Many Christians today easily misunderstand the purpose of God’s law. In this sermon from Exodus and Leviticus, Alistair Begg shows us that the law was not meant to be our salvation, but to show us our need for a Savior and to point us to Christ. While the law required sacrifice, in Christ God provided a once-for-all solution to the problem of sin. Because of God’s provision of both law and Savior, we can live in fellowship with Him.
O God, we pray that in light of all that has already gone on today and all the demands that have been made upon us, the use of our faculties and the expenditure of our energy, we pray that you will grant to the one who speaks and to each of us as we listen the necessary grace so that we might find clarity and conviction and the wonderful compassion which your Word conveys as we open our lives afresh to its truth. And we pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, I’m not going to take time again to reintroduce the material that we’re dealing with. Suffice it to say that we left off this morning having looked at the whole question of God’s people and the partial fulfillment of those promises as they relate to the history of Israel. And as we come this evening, we’re coming to the whole question of God’s rule and his blessing—God’s rule and his blessing. We said some time ago that the next chunk of the Bible, if I may refer to it as a chunk, breaks up under these different avenues—not exclusively, but enough for us to be able to take a broad sweep at it. And the question of God’s rule and blessing largely takes us from Exodus all the way through the book of Leviticus. And the promise concerning his rule and blessing is simple: Genesis 12:2, God says, “I will bless you.” But that promise finds only a partial fulfillment in the history of Israel, and that we’re going to see worked out for us in a number of aspects tonight.
It’s not unusual for us to hear even good people express a negative attitude towards authority. We live in an anti-authoritarian time, perhaps more so than at any other time, at least in the framework of orthodox Christianity, and what was once regarded as a sacrosanct view of Scripture and of the authority of Scripture doesn’t seem to rest so happily in the minds of some. This pops out in all kinds of ways, and, for example, one of the most popular and best-selling books of the last twelve months challenges the whole notion of authority and of duty. Now, the book is entitled Wild at Heart, and while it has benefited many, I believe it is in danger of setting aside a really true view of who God is, and a true view of what masculinity is, and certainly a true view of what duty is. And in it the author says that what men require is “permission to live from the heart”—“permission to live from the heart and not from a list of ‘should’ and ‘ought to’ that has left so many of us tired and bored.”
Now, it may be that what the author is trying to do is simply debunk a kind of sterile moralism—I’d like to think that that’s the case—the sterile moralism which has no possible value in restraining indulgence in any way. But he writes in such a way as to create the impression that the “ought to” and the “should” and the “duty” of the law of God is somehow antithetical to the experience of adventure in the living of the Christian life. And nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Because, as we’re going to see this evening, when Adam and Eve were living under God’s rule, they were enjoying God’s blessing. When they stepped out from underneath God’s rule—when they disobeyed—then they no longer were living in his place and they were no longer enjoying his blessing. And so God, recognizing that it is his desire for his people to live in the place of blessing, urges upon his servant the emphasis on the things that we have just read so that his people might know his blessing, so that they might be blessed as a result of being brought back under God’s rule—the blessing which comes from living under the rule of God. It is in this context that they’re going to enjoy the relationship with God as they live in God’s presence.
Now, we can state it very straightforwardly: Rejection of God’s law brought separation. When Adam and Eve rejected the rule of God, they said, “We would like to do this. We know you said we shouldn’t, but we want to do it.” When they rejected God’s rule, they forfeited his blessing, and they were separated from him. And so the restoration of God’s rule brings about the communion and fellowship which God designs for his people. And this morning, of course, as we sang in that old and well-familiar tune,
When we walk with the Lord
In the light of his Word,
What a glory he sheds on our way!
When we do his good will,
He abides with us still [we enjoy his presence],
And [he does so] with all who will trust and obey.
Now, this promise of God’s rule and blessing—the blessing promise, if you like—is chiefly fulfilled in this period of Israel’s history in two ways. First of all, in the giving of God’s law—in the giving of God’s law. Now, the giving of God’s law was never intended to be the means by which anybody was made right with God. If we are just reading and thinking, that will become immediately clear to us, because the redemption of the people from bondage in Egypt precedes the giving of the law. First he reaches down, takes hold of his people, and redeems them, liberates them, and then he gives them the law. He does not give them the law as a mechanism for redemption, but he gives them the law, having redeemed them, in order that they might have the framework by which they may live under his rule and enjoy his blessing.
So their obedience to God’s law is not some desperate attempt to achieve salvation, but rather it is a response to the salvation that has already been achieved for them. And if we get that principle upside down, then, of course, everything goes south from there, and we will live our lives under the grip of a fierce legalism, thinking all the time that by our endeavors we can put ourselves in a right standing before God. The law of God is not the path to membership in God’s people, but rather it is the framework for God’s people so that they might live in blessing. And that, of course, comes across very clearly when in Exodus 19:5 God says, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all the nations you will be my treasured possession.” And in the verses that we read in Exodus 20, God does not immediately start with verse 3, “You shall have no other gods before me,” but he starts with, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”—“I am your redeemer, and here is what it means to live in a relationship with me.”
Now, in light of that—and in order to help us, let’s just say that I’ll come back to God’s presence and I’ll come back to the sacrifices—but I want to note at this point this: three things concerning the law. Number one: the law reveals our sin. The law reveals our sin. Romans 3:20: Paul, in driving this home, says, “No one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of [our] sin.” So God gives the law in part so that nobody will have any basis on which to say, “But, of course, I’m not a sinner.” And that is why when we neglect the law of God in our preaching in order to make people feel comfortable and accepted, then we do people a disservice, because it is in the proclaiming of the law of God that we realize that we are in need of a savior. So not only does the law reveal our sin, but it also reveals our Savior.
In Galatians chapter 3—familiar words, I won’t turn you to them, you can find them for yourself later on—Paul says that “the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ.” “The law was put in charge”: the word that is used there is of somebody that would be taking a child under tutelage in order that they might do their homework and benefit as a result of it. And the law fulfills that function: convicts us of our sin, shows us our need of a savior. And that Savior is ours because although, you will remember, the Lord Jesus kept the law perfectly, he faced the punishment for law-breaking, and the reason he faced the punishment for law-breaking was because he took the place of the law-breaker, and, in Galatians 3 again, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.”
And the third aspect is that the law reveals for us God’s standards. And Matthew 5 is, of course, a quote from the Sermon on the Mount, and you can turn to that at your leisure. Jesus, you will remember, says that all of the commands, the whole Decalogue, rests on two principles. And the principles are that we would love God with all of our hearts and that we would love our neighbors as ourselves—that we would love God with all of our hearts and that we would love our neighbors as ourselves.
Now, I’m going to resist the temptation to stop on God’s law. I may come back to it on another occasion. But if you have those three things in mind when you think of God’s law, you’re off to a good start and you won’t go far wrong at all.
Now, let me back this up and get to what we left behind. The partial fulfillment of the blessing promise is revealed not only in God’s law, but also in God’s presence—in God’s presence. Living under God’s rule, the people of God enjoy his presence. Redemption led to relationship. And it is because of that that then God gives the instruction to Moses to get ahead with the construction of the tabernacle. And that’s why we have in the Bible all of this information concerning this tabernacle. And on that slide that you have in front of you there, if you imagine all of the white representing a courtyard… There is a word that I’ve left off there—that is my mistake—where it says “The Most Holy Place,” it says down the right hand side of the slide, on the other side we should just have had a sign that just said “The Courtyard,” because it is in the courtyard that a tent was constructed. And so, if you imagine all of the white being a courtyard, and then a tent being in there, and two sections in the tent: section one, the Holy Place, and section two, the Most Holy Place. The Holy Place is down below; the Most Holy Place is up above.
And inside the Holy Place you will see that there is a table, and it is holding the Bread of the Presence. And God instructed that on that table there were to be twelve loaves of bread. And why were they there? They were there to remind the people that God will provide for all of their needs. At the same time he instructed that there should be a golden lampstand, and the lampstand was there to symbolize God’s constant watchcare over his people and that he was watching to keep them from harm. Also within that Holy Place there was an altar, the altar of incense. And the incense burned on that altar to give a sense of the nearness of God. And in between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place there was a curtain or a veil or a screen, and that shielded the one place from the other.
And you will notice that unlike the Holy Place, in which there were a number of items of furniture, in the Most Holy Place there was only one piece of furniture: the ark. Now, what was the ark? Well, it was simply a chest, about 130 centimeters long and 60 centimeters wide and high. And what was in this ark? What was in this chest? Well, it contained the stone tablets on which God had inscribed the Ten Commandments. And that chest, or that ark, had a separate lid that went on top of it. That lid—you sometimes, depending on your background, will be familiar with it as being referred to as the mercy seat or the atonement cover. And on that lid, at either end of the lid, were representations of heavenly beings: cherubs, or cherubim. And the wings of the cherubim extended horizontally across the lid of the ark, providing this throne, as it were, on which God himself would be seated. Of course, it is a picture, and the invisible God is not present in that way, but he asked for it to be constructed in order that when the people were confronted by it, they would think in these terms. And in fact, in Exodus 25:22, God says, “There, above the cover between the two cherubim … I will meet with you.” Where are you going to meet God? He says, “Above the cover, between the cherubim, I will meet with you.” And throughout the book of Exodus, we discover that the glory of God fills this place and stays with them.
Chapter 40 gives you the setting up of the tabernacle. Again, I’ll leave it for you, but let me give you just an insight into it in verse 34: “Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. [And] Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.”
So, you have God’s presence among his people, which is a wonderful thing. But it immediately introduces a problem. And those of us who are thinking will be quick to get to the problem—namely, how can a holy God live with his people when his people are sinful? How can the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man cohabitate? Because from the very beginning the Israelites could not keep the law of God. And since they couldn’t keep the law of God, they deserved to face God’s judgment.
Well this, you see, is where the book of Leviticus steps in—which, of course, is just what you would expect at the end of Exodus , wouldn’t you? You turn the page, and there is Leviticus. And if you have an NIV, the first heading that you have is “The Burnt Offering.” And now we’re into one of the most unread books of the Old Testament, a book that many people say, “I haven’t a clue what those twenty-seven chapters are about, and frankly, I have no interest in dealing with my ignorance.” But that is a great mistake—that is a great mistake. Because every day in this tabernacle, the sacrifices were offered for the sins of the people. And as Leviticus 16 tells us, there was a specific day in the year when the high priest entered the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement so that he might do exactly what God had told him to do. And the details of that, again, I can leave for you in Leviticus 16, but let me summarize it as briefly as I can.
On this occasion, the high priest was to take two goats—unblemished goats. The first goat was to be killed, and the reason it was to be killed was because it was a sin offering for the people. And the blood of that goat was to be sprinkled on the atonement cover, or the mercy seat, in the Most Holy Place. The Israelites deserved to die for their sin, but God provides this goat as a substitute to die in their place. Leviticus 17:11: “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.”
So the people, then, are able to live because the animal has died. This is the same principle that we noted this morning: that God saves by substitution. And the results of that atonement are seen in what happens to the second goat. The second goat is then driven out after the priest has placed his hands on the head of the goat and confessed the sins of the people to it, on it, over it. And once the sins of the people are confessed over it, it is then driven out into the wilderness; it is driven as far away as it possibly can be, so that the high priest is then able to appear before the people, now, and say to them, “Your sins are atoned for. I have done as God asked me to do. The blood has been shed, and by the shedding of blood there is remission for sin, and the other goat I have driven out into the wilderness so that you needn’t be concerned about your sins anymore. You needn’t bear them as a burden on your back. You need to know that,” as would be said later on by the prophets, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has the Lord removed your transgressions from you.” And in a very elaborate and specific way, and in far more detail than we’re now giving to it, God is establishing this essential fact: that his blessing is directly related to his rule, and since his people are unruly, then he must provide a sacrifice for their unruliness, for their sinfulness, which he then does , thus allowing them to approach him on the basis of what another has done.
Now, God lives with his people in the tabernacle, but they daren’t get too close. That’s the whole point. That’s the reason for the division that is represented there. And only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, does this take place.
Now, what is this doing in promise and fulfillment? You’re already thinking ahead. You’re beginning to pick this up, aren’t we? We’re already making the shift very quickly in our minds from promise to fulfillment. It’s not difficult for us to see that all of this is pointing forward to a perfect sacrifice. All of these Levitical sacrifices are pointing beyond themselves to the perfect sacrifice that Christ would offer by his death on the cross. And his death deals with sin once and for all, and it is in need of no repetition whatsoever. And that’s why when you get forward from this, you discover that as you look back over your shoulder you can see that God is putting, if you like, more of these boxcars behind the engine. There is the picture of a sacrifice for a man in the story of Abraham and Isaac. There is the story of a sacrifice for a family in the celebration of the Passover meal. There is the story of the sacrifice for a nation in the Day of Atonement. And it points forward to a sacrifice for the world in the death of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, we saw this morning John 1:29: “[Behold], the Lamb of God, [that] takes away the sin of the world!” And here in 1 John 2:12, John writes in quite dramatic fashion, “I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.” “I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.”
Now, that’s why when you have the most “Old Testament” of New Testament books—namely, Hebrews—that’s why the writer of Hebrews drives this point home with tremendous clarity. And it’s fitting that we should consider this just before we come around the Lord’s Table. In Hebrews chapter 10: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter…” (Let’s just go back to this picture here.) “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.”
Now, you see how all of this fits, and why in the death of the Lord Jesus Christ we discover that the curtain in the temple was torn in two. Because that curtain was ultimately in the temple area, the curtain that is there in the tented area, that is in the courtyard amongst the people of God, as they make their journey towards the promised land. And Christ dies, and the curtain is torn, and the way of entry is opened up.
Now, I ask you—and with this we will close—I ask you: Where else do you hear a story like this in all of world religion? Where else have you heard such amazing news? You haven’t heard it in Buddhism, dealing with the Dukkha, the unsatisfactory nature of our lives, and trying to overcome things by our endeavors. We won’t find it in Hinduism, with the notion of the multiple manifestations of God and the Hindu avatar shuttling between earth and heaven; we hope we can catch one somehow or another, like an elevator or an escalator on the way up. We certainly don’t hear it in contemporary humanism, with its deification of the self and its silly ideas about nature. And our friends haven’t heard it either. And therefore, to the extent that God would bring us to an understanding of this, convince us in our understanding of it, he would do so in order that we might be able to communicate it in a way that would result in unbelieving people becoming the committed followers of Jesus.
For me, it’s always been helpful to remember these things in summary form as I have them in little songs, and so I can summarize all of this in one song:
There’s a way back to God
From the dark paths of sin;
There’s a door that is open
[That] you may go in:
[And] at Calvary’s cross,
[That’s] where you begin,
When you come as a sinner to Jesus.
That’s really the whole story: the wonderful good news that your friend and colleague at work, your loved one, your child, your uncle, whoever it may be, as they finally come face to face with the law of God and they realize, “I do not love God with all my heart. I do have idols in my life. I do not always tell the truth. I do need a savior”—well, then, you tell them that God saves by substitution, that God saves by intervening in conquest, and that he triumphs over the powers of evil in a life and in a nation, making a spectacle of them by the power of the cross.
And when we’re tempted to vacillate, and when we’re tempted to doubt, and when we’re tempted to look at ourselves for the basis of assurance or to try and gee ourselves up for a Monday by saying, “Well, I’m sure I can do a lot better than I did last week,” that may be or that may not be, but here is your confidence—and again, it’s a verse from a song:
I need no other [sacrifice],
I need no other plea.
It is enough that Jesus died,
And that He died for me.
Upon a life I [did] not [live],
Upon a death I did not die,
Another’s life, Another’s death,
I stake my whole eternity.
Let us pray together:
God, we thank you that the Bible once again unfolds with clarity as we realize the mercy that you display, the grace that you showered upon your people in the giving of the law—not a mechanism whereby they might become acceptable, whereby we might earn your blessing, but the rails on which the train of our lives might run as we make our journey from earth to heaven. Some of us are derailed, and in bringing us here to this evening of Communion we have the wonderful opportunity to get back on the track. And so we pray that we might, and that as the Israelites of old gathered and shared the Passover and reflected on the redemption that you accomplished for them from Egypt, so now we gather and we reflect upon the redemption that you have accomplished for us in the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. And we bless and praise your holy name. Amen.
 John Eldredge, Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), xi.
 John H. Sammis, “Trust and Obey” (1887).
 Exodus 20:2 (NIV 1984).
 Galatians 3:24 (NIV 1984).
 Galatians 3:13 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 22:37–40 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 103:12 (paraphrased).
 Hebrews 10:19–22 (NIV 1984).
 E. H. Swinstead, “There’s a Way Back to God.”
 Eliza Edmunds Hewitt, “My Faith Has Found a Resting Place” (1891).
 Horatius Bonar, “Christ for Us” (1881).