Is God's Law Bondage?

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Is God's Law Bondage?

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In the annals of human experience, some of the darkest episodes of man’s inhumanity to man have involved the treatment of slaves. Even today humans are sometimes subjected to brutality as the property of other human beings.

World Press Review paints a picture of contemporary slavery in one nation: “Men, women and children in shackles and chains hack at sugar canes as the midday sun beats down. Armed guards swing rifle butts into the ribs of workers caught slacking. The prisoners are given only water and grain for food. When darkness falls, the men are dragged to a clearing and chained to trees for the night. Women usually sleep alone or with children in makeshift sheds. At dawn, the men, women and children are kicked awake” (June 1996, p. 44). Then the misery of the former day is repeated.

According to another magazine, “The Geneva-based International Labor Organization reports that tens of millions of people around the globe, including children as young as six, are working in bondage-in dangerous and degrading conditions that often involve 18-hour workdays, beatings and sexual abuse” ( Time, March 11, 1993, p. 26).

A saga of slavery

Some 2,500 years ago an entire nation was in bondage. When we first encounter Israel as a nation in the Bible, the Israelites had gone from being guests in Egypt, enjoying the bounties of the land side by side with their Egyptian hosts, to being slaves. The Bible says the Egyptians set “taskmasters” over the Israelites “to afflict them with their burdens,” forcing them to construct cities such as Pithom and Raamses (Exodus 1:11 Exodus 1:11Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses.
American King James Version×
). The Israelites were cruelly forced to labor at projects designed to honor the proud Egyptian kings. So brutal were these Egyptian masters that they even murdered Israel’s newborn male babies (Exodus 1:22 Exodus 1:22And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, Every son that is born you shall cast into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive.
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).

Such suffering of slaves in Egypt is verified by archaeological evidence from the land of the Pharaohs. “… The famous wall painting from the Thebean tomb of Rekhmire … [depicts] the overseer of the brick-making slaves during the reign of Thutmose III” ( Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1990, Vol. 2, p. 304).

The painting on Rekhmire’s tomb shows “overseers armed with heavy whips” (ibid . ). Hard labor and beatings were a harsh reality of Israelite life. “Now it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out to his brethren and looked at their burdens. And he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brethren” (Exodus 2:11 Exodus 2:11And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out to his brothers, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brothers.
American King James Version×
).

The Israelites cried out in their suffering. God said, “I have surely seen the oppression of My people … and have heard their cry …” (Exodus 3:7 Exodus 3:7And the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows;
American King James Version×
).

Deliverance from slavery

God had pity on His people, and when the time was right He intervened to deliver them from bondage. He appointed Moses as a leader to bring them out of Egypt (Exodus 3:10 Exodus 3:10Come now therefore, and I will send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt.
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). In a series of dramatic events, God took them out of Egypt and established them as an independent and free nation. Their departure from Egyptian soil climaxed in the miraculous parting of the Red Sea, providing an escape from Pharaoh’s pursuing army (Exodus 14:21-31 Exodus 14:21-31 21 And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. 22 And the children of Israel went into the middle of the sea on the dry ground: and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand, and on their left. 23 And the Egyptians pursued, and went in after them to the middle of the sea, even all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. 24 And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the LORD looked to the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians, 25 And took off their chariot wheels, that they drove them heavily: so that the Egyptians said, Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians. 26 And the LORD said to Moses, Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the waters may come again on the Egyptians, on their chariots, and on their horsemen. 27 And Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to his strength when the morning appeared; and the Egyptians fled against it; and the LORD overthrew the Egyptians in the middle of the sea. 28 And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them. 29 But the children of Israel walked on dry land in the middle of the sea; and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand, and on their left. 30 Thus the LORD saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the sea shore. 31 And Israel saw that great work which the LORD did on the Egyptians: and the people feared the LORD, and believed the LORD, and his servant Moses.
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). When the Egyptians attempted to follow, the walls of water collapsed over them (Exodus 14:28 Exodus 14:28And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them.
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).

God had chosen Israel to be His own people. Having removed Israel’s Egyptian yoke, God’s next step was to instruct the people about His law. With Moses leading them, God brought the Israelites to the foot of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:2 Exodus 19:2For they were departed from Rephidim, and were come to the desert of Sinai, and had pitched in the wilderness; and there Israel camped before the mount.
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). Then, beginning with the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), God gave His law to Israel.

These were the standards by which Israel was to live. They were intended to guide a people no longer in the bonds of slavery. God made it plain to the Israelites that they were to be set apart by obedience to His commandments. He told them not to follow the practices of the land of Egypt, out of which they had come, nor to walk in the practices of the land of Canaan, to which they were going. They were to follow His standard (Leviticus 18:1-4 Leviticus 18:1-4 1 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2 Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, I am the LORD your God. 3 After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein you dwelled, shall you not do: and after the doings of the land of Canaan, where I bring you, shall you not do: neither shall you walk in their ordinances. 4 You shall do my judgments, and keep my ordinances, to walk therein: I am the LORD your God.
American King James Version×
).

At this point some people make a quantum theological leap of logic: They believe that God removed the Israelites from captivity to the Egyptians and brought them into another state of slavery-subjugation to a harsh law.

Several other assumptions follow from this view; for example, that this law was only for Israel, and when one accepts Christ he is not subject to the Old Testament law because Christ abolished the law.

But what was Christ’s position on the law? Did He take a clear stand on it? In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), He unambiguously shared His view of the Old Testament: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matthew 5:17-18 Matthew 5:17-18 17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, Till heaven and earth pass, one stroke or one pronunciation mark shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
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, emphasis added throughout).

First we must recognize what Jesus meant when He used the terms Law and Prophets . “… Jesus is taking pains to relate his teaching and place in the history of redemption to the OT [Old Testament] Scriptures. For that is what ‘Law or the Prophets’ here means: the Scriptures” ( Expositor’s, Vol. 8, p. 142).

Christ’s statements about the law

Christ stated that He did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it. “His purpose is not to change the law, still less to annul it, but to reveal the full depth of meaning that it was intended to hold” (John R.W. Stott, The Bible Speaks Today, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, England, 1978, p. 72).

Elsewhere Jesus emphasized that we must obey the law of God. On one occasion “one came and said to Him, ‘Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?’” Christ’s response was clear: “… If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:16-17 Matthew 19:16-17 16 And, behold, one came and said to him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? 17 And he said to him, Why call you me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if you will enter into life, keep the commandments.
American King James Version×
). The next two verses make it plain that the commandments Jesus refers to here are the Ten Commandments.

In spite of Christ’s plain statement about the Old Testament law, many students of the Bible down through the years have misunderstood His teaching.

“In every generation of the Christian era there have been those who could not accommodate themselves to Christ’s attitude to the law … for they declare that the very category of law is abolished for the Christian … that no law any longer binds Christian people except the law of love …” ( The Bible Speaks Today, p. 72).

Those who believe that the law is no longer binding tend to take the approach that to assert that commandments are to be obeyed is to enact a form of bondage, whereas to be a Christian means to be free.

Is the law contrary to freedom?

Subjection to laws is not of itself a form of bondage. Every nation on earth has laws and statutes. America is a nation whose population has, to a considerable extent, accommodated others who came seeking greater freedom-liberties that are safeguarded by law .

“Three quarters of the population … are the descendants of immigrants from Asia and Africa and, most of all, from the continent of Europe.” Many of them, particularly Jewish immigrants, “saw America as the Land of Canaan” (Alistair Cooke, America, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1980, pp. 273, 278).

When these immigrants arrived and became citizens, they took an oath by which they agreed to obey the laws of their newly embraced land. This oath includes these words: “I will give my support to the Constitution and to the laws of the United States. I will obey them.”

Many newly naturalized citizens came to America to escape despotism and totalitarianism in their native lands. They did not consider obedience to America’s laws to be another form of bondage. They embraced what they considered to be a new life full of freedom.

God’s law is not bondage

True liberty is not freedom from law. True freedom can be found only within law. Righteous laws secure and guarantee freedom. “But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work,” wrote the apostle James, “this one will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:25 James 1:25But whoever looks into the perfect law of liberty, and continues therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.
American King James Version×
).

James called God’s commandments the “law of liberty,” not a form of slavery. He said one who obeys it is blessed; his life is one of happiness and peace.

The law of God is not a straitjacket; it doesn’t restrain freedom. It is a way of life that guarantees the welfare of the individual and of society. “Peace is the reward of those who love thy law; no pitfalls beset their path” (Psalms 119:165 Psalms 119:165Great peace have they which love your law: and nothing shall offend them.
American King James Version×
, New English Bible).

When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, He did not deliver them from one form of slavery into another. He liberated them from a society in which they had no protection through law. The Egyptian code of law did not provide freedom for the Israelites. It did not protect them from evil treatment nor guarantee their security. Israel was abused and oppressed.

God delivered His people from these cruelties and gave them a law that would guarantee their safety and protection. “Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I teach you to observe, that you may live …” (Deuteronomy 4:1 Deuteronomy 4:1Now therefore listen, O Israel, to the statutes and to the judgments, which I teach you, for to do them, that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the LORD God of your fathers gives you.
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). It was a perfect law (Psalms 19:7 Psalms 19:7The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.
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). Israel “needed no additional rules or directives, and none of those given were superfluous …” ( Expositor’s, Vol. 3, p. 42).

God’s law and the Christian

God calls Christians to accept Jesus Christ as personal Savior. We are also called to a life of obedience to God’s commandments. Law-keeping does not earn a person salvation, which is a gift from God (Romans 6:23 Romans 6:23For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
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); the keeping of His laws is our grateful response to God (1 John 5:2-3 1 John 5:2-3 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments. 3 For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.
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; John 14:15 John 14:15If you love me, keep my commandments.
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, 21).

When called to repentance, people invariably find themselves living in some degree of disobedience to the commandments of God. God calls us to repent of this former way of living. “You had time enough in the past to do all the things that men want to do in the pagan world. Then you lived in license and debauchery, drunkenness, revelry and tippling, and the forbidden worship of idols” (1 Peter 4:3 1 Peter 4:3For the time past of our life may suffice us to have worked the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revelings, parties, and abominable idolatries:
American King James Version×
, NEB).

The law stands as our guide to repentance. It identifies our sin and shows us how we should live. As Paul put it, “Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law” (Romans 7:7 Romans 7:7What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. No, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, You shall not covet.
American King James Version×
, New International Version).

Our new life is a life of freedom. Far from being a blueprint for slavery, the commandments of God illuminate the pathway of a free life-a life free from the debilitating and destructive consequences of sin.

Real freedom is found only in obedience to God. Lawlessness, or disobedience to God, is sin (1 John 3:4 1 John 3:4Whoever commits sin transgresses also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.
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), and it is a form of bondage. Jesus said that “whoever commits sin is a slave of sin … Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:34-36 John 8:34-36 34 Jesus answered them, Truly, truly, I say to you, Whoever commits sin is the servant of sin. 35 And the servant stays not in the house for ever: but the Son stays ever. 36 If the Son therefore shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.
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).

This true freedom is found through Jesus Christ. We receive forgiveness of sins through His sacrifice. Both the law and Christ’s personal instruction and example tell us, for instance, that a Christian should observe the Passover as a reminder of the wonderful freedom gained through His sacrifice (1 Corinthians 11:23-28 1 Corinthians 11:23-28 23 For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered to you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: 24 And when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. 25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do you, as oft as you drink it, in remembrance of me. 26 For as often as you eat this bread, and drink this cup, you do show the Lord’s death till he come. 27 Why whoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. 28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.
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).

We are also told to keep the Days of Unleavened Bread as a reminder that we are to live a sinless (unleavened) life, forsaking the transgressions of former days (1 Corinthians 5:7-8 1 Corinthians 5:7-8 7 Purge out therefore the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, as you are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: 8 Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
American King James Version×
).

This is not bondage. It is true freedom. It is the path to happiness and joy and the way to eternal life.

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