Monday, November 17, 2008

Grace Hidden in the Words of the Law

Lately, as part of my daily Bible reading, I’ve been reading through the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Bible, also known as the five books of Moses—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books contain not only a historical account of the world from creation to the time the Israelites reached the promised land following their exodus from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, but also describe the guidelines that God gave the Israelites to run their future polity, to guide them in moral living, and to teach them how God wanted them to worship Him at that time. It includes rules about nearly everything from public health to festivals. Most people think of the Mosaic Law found in the Pentateuch as legalistic, and in some ways it is. The Mosaic Law is impossible for people to actually keep if rightly interpreted, so it lets people know that they are sinful people in need of God’s grace and forgiveness in order to be saved. The law also shows us what God wants and why, how to live well, and provides a foreshadowing of what God would eventually do through the redemptive work of the Messiah, Jesus. This foreshadowing aspect is particularly interesting. In a very real way, God’s grace—His unmerited favor—is hidden in God’s dictates of the law. The law cannot save anyone. But God put hints about how we could be saved by grace in the text of the law.

One interesting little example is found in Leviticus 16 on the Day of Atonement. Here God instructs Moses about exactly what the priests will have to do in order to celebrate a day in which they atone for the Israelites through sacrifices made to God. The sacrifices have to follow a specific format and involve all sorts of ritualistic acts, clothes, etc. Describing the various sacrifices, it says in verse 29, “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: on the tenth day of the seventeenth month you must deny yourselves and not do any work whether native born or an alien living among you—because on this day atonement will be made for you to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord you will be clean from all your sins. It is a Sabbath of rest and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance.” The high priest who is presenting the blood of atonement does the work on the Day of Atonement. The people being atoned for are not allowed to work. In other words, the people aren’t really to do anything to make the atonement happen. They don’t earn their atonement by working. Instead it is based on the sacrifice made for them by the high priest. This is definitely a foreshadowing of the work of Christ to come. Christ is our great High Priest who offered His own blood as the atonement for our sins—a lasting atonement forever. It superseded the need to sacrifice bulls and sheep and to release scapegoats into the wilderness. But interestingly enough, our salvation is by grace through faith. It is based on the unmerited favor that God gives to us. It is a gift of grace, not of works lest any man should boast. In terms of our atonement we do no work. So when God instructed the Israelites not to do any work on the Day of Atonement, perhaps He was trying to help them realize that they did not have any part in earning their forgiveness through works. Instead, it was something given to them—an act of grace.

Now this is not to say that we shouldn’t work for God and do His will in a response of gratitude for the salvation that He brings to us. But we should never think that we earn our salvation by works. Instead, our right state before God is made possible by the shed blood of Jesus Christ and we do no work in order to earn it or obtain it.

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