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Part Two: The Function of the Law

So what is the purpose of the Law? Essentially it operates as a mirror, reflecting and revealing. It was given:
  • To reveal God's glory and holiness—Deut. 5:22-28
  • To reveal man's sinfulness—Rom. 7:7,13; I Tim. 1:9ff; James 1:22-25. If we hold the law up to our life, like a mirror it reflects God’s glory, holiness and character, and reveals our sinfulness and need for a Savior.
  • To mark Israel as God's chosen people, and to separate them from the heathen Gentile nations—Ps. 147:19-20; Eph. 2:11-17; Acts 15
  • To give Israel a standard for godly living that they might inherit the land and enjoy its blessings—Deut. 4:1ff; 5:29ff; Judges 2:19-21
  • To prepare Israel for the coming of Christ—Gal. 3:24.
  • To illustrate in type and ceremony the Person and work of Christ—Heb. 10:1


What can the Law not do for us? It can’t:

  • Make everything perfect—Heb. 7:11-19
  • Justify from sin—Acts 13:38-39
  • Give righteousness—Gal. 2:21
  • Give peace to the heart—Gal. 3:21

With those limitations and purposes in mind, it is interesting to note that in the New Testament, nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated for believers today. It is the New Covenant (the Spirit working through us) that enables us to obey them.

Larry Richards (Freedom Road, David C. Cook, Elgin, IL, 1976, p. 64) states that "the revelation of the law to Israel performed two clear functions. First of all, it revealed the character of God, and a second important function of the Law is that it defined God's expectations." Let's look at each of these, and I will add a few as well.

The law revealed the character, the glory, and the holiness of God—Deut. 5:22-28.

If Israel was to reflect God's character and thus bring Him praise, it must understand His character; i.e., God's glory and His holiness. The Ten Commandments are the first sharp revelation of God's character seen in the Scriptures. In Genesis and the first segment of Exodus, we can see God's character as He relates to individuals—especially to Adam and Eve, Noah, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). For example, we see God's holiness in the Garden of Eden and how faithful He is to His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. An overall description of His moral character, however, remains something of a mystery in the first chapters of the Old Testament.

The Ten Commandments, however, reveal God's moral nature and how He has taken it upon Himself to redeem a people to be His and become like Him.

The law defined God's expectations; it gave Israel His standard for living—Ex. 19:3-5a; 20:1ff. In an objective, clear, and well-defined standard, God tells His people how He expects them to behave with one another.


I'm sure you realize the tremendous value of having expectations revealed in any relationship. Some of us grew up in homes where we simply did not know how to please our parents. Nothing we did seemed to meet with their approval, and their commands changed from day to day. That wasn't my experience, because my dad was very clear and concise about what was commanded. But like Israel, I often chose to try and get around those commands, until I made a commitment to follow the Lord!

In modern terms this might be called an "immediate feedback system," something that is very important when anyone is being trained. Now again, that was not my problem—as a child, I had a pre-behavioral feedback system. My Dad would anticipate in an uncanny way what my behavior would be, and then let me know in no uncertain terms what was required—that I shouldn't do what I was about to do! But regardless of our upbringing, we need a pre and post behavioral feed- back system. We need to see our behavior in the light of the standard—God's expectations.

Think about the people of Israel; they didn't have a clear-cut written statement concerning their behavior, because they went into Egypt as an extended family and came out a nation. With the Ten Commandments, however, there is to be no such uncertainty for Israel in its relationship with God. He clearly defined the way He expected this nation to go, so clearly that even a child could not miss it. With the limits established, and with God's expectations firmly expressed, the people would now be able to gauge their own responses and behaviors.

Imagine a golfer practicing daily to eliminate a slice from his drive. He stands on the tee, swings and watches the ball...adjusts, and tries again. Then he gets a coach who shows him how to hit the ball and demonstrates the proper swing. With that example in mind, he gauges each effort by watching the ball in flight, and when he begins to straighten out the drive, he continues to practice to make sure that he has mastered the correct swing.

Now, how much chance would the golfer have to improve if he was taught not to slice the ball, and then a screen was placed in such a way that he could tee up and hit, but not watch the ball's flight? Not much! (He needs a coach, a standard and practice!)Recently I had the wonderful experience of seeing my brother for the first time in three years. While we were growing up he was my coach—really a great big brother (though I'm much bigger than he is!). I returned to that experience again when I got a chance to golf with him. I did well for the first five holes, and then I injured my back.

One of our associate pastors also played with us, and he was giving Roy a little picture of who I am as a pastor, and how we function at Hillcrest. After he heard this for awhile and then I injured my back, Roy took me aside and said, "Hey, I can see these people are treating you pretty well. Boy, do you have them snowed! Listen, if we lived in the same town it would take about a month to whip you into shape. I'd be at your house every morning making sure you..."

There was no question in his mind what kind of shape I should be in. After all, 31 years ago, we lived together in the same house! Nothing in the standards had changed since then; it was clear in his mind. I just needed to get with it! He had his expectations and wanted me to understand, in a brotherly way, how I should be doing physically! He was giving me no slack for being a pastor, under stress, or whatever excuse I had. Honestly, I loved it!

So why do we have the Law and big brothers? They both help coach us and make clear the standards God has for us.




A third reason we need the Law is for our protection—Deut. 4:1ff; 5:29ff; Judges 2:19-21.

Simply put, God loves us and wants the best for us. He knows if we live a certain way it will not only go against His character and expectations, it will hurt us and we'll lose what we have. He designed us to live a certain way, and if we live differently we break the warranty. In fact, if we go against the manufacturer's guidelines, we will destroy the "machine" (the body/life) He has prepared for us.

By keeping the laws of God, we live in accordance with His original design specifications and will find ultimate performance and pleasure. Israel was moving from Egypt to the Promised Land, then inhabited by a very immoral people with no code of conduct! God's people needed to know how to live or they would easily adopt the practices of those Canaanites (the "Promised Land-ites").

Related to protection is the fourth reason for the Law, really the other side of the same coin:

A fourth function of and reason for the Law is for our provision—to provide for the rewards and fantastic life that we see only on the other side of obedience—Josh. 1:1-7.


The Ten Commandments and the whole book of the Law was given to Israel not just so they wouldn't do certain things (for their protection), but that they might be kept free and able to enter the Promised Land God had prepared for them. When they got to that Land, the Commandments would help them carry out a fulfilling life that would stand in contrast to those of its inhabitants.

The Commands not only revealed a negative, but pointed to a positive way to live. Obedience opens us up to the opposite of that command—a positive principle to live by.

For instance:

  • If we choose to obey God's command and not have any other God before us but the one true God, what does obedience imply about the kind of relationship we can have with the true God?
  • If we choose to obey God's command and not commit adultery what kind of relationship does that imply we can have with our mates?
  • If we choose not to steal, what does obedience imply we can give?
  • If we choose not to slander or gossip, what does obedience open us up to regarding a positive use of our words?
I think you get the idea. If I obey the negative command ("Do not..."), I open myself up to God's wonderful provision and opportunity on the other side of obedience!

There are other functions of the Law, but I will only mention them now:

A fifth function of and reason for the Law is to reveal man's sinfulness—Rom. 7:7,13; I Tim. 1:9ff; James 1:22-25. (We'll come back to this later.)

A sixth function of and reason for the Law is to mark Israel as God's chosen people, and to separate them from the heathen Gentile nations—Ps. 147:19-20; Eph. 2:11-17; Acts 15.

A seventh function of and reason for the Law is to prepare Israel for the coming of Christ—Gal. 3:24.

An eighth function of and reason for the Law is to illustrate in type, shadow and ceremony the Person and work of Christ—Heb. 10:1.


If you would like a way to summarize the Law for Israel and us, it is:
  1. To Promote God's holiness and character
  2. To Prepare His people for what is ahead
  3. To Protect and provide for His people
  4. To Present Jesus and our need for Him


Next, we'll examine the cultural backdrop against which we introduce the concept of the Law, and the value of that Law in providing an anchor for our lives. Keep on studying with us!