Exodus is a fascinating book filled with some remarkable stories: a baby boy saved from death; a burning bush that God spoke out of; terrible plagues of judgment; a miraculous escape through the Red Sea.
Today we are entering into a much different look at Exodus. Not some exciting, miraculous story. Rather, 3 chapters of detailed laws that Israel was to obey.
When we read these laws, we might find ourselves bored with some of it. And puzzled with other parts, asking, “Why did the Lord command this?” We don’t see the relevance. I have to admit, sometimes when I’ve read these chapters, I skimmed them quickly to move on to seemingly more interesting passages.
But if we pause long enough while we read, first, we will see the beauty and wisdom and practicality of such laws. And we will worship God for his love and his justice.
And second, if we slow down and actually read them, we might then ask, “What am I supposed to do with all these laws? Am I supposed to follow them?”
Today, I hope to answer some of our questions. And mostly, I hope to help us see the beauty and the glory of these laws….because there is a beauty and glory to our God.
Before we read some of these laws in Chapters 21-24, I want to review from last week because it provides the foundation for today’s passage. Turn back to Chapter 19.
Matt read this last week, and it’s important enough to repeat.
Exodus 19:4–6 CSB ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 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.’
First, the Lord reminds Israel that he had rescued them from cruel oppression. Several hundred years of slavery. He saved them out of his mercy and with great power. The first 15 chapters of Exodus are all about that.
And these beautiful words here once again reveal God’s passion for relationship with people. The Creator of the heavens and the earth….the Holy, Glorious God…is extending an offer. He’s offering to be in covenant relationship with them. (A covenant is like a contract with someone. A legal agreement.). It’s a stunningly beautiful moment for these people.
In this covenant, Israel has a part to play. They must fulfill their end of the contract, lest the contract become void. They are to listen carefully to the Lord. And they are to “keep his covenant,” which in large part means, they are to follow his will. To trust him. And to do what He commands.
Look at this:
Exodus 19:8 CSB Then all the people responded together, “We will do all that the LORD has spoken.”
They said to Moses and to the Lord, “That sounds wonderful! We’re in! We agree to the terms of this covenant.” And even though Israel largely didn’t keep the terms of the Covenant, they started with good intentions.
So this Covenant here in Exodus 19 tells us that the Book of Exodus is much more than amazing stories like the Ten Plagues and the Red Sea. It’s about Israel moving from bad servitude to good servitude, from serving Pharaoh to serving the Lord God, from one kingdom to another. So this covenant is beautiful. God offers to be their Shepherd and their Lord.
The Ten Commandments (or the Ten Words) we looked at last week are a foundation of God’s Covenant with Israel. Those Ten Words summarize the rest of the laws that we will read about today. We will see that all the laws from God are intended for Israel’s good. We might think the commands are burdensome or strange. But His commands are always good, and they bring good to people.
A Selection of the Laws
Back to Chapter 21. We don’t have time to read through 3 full chapters, so we will look at a selection of passages to read.
My goal here is threefold:
- We simply read and understand what God’s Word says. Ignorance does not help us in our walk with Christ today.
- We will see the beauty and righteousness and glory of these commands. And we will see how practical and helpful they would be in the Israelite society.
- The end result: that we will love God more and want to do his will.
Let’s look at a few commands:
Exodus 21:2 CSB “When you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for six years; then in the seventh he is to leave as a free man without paying anything.
There is a fair amount of discussion here on slavery, and it’s an important topic to understand clearly.
First, we need to know that the slavery described here is very different than the slavery which Israel endured for 400 years. And it’s very different from 19th century slavery in the U.S. And different from modern-day human trafficking. This slavery was more like an agreed-upon contract of service for six years. Why would someone do this? It may be because the person was in debt and had no way to pay it off. So he would sort of sell his services for six years.
So there are some cultural things we must understand to better appreciate laws like this.
But what we see here in vs. 2 (and in some other laws about slaves) is that God is actually dealing with workers’ rights. He is ensuring that employers or slave owners treated others well.
Then we have 3 laws about the death penalty.
Exodus 21:15–17 CSB “Whoever strikes his father or his mother must be put to death.
16 “Whoever kidnaps a person must be put to death, whether he sells him or the person is found in his possession.
17 “Whoever curses his father or his mother must be put to death.
Two of these obviously relate to the 5th of the Ten Commandments: Honor your father and mother. Vs. 15 The word “strikes” is sometimes translated “kills”, so the thought here is something more than a minor scuffle with your parents. There is an extreme violence here.
Vs. 17. “Cursing” your parents is more than just a one-time outburst of anger. It’s more like having such hatred for your parents that you actually call down curses, even publicly, in the name of the Lord on your parents. Wishing evil and even death on them, and actively proclaiming this.
Both these commands show the high regard for family order, and how seriously the Lord takes the 5th command to honor your parents. Family structure and authority is no small thing in the Lord’s eyes.
By the way, it is expected that Israel had a judicial system like we saw back in Chapter 18. All these kinds of cases would come before a judge who was to judge in fairness and righteousness, according to the law.
Exodus 21:28–30 CSB “When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox must be stoned, and its meat may not be eaten, but the ox’s owner is innocent. 29 However, if the ox was in the habit of goring, and its owner has been warned yet does not restrain it, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox must be stoned, and its owner must also be put to death. 30 If instead a ransom is demanded of him, he can pay a redemption price for his life in the full amount demanded from him.
Today we read this and might be tempted to think it’s strange. Or unimportant. But we have to realize that agriculture was a part of almost every person’s life in those days. Most people had animals. What this law is saying is that people are responsible to take care of their animals. If Moses had received the law in our day, these laws might have been replaced by some laws on motor vehicle homicide and accidents. In the same way that traffic accidents and crimes are common today, animal accidents and crimes were common in biblical times. So the judge would review a court case with this law in mind and make judgments based on it. And many scholars believe that all these laws we are reading were more widely applicable than the narrow situation listed. For example, if you didn’t own an ox but you owned another type of large animal and it harmed a neighbor, this law could be applied by the judge.
So by giving laws like these, the Lord is providing means of justice in society.
Exodus 22:21 CSB “You must not exploit a resident alien or oppress him, since you were resident aliens in the land of Egypt.
Resident aliens: We might use the term “immigrants” today. Israel was warned: Don’t mistreat foreigners or immigrants, for remember that you were once like that in Egypt, and it was not good. So God is protecting the rights and lives of those who could easily be oppressed by the dominant culture. Do you see the heart behind this law? It’s another way of saying, “Love your neighbor.”
The next verse:
Exodus 22:22–24 CSB “You must not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. 23 If you do mistreat them, they will no doubt cry to me, and I will certainly hear their cry. 24 My anger will burn, and I will kill you with the sword; then your wives will be widows and your children fatherless.
Again, the Lord is calling for protection of the vulnerable in society. Widows and orphans typically had no one to protect them or provide for them. Can you see the practicality of many of these laws? Can you see the call for justice? For protecting the vulnerable and the disadvantaged? Can you see the heart of God coming out here? Such laws are meant to bring good to individuals and bring order to society at large.
Exodus 23:4–5 CSB “If you come across your enemy’s stray ox or donkey, you must return it to him. 5 “If you see the donkey of someone who hates you lying helpless under its load, and you want to refrain from helping it, you must help with it.
If your enemy needs help, help him! This reminds me of Jesus’ words in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s a call to love your neighbor as yourself. Last week, Matt mentioned Jesus’ words in Matthew 22. Jesus said that the two greatest commands are to love the Lord with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Then Jesus said something powerful and insightful: The entire Law of God depends on these two commands. So whether directly or indirectly, the command to love God and people, even our enemies, is tied to all these commands in Exodus 21-23.
• Treating slaves with respect.
• Honoring your parents.
• Treating immigrants respectfully
• Helping your enemy when he has a need.
One last law, for fun:
Exodus 23:19 CSB “Bring the best of the firstfruits of your land to the house of the LORD your God. “You must not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.
We read laws like these, and we can roll our eyes and think, “How weird is that?” But if we know a little bit about ancient history, we would learn that pagan Canaanites had practices in idolatry that related to things like these. They believed certain rituals with animals and meat and milk could make their animals more fertile. Then their herds and flocks would increase. It’s a practice of pagan idolatry. So most likely here, the Lord is telling Israel, “Don’t imitate pagan ways. Trust me to give you bountiful crops and livestock. I will provide for you.” We don’t need mystical incantations to make good things happen. Rather, we pray and we look heavenward for the Lord to meet our needs.
So a command like this in vs. 19 connects to the first two of the Ten Commandments.
- Have no other gods.
- Don’t make idols.
This command about goats and milk, while it may seem strange to us, connects us back to the calling of God to love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Trust him for everything, and don’t trust in worldly or even demonic practices.
So What Now?
So we’ve just looked at a handful of laws. Some of them are understandable. Some seem strange. And we might be tempted to scoff at some of them. We’re confused about others. All of them collectively may seem burdensome. Too many rules.
But I want us to consider the many commands in terms we relate to today. There are laws just in these 3 chapters that tell us:
• To show respect and dignity for life
• How to deal justly with theft and injury
• How to love others
• That we should protect and defend the vulnerable
• Honor and worship the God who created us and saved us.
• Laws that show us how serious God is about justice and fairness.
What I want us to see in all of this is the nature and character of God. Who is this God who rescued Israel from Egypt with great power, authority, and mercy?
He was and still is…
• Loving, caring for all, even the weak in society.
• Attentive, watching over small and large details of their society
• Just and fair, ensuring that people are treated honestly, and that wrongdoing is punished
• Holy and glorious
• Wise, having perfect insights even into complex situations
It’s important we know that obedience to these laws is not the source of life from God. From last week: “Obeying the commandments of God are a response to our salvation—not the basis of our salvation.” Israel was saved by faith, not by works. And so are we today in Christ.
Relevance of OT and its laws to us today in NT era
So we’ve seen the love, the beauty, the care, the protection, and the holiness from some of the laws given to Israel. We can see their applicability in Israel’s world.
But a major question remains: What do we do with all these OT laws? Do we have to follow them in the same way that Israel did? What about oxen and resident aliens and honoring our parents and goats? Is God calling us to specifically obey each of these laws as they are written? What about the Sabbath, resting on the 7th day, which is Saturday?
What do we do with the Old Testament?
There is much to say about this, but the short answer is, We are not under the Old Covenant…the Old Testament. Rather, we are under the New Covenant. The New Testament. That is a big statement. And I must state, we’re not trying to find some way of getting out of the OT laws. We’re not seeking lawlessness. We’re simply told and commanded that we are now under a New Covenant. A New Agreement with God. A New Contract. And I don’t have time to give an exhaustive look at this, for there are many Scriptures to look at.
But if I could choose only one passage, I would go to the Book of Hebrews. The entire book deals with this, but if you are curious, you could simply read Hebrews 8 & 9. For Hebrews is quite clear that something dramatic and significant happened, and God’s people are no longer under the Covenant given to Moses and Israel in Exodus. Rather, we are under a New Covenant. The Covenant of Jesus Christ.
Hebrews 8:6–13 CSB But Jesus has now obtained a superior ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been established on better promises. 7 For if that first covenant [the one with Moses and Israel] had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second one.
He goes on to quote a prophecy from Jeremiah 31. The most foundational prophecy related to this topic written in 600 B.C. The problem with the covenant to Israel was not God. The problem was with the people. They didn’t keep the terms of the covenant. They broke the contact.
8 See, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah— 9 not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors [with Moses and the people] on the day I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. I showed no concern for them, says the Lord, because they did not continue in my covenant.
Now in vs. 10, the Lord through Jeremiah begins to describe this New Covenant:
10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 11 And each person will not teach his fellow citizen, and each his brother or sister, saying, “Know the Lord,” because they will all know me, from the least to the greatest of them. 12 For I will forgive their wrongdoing, and I will never again remember their sins.
Then the author makes this powerful conclusion:
13 By saying a new covenant, he has declared that the first is obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old is about to pass away.
The New Covenant is simply better.
• It’s better because the Savior—the Deliverer— is better. Jesus is better than Moses.
• It’s better because Jesus’ sacrifice is better. And his priesthood is better. Therefore the forgiveness is better, reaching down into our soul and our conscience.
• It’s better because it’s eternal, not temporary and fading.
Since we are under a new covenant, we no longer follow the terms of the old covenant. The laws of the old covenant are no longer the ones we follow, things like the Sabbath, like dietary laws, sacrifices, goats’ milk, and the death penalty for cursing your parents.
This doesn’t mean we are free from all commandments or restraints. The NT is replete with commands, including the greatest command to love the Lord and love people. If that’s all we knew, we would figure out how to apply it everywhere we went. In the home, the workplace, and in the church. So again, we’re not looking to get out of something. We’re simply trying to follow the path that God established 2000 years ago when he sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Everything changed on that day. And it changed for the better. Gloriously, eternally, infinitely better.
On this topic of how we relate to the OT today, there is much more to say. So if you go online to www.stonebrook.org, and look up this sermon, you will find my notes from the sermon. And at the bottom of those notes, there is an Appendix that gives a much fuller explanation. Read that and develop biblical convictions on this important topic.
So here in Exodus we have 3 chapters filled with commands for Israel, and these are part of a special covenant God made with Moses and the people.
So what do we do with all this? What can we take away from it?
Here’s the main point I want you to capture this morning: When you read all these commands, seek to know God better. And to trust him more. Read it and look for God’s attributes on display.
• His care for the vulnerable in society.
• His passion for holiness
• His thirst for justice on earth
• His wisdom to resolve complex relational and legal issues
We need to know and believe that in all the Lord’s commands, whether in the OT for Israel or in the NT for us, God is seeking life for us. He wants good for us. Life, not death.
Listen to what the Lord said to Israel just before they entered into the Promised Land:
Deuteronomy 30:15–16 CSB See, today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity. For I am commanding you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, statutes, and ordinances, so that you may live and multiply, and the LORD your God may bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
God’s commands reveal his love and his passion to rescue us from all that destroys us. Israel had good laid out in front of them like a feast on a table. But we have it even better, because Jesus Christ makes a better covenant. He saves us and makes us born again through his Spirit.
So it is the love of God and the goodness of God in the gospel that compels us to want to follow him. Our faith and the strength to follow him springs out of the love and justice and mercy of God shown at the cross.
Let me conclude with Paul’s words along this line. These words are my life verses, and they have guided me for the past 45 years.
2 Corinthians 5:14–15 NIV For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
What is Our Relationship to the Old Testament (Old Covenant) Today?
As we read the Bible, we might be confused about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments and about our relationship to the Old. Is the Old relevant today? Should we follow every command of the Old? If not, is it invalid and bad somehow, like God made a mistake? Is the Old worth reading and studying? Below is a summary explanation.
- Obviously something has changed, for Jesus said in Luke 16:16, “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached.” So a change happened when John the Baptist began preaching, pointing to the Christ and the coming kingdom.
- We are under the new covenant, not the old one. Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension brought the new covenant into its fruition, and the old one became obsolete (Heb 8:6-13). We are ministers of this new covenant (2 Cor 3:5-6). We are to follow the “terms” of the new covenant, not the old, including the commands. So our focus is on what the New Testament calls us to, not the Old (such as the Sabbath, sacrifices, and dietary laws).
- Being free from the law of Moses does not mean the Christian is free from all commandments or restraints. The entire New Testament is replete with commands to follow, including the command to love, which sums up all the law and the prophets (Matt 22:37-40). We are to follow him with our whole being (Matt 22:37-40; Rom 12:1-2; 2 Cor 5:14-15).
- The new covenant is better because of better promises and a better mediator, the Great High Priest Jesus who resides eternally in heaven now (Heb 1:3, Heb 8-9). The new covenant is eternal (Heb 13:20) with an unfading glory (2 Cor 3:7-11). This new covenant brings a cleansing deep inside to our consciences (Heb 9:14) because of the blood of the Lamb of God (Heb 9:24-26). The new one is written not on stone but on hearts (Heb 8:10; 2 Cor 3:6-11). And the Holy Spirit has been given to believers today, sealing us and transforming us (Eph 1:13-14, Titus 3:4-6).
- There is no contradiction between the two covenants, for clearly the Law and the Prophets point us to Jesus Christ, per Acts 10:43 and Acts 26:22. Plus many prophecies point to Christ, such as Gen 3:15, 12:3; 2 Sam 7:16; Isaiah 9:6, 11:1, 53:1-12. This pointing to Christ is Jesus’ main point in Matt 5:17: he fulfills the Law and the Prophets, i.e., he fulfills the prophecies that point to him, plus he fulfills all the requirements of the law, i.e., he obeys it fully. So all this brings great unity, not contradiction, between the two covenants.
- The way of salvation, i.e., through faith, has not changed, for even Abraham was considered righteous by his faith prior to the Law, per Romans 4 and Gen 15:6. So even in Moses’ days, salvation was not through obeying the commandments but through faith in God and his covenant.
- The law was Israel’s “guardian” to point them to justification by faith until Christ came (Gal 3:23-29). The law made them aware of the holiness of God and of their sins. The law also provided a means of forgiveness by faith in God through the sacrificial system, which is a demonstration of God’s grace. The law was also intended to promote the covenant relationship God desired with the nation of Israel.
- None of this means the old covenant is bad or worthless as if God made a mistake. On the contrary, the old covenant is holy and glorious (Rom 7:12; Heb 12:18-21), for it came from God as a covenant to his people. The failure was of the people (Heb 8:7-8), not of God nor of the covenant itself. And this failure was no surprise to God, for he knew before time began that he would send his Son to bring salvation to the world (Gen 12:3; Rom 1:1-4; Acts 2:22-23).
- Although the new covenant is the active “contract” with God’s people, the old covenant is still true, profitable (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and in a sense still “alive.” First, from the Old Testament we learn about the nature of God, man, creation, sin, judgment, redemption, and more. Second, it contains prophecies that have not yet been fulfilled concerning the second coming of the Messiah (e.g., Isaiah 9:6-7), so we eagerly study such prophecies to anticipate events to come. Third, we can learn from examples in the Old Testament, whether warnings against disobedience (e.g., 1 Cor 10:1-13) or inspiration from men and women of faith (e.g., Heb 11). And while the direct application of many of the OT laws are not relevant today, the principles still are (e.g., the principle of love in Deut 22:8 to protect your neighbor).
So in summary, how should we view the old covenant?
- We view it with honor and joy, for it is good and holy and right.
- We glory in the unity of Scriptures and God’s eternal plan from Genesis to Revelation, and we read it with gladness looking to our hope, the Messiah, whose coming has fulfilled the many prophecies about him.
- All this increases our confidence in the Person and work of Jesus, for we see God’s eternal plan of salvation, and we know he can be trusted.
- The old covenant has been fulfilled and replaced with someone new and better, something more glorious and eternal with better promises and outcomes.
- The Old Testament should still be eagerly studied, for it benefits us even today.