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The Ark

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Archives / 1978 / November



The Ark

Desmond Ford
Desmond Ford, Ph.D., is currently serving as a professor of religion at Pacific Union College, Angwin, California.




Of all the elements in the sanctuary—that "dramatized parable of God's dealings with man"—none conveyed more meaningful lessons than the ark of the covenant. Topped by the mercy seat with its two cherubim flanking the Shekinah presence, and holding within it the tables of the moral law, the ark conveyed to all generations the keys to lasting happiness through a new perception of reality.

Adam Clarke expressed the conviction shared by commentators of a bygone era when he declared: "The ark was the most excellent of all the holy things which belonged to the Mosaic economy, and for its sake the tabernacle and the temple were built." 1 Representative of more modern expositors is J. J. Davis, who writes: "[The ark] was quite clearly the most important object in the tabernacle proper. It was the focal point of attention, especially on the annual Day of Atonement, when blood was sprinkled on that seat." 2

Recognition of the fact and importance of law is basic to sanity and all effectual living, which is one reason sin is defined as "lawlessness" (1 John 3:4). All the adjectives used concerning God are applied also to His law. It, like Him, is love, spiritual, holy, just, good, true, infinite, and everlasting (see Ps. 119:96, 142, 151, 152; Matt. 5:17-19; 22:35-39; Rom. 7:12, 14). And why not? The divine law is but the reflection of the divine nature and shows what the image of God in man is. We can no more do away with God's law than we can do away with God Himself. The statutes of righteousness are not arbitrary rules imposed upon finite creatures; they are statements of the nature of God, and thus statements of the nature of ultimate reality. The commandments are descriptive of the way—the only way—all things work.

Christianity in the book of Acts is called "the way"—the way to life. Life and the Christian way are as intrinsically related as the seed and soil, railroads and trains, arteries and blood. When men deny the validity of the law, they have commenced a process of suicide. The law is protective, pointing out the precipices of life that the obedient might be kept from unnecessary tragedy. The restrictions of law are but the restrictions of divine benevolence. They are like the traffic light that stops some things in order to let others through. In all living we meet self-denial coming or going. Every act of will is an act of self-limitation, and in that sense is an act of self-sacrifice, for to say Yes to one course of action inevitably involves saying No to an alternative course. If I choose to travel to Washington, D.C., this day, I cannot make it to Tokyo at the same time. If I decide to become the President of the United States, I shall have to forgo being, at the same time, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

G. K. Chesterton, in his inimitable style, shows the necessity and benevolence of the limitations of law: "[We are told] to have nothing to do with 'Thou shall not'; but it is surely obvious that 'Thou shall not' is only one of the necessary corollaries of 'I will.' 'I will go to The Lord Mayor's Show, and thou shall not stop me.' Anarchism adjures us to be bold creative artists, and care for no laws or limits. But it is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits. Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end." 3

Thus it is true to say that God did not come down upon Mount Sinai merely to demonstrate His authority or to limit the joys of existence. What He actually did was to reveal the secrets of reality and to give the keys to lasting happiness. The secrets revealed are three:

1. The universe is run by law. It is causal, not casual. Life lived at a venture can bring only defeat. This is a universe, not a multiverse. The atoms march in tune, and therefore obedience to the law brings liberty. He who lives for "kicks" will sorrowfully reap "kickbacks." The end of thrills is ills, and the disobedient reap a harvest of sorrow while the obedient find life.

2. First things must be put first. The Ten Commandments begin with our relation to God and end with our relation to things—"Thou shall not covet . . . any thing that is thy neighbour's." He who inverts this order, making things first and God last, destroys himself. Christ echoed this secret when He said, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matt. 6:33).

3. People are more important than things. After those commandments concerning our relation to God come those concerning our relation to people, be ginning with those in our own family. Thus the divine hierarchy is further made plain. Those who think they can live for things alone do not deserve lo live, for it is people alone that are made in the image of God.

Underlining the sacred nature of the law resting inside the chest in the Holy of Holies was the fact that God specifically declared, "The soul that doeth ought presumptuously . . . the same reproacheth the Lord; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Be cause he hath despised the word of the Lord, and hath broken his commandment, that soul shall utterly be cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him" (Num. 15:30, 31).

The sin offerings, which were the principal sacrifices of the Temple ritual, made no provision for willful or presumptuous sins. Only sins of ignorance or infirmity, chiefly those of a ceremonial nature, were dealt with in the sin offerings. Trespass offerings were man dated for sins done knowingly or even premeditatedly. These sacrifices were by no means intended to provide before hand for deliberate sin and specify a penalty that would expiate it. Rather they were to demonstrate that in God's mercy even one who sinned deliberately could find forgiveness if he truly repented and accepted by faith the Lamb of God who was to come.

Thus David, after his sin, acknowledged: "Were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise" (Ps. 51:16, 17, R.S.V.). David here recognizes that a mechanical offering without the heart experience of sorrow for sin is worthless. The New Testament expresses the same truth in Hebrews 6:4-6 and 10:26-31, which clearly teaches that willful continuance of cherished sin becomes unpardonable. (Neither Leviticus 15 nor Hebrews 6 or 10 is speaking of besetting sins, against which the Christian wars and for which forgiveness avails [1 John 2:1; 5:16; 17].) Each Israelite was intended to see in his ceremonial uncleanness (for which sacrifice availed) a mirror of his deeper need, for which only the blood of the promised Messiah could atone.

Luther once said that man by nature is like a drunken peasant who when riding a donkey is prone to fall out of the saddle either on one side or the other. The testimony of church history is that pro fessed Christians are likely to err in their relationship to law by falling either into antinomianism on the one hand or legalism on the other. To deal rightly with the law and the gospel is the test of every Christian. It is true that the New Testament contains many texts that sound anti-law, but none is speaking of the law as a standard. Rather, they condemn law as a method of salvation. Law can neither save nor forgive. It cannot give power to obey. Law never runs anything; it is merely descriptive. Thus we find such passages as the following: "I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose" (Gal. 2:21, R.S.V.). "If a law had been given which could make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law" (chap. 3:21, R.S.V.). "For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth" (Rom. 10:4).

Such verses warn against legalism. But consider also those that are emphatic that the law remain God's eternal standard of right: "So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good" (chap. 7:12, R.S.V.). "Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law" (chap. 3:31, R.S.V.). "For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit" (chap. 8:3, 4). See also James 2:8-12; Matt. 5:17-28.

To perceive rightly the purpose of the law is to find both peace and security. That purpose is threefold: (1) To restrain iniquity; (2) to show us our helpless estate that we might flee to Christ to receive righteousness through the gracious imputation of His merits; (3) to set forth the pattern for Christian behavior. What is vital is that we must not think obedience to be a means of acceptance with God.

We should ever keep in mind that the law was given to a redeemed people, and its very introduction—"I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out ... of the house of bondage"—is intended to reveal a Redeemer who in love made known the foundations of righteousness and the bastions of His kingdom. (See Deut. 33:2, 3.) The Sabbath commandment at the very heart of the law pointed each believer to the rest of heart avail able for the obedient, symbolized by the acted parable of physical rest. "We which have believed do enter into rest," says the writer of the Hebrews in connection with the Sabbath precept (chap. 4:3). All who have accepted Christ's saving work have ceased to rely upon their own works of obedience for salvation, and rest in His. But such rest of conscience would be disturbed did we presumptuously do ought against the commandments of the Lord.

Furthermore, the commandments be come promises to all who have experienced that redemption accomplished by the outstretched arms of Calvary. Those resting in Christ read them thus: Thou shall not kill, commit adultery, steal, for I have delivered thee from the slavery of sin. It is the unconverted who read them only as prohibitions.

The ark of the law was surmounted by the mercy seat. God in the Shekinah glory looked down at the broken law through the blood-sprinkled slab of gold that covered it. Salvation is through the blood of Christ alone, by grace alone, by faith alone. But the contents of the ark testify to the balancing truth: Though we are saved by faith alone, the faith that saves is never alone. While all our days—and even at the judgment itself—we are justified solely by faith, the evidence of that justification will be shown by a life that not only acknowledges but also exalts the sacred precepts of Jehovah.

"The moral law, in both its unwritten and written form, is made ever enduring. No single or concerted effort of lawless spirits and men can put it out of com mission. There will never be a time while this universe lasts when men will not feel the power of the moral law in their private and public lives; nor will the moral law ever lack advocates, defenders, and champions amidst the growing corruptions of the decadent world hastening to its final collapse. To the end of all things, up to the bar of the last assizes, and beyond the crack of doom, the holy and righteous will of God will be asserted . . . by the rightly reprobated . . . and the Righteous One in heaven, who has made Himself the end of the law to all who believe in Him." 4

All praise to the Lamb of God, who declared an end to every legalistic striving to obtain righteousness by law, but who, by paying its penalty, simultaneously established that law more firmly than if all Adam's sons had kept it flawlessly through all ages.

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1 Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Bible, on Ex. 25:10, p. 430.

2 J. J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt, p. 254.

3 G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Fontana), p. 40.

4 W. D. T. Dau, Introduction to C. F. W. Walther's The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, p. v.

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