On Sunday, January 24th, 2016, I began a Core Seminar on Redemptive History & Biblical Theology at my church, Lake Drive Baptist Church. During the course of this series I’ll be sending out emails recapping lessons and directing recipients to resources for further study.
Rather than just share these recaps with my church family, I’ve decided to share them here on the blog for anyone else who might be interested. I will be posting them occasionally over the next couple of months on a weekly basis or so.
See previous posts:
- Introducing Biblical Theology and Redemptive History (LDBC Recap 1/24/16)
- The Significance and Relevance of Biblical Theology and Redemptive History (LDBC Recap 1/31/16)
- Foundational Principles and Basic Frameworks for Redemptive History and Biblical Theology (LDBC Recap 2/7/16)
- Redemptive-Historical, Biblical-Theological Hermeneutics (LDBC Recap 2/14/16 Pt. 1)
- Redemptive-Historical Survey: 1 | Creation (LDBC Recap 2/14/16 Pt. 2)
- Redemptive-Historical Survey: 2 | The Fall (LDBC Recap 2/21/16)
- Redemptive-Historical Survey: 3 | The Flood & Noahic Covenant (LDBC Recap 2/28/16)
- Redemptive-Historical Survey: 4 | Abrahamic Covenant & the Patriarchs (LDBC Recap 3/6/16 Pt. 1)
- Redemptive-Historical Survey: 5 | The Exodus (LDBC Recap 3/6/16 Pt. 2)
This week we covered the Law or the Mosaic Covenant and its role in redemptive history.
Overview of Biblical material
Exodus 19-Deuteronomy 34.
God brings the people of Israel to Mt. Sinai (or Mt. Horeb) and he makes a covenant with them involving many laws.
Before we move forward, we do well to note the various terms used to refer to this covenant so that, as we talk about this covenant and perhaps use these various terms, we are all on the same page in knowing what we are talking about.
- The Law – Because this was law-covenant, a covenant involving many laws.
- Mosaic Covenant – Because Moses was the mediator of this covenant; it was given through Moses.
- Israelite Covenant – Because this covenant was made with the nation of Israel.
- Sinai Covenant (or covenant at Sinai) – Because this is where the covenant was made.
- Old Covenant – i.e., “Old” as in contrast to the New Covenant. It is “old” now that it has been superseded.
Role within redemptive history
We can summarize the role of the Law in redemptive history as follows: God gives his people—Israel—a conditional covenant (i.e., blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience) whereby his people could experience the blessings of the new-creational kingdom.
We can break this statement down by observing some key matters.
- The aim of the covenant—the new-creational kingdom.
First, when we examine the aim of this covenant–its goal, the promises it has in view–we find that its aim is the new-creational kingdom (a concept we have discussed extensively in previous lessons).
We can recall the chart below which presents the various elements that compose the pattern of this new-creational kingdom.
We observe that the Mosaic Covenant includes and aims at all of these new-creational kingdom elements:
- God’s people – Israel is to be God’s special possession (Ex 19:5-6).
- [Dominion] Under God’s rule and exercising that rule –
- Under God’s rule – God’s rule over Israel was to be exercised, among other things, through the laws that he gave them.
- Exercising that rule –
- They are to be a royal priesthood (Ex 19:5-6). Here Israel receives the mantel of the Adamic mandate in which Adam and Eve were to serve as God’s priest-kings (note Adam’s ruling mandate; and note the verbs used in Genesis to describe Adam and Eve’s activities — priestly terms). Israel, now, corporately is to serve as God’s priest-kings, representing God’s rule to the rest of creation (e.g., other nations).
- Note the promise in this covenant of an eventual line of kings, keeping in mind that the kings of Israel where to be a pinnacle expression of this ruling task to which Israel was called.
- God’s presence – God will dwell among them via the tabernacle as described in this covenant.
- God’s place – The covenant has as its goal the people dwelling in the promised land. From Sinai they are to head to Canaan.
- Through deliverance – Note that the Sinai covenant is coming off the Exodus (= deliverance) and also looking forward to God’s mighty acts in the Canaan conquest (= deliverance).
- By means of mediation – The sacrificial system—a means by which God can continue to dwell among them despite their sin and impurity.
Finally, it’s important to point out that here, in this covenant, we see a progress in the specificity of what’s promised in the Biblical covenants. This is characteristic of each subsequent covenant–the details of the promises become more specific and fleshed out.
- The conditionality of the covenant.
This covenant has an intensely conditional structure, i.e., if obedience, then the realization of promises; if disobedience, then the opposite—curses (the pinnacle expression of which is exile). This is remarkably different than the Abrahamic Covenant which, at its core, is promise-driven and has strong tones of unconditionality even alongside some of its conditional elements.
The strongly conditional nature of this Mosaic Covenant is seen specifically in the covenant’s blessings and curses (Lev 26; Deut 28:1-2, 15; 30:16-20; cf. Ex 19:5-6). For example,
Deut 30:16-19 – 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.
Yet, despite this conditional structure…
- Human obedience to the Law was never intended by God to be a viable means of achieving the salvation realities of the new-creational kingdom.
Although God holds out the salvation realities of the new-creational kingdom upon obedience, due to human sinfulness this is never a genuine possibility and thus was never God’s providential purpose for the law.
As we see in Galatians 3, the Law only leaves those under it cursed, since in our sin we are unable to fulfill its demands.
Gal 3:10-11 – 10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law.
Cf. Rom 3:20; Gal 2:16, 21.
We see further evidence of this in the fact that the law itself recognizes its own impotence (see e.g., Deut 29:27-28; 30:1-10). Or, again, God’s provision of the sacrificial system assumes that Israel will be disobedient and will need purification.
And, so, we are confronted with the impotence of the Law, i.e., the Law’s weakness, futility, or inability to achieve obedience among its subjects. This is because the Law in and of itself could not deal with the problem of human sin. Thus, it could not bring about obedience or covenant faithfulness. It could say what to do; but it could not actually give the ability to do it.
Rom 8:3 – God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.
Rom 7:5-6 – For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. 6 But now we are released from the law [and the previous era prior to the New Covenant], having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit [i.e., the New Covenant way characterized by the Spirit’s work] and not in the old way [the Mosaic Covenant way] of the written code [characterized by Law without Spirit]. (Deut 29:4; Josh 24:19-21; Heb 7:18-19; 8:6-7).
The golden calf incident–where Israel makes and worships a golden calf immediately after receiving the Laws, thereby breaking that covenant–prefigures the rest of Israel’s history–a history characterized by rebellion. With the golden calf incident we are made to see that this isn’t going to end well. This initial rebellion-incident becomes a prototype for a pattern of rebellion that characterizes Israel’s subsequent history.
And so we find the covenant curses (e.g., exile) experienced in the history of Israel. This experience of these curses also testifies to the impotence of the Law to bring about an obedient, faithful people.
As such–because of the Law’s blaring impotence–two conclusions follow. First…
- The Law reveals sin.
As Paul says,
Rom 3:20 – Through the law comes knowledge of sin.
Cf. Rom 7:7.
The Law reveals our sin in at least two ways: (1) It tells us what sin is. It defines it. It identifies it. (2) It serves as a standard to which if we compare ourselves we realize we don’t match up. Thus, not only does it identify sin generally, but it also identifies us as sinful. It defines us as sinners.
But, secondly, then…
- The Law leads us to the Gospel, i.e., it shows us our need for Christ.
We can especially think of the fact that the law reveals our need for justification (i.e., a verdict before God of “righteous” or “not guilty”) and the need to deal with God’s judgment/curses (think: the curses of the covenant).
Of course, this directs our gaze to Christ who bears the covenant curses, as Gal 3:13 spells out drawing on the fact that Christ was hung on a tree which implies God’s curse (Deut 21:23). And it points us to Christ who is the fully obedient one on our behalf, who offers up a perfect covenant faithfulness for us.
- The Law’s relationship to the Abrahamic Covenant.
As we noted, the Mosaic Covenant aims at the same new-creational kingdom aims as the Abrahamic Covenant (see above). (It does give these new-creational kingdom aims an added temporal-historical-national particularity. Nonetheless, they are of the same nature and aim.) Thus, there is a sense of unity or continuity between these covenants.
Also, we remember that the historical experience of the covenant blessings depended on obedience (Gen 17:1-2; 18:19; 22:16-18; 26:5). The Mosaic Covenant, in a sense, formalizes this conditional element in an intensely conditional covenant-structure.
Thus, to synthesize, by obedience to the Mosaic Covenant one would experience its blessings, which are essentially the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant (new-creational kingdom blessings) (Lev 26; Deut 6:1-3; 7:12-16; 9:5; 28, esp. v.13).
Nonetheless, as noted, there is a strong dissimilarity between the Mosaic Covenant and the Abrahamic Covenant in that the Abrahamic Covenant, at its core, has an intense emphasis on its unconditional, irrevocable, guaranteed nature.
Thus, the Law (specifically disobedience to it) does not nullify (cancel) the unbreakable promises of the Abrahamic Covenant, which is ultimately unconditional and based on God’s promises—grace.
Gal 3:15-18 – To give a human example [of the fact the covenant promises are experienced by faith and not works], brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. 16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. … 17 The law [Mosaic Covenat], which came 430 years afterward [i.e., after the Abrahamic Covenant], does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God [i.e., the Abrahamic Covenant], so as to make the promise [of the Abrahamic Covenant] void. 18 For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.
Therefore, even if one generation disobeys and experiences the curses of the covenant, the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant are still held out to subsequent generations. And, because the Abrahamic Covenant is guaranteed (Gen 15), its blessings will eventually be fully realized.
In summary, the Mosaic Covenant is a conditional covenant which seeks to bring to fruition the blessings offered in the Abrahamic Covenant (aka, the new-creational kingdom promises). However, due to human sin, it fails to do so. It cannot deal with the problem of human sin–a problem we constantly find creeping up in redemptive history, you may be noticing. Therefore, the faithfulness demanded in the law is never achieved. But because the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant our guaranteed, the impotence (and even the curses) of the Mosaic Covenant cannot nullify God’s guaranteed intent to fulfill his Abrahamic Covenant promises.
- The Law anticipates the New Covenant.
In light of the inability of the Old Covenant, God promises a New Covenant that overcomes the Old Covenant’s weaknesses.
And, interestingly enough, the inability of the Law (addressed above), the experience of its curses, and this eventual remedy are all anticipated within the Law itself. The Law itself, in other words, anticipates the need for something beyond it!
We could look at loads of passages. But we looked at two for the sake of time.
Deut 29:27-28; 30:1-10 – Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against this land, bringing upon it all the curses written in this book, 28 and the Lord uprooted them from their land in anger and fury and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as they are this day.’ … 30:1 And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2 and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. … 5 And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. 6 And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring [note: New Covenant language], so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. … 8 And you shall again obey the voice of the Lord and keep all his commandments that I command you today … 10 when you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
And the prophets foretell of these realities in the form of the New Covenant.
Jer 31:31-34 – Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
And, this–the fact that a New Covenant is promised that overcomes the weaknesses of the Old Covenant–of course, implies the temporary nature of that Old Covenant, which brings us to our next point.
- The Law serves a temporary role in redemptive history.
The Law is a parenthesis in redemptive history, we might say, leading us to Christ and the New Covenant.
For example, the author of Hebrews says that Jeremiah 31 (the text cited directly above), with its promise of a New Covenant, implies that the Old Covenant will fade away with the arrival of this New Covenant.
Heb 8:13 – In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. …
Note the clear language of the Old Covenant being brought to an end.
Likewise, Paul in Galatians 3 talks about the Law serving as a temporary guardian, tutor, or nanny/babysitter. Whatever this means (we won’t get into that here), it’s clear that the Law served an intentionally temporary role in redemptive history.
Gal 3:23-26 – Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.
Cf. other relevant texts on this issue – Mt 5:17-20; Acts 15; Rom 6:14-15; 7:1-4; 2 Cor 3:7, 11, 13; Gal 4:1-7; 5:1, 13, 18; Heb 8:13; 10:9; cf. 1 Cor 9:21; Gal 5:13; 6:2; Heb 7:12; James 2:10.
And, so, to recap the role of the law in redemptive history: God gives his people—Israel—a conditional covenant (i.e., blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience) whereby his people could experience the blessings of the new-creational kingdom.
Excurses and caveats
In closing I wanted to include some additional side-comments related to the Law.
- The goodness of the Law.
First, the Law is good. I think sometimes, in popular talk, the Law gets a bad rap as something nasty. However, the Law is gracious guidance from God. We should not view the law as bad or unfortunate. The laws themselves are holy.
Deut 4:6-8 – Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ 7 For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? 8 And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?
Furthermore, the impotence of the law does not mean that the law itself was bad. Rather, what we mean is that sin dominated humanity under the law and wields the law as an instrument to condemn. Its impotence, therefore, is not a knock on the goodness of the law, but on the badness of those under it.
Rom 7:7, 12-13 – 7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! … 12 the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. 13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good….
- God’s grace and the Mosaic Covenant.
Second, I wanted to take some time to demonstrate the presence of God’s grace even with the Law itself. This is meant to correct seemingly common misunderstandings about the Law which seem to view it as almost antithetical to God’s grace.
In contrast, we can note the following dimensions of God’s grace in the Mosaic Covenant:
Abrahamic Covenant framework – The Mosaic Covenant exists within the context of the Abrahamic Covenant and is based on God’s gracious promises in the Abrahamic Covenant (Deut 9:5; 29:13).
Based on unconditional election – That God has chosen to make this relationship between Israel and himself is not based on Israel’s righteousness but God’s unconditional election (Deut 7:7-8).
Based on the Exodus – The Mosaic Covenant is based on God’s redemption in the Exodus. Israel entered this relationship by grace. They didn’t work their way into this covenant, in other words. God, in his grace, has worked this about for them and made them his people.
It is of God’s initiation – The fact that God has initiated this covenant relationship is an expression of grace. He may demand obedience and require their faithfulness to the covenant as a condition for their experience of its blessings. But even the fact that they have an opportunity to experience these blessings upon obedience is an expression of grace. It’s not that they’ve earned or worked their way into this covenant relationship.
Demonstrations of God’s patience / Undeserved experience of God’s blessings – Throughout Israel’s history under the Mosaic Covenant we see that God shows Israel both (1) great patience in not punishing her even though she deserves the covenant curses (e.g., God’s grace in preserving Israel after she breaks the covenant with the golden-calf) and, on the flip side, (2) great grace in allowing her to experience the covenant blessings despite her disobedience. In fact, Israel is told to remember that experience of the covenant blessings rests on God’s grace, not Israel’s righteousness. Israel is stubborn. (Deut 9:4-6).
The Law itself is gracious – The law is God’s gracious guidance (Deut 4:6-8; Rom 7:7, 12-13). In fact the word “law” (torah) could also be translated “instruction.”
As Goldsworthy reminds us,
“If the Exodus means anything it means freedom from bondage. It is therefore clear that the law could not originate at Sinai as another form of bondage.” Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom, 74.
The provision of the cult (e.g., tabernacle, priests, sacrifices, etc.) – A way of obtaining forgiveness for disobedience and restoring oneself to right relationship with God is built into the covenant itself. This, surely, is an expression of God’s grace.
- The Mosaic Law and the Christian:
Finally, we want to briefly address the question of how, as Christians, we relate to the Mosaic Covenant and its laws. The following is going to be necessarily short. So you will have to pardon the brevity and simplicity with which I survey this complex issue.
First, at least two things (from the above material) raise this question: (1) The fact that the law is deliberately temporary and has now been brought to an end (discontinuity) and (2) the fact the Old Covenant finds its fulfillment in the New Covenant and Christ (continuity).
At this point, we will make some conclusions about the Christian’s relationship to the Mosaic Covenant and its laws in light of what we know about redemptive history. Then we will draw out some principles for interpretation and application (hermeneutics).
- As members of the New Covenant, we are not under the Old Covenant (Heb 8:13). With that, the laws of that covenant cannot be separated from the covenant itself (Heb 7:12). The law cannot, furthermore, be divided into portions—some of which are binding for us; and others are not (James 2:10). Thus, the Mosaic Laws are not binding on us in the sense that we are not bound to that covenant (1 Cor 9:20).
- Nonetheless, the New Covenant fulfills the very aim of the Old Covenant and its law (Jer 31:31-34). Jesus expressed this central aim in terms of the law to love God and love neighbor. And this law of love sums up everything else (Mt 22:36-39; Gal 5:14; Rom 13:8-10; cf. Mt 5:17-20). Elsewhere, scripture calls this the “law of Christ” because it is the central, summative law he gave to his followers (Gal 6:2; cf. Gal 5:14; 1 Cor 9:21; 1 John 4:21). Thus, as believers, we are not lawless (1 Cor 9:21). In fact, we are bound to even greater moral expectations (Mt 5:17-20).
Cf. A range of relevant texts on this issue – Mt 5:17-20; Acts 15; Rom 6:14-15; 7:1-4; 2 Cor 3:7, 11, 13; Gal 4:1-7; 5:1, 13, 18; Heb 8:13; 10:9; cf. 1 Cor 9:21; Gal 5:13; 6:2; Heb 7:12; James 2:10.
Hermeneutical principles—continuity and discontinuity:
- The Mosaic Law is a particular temporal-historical-national expression of God’s transcendent moral will. And because it is an expression of God’s transcendent moral will, we can certainly learn from it and are bound to the transcendent moral will (his general moral demands upon us) that that it expresses.  In this sense, the law has an indirect authority for us. Furthermore, the particularity of the Mosaic Law can help us as we think through what loving God and neighbor might look like in practical terms for us.
- But, also, exactly because the Mosaic Law is an expression of that will to a particular people at a particular time for a particular purpose, we must be sensitive to discontinuities (differences) in application. (For example, a huge difference is the fact that we, as the church, are a transnational, multi-ethnic, spiritual community whereas Israel—the recipient of the law—was a political entity.)
- But, finally, because the Mosaic Covenant is a covenant that has been superseded by the New Covenant, we must give attention to how certain aspects may be changed or transformed by the coming of Christ. Thus, we receive the instruction of the Law as mediated through Christ—our direct authority—and any redemptive historical changes brought about by him.
 Composition of the law material:
- Apodictic law – i.e., The Ten Commandments – The central laws of the covenant.
- Casuistic law – Various stipulations covering all areas of life (e.g., moral, social, cultic, political, etc.) that served as something like case-law fleshing out the implications of the Ten Commandments.
- Cultic laws – Laws pertaining to the tabernacle, priests, sacrifices, etc.) in particular provided a way for a holy God to live in the midst of a sinful people.
 When scripture talks “the Law” it is not referring merely to the laws of the Mosaic Covenant, as some partial element of that covenant, but the covenant itself.
There are exceptions to this use, however. For example, occasionally Paul uses “law” to refer to a general principle or force, making something of a play on words with his other uses that refer to the Mosaic Covenant.
 “The law sends us to the gospel that we may be justified; and the gospel sends us to the law again to inquire what is our duty as those who are justified…. The law sends us to the gospel for our justification; the gospel sends us to the law to frame our way of life.” – Samuel Bolton.
 This would seem to be supported by the fact that the NT applies particular OT laws to Christians (see e.g., Eph 6:2; Jas 2:8; 1 Cor 9:9; etc.).