The more I study, and the older I get, the less I feel I know. There is always someone who knows more, has studied further, and writes more profound words. A simple Bible study can start familiar, and soon the words start lifting off the page and strike me differently. As I meditate on the words, I will start to research and find whole volumes of books written on the passage that go deeper than I could have imagined. I think I know. But I don’t know the half of it.
As I raise my children, they go through seasons of arrogance and seasons of humility as they think they have life all figured out, only to find out they have no idea. They master one skill, thinking it will open up new doors, only to find out the new doors each have more skills to master. My second grader complains about her math at the table, and her older sister doing precalculus homework looks at her blank-faced. “You don’t even know…” she says to her little sister. I’m sitting there with the preschooler, having him trace the numbers with his finger. His mind is not yet ready for precalculus either.
I suppose knowledge has to start somewhere. As we take baby steps in understanding, there are times when we are exposed to the expanse of the road. We see how far we have to go. Instead of seeing our progress, we are humbled by our lack thereof.
As God in his mercy enacted his plan to redeem his loved ones, he took them step by step. In the process of redeeming every part of us, he sent us prophets like Moses.
What a gift the law of Moses was to the people of Israel. They didn’t even know what they had. After 400 years of slavery, a complete institutional and cultural loss of identity, God gave his people the law through Moses. It was part of reorienting them in their definitions of right and wrong as defined by God’s word, not their personal, daily desires and impulses. If what humans deemed practical and in their interest was always good, they wouldn’t need the law to tell them that their hope was found in the Lord and the Lord alone. He was to be their only God. This was lesson number one.
God redeemed his people’s bodies from slavery in Egypt and now was preparing their minds for freedom.
They didn’t want a shepherd and the freedom of his protection.
As they stumbled along the path to the promised land, even at their best they could only accomplish a shadow of the law. It trained them in many things. In their effort for self-fulfillment, they would have to shrink the law down to their size, most often by magnifying the law and studying the little parts. They figured if they could just break it into bite-sized pieces, they could handle them one at a time. The more they studied it, the more they broke it into tinier and tinier pieces until they didn’t have the Ten Commandments, but hundreds. But the law could not be broken down. In fact, it was larger and grander than what they could even fathom. The law itself was much grander than their capacity. And yet, the law was a shadow of something even greater to come. The law was a shadow of what Moses saw. What did Moses see?
It would be hard to imagine a prophet holier than Moses from the Israelite perspective. Moses actually glowed (like a superhero) —a side effect of spending 40 days and 40 nights with God on the mountain, when he received the law. After his luminous face freaked out the people of Israel, he decided to mask it with a veil. But he removed the veil when he went into the presence of the Lord (Ex 34:34-35).
It had to be stated to the Jews again and again that Jesus has more glory than Moses (Heb 3:1-6). Moses served in God’s house as a servant. Jesus was the Son. How much greater is a son than a servant! When Moses gave the people the law, it did not give them the freedom of the promised land. This silhouette of the redemption was written on tablets of stone: a metaphor for the hearts of the people who heard. Every time the people tried to fulfill the law, they were shown their hard-heartedness. Their pride would rise to the top. God did not give his people the law for them to fulfill it. Instead, he gave it because they needed a mirror to expose their need for him on their own faces.
When Paul writes the Corinthians, he contrasts the ministry of the law and the ministry of the Spirit.
“And you show that you are a letter from Christ, delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Cor 3:3)
The glory given through Moses was carved on stone. The glory given through Christ was carved on human hearts—living, beating hearts.
This contrast continues in 2 Corinthians 3:5-6, “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
The Israelites thought the law was all there was to know. They didn’t know what they didn’t know. They couldn’t fathom what lay ahead of them in their journey. How could slaves envision the promised land? How could they understand the imprint of glory on their hearts of stone? They couldn’t even handle the glory radiating from Moses’ face! They wanted him to veil it.
They didn’t want the glory. They wanted the stones. They didn’t want the person. They wanted the rules. Just tell us the rules—we’ll take it from here.
“But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlisted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their hearts.” (2 Cor 3:14-15)
They were too afraid to step into freedom: cover it with a veil; remove it from sight. They wanted rules and control. They didn’t want a shepherd and the freedom of his protection.
On our farm, our kids raise chickens. They come delivered to the post office as a cluster of fuzzy chicks in a loud chirping box. We bring them home and put them in the brooder, a wooden box with warm lights and clean water and food. They are locked in to keep them safe from the barn cats and anything else that would prey on them. Chicks hatched by their mom stay with their mom in the freedom of the yard. But when you start a chicken family from scratch, you need a brooder to gradually train them into freedom. They stay there until they become pullets—teenage birds. When they outgrow the brooder, they move to the chicken coop, where they get shut-in for a few days to orient themselves to their home base. Then we throw open the doors to freedom.
Pullets never leave the coop willingly. They must be chased out. The whole yard is full of grass and bugs for them to delight in. There are chicken scraps to scratch through and ash from the fireplace to bathe in. Our yard is a chicken paradise.
But it’s hard for pullets to understand the freedom of paradise when they’ve only known the four walls of the brooder. Part of their move to freedom includes meeting Nanny, their shepherd. Nanny is our Great Pyrenees dog. She’s a livestock guardian. Nanny will herd the chickens away from the grain bins when the machinery is running. She chases off predators. If she is tied up for a time, and a predator sneaks into the yard, the adult chickens will run to the radius of her lead. They won’t run to a box because from experience; they know the greatest safety is to be by a living protector.
A caged bird is never the goal. The goal is life with the shepherd. How can we say that the law is safer or greater than the Spirit? The brooder (the law) is often used as a place to rest for an injured bird or be kept from the pecking of the other birds until they are healed. The shepherd will use whatever means necessary to protect his flock, even from each other. It’s not that the brooder goes unused or has no purpose. It’s that its purpose does not exceed the value of the shepherd. It is never above the shepherd.
“But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:16-17).
The Lord is our Shepherd. We shall not be in want. We can live with him in freedom, knowing our lives are protected in capable hands.