“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him” (Deuteronomy 18).

Statue of Moses by Michelangelo

The law, also referred to as the Law of Moses, is found in four of the five Pentateuchal books: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The law not only functions as the covenantal terms God established with ancient Israel, which includes both God’s expectations of His people and what the people could expect from God, but the Torah also reveals the character of Yahweh, which undergirds our modern theological understanding and biblical application. “For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:45).[1] Deuteronomy defines how the people of Israel could enjoy relationship with a holy God by issuing various edicts for obedience by which the covenant would be upheld: “You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree” (Deuteronomy 12:2). But the Pentateuch also imparts a vision of a Messiah priest-king, which some observe as having been woven into its compositional strategy;[2] for example, consider Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 18: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him” (15), and “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him” (18).

Although there are various reasons why the book of Deuteronomy is interpreted as supporting a perception of legality, beginning with its name meaning “second law,” Daniel I. Block devotes chapter three of his book, The Gospel according to Moses: Theological and Ethical Reflections on the Book of Deuteronomy, to presenting an impassioned argument that the dominate voice heard is not that of a lawgiver. According to Block, the theological function of Deuteronomy is actually more pastoral than legal, as the genre and illocutionary intent suggest ascribing sermonic features to Moses’ speeches.[3] Emerging from the theological intent, Block juxtapositions Mosaic law again, but now pragmatically, by stating that Deuteronomy functions as “an invitation to an ongoing relationship with YHWH through feasting and fellowshipping in his presence.”[4] Moses challenges his congregation “never to forget YHWH’s saving and providential grace, and never to forget the economically marginalized in the community.”[5] Block sees Deuteronomy as much more than a “manifesto on polity” or a “legal code establishing the boundaries of Israel’s behavior.” On the contrary, the text is a declaration to a beloved community of faith as depicted in 14:2: “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” “And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:17-19). Setting aside legalistic perceptions and viewing Deuteronomy through the lens of grace, a pastoral exhortation arising from the gospel within its pages becomes unmistakable. 

“What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’” (Romans 7:7). Paul describes theological and pragmatic functions of the law, similarly to those advocated by Block; the law convicts of sin, and as a result, exposes our need for a Savior.[6] Therefore, no legitimate conflict exists between Mosaic law and the gospel of grace, because the Torah is a gracious gift that provided OT saints a “reminder of YHWH’s deliverance, his power, his covenant faithfulness, and the way of life and prosperity.”[7] “Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure” (Romans 7:13). Paul makes the case that the intention of the law was never to be a means of salvation (Acts 13:39; Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16); rather, the Torah always pointed to the gospel of grace through Christ (Galatians 3:24), and it is through this lens one preaches Deuteronomy in a manner that reflects its canonical intention. 

A prevalent misconception is that Paul imparts that Christians are no longer required to “keep the law”[8], but that is ambiguous, and I contend requires further elaboration. “For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-4). I believe that this misconception is a misunderstanding and over simplification of the apostle’s intent. Fortunately, Paul clarifies that the law could not produce God’s righteous requirements in us, because it was weakened by the flesh; however, through faith in Christ, holy living is the result of a Spirit-centered life in Christ. Authors, Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Brough offer a perspective echoing Paul, “But it would be a mistake to conclude that obeying God is no longer important because salvation is through faith, not good works. Paul opposes works when viewed as the Galatian false teachers viewed them: as deeds that earn salvation.”9 Christians, therefore, are concerned about a “salvation that works” not a salvation by works.[10 What is more, Christians certainly do have a new disposition toward the law than that of their OT counterparts, because Christians know Christ personally as its fulfillment. The law of God is written on their hearts just as it was written on the hearts of the Old Testament faithful.[11] Consider Simeon and Anna, for example, who were waiting in the temple court for the fulfillment of the Pentateuchal messianic vision.[12]

For the modern Christian, the law serves both as a reminder of the impossible task of living up to God’s holiness, which leads me to rejoice in God’s forgiveness and grace. So, whenever I turn the other cheek, forgive my enemy, or give to the needy, I do not do so by the law, but by the Spirit, and by the Spirit, I uphold the law.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced are in the English Standard Version.

[2] John H. Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition, and Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Intervarsity Press Academic, 2009), 236.

[3] Daniel I. Block, The Gospel according to Moses: Theological and Ethical Reflections on the Book of Deuteronomy (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), 79.

[4] Ibid., 99.

[5] Ibid., 101.

[6] William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary (NT), (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2016), 1701.

[7] Block, 130.

[8] Ibid., 131.

9 Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Brough, Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey, 3rd Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2013), 284.

[10] Block, 136.

[11] Ibid., 132.

[12] Sailhamer, 235.

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