The law of God extends to all relations of life. This is so because we are never removed from the obligation to love and serve God. We are never amoral. We owe devotion to God in every phase and department of life. —John Murray, The Nature of Sin
God commands a voluntary giving in Exodus 35. If you can’t make sense of that, you can’t make sense of any of God’s commands because they all deal with the heart. God always demands more than outward obedience. All of God’s commands demand all of us.
Fallen man cannot understand the beauty of God commanding, “You shall love me.” Imagine a princess being blinded to the beauty of the prince who was once her greatest love and deepest joy. Instead, she hates him, irrationally, as intensely as she once adored him. Imagine a command came from him, to love him, with a power that awakened what was commanded. So it is with God’s commands. They do not constrain, they free.
Fallen man’s darkened, authority-hating, idol-loving hearts cannot conceive of love being commanded. Which proves we understand neither love nor authority. Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments (John 14:15).” So often, we believe those who love us say things like, “Do whatever makes you happy.” God sovereignly, with all wisdom says, “Only I can make you happy, all else is an illusion.” Then, for those He has redeemed, He speaks with liberating power, “You shall love the LORD your God with all.”
And so it is, when God commands, we receive. Obeying God’s commands is like a hammer finally hitting a nail after years of having tried to unscrew a screw. God’s commands are telling the adventurous beached whale, “Go back to the sea,” or the foolish bird, “You were not made to slither. Soar!” In all true God-enabled and faith-driven obedience to God’s commands, we ever remain the beneficiaries. Obeying God’s commands isn’t like being choked, but finally breathing.
Contra Avatar, mountains don’t float. As a statue has a pedestal, so mountains have a foundation—a huge foundation. As Israel approaches the mountain of God’s law, it has a huge foundation and that foundation is grace.
When Israel comes to Sinai, Yahweh has delivered them, He has redeemed them, they are His people. The blood of the passover lamb has been spilt and applied. Grace covers them. The mountain of God’s law is surrounded by a thick perimeter of grace. Sinai, for the people of God, rests on the foundation of a continent of grace. This is the way God’s children come to the mountain of God’s law. Redeemed sons and daughters, if you’re hearing God speak His ten words from the fire, you’re standing on a continent of grace.
When good parents bring an adopted child home, one of the first loving things they do is explain the house rules. They don’t give the house rules so that the child can become a son. They give the house rules because the child is a son.
The problem we have is that the “ifs” of the law (Exodus 19:5) make us think we must do to become sons. So we either ignore the rules as impossible, or, we’re obsessed with earning covenant love. Children of the King should do neither. What do we make of this “if”? I take this “if” the same we we see it in the New Testament in the New Covenant.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain (1 Corinthians 15:1–2 ESV).
[H]e has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister (Colossians 1:22-23 ESV)
The “adopted” child can still be disinherited. Do I mean they can lose their salvation? No, they can prove they never had it. Adoption didn’t really happen. They were just in the home pretending. When God saves a soul He makes them His child and He does this from the inside out causing them to be born again and made new. They’re different. God’s salvation goes long. Calvin put it this way, “It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone: just as it is the heat alone of the sun which warms the earth, and yet in the sun it is not alone, because it is constantly conjoined with light.”
Listen to the “if” of Colossians 1 again. “He has reconciled…if you continue in the faith.” He doesn’t say He will reconcile you if you continue in the faith. The continuing in the faith is necessary not to merit the reconciliation but to demonstrate the reconciliation. Continuing in the faith doesn’t make sons, it marks sons. This is what John was getting at when he wrote, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us (1 John 2:19).” Not everyone in the house is a son. Not all who claim to be sons are sons.
For those redeemed by the blood of the lamb, the law isn’t what must be done for salvation, it is what salvation does. Salvation is unto the restoration of the rule of God over the hearts of man. Under His rule, we are saved from sin, both its guilt and its power, to serve and glorify the Lord in obedience.
The law cannot lead to your justification, but it does lead either toward damnation or in sanctification. If the law is not leading you in sanctification, the foundation of justification isn’t there. You’re not standing on the continent of grace. You’re trying to make this mountain float, but it won’t. If the law doesn’t rest on the foundation of God’s grace, it will rest on you in damnation.
Why is this story here? “Well, it happened,” one retorts. Indeed, but the Biblical authors are selective. We’re never told everything, so why are we told of this event? Why is it given such attention? I believe this story primarily does three things. It compares, it contrasts, and it transitions.
It compares Moses and Israel, showing how they are similar.
It contrasts Amalek and Jethro, showing how they are different.
It transitions us to Sinai.
But to heighten and emphasize this, let me ask again, why is this story here? Often in the Scripture we find that events are arranged generally in a chronological way, but also, immediately in a theological way. As you read through the Gospels you will sometimes find a different order of events. The intent of the gospels isn’t to tell you the exact historical chronology, but to reveal the theological truth the episodes teach us about Christ. Generally, in the big scope, things are presented chronologically: Jesus’ birth, then His ministry, then His crucifixion, then His resurrection. But immediately, the arrangement is theological. This is often the case in all the Bible.
In Deuteronomy 1:8–19 there’s a very similar account to this one. Similar, I believe, because it recalls the same instance. There we have an account that complements this one, looking at it from a different perspective and tells us when exactly this takes place chronologically. When you read the context before and after, notably Deuteronomy 1:6, 19, it’s clear this happens as Israel readies to depart from Sinai. So, in Exodus, why here now? To compare Moses and Israel at this point, to contrast Amalek and Jethro, and to transition to Sinai.
Moses’ exile is a mini-exodus. Moses departs Exodus with Pharaoh wanting kill him. He was a sojourner in a foreign land, Egypt, but God brought him the place of his father’s wanderings to dwell among distant cousins. He comes to Horeb where he sins against God’s commands. Finally compliant to journey where God commands, he first returns to the mountain to be reunited with Aaron.
Now again, at Horeb, there is a reunion with family. Israel too has been delivered from the sword of Pharaoh. Having sojourned in Egypt, they’re traveling to the place promised to them, but first they come to Horeb, where they too will disobey the God who reveals Himself in fire.
Moses and Israel are compared. Amalek and Jethro are contrasted. The nations oppose Israel, but they also are grafted in. Amalek came and fought (17:8); Jethro came and inquired of Moses’ welfare (18:5–7). In 17:9 Joshua chooses men to fight, in 18:25, upon Jethro’s advice, men are chosen to judge. Previously Moses sat with the staff of God in his hand (17:12), now he sits in judgment (18:13). In both instances Moses does this all day and needs help. The parallels draw out the contrast. Amalek does not fear God (Deuteronomy 25:17). Jethro rejoices (18:9), blesses (18:10), and glorifies Yahweh (18:11). Then he offers sacrifices to God and has a covenant meal with Moses, Aaron, and the elders (18:12).
This compare and contrast sets up a a transition to Sinai. Jethro’s good advice helps Moses apply the law of God. But as this law is applied, don’t miss this, this mountain is surrounded by grace. We’re reminded of the grace shown to Moses, and to Israel, and we see a Gentile graciously grafted into the olive tree of Israel in the shadow of Sinai. Jethro’s wisdom helps the law be applied so that God’s people go to their place in peace (18:23). For the redeemed of God, His law is surrounded by grace.
Ignorance of the nature and design of the law is at the bottom of most religious mistakes. This is the root of self-righteousness, the grand reason why the Gospel of Christ is no more regarded, and the cause or that uncertainty and inconsistence in many, who, though they profess themselves teachers, understand not what they say, nor whereof they affirm. —John Newton, Works, Vol. 1
Then he took him by the hand, and led him into a very large parlour that was full of dust, because never swept; the which after he had reviewed a little while, the Interpreter called for a man to sweep. Now, when he began to sweep, the dust began so abundantly to fly about, that Christian had almost therewith been choked. Then said the Interpreter to a damsel that stood by, Bring hither the water, and sprinkle the room; the which, when she had done, it was swept and cleansed with pleasure.
CHR. Then said Christian, What means this?
INTER. The Interpreter answered, This parlour is the heart of a man that was never sanctified by the sweet grace of the gospel; the dust is his original sin and inward corruptions, that have defiled the whole man. He that began to sweep at first, is the Law; but she that brought water, and did sprinkle it, is the Gospel. Now, whereas thou sawest, that so soon as the first began to sweep, the dust did so fly about that the room by him could not be cleansed, but that thou wast almost choked therewith; this is to shew thee, that the law, instead of cleansing the heart (by its working) from sin, doth revive, put strength into, and increase it in the soul, even as it doth discover and forbid it, for it doth not give power to subdue.[Rom. 7:6; 1 Cor. 15:56; Rom. 5:20]
Again, as thou sawest the damsel sprinkle the room with water, upon which it was cleansed with pleasure; this is to show thee, that when the gospel comes in the sweet and precious influences thereof to the heart, then, I say, even as thou sawest the damsel lay the dust by sprinkling the floor with water, so is sin vanquished and subdued, and the soul made clean through the faith of it, and consequently fit for the King of glory to inhabit. [John 15:3; Eph. 5:26; Acts 15:9; Rom. 16:25,26; John 15:13] – John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
In the Old Testament Israel was drowning on one side of a boat. God delivered them. To prevent drowning again on that side of the boat they decided to throw themselves off the other side. To avoid falling off the starboard side of the vessel into the ocean of pagan libertinism, they jumped off the port side into the ocean Pharisaical legalism.
The Pharisees evaluated every boundary that the Bible establishes, and then tried to move the fence a few yards back, thus their traditions became more revered than the law. They thought that if you kept the traditions, you would never get close to breaking the law. But any time man tries to draw his own lines, his concern isn’t holiness, it’s sin. The Pharisees are like the lust filled adolescent who asks, “How far is too far?” I have no doubt that Jesus would reply to them as He did the rich young ruler, “One step, one thought, one glance, one touch!” The inflamed teen who asks this question, isn’t concerned about pursing purity, but lust. They want to know how close they can get to sin and be “ok.” Wanting to walk a line close to sin, is sin. It is the worship of sin.
God does draw a line in His law, and that line does differentiate between good and evil, righteousness and transgression, but it is less like a fence line, and more like the line of a rocket trajectory. It is not a line that you walk where sin is on the other side, and you can envy its green grass. It is like the rocket trajectory that lifts your eyes away from worldliness toward the heavens. The line God draws is a line toward perfection. Walk it and you walk away from sin, not towards it.
Be wary of reading this passage and concluding that, “Jesus is about a relationship, not rules.” Jesus want’s your heart. That is the point of this text. But the contrast here isn’t heart verses law, but tradition verses God’s commandments. When Jesus gives a new heart, it is a heart that loves the trajectory of the law (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
John is known as the apostle of love. The language of love pervades his writings. Listen to how often He connects love to obedience to God’s commands.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. …If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. ” (John 14:15, 23)
“And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.” (1 John 2:3)
“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3)
“And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments…” (2 John 6)
Commandments are not contrary to love, they are a means of expressing it.
Holiness is a dance. God wrote the steps. Jesus leads. We follow. No one looks at two skilled dancers who are wildly in love with each other and think that all the “rules” get in the way of their love. No, the dance does not choke love, it is a means of manifesting it, and it is beautiful, it is a delight.
The law for those redeemed by Christ is not merely a bridge between the two oceans of libertinism and legalism. It is a bridge toward holiness. Jesus traversed this bridge perfectly for us, in the power of the Spirit to the glory of the Father. All whom He saves from the oceans, He sets on this bridge, and empowers by His Spirit to follow Him to the glory of the Father.
This is true holiness. Let’s dance.