God, Why So Many Rules?
By Dr. Brad Cole
Does it ever seem like God has given too many rules? The list of rules is rather extensive and detailed as one reads through certain Old Testament passages. But Paul would later say that what the law asks is very simple: “The only obligation you have is to love one another. Whoever does this has obeyed the Law…If you love others, you will never do them wrong; to love, then, is to obey the whole Law” (Romans 13,8,10). “For the whole Law is summed up in one commandment: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself’” (Galatians 5:14).
If love for God and neighbor is all God asks, why then did He at times go on to spell it out with so many specifics? Why give so many rules and take the risk of being misunderstood as an arbitrary control freak? In fact, don’t some of the rules seem like bad rules by our standards of today? Should gluttonous children and people who pick up sticks on the Sabbath really be stoned to death?
In Ezekiel, God describes His difficulty in maintaining the trust of His children in the wilderness. “I did his, because they had rejected my commands, broken my laws, profaned the Sabbath, and worshiped the same idols their ancestors had served. Then I gave them laws that are not good and commands that do not bring life” (Ezekiel 20:24,25). God gave rules that are not good and that do not bring life? What does this mean?
I think that it is helpful to remember that there was a time when rules were not needed. Before sin entered the universe, there was no need for God to gather the angels around to proclaim the 10 commandments: “Listen to me angels! No killing….no adultery…no stealing…” Before Satan’s rebellion, there was peace in the universe, because there was perfect love and trust in God, not because the angels followed and obeyed a list of rules. Was it not a sad recognition of a very rebellious world that God had to sit his children down and make such requirements of them?
But God gave more than just 10 commandments. He also had to give a long list of additional rules, which further revealed the depravity of His people and how far they had strayed from the ideal. It is shocking that God had to be so specific in the following verses, but this would imply that they were doing these things! It must have made God very sad to give such a list: “Do not have sexual intercourse with any of your relatives. Do not disgrace your father by having intercourse with your mother. You must not disgrace your own mother…No man or woman is to have sexual relations with an animal; that perversion makes you ritually unclean” (Leviticus 18:7, 23)
Paul asks the important question, “What, then, was the purpose of the Law? It was added in order to show what wrongdoing is…” (Galatians 3:19). The law was added because we needed it when we were such rebels. “Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith (trust) to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by the Mosaic law. The law was like those Greek tutors, with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for. But now you have arrived at your destination: By faith in Christ you are in direct relationship with God” (Galatians 3:23-26, The Message).
The law was not the teacher, but was to lead us to the Teacher. Like a parent who makes rules for his child to obey, “don’t hit your brother…don’t run with the pencil in your hand…brush your teeth…”, the law is for the immature in faith, “…laws are made, not for good people, but for lawbreakers and criminals, for the godless and sinful, for those who are not religious or spiritual…” (1 Timothy 1:9).
But just as children are meant to grow up and not to be dependent on their parent’s rules anymore, so we adults are to grow up spiritually and to have the law of love written on the heart rather than on stone tablets. How sad would it be if your child called from college to proudly tell you that he was keeping your rules? Would you be happy if he went on to explain that he hadn’t hit anyone that day, that he had refrained from running when a pencil was in his hand, and that he had brushed his teeth? Would you be proud of your child, or would you feel sad that he was only keeping a list rather than internalizing things of real importance? Weren’t all of those rules designed only to help your child to mature and to do what is right for the right reasons, rather than merely because you said so? Isn’t maturity and growing up what God desires from us as well?
But does this line of thought suggest doing away with the law? Jesus – the Lawgiver Himself – was accused of this. But yet He did not come to do away with the law. “Do not think that I have come to do away with the Law…” (Matthew 5:17), rather he came to explain the law and to restore the law of love in the heart.
Like Paul, Jesus also explained that these rules were added because the people needed them. When Jesus declared that “It was also said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce.’ But now I tell you: if a man divorces his wife for any cause other than her unfaithfulness, then he is guilty of making her commit adultery if she marries again; and the man who marries her commits adultery also” (Matthew 5:31,32), the Pharisees thought he was going against the law of Moses, which had been given by God. Seeing an opportunity to expose Jesus as a fraud, “some Pharisees came and tried to trap him with this question: ‘Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife?’ ‘What did Moses say about divorce?’ Jesus asked them. ‘Well, he permitted it,’ they replied. ‘He said a man merely has to write his wife an official letter of divorce and send her away.’ But Jesus responded, ‘He wrote those instructions only as a concession to your hard-hearted wickedness” (Mark 10:2-5, NLT).
The law was added so that if they were going to divorce, they at least do it in a humane way. He gave them that provision because they needed it. He met them where they were in a far less than ideal circumstance. The truth is, “I hate divorce, says the Lord God of Israel. I hate it when one of you does such a cruel thing to his wife. Make sure that you do not break your promise to be faithful to your wife” (Malachi 2:16).
Jesus explained another “bad” but necessary rule, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too” (Matthew 5:38, 39). God gave that very severe rule at a time when life was cheap and violence was rampant, yet even in the Old Testament, the ideal attitude for the treatment of others was always there. “If you happen to see your enemy’s cow or donkey running loose, take it back to him. If his donkey has fallen under its load, help him get the donkey to its feet again; don’t just walk off” (Exodus 23:4, 5).
The words of Jesus, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind”, and, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Matthew 22:38,39), were not new. These are quotes from the Old Testament which He had learned as a boy. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5). “Do not mistreat foreigners who are living in your land. Treat them as you would an Israelite, and love them as you love yourselves” (Leviticus 19:3, 4).
One can look at the list of rules God gave and feel, “what an exacting God!” Or, one can be grateful that God was willing to spell out such a list on stone when we needed it, because of our spiritual immaturity, waiting for the time when it would be written on the heart. “I will give them a new heart and a new mind. I will take away their stubborn heart of stone and will give them an obedient heart. Then they will keep my laws and faithfully obey all my commands. They will be my people, and I will be their God” (Ezekiel 11:19, 20).
Like an earthly father who is glad to see his child mature physically and mentally, God also carefully watches and nurtures his children as they mature spiritually and learn to do what is right because it is right and because they agree with God that it is right. And, when we do what is right because we are in agreement with God, then we are free at last! The law is not a restriction of our freedom. Rather, it is a stepping stone to complete and absolute freedom!