There is a common misconception about why the Law was given, namely, that Jewish people merit righteousness before God by keeping it. In other words, some believe that salvation through Messiah is unnecessary because we are made righteous by keeping the Law. This is close, as the saying goes, but no cigar.
The Premise of the Law
Yes, the Jewish people have been chosen for a divine purpose. However, the Law was given to reveal God’s holiness, not ours. It was given to demonstrate His love, not our worthiness to receive love. In fact, the Law of Moses found in the Torah is actually a conditional covenant, or agreement. Notice what God stated when the Law was given:
“Now therefore if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you will be a special treasure to Me above all the people; for all the earth is mine.” (Exodus 19:5)
Notice the underlined words in the passage below, which reiterates the same idea:
“And it shall come to pass, if you will listen diligently to the voice of the Lord your God, to observe and do all His commandments which I command you this day, then the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come on you, and overtake you, if you shall heed the voice of the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 28:1-2)
These statements are followed by twelve verses of blessings. Once more the words “if” and “then” are underlined. These words describe a conditional covenant or agreement. The phrase “conditional covenant” means that the benefits are received if the conditions are met.
The condition is not piecemeal observance, but following the whole thing. Suppose I said to my son, “if you clean your room, then I will give you a dollar.” If he didn’t clean his room, he could not expect to receive the payment. What if he partially cleaned his room, would I be bound to pay him? If I wrote up the agreement the way that God wrote the Law, he would merit nothing. God’s obligation to reward His people depended on them obeying all His commandments. Any expectation for rightful blessing through the Law is dependent upon perfect obedience to the Law. And the same Scripture records how we would not perfectly obey the Law.
As if this is not clear enough, the Deuteronomy portion restates the same idea in the negative:
“But it shall come to pass that if you will not heed the voice of the Lord your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you.” (Deuteronomy 28:15)
Thereafter follows 53 verses of curses.
The Purpose of the Law
What happens if there is imperfect obedience, if even one commandment is disobeyed? The text seems to say that apart from doing “all” that God legislated, we are under all of the curses. However, perfect obedience is impossible. Especially since we tend to see sincere effort as “good enough,” such standards can seem unfair. How does God expect anyone to find blessed through an impossible standard? Doesn’t He want to bless His people? This brings us to the purpose of the Law.
As mentioned, the purpose of Torah is not primarily to give laws, but to demonstrate God’s character. In showing His holiness, He reveals our desperate need for His grace and mercy. His blessing is something we could never deserve. However, the Torah records how centuries before Moses, God had made an unconditional covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3). On the basis of the Abrahamic Covenant the Jewish people’s existence, survival, and land is guaranteed. But if we ever think that such great promises demonstrate our worthiness rather than God’s graciousness, God provided the Law to show what we are really like (Deuteronomy 9:6).
This is why in the Law itself there are provisions for our moral failure (sins). There is much material on the sacrifices for sin and the need for atonement, as in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (Lev. 1—7). Even a cursory reading of the Scriptures makes it plain: the Law reveals our sinfulness and not our righteousness. The Law is like a perfect mirror, perfectly revealing our flaws. Its purpose was never to reveal how good we are or how deserving we are of God’s blessing.
The Promise of the Law
God’s people are kept and blessed by His mercy and gracious promises. When Israel’s sin of the Golden Calf deserved God’s utter destruction (Exodus 32:10), Moses didn’t plead for their welfare on the basis of the laws he had just delivered, but on the basis of the covenant God had made with Abraham (Exodus 32:13). The Law is the objective, holy, legal standard by which God can judge His people. Thus, through the Law, people can recognize His holiness, the evil of their sins, and absolute graciousness of His promises. The Law’s holy demands upon Israel—”You shall be Holy even as the Lord your God is holy” (Leviticus 19:2)—demonstrated Israel’s constant need for mercy.
The Scriptures promise what we truly needed: circumcised hearts—which only come through the New Covenant, the hope of the Torah (Deuteronomy 29:1; 30:6; Jeremiah 31:31-34). The Torah prepared God’s people for the coming of His ultimate demonstration of mercy, Messiah. God’s Messiah would provide final atonement for sins through His own sacrifice:
“He was bruised for our iniquity. The Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was cut off out of the land of the living, for the transgressions of my people, to whom the judgment was due… He bore the sin of many.” (Isaiah 53:5,6,8,12)
The Scriptures bring us face-to-face with a holy and yet loving God. Before Him, we all fall short. But we also see One who has mercifully provided the promise of forgiveness and life to all who will trust in His Word. Through that same grace, we are enabled to live out His grace and mercy.
Individually as Jews, and corporately as Israel, it is the gracious promise of God that is our hope. This promise is fulfilled in Yeshua HaMashiach, even as the New Covenant proclaims:
“Him of whom Moses in the Law and the Prophets did write” (John 1:45).
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