Some have explained John 8:32-36 to mean that we are free so long as we do exactly what we are told. Have you parents ever tried that with your children? “Now children, we want freedom in our home. We can have freedom so long as you do exactly what you are told. Do I make myself clear?” If your children are afraid of you enough, they will say, “You have made yourself clear.” But inside they may have serious reservations. It seems such a contradiction. Of course, everything depends upon how we understand what it is that God has actually asked us to do, and how we understand the reason why He had to ask us in the first place. I believe that all of God’s laws, particularly the Ten Commandments, were given for our best good. They were actually given to preserve freedom rather than to infringe upon it.
Law, and the use of law, however, have been seriously misunderstood throughout the Great Controversy. The most notable example of such misunderstanding occurred about 1500 years after Sinai, when the Son of God lived among a people to whom He had entrusted the Ten Commandments. Of all people, they should have understood that the Ten Commandments were an emergency measure. After all, when the Ten Commandments were originally given, Moses was there to explain that there was no need to be afraid of God or of His commandments (Exod 20:20). But when Jesus came, He found a group of people who were totally preoccupied with God’s laws and with obedience to their every detail.
Jesus never had to forbid the making of graven images when He came. The Jews had learned their lesson in the discipline of Babylonian captivity, and they never sank into ordinary idolatry again. He never had to tell them which day was the Sabbath. They regarded it as their highest duty to obey every one of the Ten Commandments. He never had to urge them to pay tithe. Matthew records that they used to tithe even the tiniest things: the seeds of mint, anise, and cumin (Matt 23:23). Nor did Jesus have to tell them they should obey the laws of hygiene. He commented on the fact that they would even strain gnats out of their goat’s milk lest they should eat a forbidden insect (Matt 23:24). Nor did He ever have to tell them to search the Scriptures. They did it all the time—though they did it for the wrong reason (John 5:39). Nor did He ever have to tell them to be careful in their association with unbelievers. In fact, when they came in from the marketplace, they used to wash themselves in certain special, ceremonial ways, lest they be contaminated by association with the Gentiles. You see, they all could say, like the rich young ruler, “All these things we have obeyed from our youth up” (Matt 19:20; Luke 18:21).
You would think that Jesus would be pleased in the face of such rigorous obedience and willingness to do precisely what they were told. You would also think they would recognize and welcome Him when He came. But all heaven watched the incredible scene of those who claimed to love God’s law denouncing the Lawgiver as a lawbreaker. It must have puzzled the angels a great deal. Jesus told them that while they were working hard to obey, they were obeying for the wrong reason (Matt 5:20 and 23:28 in context). Because they were obeying for the wrong reason, they were really not obeying at all. You can imagine how offensive this idea was to them. In fact, He went even further. He suggested that if they had truly known the God who had given the law, they would have kept the law for an entirely different reason. That would have made it possible for them to be both obedient and free at the same time (John 5:39-40; 8:32, 36).
The Old Testament prophets had dealt with this centuries before. Just to mention two, Amos and Isaiah had chided the people for their very reluctant Sabbath keeping. Amos recorded their words, “Oh, when will the Sabbath be past that we may buy and sell and get gain?” (Amos 8:5). Isaiah deplores their mechanical, unthinking obedience, particularly on the Sabbath:
The Lord said, “These people claim to worship Me, but their words are meaningless and their hearts are somewhere else. Their religion is nothing but human rules and traditions, which they have simply memorized” (Isa 29:13, GNB).
Or, as one translation has it: “Their worship of Me is but the commandments of men learned by rote” (Isa 29:13, RSV). And rote, unthinking worship is an insult to our intelligent God.