God in the Old and New Testaments

The Mosaic Law vs. the Grace of Christ

By Gary Meredith

While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day....And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the LORD commanded Moses. Numbers 15:32-36

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery..."Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women..." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more." John 8:3, 5, 11
These two passages both refer to the strict observance God expected His people to pay to the Mosaic Law. In the first, God directed the Mosaic Law to be followed, and the people stoned a man for picking up sticks on the Sabbath. In the second, set in the New Testament, the Jewish leaders intended to follow the Mosaic Law and stone a woman caught in adultery, but were dissuaded by Jesus who forgave her and let her leave. Both are judgments by the same Lord — the same triune God — first as God the great "I Am," then as the incarnate God the Son. Let's see if we can find some consistent principles from seemingly inconsistent practices.

The context is crucial. In the first example, the new nation of Israel had just received the Law from Moses. The most important section, the Ten Commandments, included the fourth commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy by doing no work on it (Exodus 20:8-11). The penalty for Sabbath breakers was death (Exodus 31:14-15). That Law was put to the test for the first time in Numbers 15:31-36

Remember, the entire nation was wandering in a desert. God had to provide for their every need, whether manna for food (Exodus 16), or water from a rock (Exodus 17:6). Wood for cooking and warmth was scarce in that wilderness. So while the rest of the nation obeyed God's commandment and rested on that Sabbath, one man not only broke God's law, but greedily took unfair advantage over his fellow Israelites to get their share of scarce wood for himself. Clearly he had no fear of God, no respect for God's Law, and no love for his neighbors.

But more important, the Law established the new nation of Israel, the bearer of the future Messiah, Savior of the world (Genesis 49:10), and the witness to that lost world of the one, true, holy God (Exodus 19:5-6). An awesome responsibility and not one to be taken lightly. It is why Aaron's own sons, the priests Nadab and Abihu, were struck down by God for not following the new Law to the letter. Moses explained the principle to the grieving Aaron. This is what the Lord spoke of when he said, "'Among those who approach me, I will be proved holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored'" (Leviticus 10:3). Indeed, "It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:31). God cannot be mocked (Galatians 6:7). God was teaching the new nation to know Him by holding Him in the highest possible regard with awe and reverence, because "The fear of the Lord the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 1:7).

The same principle is displayed at the founding of the Church, in the incident with Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). After selling some property and holding back some of the money, they wanted undeserved glory for giving all of it away to the Church. Both were struck dead by God. The result, in line with God's purpose, was that "great fear seized the whole Church" (Acts 5:11), and that Christ's Apostles and first Christians were held in high regard (Acts 5:13).

Then what of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11)? She, too, had earned the death penalty — but note the hypocrisy of her accusers who brought only the woman, not the man who also should have received the same punishment (Leviticus 20:10)!

There are several principles here, all crucial for getting to know God, his Son, and his plan of salvation for the world:

1. God's mercy. God told Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion" (Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:15).

2. God's purpose. God has his own reasons and will not be judged by us mere humans, any more than a piece of clay has a right to question why the potter made him that way (Isaiah 29:16; Romans 9:20-22). We covered some of those purposes above. But while we do not know all his reasons, we do know for a fact that He is trying to save as many people as possible, not wishing any to perish (Matthew 18:14; 2 Peter 3:9).

3. God's Gospel. Israel never succeeded in keeping the Law perfectly (Acts 15:10), yet that's what was required of them (Matthew 5:48; Galatians 3:10; James 2:10). "Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses" (Hebrews 10:28). When the Gospel came, all people were offered freedom from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:10, 13). And so the Gospel is called the "good news" (Acts 13:31-32), and we believers can experience the joy of the Lord (John 15:11; Philippians 4:4).

4. God's Son. Mercy for the adulteress revealed the character and mission of God's Messiah as the One Who frees us from the curse of the Law (Galatians 3:13); Who came not to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:17; 8:11). This act of mercy was in perfect alignment with God's higher principle of mercy over judgment (James 2:13), and teaches us to do the same that we might reveal ourselves as his children (Matthew 5:44-45) and become like his Son (Romans 8:29-30).

Of course, while salvation is free for the asking from God (John 3:16; Ephesians 2:8-9), his mercy was not cheap, nor would we appreciate it if it were. In fact, it was infinitely costly. In a way our sins are not forgiven in the sense of being merely forgotten and wiped away at God's whimsy. No, according to the Law every sin ever committed is punished by God (Deuteronomy 32:35) — if not on the sinner, then on his Son, who became sin for us (Isaiah 53; 2 Corinthians 5:21).

And so we believers can thank God every day for freeing us from the curse of the Law, and showing us the same mercy He showed the adulterous woman, and Rahab, and David and Bathsheba, and Paul, and all the many other sinners throughout Scripture!

Image Credit: Name; untitled; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Controversial-Issues  | God-Father  | Jesus-Christ

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Published 8-9-2016