The Purposes of The LawTo Lead People to God
Just before the law was given people didn't realize they had the problem of sin. The main purpose God gave the law was for people to recognize their problem and go to God for help. It was like a spotlight on a need that was hard to see for the people of the time. The law was like a test that revealed the cancer of sin and God is the doctor who offers the cure. Sadly the people misunderstood the law and tried to follow it to the exclusion of relating to God. The law was thought to be a personal way to gain favor with God (cure themselves) instead of a spotlight to show our need for God & His mercy. While it may not seem like it the purpose of the law was actually relational.
The laws God gave were in a sense "too perfect" for all people to keep. Thus the New Testament says in 2 places (Romans 3:19 & Galatians 3:24) that the purpose of the law wasn't 100% obedience but to lead people to God. In another sense no law can really be perfect because it does not empower people to obey the law. Having laws doesn't mean people can or will keep the laws just like receiving a large credit card bill doesn't mean you can pay the debt.
Which is better for a child - a standalone list of rules or a loving parent who guides their child? With Jesus God officially removed the list of rules so now He relates to people on an individual basis as His children. He guides those who trust Him by living inside of them and bringing love through them. God allows mankind freedom so the law was the perfect way for God to relate to people in the time frame it was in effect (Moses on Mt. Sinai to Jesus). Jesus came in the perfect time in human history and one of the things He did was fulfill/end the law at the perfect time.
To Teach People to Love
The secondary purpose of the law was for people to know how to treat each other lovingly. Romans 13:10 in the New Testament says, "Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." If you love someone you won't harm them. I have heard it said that "the law shows you how to treat people you don't love." Love prevents harm and makes the world a better place to live.
Now we have the spirit of God, the spirit of love, living inside of us to tell us how to love. We are no longer burdened by laws but blessed by God to behave lovingly. Christians are to live by a spiritual relationship with God and not by the commands and principles of scripture. While scriptures & the law may give us helpful advice they are not meant to be standards that Christians live by.
The Bible is an aide that helps us relate to God & know Him better. The Bible is not a replacement for a relationship with God. Many Jews made that mistake, replacing relationship with God with the scriptures & the law causing them to miss the Messiah when He came. May we not miss Him in our day-to-day lives by making the same mistake.
To Govern the Nation of Israel
The third and most archaic reason for the law was to govern the nation of Israel. Some laws and punishments were for governing the nation of Israel. There are reasons that the laws were good for the people of Israel and why they were better than what the other cultures at the time had. Just as today the United States has laws with punishments & sentences Israel did as well.
Instructions were given to help the judges know how to govern. The laws and judges prevented the society from being overrun with criminals. God gave that ancient culture the best system of government they could handle. God only wanted what was best for Israel but they were often unwilling to cooperate with God and live the blessed lives He offered them.
Why Did the Law Have Such Harsh Punishments & Curses?To Provide A Safe Society
Because God is all wise and knew the people He was dealing with some laws were more preventative and some punishments more severe than those we are accustom to today. The surface reason for this was to provide a safe society. People were punished for what we would call smaller crimes to prevent them from entering a life of crime and doing more harm to society as a whole. God perfectly understood how one sin leads to another so for the sake of His people as a whole He gave instruction for some very severe punishments.
To Lead People to God to Appeal for Mercy
Often we try to justify the Old Covenant laws & punishments with our logic but perhaps these laws were to speak to the people's hearts about the need for forgiveness. Perhaps this was God's second inroad into people's hearts. The first being the failure to keep the law.
Jesus said the second greatest law was to "love your neighbor as yourself." If you were caught in a sin that was punishable by death you would want to be forgiven. You would not want to have stones picked up by others to kill you. If you love your neighbor as yourself you wouldn't pick up stones to kill Him. You would instead say, "Lord have mercy on us all!"
Loving parents wouldn't want to stone their children no matter what the law said (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). A loving father would cry out for his children, "Forgive them Lord! They know not what they do." These punishments should disgust us, they were meant to. God commanded sacrifices & offerings but in Psalm 40 and Hebrews 10 God said that He does not desire the very offerings and sacrifices that He commanded. His commands weren't always His will or His desires [see this post for more: Did God Desire for All of His Laws to Be Obeyed?].
Again the law was never about perfect obedience it was about leading people to God. God appealed to whatever part of men that was "made in the image of God" that sin didn't destroy. With these stomach turning consequences people would not only seek God's mercy for themselves but His mercy for others as well. God even made stoning a public affair so multiple consciences could be involved creating a better chance for someone to cry out to God for His forgiveness & mercy. Remember Jesus' response to stoning was "He who is without sin throw the first stone." God never wanted anyone to be stoned for sinning. He wanted humility, mercy, love, and forgiveness to spring out of people's hearts and pick up their stones only for the sake of dropping them as a show of forgiveness from the community.
To Show Us The Depths of Christ's Love in His Suffering.
God had punishments and curses for breaking the laws. Reading these today we can see the depth of what it meant that "Jesus became a curse for us" & that "Jesus redeemed us from the curse of the Law" (Galatians 3:13). They show us the depth of His suffering for our sins. He took upon all the curses, punishments, & judgments that sin has ever been earned and ever will earn by mankind. What a wonderful God!
The Law is FinishedThe Law is over and has been since the cross. Jesus perfectly fulfilled the law by being obedient to God's desires through it & by becoming a curse for us, taking on all the negative consequences of not keeping the law. He took care of the positive side of the law on our behalf and the negative side of the law on our behalf.
Talk about "It is finished!" That very term refers to the law and its judgments against us. Jesus had not yet sprinkled His blood on the mercy seat in heaven nor had He resurrected so His redemptive work was not finished at that moment on the cross. What was finished was the law. Colossians 2:14 tells us that Jesus, "Wiped out the written ordinances (God's Old Covenant laws) that were against us and that stood opposed to us. He took them away and nailed them to the cross." Where were they taken away? On the cross. Ephesians 2:15 also tells us that "Jesus abolished in His flesh by His death on the cross the Law of commandments contained in ordinances." When did He abolish them? At the cross.
God is finished with asking people to keep the law and God is finished with punishing people for not keeping the law. The Law is Finished! It served its purpose. Now we are made right with God by trusting Jesus and we live life by trusting Jesus.
Goodbye rules hello relationship! So long principles hello Prince of Peace! Goodbye condemnation welcome Christ! It is finished! It is finished indeed!