The Law. We know it exists. Every year we slam into it in our “Read Through the Bible In A Year” (or as I call it, “Read Genesis and Exodus Every January”) plans. It’s messy, foreign, irrelevant, archaic, and bloody. Honestly, we have a problem with it. We don’t know what to do with it functionally other than simply throw it out and say we are, “Under grace!” But as we throw out the shellfish, mixed linens, and strange haircuts, do we also throw out, “Don’t murder,” and “Honor your parents”?
How do we handle the Law as 21st century Bible-believing Christians?
My aim is to give New Testament era believers a crash course in the Law. I find it is the part of Scripture we are most ignorant about, yet is usually the first weapon in the arsenal of atheists or those who would belittle the Bible’s authority.
While you won’t find them broken up this way in the Scripture, it is helpful to understand the Law in four types: Ceremonial, Civil, Identification, and Moral. Ceremonial laws refer to the priesthood, sacrifices, temple, cleanliness, etc. These laws were fulfilled in Christ. In Christ, we have no Holy of Holies or temple because the Spirit lives in us (Eph. 2:19-22). We have no need of a sacrifice because Jesus paid it all. He is our sacrifice. When Jesus died, the temple curtain was torn in two. The entire book of Hebrews is about Christ fulfilling the ceremonial laws. They are no longer binding because Jesus has fulfilled them as our priest, sacrifice, temple, etc.
The Civil Laws pertain to governing Israel as a theocracy – a nation ruled by God. Today, we are no longer under a theocracy, but a democracy. Israel at one point even rejected the theocracy and demanded a king. Romans 13:1-6 says we are to obey secular government and submit to it because God will work through it. God is still sovereign no matter what man-made governmental system we reside under. We are not bound by these Old Testament laws because they were specific punishments for specific trespasses against a specific people group.
The Laws of Identification applied to Israel as a holy nation, one set apart. Israel was surrounded by idolatrous nations. These nations had certain markers – the way they cut their hair, things they did or wore – that identified them with their culture and gods. God also gave Israel identifiers of purity as a people set apart. These identifiers signified they were to be unmixed and uninfluenced by other nations who did not follow God and would pervert and persuade them with false gods (which they did). Many of these seem weird to us.
Let me offer a hypothetical example. Let’s pretend the Buddhists decide they are all going to tattoo a circle on their hand. They are now the Buddhist people of the circle-hand. As a Christian, you have every right under grace to tattoo a circle on your hand. But why would you want to? Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial.
This brings us to the Moral Law. These are laws that forbid such things as rape, theft, murder, etc. These laws were not new or surprising to the hearers. The Moral Law is intrinsically apparent. It has always been binding and always will be. It is an objective morality. Sodom and Gomorrah, Cain, and Abraham were all judged by a moral law. Jesus did not fulfill the moral law, but upheld it by living sinlessly. He paid our penalty for breaking it as our atoning sacrifice. Christ didn’t die so we would be moral. Our morality can’t save us. But obedience to the moral law is one way we align ourselves with God’s kingdom.
So the Ceremonial, Civil, and particular Identification Laws are no longer binding, but the Moral Laws are. In essence, the whole law is valid until its purpose is accomplished in Christ. Romans 3:20 says, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The Law was given to show us our sinful nature – not that we didn’t know we were sinful before, but we had no idea how much. The Law is diagnostic. It transcends time and culture, but was given in a time and culture that not only understood it, but embraced it (Ps. 1:1-2, 119:1, 19:7-11).
Ultimately, the Law has authority to diagnose sin, but not to cure it. The point of the Law is to point us to our depravity, God’s holiness, and our need for a Savior outside of ourselves. The giving of the Law was an act of grace. The point of the Law ultimately is Jesus Christ.