A Just God

Series: God Reigns

Sermon by David Strain on Aug 21, 2016

Exodus 21:12-23:9

Here at First Presbyterian Church it’s our regular pattern and practice to preach our way through large sections of Biblical truth because our concern is much less to hear the opinions of the preacher and much more to hear the voice of God who speaks to us in His holy Word. And so we try to work systematically and consecutively through the holy Scriptures. And we have been working our way through the book of Exodus over the last year and we’ve come this morning to a section of the book that deals with civil laws given to the people of Israel to govern their national life together.

A word of preface before we turn to the text after we pray, and simply to say this – the church and the state at this point in history were the same thing. Israel was both the church of God, the people of God, and it was a political kingdom. And so it was governed not only by spiritual concerns and by moral laws but also by a body of governmental and civil laws, all of which was given to Israel by God. Now that Jesus Christ has come and fulfilled many of the types and shadows and patterns of the Old Testament Scriptures, the church is no longer a body politic to be identified with any particular nation or kingdom in the world, but rather is made up of people from every tribe and language all over the world. And so the civil code no longer applies directly and in the same way too, let’s say, the United States of America, as it did to ancient Israel. However, what we see in the laws before us is the application to the particular circumstances of Israel of the principles of the Ten Commandments which continue to be binding on all people everywhere. And they teach us that a good and healthy society is one that reflects the ethical standards and moral norms of almighty God.

With that in mind, if you would turn in your copies of the Scriptures to Exodus chapter 21, we’re going to be dealing with a large section of text from chapter 21 verse 12, all the way through verse 9 of chapter 23. The choice was either that we spend an awfully long time going small section by small section through this part of Exodus, which I had a feeling might weary you, or take a larger chunk in one go and maybe only weary you for one Sunday! So we’ve chosen the latter. We won’t read all of this material; we’ll take some selected sections to give you a flavor of it. Before we do that, however, would you please bow your heads with me as we pray together?

Our Father, we bless You that You speak in Scripture, that every Word of it is Your Word to us – inerrant, authoritative, sufficient, and ultimately directing us to the Lord Jesus Christ, our heart’s greatest need. And so we pray as we come to Your Word that You would give us open minds and open ears and open hearts, that You would meet us in the preaching of the Word, slaying our sin, showing us our Savior, and leading us back to Him. For we ask it in Jesus’ holy name. Amen.

Exodus 20; Exodus 21, I beg your pardon, verse 12. We’re going to read first of all down to verse 17. This is God’s Word:

“Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death. But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place to which he may flee. But if a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die.

 

Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death.

 

Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.

 

Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death.”

Then look over to chapter 22 at verse 7:

“If a man gives his neighbor money or goods to keep safe, and it is stolen from the man's house, then, if the thief is found, he shall pay double. If the thief is not found, the owner of the house shall come near to God to show whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbor's property. For every breach of trust, whether it is for an ox, for a donkey, for a sheep, for a cloak, or for any kind of lost thing, of which one says, ‘This is it,’ the case of both parties shall come before God. The one whom God condemns shall pay double to his neighbor.

 

If a man gives to his neighbor a donkey or an ox or a sheep or any beast to keep safe, and it dies or is injured or is driven away, without anyone seeing it, an oath by the Lord shall be between them both to see whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbor's property. The owner shall accept the oath, and he shall not make restitution. But if it is stolen from him, he shall make restitution to its owner. If it is torn by beasts, let him bring it as evidence. He shall not make restitution for what has been torn.”

And then look over at verse 21 of chapter 22:

 “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.

 

If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. If ever you take your neighbor's cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.

 

You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people.

 

You shall not delay to offer from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall be with its mother; on the eighth day, you shall give it to me.

 

You shall be consecrated to me. Therefore you shall not eat any flesh that is torn by beasts in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs.”

Thus far the reading of God’s holy Word. We praise Him that He has spoken to us in it.

Over the last few weeks, in a variety of counseling situations with people of different ages and stages, coming with different problems and concerns, there’s been something of a common theme, one I’m sure will resonate with many if not all of us. Over and over again, people have expressed to me a struggle with the need to fit in, to find approval, to belong to the crowd. There is a craving for affirmation. “I need to have the approbation of our peers.” That’s a very common feeling; I’m sure perhaps you can relate, at least in part, to it. But sometimes you know, that feeling, that need to fit it and to be given affirmation and approval can become somewhat tyrannical in the demands it imposes on us. It drives us almost to do anything to fit in and it will leave us utterly heartbroken when in fact we stand out all our best efforts to the contrary notwithstanding. Which is one of the things that make the claims of the Christian Gospel so particularly challenging? Because following Jesus calls us to do exactly that, doesn’t it, to stand out from the crowd? In a real sense, not to fit in, not to go with the flow, but to be distinct and different. The Bible words translated as holy and holiness as you may know, really mean precisely that. It means different, other, distinct, separate. To be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ really is to embrace a call not to fit in, not to belong to the crowd, but instead to embody the often subversive, often counter-cultural values of the kingdom of God.

And so important is that principle to us and to God’s purpose for His church, He has been teaching it to His people from the beginning. When He called Israel out of slavery and bondage in Egypt, as we will see, He was teaching this principle, weaving it into almost every aspect of the national life of Israel. And so their worship was unlike the worship of the pagan nations around them. Their dress, the things they were allowed to wear, their diet, and as we’ll see from our passage today, even their legal code was distinct and separate and different because they were to be holy, or as verse 31 of chapter 22, puts it, “consecrated to God.” God was to have first place in every part of their lives. And as we survey the teaching of these three chapters, the second half of 21 through the first half of 23, we need to keep that reality firmly in mind. God’s agenda is the holiness of the life of His people, not just privately and individually, but rather corporately, collectively, together, so that standing out from the world we might bear witness to it of the glory and grace of our great God who is at work among us.

One of the ways that that, I think, becomes clear in our passage at least, is by tracing the ways that the Ten Commandments, God’s moral law for all people, are being applied and expanded for the use of Israel at this point in its history. And if you’ll bear with me just for a few moments, I’d like to walk through the passage and show you how that is the case. So notice first of all in verses 12 to 32 of chapter 21, that there is an array of laws there dealing with violence and murder, accidental death or injury, caused by culpable negligence. And they are really applying to different circumstances the teaching of the sixth commandment which you will remember prohibits murder and affirms positively the value and dignity of human life made in God’s image. Everything from man stealing, which is enforced slavery, debasing the dignity of a human being, through the death or injury of someone caused by livestock, all of that is dealt with in light of the commandment, “You shall not murder.”

Or look at the laws in chapter 21 verse 33, all the way through verse 15 of chapter 22. These laws address, notice, the types of scenarios in which Israelites were required to make recompense and restitution for damaged and stolen property. And the concern here is the concern of the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal.” If your neighbor suffers loss because of our negligence or wrongful action, there’s an obligation to make restitution. Then in chapter 22 verses 16 and 17, and again in verse 19, do you see that verses 16 and 17, and again in verse 19, the law, the civil law is applying the seventh commandment which prohibits adultery and all forms of sexual sin.

Verse 18 and verse 20, on the other hand, address aspects of false worship, pagan practice, covered by the first four commandments. You will remember the first four commandments require us to honor God according to His Word, to reverence His name, and to shun idolatry. And when we studied the Ten Commandments together back before the summer, we saw, you will recall, that the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and mother,” deals with more than family relationships of parents and children but applies to the relationships of superiors and inferiors in every sphere of human society. And so in chapter 22 verses 21 to 24, God reminds His people not to prey upon the sojourner, that is the resident alien who has come to live as a foreigner among them, nor are they to mistreat widows or orphans. The strong are to care for the weak, not to abuse them. Likewise in chapter 22:25-28, the teaching of the tenth commandment prohibiting covetousness, and the eighth commandment dealing with theft, are being applied to make sure that the poor are not the victims of loan sharks or predatory lending. Then verse 28 returns again to the fifth commandment, linking it this time to the first commandment. We’re not to take God’s name in vain neither are we to curse our earthly rulers, our superiors, those who are placed in authority over us, but we are to honor them.

Chapter 22 verses 29 to 31, once again applies the first four commandments addressing acceptable worship while 23:1-3 speak about bearing false witness, particularly here in a legal context, applying the ninth commandment. When we studied the Ten Commandments together you will remember the prohibitions against theft, the eighth commandment, and covetousness, the tenth commandment, also imply positive duties to care for the property of our neighbor. And so in chapter 23 verses 4 and 5, that is the concern. We are to care for the property of our neighbor, even if we believe our neighbor hates us, we are still responsible to God to protect their best interests.

And we could go back over the passage again in much more detail than this brief summary will allow and again in still further detail and go on parsing the various ways in which the Ten Commandments, each one of them and sometimes several of them in combination, are being applied and worked out in the practicalities of the community life of Israel. But I hope the point by now is clear enough that the holiness to which God calls us in His moral law must not be privatized. It has implications for human society as a whole. While the specifics, as I said earlier, the specifics of the Law of Moses no longer apply today to nation-states, the big idea that the moral norms of God’s Law summarized in the Ten Commandments have a universal and corporate application I think needs to be insisted on, especially at our cultural moment right now. Would you agree? One of the great challenges of our day is the idea that morality is private, individual, and therefore subjective whereas public policy must only reflect the consensus of public opinion and the alleged assured results of science. And that means, we are told, that you can believe whatever you like to believe about right and wrong but you must keep it to yourself. It has no place in the public sphere, in the public square. And on that model, the secular state or the mob mentality comes in the end actually to exercise a certain totalitarian supremacy over the consciences of its citizens.

That’s not the pattern that we see in our text, though, is it? God ensures the liberty of the conscience of each of His people by providing civil laws to govern their national life that arise out of the principles of His moral law, the universal moral standard summarized in the Ten Commandments and written on all our hearts and consciences by nature. These are not the arbitrary dictates of popular opinion imposed upon Israel. These are not reflections of the biased agenda of a ruling, governmental elite. These are, rather, the manifest application of an ethical standard under the rule of which everyone lives. So that when communities and societies, and I dare say nations like ours, share a common loyalty and submission to the ethics of God’s moral law, the Ten Commandments, revealed by God in His Word, written in our consciences, such societies tend to want to legislate and govern to be sure, never perfectly but in general, with a desire to reflect those divine standards and laws in their civil codes; not to limit or restrict freedom, but actually to ensure liberty of conscience.

And I want us to get that clear in our thinking because the constant refrain we hear in our day is that religion in general and historic, orthodox, Bible-believing Christianity, in particular, is oppressive and retrograde and bigoted. And what we need, we are being told, is not the freedom of religion; what we need is freedom from religion. Religion is the problem if we are really to be free. But I want you to see that actually, unless we have some objective moral standards given to us upon which to base our laws as we live as a society together, all that remains instead will be the shifting sand of subjectivity and the fickle consensus of the mob. Or to put it another way, unless we recognize that the moral law of God summarized in the Ten Commandments must shape our ethics and our laws as God’s creatures, the only real alternative is the imposition of the ethical will of the majority upon the consciences of the minority excluding dissenting voices, oppressing alternative views, and that is not the path to freedom. Is it? That is a path to totalitarianism and oppression! It is actually quite contrary to the claims of the popular pundits who say this to us all the time, it is actually the moral law of God that is the guardian and guarantor of the liberty of our consciences. The only objective norm both for personal ethics and for public life, is the Law of God given to us in holy Scripture.

Well so much for my introduction! I said this at the early service and I think people thought I was joking! But what I want to do now, now that we see how the civil code in Israel is the application of the Ten Commandments, I want to go back over it very briefly and to pull out a few principles, which although the civil code here no longer applies in the same way to us, those principles remain vital and valuable and important for us all to embrace.

The Precious Value of Human Life

And the first of them that I want you to see with me taught here is the precious value of human life. The precious value of human life. That comes out in a variety of ways in the passage, doesn’t it? The prohibition against forced slavery in verse 16 of chapter 22; the penalties even for an ox that gores someone in 28-32, and 35-36. The responsibility to look after foreigners and widows and orphans in 21-24 of chapter 22. But I want you to look in particular at chapter 21 verses 22 to 25, and the fascinating piece of case law that Moses provides for us here. It’s a scenario that’s admittedly difficult to reconstruct in the details, but the basic concern is that injury has been done to an unborn child. If, because of violence, a woman goes into labor prematurely without injury to the baby, then the law of Moses said at least there will be a fine imposed upon the guilty party. But look at verse 23; “If there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”  You see how the unborn child here is being considered in God’s Law, in the civil law of Israel. It is being considered as a human being with equal dignity and standing in the society as the one who caused the injury. And should the life of the infant child be taken away, then the one who caused harm to it is to be treated as someone who has committed murder?

The Full Dignity of the Unborn

Built right into the Law of God, do you see, is an affirmation of the full dignity of the unborn and a recognition that to kill a child in the womb is murder and appropriate punishment should follow. At a time when life in the womb is routinely ended in our culture and context without a second thought, on a massive scale, almost an industrial scale. At a time when violence and murder are so commonplace on our streets that we barely blink at the news of yet another young life gunned down on our streets. At a time when the horrific trade in abducted women and girls forced into prostitution and slavery for the pleasures of wicked men is an epidemic, still largely hidden, in our land. At such a time, isn’t it important to hear the Word of God affirm that every human life is sacred, to hear God call us to uphold and preserve and celebrate human dignity wherever it’s found at every stage of life? The precious value of human life.

The Principle of Fairness in Judgment

Then secondly notice the principle of fairness in judgment. The principle of fairness in judgment. We’ve already noticed in passing the laws for restitution and recompense and we’ve noticed also the laws, we’ve just dealt with them, demanding that the punishment fit the crime. The so-called “lex-talionis,” life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. We don’t need to repeat all of those in detail now, but it’s enough simply to notice, I hope, that alongside the precious value of human life God establishes the principle of fairness in judgment. Justice means that offenses meet with appropriate punishment and that whenever punishment restitution should be made. You remember the story of Zacchaeus, don’t you, from Luke chapter 19? Zacchaeus met Jesus for himself one day and was utterly transformed by the encounter and he purposed to surrender a life where he had been using his position to embezzle and really to steal from the poor and the needy who paid taxes. And so he resolved to do what the command here teaches, to make restitution, as part of his repentance. Luke 19:8, he says, “Behold, Lord, half of my goods I give to the poor and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” He makes restitution.

Now I hope that many of you here have already turned from a life of sin and rebellion to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; yours is a life of repentance. But have you given adequate thought to the full implications of your repentance? That you turn not only from sin to God and seek His forgiveness, but that wherever possible you must also seek to make recompense to your neighbor whom you may have wounded. It was a part of the pattern of the national life of Israel and it continues to be a part of the pattern of a repentant heart among the people of God today that we seek not only to be reconciled to God but reconciled to one another.

The Provision Made for the Marginal

Then thirdly I want you to see the provision made here for the marginal. Do you see that in our text? There’s the precious value of human life, the principle of fairness and justice, now thirdly the provision made for the marginal. And again, we could pull out various examples from the passage. Notice, in particular, chapter 22 verse 21. And then if you turn over to chapter 23 verse 9, you’ll see the same law repeated again. Repetition in the Hebrew scriptures was like the equivalent of bold, italic, and underline – “Take notice. This is important!” So chapter 22 verse 21, “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him.” Then 22, “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child.” So the concern is for the marginal, for the weak, for the disenfranchised. The foreigner, the sojourner, who’s come to live in the midst of Israel is not to be abused or mistreated; the outsider to the community not neglected. Natural prejudice and bias against the stranger or suspicion against the foreigner is given no room to grow here, is it? Xenophobia has no place in the community of the people of God and is no mark of the life of a child of God.

And likewise, the widow and the orphan, not to be mistreated but rather protected and cared for. You may have been here last Lord’s Day Evening when Gabe preached on James 1:27. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this:  to visit orphans and widows and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” That was the principle in Moses’ day; it’s still the principle that should be reflected in the life of the church of Jesus Christ in our own. To be unstained from the world, to stand out from the crowd, to embody the subversive counter-cultural values of the kingdom. That is to say, to care for the weak and the marginal and the vulnerable around us.

The Potency of Divine Accountability

Then fourthly, I want you to see the potency of divine accountability. Look for a moment at chapter 22 verses 7 to 9. If someone has entrusted his neighbor with his own property and it is stolen while it is in his neighbor’s care and the thief is not caught, then the man can come near to God, Moses says, to show whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbor’s property. If the injured party claims that something in the possession of his neighbor is really in fact his stolen property, again they can come, both of them before God, to settle the dispute. The one whom God condemns shall pay double to his neighbor. We don’t know how God made it clear who was in the right and who was in the wrong, but the point is clear enough, isn’t it? There’s no hiding from God and there’s no deceiving Him. He knows and He sees.

And then in verse 11, an oath could be made in the name of the Lord if a man wishes to protest his innocence and there is no evidence to settle the dispute. The oath was considered then to be so absolute and the invocation of the divine name so solemn, that an oath like this was to be accepted immediately as proof of innocence. In my old denomination, the denomination I served when I was in the United Kingdom, the Free Church of Scotland, there’s actually a provision in the rules for church discipline for precisely this same practice. They called it the oath of abjuration. If there was no way to demonstrate innocence but a charge against you was being insisted upon, you could, as an absolute last resort take the oath of abjuration and swear by the Lord that you were innocent. And the gravity of making that oath was considered so weighty that it was to be accepted immediately without dispute, in the conviction that God would judge someone severely who took such an oath deceptively.

And the big idea behind all of this is really quite simple, isn’t it? We all live Coram Deo. We all live before the face, under the gaze of almighty God. We are accountable. He is the true and final judge. The force and the power of the laws of Moses given to Israel rested ultimately on this vital idea, as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5:10, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” We need to take hold of the fact of our ultimate accountability. Not in the end to any merely human tribunal, but before the bar of eternal justice where Jesus Christ Himself is seated as the perfect, final Judge. I wonder if today you are ready to stand before Him and to give an account, before the final Judge. Are you ready to give an account?

The Pattern of Gospel Motivation

The precious value of human life, the principle of fairness in judgment, the provision made for the marginal, the potency of divine accountability, and now finally notice here, the pattern of Gospel motivation. The pattern of Gospel motivation. Remember that repeat command about caring for the sojourner? We saw it in 22 verse 21, and again in 23 verse 9. Would you look at it one more time with me, please? Chapter 22 verse 21, “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him,” and notice the motivation, “for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” You were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You too were once strangers in a strange land, exiles in a country not your own. You did not belong in Egypt but circumstances placed you there nevertheless. And now that you’ve been set free and brought up out of your slavery and bondage, will you now become the mirror image of your Egyptian taskmasters? Will you who once were oppressed become an oppressor or will you remember that God heard your cries in Egypt and showed you mercy and gave you liberty and in turn will you care for those who have come for refuge to live among you? Will you who have been given grace, show grace? Will you who have been forgiven, forgive? Will the recipients of Gospel mercy become agents and instruments of mercy?

Isn’t that how Jesus taught us to pray, after all? “Father, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Isn’t that the pattern of life Jesus set before us in John 13 that night when He was betrayed as He washed His disciples’ feet? You remember that incident. Our Savior rose from the table and since no one else would do it, He stripped down and girded Himself with a towel and began to wash the disciples’ feet and they were nonplused at His actions, so lowly and menial a task was it. But it was a powerful, dramatic picture to them of what Christ had come to do – to be a servant of all, to wash us ultimately by the blood He would shed at Calvary to make sinners clean. Powerful Gospel picture. And then having washed their feet He turned to them and said, “If I then your teacher and Lord have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that you should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master nor a messenger than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”

What is it that should animate and move us and motivate us to stand out from the crowd when doing so will be hard? To choose not to fit in – you college students who are here to begin a season of study, to stand out from the crowd and to walk in faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ when doing so may well mean you become the object of ridicule. Why should you do that? Why should you care for the weak and value human life and strive for justice? Why be holy and different and distinct? Why not just go along to get along and get along to go along? Because we were sojourners in Egypt too, weren’t we, and God has led us out. We once were in desperate need of grace and Christ has come and served us and washed our feet and poured Himself out and bled and died for us and that changes everything, doesn’t it? It changes everything. If I was once a slave and Jesus has freed me, how should I treat those who remain slaves still? If I was an outsider and Jesus made me part of His family, how should I treat those who remain outsiders still? The Gospel changes everything. We live this way not because we are better or wiser or stronger or purer than anyone else. We live this way because we have received mercy. We want to honor the one who showed it to us that we might show it to you and we long that you might come to know it too. And so God calls those who once were sojourners to care for the sojourner. The former slaves to care for those who are still enslaved. Those whose debts have been forgiven to forgive their debtors. And the found to seek and save the lost.

May the Lord be gracious to us to shape us by the ethics of His kingdom rather than the bankrupt values of the world so that all may see in us, distinct and different as we are, the greatness of His grace at work in our lives and giving Him glory come to know it for themselves along with us. Will you pray with me?
 

O God our Father, we bless You for Your Word. We pray that as we hear Your Word and have received it that it might yet bear fruit in our hearts and lives. And we pray for any here who remain yet still slaves in bondage to sin, whose hearts remain restless because they have not found their rest in You. Would You bring them to Jesus Christ who summons the weary and heavy laden to Himself and promises to give them rest? Lead them out of bondage just as You have led us and make us the agents and instruments of mercy and grace in Your hand and in their lives. So hear us as we cry to You, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

©2016 First Presbyterian Church.

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