Christ the Meaning of all Scripture, Life and History (Part 1)
Chapter 4 — The Legal Pattern of the Old Testament
It is often said that the four Gospels and the book of Acts major on history while the New Testament Epistles major on doctrine. It is true the Gospels show that the history of Jesus recapitulates Old Testament history. The book of Acts also records how the early Christians traced the events of Old Testament history and told how they reached their end in the death and resurrection of Christ (Acts 2, 3, 7, 13). The Epistles of Romans, Galatians and Hebrews, on the other hand, show that Christ is the end or goal of Old Testament law (Rom. 10:4; Gal. 3:24; Heb. 10:1). Of course, there is history in the Epistles and law in the Gospels and Acts. But the Epistles major on Christ's relation to the law.
The historical and legal aspects of the Bible cannot be separated because its history is covenantal history. The acts of God are juridical acts. God presides over history as King and Judge, carrying out the covenant and upholding His law.
There are three ways we could describe the juridical nature of the great acts of God recorded in the Old Testament: acts of the covenant, acts of righteousness and acts of judgment.
Acts of the Covenant
In each act of history God carries out His covenantal purposes. He is the covenant-keeping God (Dan. 9:4). This covenant is a union or partnership based on a legally defined arrangement or treaty. The terms or stipulations of the covenant are the Ten Commandments (Ex. 34:27-29; Deut. 4:13). Whether God punishes or saves—and in most of His acts He does both—He carries out the terms of the covenant with undeviating fidelity. God acts according to law. He is lawful and just when He punishes. He is lawful and just when He saves. This is what the covenantal character of His acts means.
Acts of Righteousness
God reveals His righteousness by what He does (Judges 5:11; 1 Sam. 12:7; Ps. 48:10; 71:16, 19, 24; Isa. 51:5-12; 56:1; Micah 6:4, 5). Scholars generally agree that the word righteousness is a strongly forensic or legal word. It is also a covenantal word. It means fidelity to the terms of the covenant. We could even say that righteousness means covenantal justice. Whatever God does, He upholds the law and sees that justice prevails. The righteousness of God is displayed both in His punishing acts and in His saving acts. When God's righteousness is revealed, it is both a time to tremble and a time to rejoice. It is a time of great wrath and a time of great mercy. We should especially notice the prominent juridical element in God's righteousness.
Acts of Judgment
The Lord is "the God of judgment" (Isa. 30:18, KJV; Mal. 2:17). To judge and to execute justice are the chief functions of the King (Ps. 72, 101). The Old Testament never tires of legal or juridical imagery in depicting the relation between God and His people. When God has a complaint or controversy with His people or the nations, He is represented as calling them before the court of law (Isa. 41-45; Jer. 2:9, 29; 12:1; Micah 6:1, 2). When God acts, it is an act of judgment—whether He punishes the enemy or delivers His people from oppression. The great acts of God generally display the two aspects of God's judgment—wrath and saving mercy—as in the Flood, the Exodus and the termination of the Exile.
Even God's acts in dealing with sinful Israel are acts of judgment. He sends them into captivity so that He might judge and sift out a faithful remnant. Says Leon Morris:
Yahweh's judgment is a process which sifts men. It separates the righteous from the wicked and thus makes the 'remnant' to appear. . . .1 'To some extent ... the remnant is created by the judgment, for it is in the hour of crisis or judgment that men truly know and make manifest where they ultimately stand. Judgment is creative as well as revelatory.2
1 Leon Morris, The Biblical Doctrine of Judgment, p.23.
2 J. V. Langmead Casserley, Christian Community (London: 1960), p.12. Cited in ibid.