The Law

Genesis 16‑21; Exodus 19; Matthew 27  •  15 min. read  •  grade level: 8
(Gen. 16-21; Ex. 19; Matt. 27)
Wondrous are the premonitions we get in the Old Testament of the richer and fuller disclosures of the New. The old is the dawn or twilight of the noontide that shines in the new. Among other instances, or samples of this, I might mention " the law;" for we get in a section of the history of Abraham, that is, in Gen. 16-21, a short or miniature expression of the whole legal dispensation which lies between Ex. 19 and Matt. 27
We may consider this great subject for a little while together.
The God of grace and glory had been dealing with Abraham from the very beginning of his history in Gen. 11; and in chap. 15, a promise is given him that he should have a son. But he failed in confidence in God; and this, as I may say, brought Hagar and Ishmael into the house; and we know that that bondwoman and her son were, mystically, the law.
Hagar and Ishmael thus brought in. through Abraham's unbelief or want of confidence in God, two things attach to them while in the house. They have title to be there, but they must be in subjection. The angel of the Lord thus instructs Hagar. (Gen. 16)
During this stay of Hagar and her child in Abraham's house, the God of grace, the God of the promise already made to Abraham, is true to Himself. He continues to make promises to His elect one. He ordains circumcision in the house of Abraham; and circumcision was the witness of grace, not of law. He visits Abraham, and distinguishes him in a very marked manner. He shelters him from the consequences of his own sad failures; and at last, He fulfills His promise, and gives him a child by Sarah. (Gen. 17-21)
The birth of the promised child begins a new, but short, era in the story of Abraham. The two children are then in the house together for the little interval from the birth to the weaning of Isaac. Each, however, had his place in the house, and neither could treat the other as an intruder. It was a strange time. It was difficult to manage matters, we may say; but so it was. The two mothers and their children, the bondwoman and the free-woman, with Isaac and Ishmael, were together in the house of Abraham.
The time, however, soon arrived for making a Change. The two children get opportunity for manifesting their different tempers and their different relationships to the house; and this works a separation. Ishmael, the elder, the son of the bondwoman, a youth of fourteen years of age, strong in the flesh, despises the feeble infant when it was weaned, when it was just beginning to feed on strong meat, to know its relationship, as it were, and to cry, Father 1 All this marks a full moral divergence between the two children; and Sarah, the free-woman, demands the casting out of the mocking son of the bondwoman; and accordingly, though with some grief of heart, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael out of the house, and Sarah and Isaac dwell there alone. And I may say this took place ere Isaac was old enough to make acquaintance with the child who had been now sent away. All that Isaac could have known of Ishmael must have been by family tradition, or what he had heard of him, as I may further say, through his mother.*
(* Isaac and Ishmael meeting together afterward, to bury their father, as we see in chap. 25:9, makes no difference as to this. Isaac did not know Ishmael in the house of his father, Abraham.)
Thus, in these materials, thus lying in Gen. 16-21, we get the story of Hagar and Ishmael in the house of Abraham. We see their introduction there, and how they were to dwell there for a time, and then, their dismissal. This is the story of Hagar and Ishmael in the house of Abraham; but it is also the story, in mystic dress, of the law in the house of Israel, as between Ex. 19 and Matt. 27
What wonders! What a miniature, and what a full-sized portrait! And we may now see that the miniature bore all the features of the full- length figure.
Grace and salvation had visited Israel. The God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob had gone down to Egypt and delivered them out of that house of bondage, had then gone before them in a pillar of cloud and of fire, had made a passage for them through the Red Sea, and had guided them in safety and in honor to the mount of God-the pledge and earnest of the coming kingdom. (Ex. 1-18)
But now, as Abraham had failed in confidence in God, after God had done such wonders in grace for him, so now Israel conceive confidence in themselves, after God had done all these wonders in grace and power for them. And this introduces the law into the midst of them, (Ex. 19) as want of confidence in God had brought Ishmael into Abraham's house.* The law thus brought in by reason of Israel's self-confidence, the same two things attach to it there, as, by the voice of the angel of the Lord, were attached to Hagar in the house of Abraham. The law has title to be there, but it ought to be in subjection, or the one to serve the heirs of promise. The Lord Jesus decides this point in His argument with the Pharisees at the opening of Matt. 12; and so I believe St. Paul does in his arguments in Rom. 2, and Gal. 3 iv.
(* Want of confidence in God, and confidence in ourselves, thus betrayed by Abraham and by Israel severally, are the two sources of the working of the legal mind in ourselves, as they introduced the law in Gen. 16, and Ex. 19)
But then, again, as during the stay of Hagar and Ishmael in Abraham's house, the God of grace, who had been there before them, was true to Himself and true to Abraham, nourishing, as we saw, the heart and the hope of His elect in various ways, so now, during the age of the law, the same God of grace nourishes the hearts and the hopes of His Israel. Among other things, we see this all through the Old Testament from Ex. 19 Ordinances were set among them, the shadows of good things to come. Long-suffering goodness was exercised towards them. Discipline was exercised. Pledges upon pledges that they had not been forgotten were given to them. Deliverances were wrought for them. Saviors were raised up to them. Prophecies of glories still to be displayed in the midst of them, with all the grace that was to prepare the way for those glories, were published from time to time. They were kept alive in spite of a thousand provocations, as they are t© this day. And at the last, the promised Messiah is born to them, as the promised Isaac had been born to Abraham and Sarah.
Wondrous accuracy in the resemblance between the miniature of which we speak and this full-length portrait!
But as we compare them still further, it is only more of this we see.
The birth of Messiah, like the typical birth of Isaac, begins a new but short era in the course of the legal or Mosaic dispensation. The two children are then in the house together; as I may express it, Christ and Moses, like Isaac and Ishmael. Each- had title to be there. Neither could treat the other as an intruder. It was a strange time. It was, again I say, difficult to manage matters. This was the period of the four Evangelists. But the strangeness, the peculiarity of that season, the difficulty of ordering things duly while such divers elements were found in company with each other, only serves to set off the bright moral glory of the Lord Jests, as we see Him tread His way during that season, the season of His sojourn here in flesh. For He was then, at one and the same time, the witness and minister of the Father, or of God in grace, and the perfect servant and fulfiller of all righteousness under the law.
The time, however, arrives for the making of a change. The Lord of salvation is offered up, a sacrifice for sin. By His death He destroys him that has the power of death, as well as makes reconciliation for sinners. But not only that. He cancels the law to all who believe on Him. He nails it to His cross. And the saints of God could then say that they were dead to the law by the body of Christ. It had dominion over them as alive; but now, in the age of the resurrection of Christ, they were no longer as a living, but as a dead and risen generation.
This great event, the crucifixion of the Christ of God, takes place, as I may say, in the day of Matt. 27; and then, in principle, the law had ended its course, as it began it in Ex. 19 The self-confidence of Israel had brought it in; the self-sacrifice of the Son of God now, as to the elect, puts it out. And when the Spirit of the Son was given, when the Holy Ghost, on the glorification of Jesus, came down, and was a spirit of adoption in the elect, forming Christ in them, making them the true Isaac, and breathing in them the mind of the children of the free-woman, then, as Paul teaches us, the true Ishmael, the spirit of the bond-woman must go at the bidding of the zealous, indignant demands of faith. They could not dwell together. The one who shares the spirit of adoption does not, cannot, know the spirit of bondage. Isaac never knew Ishmael: the saint of this dispensation does not know the law. " If ye are led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law."*
(* Of course I mean is principle. The saint may know too painfully the workings of the legal mind. But he treats it as unworthy of his calling of God in Christ Jesus. One has said, "The Church never has seen Christ in the flesh." True. I just add, neither has the Church ever known, personally, the law.)
The law still lives for the ungodly and for sinners. That I know. (1 Tim. 1:99Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, (1 Timothy 1:9).) But again I say, the Isaac of this dispensation does not know the law, or Ishmael. It left the house ere, I may say, he entered it.
Surely, then, after tracing these wondrous coincidences between the miniature of Gen. 16-21, and the full-sized painting of Ex. 19-Matt. 27, we way stand and admire the divine harmonies which are found in the oracles of God, and see another vivid and brilliant ray of that self-evidencing light which shines in the whole volume from beginning to end. And we may afresh assure Ourselves, how truly known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the creation.
But still further as to the law. Having been brought in through the self-confidence of Israel, God uses it. He makes it a test. " The man that doeth it shall live by it," He is willing to say. He causes the offense to abound by it. He makes sin by it to become exceeding sinful, and turns it into transgression. These and like uses He makes of it, causing it to serve some of the ends and purposes of His holy wisdom. But-blessed to tell it-He never joins Himself with it, as though He were making it His witness or representative. He left it in the hands of angels and a Mediator, keeping Himself, the rather, in company with the promises, or with the ministration of grace. (Gal. 3) He will have it listened to as spoken by angels, while He speaks of salvation. (Heb. 2) He is still in the midst of those counsels and secrets of grace which He was occupied with, when (as it were left to Himself,) He was dealing with the patriarchs. He was then like one at home or at ease, as all His intercourses with His elect in the Book of Genesis show us; but when He appears in Ex. 19, about to take His place as in the law, He is as evidently not at home, not at ease; an expression of this is given to the whole occasion.
Again I say, wonderful-and as precious as it is marvelous! What secrets of the divine bosom disclose themselves through all these strokes and touches in the way and in the writing of God!
But I must say a little further as to this, and upon law generally.
Adam was put under law; for the God of all grace, and who is love, delighting in the exercise of His nature, leads His creature to stand, not in self-sufficiency, or on title of innocency, but in grace and on the ground of redemption. He tests him accordingly, prescribing a law to him by the observance of which he must stand, and by the breach of which he must fall. He fell-sin entered, and death followed.
In a great general sense, there was no need, after this, that law should be applied to the creature, a second time. He had already broken it, and ruined himself; and immediately upon that, grace applied itself to his condition, and he was put into a blessed wondrous system of redemption, such a system of combined mercy and righteousness as was to cost God everything, and to secure to the sinner everything.
What a display of God was this; and we find it all produced immediately on the entrance of sin, in the words of the Lord to the serpent!
But, as we have seen, in the progress of this paper, though the Lord does not a second time apply law to the condition of the creature, yet, when either self-confidence in the creature, or his want of confidence in God brings it in, the Lord uses it for ends of His own wisdom, proving by it the exceeding sinfulness of sin, and by it causing the offense to abound. But it` does not become His principle of action a second time. It had been that in Gen. 2, but it is not that in either Gen. xvi. or Ex. xix. It stole in, or came in, by the bye, or incidentally then, (see Rom. 5:2020Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: (Romans 5:20), Greek,) and was not the principle of divine action, or the witness and expression of God Himself. It had already done its needed work when it had tested Adam proved creature-insufficiency, and laid in ruined creation the basis of a displayed, glorious redemption.
And, again I may say, when it is thus brought in a second time, the Lord expresses His indisposedness to it. The very first time that He appears to Abraham after Ishmael bad been brought into His house, He calls on Abraham to repent, and to walk before. Him again. (Gen. 17:11And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. (Genesis 17:1).) This has a voice in it. And I have already noticed this same indisposedness, in the evident restlessness and want of ease and satisfaction that mark Him in Ex. 19; and also in the Spirit in the apostle being careful to show the Lord in company with promise, while He left law to be ministered by angels and a Mediator. (Gal. 3, Heb. 2)
All this, surely, gives us not only a clear, but a very significant history of law. It tells us not only when it came in, but how it came in, and God's relationship to it. It was not His rest or dwelling-place; it was not His witness. And can I, after reading such a history of law as this, judge that it is simply in the righteousness of it God will have His saints to shine before Him in the courts of His glory in heaven? Most surely do I conclude, that it is in other and brighter robes, robes of His own preparing, and not of the law's preparing, that He will array them for His own eternity.
The Lord, in dwelling here on earth for a season, and in the midst of Israel, the circumcised, was made under the law as well as of a woman. He vindicated the excellency and perfections of that law which God gave when Israel, in self-confidence, challenged or accepted it. He rendered up to God a sheaf of untainted human fruit, and proved Himself also to be the true circumcision, the only Son of man who ever kept the whole law, as circumcision under Moses demanded. But even as a Jew, as made under the law, the law had dominion over Him only as alive; when dead, and risen, and glorified, it had no title to Him, nor to His elect as dead and risen with Him. Let the law plead its own cause, and even then it must be dismissed upon its own showing, when it faces not a living but a dead and risen man.
The Galatians, I may add, exceeded Abraham in that which was contrary to God in this matter. He grieved at having to part with Hagar and Ishmael when the voice of the Lord, through Sarah, demanded this of him; but they were daring enough to bring the bondwoman and her son back and home again, after, by the voice of the Lord, they had been sent away. (Gen. 21; Gal. 4)
O we have much to watch against-the spirit of Abraham in Gen. 16, the spirit of Israel at the foot of mount Sinai, and the spirit of the Galatians among the churches of the New Testament. The soul needs ever to have to do with God in grace; not dealing with Him as a Judge but as a Savior, apprehending Him in the exercise of a love that never wearies, and is from everlasting to everlasting. We have to live the life of faith in the love, the self-sacrificing love of the Son of God towards our very selves. (Gal. 2:2020I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20).)