Looking back at my school days, I pity my teachers. I was a bit of a handful and enjoyed nothing more than questioning the rules. I went to a British boarding school in my teens and it felt like my entire life was governed by a suffocating set of rules that regulated everything from dining etiquette to the colour of my socks. It seemed as though every hour from wake-up to bedtime was governed by a set of bells that echoed through the school. I’ve always had a rebellious streak and I did not enjoy what I saw as a stale set of regulations that took the joy out of school life. Why couldn’t my teachers just get a life and relax a little? Why was the school rule book so rigid and unimaginative? It was downright unfair as far as I was concerned.
One rule that I found particularly annoying involved the daily lunch queue. The line of students hungrily awaiting their meals would invariably be long, but if you were a teacher you were allowed to cut to the front of the queue. I railed against the apparent injustice of this and angrily questioned my art teacher about it. Weren’t we students as hungry as our overlords? I remember him telling me that if I were a teacher I would see the value of the rule. I dismissed his comment as out-of-touch defensiveness from someone who had long since forgotten what it was like being a student.
Ironically enough, seven years after I completed my studies, I decided to volunteer at the same school for a year doing administrative and teaching work. It was a little strange being back. Some of the teachers I had terrorised as a teen were still there, including my long-suffering art teacher. They no doubt found it highly entertaining to see me enforcing some of the very rules I had protested as a student. I had done a virtual 180-degree turnaround!
As much as I still found the lunch queue rule a bit arbitrary, there were other rules concerning classroom conduct, corridor navigation, curfew and other issues that made abundant sense to me now that the wellbeing of students was my responsibility. Now that I saw the big picture, I was grateful for some structure as I struggled to follow lesson plans without losing control of my flock of uniformed cherubs. The rules and boundaries that governed school life were really helpful when it came to ensuring a quality environment for learning and safe personal development.
In much the same way, God’s law sets boundaries that we as humans are called to respect in order to live happy, fulfilling lives. The Ten Commandments, for example, are not an arbitrary collection of rules that are impractical or not based in reality. If you murder, commit adultery or steal, negative consequences naturally follow. Keeping God’s law allows for harmonious, meaningful living. Breaking the law is a recipe for heartache and trouble.
God gave us the law because of His love for us as our heavenly Father. He gave it to us out of His concern for our wellbeing. Jesus said that the greatest of all laws is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”, and to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:37,38). Love is the starting point for the law. Just as rules made by a concerned earthly parent come from a place of love and a desire to protect, God’s law shows how He feels about us. It shows how He desires the best for our lives.
Romans 13:10 says that love also “is the fulfillment of the law”. It is born out of relationship and it is a demonstration of that relationship. “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (1 John 5:3). We show our gratitude and love for God by obeying His law. Keeping God’s law is how we demonstrate our loyalty to Him. The Bible is clear that during the last days of Earth’s history those who are faithful to God will keep His commandments and the faith of Jesus (Revelation 14:12).
It’s popular in some Christian circles to claim that when Jesus died on the cross, He did away with the law. That is simply not the case. In His sermon on the mount, Jesus made clear that He had not come to abolish the law (Matthew 5:17). We are just as responsible to obey those Ten Commandments now as people were before Christ died.
That isn’t to say that we as followers of God keep His law flawlessly. We fail frequently and it is incredibly comforting to know that God is patient with us and more than willing to forgive us when we come to Him, confess our sins and ask for forgiveness (1 John 1:9).
Just recently, before we put our three-year-old to bed one evening, she had been in a bad mood and had lost her cool with me. She had been overtired and no amount of reasoning or reminding her of family rules would change her behaviour. She was cranky and needed rest. We called it a day and went to bed. After a full night’s sleep, my strong-willed toddler was transformed. As I sat down to join my wife and daughter at the table the next day, my wife announced that my daughter had something to say to me.
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” she said.
It melted my heart and I instantly forgave her.
God does the same for us when we confess falling short of the perfection called for by the law. And as we draw close to Him and accept the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, we can rest assured that we are part of a family that will last forever.
Rules versus relationship
Have you ever wondered whether you are good enough, and if so, how that’s measured? Theologically questionable on many levels, the popular Netflix comedy The Good Place has Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell, pictured right, with Ted Danson as Michael) entering heaven, apparently on the basis that her good deeds outweigh her bad deeds. How many people have the same view?
Two thousand years ago, a wealthy ruler asked Jesus, “Good teacher . . . what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). Answering the ruler on his own terms, Jesus told him to keep the commandments. The ruler said he’d done that, citing laws from the last six of the Ten Commandments that deal primarily with relationships—don’t murder or commit adultery, respect other people’s property and speak honestly. But Jesus told this wealthy man that he still lacked one thing: He said, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (verse 21). That was too much—the rich ruler walked away sadly.
The ethical behaviours that the wealthy ruler listed are all good things, but Jesus demonstrated through this encounter that true goodness is not simply about keeping the rules—it’s about entering body and soul into a relationship with our Creator—“Come, follow me,” Jesus said (verse 21).
Making the same point, the writer of Hebrews says that God “will put [His] laws in [our] minds and write them on [our] hearts” (Hebrews 8:10). This understanding takes commandment-keeping to a new level. Merely observing the commandments outwardly won’t save us. We need to let God write His laws on our minds and hearts. That’s what will bring renewal and transformation and, at the appointed time, bring us to the good place God has prepared for us.
Bjorn Karlman is an Adventist freelance writer who travels the world as a “digital nomad”, living in two to three countries per year with his wife and toddler.