In Exodus 20 God gave Israel the Ten Commandments. By the time God had finished speaking, the people had broken all the Olympic records in their haste to get away as far as possible. They said to Moses in verse 19,
19 . . . Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.
Moses urged the people to draw near to God, but they refused. So Moses himself went up the mount to receive the rest of the law. He returned and related to them what he had heard. These laws are recorded from Exodus 20:22 through 23:33.
Keep in mind that these are the laws that God would have written upon the hearts of the Israelites, if they had been willing to hear the voice of God. This occurred on the day which later became known as Pentecost, the "feast of weeks." Because the people were afraid to hear the voice of God that day, the fulfillment of Pentecost was deferred for another 1500 years. (See Acts 2.)
Because the people refused to have the law written on their hearts, God gave it to them on tables of stone. The law was, therefore, in an external form and imposed upon them by government officials and judges. In this external application, the law could only restrain sinners from actions that would harm their neighbors. It could not actually make anyone righteous in their inner being.
The Law: by Constraint or by Nature?
There is a difference between doing righteous ACTS and BEING righteous. The stone tablets of the law are weak, in that they cannot make anyone righteous. External laws are only a stop-gap measure, designed to restrain sinners until such time as these laws can be written on their hearts.
The law is written on the heart when a person does those things by nature, rather than by constraint. When children are young, they have not the law of the parent written on their hearts. At first, they need rules and laws to restrain them from abusing the rights of their brothers and sisters and the neighbor children.
Some parents even post the rules somewhere in the house. These laws are external and are applied by constraint and force if necessary. But this is not the ultimate goal. The goal is to have those laws written on the hearts of the children, so that when they are older, they will love their neighbors and respect their rights naturally.
In the same manner, God has given us laws written down externally. We no longer use stone tablets, but paper and ink. Even so, every nation has laws imposed upon men by constraint if necessary. Though many of man's laws are unjust, and the punishments equally unjust, even so, only anarchists would prefer to live in a country without any laws at all. There are too many evil-doers out there, and without laws to restrain them, a nation would soon be reduced to chaos.
Why? Because when the laws restraining men are removed, then the heart is manifested. When men are no longer constrained to act in a loving manner toward their neighbors, then their actions will be governed only by the laws that are indeed written upon their hearts.
It is the same with our children. While they are under parental authority, children are constrained to abide by certain rules, or laws, lest they receive correction. But when they finally are old enough to leave home, only then is it manifest how much of the parental laws are actually written upon their hearts. All rules of behavior that the child has inwardly disagreed with will now be cast aside.
The purpose of the law written on stone or paper tablets is to act as a temporary guide and restraint for sinners and spiritually immature people, until such time as those moral principles are incorporated into their very being. When this happens, then we can truly say that the law is spiritual. That is, it has truly become spiritualized within our hearts. They are now a part of our nature. If we were to "grow up" and God were no longer to constrain us with laws, our behavior would not change at all. We would continue to love our neighbor as the law had taught us in our earlier years. Why? Because we would find ourselves in total agreement with the law. Why? Because it is now a part of our BEING.
Agreeing With God
Man has inherited from Adam a natural tendency toward evil that proceeds from the death (mortality) that was imputed to us as a result of Adam's sin (Rom. 5:12). For this reason, as immature Christians, we tend to disagree with God and His laws, even as children tend to disagree with the rules that their parents set.
Having brought up six children myself, I have had ample opportunity to observe the process of maturity. From the moment we first say NO to a child, there is an obvious disagreement of opinion. But because my wife and I had authority over the child, our will was imposed upon the child by constraint. Otherwise, the child would eat only cake and candy, would stay up all night and sleep all day, and would always play and never take responsibility to clean up any mess that he had made.
Without such laws, a child will never reach emotional and spiritual maturity. Without such laws, they will always expect others to clean up after them. They will never take responsibility for their actions or pay for any damage that they may do to others.
But at some point in the child's life, they begin to show flashes of maturity. Maturity is manifested when the child begins to agree with the laws of the parents. There is no sweeter music to a parent's ears than to hear the child thank them for constraining them with righteous laws imposed in a loving spirit. When the child comes into agreement with the law, then and only then is the law written on his heart.
With God, it is the same. When Israel was young, God imposed the law upon this "child" in order to constrain him to behave in a loving manner. The child disagreed, as the Bible clearly shows us. God judged Israel with various captivities, putting them under foreign tyrants to show them what it was like to live under the laws of ungodly men. For a time, Israel repented, and God sent judges to deliver them. But the next generation of Israelites again disagreed with God's laws like immature children.
God again and again corrected them, and finally He cast them out of the land altogether. The external law failed utterly to make the people righteous--or even to behave in a righteous manner. Was there a problem with the law? Was the law sin? God forbid (Rom. 7:7). The law was and still is holy, just, and good (Rom. 7:12). It defines sin and righteousness and sets a standard of perfect righteousness for us, so that we know the difference between sin and righteousness (1 John 3:4).
The nations of Israel and Judah, each in turn, was judged and cast out of the land (God's household) as a reprobate child that absolutely refused to agree with the righteousness of God. The law could judge their sin, but it could not force them to become righteous.
All of this was, of course, in the divine plan from the beginning. This did not take God by surprise. In fact, He prophesied of these things even under Moses, who said in Deuteronomy 31,
29 For I know that after my death you will act corruptly and turn from the way which I have commanded you; and evil will befall you in the latter days, for you will do that which is evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking Him to anger with the work of your hands.
The Order of God's Election (Calling)
Because God knew the end from the beginning, the divine plan from the start was to give mankind the first opportunity to be righteous. When mankind failed as expected, He then called Abraham and seed of Israel as one nation among the nations of mankind. These were called to lead the rest of the nations by example into the righteousness of God. Through them, all the families of the earth were to be blessed (Gen. 12:3).
They, too, failed.
So God narrowed it down even further, calling certain ones, which we call "overcomers." Paul calls them "the remnant according to the election of grace" (Rom. 11:5). These are individuals, not a national unit per se. These are the ones called to lead the rest of the world into the righteousness of God in Christ.
The Church under the pentecostal anointing in the New Testament was called to be this remnant of grace, but they, too, failed in their calling. Pentecost itself, good as it was, was insufficient to bring the world into righteousness. And so we read in John's message to the Seven Churches of the book of Revelation: "To him that overcomes . . ." This shows plainly that not all in the Church would overcome.
The bottom line is that God has always been looking for a people who would actually be in agreement with Him, for that is the mark of spiritual maturity. These are people who are in agreement with EVERY WORD that proceeds from the mouth of God--not just a portion of the Word.
The Leading of the Spirit
The non-overcoming portion of the Church has always had some disagreements with God in defining righteousness. They have made a conscious decision that God's law is either unjust or irrelevant to them, and so they have decided to define righteousness (and love) in their own way, according to their own understanding. They justify this by saying that God put away His law, leaving us to define love by the Holy Spirit. While this sounds good, it is equally true that the moment we reject a portion of God's Word, we will be blinded in some area of our life, making it highly improbable that the Holy Spirit will be able to truly lead us in that area.
Our ability to be led by the Spirit in a perfect path of righteousness is limited by our rejection of the Word already revealed to us, whether it be the written Word to others of the past or the spoken Word to us. It took me years to learn this by hard experience.
Israel's rejection of the spoken Word in Exodus 20 was the source of all their later problems in dealing with the Adamic nature. Ultimately, it caused them to reject the voice of God when He told them (through Caleb and Joshua) that they were to enter the Promised Land in fulfillment of the Feast of Tabernacles. While they all had the faith to leave Egypt, they did not have the faith to enter Canaan (Heb. 4:2). Faith comes by hearing, and as we continue to hear, our faith increases until it comes to full fruition. Israel failed on this point, for they refused to hear the rest of the law.
But the problem is not limited to Israel in the Old Testament at that original Day of Pentecost at the foot of Mount Sinai. In the book of Acts, many still refused to hear the voice of God, and this problem has continued to the present day--even among those who think that they have heard and responded to His Word. More than that, the early Church very soon refused to hear the rest of God's law in the same manner as their predecessors of Israel.
The underlying problem of Pentecost from the days of Moses to the present has been its tendency to refuse to hear the divine law. There are many excuses given. Some say, "I am not of Israel, and the law was given only to Israel." Others say that the law was put away. Others say that Jesus fulfilled it perfectly, making it unnecessary for me to do so. (That is like saying, "My father did what was good and right, so I do not have to do so." Instead, we should say, "Jesus did it, and so I should follow His example.") 1 John 2:6 tells us,
6 the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.
Pentecostals (those who hear God's voice) are most vulnerable in this area, because the abundance of revelation tends to impart confidence in one's ability to be led by the Spirit. Confidence, knowing the will of God, is a good thing; but it can also become one's fatal flaw. We do not find fault with Pentecost, any more than we find fault with the divine law. The problem is in us, not in God or His law.
In writing my book, Hearing God's Voice, I have made an attempt to help people in this area. In the second chapter I spent considerable time showing from the Scriptures that in order to hear God's voice clearly and without distortion, we must deal first with the problem of heart idolatry--our inner desires, hurts, bitterness, opinions, and understanding.
The First Law: Exodus 20:23
So far, we have spoken theoretically about the law, but we have not actually studied the law itself. What we have written up to this point is merely an introduction. From now on, we will deal with the laws in a practical manner.
When Moses returned from the mount, He told the people the rest of the law--at least that portion of the mind of God that was revealed at that time. The first law that Moses told the people is given in Exodus 20:22, 23,
22 Then the LORD said to Moses, Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, You yourselves have seen that I have spoken to you from heaven. 23 You shall not make other gods besides Me; gods of silver or gods of gold, you shall not make for yourselves.
The people in those days were accustomed to making their own gods out of gold or silver. Some religions today continue this practice. This is obviously a sin. We call it idolatry. But in order to get the mind of God on this matter, we must look at it more closely.
This law is nearly a restatement of the first and second commandment about having no other gods before Him and making no graven images. Is it wrong to make a graven image? In ancient times, the Jews were greatly offended when Pontius Pilate entered Jerusalem with Roman troops who were carrying the standard of Rome in the form of a golden eagle. They considered this to be a graven image that the law prohibited.
To my knowledge, the Romans did not worship eagles, golden or otherwise. Certainly, this eagle represented the nation, and the Roman citizens submitted to the authority of the Roman government. They even deified the Roman emperors. But to me, bringing a golden eagle into the city of Jerusalem was not, in itself, a violation of divine law.
Why? First of all, the prohibition was about worshiping graven images. Even God Himself told Moses to make a graven image of a bronze serpent (Num. 21:8, 9). Did God tell Moses to sin? Of course not. Did Moses tell the people to worship the serpent? Again, no.
The serpent prophesied of Christ and therefore represented Jesus Christ. John 3:14, 15 says,
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life.
Was, then, the serpent a graven image of Christ? It would appear to be so, but the real issue is not the external form of the graven image, but rather the intent of the heart in our worship. It was good and right for the Israelites to look to the bronze serpent to receive healing, because it prophesied of something greater that was to come. In other words, God, or Jesus Christ, can be represented by many things on earth--even, at times, graven images--without these becoming a spiritual problem.
Some people believe that no one should make statues of men or of Christ. I do not believe these are prohibited. The prohibition is in their worship. Others even refuse to have photographs in their house, thinking these to be graven images. I disagree with this view. If one can prove from the Scriptures that Moses did wrong in making the bronze serpent, then perhaps these extreme views can be justified.
The Roman Catholic Church has come under much criticism over the years for having statues in their places of worship. To me, that is not idolatry in itself. It can easily become idolatry, however, if the individual worshippers place their confidence in the object itself. It would be wiser, I believe, to avoid the appearance of evil, and also to provide less opportunity for the worshippers to stumble. But really, it is a matter of the heart.
Most Roman Catholics of the "enlightened" nations know better than to believe that inanimate objects have a spirit in them--certainly not the Spirit of God. But most of the more primitive religions base their worship on the belief that stones, trees, rivers, and other physical objects are inhabited by spirits--and they proceed to worship those spirits and pray to them. If Christians come to such people to convert them to the "true religion," and if we substitute our own sophisticated statues and graven images for their simple idols, it is probable that those new "Christians" will continue to worship the new gods of gold and silver. Why? Because this is what they are accustomed to doing.
Having spent my early life in the Philippines as the son of a missionary, I was an eyewitness to this very problem. Many western Catholics do not realize how different their church is in these other cultures. The Christianization of pagans was largely accomplished by a substitution of graven images (Christian saints for pagan idols), rather than by a heart change. It was justified by the idea that at least they became church members, and that as such, they were assured of going to heaven--even if they might have to spend some time in purgatory.
In my view, a Christian is not the same as a church member. Coming under the authority of a church is not the same as a living, vital relationship with Jesus Christ. If we focus upon "building the church" by membership, we will only paganize the church. One cannot create a horse by leading a goat into a barn.
So in places like the Philippines, statues in the church are more of a problem than in the western countries and need to be dealt with more firmly.
On another note, if we limit this law to the prohibition of outward idolatry, we will not really know the mind of God. It also extends to the worship of gold and silver, regardless of what shape or image it takes. We learn from Paul's first letter to Timothy, chapter 6, verse 10,
10 For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many a pang.
It is not gold and silver itself that is a problem. The problem is in man and his tendency to worship wealth and material things. That is, man tends to place the acquisition of wealth into a position of higher priority than obedience to God.
Gold and silver are metals that God created. Therefore, God owns all of it by right of creation. Haggai 2:8 says,
8 The silver is Mine, and the gold is Mine, declares the LORD of hosts.
This does not mean it is unlawful for men to own gold and silver. It means that man's ownership of gold and silver is conditional upon its lawful use to further God's Kingdom. Israel's ownership of gold which they took out of Egypt was not a problem until they used it to make and to worship a golden calf.
Spiritually speaking, when we use our resources to build our own kingdoms--or the kingdoms of men--we are doing our part to build that great image that the king of Babylon saw in his dream in Daniel 3. This image had a head of gold, arms of silver, belly of brass, and legs of iron. It depicts the efforts of man using their resources and wealth to build kingdoms that do not recognize the Kingship of Jesus Christ.
Those efforts will ultimately come to naught, even as Daniel's three friends prevailed through the fiery furnace in that same chapter. When they came through the fire without so much as the smell of fire on their clothing, the king promoted them and made a decree that no one should say anything against their God. In Daniel 4 God brought the king to the place where he finally fully recognized the sovereignty of God and proclaimed Babylon to be a Christian Empire. That will soon happen again.