Is the Law of God Bondage?

Is the Law of God Bondage?

By Kelly McDonald, Jr.

One of the claims made by people is that the Law of God, including the Sabbath, is bondage. In this article, we will look at verses used to substantiate this idea and answer the question. But first, let’s look and see what God and the disciples of Jesus said about the Law of God.

Deut. 30:11-14 – “11 For this commandment which I command you today is not too hard for you or too distant. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up for us to heaven, bring it to us, and proclaim it to us, that we may do it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will go over the sea for us, bring it to us, and proclaim it to us, that we may do it?” 14 But the word is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.” (WEB)

I John 5:2-3 – “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.” (NIV)

James 1:25 – “But he who looks into the perfect law of freedom and continues, not being a hearer who forgets, but a doer of the work, this man will be blessed in what he does.” (NIV)

In Deut. 30:11-14, God said that His commandments not hard to understand or difficult to observe. In the New Testament, John attested that the law was not burdensome and James called it the ‘law of liberty’. If the disciples of Christ did not think that the Law was bondage, then where did people get the idea today?

The Sabbath, for instance, gives us freedom from work every seventh day. How can that be viewed as bondage? There are three places in the New Testament typically used to claim that the Law of God is bondage. We will look at each of these verses and explain the meaning. The first of these is Acts 15:10-11.

Acts 15:10-11

“10 Now therefore why do you tempt God, that you should put a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? 11 But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they are” (WEB, bold emphasis mine).

What is the “yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear”? Some have claimed that this refers to the Ten Commandments. One way to confirm or deny any claim about Scripture is to compare it with other Bible verses. We already looked at several quotes in the New Testament about the Law of God, and none of them said that the law was bondage.

In Acts 15, the apostles and elders met to consider if circumcision was a requirement for Gentiles to be saved. In this account, the Pharisees also pushed for observance of the law to be saved (Acts 15:5). The fact that the Pharisees were involved is an important detail when we consider the interpretation of Acts 15. Context matters. Here’s what Jesus said about them:

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. 3 All things therefore whatever they tell you to observe, observe and do, but don’t do their works; for they say, and don’t do. 4 For they bind heavy burdens that are grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not lift a finger to help them” (Matthew 23:2-4, WEB, bold emphasis mine).

By the time of Jesus, the Jewish leaders had developed an entire code of oral law which added man-made rules to how to keep the commandments of God. The Pharisees were the most scrupulous observers of this oral law. Jesus called this a heavy burden.

When we compare Matthew 23:2-4 and Acts 15:10-11, the meaning becomes clear. The yoke is not the Law of God, but the man-made traditions of the Pharisees and scribes. In Acts 15, they determined that salvation doesn’t come through circumcision or man-made rules, but by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

CLICK HERE to read more about Acts 15.

Galatians 4:22-26

The second passage utilized in this discussion is Galatians 4:22-26, which is listed below:

“22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the servant, and one by the free woman. 23 However, the son by the servant was born according to the flesh, but the son by the free woman was born through promise. 24 These things contain an allegory, for these are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children to bondage, which is Hagar. 25 For this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and answers to the Jerusalem that exists now, for she is in bondage with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, which is the mother of us all” (WEB).

When we consider the story of Abraham, we know that there were two initial sons born to him. One came through Hagar and the other came through Sarah. We know from the story that the incident with Hagar came through the flesh and was not conceived in faith. God’s promise was that the child would be born through Sarah – this eventually happened when Isaac was born.

Paul then stated that these women are figurative for two covenants: the covenant from Mount Sinai and the New Covenant. He also connects them to two cities: the earthly Jerusalem and the Heavenly Jerusalem. Hagar is figurative for Mount Sinai and the earthly Jerusalem – both being in bondage.

To develop what Paul is saying, we need to consider what happened at Mount Sinai and the earthly Jerusalem. In the first example, found in Exodus chapters 19-24, God prepared the Israelites to go up on the mountain to meet with their God. When the long blast sounded, they were supposed to go up to meet God. HE wanted them to come up on the Mountain and see Him so that they would not fall into sin.

“18 All the people perceived the thunderings, the lightnings, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking. When the people saw it, they trembled, and stayed at a distance. 19 They said to Moses, ‘Speak with us yourself, and we will listen; but don’t let God speak with us, lest we die.’ 20 Moses said to the people, ‘Don’t be afraid, for God has come to test you, and that his fear may be before you, that you won’t sin’ (Ex. 20:18-20, WEB).

However, the Israelites were afraid and sent Moses up instead. “(I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to shew you the word of the Lord: for ye were afraid by reason of the fire, and went not up into the mount;) saying…” (Deut. 5:5, KJV, bold emphasis mine).

The New Testament confirms that the people fell into disobedience because of sin. “For indeed we have had good news preached to us, even as they also did, but the word they heard didn’t profit them, because it wasn’t mixed with faith by those who heard” (Hebrews 4:2, WEB).

The people shrunk back from God at Mount Sinai. What happened next? The people fell into sin at the Golden Calf incident. The Tablets of the Covenant were broken by Moses, and he had to get another set. After this incident, the people kept falling away from God and nearly all of them died in the desert.

The Israelites disobeyed God and were given over to statutes and laws that they could not easily live by. “24 because they had not obeyed my laws but had rejected my decrees and desecrated my Sabbaths, and their eyes lusted after their parents’ idols. 25 So I gave them other statutes that were not good and laws through which they could not live” (Ezekiel 20:24-25, NIV).

Thus, Hagar represents Mount Sinai. At this mountain, the people disobeyed the Lord. They were afraid, and it led to sin. The incident with Hagar arose out of fear that there would be no male heir to Abraham. Both Abraham and Sarah were afraid that they would not have a child. It has been a source of conflict for the promise children of Isaac ever since.

In the same manner, Jerusalem in Paul’s time was in slavery with her children. This has two applications. First, the Romans were ruling the region, and the people did not have political sovereignty. This came due to disobedience about 110-120 years earlier.

Secondly, the people also rejected Jesus in a similar manner to the Israelites at Mount Sinai.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I would have gathered your children together, even as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you would not!” (Matthew 23:37, WEB).

Similar to the incident at Mount Sinai, Jesus drew the people to Himself, but they rejected Him. They didn’t have faith (Matthew 23:23). And they remained slaves to sin, which Jesus explained:

“31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ 33 They answered him, ‘We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?’ 34 Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever.’” (John 8:31-34, NIV).

Jesus’ words helps us understand that a person could be Abraham’s descendant and still be a slave – meaning a slave to sin.

There is yet another way to confirm the meaning of the verses in Galatians 4. One great thing about Paul’s writings is that we can compare them with each other and clarify the meaning of certain terms and phrases.

In Romans 6:15-19, Paul talks about being enslaved either to sin or righteousness. In this discourse, we receive even more clarity about Galatians 4.

“15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not! 16 Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? 17 But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. 18 And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. 19 I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness” (NKJV).

Paul explained that a person is either a slave of uncleanness and lawlessness or a slave to its opposite – holiness and righteousness. The Greek word translated as lawlessness is anomia, and it means the absence of God’s Law or transgression of God’s Law. It is the same word used in I John 3:4.  

These verses corroborate perfectly with Galatians 4. We can clearly connect the disobedience of the Israelites at and after Mount Sinai with the definition of sin to slavery in Romans 6. In other words, everyone is a slave to something.

If we remain slaves to sin, we cannot inherit God’s promises for our lives. Hagar was a slave, the Israelites at Mount Sinai chose to remain slaves to sin, and Jerusalem rejected the Savior who could free them.

Galatians 5:1-5

The last verse usually employed to imply that the Law of God is bondage is Galatians 5:1-5.

“1 Stand firm therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and don’t be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. 2 Behold, I, Paul, tell you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will profit you nothing. 3 Yes, I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is a debtor to do the whole law. 4 You are alienated from Christ, you who desire to be justified by the law. You have fallen away from grace. 5 For we, through the Spirit, by faith wait for the hope of righteousness” (WEB).

The interpretation of this verse is usually misunderstood based on one detail. Many people assume this entire letter was written to a group of Jewish people ‘going back’ to observing the Law. This is not true.

Consider for a moment that circumcision was discussed in the passage above. If these words were addressed to Jewish people, then they would have already been circumcised. There would be no need to say this. This fact alone discounts the conclusion that these verses are connected to Jewish people ‘going back’ to observance of God’s commandments. When we read Acts chapter 13:13-48, when Paul is in Galatia, we learn that there were many Gentiles who received the message of Jesus Christ.

So what is the ‘yoke of bondage’ discussed in Galatians 5? Romans 6:15-19 gave us the answer. It was the yoke of slavery to sin that the people experienced before salvation (notice the word ‘again’). Prior to becoming believers, the Gentiles tried to earn their salvation by works. By viewing circumcision as the means to salvation, they were engaging in the same attitude and were in effect saying that the sacrifice of Jesus was not enough to pay for their sins. This means that they would have to obey the law perfectly without error from that point forward as no sacrifice would remain for them (Hebrews 10:26).

Paul then said that it is by the SPIRIT and FAITH that we hope of righteousness comes about in our lives This subject is clearly connected to the end of the previous chapter. Remember the mistake made by the Israelites – they did not combine the good news with faith (Hebrews 4:2, discussed above). The same issue was present in this case. Justification for sin can only come through Jesus’ blood (Romans 5:9). Our good works arise out of walking in the Spirit and by faith.

Later in the chapter, Paul explains the slavery to their flesh that will come about by human effort (Gal. 5:13, 19-21). He then discusses the fruits of the Spirit and walking in the Spirit (verses 22-24). Concerning the fruits of the Spirit, he said: “against such things there is no law.” In other words, walking by the Spirit of God leads to behavior that does not contradict the Law of God.

As we can see from these verses, there is no evidence that the Law of God is bondage. Such claims are based upon assumptions made about Bible verses and not the meaning of those verses. God did not give His people sin. The Law is holy, righteous, and spiritual (Rom. 7:12-14). It is not burdensome. It is easy to follow – but we do so by faith in Him and walking by His Spirit and not our own carnal understanding – Romans 8:1-8.

The Law gives us freedom defined by God.

Kelly McDonald, Jr.

BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org

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