Preaching the Gospel from the Law of Moses
Preaching the Gospel from the Law of Moses
Recently I introduced a sermon series on the Ten Commandments by showing my listeners several depictions of the Ten Commandments and asking them if they could spot the same major problem with each depiction. First, I showed them a Sunday school sketch of a stone tablet with curved tops and Roman numerals. Then we viewed a photo of Judge Roy Moore standing beside the infamous monument of the Ten Commandments that he refused to remove from the Alabama Supreme Court chamber. We even looked at the tablets carried by Charlton Heston in the classic movie "The Ten Commandments."
Each of the depictions we viewed got something wrong. No, it was not the Roman numerals. There were, of course, no Roman numerals. Nor, I argued, was it the curved tops, which started appearing in artistic renditions of the Ten Commandments by Christians a millennium or so after Christ. What's more, we are certain the Ten Commandments were not spread over two tablets. Each of the two tablets likely contained a complete copy, in keeping with the ancient practice of making two copies of ancient law codes—one to go in the temple of the great king making the treaty and one to go in the temple of the nation with whom the treaty is made.
So what is the problem with these artistic renderings of the Ten Commandments? The gospel is missing! If you read the accounts containing the Ten Commandments—Exodus 19 and Deuteronomy 5—you will find the gospel, but most wall-plaques and pictures of the two tablets leave it out. I'll explain how this happens in a moment.
Many Christian preachers are reluctant to preach from the law of Moses because they fear they will do the same thing. If they preach the law, they will leave out the gospel. After all, new covenant believers are no longer under the law. Preachers do not need to shy away from the legal materials in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, because it is possible to preach the gospel from the law of Moses. This article will help you preach the gospel from the law by clearing up three misconceptions that cause preachers to avoid or mishandle it, and by suggesting two ways to preach gospel-centered sermons from the law of Moses.
Three Misconceptions about the Law of Moses
Christians—and Christian preachers!—can have three misconceptions about the law of Moses.
1. The law of Moses was a bad deal for Israel. Few state it this blatantly, but this idea lurks in the subconscious of many modern Christians. The fact is, the law of Moses was a gracious gift of Yahweh to a redeemed community. But most depictions of the Ten Commandments leave out the gospel words that establish this fact: "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Deuteronomy 5:6, Exodus 20:2). None of the depictions of the Ten Commandments that I showed to my congregation included the words "who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery."
But these words review the gospel! God had already saved, already redeemed, the people of Israel before they received the Ten Commandments. The words they received were words of life (Deuteronomy 32:47). When Moses delivered these words to God's people, he told them to keep these words "so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess" (Deuteronomy 5:32-33; see also Deuteronomy 30:19). According to Deuteronomy 4:8, having laws such as these was a sign of greatness, not of disadvantage (see also Exodus 19:5-6). Far from being a bad deal for Israel, the law was God's gift to a redeemed community.
2. There is a sharp distinction between law and grace. This second misconception stems from a misreading of John 1:17: "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." There it is; law versus grace. But when you read this statement in its context, you discover something else. The preceding sentence says: "And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace" (ESV). So the contrast is not between law and grace, but between the grace in the Mosaic law and the greater grace in Jesus Christ. In fact, "grace and truth" is an expression that has its origin in the law! It is the Greek expression of "love and faithfulness" found in Exodus 34:6. Certainly we have a greater measure of grace in Christ than in the law, but grace replaces grace, not law.
3. The law's main or only role in the life of a new covenant believer is to reveal sin. This third misconception about the law stems from a misreading of the Apostle Paul. It fails to account for the context in which Paul makes many of his statements about the law of Moses. Frequently, Paul has to address some form of works-righteousness in which keeping the law merits God's grace. When it comes to our reception of God's salvation, the only role of the law is to point out our sinfulness and point us to Christ. But what about the new covenant believer's growth in grace? The Apostle Paul claims: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). This reference to "all Scripture" includes the law of Moses. Like the rest of Scripture, then, the law of Moses is useful for correcting wrong belief and behavior as well as for teaching right belief and behavior for the new covenant believer.
This is what John Calvin describes as "the third and principal use" of the law "which pertains more closely to the proper purpose of the law." This use, Calvin explains, "finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns." How, then, do believers profit from the law? Calvin notes two ways. First, the law "is the best instrument for them to learn more thoroughly each day the nature of the Lord's will to which they aspire, and to confirm them in the understanding of it." Second, the law provides not only teaching but also exhortation. By "frequent meditation in it," Calvin contends, the believer will be "aroused to obedience, be strengthened in it, and be drawn back from the slippery path of transgression."
Two Ways to Preach Gospel-Centered Sermons from the Law of Moses
There are two major ways to preach gospel-centered sermons from the law of Moses that are in line with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The first way to preach the gospel from the law is to focus on the shadow of Christ. As Hebrews 10:1 states, "The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves." The issue in this discussion is the sacrificial system. A couple chapters earlier, the issue is the tabernacle (see Hebrews 8:5). Jesus himself claimed that the Hebrew Scriptures—including the law—pointed forward to him (see Luke 24:25-27; 45-47). One of the most helpful resources for preachers who want to focus on the shadow of Christ is a volume by Vern Poythress: The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (P&R Publishing).
A couple of the most obvious places to start would be sermons on the sacrificial system and on the tabernacle. The point of preaching on the sacrificial system is to show how God satisfies his righteous anger against sin and cleanses his people from sin's defilement through Christ's sacrifice. The preacher will likely want to land eventually in Hebrews 10. Help can be found in chapter three of Poythress and in a volume by Allen Ross titled: Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus. Similarly, sermons on the tabernacle would show how it prefigures God's presence through Jesus Christ. A good place to land in the New Testament is John 2:13-25, where Jesus signals that he is replacing the temple.
There are several other possibilities for sermons that show how the law points forward to Jesus Christ. The Aaronic priesthood prefigures Christ's relationship with his people. The punishments in the law of Moses prefigure Christ's destruction of guilt and sin. The penalties for false worship (see Deuteronomy 13:1-18) along with the mandate for holy war (Deuteronomy 7:1-6) prefigure the spiritual warfare of Christ and his church.
A preacher might also explore how the various feasts of Israel point forward to the work of Jesus Christ. Passover points forward to the redemption that God brought about through the Messiah, our Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7; Peter 1:18-19). The Feast of Weeks (Pentecost) anticipates the giving of the Spirit as a firstfruits of the great renewal and restoration promised by God (see Acts 2:1-41). The Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles) finds its ultimate fulfillment in the final restoration—that is, in God's final "dwelling" among human beings (Revelation 21:1-5).
The second way to preach the law of Moses is to use its commands to instruct believers in a lifestyle that is consistent with the gospel (see Galatians 2:14). This approach is related to John Calvin's "third and principal" use of the law, and it is based on the Apostle Paul's conviction that the law of Moses is useful for correcting wrong belief and behavior as well as for teaching right belief and behavior in the life of the new covenant believer (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Here we preachers need to be crystal clear about the new covenant believer's relationship to the old covenant. As believers in Jesus Christ, we are not bound contractually to the law of Moses as Israel was (1 Corinthians 9:20-21; Galatians 3:24-25). We are, however, under the "law of Christ" (1 Corinthians 9:21). What is the connection, then, between the law of Moses and the law of Christ? Jesus stated that he did not come to abolish the law of Moses but to fulfill it—that is, to bring it to its complete expression or intended goal (Matthew 5:17). So, our approach as new covenant believers and preachers is to interpret and apply the law of Moses through the lens of Jesus' teaching and ministry. New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg explains: "Every Old Testament commandment must today be filtered through a grid of fulfillment in Christ to see how its application may have changed."
When we filter the law of Moses through a grid of fulfillment in Christ, we will discover both continuity and discontinuity. It is appropriate to continue practicing some commands. For example, the command not to commit adultery (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18) clearly has ongoing validity in the new covenant. Jesus intensified the command by prohibiting the sinful patterns of thought behind the sinful act (Matthew 5:27-30). Furthermore, both Paul (1 Corinthians 6:9) and the writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 13:4) recognize the ongoing validity of this command. However, the New Testament writers make it clear that commands about Sabbath-keeping and offering animal or grain sacrifices are no longer binding on believers in Jesus (Colossians 2:16; Hebrews 4:9-11, 9:9-10, 10:1-18). Neither are the dietary laws (Acts 10:9-16, 11:1-18).
Yet we still have to grapple with a rather large body of case laws which do not fit neatly into one category (laws to continue practicing) or the other (laws to discontinue practicing). What do we do with the command to build a parapet around the roof of one's house (Deuteronomy 22:8) or the laws about making restitution for the death or injury of a work-animal (Exodus 22:14-15)? Some have tried to solve this by using a grid of moral, civil, and ceremonial laws. In this approach, the moral laws continue, but the civil and ceremonial laws do not. However, which case laws categorized as civil or ceremonial are not moral? The fact is, laws in these categories "embody or flesh out eternal moral and ethical principles."
A Christian preacher, then, will want to study a Mosaic case law in its own context, determine the moral principle behind it, and then examine this through the lens of the New Testament in order to determine how it provides "teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" for a follower of Jesus Christ. As David Dorsey observes, this is a huge challenge because "over ninety-five percent" of all the laws in the Mosaic law code "are so culturally specific, geographically limited, and so forth that they would be completely inapplicable, and in fact, unfulfillable, to Christians living throughout the world today."
So how is a Christian preacher to proceed? A great place to start is to recognize how the 613 laws contained in the law of Moses relate to each other. One of the most helpful take-aways from the scholarly research into the resemblance between the structure of the law of Moses and the structure of ancient Hittite treaties is the presence of both general stipulations and detailed demands. A section with general stipulations spells out the basic legal policy. Then, the detailed demands show how the basic policies should be worked out in various life-situations. This accounts for the dozens of case laws which appear in the law of Moses and other ancient law codes.
In the law of Moses, the Ten Commandments, or ten words, make up the general stipulations (see Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:1-22). When run through the grid of the new covenant, all of these commands except the Sabbath command have ongoing validity. The remaining legal materials in the law of Moses—consisting mainly of case laws—explain how to carry out this basic policy in the circumstances of everyday life. So, when preachers encounter individual case laws, they must ask to which one (or more) of the ten words a particular case law relates.
For example, Deuteronomy 22:8 reads:
When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.
A bit of historical-cultural analysis is helpful here. Ancient Israelite houses were of the flat-roofed variety. An outside staircase made the roof accessible for use as a place for dining or relaxing. People used them like we might use a deck or patio today. A parapet, or railing, would protect family members and guests from falling off of the roof. To which of the ten words does this relate? The answer is obvious. It reflects the sixth command, "You shall not murder" (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17).
This command has to do with the value of human life. Obeying the command, then, involves more than refraining from homicide. Its moral demand extends even to matters like making one's property safe for others. My wife and I shovel our walks, keep smoke alarms in working order, and place a night light near our stair case in order to protect our family members and guests. We even installed a walk-out window in our basement for the safety of our children's college friends who frequently visit and sleep over in our family room. All of this is in keeping with the sixth command.
Furthermore, when we run the sixth command through the lens of Jesus' teaching, we discover that Jesus links murder with anger (see Matthew 5:21-22). A commitment to refrain from murder entails the avoidance of inappropriate expressions of anger against other members of the community of faith.
I have found, too, that some of the commands that are more bizarre to us today tie back into the first and second commands—those given to protect our allegiance to God and our worship of God. For example, the commands not to wear clothes of wool and linen woven together or sew two kinds of seed in the same field (Leviticus 19:19; Deuteronomy 22:11) and the commands not to eat certain kinds of animals (see Deuteronomy 14:1-21) reflect God's holiness. Commands prohibiting the cutting of hair at the sides of one's head, clipping off the edges of one's beard, cutting one's body for the dead, or putting tattoo marks on oneself appear to prevent Israel from engaging in pagan religious practices (Leviticus 19:27-28). A wise preacher will have to help listeners think about what practices today compromise our allegiance to God and our worship of God. This may include getting certain types of tattoos, paying attention to daily horoscopes, or using crystals and minerals to clear away negative energy from one's body.
When we deal with the varied assortment of case laws in the law of Moses, we will do well to remember Jesus' reference to the "weightier matters of the law" (Matthew 23:23). We must discern the true priorities and emphases of the law of Moses even as we pay close attention to its details.
Finally, preachers must insist that the usefulness of the law of Moses for correcting wrong belief and behavior as well as for teaching right belief and behavior (2 Timothy 3:16-17) is possible because of the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the new covenant believer. The promise of a new heart and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in Ezekiel 36:26-27 began to be fulfilled with the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. Significantly, the promise of the new covenant first appears in the law of Moses, in Deuteronomy 30:6:
The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.
The mediator of the new covenant is, of course, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 12:24). It is the grace given to us in Christ which enables us to obey the law of Christ (Ephesians 2:1-10; 2 Timothy 1:9). So rather than avoiding the law of Moses for fear of "putting Christians back under the law," we emphasize the source which enables us to keep learning from it. Bryan Chapell explains:
Christ-centered preaching does not abolish the normative standards of Christian conduct but rather locates their source in the compelling power of grace. In Christ-centered preaching, the rules of Christian obedience do not change; the reasons do.
So rather than treating the law of Moses as a relic or a white-elephant gift, Christian preachers can use it to point people to Jesus Christ and to a life of Christian discipleship marked by love for God and love for neighbor.
1. Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.17.12.
4. Idem. For a discussion and critique of both Martin Luther's and John Calvin's views of the law, see Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, pp. 111-126 for Luther and pp. 127-151. For Luther, the major role of the law is to make "people aware of their total inability to obey God's laws perfectly for earning their salvation" (Greidanus, Preaching Christ, 117.). According to Greidanus, Luther "doggedly hangs on to the Old Testament as law and the New Testament as gospel" (Greidanus, Preaching Christ, 125). In my estimation, Greidanus ends up closer to Luther's view of the law than Calvin's, even though he discusses the contributions and shortcomings of both.
5. See Vern Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Philippsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1995), 41-49 and Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the LORD: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 1-496.
6. See Poythress, Shadow of Christ, 9-40, 59-68. Another exceptional, though lengthy, resource is The Temple and the Church's Mission by G. K. Beale (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 1-458. Beale's work is biblical theology at its best!
7. See Poythress, Shadow of Christ, 51-57.
8. Ibid., 119-136.
9. Ibid., 139-153. For one of the most recent, succinct, and helpful discussions of God's mandate for Israel to wipe out the Canaanites, see Christopher J. H. Wright, The God I Don't Understand (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 73-108.
10. For a helpful chart of the various feasts and the events to which they point, see Ceil and Moishe Rosen, Christ in the Passover (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1978), 12-13. For a full treatment of this issue, see Barney Kasdan, God's Appointed Times: A Practical Guide for Understanding and Celebrating the Biblical Holidays (Baltimore, MD: Lederer Messianic Publications), 1-136.
11. Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1997), 249.
12. In fact, nine out of the Ten Commandments continue under the new covenant. The lone exception is the command concerning Sabbath-keeping. Still, it has something to teach new covenant believers even though it is no longer binding for them. For a helpful treatment of this issues, see D. A. Carson, From Sabbath to Lord's Day: A Biblical, Theological, and Historical Investigation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000).
13. David A. Dorsey, "The Law of Moses and the Christian: A Compromise," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 34 (1991): 330. Dorsey's entire article is a "must-read" for pastors who want to preach from the law of Moses!
14. Dorsey, "The Law of Moses and the Christian," 329. For a striking example of this, the story of one man's quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible—including the law of Moses—in A. J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007).
15. A couple centuries after Jesus, Jewish rabbis counted the individual laws and came up with 613—248 stated positively ("You shall") and 365 stated negatively ("You shall not"). See Dorsey, "The Law of Moses and the Christian," 321, especially footnote 1.
16. See Mark Driscoll and Berry Breshears, Death By Love: Letters from the Cross (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 106-107.
© 2009, Will Willimon. Adapted with permission from "Keeping Preaching Fresh," presented at the 2009 National Pastors Convention held by Zondervan.
Steve Mathewson is senior pastor of CrossLife Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, lllinois. He is also director of the doctor of ministry program at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.