Back when I was a college student (decades ago now), I heard something from apologist Josh McDowell that was a great “Ahaaa” moment for me. Referring to God’s commands he said, “Every command God has given is ultimately based on some aspect of His character.”
After studying the commands and thinking about them, I concluded that Josh is absolutely correct. To be honest, there are some commands where I have not yet completed the connection. However, in the other cases, the trail back to God’s nature is unmistakable. The commands He has given his people are neither random nor arbitrary.
What does this imply?
Could it be that when we obey a command, we are literally adopting the nature of our Heavenly Father? We certainly look more like Him! Do our righteous actions not extend God’s nature and kingdom further into the world? Does our obedience not strike a spark of light that blazes into the surrounding darkness?
Have you ever watched a 3 or 4 year old boy working with his Dad? Have you noticed how he cocks his cap back just the way his dad does? How he tries to hold his toy hammer, saw or pencil in just the same way? The little boy looks up to his strong and wise Dad and wants to be just like him – out of love and respect. He tries to copy every move. But little boys have short attention spans. I would add, that when it comes to God, so do we.
It is easier now for me to obey some commands. I don’t obey these instructions just because “its the law.” Rather, I see them for what they are – a glimpse into the nature of my heavenly father – who I love and respect and desire to mimic in every way.
Three commands – one clear example
Here’s one example of how this works. In Deuteronomy 24: 18-21 we read three commands that seem foreign to Western ears. Scripture says, “When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over your branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow.”
How does this command relate to God’s nature?
In Deuteronomy 10:17 & 18 we read these words, “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.”
Following the trail
Hopefully, verse 18 made it clear that each of these three commands emanate directly from God’s nature. What aspect of His nature? In this context, his perfect justice. The fact that he “shows no partiality and accepts no bribes” makes that clear. He is speaking as a judge – and not just any judge. Rather, he speaks as the rightful judge of the universe. (This is not to say that that other aspects of His nature are not also involved.)
And what about these three groups of people? They are the marginalized of society. They are the most vulnerable, the ones with nobody to cover their backs. These are the ones who can most easily be preyed upon. The orphan has no dad or mom to come to his/her rescue. The widow has nobody to pay the bills or help with the kids. The alien does not speak the language and must rely on the good intentions of any stranger able and willing to translate.
Two added incentives
While our Father’s nature alone should compel us to obedience, two more incentives are provided – just in case we are not sufficiently motivated. One is found in these words from Deut 24:19, “so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” Caring for these marginalized groups will bring God’s blessing on our own work. Though not stated here, we can conclude that this blessing will be withheld when we do not care – much more so, if we seek to take advantage of – any of these groups.
The second incentive comes from verse 22, which says “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.” Let’s be honest, we have all been slaves to sin, if not to another human. We remember what that felt like – the sense of helplessness, the daily grind that lacked purpose and meaning. Then along came God in the form of a man who drew us away from the clutches of the slave master. Perhaps it even took us a while to realize we were truly free. It tasted SO good. That, my friend, is what God wants us to remember. We should have the utmost sensitivity for those still caught in the place of bondage we once occupied.
Digging a little deeper
It seems apparent to me that these three separate instructions are here to convey a principle. The principle, based on God’s nature, is that in every case where an individual is at a disadvantage due to factors beyond their control, we believers should be the ones to come alongside to “level the playing field.”
We are not “off the hook” just because we do not own an olive tree or a vineyard! Was this not the emphasis in Jesus’ teaching? Did he not make it clear that its not just the actions of disobedience that condemn us but the attitude of the heart? Apparently, this extension of the law was so foreign to his listeners that they considered them “new.” But this should be of no surprise to us today.
Time for another example
In John 13:34 Jesus said to his disciples, “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
Let’s think about that for a moment. Much earlier in history, Jesus gave the following two commands to Moses to pass on to his people: “… love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18, NIV) AND “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself…” (Leviticus 19:34, NIV) So, when Jesus said “A new commandment” what was he talking about? He had previously given this commandment, not once but twice, to cover both those we know well (our kin) and those we don’t (foreigners).
It appears the distinction is in the words “as I have loved you.” Could it be that Jesus was clarifying the degree and the scope of his first two commands by the example of his own selfless life? If so, this interpretation of “the law’ was profoundly broader than before. It would therefore fall as “new” on the ears of his disciples. And apparently it did, for none of them said, “New? What about Leviticus 19:18?”
Digging deeper yet
There is another insight we can pull from the three laws I used as examples above. We should note what Jesus did NOT say to the landowner, the owner of the olive orchard and the vineyard. He did NOT say, “You must pick the harvest remaining from your first pass and give it to the poor.”
Rather, these laws make it clear that the poor have a responsibility to get out of bed and make their way to the fields, orchards and vineyards to work in the heat of day – if they are to eat. Two thoughts here: 1) If they delay, birds get to the grain or fruit first; 2) The poor retain some dignity by expending their own effort and resources to harvest or “glean”. This is not a “strings free” handout. The great example of Ruth comes to mind.
I conclude than, that each of God’s laws is based on His character and nature. The doctrine of God demonstrates that God is perfect in all His attributes. Therefore, He cannot change. If He did, He would no longer be perfect.
So, if God does not change and his attribute of perfect justice demands obedience to these 3 laws, when will they become obsolete?
If we carelessly disregard the laws, we lose opportunities to live out God’s nature in front of a watching world. We also miss out on God’s blessing on the work of our hands. Further, we enable social responses based on evil principles to remain in place. In the example I used, that would be “redistribution of wealth” by force of government agencies – which always seems to lead to attitudes of “entitlement.” God’s ways are always better.