Scripture Reading: Exodus 19:1-25, Exodus 20:1-21, John 1:14-17, Hebrews 8:7-13
Perhaps one of the most misunderstood aspects of the Old Testament is the law. It has been distorted and misapplied for thousands of years: It’s been used to fuel self-righteousness; to depict a judgmental and unforgiving portrait of God; interpreted so narrowly and harshly that its closest adherents didn’t recognize the “fulfillment of the Law” (Matthew 5:17), Jesus Himself, in their very midst.
These misinterpretations still plague us today, so the question remains: how should we understand the law?
In Exodus 19, God provides Moses with the cornerstone of the law, the Ten Commandments, and He does so with these words: “Now if you will carefully listen to me and keep my covenant, you will be my own possession out of all the peoples, although the whole earth is mine, and you will be my kingdom of priests and my holy nation” (v. 5-6). Too often, we read these words as a threat, or a form of conditional love: I will only take care of you if you do what I say.
However, there is another way to read these words, and the commandments that follow.
As a mom, I frequently warn my boys to obey me for their own good:
If you don’t listen to me, you’re going to get hurt.
If you don’t stop jumping on the bed, you’re going to fall.
If you don’t slow down, you’re going to trip.
These warnings are not threats. They are not signs of a conditional love. I am not manipulating them into submitting to me. Instead, I am beckoning them toward safety, wholeness, and health. I am showing them the path to life, and warning them away from a path that leads to pain.
This, in many ways, captures the heart of the law. And this heart becomes all the more clear in the verse that precedes God’s warning:
“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself”(vv. 3-4).
With this verse, God testifies to His own character, reminding the Israelites of His steadfast love, provision, and care. On that basis, God asks His people to trust and obey Him—not because the law is an arbitrary list of rules from a cruel and exacting God, but because the law is the path to life.
Too often, we miss this truth, that the law is beautiful, good, and a picture of humanity at its best. The first four commandments are, in essence, the pinnacle of “loving God.” The following six commandments are the fullness of “loving neighbor.” They instruct us on how to live, but more importantly, they clarify who we were created to be.
And yet, the law fell short. It showed us the destination without providing the ability to reach it (Romans 8:3). We can know the good, but find ourselves wholly unable to attain it. That is why the law condemns: the law is God’s blueprint for human flourishing, without the tools to achieve it.
Enter Jesus. He did what no human was ever able to do. He was the perfect expression of the law. His life and words were the embodiment of God’s design for us. That is the point of the Ten Commandments, and the whole of God’s law: to point us toward God’s good plan for us, while revealing our inadequacy to accomplish it. In short, the law points us to Jesus.
Sharon Hodde Miller is a writer, speaker, pastor’s wife, mom, and she holds a PhD on women and calling. She blogs at SheWorships.com, and is the author of Free of Me: Why Life Is Better When It’s Not about You.