Me? Obey the Law?
A Sermon on Leviticus 17-20 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA, 1/10/99
Let's begin the new year with a quiz. Answer True or False:
Question 1: A Christian is someone who gives ten percent of his income to the Lord, goes to church every Sunday, reads the Bible every day, and does not smoke, drink, or use foul language.
Perhaps the answer to that question is too obvious. Try this one:
Question 2: A Christian is someone who has received Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Christians gives ten percent of their income to the Lord, go to church every Sunday, read the Bible every day, and do not smoke, drink, or use foul language.
What is the role of rules in the Christian life? Or more formally: What is the role of law in the Christian life? Most of us here this morning know that we are not put right with God by our obedience to some legal code. We know that there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation, that salvation is a free gift of God offered to all those who trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Most of us know that even our faith is a gift of God. But once we are saved -- do we need to obey a set of rules? Does God want us to live up to a list of do's and don'ts?
Our studies in Leviticus have brought us to the 17th chapter. This is a turning point in the book. The first 16 chapters describe God's gracious provisions for dealing with the failures of the Israelites to live up to the commandments. Remember that the Israelites had told God, "All you have commanded we will do!" Yet within hours they broke God's commands. But God in his grace provided through the sacrificial system a method of restoring their relationship to Him, a way of meeting all the needs that they, as humans, experience in this fallen world.
The sacrificial system, the priesthood, the distinction between clean and unclean, and the day of atonement all prefigure the work of Jesus in this world. We find in Jesus the answer to all our failures, all our faults, all our defilement.
But God is doing more than meeting our needs. There is an underlying purpose to God's plan of salvation. Remember at Sinai God told the Israelites that they would become his treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. God is in the process of creating for himself the perfect bride, a people for his own dear possession, a people cleansed of all impurities: Man restored to his rightful place as God's companion. God is creating a people who can have this type of relationship to Himself.
The last half of the book of Leviticus answers this question: If we are in this type of relationship with God, how should we then live? How should we behave? If I am part of God's holy nation, how should I live?
God gives the fundamental answer to that question several times in the section we consider today, Leviticus 17-20: "Be holy, for I am holy." The citizens of a holy nation, the bride of a holy God, must be holy themselves -- or they do not belong in that nation. So we might rephrase the question: How can I be holy?
Now, in the four chapters we are considering this morning, we find many rules and regulations. God is helping the Israelites to know how to behave as a holy nation. He chooses to provide this help in part by telling the Israelites things they should and should not do.
What about us? Do Christians have to live out a particular type of life? Do Christians have to live up to a set of rules? Or, saved by grace and depending on God's forgiveness, can we live any way that we choose, knowing that He will forgive us? Specifically, do the commands given to the Israelites in this latter half of Leviticus have any relevance for us today?
These questions are especially important for each of us in our personal lives. In addition, our interpretation of this section is central to several issues facing the church as a whole today. For example, a number of churches have adopted what they call "open and affirming" positions towards homosexuality. Now, Leviticus 18 and 20 contain explicit prohibitions of homosexual behavior. So are "open and affirming" congregations rejecting the clear teaching of Scripture? The answer is not as clear as it appears at first glance, for these chapters also include commands that seem off the wall. For example: "Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material (Lev 19:19)." Those who do not believe homosexual behavior is a sin ask the logical question: How can you condemn homosexual behavior while wearing a blended polyester and wool blazer?
We will spend two Sundays looking at this important issue. This morning we will first examine God's underlying purpose for providing any law at all. This is the rationale for the law. Second, Christians are frequently unclear about the relevance of any law for us today. So we will next look at several New Testament passages to gain an understanding of the New Testament approach to law. At that point, we will be prepared to return to Leviticus. We'll do this next week, when we will delineate the types of law found in this section. Along the way we will see that God's law grows out of his very nature -- the central features of the law are not arbitrary decisions God made, but result from Who God is. We cannot claim to be Christians and live according to our natural desires. Yet a legalistic approach to living the Christian life is deadly, contrary to the essence of our relationship to God.
The Rationale for Law
So first let's look at the rationale for law.
The break in Leviticus between chapters 1-16 and chapters 17-27 is similar to the break in Ephesians between chapters 1-3 and chapters 4-6. Remember, in the first half of Ephesians Paul details the nature of our calling, telling us of all the spiritual blessings that are ours in Christ. Then at the beginning of chapter 4 he tells us that we must walk in a manner worthy of that high calling.
Here in Leviticus as in Ephesians, the rules and regulations are presented not as a way to gain God's favor, but as a logical result of the nature of God, and the nature of our relationship to him. In each case, God first shows his great provisions for us, and the type of relationship he desires with us; only then does he give us rules to govern our behavior. Christian behavior results from a relationship with God; it is not a prerequisite to that relationship. Only God's transforming power can enable us to live lives worthy of His calling.
Some of you may recall a story I used to illustrate this point when we first started studying Ephesians almost two years ago. Picture an American standing outside Buckingham Palace. Let's call him Jerry. Jerry is dressed as your typical tourist: baggy shorts, sunglasses, a baseball cap, and a T-shirt. He's snapping pictures of the changing of the guard. Suddenly, much to Jerry's surprise, one of these big, gruff guards, approaches him. The imposing guard, his head topped off with a huge black felt hat, says, "Come with me!"
"What have I done?" asks Jerry. "Really, if I wasn't supposed to take pictures you can have the camera!"
The guard refuses the camera and says, "The Queen has chosen you! You are to sit with the royal family!"
"But look my clothes! A Red Sox cap and a dirty Williams T-shirt! And how do I act at a royal dinner?"
"The Queen will provide you with fresh clothes, instructions in protocol, and -- thankfully -- a bath. Oh, and one more item: The Queen has decided that you are to be a joint heir with the Prince of Wales!"
"An heir! To the British crown? But my ancestors rebelled against the English monarchy!"
How will Jerry behave? What will he do, now that he is second in line to the British crown? If Jerry's position is secure, if the Queen's elevating of his position is irrevocable, then no matter how he acts he will maintain his position. His position does not depend on his behavior. But if Jerry takes to heart the gracious act of the Queen, if he truly understands the honor that she has conferred on him, if he knows his own unworthiness, then he will do his best to live a life worthy of this calling. He will learn all he can from the steward assigned to him; he will discard his Williams T-shirt and wear the clothes given to him; he will live his entire life praising the monarch for her grace to him, and living up to her standards.
Jerry does not have to live up to any set of rules to maintain his position as Prince. But he will be quite foolish and ungrateful to live in any way that he pleases.
The position of the Israelites here in Leviticus is quite similar to Jerry's. Why did God choose the people of Israel as his? Not because there was anything special about them. Not because He knew they would be especially responsive. He chose them simply because he chose them. But he displayed his grace to them in order that they might become his own treasured possession, a people who would be devoted to him. To use New Testament terminology, God was beginning the process of creating a perfect bride for Christ.
God's choice was not dependent on their behavior. But behavior is a logical consequence of God's choice.
See how God lays this out clearly in chapters 18 to 20 of Leviticus. I want to read several selections to you. Notice the emphasis again and again on the phrases, "I am the LORD your God," and "Be holy for I am holy." Remember that the word "LORD" when printed with all caps is a substitute for the name of God in the Hebrew text. English translations have used this convention because the Jewish rabbis felt it was disrespectful to pronounce the name of God. But this morning I want to insert God's name into the text instead of the word "LORD" -- I believe that brings out more clearly the personal connection between the people and their God, the God of their covenant. So I will read "Yahweh" for each occurrence of the word "LORD" in your text.
18: 1 ¶ Yahweh said to Moses,
2 "Speak to the Israelites and say to them: 'I am Yahweh your God. 3 You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. 4 You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am Yahweh your God. 5 Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them. I am Yahweh.
6 ¶ "'No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations. I am Yahweh.
19:1 ¶ Yahweh said to Moses,
2 "Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: 'Be holy because I, Yahweh your God, am holy. 3 "'Each of you must respect his mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am Yahweh your God. 4 "'Do not turn to idols or make gods of cast metal for yourselves. I am Yahweh your God.
9 "'When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.
10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am Yahweh your God.
18 "'Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am Yahweh.
28 "'Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am Yahweh.
30 "'Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary. I am Yahweh.
31 "'Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I am Yahweh your God.
32 "'Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am Yahweh.
34 The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am Yahweh your God.
35 "'Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity. 36 Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin. I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of Egypt.
37 "'Keep all my decrees and all my laws and follow them. I am Yahweh.'"
20:7 "'Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am Yahweh your God. 8 Keep my decrees and follow them. I am Yahweh, who makes you holy. 26 You are to be holy to me because I, Yahweh, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.
You see how clearly God shows that these behavioral regulations grow out of the Israelites' relationship to him? Again and again and again, God says "I am Yahweh your God." The relationship exists. And because the Israelites are so closely linked to this holy God, they themselves must be holy.
What does God mean when he says, "I, Yahweh, am holy"? God's holiness implies that he cannot tolerate evil. As Habakkuk states, "Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong (1:13)." God is light in his very nature; in Him is no darkness at all. God does not choose to hate evil; He must hate evil, or he would not be God. Consider these verses:
"I, Yahweh, love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity" (Isaiah 61:8).
"Do not plot evil against your neighbor, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all these," declares Yahweh (Zechariah 8:17).
"I hate divorce," says Yahweh the God of Israel, "and I hate a man's covering himself with violence." (Malachi 2:16).
You see, God hates evil from his inmost being. His nature is repelled by evil. If we are to be his own, treasured possession, He must cleanse us from the evil that is in our nature. If we are to belong to Him, we must be holy, for he is holy.
For this reason, those who are in covenant relationship to the Lord must love His law. If we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and might, we must love His law -- because the Law reveals his character! So the Psalmist writes:
Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. (Psa 119:97)
Now, many Israelites misunderstood the law, thinking that by obeying the commandments outwardly and going through the motions of the sacrificial system they earned the right to God's favor. But God rebukes the Israelites for such a conception many times in the prophetic books.
So we might summarize the Old Testament view of the law in this way: The law is not a set of arbitrary hoops God sets up for people to jump through in order to gain access to His presence. Rather, the law reveals God's character, showing us how God's chosen people should respond to the love God has showered upon them. The law presumes an intimate relationship with God -- it is not a way of earning that intimate relationship.
A New Testament View of the Law
What is the New Testament view of the Law? The New Testament view of the Law is fundamentally the same as the Old Testament view. Salvation is by God's grace alone; we do not earn it in any way. No one becomes righteous by obeying the Law. We are God's people by His grace. But because God is transforming his people into a perfect bride, we must love His law and obey Him, by the power of the Holy Spirit living in us.
Let us look briefly at four New Testament passages that clarify these concepts.
First, Jesus himself makes clear that the law was not a temporary phenomenon, relevant only to the Israelites. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:
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. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Anyone who breaks 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:17-19)
The Law must continue, for the Law reveals God's character. Jesus fulfills the Law -- he lives up to its every precept, and his death on the cross fulfills the righteous requirements of the Law for all who believe.
Jesus then goes on to say that our righteousness must surpass the external obedience of the scribes and Pharisees -- and then he shows what this means. We must attune ourselves to God's character, becoming like Him.
For our second passage, turn to John 14. In these last words to his disciples, Jesus once again speaks of the role of Law in our lives. But note how he grounds the discussion of obedience not only in the relationship we have with him, but also his very presence within us.
I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him." . . .
23 "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24 He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. (John 14:18-21, 23-24a)
You see how this reinforces the Old Testament teaching? Jesus says, "You are Mine; you are in relationship to me. I am going away, but I will come to you and make my home with you -- and then you will have true life! You are in me, I am in you -- and so you must be like me, you must take on my character. You become like me by obeying my commands -- for these commands reveal my character."
Jesus is not here setting up a list of rules for Christians to obey. Jesus wants our obedience to the Law because he is transforming us into his likeness -- we are becoming like him. Since the Law reveals God's character, we must live in accord with the Law.
A statement Jesus made a few days earlier gives us further insight into the reason why love implies obedience. Turn to Matthew 22; let's read beginning in verse 35:
35 An expert in the law tested [Jesus] with this question: 36 "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?"
37 Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matt 22:35-40)
How can Jesus say that all the Law hangs on these commandments? Because the Law reveals God's character, and God is love! God loves your neighbor -- how can you claim to be God's precious possession, how can you claim that the Holy Spirit dwells in you and hate your neighbor?
Once again, the Law was not set up as a method of becoming right with God. Living by the Law is the consequence of your relationship with God. (Note here that the second greatest commandment is a quote from Leviticus 19).
For our final New Testament passage, let us turn to Galatians chapter 5. Recall that the entire book of Galatians deals with the Law. Some Jewish Christians had gone to Galatia after Paul and told the Gentile believers that they must become Jews, undergo circumcision, and obey all the laws or they would not be saved. Paul responds that this is a false gospel, indeed, no gospel at all -- because it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of law in our relationship to God. After four chapters of emphasizing the freedom we have in Christ, showing how we are saved by grace and grace alone, Paul turns back to the correct role of law in chapter 5. Let's begin reading in verse 13:
You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another in love. 14 The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." 15 If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. 16 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. . . .
6:7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. 8 The one who sows to please his flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. 9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
So in Christ we are free; our position before God does not depend on our obedience. Think again of Jerry. If the Queen's proclamation is irreversible, Jerry could have bad table manners and make silly faces during solemn occasions and generally act like a jerk, but he would still be second in line the British crown.
Our position is secure. Our salvation does not depend on our obedience. We really are free. But our freedom in Christ does not imply that we have the license to act like animals! God saved us for a purpose, and that purpose is to glorify himself, creating for himself a perfect bride.
Furthermore, as Paul makes clear, we have an indwelling presence! God's Spirit is in us, producing precious fruit, truly transforming us so that our character is becoming like God's character. Our job is to keep in step with the Spirit, to allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit, to live our lives in conscious dependence on Him so that we might become like Him. And if we do that, then we don't have to worry about obeying the Law. Did you catch that in this passage? The end of verse 22: "Against [the fruit of the Spirit] there is no law." If we are keeping in step with the Spirit so that His fruit is characterizing our lives, then our character is becoming like God's character -- and we are thus fulfilling the Law.
This, by the way, is the last step in the consummation of Jesus' statement that he came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. The Law is fulfilled when God's people have fully taken on God's character. We do this when the Spirit completes His work within us.
So the New Testament view of the Law reflects the Old Testament view -- but takes it a step further. In the Old Testament, it is clear that God's people should live up to his revealed character -- but it is not clear how they are to accomplish that. After Jesus' death on the cross and the coming of the Holy Spirit, we have the privilege of becoming the temple of the Holy Spirit; the Spirit lives within us, empowering us to live lives worthy of His calling. So our call is to become like God, not through our own efforts, but through dependence on the power at work within us. We do this not primarily by trying to avoid evil, but by a positive morality -- developing the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. If our lives are characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control, then we are fulfilling the Law indeed.
Next week we will return to Leviticus 17-20 and see how to make sense of the specific laws that God gives in those great chapters. We will see that in order to make sense of those chapters we need to differentiate between four purposes of the laws given: To reveal God's character, to picture God's plan of salvation, to ensure the Israelites avoid idolatry, and to set up a system of legal punishment for theocratic Israel. So some of those laws are fulfilled in Jesus' sacrifice, and, while the underlying purposes of all these laws hold today, the specifics of some are no longer relevant. We will see that next week.
But for today, consider the true nature of the Law. So many people, even many Christians, view the Law as a set of rules which they have to live up to. They think of the Law as a set of lines -- and think, "If I cross that line, I sin. I won't cross the line -- but I'll get as close to the line as I can!"
That is not a Christian approach to the Law. Let's call that approach to morality "linism." If that is your approach, then you are repugnant to God. I know that is a strong statement, but consider: "linism" was the approach of the Pharisees -- and consider the harsh denouncements they received from Jesus. And the Pharisees even drew the lines far from God's proscribed behavior!
No. "Linism" is not Christianity. A Christian is not someone who avoids doing a certain set of behaviors. Avoiding certain behaviors is not the key to living the Christian life.
Fundamentally, this issue gets back to the very meaning of salvation. Do you understand what salvation means? Do you understand what God is doing through this eternal plan of salvation? God doesn't stop with bearing the punishment for our sin, freeing us from the punishment we deserve. God doesn't stop there. God raises us up and seats us with Christ in the heavenlies. God is making us into Christ's perfect bride -- holy, blameless, without spot or wrinkle. God will present you and me, the church, to Christ as his long-sought bride -- and we will be perfect: clothed in white, sparklingly beautiful, perfect in every respect.
God is glorifying himself by taking the mess that we have made of ourselves, the mess we have made of this fallen world, and transforming all of us together into the perfect bride of Christ.
God has determined that we will be like him -- and the Law reveals his very character. So keep in step with the Spirit! Don't be content with living up to some set of rules -- become like God! Be transformed into His likeness! This is your calling!
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 1/10/99. I decided to preach a series of sermons on Leviticus after reading Ray Stedman's series, which is available at thePBC web site. I am heavily indebted to him both for his insights into Leviticus, and for all I learned about expository preaching from him.
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