The Law as Teacher
In warning the Galatians against legalism, Paul wrote: “For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law” (Gal. 3:21, NKJV). Of course, if any law could have “given life,” it would have been God’s law. And yet, Paul’s point is that, for us as sinners, even God’s law can’t give life.
Why? “But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:22, NKJV).
However, if the law can’t give life to sinners, what’s the purpose of it, other than to show us our need of grace? Is the law, then, only negative in function, only there to show us our sins?
No; the law also is there to point us to the way of life, which is found only in Jesus. This also is what true education should be about, pointing us to a life of grace, of faith, and of obedience to Christ. That’s why this week we will study the role of God’s law in the whole question of Christian education. As we do, let’s see what the law, though it cannot save us, still can teach us about faith, about grace, and about our God’s love for fallen humanity.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, October 17.
The book of Deuteronomy contains Moses’ last words to Israel before a new generation will finally enter the Promised Land. But before they do, he has some very clear words and instructions for them.
God was intentional about the ways that He imparted His law to Israel. He made every provision so that His laws would not be forgotten. In this way, God is a long-suffering Educator. He teaches and repeats and sends prophets and uses His servants to impart His message. And He did it again and again. Indeed, isn’t so much of the writings of the Old Testament nothing but God seeking to teach His people to follow the way of life?
Notice in these verses how Moses stresses the importance of future generations’ learning the law. Moses describes it as a two-step process. First the children will hear the law, and then they will “learn to fear the Lord your God” (Deut. 31:13).
First, they hear, and then, they learn to fear God. That is, learning the law presupposes that fear will not be a natural outcome of knowing the law. The process of fearing God must be learned. Moses implies that knowledge and fear are a process, not an immediate cause-and-effect relationship. Also, what does “fear God” mean when the people also are told that “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:5, NKJV)? Perhaps we can compare it to the way a child loves and fears a good father, a father who reveals his love and care by showing that he says what he means and he means what he says. With such a father, if you do wrong, you will indeed suffer the consequences of that wrongdoing. Yes, we can, and must, love and fear God at the same time. They are not contradictory ideas. The more we learn about God, the more we come to love Him because of His goodness; and yet, at the same time, the more we come to know about God, the more we can fear Him, too, because we can see just how holy and righteous He is and how sinful and unrighteous we are in contrast, and how it is only by grace—undeserved merit—that we are not destroyed.
When Moses knows he is soon to die, he is profoundly aware of the situation that he will leave behind. He knows that after his death the Israelites will enter into the Promised Land of Canaan. He also knows that they will become rebellious upon reaching their long-sought destination.
Moses’ tone here may appear like that of a teacher preparing for a substitute. He knows that his pupils have misbehaved in his presence in the classroom; he is not so deluded as to think that they will not rebel in his absence. He instructs the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant to place the book of the Law next to the ark in order for it to be a “witness.” Moses is not simply passing on a lesson plan for his substitute.
He is passing on a witness. Moses speaks of the book of the Law as though it is a living being with power to reprove the hearts of men.
In Deuteronomy 31, God instructs Moses to write down a song that the Lord has taught Moses. Moses is then to teach the song to the Israelites so that, as stated in verse 19, it “may be a witness for me against the children of Israel.” Again we see God’s directives personified. A song, when sung, is more easily shared and spread. And when a song is a witness, it has the ability to cause people to look at themselves and see what it says about them.
Even as we seek to obey God’s law with all our God-given strength, in what ways does His law function as a “witness against” us? What does this witness teach us about the need of the gospel in our lives?
Throughout the Bible, we hear of other outcomes of knowing—and obeying—God’s law.
The Lord tells Joshua as he enters into Canaan: “Only be strong and very courageous, that you may observe to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may prosper wherever you go” (Josh. 1:7, NKJV).
This notion of success as a by-product of obedience may seem contrary to the way success is measured in our world today. Many today believe that the marks of success are innovation, creativity, and selfreliance. To succeed in a particular industry often requires extraordinary talent and risk-taking.
However, in God’s eyes success requires a different set of resources.
Old Testament, New Testament, Old Covenant, New Covenant—it doesn’t matter: as Bible-believing Christians we are called to obedience to God’s law. Violation of the law, also known as sin, can lead only to pain, suffering, and eternal death. Who hasn’t learned for themselves, or seen for themselves, the results of sin, the results of violation of God’s law? Just as ancient Israel would prosper by obeying God’s law (even though they needed grace, as well), it’s no different for us today either. Hence, as part of Christian education we need to keep God’s law as a central component of what it means to live by faith and trusting in God’s grace.
There are great benefits to following God’s law, as evidenced in the people whom God prospered. Joshua closely followed God’s precepts, and he led the people of Israel well. Time and again, the Lord told Israel that if they obeyed the law, they would prosper.
Whatever education venue we are in, we must stress the importance of obedience. Yet, our students aren’t stupid. They will notice, sooner or later, the harsh fact that some people are faithful, loving, and obedient. And yet—what? Disaster strikes them, as well. How do we explain this? The fact is, we can’t. We live in a world of sin, of evil, a world in which the great controversy rages, and none of us are immune to it.
Without question, good and faithful people, law-abiding people, have not always prospered, at least as the world understands prosperity. And here, too, might be a partial answer to this difficult question, a question that as we seek to teach the importance of the law is no doubt going to be raised. What exactly do we mean by “prosperity”? What did the psalmist say? “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Ps. 84:10, NKJV). There’s no question that, by the world’s standards, even those faithful to God and obedient to His law don’t always “prosper,” at least for now. We do our students a disservice to say otherwise.
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, lived the only human life in perfect obedience to the Father, in perfect obedience to the law of God. He did this so that He could be not just our Substitute, which He was, but also our Example, which He was too.
Perhaps John said it the best when he wrote this: “He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked” (1 John 2:6, NKJV). When we fix our eyes on the life of Christ and His ministry on earth, it is easy to see how He pleased the Father by His obedience. Christ did fulfill prophecy, and He upheld God’s laws throughout His lifetime.
Just as God told Moses to write down His law so that it might be a witness to Israel, Christ was the living embodiment of the witness to His apostles, disciples, to sinners, and saints. Now, rather than just having a set of rules to follow, we have the example of Jesus, a fleshand- blood human being, to follow, as well.
As teachers, what better role model can we present to students than the model of Jesus and how He obeyed the Father?
“That so-called faith in Christ which professes to release men from the obligation of obedience to God, is not faith, but presumption. ‘By grace are ye saved through faith.’ But ‘faith, if it hath not works, is dead.’ Ephesians 2:8; James 2:17. Jesus said of Himself before He came to earth, ‘I delight to do Thy will, O My God: yea, Thy law is within My heart.’ Psalm 40:8. And just before He ascended again to heaven He declared, ‘I have kept My Father’s commandments, and abide in His love.’ John 15:10. The Scripture says, ‘Hereby we do know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. . . . He that saith he abideth in Him ought himself also so to walk even as He walked.’ 1 John 2:3–6.”—Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ, p. 61.
Further Thought: “Love, the basis of creation and of redemption, is the basis of true education. This is made plain in the law that God has given as the guide of life. The first and great commandment is, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind.’ Luke 10:27. To love Him, the infinite, the omniscient One, with the whole strength, and mind, and heart, means the highest development of every power. It means that in the whole being—the body, the mind, as well as the soul—the image of God is to be restored.
“Like the first is the second commandment—‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ Matthew 22:39. The law of love calls for the devotion of body, mind, and soul to the service of God and our fellow men. And this service, while making us a blessing to others, brings the greatest blessing to ourselves. Unselfishness underlies all true development. Through unselfish service we receive the highest culture of every faculty. More and more fully do we become partakers of the divine nature. We are fitted for heaven, for we receive heaven into our hearts.”—Ellen G. White, Education, p. 16.