What is the Law in the Bible?

Question:

The Law. As I read through the bible I come across so many different variations of the law. Jesus refers to it as the old testament, Paul as traditions Jews hold, like Leviticus, and so on and so forth.  What is “The Law”

Answer:

The approach to understanding the meaning of the Old Testament Law has historically taken a few distinctive pathways. In the mind of the simple layman  (non-minister/theologian) this is commonly set up as a dichotomy, either we obey the Law for salvation, or else we trust in God’s Grace for salvation. The problem with this kind of “black and white” mindset, we are quickly pulled towards two extremes that are equally dangerous and likely to end up in theological calamity. In the first situation the “good news” of the Gospel is replaced by a strict legalism, one that apostle Paul readily takes up arms to attack time after time. On the other hand, simply claiming that we live under the jurisdiction of Grace and that all Law has been annulled or canceled, has readily led some into antinomianism, a position that views sin as nothing serious and of no concern to saints. The simple answer to the Law vs Grace confusion, is that the Law as a means of earning or securing Salvation has been replaced by God’s free Grace. However, a fuller understanding of the Law is still broader, complicated, and a bit lengthy, but it ends in this, Jesus perfectly fulfilled the law, yet one part of it remains as an insight into Gods moral character.

WHAT IS THE OLD TESTAMENT LAW?

In general, what does the word “law” mean? And when the Bible uses this term, what does it pertain to? Today’s understanding is that a “law” is a legal statute, decree, or order; presumably one that carries with it conditions which can be broken, and some punishment or repercussions for the act of breaking it. In the Scripture the Law usually refers to the commands of God, also with a condition that can be broken (“Do not lie”) and a punishment for the breaking of the command (“If you lie you will be punished.”) This is the basis for one type of relationship with God, a relationship that is built on a person’s perfect obedience to God’s commands, (something that all have failed on). More specifically the Law (with capital “L”) refers to God’s command as exhibited through a very rigorous set of commands given to Moses and recorded in the Old Testament.

There are a few theological views that summarize God’s relationship with man and the understanding of the Law is different within one of them. The three most popular are Covenant Theology, Dispensationalism, and New Covenant Theology. Generally speaking, both myself and most of my pastor-theologian heroes are furthest away from Dispensationalism and closest to either variant of covenant theology (this includes men like JI Packer, John Piper, RC Sproul, Tim Keller,  Sinclair Ferguson, Michael Horton, BB Warfield and etc). Thus said, this view of the Law will be written with that perspective in mind and there are a few small differences in the Dispensationalist view  (namely that dispensationalists see all of the OT Law as fully cancelled and fully replaced by a new testament Law, while covenant theologians see one aspect of the OT law continue today as guidance on moral behavior).

It is a Threefold Law

That brings us to the Old Testament Law itself. Though not explicitly defined in Scripture, simple reason will allow us to divide the OT Law into three categories. Implicit in many scriptural passages we see a radical difference in the types or kinds of OT commands; for example we can clearly see there is a difference in the command to slaughter a lamb for atonement, as opposed to the command to refrain from murder. There is a difference in the order to avoid eating shell-fish and to avoid committing adultery. The command to honor  mother and father is one type of law, that is still obeyed today (and even mentioned again in the New Testament), the command to wear  clothes only made of one textile (Lev 19:3 & Lev 19:19) is both a different type and neither obeyed anymore nor reminded in the NT. There is an undeniable difference in types of laws or commands that compromise the OT Law. The Westminster Confession (a statement of beliefs produced by a five-year long meeting of about 150 protestant pastors, scholars, and theologians in the 17th century) names these divisions as judicial, ceremonial, and moral.

Judicial, governing the the judicial system of Israel, including allotting appropriate punishments when someone broke the rules.

Ceremonial, governing the means by which God was to be worshiped and man was to be made right before Him.

Moral, governing the principles God wanted men to live by in relationship to Himself and each other.

Sometimes the actual commands are hard to definitively place in one category and there are a few that overlap or others that have parts that are divvied up in a two or three categories. Yet as a generic rule, it’s usually possible to divide commands into these categories, largely based on the information contained in the command itself, specifically what it is, what its purpose is, and to whom its addressed to. For example ceremonial laws may be addressed to the Levites, or speak of ceremonial purification, or foreshadow Christ, judicial laws are often specifically addressed to the nation of Israel and have to do with practical municipal issues, and moral laws are often explained as showing Gods moral character and what defines universal sin. Sometimes we see the Jesus using the word Law and referring to only one aspect of law; Jesus said the whole Law is based on the command to love God and people (Matthew 22:37-38,39-40) yet laws to avoid intermingling with other nations or to wear clothing made from only one type of fabric clearly doesn’t fit Christ’s description, because Christ is describing moral law. A more comprehensive explanation of each type is below.

Judicial Law in detail

Judicial laws are those which were specifically given for the dual purpose of formulating the national identity of Israel and setting up a system of judicial punishment. In Deut 4:8 the Lord tells Israel “what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?” In this God is designating that some parts of the Law are highly relevant to the identity of Israel as a theocratic nation (one in which God is the judicial ruler or “head of government”). For example, a part of the Law mandates that Israelites do not intermarry with other nations (Deut. 7:1-8) this command is hardly the “moral” thing to do (especially today), however, it reflects the desire to keep the nation of Israel in ethnic purity as well as maintaining the material possession of Israel within the Hebrew bloodline. Another example is the command by God to inflict capital punishment (the death sentence) upon those who committed certain sins (Ex. 31:14-15; Lev. 24:16; Ex. 22:20; Lev. 20:27). This is commanded for Israel as a nation to carry out, because such offenses were judicial offenses against the judicial ruler of the nation, God. A third example of judicial law is the numerous land and property laws in Scripture, for example Lev. 25:10-17,25; and Num. 36:7-9.

These rules relate to lands and possessions of the nation of Israel and following or obeying such laws today is irrelevant since the theocratic nation of Israel was designed by God to exist for a time; and Israels special love has been replaced by Gods love for the Church. The other judicial aspects of the law have also been fulfilled and annulled by Jesus.

Ceremonial Law in detail

The second category within the Law is the numerous and precise prescriptions for certain ceremonies, rites, and rituals. The ceremonial law is regarded as the tutor of Israel which was given in order to teach how God was to be worshiped in the OT with the intention of looking forward to the future.  For example we can see the numerous animal sacrifices that were commanded in order to give glimpses of Christ to come (Lev 16:29-34). The law said that the sacrificial lamb had to be perfect (Lev 22:21) but it did this not because that is the morally right thing to do, but because this showed a type or prophetic image of Jesus the perfect lamb. The high priest, Aaron was commanded to come into the Holy of Holies to make atonement for himself (Lev 16:6) and then slaughter the scapegoat (which symbolized Christ) and use the blood to purify the people for their sins (Lev 16:15-16). These very graphic and bloody ceremonies, commanded by God, taught of greater realities to come. Another example is the numerous Levitical and priestly laws (Num 16:5; Lev 21:17-23). Just like the lamb imagery, these laws were also vital in teaching about a future high priest who would atone for his people; the book of Hebrews names this High Priest Jesus.

Today Christ is revealed fully and has accomplished openly what was shown through types and shadows, and for this reason the ceremonial laws are not followed. To go back to following the ceremonial law would be analogous to focusing only on pencil sketches of your spouse after obtaining a high definition video of them.

Moral Law in detail

The final category of law is classified as moral law. This is by far the most well known and popular thing that people think of when they think of Gods laws or Gods commands. This grouping usually refers to directives and commands which explicitly show the nature of God and the morality of God. These rules specify the difference between what is inherently good and bad. The ten commandments are generally given as a good example of moral law, although there are also some aspects of other laws, namely ceremonial in the ten commandments. The first three commandments are teachings on the proper moral relationship of man to God, including issues of heart and worship including idolatry (Ex. 20:2-7). The next commandment about the Sabbath (Ex 20:8-10) is often contested, as the meaning of Sabbath is highly ceremonious and symbolical, especially because in the NT “Sabbath” represents the ‘rest’ found in God (Heb 4:9). The next six dictate the proper relationship between other members of the human race, including treating your fellow man with respect and love. (Ex 20:12-17). There are many other moral laws in the Old Testament. This is where a huge distinction must be made, the Moral Law in the OT was given that all who perfectly follow it can be saved, which everyone fails.

The OT moral law was given in a covenant with works as a source of salvation. This old covenant of works has ended and has been replaced by the covenant of Grace in Jesus Christ. As a general rule most of the OT moral laws are affirmed in the new testament but because of the new covenant relationship the “Law of God,” which was to be followed perfectly, has been replaced by the “Law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:21; Gal 6:2).. The Law of Christ has the same “moral laws” but they are not followed under the covenant of works, to earn salvation, they are followed under Grace. This mean the Holy Spirit helps us walk in accordance to our calling and gives us victory over sin in order that we may fulfill the law of Christ.

WHAT IS THE MAIN PURPOSE OF THE LAW?

Judicial Law

To set up Israel as a chosen people, a Theocracy (nation ruled and governed completely by God) and to create a standard of punishment for all disobedience against this same God. This made Israel the only nation that has access and community with God by following the judicial and municipal rules of God.

Ceremonial Law

To prophetically foreshadow the coming of a Messiah that would bear upon himself the “iniquity of us all.” To teach concepts and ideas about Jesus that were expressed in types and analogous rituals or rites.

Moral Law

To declare the unchanging moral character of God, and to show the degree of perfection needed to obtain right standing with God. To condemn all those who failed in their self righteous attempt to earn salvation. (Rom 3:20)

WHAT LAW DID JESUS FULFILL?

In Matthew 5:17-20 we read a tremendous statement by Jesus, that he didn’t come to abolish or neglect the law, on the contrary he came to fulfill it. So how does Jesus fulfill the different categories of the law?

Judicial Law

Jesus fulfilled the judicial law by personifying Gods perfect justice and being punished under the law for the sins of all who would believe upon him. The death of Christ ended the superiority of one small nation and thus the old kingdom (Israel) was replaced by a greater and eternal kingdom (church). The old form of justice, our death for sin, was replaces by a better form of justice, the penal atonement of Christ on the cross.

Ceremonial Law

Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial law by being the direct prophetic fulfillment and personification of ceremonial law. He is the perfect and spotless lamb, he is the scapegoat upon whom all punishment went, he is atonement for our sins, he is the high priest who intercedes for our behalf. He fulfilled it not by simply obeying it, but by becoming the personal embodiment of it.

Moral Law

Jesus fulfilled the moral law by keeping it perfectly and becoming the personification of obedience. He obeyed Gods moral commands perfectly and flawlessly and by his Grace credits his obedience, righteousness, and goodness to us, free of charge.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR ME?

This means that you and I, and whoever believes in Jesus for their justification before God, will not be judged under the Law. God has, through Jesus, fulfilled it instead of us. The very thing that was “impossible for man” became “possible for God,” to do on our behalf. Our relationship to the Old Testament Law is to understand that Jesus fulfilled all three parts (judicial, ceremonial, moral ) by being the sinless Lamb of God who took our judicial punishment and created a new Kingdom with us in it. Furthermore, we can look at the last category in the Law, which is confirmed by the New Testament and perfectly fulfilled by Jesus, as the “Law of Christ” and obey this moral law, not because we can be saved by it, but because God already saved us and as being children we are called to live consistent with our Fathers character.

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