May 5, 2015

What to do with Old Testament Law? (Part 1)

It’s a perennial question, isn’t it? What are we supposed to do with the biblical commands given in the Old Testament? For instance, do the Ten Commandments (originally given to the Old Testament nation of Israel) apply to the church of today, which is largely Gentile and scattered across nearly every nation on the globe? And what about the other Old Testament laws – about sexuality, and sacrifices, and lepers, and washings, and the construction of fences along the edges of your rooftop, and so on? Does it all still apply? And if not, how do we know that? And what actually does still apply under the New Covenant?

Well, theologians have wrestled quite carefully with these questions, and come up with two different sets of 3’s which help us understand what to think and do about the laws of the Old Testament.

One of those sets of 3’s I mentioned in this past Sunday’s sermonThe Three Uses of the Law; or, the three ways in which the moral laws of the Old Testament still apply today (famously articulated by John Calvin). I’ll come back to this, Lord willing, in next week’s article.

But before we consider the three ongoing uses of Old Testament moral law, it will be helpful to know why it is that I use the adjective moral in describing the sorts of laws to which those three uses apply!

Christian theologians have long noticed that there are different sorts of commandments in the Old Testament. In fact, there are basically three different types of Old Testament laws (sometimes called The Threefold Division of the Law). Let me briefly summarize each of the three categories:

  • Some Old Testament commands fall under the category of Moral Law – God’s commandments concerning various questions of behavior and morality. Think the Ten Commandments and other similar laws about basic right and wrong behaviors.

  • Other Old Testament commands are part of what is called the Civil Law – God’s commandments concerning how the Israelites were to govern their geo-political nation state. Think laws concerning the kings, the division of the land, the penal code for criminal behaviors, and so on.

  • Still other Old Testament commands fall under the rubric of the Ceremonial Law – God’s commandments concerning various religious ceremonies, offerings, and officers. Think laws concerning the priests, sacrifices, feasts, tabernacle, and so on.

Now which (if any) of these Old Testament laws – moral, civil, and ceremonial – continue to apply to the people of God in this New Covenant era?

Well, the book of Hebrews makes it clear that, under the New Covenant, the Ceremonial Law is now “obsolete” (Hebrews 8:13). Why? Because they were only ever meant to have a temporary function – preparing God’s people to recognize the Messiah who was to come! That’s what all those priests, sacrifices, and ceremonies of various sorts were meant to do – to point forward to Jesus! And because He, the substance, has come … we no longer need to continue practicing the symbols. Therefore we no longer offer sacrifices, ordain priests, go to worship in the Jerusalem temple, and so on. So, while there is much to learn (especially about Jesus!) from the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, they are no longer binding upon us as a rule of life.

And we can speak along similar lines about the Civil Law that we find in the Old Testament. Since God, in Christ, is bringing together a church comprised of people from every nation and tongue, the people of God no longer comprise a geo-political nation state. We no longer live in a single land, ruled by a single government with monolithic judicial, civil, and penal codes. Therefore, New Covenant people are no longer bound to the various forms of civil legislation and punishment that governed the Israelites of old. For instance, because we no longer have any land to divide or king to serve, those portions of the law do not apply to us in a direct way. As another for instance, we no longer stone people for certain violations of the law (as in the Old Testament), but punish wrongdoing according to the civil laws of the various nations into which God has placed us. And so the Civil Law, like the ceremonial, can be quite helpful to understand … because it gives us insight into those things that God deems important in a culture. But the specifics of the Old Testament’s Civil Law are no longer binding upon us as a rule of life.

But what about the Moral Law? What about the passages, like the Ten Commandments, that don’t so much give us civil or ceremonial legislation … but simple commands about right and wrong moral and ethical behavior? Is there any indication that these laws, too, have been repealed for the New Covenant believer? I don’t think we can make such a case. The various ethical and moral standards that are laid down in the Old Testament surely still apply today. It is still true, for instance, that we should not commit incest, or curse our leaders. It is still true that we shouldn’t curse a deaf person, just because he can’t hear us. And it is still true that we should keep each and every one of the Ten Commandments – concerning fidelity to God, and proper worship, and the Sabbath day, and covetousness, and so on.

Read the New Testament and you will find Jesus and the apostles speaking in just these terms – as though they believed that the moral laws of the Old Testament to be still in force, even in the New Testament era. And if Jesus and the apostles took them seriously, we must as well!

So there you have The Three-Fold Division of the Old Testament Law, along with an explanation of which portion of that law (the Moral Law) is still binding today. Next week we will come back, Lord willing, to think about exactly how the Moral Law should be applied in our own day.

Until then, I leave you with these few words from 1 John 5:3 – “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.”

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