Preparation for the Law
It is interesting to find that 14 chapters of the book of Genesis, chapters 37 through 50, deal with Jacob’s son, Joseph. It is interesting because Joseph was not the son/tribe through which the Lord Jesus Christ, the promised Seed, was to come. Why then all this attention to Joseph? Primarily for two reasons. First, Joseph’s life is a striking picture or type of the Lord Jesus. He was the beloved son of his father (Gen. 37:3-14), the servant rejected by his brethren (Gen. 37:4-20) and, finally, the exalted savior of his own (Gen. 41:14-55). Second, Joseph was used of God to preserve his family, and thus the nation of Israel, through seven years of famine that struck the earth during that time. God used Joseph to prophesy the seven years of famine as well as the seven years of plenty that would precede it (Gen. 41:25-32). He also used Joseph to propose the solution to the famine (Gen. 41:33-36). God raised up Joseph to an exalted position in Egypt so he could carry out the plans to save, not only the people of Egypt, but Joseph’s family as well (Gen. 41:37-44). We read in Genesis 46 that Jacob and his whole family journeyed and went down into Egypt, where they were preserved through the seven years of famine. We read in verse 3 that God said to Jacob,
“I am God, the God of your father; do not fear to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there.”
The book of Genesis ends with the death of Jacob, and then his son, Joseph. The book of Exodus opens telling us that while in Egypt, Jacob’s family, which originally numbered in the seventies, “were fruitful and increased abundantly, multiplied and grew exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them” (Exo. 1:7). What had begun as one man’s family had grown to become a large and mighty nation, even “more and mightier” than the Egyptians (Exo. 1:9). At this time there arose a new pharaoh (or king) which did not know Joseph. He became fearful that the people of Israel might fight against the Egyptians along with their enemies and go up out of the land of Egypt. This would mean the devastating loss of a huge workforce for Egypt, so Pharaoh set taskmasters over them, afflicted them, and forced them to do hard labor. Under this great bondage, the people of Israel cried out unto God for deliverance. We read in Exodus 2:24 and 25that
“God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God acknowledged them.”
In response to their cries for help, God raised up a man called Moses to be their deliverer. We read of this great deliverance in Exodus, chapters 5 through 12. This deliverance was accomplished by God bringing ten plagues upon the land and people of Egypt; the last plague being the death of the firstborn. As a result of this final plague, Pharaoh commanded Moses to go and take the children of Israel up out of Egypt (Exo. 12:31-51). We read further of God’s mighty deliverance of Israel through the Red Sea, with Pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit of them (Exo. 14). They journeyed from there to the Wilderness of Sinai and camped there before the mountain. It was here that God spoke to the people of Israel through His servant, Moses, and established a covenant with them; the covenant of law.
“And Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: You 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, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel. So Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before them all these words which the Lord commanded him. Then all the people answered together and said, All that the LORD has spoken we will do. So Moses brought back the words of the people to the LORD.” (Exo. 19:3-8)
From the words which the LORD spoke through Moses, we can see that this was a conditional covenant. He told them, “If you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people …” Their relationship with God and their blessings from Him were dependent upon their obedience to His Word (i.e. the law). With the establishment of this covenant, a new dispensation of LAW was entered.
Parts of the Law
When most people think of the Mosaic Law, they envision Moses going up on Mount Sinai and receiving the ten commandments written on tablets of stone by the finger of God, but the law was more than just the ten commandments. The law actually consisted of three different parts: the commandments, the judgments, and the ordinances. The commandments, recorded in Exodus, chapter 20, governed the moral life of the people of Israel. The judgments, recorded in Exodus, chapters 21 through 24, governed the social life of the people. The ordinances, recorded in Exodus, chapters 24 through 31, governed the religious or spiritual life of the people of Israel. The Law also provided a dwelling place for God among His people (Exo. 29:45). God gave Moses specific instructions for the construction of the tabernacle, which was the place where God would dwell (Exodus 25-27). He also gave instructions for the Levitical priesthood, who would offer service to God (Exo. 28-29, Leviticus), as well as the offerings which were to be made in behalf of the people of God to cover their sins (see the book of Leviticus).
Purpose of the Law
When we turn to the book of Galatians, we find that the apostle Paul makes some interesting statements concerning “the law.”
“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ …” (Gal. 2:16)
“… if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.” (Gal. 2:21)
“For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse …” (Gal. 3:10)
“But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for the just shall live by faith.” (Gal. 3:11)
“And this I say, that the law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect. For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise.” (Gal. 3:17-18)
In response to these statements, the following question naturally arises,
“What purpose then does the law serve?” (Gal. 3:19)
The apostle Paul gives the answer in the subsequent verses of chapter 3 and the first verses of chapter 4. He begins by pointing out the
Restrictions of the Law
“It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator does not mediate for one only, but God is one. Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law.” (Gal. 3:19-21)
- Limited in Scope — The law was added to (or “laid beside”) the promise made to Abraham. The law was added after the promise by some 430 years (Gal. 3:17). It did not annul (or “unconfirm”) the promise, nor did it abolish the promise (Gal. 3:18). God “promised” Abraham an inheritance. The addition of the law did not make the receipt of the inheritance dependent upon works. The law also was not against (or contrary to or opposed to) the promise (Gal. 3:21). “Certainly not!”
- Limited in Purpose — The law was added “because of transgressions.” The word “because” means “for the sake of.” It gives the idea of the cause or reason for the law’s existence. The word “transgressions” means to “overstep a boundary,” in this case the boundary is the law itself. The law was never given to provide righteousness (2:21), justify men (3:11), impart life (3:21), or redeem Israel (Rom. 4:13-16). The law was given to address the area of transgressions.
- Limited in Duration — The law was added “until the Seed should come, to whom the promise was made.” The “Seed” referred to here is the Lord Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16). In Romans 10:4 we read that Christ was “the end (Gr. telos) of the law.” The law remained in effect until the Seed came and then died on the cross (Heb. 8:13; 9:13-17). “Before faith came we were kept under guard by the law” (3:23), but “after faith has come we are no longer under a tutor (i.e. the law)” (3:25). The law continued until “the time appointed by the father” (4:2). “When the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (4:4-5).
- Limited in Arrangement — The law was appointed (or dispensed) through angels and handled through a mediator (i.e. Moses). By way of contrast, the promise made to Abraham was given to him directly by God.
- Limited in Ability — The law was limited in what it was able to do. It had no power to “give life” (3:21). It had no power to justify men (3:11). It had no power to make one righteous (2:21). The law “could not do” these things because it was “weak through the flesh” (Romans 8:3-4). The righteous requirements of the law could not be kept by those who were in the flesh, for the flesh is sinful by nature.
As we look at all these restrictions of the law, we might be led to ask questions about the nature of the law. “Is the law then against the promises of God?” (Gal. 3:21). “What shall we say then? Is the law sin?” (Rom. 7:7). Paul’s response to both of these questions is a very strong, “Certainly not!” He goes on to say in Romans 7:12 that, on the contrary, “the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.” God had His own special reasons for giving the law.
Reasons for the Law
- Communicate God’s Righteous Requirements — The Mosaic law spelled out God’s holy and righteous requirements for man. The law was not given to make it possible for man to attain righteousness by keeping the law, but to demonstrate that man was not capable of living up to God’s standards. We read in Galatians 3:10, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” James 2:10 states that “Whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.” It’s not that the law is sin. On the contrary, Romans 7:12 points out that “the commandment is holy and just and good.”
- Clarify Sin — Galatians 3:19 says that the law “was added because of transgressions,” that is, it was given to show man’s transgression of the law. The word “transgression” is from the Greek word “parabaino” which means to “go beside.” Hence, to transgress the law is to go beside or go over the boundaries established by the law. The law provided the boundaries God established to clarify what was transgression or sin. Paul stresses this fact throughout the book of Romans; “By the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20), “Where there is no law there is no transgression” (Rom. 4:15), “The law entered that the offense might abound” (Rom. 5:20), “I would not have known sin except through the law” (Rom. 7:7), and finally, “That sin through the commandment might become exceeding sinful” (Rom. 7:13).
- Conclude All Sinners — Galatians 3:22 states that the Scripture has “concluded (or confined or shut up together) all under sin.” Romans 3:19 declares that the law was given so that “every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.” The law caused all men, both Jew and Gentile, to be confined as prisoners of sin and therefore under the judicial sentence of God, which is death. Romans 3:23 says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 6:23 goes on to say that “the wages of sin is death.” In the face of God’s law, no one may boast of his or her own righteousness. Romans 3:10 states that “there is none righteous, not even one!”
- Child-conductor — Galatians 3:24 says that “the law was our tutor (schoolmaster) to bring us to Christ.” The Greek word for “tutor” or “schoolmaster” is “pedagogue” which means “child-conductor or child-leader, a guide, or guardian.” It was a title given to household slaves who were entrusted with the responsibility of supervising the morals and conduct of Greek and Roman boys up until they reached the official age of manhood. The emphasis of this responsibility was not so much on imparting knowledge as it was on discipline and supervision. It might be characterized as enforced obedience. It tended to be strict, stern and severe. In looking at the law as a child-conductor, we need to consider the following areas:
- Protection of the Child — Galatians 3:23 says that “before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law.” The word “kept” actually means “guarded or protected.” The child-conductor was there to protect the child until he reached the age of manhood. The law also performed this same service. So many of the things which were integrated into the Mosaic law, were there for the protection of God’s chosen people. The restrictions and stiff penalties of the law disciplined the people of Israel to avoid sinful practices which would lead them away from God and into a life of idolatry.
- Position of the Child — Galatians 4:1-3 describes the position of the child who was the heir in the family. As long as he was an infant or a minor (Greek “nepios” 4:1 and 4:3), he was no different from a slave. He was under the supervision of guardians and stewards until the time appointed by his father. Those who were under the law were in bondage under the “elements of the world.” They were no better than slaves under the bondage of the Mosaic law.
- Period of Childhood — Galatians 4:2 states that a minor child was under the child-conductor until “the time appointed by the father.” The law was in effect until “the fullness of the time had come” and “God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). The word “adoption” means to be placed in a position as a privileged son and heir. The law was in effect until the Seed came and died for the sins of the world (Gal. 3:19). It was in effect until “faith came” (Gal. 3:23). After “faith came” those who were under the child-conductor of the law, were “no longer under a tutor” (Gal. 3:25), but were given the full privileges of a son and heir.
- Purpose of Child-Conductor System — The purpose of the law was not to provide the inheritance, but to protect the heir. It pointed to the Christ, the One who would redeem God’s people, Israel (Heb. 10:1).
Period of the Law
From a dispensational perspective, we know when the law began, but it is not as easy to determine when the law ended. To make this determination, we need to distinguish between three different things: (1) the dispensation of the law, (2) the principle of law and (3) the observance of the law.
Dispensation of the Law
The dispensation of the law is the period during which God dealt with His people, Israel, under the Mosaic Covenant (Rom. 9:4). The starting point of this dispensation is not difficult to determine. We find it described in the book of Exodus, beginning in chapter 19 with the conditions of the covenant (vs. 5-8) and continuing into chapter 24, where Moses sprinkled blood upon the people (vs. 7-8) thus signifying the dedication of the covenant of law (Heb. 9:18-20). This covenant of law was between God and the nation of Israel. The Gentiles (nations), “did not have the law” (Rom. 2:14). In fact, the Gentiles were not part of any of the covenants God made with Israel, for they were “strangers from the covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:11-12).
Today, we are living under a different dispensation, the dispensation of the grace of God (Eph. 3:2). The “law of commandments contained in ordinances,” which was a “middle wall of separation” between Jew and Gentile, has been abolished by the cross of Christ (Eph. 2:13-18). Therefore we are “not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). The question still remains, exactly when did the dispensation of law end and the dispensation of grace begin?
Principle of Law
We must also consider that there is a principle of law which is distinct from the dispensation of law. We have already shown that the Gentiles were not under the covenant of the Mosaic law, but we do read in Romans 2:14-15 that
“When Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law unto themselves, …”
There was a principle of law in effect for the Gentiles, even if they were not actually under the Mosaic law. Paul concluded in Romans 3 that both Jews and Greeks (i.e. Gentiles) were “all under sin” (vs. 9). The law was given that “all the world may become guilty before God” (vs. 19).
Observance of the Law
The final area to consider is the actual observance of the Mosaic law. You might ask, “Wouldn’t the period of the observance of the law coincide with the dispensation of the law?” This is where the question becomes difficult.
We read in Matthew 5:17 that Christ came to “fulfill the law.” This verse might have reference to the fulfilling of all the promises, prophecies, and pictures of the Christ that were presented in the Law and the Prophets (vs. 18), or it might refer to the fact that Christ was “the end of the law for (literally “unto”) righteousness” (Rom. 10:4). Galatians 3:24-25 states,
“Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come we are no longer under a tutor.”
Isn’t this what was signified when Jesus died on the cross and we read that “the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matt. 27:50-51)? Paul alludes to this in II Corinthians 3:14 where he speaks of the veil of the Old Testament (i.e. the law) being “taken away in Christ.”
These verses indicate that the law was abolished at the death of Christ, but when we turn to the book of Acts, we see that the nation of Israel continued to observe the Mosaic law throughout this book (Acts 2:46; 21:20), and even the apostle Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, observed the law at times (Acts 21:21-26, I Cor. 9:19-23).
How do we reconcile this seeming contradiction? We will pursue this question in the next chapter as we look at “The New Testament.”