God gave Adam & Eve, the first man and woman, one command while they were living in the Garden, and that was to not eat the fruit of one particular tree, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. All other fruits they could eat, but not this one.
However, despite only having one command to obey, in time they gave into the temptation of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and tasted of the forbidden fruit. This was mankind’s first sin and God being perfect cannot tolerate sin and they were thrown out of the Garden of Eden and instructed to fend for themselves. Sin is simply the breaking of God’s commandments, they are what cause us to be separated from God because he cannot live with sin. How many sins did it take before God decided to throw them out? Ten? Twenty? One Hundred? A thousand? No, just the one sin and they had to pack their bags. One sin and Adam could no longer approach or dwell with God, one sin and he had to die. God is pure holiness and does not take sin lightly, and that’s why he has told us in James 2:10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. So if we break one little commandment, then we have broken the whole law.
Later on, the nation of Israel, or the Jews, were born out of the descendants of Adam (specifically Jacob, also called Israel) and are God’s people. When they left their life of slavery in Egypt, God gave the descendants of Israel, or children of Israel a long list of laws to obey through a prophet called Moses. The best known of these are the Ten Commandments, dealing with how to behave towards God and how to behave to other people.
1. I am the Lord thy God, no other gods before me
2. No graven images
3. Do not take the Lord’s name in vain
4. Remember the Sabbath Day
5. Honour mother and father
6. Do not kill
7. Do not commit adultery
8. Do not steal
9. Do not bare false witness
10. Do not covet
These are moral laws that told the Israelites how to conduct themselves towards others, including God, but there were many other laws given which can be read of in the books of Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus. There were ceremonial laws such as the feasts, and observing of days like circumcision on the 8th day for a new born boy. There were dietary laws like certain things they could and couldn’t eat, laws of cleanliness to help prevent the spread of diseases, laws regarding worship such as the sacrifice of animals to God.
But why did God place this heavy burden on Israel, well perhaps part of the answer is in Exodus 19
On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain, while Moses went up to God. The LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the LORD had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do.” And Moses reported the words of the people to the LORD. (Exo 19:1-8)
The people of Israel said that they will do everything that the Lord has said! They were filled with self-confidence, however God knew that they could not do all that he required. They failed to realise that they did not have the strength to carry out God’s directions perfectly and they did not recognise just how far they were from God and His great glory. This is the reason why God gave them the commandments and in particular the ten commandments we see given in the next chapter, telling the Israelites to keep them all, but if whoever fails in one point fails in them all and will be separated from God forever. God wanted to show the Israelites through the heavy burden of all the laws and rituals that they didn’t have the ability to please Him. God knew they wouldn’t follow all the commandments, but they didn’t yet realise this.
But why did God give them all these commandments when he knew that they wouldn’t be able to keep them perfectly?
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Rom 3:20)
So the purpose of the Old Testament law and in particular the Ten Commandments, wasn’t to remove sin, but to reveal sin, or make the people conscious of sin.… a law that allowed the people to judge each other. God didn’t give those commandments so the Israelites could be saved. Can the descendants of Adam keep all the commandments perfectly? Can you draw pure, clean water from a dirty, polluted water pot? Of course not. The purpose wasn’t to save the people from the judgement, but to show the people that they were condemned and that they needed a saviour.
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.(Isa 64:6)
as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; (Rom 3:10)
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Rom 3:12)
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. (Rom 3:19)
the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (Rom 3:22-23)
So if this is what it is like, then how can we possibly escape punishment? What can we do to be saved. If we base it on our own efforts then we have no hope, but God has put in place a plan to rescue the children of Adam from the punishment of sin.
After God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses and the Israelites he says
An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. (Exo 20:24)
So, Moses made an altar…
And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the LORD. And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Exo 24:4-8)
What was the reason for all of this. To show the Israelites that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin and everyone who wants to approach God has to do so under the perfection of a blemish-free sacrifice.
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. (Heb 9:22)
God commanded those animal sacrifices because he is holy and righteous and his law states that the penalty for breaking even one of the smallest commandments is death. Since the children of Israel could not keep all the commandments they had to bring a sacrifice to God that was without blemish so that the innocent and pure animal could replace the one who was guilty. But, animal sacrifices could not remove sin, they could only cover a man’s sin and they had to be done time after time. This was until God sent Jesus Christ his son into the world who willingly offered himself as the perfect sacrifice.
Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Heb 9:23-28)
Jesus was able to fulfil the ten commandments and all the other laws required, not once in his life did he sin and so he was able to lay down his life as the perfect sacrifice required which would act as a permanent sacrifice.
When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (Heb 10:8-14)
Christ did away with the need for regular animal sacrifices because, unlike the animal sacrifices, he was able to make it possible for sins to be forgiven.
“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. (Heb 10:16-18)
No one can save themselves by trying to keep the ten commandments, or any other part of the law, but it does serve the purpose of defining and revealing sin, directing people to look for a saviour.
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.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us–for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”– so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. (Gal 3:10-14)
Only God has a way that can save sinners, and that was through the sacrifice of his own son, Jesus Christ.
Jesus addressed the issue of the people thinking that living by the law was the only thing that mattered. Jesus brought with him a new commandment,
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Joh 13:34-35)
It was a commandment of love, and he expands on this in Matthew 22
And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Mat 22:35-40)
The people in the time of Jesus, like the Pharisees, put so much pride in upholding the law and had so much respect for themselves that they were in violation of these two laws because they were putting themselves first.
The definition of sin hasn’t changed between the Old and New covenants,
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Mat 5:17-19)
Jesus didn’t come to destroy the law, but he came rather to fulfil.
In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. (Heb 8:13)
Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. (Heb 9:1)
All the old testament rituals, and sacrifices were done away with. A new better covenant had been established, one that was based on a law of grace and not a law of works. The new covenant in Christ adds clarity and focus to our hearts, and condemns those who are only intent on keeping the letter of the law.
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luk 18:10-14)
The Pharisee boasted about himself to God, thanking Him that he was not like other men, the tax collector humbly asked God to have mercy on him, a sinner. Jesus said the tax collector was the only one who went home justified before God, the greek word here for justified means to be rendered righteous.
If you fail to forgive someone because you think that someone doesn’t deserve it, then you will earn the Lord’s condemnation just like the Pharisees, but if you confess your own sins and forgive others you too will be forgiven.
The new covenant and the commandments of Christ are all about loving and forgiving others, but it doesn’t mean that the old law is invalidated.
Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Rom 3:31)
And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.(2Co 3:3)
But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. (2Co 3:14-16)
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Heb 8:10)
If the old law was unimportant why would it be written on our hearts?
This is the argument Paul makes in Romans… we can obey God’s laws if we follow after the spiritual life, not the lift of the flesh.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Rom 8:1-6)
So in the new covenant, the commandments laid down for us by Christ, we are still serving and sinning under the law, but we are serving now in a newness of the Spirit, because we want to serve, not because we have to. We do not serve out of fear because we are tied down by a burdensome law, but we do so out of love because Christ is our Lord and Saviour. It is no longer a case of obedience leading to salvation which Israelites thought, but rather a case of salvation leading to obedience. We are now under a law of love, and because we love and forgive others we want to follow the commandments of Christ. Christ turned the thinking upside down. The Jews thought it was wrong to kill or steal, or break any of the other of the ten commandments because it violated the ten commandments. Jesus has told us that it’s wrong to kill or steal, because it breaks the law of love.
We are to follow the commandments of Christ, not because we have to, not because it makes us look better than others, but because we want to do them out of nothing but love for God and others. And if we love God and others then we will willingly want to do the things which please God and hate doing the things which displease him. Our mercy towards one another is our evidence of our love for God.
Jesus brought a new way of thinking with him, his commandments based on a law of love and forgiveness. If we don’t forgive others, then we won’t be forgiven ourselves. Jesus emphasised this many times,
And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” [But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your trespasses.] (Mar 11:25-26)
Or read any of the epistles of John for a lesson in love.
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. (Rom 13:8)