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From Sinai to Golgotha

By Alden Thompson

Part 1. From Sinai to Golgotha

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest . . . Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, "I tremble with fear." But you have come to Mount Zion, . . . and to Jesus" Heb. 12:18-24, R.S.V.).

This series of articles will tell the story of two mountains, the road between them, and the law of God. In parts 1 and 2 we shall focus our attention on Sinai and Golgotha, and then note how God has led His people from one mountain to the other, first as told in Scripture (part 3) and then as reflected in the life and writings of Ellen White (parts 4 and 5).

The Adventist understanding of the law of God is the foundation for our series. The reader will detect traces of my own experience as I relate how this concept has opened up for me fresh perspectives on Scripture, our Adventist heritage, and our experience as a community of believers today.

The story of the pilgrimage between Sinai and Golgotha is really the story of a journey from command to invitation, from fear to love. Such a pilgrimage has happened not once, but many times. To a certain extent it is a journey that is necessary for all of us to travel.

The road from one mountain to the other is not an easy one. Even our attempts to understand what has happened raise uncomfortable questions, such as Why does the God of the Old Testament seem different from the God of the New? or Why is Sinai so different from Golgotha?

If we get even more specific and ask whether God's revelation at Sinai was friendly or frightful, we have a question that is particularly difficult for Adventists to answer, for two reasons.

First, since Sinai is so closely linked with the giving of God's law, we are reluctant to say anything that would further contribute to the demise of the law that we Adventists have been called to defend. Privately we may admit that the thunder and smoke are a problem, but publicly we tell a different story. We are a bit like a little girl who complains at home about the antics of her brother, but who in public defends him to the hilt.

The second reason for our difficulty in facing up to the terrors of Sinai is not peculiarly Adventist, but puts us on common ground with many Christians. It involves our desire to witness to the good things about God. When God has touched our lives, we know that He is good, even when we cannot fully understand some of His ways with the universe. Thus, and quite naturally so, we emphasize those parts of the Bible in which the goodness of God is most obvious. The more difficult portions we simply avoid or gently remodel in the telling to soften some of the features that may appear objectionable.

Our tendency to idealize and subconsciously "improve" the Biblical accounts was brought forcibly to my attention one day in my elementary Hebrew class. The assignment called for us to translate simple Hebrew sentences based on the Biblical story of Samuel. One sentence in simple and straightforward Hebrew should have been translated: "And Samuel cut off the head of the king." It was obvious, however, that several students had struggled unsuccessfully with the sentence. After we had worked it through in class, one student sheepishly admitted the problem: "We thought that was what it said," he remarked, "but we didn't think Samuel would do such a thing."

What can we do about Samuel?

It was a solemn moment as we took our English Bibles and slowly read together 1 Samuel 15:33: "And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal." The oft-told story of Samuel in the temple had led us to think of him as an innocent, obedient, and well-scrubbed little boy. But here he stood with human blood dripping from his sword.

We would be horrified if a Christian pastor today were to set about hewing a non-Christian neighbor to pieces before the Lord. But what can we do about Samuel? Lacking a better solution, we have often smoothed over or simply avoided some of the more violent aspects of the Biblical account. The result is a more gentle Samuel and a less troublesome example for our children. But we have thus taken a step away from the real Samuel.

Now, I think it is quite appropriate to filter Bible stories for small children. But children grow up and begin to read for themselves. As soon as possible, we need to bring them to the Bible itself. In our Adventist colleges we expect our students to read the Bible, not just stories about the Bible. In my college classes I am constantly dealing with good Christian young people who are actually shaken and perplexed by the raw data they have read in Scripture.

The fact that Adventist young people are reading their Bibles with open eyes is cause for rejoicing. But it means that we had better come to grips with the blood dripping from Samuel's sword—and with the thunder from Mount Sinai. And that is really the purpose of this series, for I am convinced that we need to recognize the difference between the way Samuel lived and the way we live, the difference between Sinai and Golgotha, and the difference between the early Adventist experience and ours.

The basis for this series is an understanding of the law of God that appears with remarkable clarity in the later writings of Ellen White, namely, that God's law is designed as an instrument of life rather than an instrument of death and condemnation. Because of sin we feel condemned by the law, but God's purpose is to lead us to an understanding of His law as good news, as the law of life.

When that process is complete, the content of the law comes to us in the form of invitation rather than command, and we respond to it out of love rather than out of fear.

The key to understanding the law of God in this positive way is to recognize that it is something much greater than ten commands chiseled in stone. It is actually the principle on which all life is based, the principle of love. Paul points us in the right direction when he says that love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom. 13:10). Jesus described that law as involving love to God and love to man (Matt. 22:37-40). Ellen White often added the word self-sacrificing to define that love further.

The remarkable feature about the law of God when it is understood as the principle of self-sacrificing love is that in its ideal form it is not something written but a way of life growing out of a relationship with God. Thus Jeremiah can speak of a time when no one will give commands, for the law will be written on the heart and everyone will already know the Lord (Jer. 31:33, 34). Ellen White reflects this same concept of the law when she describes the situation in heaven at the time of Lucifer's rebellion: "The thought that there was a law came to the angels almost as something unthought of." Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, p. 109.

Same principle at work today

We can see the same principle at work even in our sinful world today: when children are playing happily together, they are virtually unaware of rules; when husbands and wives love each other, no one thinks of demanding rights or throwing down commands, for the needs of both partners are communicated through a bond of love.

That is the kind of law—a law of love—that Adventists are defending. We are saying that we want to live in a world where that kind of law is supreme and that with God's help we will start to build that kind of world by loving the people with whom we come in contact.

But what happens to the law of love when people do not want to love and refuse to be loved? Should we just keep on smiling and saying nice things, as though it made no difference whether one follows the law of love? That could be disastrous, for it makes a great deal of difference whether we follow God's law. Turning away from His law leads not only to self-destruction but, tragically, to the destruction of innocent people as well.

If we recognize sin as the opposite of self-sacrificing love, then the essence of sin can be defined as selfishness. And what a ravenous beast this selfishness is—never satisfied with what it has, always grasping for more, and tenaciously defending its stores of ill-gotten gains. It is the enemy of peace and ultimately the end of life. How can the gentle law of love win against such a tyrant?

In a land where selfishness is king, love cannot win if it remains gentle. Sometimes it must shout, even get tough. But love's urgent goal is to show itself gentle again as soon as possible, for hard words are easily misunderstood. A couple of examples will illustrate the point.

Sometimes love must be firm

First, what happens when children play in a busy street? Love knows that the danger is great, and for that very reason, if gentle words fail to work, stronger measures are in order. Sometimes even a spanking is appropriate, and all because of love. But surely the parents' goal is to help the children understand, so that in the future a simple gentle word will suffice. We all like gentle words better. Why not use them if they will get the job done? Hard words sometimes are necessary, but they can easily be misunderstood. What a task for parents—seeking to be gentle enough to win, yet firm enough to save. It is a task that calls constantly for divine help.

Our second example comes from Mount Sinai. God had delivered a people oppressed by slavery for generations. The lash of the whip and the slavemaster's curse had virtually choked out the language of love. Yet God had delivered His people, drowning their pursuers in the Red Sea.

It was clear, however, that simple deliverance was not enough. God must show His people how to live. But how could He possibly communicate His law of life to this unruly band of ex-slaves? Only through thunder and smoke, for that was the language they understood. So God put on such a display of power that they were terrified—but also convinced that here was a God they could trust (Ex. 20:18-20). Yet their memory was short. To save them from certain ruin, God had to return again and again with thunder and smoke and even with the sword. When children are playing in the street, the language of love sometimes has to be very firm. What a task for God—seeking to be gentle enough to win, yet firm enough to save?

In my own experience it was Ellen White who helped me to understand that whether God commands or invites, it is always an application of the law of love. Specific commands are merely explicit applications of the law of love to specific circumstances for the benefit of fallen humanity. Thus she notes that the two great commands (Love God, and Love "thy neighbor") are commentary on the one law of love, and the Ten Commandments are commentary on the two commands (Patriarchs and Prophets p. 305). But going a step further, she sees also the rigorous demands of the additional Mosaic legislation as a gracious accommodation to the needs of the people: "The minds of the people, blinded and debased by slavery and heathenism, were not prepared to appreciate fully the far-reaching principles of God's ten precepts. That the obligations of the Decalogue might be more fully understood and enforced, additional precepts were given, illustrating and applying the principles of the Ten Commandments" (ibid., p. 310).

In this same connection Ellen White makes some remarkable assertions about the conditional nature of God's activity. She declares that the circumcision given to Abraham, the slavery in Egypt, the giving of the law from Sinai, and the additional Mosaic legislation all would have been unnecessary if mankind had kept the law given to Adam and Eve after the Fall (ibid., p. 364).

Thus a written law is clearly an emergency measure. And the further man falls from God, the more specific must the laws become to meet the need. Jesus made the point in His conversations with the Jewish leaders when He declared that the law of divorce was given only because of "your hardness of heart." But "from the beginning it was not so" (Matt. 19:8, R.S.V.).

Now, mature people generally recognize that in a world of sin we will never outgrow the need for commands. But when we recognize God's gracious purpose, we can see even rigorous commands as good news. Moses, for example, was nothing short of enthusiastic about the laws that God had given Israel: "What great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?" (Deut. 4:8, R.S.V.). Ellen White also interprets the Mosaic legislation as gracious in purpose: "The object of all these regulations was stated: they proceeded from no exercise of mere arbitrary sovereignty; all were given for the good of Israel." (ibid., p. 311).

If, however, we do not begin immediately to internalize the law so that it becomes written on the heart, then the constant repetition of commands can actually destroy respect for authority and distort moral development. The point is well illustrated in one of Ellen White's earliest counsels on education where she contrasts two types of classrooms. In one, all is completely regulated by commands, so that the pupils appear like "well-drilled soldiers." In the other, the teacher recognizes the responsibility to educate the pupils so that "they may see and feel that the power lies in themselves to make men and women of firm principle, qualified for any position in life." She notes that the "careless observers" may prefer the "well-drilled soldiers," but "the future lives of the pupils will show the fruits of the better plan of education." —Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 134.

Even more direct is a statement in the book Education: "It is better to request than to command; the one thus addressed has opportunity to prove himself loyal to right principles. His obedience is the result of choice rather than compulsion." —Page 290. Now, a given situation may be so drastic that we must begin with shades of Sinai, but we must shift from command to invitation as soon as possible, for only in so doing can we truly move from fear to love and to a relationship with our Lord that will last through eternity.

—First published in the Adventist Review, December 3, 1981

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