It was not a lapse of mercy on God’s part, but rather a “severe mercy” when the good of the entire community was at stake.
We have really only touched the edges of this issue – the issue of how we see God. Yeshua said “He who has seen Me has seen the Father”(John 13:9). They can’t be different in character and nature. So to say that God gave Israel the Law in order to teach them that they are unable to keep the Law He required of them, as you can now see, would be to misspeak about the character and nature of our God. Our God is a good God, all the time, including in the Old Testament and the New. And while He planned for the followers of Yeshua to be born again according to His Spirit at some point, it did not preclude His mercy and loving care to those who sought to obey Him in the mean time. In each covenant, be assured, “mercy triumphs over judgment”(James 2:13).
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Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible Copyright ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif. All rights reserved. Used by permission.