1 “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the Lord your God. 3 You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. 4 You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God. 5 You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 18:1-5 ESV
God knew that His people would face the ongoing temptation to carry out His ceremonial law while, at the same time, living lives that contradicted the very intentions of those laws. In other words, they would run the risk of living hypocritical lives that reflected an outward appearance of obedience that covered up the true conditions of their hearts. It was the very same of which Jesus accused the Jewish religious leader of His day.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence!” – Matthew 23:25 NLT
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 23:27-28 NLT
Jesus was exposing these men for what they truly were: blatant charlatans who were adept at displaying outward conformity to God’s will but whose actions were nothing more than a carefully-orchestrated performance designed to earn the praise and respect of the people. They were little more than play actors. In fact, the Greek word for hypocrite is ὑποκριτής (hypokritēs), a term used to describe those who performed in the Greek plays that were so popular throughout the Roman world of Jesus’ day. Jesus was comparing the law-abiding religious leaders of His day to actors who used elaborate costumes and masks to fool their audiences into believing they were someone else.
Jesus pulled back the curtain on their little drama and exposed their deceptive masquerade. They were not what they appeared to be. And in the same way, God was warning the people of Israel about the danger of going through the motions by feigning obedience to His law while, at the same time, living in silent disregard to His desire that they live truly holy lives.
Yahweh has spent a great deal of time outlining the exacting details of His ceremonial law. He has provided His chosen people with clear and compelling regulations for conducting their daily lives, covering everything from the food they could eat to the various skin diseases that could render them unholy and unworthy of entering His Tabernacle. The entire sacrificial system was designed to mitigate their failure to keep His law. When they sinned, they had a way of receiving atonement by offering the appropriate sacrifice in the acceptable manner God had prescribed.
But the Israelites had proven themselves to be a stubborn people who were prone to doing things their own way. Their 400-year-long stint in Egypt had made them accustomed to the pagan practices of their captors. Idolatry had become a normal and acceptable part of their lives. The sexual promiscuity of their Egyptian overlords had dulled the moral sensibilities of the Israelites, leaving them open to increasingly more decadent and defiling types of behavior. Sins like adultery had become commonplace, even among God’s people, and no longer carried any social stigma or sense of impropriety. So, God took the time to discuss the need for behavior that reflected their status as God’s chosen and set-apart people.
In a real sense, the Israelites were going from the firepan into the fire. Their divinely-orchestrated escape from captivity had allowed them to leave the decadence of Egypt behind, but a great challenge lie in the future. God knew something of which they were completely oblivious. The land of Canaan, their future home, was a place filled with immoral and idolatrous nations that were going to make the Egyptians look like amateurs. Compared to the more sophisticated Egyptians, the Canaanites would take immorality to a whole new and much lower level. And God knew that His people would be prone to adopt and adapt the pagan practices of their new neighbors. That’s why He commanded Moses to warn the sin-prone Israelites to refrain from mimicking the ways of the world.
“…do not act like the people in Egypt, where you used to live, or like the people of Canaan, where I am taking you. You must not imitate their way of life.” – Leviticus 18:3 NLT
God had chosen the people of Israel to be His “treasured possession among all peoples,” and as such, they were to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6 ESV). Their lives were to stand out from the crowd. Their behavior was to be radically different, dictated by the conditions established by God Himself and articulated in the Mosaic Law. They were not free to live according to their own wills or in keeping with the rest of the world. Their behavioral standards were God-ordained and came with severe consequences if disobeyed. God made it perfectly clear that obedience was mandatory and non-optional.
“You must obey all my regulations and be careful to obey my decrees, for I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 18:4 NLT
These were laws; not suggestions, and they came from the very throne of God in heaven, not the minds of mortal men. Yet, God knew that the Israelites would struggle obeying His law and lean toward living like their pagan neighbors. The law would set them apart, but failure to allow the law to transform their daily behavior would render them ineffective in their assignment to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Centuries later, the apostle Paul warned the Jewish Christians living in Rome of this very danger. He knew they were proud of their Jewish heritage and wore it like a badge of honor, but their outward actions did not reflect the kind of character God demanded.
You who call yourselves Jews are relying on God’s law, and you boast about your special relationship with him. You know what he wants; you know what is right because you have been taught his law. You are convinced that you are a guide for the blind and a light for people who are lost in darkness. You think you can instruct the ignorant and teach children the ways of God. For you are certain that God’s law gives you complete knowledge and truth.
Well then, if you teach others, why don’t you teach yourself? You tell others not to steal, but do you steal? You say it is wrong to commit adultery, but do you commit adultery? You condemn idolatry, but do you use items stolen from pagan temples? You are so proud of knowing the law, but you dishonor God by breaking it. No wonder the Scriptures say, “The Gentiles blaspheme the name of God because of you.” – Romans 2:17-24 NLT
And Paul would go on to downplay their inordinate pride in their Jewish heritage; instead calling them to live in a way that reflects the gospel’s power to transform the human heart and create true life change.
For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people. – Romans 2:28-29 NLT
For the Jews of Moses’ day, obedience to God’s law came with striking benefits. It wasn’t merely about blind obedience and mindless adherence to a lengthy set of arbitrary rules and regulations. God’s law brought life.
“If you obey my decrees and my regulations, you will find life through them. I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 18:5 NLT
He wanted them to know that His laws were laws for living – bringing peace, joy, contentment, purpose, blessings, and the benefit of an ongoing relationship with Him. God was not a divine policeman enforcing arbitrary and needless rules designed to stifle human flourishing. He wasn’t some curmudgeonly old skinflint in the sky trying to rob mere mortals of all the joys of life. The Lord God was giving His chosen people a unique opportunity to live in perfect communion with Him, enjoying all the benefits of His divine goodness and glory as they lived in this fallen and sin-stained world. But those blessings would require obedience to His law. Rather than live like the Romans and Canaanites, the Israelites were to live like God’s chosen and set-apart people – for all the world to see.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.