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Painting by Numbers

The Old Testament Law gives us a paint-by-numbers approach to life, but Christ's mercy enables us to live a life of beautiful faith.

From the editor

If you've read or heard a sermon by Peter Hiett, chances are you've not forgotten it. Consider "Redneck Christmas"—a featured sermon in our 2007 Advent resources. It's a rather unorthodox look at the shepherds of the nativity. Or perhaps you should take a look at "Warriors on Their Couches." I suspect you've never heard the story of David and Bathsheba quite the way Hiett tells it. Well, Peter's being featured once again on Preaching Today, and this time he's tackling issues of law and grace—in his own unique way, of course.


Little children are incredibly legalistic. When my kids were little, friends would come over for dinner and say something like, "We drove down to the dam," and all the kids would open their mouths in shock and point their fingers and say, "He said a bad word!"

Once I tried to explain to my preschooler, Coleman, that he could say "but" if it was used as a conjunction, but not as a noun. I thought I explained the difference. Driving in the van one day, I heard some ruckus in the back seat. Then I heard Coleman loud and clear. He screamed, "Elizabeth, you butthead!" It got deathly quiet. A frantic little voice broke the silence. "Daddy, it was a conjunction!"

I tried to define the law, but he still wouldn't get the picture. The truth is I really don't care if Coleman says "butt" as a noun or a conjunction. I care that he loves his sister. But he didn't want to get that picture.

The law can be an excuse to hide from the big picture.

Sometimes we use the law to avoid the big picture, the meaning. Sometimes we resort to law to cover our tails and hide the picture. If your boss asks you to try something, it's easy to turn it into a law and avoid seeing the big picture, for then you can always resort to legal disputes and avoid the demands of creativity imposed by getting the real vision. You can say, "I couldn't have done that, because you told me to do this."

That's human nature. We want the law, not the big picture. We want to know, Can I fornicate? And what exactly is fornication? Can I kill if it's the first trimester or if it's a just war? Can I get by on ten minutes of prayer? How about eight? Can I give five percent of net income and still be okay? We want numbers. We want law. We want the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Jesus asks us, "Do you love me? Do you want me?" We want law to avoid the picture, cover our tails, justify ourselves. We want a covenant of law.

The Old Testament Law is like a paint-by-numbers picture.

The old covenant is the covenant of law. The Old Testament has gobs of laws, lines, and numbers. In fact, one of the books is called "Numbers." Much of the Old Testament is like paint-by-numbers. It starts, "In the beginning God created. … The earth was formless and empty, and God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness."

God created for six days. On the sixth day, God said, "Let us make man in our image." But Adam and Eve stole the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (the law). Mankind fell, and God made covenants.

In ancient times when people made covenants, they would slaughter an animal and walk between the pieces saying, "May it be done to me as it was done to this animal if I break the terms of the covenant." The animal was testament to the covenant, their blood bearing testimony.

In the ancient covenants God made with Noah and Abraham, there were no terms, for God kept both sides. But in Moses' covenant, the terms were law, and there was a ton of law. It's like God said, "You want law; I'll give you law." He gave them the Ten Commandments, which he made them carry in the Ark of the Covenant.

He gave them the terms of the covenant. It's like he said, "Paint these things. This outlines what is good." The Law describes the good. But it's not just the Ten Commandments. It's a detailed elaboration of the Ten Commandments, how to fulfill them and how to maintain the covenant.

The Law includes what we call the moral law and the ceremonial law—priests, tabernacles, sacrifices, ointments, fragrances. So there are laws on the laws, and laws on what to do when laws are violated, laws on sacrifices and atonement, and laws regarding those laws. Law upon law upon law.

The covenant of law is like this elaborate paint-by-numbers picture. The Law was incredibly intricate and incredibly hard, and it seems no one could actually do it. The Pharisees tried by adding even more numbers and even more lines, and it got ugly.

A paint-by-numbers painting looks pretty good from a distance, but if you get close, it's obvious that it's an imitation—not the good but a copy of the good. Another problem with painting by numbers is that it's not really art, so you're not really an artist, a creator in the image of the Creator. Henry Ward Beecher said, "Every artist dips his brush in his own soul and paints his own nature into his pictures." When you paint by numbers, you don't do that. When you live by the law you don't do that.

When my children were little they all loved to paint, and it could get ugly. But even if they painted outside the lines, we'd rather have their own original painting, because at least we have their soul, and they've offered their nature. Even though they may not have obeyed all the laws, at least they're beginning to see the picture. That is, they're painting from their heart for me because they love me. Painting with what they have and all they have—painfully, joyfully, sacrificially, naturally, extravagantly. So even if it's ugly, it's beautiful. I treasure some of my children's art, like I treasure some of their good deeds, but none of the good deeds I treasure were ever paint-by-number.

God wants us to understand the meaning behind the laws.

Paint-by-numbers help me understand the old covenant, the Law, and how God could get so angry in such strange places. In 2 Samuel 6 (and 1 Chronicles 13), at King David's instruction, the Ark of the Covenant was brought into the city of Jerusalem. At the threshing floor of Nacon, the Ark of the Covenant slipped, and Uzzah stretched out his hand to catch the Ark so it would not fall. 2 Samuel 6:7 says, "And God smote him." He colored outside the lines just a little it seems, and God "smote him."

The very next story is how King David danced nearly naked in front of the same Ark. That was scandalous and way outside the lines for many. When you read David's life story, you see he didn't color outside the lines a little, but a lot: adultery, deception, murder. Yet he was "the man after God's own heart." He perceived God's heart.

So both men colored outside the lines: Uzzah a little, David a lot, but David got the picture. Uzzah tried to save the Ark of the Covenant—catch it, control it. David surrendered before the Ark of the Covenant and lost control. David was the man after God's own heart. And Uzzah got smoted.

So it isn't that God is uptight about the details of law as much as he just wants us to get the picture. With these laws, he's painting a picture that he wants us to see.

At the Cross, Jesus revealed God's grace.

Our text is Matthew 26. It's the first place in the New Testament that we read the word covenant. We're at the edge of a new covenant. At the start of Matthew 26, a strange woman dumps a fortune of perfumed oil on Jesus' head. It appears to be scandalous and way out of line. With Judas, the disciples grow indignant, and Jesus says, "Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me" (a kalos ergon, a "good deed").

Kalos means "beautiful," or gracious. Grace is the word Paul liked to use for Matthew's word mercy. Mercy translates to the Hebrew word hesed, which also translates into English as "love, loving kindness, faithful love, steadfast love, and love that never quits."

I remember my professor in seminary saying over and over that hesed meant "covenant love." Jeremiah prophesied one day the Lord would make a new covenant, write his law on our hearts, forgive our sins, put his law in his people like they put the Law in the Ark. In that day no one has to say, "Know the Lord," because they'll all just do it. It will be like their nature.

In Matthew 26 Jesus says he's going to be crucified. The strange woman does the beautiful, good, kind, merciful thing, and Judas goes to betray Jesus. Judas reminds me of Uzzah. He tries to control the Ark. The woman reminds me of David. She gets the picture and comes unglued with praise.

At the Last Supper Jesus says, "My blood of the covenant," but even the covenant of the law was a foreshadowing of the covenant of grace.

All of creation was ready to become new. He is the life, and he did suffer to make all things new. And this is the "plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him" (Ephesians 1:10). "And through him to reconcile to himself all things … making peace by the blood of his cross" (Colossians 1:20). He is the slaughtered lamb that stands on his throne calling, "Behold, I am making all things new" (Revelation 21:5). All things will be made new—your house, your dog, your marriage, sex, alcohol, food, family, banquets, sorrow, and joy—they're all at this table. This is where they all get their meaning. Everything is about this, "for from him and through him and to him are all things" (Romans 11:36)—the Lord God revealed in Jesus Christ and him crucified, who "fills all in all." (Ephesians 1:23).

So if you thought the Lord's Supper was just some bread and wine or one more man on a cross, you were wrong. It's everything, everything that's anything. It's the good, the light, the life, the truth, the way. And it's a person, not a number. He's the Beautiful One, and here his beauty is revealed: in covenant love and mercy.

God's grace offers us freedom from the law.

Once you get the picture, you'll paint the picture. Once you see him, you'll ingest him and paint his beauty. Not by numbers but by nature, a creator in the image of the Creator. And once you see him, he gives you a blank canvas. I believe it's called freedom. "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1). When you paint from a true vision of Christ, you don't paint by numbers and lines, but by beauty … beauty in the heart and mind of an artist. Paul writes, "The love of Christ constrains us" (2 Corinthians 5:14). The covenant of love within us constrains us—body broken, blood shed, the Beautiful One.

If the Word of God is only a paint-by-numbers set, all the paintings will be just the same; it will be easy to judge who's crossed the line, but none of the paintings will be beautiful. On the other hand, if the Word of God is the essence of himself, all the paintings will be different; it will be hard to judge who's crossed the line, but all the paintings will be uniquely beautiful.

Robert Benson writes,

On the wall of one of the cathedral bays at Saint John's … there is an inscription carved into the stone: "Thy will be done in art as it is in heaven." Amen, I say. And in plumbing and paper pushing and publishing as well. And in teaching and board-membering and doctoring and bricklaying, for that matter. Or in whatever else it turns out is the work that you and I are given to do by the One who is looking forward to seeing our "stone" in the long-awaited Cathedral. The work that we do for the Cathedral is in front of us each day.

The cathedral is the temple, the heavenly city, and we are living stones. Ephesians 2:10 says, "For we are God's masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago." We are God's masterpiece, and while we paint, he's painting us.

So I help paint his art, and I'm surrounded by his art—some dirty, some defiled, some only just begun, but all pictures of him: Andrew, Susan, Aram, each beautiful, each unique, and none paint by number. We don't paint by number, we paint by mercy, with mercy. We don't paint by law, but by body broken and blood shed, Christ's body and blood that has become our body and blood.

Now you may ask, "Why all the lines and numbers in the first place? Why the law?" Numbers and lines can't make you beautiful, but they can help you long for beauty. They can help you long for mercy. So if you're committing adultery or lying to your neighbor, some of those old lines tell you that your work is unholy.

"Why all that painting by numbers for 1,500 years?" you might ask. "Why the law, the priests, the temple, the lambs, the goats, the ointment, the fragrance, the covenant?" For thousands of years God had his people paint the Beautiful One by numbers so when the Beautiful One appeared they might see him—not just some bread and wine, not just another man on a cross, but the sacrifice, the lamb, the judgment, the atonement, the eternal Ark of the Covenant, who fulfills the old and ratifies the new, the love of God, the love that is God poured out—khesed, mercy.

And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom." And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (Matthew 26:27–30)

The hymn traditionally sung at the end of the Passover meal was Psalm 118. It ends with, "Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!" For thousands of years they'd sung that song. Now they got the picture.

With the freedom of God's grace, we can live a life of beautiful faith.

Do you get the picture? It's the love of God for you. He's given everything for you. He's suffered hell for you. He gives his heart on a cross at a table to you.

He hands you an empty canvas. I believe it's called freedom. It's good. It's an invitation to create in his image. It's good, but it's scary, because you have to walk by faith.

Madeleine L'Engle wrote, "An artist at work is in a condition of complete and total faith." Faith in mercy, hope in mercy, love for mercy. For without that we'll hide from the picture, covering our tails and justifying ourselves with law. We'll take our freedom and start drawing lines and numbers on it. We'll turn the table into a paint-by-numbers set.

Paint-by-numbers pictures are made by taking real art and reducing it to lines and numbers. Pharisees still take Jesus and reduce him to lines and numbers. Without faith in God's mercy, we'll come to the table and try to reduce it and comprehend it rather than surrender to it, ingest it, and dance before it. We'll be like Uzzah rather than David, like Judas rather than the strange woman.


Without faith in God's mercy, we'll take grace and turn it into law and betray mercy, and Jesus is mercy. We tell our pastors, "Tell me what it means for me. Make it simple. Draw some numbers and lines. How long do I have to pray? How much do I have to write on that giving card?" I don't know. You have a brain. You have a heart. You know we need a house to celebrate the Passover. So come to the table. Get the picture, and paint what comes naturaly to you. Might be a million dollars. Might be ten dollars. Might be a global mission organization. Might be a hug for your mother. Whatever you paint will be beautiful.

You may be thinking, "I don't know. This doesn't sound safe." No, it isn't safe. It cost God everything to make you in his image, to let you paint with his flesh and blood. It's not safe, but it's absolutely beautiful.

To see an outline of Hiett's sermon, click here.

For your reflection:

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism".

Peter Hiett is pastor of The Sanctuary Downtown in Denver, Colorado, and author of Dance Lessons for Zombies (2005).

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Sermon Outline:


Oftentimes, the law is defined but the recipients don't get the picture.

I. The law can be an excuse to hide from the big picture.

II. The Old Testament Law is like a paint-by-numbers picture.

III. God wants us to understand the meaning behind the laws.

IV. At the Cross, Jesus revealed God's grace.

V. God's grace offers us freedom from the law.

VI. With the freedom of God's grace, we can live a life of beautiful faith.


Get the picture and then paint what comes natural, and whatever it is, it will be beautiful.