God wanted a relationship with ancient Israel. In fact, God wants a relationship with each of us today. Because of this, He gave Israel–and us–His Law. But people have trouble understanding why we have the Law. They think of these rules as burdensome, unnecessary, and archaic. Why should what happens to us when we die depend on whether we’ve obeyed the minutiae of an ancient moral code? The fact is, obedience to the Law doesn’t save us today, and it didn’t save anyone in ancient Israel either.
The Law God gave Israel through Moses didn’t sanctify them. To sanctify means “to set apart for a sacred purpose” and “to free from sin” (from Merriam-Webster’s). The Law didn’t free the people of Israel from sin. God freed the people of Israel from sin:
“I gave them my statutes and made known to them my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live. Moreover, I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them.”
-Ezekiel 20:11-12 (ESV)
The people would “live” if they obeyed the Law, but it was God who sanctified them. This is exactly what we’re told as Christians today–Jesus saves us from our sin (sanctifies us) and then we obey His commands because we love Him, but not because obedience saves us.
Read Ezekiel 18. The same idea occurs there.We’re told that if a person who’s done evil stops doing evil and obeys God, that person will live. If an Israelite person had sinned, that person could still have been sanctified if they stopped sinning and obeyed God–their previous sins didn’t condemn them to hell. But also, their current obedience didn’t get them into heaven. God sanctified them; they didn’t sanctify themselves.
Obedience was merely a symbol that a person was accepting God, rather than rebelling against Him. You see, the entire Old Testament is a history of Israel’s relationship with God. Obedience is an important part of healthy, loving relationships. We often think of obedience in relation to authority: children obey their teachers, people obey traffic laws, employees obey their supervisors. There is, obviously, an element of authority in God’s relationship to us, but I think it’s often more valuable to think of God as a friend or a spouse. The entire book of Hosea depicts God as a faithful husband and Judah as an cheating wife. In Ephesians Paul uses Jesus and the church as an example of the relationship between a husband and wife.
If my wife asks me to clean the kitchen, and I don’t do it, I have wronged her. She’ll be disappointed. She may wonder if I’m upset with her. It’s not a matter of whether I’ve obeyed or disobeyed some insignificant rule (e.g. “Thou shalt keep thy kitchen clean”), it’s a matter of whether I love my wife enough to do something she would appreciate. Do we love God? If so, we’ll do the things He tells us to do in Scripture. We’ll undoubtedly fail, but that’s okay as long as we try, because God sanctifies us, and our sanctification isn’t dependent on our obedience, but rather on our willingness to accept God’s invitation to be in a relationship with Him.
The same thing was true in ancient Israel. God had spoken to Abraham, Moses, and other Israelites. Would Israel obey the Law given to Moses and thereby show God they were accepting His offer of a relationship? Or would Israel dismiss the Law as full of insignificant, unnecessarily-burdensome rules?
The Law was merciful. The Law was God’s plea with Israel to be His people, to be His bride on this earth, to be protected and loved by Him. There were provisions in the Law for failure. The sacrifices and Sabbaths were there to remind Israel that God saved them even though they didn’t always obey. Obedience to the Law was a symbol of love, not a mechanism of salvation. Just as I demonstrate my love to my wife by doing things she appreciates, Israel demonstrated their love to God by obedience.
Today, things are no different. Jesus has come to earth to plead with you, to ask you to follow Him, to ask you to be His disciple. You only need to pray and accept His offer. If you love Him, you’ll begin to obey Him, and it won’t be burdensome. When I do things for my wife, she gets excited. Her eyes sparkle, she gives me a big hug, and I feel loved. But God loves me so much more than she–or anyone else–ever can.