This morning, as we continue to work through our series on the biggest story ever told, we are going to be speaking about the law.
Most people know that there are laws in the Bible. Many people are familiar with the Ten Commandments, even less of us can name all ten the way we could a generation or two ago.
But let’s face it: for many Christians, the law is a perplexing thing. The word “law” itself sounds kind of negative or at least heavy. Many people who try to read through the Bible get bogged down in the law and never try again.
But on top of this, many Christians struggle with how the law applies to our lives today. We know that we don’t need to sacrifice animals anymore or worship in the temple, but what about those other laws? Are we allowed to work on Sundays? Does God expect Christians to tithe? What is our relationship with the Old Testament law?
Those are the kinds of question we’ll be digging into over these next two weeks as we talk about the law and our relationship with it and how it is that New Covenant Christians are supposed to pursue holiness.
The Law of Moses Belonged to the Covenant
So we want to clarify up front that when we use the phrase “the law,” we are talking about the law of Moses. The law that God gave His people on Mount Sinai after leading them out go Egypt.
God had given instruction to His people before. Adam and Noah and Abraham all receives commands from God. But that all pales in comparison to the chapters and chapters of instruction and commands and regulations that God gave to Israel.
And not surprisingly, when the Bible uses the word “law,” both in the Old and New testaments, it is almost always speaking about the law of Moses.
What we should recognize is that the law of Moses didn’t just fall from the sky. All of the commands and regulations were a part of the covenant that God made with Israel.
And we should remember that God made that covenant, and gave them that law, after He rescued them from Egypt and brought them to Himself. God didn’t give Moses the law the first time they met on Mt. Sinai in the burning bush, so that Moses came into Egypt saying “God wants to set us free, but first, here are the Ten Commandments.”
No—God saved His people and then brought them back to Himself at Mt. Sinai and entered into covenant with them there. And the law came as a part of that covenant.
So the law was never a way to earn God’s grace. The law was how Israel responded to God’s grace. And it did that by showing Israel how they, in their particular setting and place in the story, could best love God and love each other.
So this is our first big point this morning. The law was a part of God’s covenant with Israel. The law belonged to the Old Covenant.
The Law Is About Jesus
The second major point we want to see this morning is that the Law of Moses was actually all about Jesus all along.
This shouldn’t be a surprise to us. On the very first week of this series we read these words of Jesus from Luke 24: “Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’” (Luke 24:44–47).
So according to Jesus, the Law of Moses was always about Him. Jesus is the main character of the Bible, including the first five books. The law is about Jesus.
So how does this work? How does the law point to Jesus? Let’s consider two ways.
1) The Law Shows Us Sin
First, the law points to Jesus by showing us our sin. And the history of Israel bears this out. Even with all of the threats and promises of the Mosaic covenant, nobody was able to perfectly keep the law. The law just showed them how sinful they actually were.
And according to Scripture, this was a part of the point. God gave us the law to highlight our sin. Romans 3:20 tells us this: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
And Romans 7:7 shows us how this works: “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’”
So the law’s commands show us what sin actually is. And that’s why, in 2 Corinthians 3, Paul actually refers to the giving of the law as “the ministry of death” and “the ministry of condemnation” (2 Corinthians 3:7, 9). That’s what the law did: it showed us our sin and condemned us to death.
Without the law, we wouldn’t know how deep our sin was and how much we actually needed a saviour. If you want to know how much you need Jesus to save you, just read the Ten Commandments. That’s actually a great way to help someone else understand how much they need Jesus to save them.
So the law points to Jesus by showing us how much we need Him to save us.
2) The Law Prepares Us for Christ
But more than this, the law shows us what kind of a saviour Jesus will be. The whole system of priests and animal sacrifices was put in place to teach us about what kind of a saviour Jesus would be, so that when John the Baptist said “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) we know what he meant.
The law gave us pictures of Jesus so that we would recognize Him when He came.
The book of Hebrews puts it this way: “the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (Hebrews 10:1).
Have you ever been in a room, and there’s a light shining from outside of the room, and someone you know begins to walk into the room, and you see their shadow before you actually see them?
That’s what’s going on in the law. As we read the first five book so the Bible, we are seeing shadows being cast by Jesus before He actually walks into the room.
And so the big idea once again is that the law was given to prepare us for Jesus.
Paul summed up this idea in Galatians 3:23-24: “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.”
That word “guardian” is really important. It comes from a Greek word that can also be translated as “schoolmaster” or “instructor,” and it referred to a specific job that higher-class families would give to one of their trustworthy slaves. His job was to watch over the boys of that household, supervising and teaching them on how they were to live. And he literally followed them around everywhere they went until the day they became men.
And that’s what the law was. All those centuries between Moses and Jesus, God’s people were being tutored by the law that followed them around everywhere they went. They were being shown their sin and taught about their saviour and prepared for the coming of Christ.
The Law Is Fulfilled by Jesus
And then Christ came. And He was everything the law said He would be, and He did everything the law said He would do. Jesus fulfilled the law.
Jesus Himself told us this when He said “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” (Matthew 5:17).
That word “abolish” comes from the idea of tearing down a building. And Jesus told the people that He hadn’t come to tear down the law as if it didn’t matter. Instead, He came to fulfill the law by completing it and doing all that it promised.
In other words, Jesus didn’t come to shred the check. He came to cash it.
He did that in so many ways. In His life, He kept the law perfectly. He never broke it once. And beyond this, He fulfilled all of the types and shadows of the law. He is the temple, and the high priest, and the One who makes His people holy to the Lord.
And He is the ultimate sacrifice. As He died on Calvary, all of the curse of the law for the sins of His people came to rest on Him. “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’” (Galatians 3:13).
And so when Jesus walked out of His grave that Sunday morning, He walked out having perfectly satisfied and fulfilled the law in every possible way.
Christians Are Not Under the Law
And so we come to one of the most important points for us to make today, which is this: as members of the New Covenant, who have been saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are no longer under the law of Moses. The law of Moses has been fulfilled by Christ, and so we are no longer a part of that covenant. We are a part of the New Covenant, and we do not live under the law of Moses.
Listen to this full quotation from Galatians 3:23-26: “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”
Now that Christ has come, we are no longer under the guardianship of the law. Just like those Greek and Roman boys, we’ve reached full maturity in Christ, and the guardian is no longer following us around.
And this is the consistent message of the New Testament: we are no longer under the law. Romans 10:4: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” Ephesians 2:14–15: “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances…”
Colossians 2:13-17 is another important passage which I’ll read for us here: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”
Questions of food and drink, festivals and new moons and Sabbaths—those are all elements of the law. And Paul says here that because of the triumph of Jesus on the cross, we are no longer to be judged by that standard. Those commands do not apply to us anymore.
And one of the clearest statements of this truth is the passage from Romans 7 which we read together earlier.
If you turn to Romans 7 or look at it in your bulletin, you’ll see that in the first three verses Paul makes a comparison to marriage. If two people come together in the covenant of marriage, they are bound to that marriage as long as they live. But if one of them dies, the surviving partner is freed from that covenant and able to be married to another.
So verse 4 says, “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.”
Do you hear what Paul is saying here? Yes, we’ve broken the law, and yes, we’re condemned to death under the law, but Jesus died our death for us when He died on the cross. And so legally, before the law, it’s as if we’ve already died. And so that means we are released from the Old Covenant. And we are released from the law.
That’s what verse 6 tells us: “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.”
Please hear again those wonderful words: we are released from the law. We no longer have these commandments and threats and warnings hanging over our head and following us around wherever we go. We are a part of the New Covenant in Christ and we are no longer under the law.
Can We Do Whatever We Want?
So, there’s a question that some of you might be asking now: if we’re no longer under the law, does that mean we’re free to do what we want? If there’s no law, then what’s stopping us from lying and murdering and cheating and stealing?
The Apostle Paul anticipated that question in Romans 6:15, when he said, “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?” And Paul’s answer” “By no means!” (Romans 6:15). May it never be.
We have been freed from the law, but we are not free to sin. We’ve been freed so that we can serve God in righteousness. Just like Romans 7:6 tells us, we’ve been set free “so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.”
Now what we’re going to do the rest of today and then all of next week is try to answer this question, “How does that work? How do we serve and obey God now that we are not under the law?”
And this is a question that many Christians really struggle with. We get the idea of obeying laws. It’s harder for us to understand how to serve God and please Him apart from the law. It’s tough for us to wrap our heads around this.
And so many Christians default to just going back to the law, or at least a part of the law.
One way people do that is by saying that there are actually three parts to the law of Moses. There’s the ceremonial law, which dealt with all of the temple regulations and sacrifices. And then there was the civil law, which talked about capital punishment and how the legal system of Israel was supposed to work. And then there is the moral law, which talked about the more basic things that all of us should follow, like “do not murder” and “do not steal.” In other words, the Ten Commandments.
And so what people say is that Jesus set us free from the ceremonial law and civil law, but not the moral law. That part is still binding on us. So we Christians don’t need to offer sacrifices, and we don’t deal out the death sentence here at EBC, but we’re still bound by the commands not to lie or steal.
Please understand: splitting the law of Moses up into three parts isn’t biblical. And there’s a whole list of scholars in recent years who have recognized this. According to the Bible itself, there’s just one law. And we’re not under any of it.
But when we read through the New Testament, it’s pretty clear that we’re not supposed to lie and murder and steal. And the New Testament authors, including Paul Himself, will even quote from the law to make their point sometimes. So what’s going on here?
Please follow me closely here—I’m going to do my best to explain this: God is a righteous God. Certain things are contrary to His nature. Lying, murdering, stealing—all of these things go against the righteousness of God. And God Himself does not change, even if the covenants do.
A way to wrap our heads around this is to think of something like murder. Murder goes against the righteousness of God. It was always wrong, even before the Law of Moses. Which is why God punished Cain for murdering Abel, long before the Ten Commandments were around.
And then in God’s covenant with Noah, God gave some basic regulations about murder. And finally in the covenant with Israel, in the law, they had a lot of regulations about murder.
But those laws were simply an expression of the unchanging righteousness of God as it applied to the nation of Israel in their particular spot in history.
And so for us today, we are not under that covenant, that law, but God’s righteousness is still the same. The things which were wrong before the law of Moses are certainly still wrong for us today.
And so there are many things in the law of Moses which point back to this unchanging righteousness of God. And so they are still relevant and important for us today, even though we are not under the law of Moses itself.
With that being said, there are other parts of the law of Moses which were unique to Israel at their specific spot in the story with their specific mission in the world at that time.
For some examples, let’s return to Colossians 2:16-17: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”
Paul here specifically mentions the food and drink laws, the festivals, and the Sabbath. These were things that God did not command before the law of Moses. God told Noah to eat any animal he wanted—there was no clean and unclean food laws in that covenant (Genesis 9:3).
Rather, the food and the drink laws, and the festivals and the Sabbath were a specific part of the covenant with Israel and had a specific role in being a shadowy portrayal of Jesus. But now that we’ve been made holy in Jesus, now that we’ve seen the fulfillment of the festivals and the Sabbath in Christ who gives us rest, these shadows are not needed anymore.
We can still learn from the law on these things. Resting one day in seven is a really good idea. We can still learn so much from the law. But we’re not under it in the same way as they were in the Old Covenant.
Let’s consider one more example of this: tithing. Bringing 10% of your income and crops to the priests and Levites was a part of the Old Covenant law. And we are no longer under that law.
Instead, the New Testament tells us things like this: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). Now with that being said, many New Covenant christians, including myself, find that 10% makes a really good baseline for giving. We can learn from the law in this way. But that’s different then tithing because we are under that law, which we are not.
Applying the Law Today
So I hope you’re seeing a pattern emerge here. Even though we are not under the law, the law can continue to help and instruct us and be very valuable to us. As we read the law, we not only learn more about ourselves, and about Jesus, but we also see what it looked like for God’s people to be righteous at that point in the story and with their particular mission. And there’s so much for us to learn from here and now today.
So please, don’t hear me saying this morning “the law is irrelevant. You can just ignore the first five books of the Bible.” That’s not what I’m saying at all.
This past year I’ve spent a lot of time in the first five books of the Bible. I took a seminary class in the fall on these five books, and so had to read hundreds of pages and write dozens of my own about these amazing books. And before that, I spent several months reading through those books slowly in my morning devotional time, using the ESV Study Bible to help me understand what I was reading and how it all fits together. And that was hugely beneficial.
And you might not be able to take the seminary class, but you can pick up an ESV study Bible online or from the NBC bookstore, and use those study notes to guide you through the law of Moses. I guarantee you, things will make so much more sense then struggling away on your own, and you’ll learn so much. And most importantly, you’ll see more of Jesus.
And that, believe it or not, is one of my main points of application in this sermon that has told you that you are not under the law: don’t ignore the law. God gave it to Israel on purpose and there’s so much for us to learn from here and now today.
And, not but, and: rejoice that we are not under the law. Rejoice that Christ fulfilled the law perfectly. Rejoice that we are not under the guardian but enjoy freedom as sons of God.
Galatians 5:1 speaks about the law when it says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
Now remember that this morning’s message is “to be continued” in many ways. Next week we’re going to pick up on this idea, and ask the question, what does it look like to “serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6)?
And so you can prepare for that by reading two key passages that we’ll be considering next week. The first is Romans 8:1-13, and the second is Galatians 5:13-24.
And reading those passages will help answer some of your questions and prepare you to dig in with us next week.
But we’re going to end now by singing and celebrating Jesus. Our high priest, our sacrifice, the one who fulfilled the law. The one who lived the perfect life for us and died to set us free from the law and in whom we are free today.
Let’s pray and then praise Him together.