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From Sinai to Golgotha

By Alden Thompson

Part 2. One Law, Two Mountains

For the Christian, Golgotha is a diamond with many facets. Seen from one perspective, it is God's ultimate judgment on sin; from another, it is His announcement of deliverance for sinners in which He Himself pays the penalty for our sin and proclaims victory in the battle against the evil one.

But that lonely mountain has another perspective, one that enables us to see it in a unique relationship to Sinai. The setting is the great controversy between Christ and Satan, and the focus of attention is the law of God, the law of love. It is in that setting that we hear the words of Ellen White: "At the cross of Calvary, love and selfishness stood face to face. Here was their crowning manifestation." —The Desire of Ages, p. 57. (Italics supplied). Satan's purpose was to destroy the law and Him who was the embodiment of that law. But God's purpose was to establish the law forever, to fulfill it—that is, to fill it so full of meaning that the law of love will be secure through all eternity.

That fulfillment of the law is what we see in Christ's sacrifice on our behalf. His gift is the ultimate demonstration of the principle of self-sacrificing love. Not only was the Father willing to give His Son (John 3:16), but the Son Himself willingly laid aside His heavenly glory to live on earth and to die so that mankind might live (Phil. 2:5-8). Greater love is not possible, and that is what we see at Golgotha.

When we think of God's law only in its command form, the form in which God gave it at Sinai, then our understanding of both Sinai and Golgotha is likely to be distorted. One might even go so far as to think of Golgotha as the radical antithesis of Sinai, as the end of the law. To be sure, Golgotha signals the end of the law as basis of salvation (Rom. 10:4) and the end of the law as condemning master (chap. 6:14), but those were simply human distortions of law in any event. No, Golgotha is by no means the end of the law, but its fulfillment.

Sharp contrasts do exist between Sinai and Golgotha, but understanding law as the principle of self-sacrificing love enables us to see the second mountain as the continuation of the first, the actual incarnation of that which God spoke at Sinai. Such a view enables us to speak of one law at both mountains and to maintain the continuity of God's saving activity while clearly recognizing the contrast between fear and love, command and invitation.

But how is it that Golgotha can be described as God's law in the form of invitation? That Sinai represents the law in command form is clear enough. But how is Golgotha an invitation?

The invitation is a silent one, and as such the basis of appeal differs radically from that of Sinai. At Sinai God's presence was visible and audible. But at Golgotha the casual observer would hardly recognize God's presence, much less that this agonizing scene was His ultimate invitation to mankind. But it was and is an invitation, first to accept love's victory over selfishness, and second, to follow in the footsteps of this Jesus of Nazareth and live the law of love. The invitation is not heard by the ear, but perceived by the heart. That is why its power has a mysterious way of growing and deepening until it so grips the recipient that he too is ready to die so that the law of love may live.

Because of the supreme nature of the Golgotha revelation, it is a common misconception that the Sinai revelation is outdated. It is overshadowed but not outdated, for the two mountains represent two radically different ways of reaching people with the good news of God's love. And even though the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is the ultimate revelation, the task of reaching people is never ended. Sin is just as powerful as it ever was, and the factors that made Sinai necessary are constantly with us. Even after we have tasted the glorious joy of Golgotha's invitation, sin can drag us away. It may be that a touch of Sinai is the only way to bring us to our senses and to life.

Preference for invitation

The complexity of our sinful human condition means that we must be fully aware of the dangers should we misapply the Sinai-to-Golgotha principle. When we as individuals stand under someone else's authority, we show a strong preference for invitation over command. On occasion I have asked church members to indicate their likes and dislikes from the following list covering the Sinai-Golgotha spectrum: prohibition, command, permission, recommendation, and invitation. Invitation has been a clear winner over time. The least popular is prohibition, with command right behind.

Interestingly, the Ten Commandments—the Sinai edition of God's law—came to us as prohibitions and commands, the two least popular forms of the Sinai-Golgotha spectrum. Now even though a committed Christian can visualize each command as an invitation, our human circumstances still make it difficult for us to appreciate commands, for human beings who exercise authority tend to overuse commands and prohibitions and even misuse them for selfish purposes. Thus we subconsciously tend to view all commands as arbitrary and undesirable. We resist, avoid, or ignore them. How many of us have been oblivious to No Parking signs and speed limits simply because we have been reasonably sure that we would not be caught? We easily forget that we are actually disregarding the rights of others and even jeopardizing life itself. But if we stand over the body of an innocent child, killed by a speeding car, we realize that commands are there to save life. Commands are clearly essential but also dangerous, for we tend to view them as arbitrary and thus expendable.

In terms of our relationship with God, another and more serious danger lurks in the Sinai approach, namely, the feeling that acceptance is the result of obedience. Children sometimes find it difficult to believe that their parents punish them out of love. In fact, during the act of punishment, it is often a struggle for children to believe that their parents love them at all. Thus the unfortunate tendency in the human environment to think of love as a result of obedience: "My parents love me when I am nice, but not when I am naughty."

When we transfer this kind of thinking to our relationship with God, we tragically imagine that God loves us only when we obey. The Christian life thus becomes a desperate struggle to win acceptance and to earn the love of God. Very few Christians would actually describe their theology in that way, but the Sinai approach, if it does not lead on to Golgotha, will certainly yield that kind of oppressive experience in which the sinner struggles to earn salvation through obedience.

Now, if we carefully relive both the Sinai and Golgotha revelations, we will discover that God has shown us quite a different picture. Far from being a God who demands obedience as the basis of his saving activity, He has revealed Himself as a God who loves us even when we do not deserve it. When God delivered Israel from Egypt, it was certainly not because of Israel's obedience. For Israel, the deliverance at the Red Sea came before Sinai, thus illustrating an important principle: grace comes before law, or, in other words, God saves before He commands.

In the New Testament, this principle of "grace before law" is portrayed beautifully by Paul: While we were yet "sinners" and "enemies," Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8-10). When we experience such grace, obedience flows from within as a response of love to God's graciousness.

Traditionally we have tended to see the law as prior to grace. That is, we have tended to see the law entering our experience first of all for the purpose of condemning. Grace then follows to bring us deliverance from condemnation. But to see grace simply as deliverance from condemnation is only part of the story. When we recognize that God's graciousness precedes His command, then we glimpse the love of God whenever He speaks—even when He commands. At times we may be uncomfortable, even frightened, by His command, but we will recognize His love.

Understanding the principle of "grace before law" as the basis of God's dealings with us also provides us with the example of how we are to relate to others: We are called to love not only good people but also wicked ones. We love them as God's children so that they will want to live as God's children. Our task is not to condemn, but to love and to offer the gift of life.

As we seek to apply the Sinai-Golgotha principle in our families and within the church family, we also need to be aware of the dangers of emphasizing only part of the spectrum, that is, only invitations or only commands. On the one hand, if we choose to use only invitations because they are more pleasant, the result often will be what Ellen White described as a "cruel kindness (Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 141). In our weakness we sometimes need a firm hand; to be lax when we should be firm can be disastrous.

On the other hand, when we take Sinai instead of Golgotha to be the essence of God's relationship to mankind, we will tend to use commands even when an invitation would be more effective. Thus we risk portraying ourselves and our God as arbitrary. That too can have tragic results. As Ellen White once observed, "Arbitrary words and actions stir up the worst passions of the human heart."—ibid., vol. 6, p. 134.

Relationship springing from love

When God seeks to lead His people from Sinai to Golgotha, He is seeking to lead them to life and to a relationship with Him that springs from love. He will invite, but He will also command. And when He rebukes, He will do so with tears in His voice, for He loves His children even when they disobey.

When God spoke at Sinai, the thunder almost drowned out the tears in His voice; but in the awesome silence of Golgotha, the reverent observer cannot miss the tears. That is why the New Testament often sounds quite different from the Old. Yet that difference in emphasis is not simply one that exists between the Old Testament and the New. Each writer in Scripture gives a different emphasis, depending on the needs of the hour and the progress of his own pilgrimage along the Sinai-Golgotha road. Ellen White noted that the writers of the Bible "differed widely" in "mental and spiritual endowments," a variety reflected in their writings (The Great Controversy, p. vi.).

That principle of variety and the principle of growth along the Sinai-Golgotha road are two principles that are crucial not only for our understanding of Scripture but also for understanding our Adventist heritage and the experience of Ellen White, as well. As the remainder of this series will demonstrate, the growth from Sinai to Golgotha, from command to invitation, from fear to love, is a Biblical pattern (part 3) that is also reflected in the experience and theology of Ellen White (parts 4 and 5).

But regardless of where a believer or a prophet stands on the road to Golgotha, God never compromises His ethical demands. The law of God, the law of self-sacrificing love, remains constant. It appears in a variety of forms, but its goal is always that experience that finds its highest joy in obedience to the Lord of the universe.

—First published in the Adventist Review, December 10, 1981

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