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Part Eight:The Response of Moses and the People to the Giving of the Law—Exodus 20:18-21

18] When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance 19] and said to Moses, "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die."
20] Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning."
21] The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.


This was literally an awesome moment, and it's easy to see why the people were afraid. Moses responded, however:

  • Do not be afraid...
  • God has come to test you...
  • so that the fear of God will be with you... Fear means "reverential awe." This is a different word than is used in "Do not be afraid."
  • to keep you from sinning.

Sin means "to miss the mark" (the mark being the first 17 verses of the Ten Commandments—the way God intends us to live and relate to our friends, workers, and family). Unfortunately, we can't seem to keep from sinning. Romans 3:23 says, "All have sinned [missed the mark] and fallen short of the glory of God." There is none righteous, no not one.

Let me tell you about an old simple English game called "sinner." A pole would be set up with a hoop at the top, then each man would be given 10 arrows. The idea was to see if you could get the arrows through the hoop. If a person missed, then everyone would say, "Oh, you're a sinner; you missed the mark. You have to treat the rest of the gang to drinks."

The point is, the guy who missed all 10 was no worse off than the guy who missed only one.


"For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it"—James 2:10. We're all guilty before God; we've all sinned! The purpose of the Law, though, is that we not sin, that we might know this relationship with God; and that we relate properly to our brothers and sisters. If God gave the Law that we might not sin, you might ask, what went wrong?

Is the Law at fault? So often we point back at the Law with a snarl and say, "Ah, that Law!" No.

  1. Rom. 8:3—"For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature..."
  2. Rom. 7:12—"So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good."
  3. Rom. 7:14—"We know that the Law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin."

The right standards are there. The problem is with me—my sinful flesh! I'm guilty.

So what is the Law for? (Go to "The Function of the Law") The Law can show me the mark. Rom. 3:20 explains, "Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin." But the Law cannot give me any power to hit the mark. "For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man" (Rom. 8:3).

The Law cannot help me when I miss; it only condemns me. So what do I do now? Rom. 8:1-2: "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death."

Unfortunately, some (e.g., the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus' day) respond by adding traditions to the Law. As Jesus said in Matt. 15:6b, they "nullify the Word of God by [their] traditions." You see, man's problem is that he adds to the Law so he can obey it, pressing into outward acts so he can fulfill the Law. The Pharisees actually wrote some 62 volumes to try to interpret the Law. Compare it to what has happened to our Constitution—who can understand it now?

Here's an example: God's law said, "Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy... on it you shall not do any work..." So what constitutes doing work? When we were in Jerusalem, on Shabot, there were special elevators that stopped on every floor, as pushing elevator buttons is considered work. We made sure we didn't get on those elevators!

As a result of human tampering, the Law became a purely physical thing that dealt with actions, when God intended it to be a spiritual thing dealing with attitudes. Jesus spoke of this discrepancy often:

  • Matt. 15:8-10—"'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9] They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.' " 10] Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen and understand."
  • Matt. 5:21—"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.'"
  • Matt. 5:27—"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.'"
  • Matt. 5:38—"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.'"

So adding to the Law, interpreting it, or adding traditions to it are not answers to our inability to hit the mark. The answer is to see the Law as an instrument of God's grace (Rom. 5:20-21) to point me to my guilty self and drive me to Jesus Christ, my only hope for salvation. The Law successfully makes me despair of trying to save myself. Until I have come and experienced the grace of Jesus Christ, I am still under the Law!

I certainly can't be saved by keeping the Law. Galatians 3:11 tells us, "Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, 'The righteous will live by faith.'" The moment I add the observance of even one point of the Law as necessary for salvation (e.g., Sabbath attendance), I am immediately put under the entire Law and declared guilty. It is totally by God's grace that I stand before Him—Gal. 5:1-6; 3:1-5,10-14.

Jesus doesn't, however, give me a license to violate the Law. Once I come to the grace of God, I cannot do what I want and remain in fellowship with Him. On the contrary, Jesus gives me the power to fulfill an even higher law—the law of love—Gal. 5:13; Rom. 13:8-10. He gives me, through the Spirit, the ability to fully meet the righteous commands of the Law—Rom. 8:1-14.

This comes only through a work of Jesus Christ in my life. It is through His power that I am able to live as God would have me to live and be: His special treasure; His priest; His holy person. Augustine said, "Love God and do as you like." Yes, because love transforms His law into liberty: a law of liberty.

"Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me..." Jesus said, "...for My yoke is easy [it fits], and my load is light" (Matt. 11:29-30). It is wonderfully true that the gospel does not demand that we, by our own effort, keep the law of God. The Law fills us with helplessness, because by the Law is the knowledge of sin "that every mouth may be closed" (Rom. 3:19). The Law opens our eyes and shuts our mouth, leaving us without excuse. It drives us to Jesus. It is our schoolmaster to lead us to Christ, and when we come to Him in absolute helplessness and hopelessness in ourselves, we find that every word of the Law is repeated and emphasized in the Christian economy.

The Ten Commandments are all interpreted in the Sermon on the Mount and amplified in the Lord's teaching there, when He preached not to unconverted people but to His disciples (see Matt. 5:1-2). It is the kind of life God expects people born of His Spirit, indwelt by His life, to live in the world today so that men—in a society that has lost its bearings—may see the sheer thrill of a life lived under the dominion of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Why would God expect that kind of life from us? Because the severity of His law is the most wonderful expression of His love. Our God is set upon our perfection, and we are saved that we might be conformed to the image of Christ. He wants to make us like Him, and if He excused or condoned sin, it would be absolutely impossible to fulfill that objective. The cross frees us from the law's condemnation, but not from obligation.

"Jesus alive today is the One who has the right to rule my life, and the Holy Spirit in my heart comes to apply that rule every day. Every demand that God makes upon me is met by the Spirit in me in answer to my faith, submission, yieldedness. He it is who gives me the power to obey, "for it is God who is at work in you, both to work for His good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13). (Some material from Alan Redpath, Law and Liberty, Fleming H. Revell, 1978, p. 15.