LCN Article
Better than Phylacteries

May / June 2022

Gerald E. Weston

God gave ancient Israel ritualistic reminders of their need to obey God and His commands. But He gives faithful Christians something far more powerful than any physical token—the gift of His own Spirit, capable of giving us what they lacked: a heart of obedience.

Knowing and memorizing the Ten Commandments is good, but not good enough. Israel was given the commandments in the most spectacular manner, yet the people ultimately failed to keep them. The shaking of Mount Sinai, accompanied by a great pyrotechnic display, shook even Moses: “And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I am exceedingly afraid and trembling’” (Hebrews 12:21). God wanted Israel to remember the words He proclaimed in their hearing! 

Furthermore, God added rituals to help the Israelites remember the commandments. “You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:8–9). God also instructed Moses to “tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a blue thread in the tassels of the corners. And you shall have the tassel, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and that you may not follow the harlotry to which your own heart and your own eyes are inclined, and that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy for your God” (Numbers 15:38–40). 

Burnt offerings and sacrifices were added as reminders (Hebrews 10:3) of the price for breaking that great law of liberty (James 1:25; 2:12). Obedience to that law expresses love toward God and toward our fellow man (Matthew 22:36–40). “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people. And walk in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you’” (Jeremiah 7:22–23). Yet, neither the voice of God, nor written reminders, nor tassels, nor burnt offerings kept Israel from forsaking the commandments. 

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were diligent regarding physical rituals. They wrote verses on parchment or vellum, then strapped them on their foreheads, or on the inside of their arms just above the elbow so as to keep them near the heart (Deuteronomy 6:6). Regrettably, human nature being what it is, these phylacteries became more important to the Pharisees than what they were meant to honor—the law of God. They became outward displays of hypocritical self-righteousness, rather than true righteousness, as we see in Jesus’ famous rebuke of the Pharisees. “But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments” (Matthew 23:5). 

A New Covenant 

On the Feast of Weeks, in the great Sinaitic Covenant, God proclaimed that if the people kept His law, expressing His way of outgoing concern, He would bless them abundantly. They readily agreed—but failed time after time to uphold their end of the bargain. After the restatement of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5, we read this woeful exclamation: “Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!” (v. 29). 

Yes, Israel heard the thundering voice of the One who became Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 10:1–4) spelling out the greatest code of law ever given to mankind. They had reminders—phylacteries, tassels, and animal sacrifices—but lacked obedient hearts. This is why God gave another great gift some 1,500 years later, on another Feast of Weeks, a day we know by another name: Pentecost (Acts 2). Regrettably, many misunderstand why God poured out His Spirit on that occasion. They focus on their idea of the “gift of tongues”—babbling in what amounts to gibberish—thinking that this is righteousness, while proclaiming by their actions, if not their words, that they view commandment-keeping as unnecessary. 

How sad this is when the primary purpose of the Holy Spirit is spelled out so clearly in both Testaments. Jeremiah foretold a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31–34) in a passage that is quoted nearly word for word in Hebrews 8:8–12: 

Because finding fault with them, He says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” 

Through the prophet Ezekiel, God tells us that the day will come when He puts a different spirit in the children of Israel, creating a new heart. “‘Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God. But as for those whose hearts follow the desire for their detestable things and their abominations, I will recompense their deeds on their own heads,’ says the Lord God” (Ezekiel 11:17–21). 

Ezekiel repeated this in chapter 36: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them” (vv. 26–27). 

This covenant will be made with the tribes of Israel in the last half of the seventieth week found in Daniel 9:27, but the terms of that covenant are in effect for all of God’s people today—Jew and Gentile alike. God is in the process of forming the character of Christ in the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16; 2:20). Our natural hostility to the law of God (Romans 8:7) must be replaced by a heartfelt desire to keep not merely the letter, but the spiritual intent of the law. “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God” (Romans 2:28–29). 

This key to understanding can transform us. Unlike the Pharisees, we must live by the intent of the law—to please God, not man. Our change is from the inside, and while that change manifests itself in outward actions, it is motivated not by our trying to impress others, but by our trying to do the will of God. The Apostles’ declaration that “we ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) has much greater meaning than we might observe superficially. Yes, they made this profession before rulers who commanded them to cease doing the Work for which they were commissioned, but time and again we see how human nature craves acceptance from men rather than God (John 7:13; 9:22; 12:42–43). 

The Spirit of the Law 

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave examples showing what the spirit of the law means. We not only refrain from murder, but we must also overcome hatred in our heart that can lead to murder (Matthew 5:21–22). We must not only avoid adultery; we must overcome the lustful thoughts that lead to adultery (vv. 27–28). In fact, as Jesus said, those thoughts, if dwelt upon, are adultery! Rather than doing away with the law, Jesus’ examples show that we must keep the law to a much higher standard (vv. 43–47). We are to strive for a perfection that goes beyond the letter of the law (v. 48). 

The Apostle Paul, defending himself to the critical Corinthians, explained that God “also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). If we live only by the letter of the law—without being transformed within to develop the very character of God—death awaits us, for the law brings the death penalty (Romans 4:14–15; 6:23). 

This is basic “Christianity 101”—but some still mistakenly believe that the spirit of the law does away with the letter. One passage often quoted is Romans 7:6: “But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.” So, we must ask a simple question: Can you keep the spirit of the law without first keeping the letter? How does this apply to murder or adultery? Such critics fail to understand the verse that follows. “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet’” (v. 7). 

David and Meditation 

King David of Israel made some terrible mistakes during his life, but he is nevertheless described as a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). Despite his shortcomings, he strove to understand God’s law by meditating on it day and night (Psalm 119:55, 97, 148). This is instructive. David declared, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Psalm 32:1–2). David understood the need for God’s grace, even though Christ had not yet come. He understood that sacrifices, phylacteries, and tassels were insufficient reminders and were not a substitute for a repentant and obedient heart. The entirety of Psalm 51 enlightens us about what God seeks in each of us. It is a psalm on which we should all meditate regularly. 

It is evident from David’s psalms that he spent time thinking about the intricacies of God’s law. How can we conclude otherwise when we read Psalm 119—in which David extols God’s commandments, statutes, precepts, and judgments? 

Beyond Phylacteries and Tassels 

God thundered the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai on what was called the Feast of Weeks, the Day of Firstfruits, and the Feast of Harvest (Exodus 34:22; 23:16). Today we call it Pentecost. We know that a great event occurred nearly 1,500 years after Sinai, on that first Pentecost following Christ’s resurrection. No, God did not thunder, send lightning, and scare the wits out of the people as He had done at Sinai—but He did pour out His Spirit in an attention-grabbing manner (Acts 2). 

Reading the commandments or reciting them verbatim is good, but not good enough. Those commandments must be internalized—written in our hearts and minds. Ritual practices were given as temporary reminders, as a schoolmaster or tutor to teach God’s ways to those without His Spirit (Galatians 3:23–25). But without the Holy Spirit, Israel remained carnal in thinking and action. Phylacteries, tassels, and animal sacrifices were not enough. 

God is not interested in these outward displays. What delights Him is a changed heart. God gives us the Holy Spirit to transform us, to make us different from our worldly neighbors. Paul describes its benefits in these terms: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law” (Galatians 5:22–23). It is true that different people naturally display various individual fruits more than others. Some have humanly developed greater self-control, are more patient, or are kind in their dealings with others. But to have the self-control, patience, and kindness of Christ, we must have His Spirit working in us. 

Is it within our human abilities to overcome our carnal natures? Clearly, it is not! “So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Romans 8:8–9). This is also shown in 1 Corinthians 2:11: “For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God.” 

Does this mean, as many professing Christians believe, that it is all done for us, and we have no part in the process? Paul explains that “those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another” (Galatians 5:24–26; cf. Romans 12:9–21). Do these passages not make it obvious that we have our part in the process of becoming new creations? 

To crucify the flesh means to put to death our past way of life. “For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). Or, as we are also instructed: 

Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them. But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him (Colossians 3:5–10). 

The Apostle Peter Rebuked 

An interesting exchange took place when Jesus told His disciples that He would be killed in Jerusalem. Peter protested that he would not allow that to happen. His thinking was worldly and therefore satanic. “But He [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men’” (Matthew 16:23). A similar situation occurred when James and John were overcome with anger (Luke 9:51–56). 

God does not funnel the fruits of the Spirit into our hearts and minds without our cooperation. Instead, the Spirit is a reminder of God’s law and way of life. Perhaps you have experienced this reminder when, upon seeing someone do something foolish or sinful, you think, How could he do such a thing?—and then, almost instantly, God’s Spirit reminds you that you yourself did something very similar in the past! Instead of working as an outside reminder like a phylactery or tassel, God’s Holy Spirit works from inside us. The Jews failed to understand this and saw their pharisaical handwashing tradition as a means of righteousness (Mark 7:1–23). 

A type of baptism took place when the Israelites walked through the Red Sea. They came out of Egypt to a new way of life. God made a covenant with them at Mount Sinai, but their hearts remained in their past, Egyptian way of thinking. 

So, what about you? Do you respond to the Reminder that God gives His people? Is this not what Jesus explained to His disciples at His last Passover? “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, [which] the Father will send in My name, [it] will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26). The Bible is the word of God. If we study it, will God not bring back to remembrance those things we need to know at appropriate times? Will we not savor the things of God and recognize the difference between His ways and the ways of this world? Sometimes, though God’s Spirit reminds us, we resist its urgings. So, the Holy Spirit reminds us, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19). 

We do not need phylacteries, tassels, or animal sacrifices. We need what the scribes and Pharisees lacked—the Holy Spirit. Our righteousness must exceed the “righteousness” of the scribes and Pharisees if we hope to enter into eternal life in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 5:20). Think on these things as Pentecost approaches.