Once a month, you’re going to hear from our authors or from our team on how we study the Bible, what resources we use, and what questions we ask. Submit your questions related to these topics by filling out the form here! Today’s post is from Jen Wilkin on applying God’s Word—specifically the Books of Law.
Every January, legions of faithful Christians start in Genesis intending to read through the entire Bible in a year. With wide-eyed optimism, they persevere eagerly until sometime around mid-February, where days of slogging through ancient legalese finally take their toll.
Old Testament laws befuddle us. It’s hard to know what to do with rules about oxen falling in pits or guidelines for which insects are edible. With the temple in ruins for two thousand years, commands regarding sacrifices and priestly garments can seem like wasted space in the text. We recognize that all Scripture is profitable, but it’s unclear how these laws relate to us today. And if they don’t relate, how do we reconcile Jesus’ statement that “not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished”? (Matt 5:18)
Of all the literary genres in the Bible, the genre of Law may be the most daunting at first glance. But with a few guidelines, we can read it both for its historical significance and its modern application. The first step is to recognize that there are several different types of laws in the Bible. Once we distinguish what category a law falls into, we can read it according to its intent. Laws in the Bible fall into three categories: civil, ceremonial, and moral.
Civil laws governed the day to day lives of the Israelites. They address specific circumstances the Israelites would have faced as they lived together as a distinct people in close proximity to pagan cultures. The first major block of civil laws is found in the Book of the Covenant in Exodus 20–23. Though to our ears, the civil laws may sound strange or backward, they contrast to the civil laws (or lawlessness) of Egypt which Israel had just left, and of Canaan to which Israel was headed. For a people who had previously only known slavery, laws about owning property, treatment of foreigners, and paying taxes ensured that Israel could enjoy order and justice as a nation of free people. In comparison to the laws of their pagan neighbors, Israel’s civil laws, instituted by Yahweh, offered protection for both the powerful and the powerless.
Civil laws were binding on citizens of the nation of ancient Israel. We are not citizens of the nation of ancient Israel, so they are not binding on us. But we can still read them asking what general principle they illustrate that might instruct us today. We may never dig a pit into which our neighbor’s ox accidentally falls, but we might be tempted to disregard the property or well-being of our neighbor in a similar way today. By showing concern for the property and well-being of others, even in an act as simple as returning our shopping cart to the store, we apply the principle of an ancient civil law to our current context.
Ceremonial laws dictated how the people of Israel were to bring acceptable worship to Yahweh. They are found throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They describe in detail which sacrifices were to be made at what times, by whom, and in what manner. They also distinguished Israel from her pagan neighbors by designating what was clean and unclean. Because God is holy, His people must approach Him on His terms. The ceremonial laws were shadows pointing toward a future, complete fulfillment in Christ. They whispered truths about sin, guilt, repentance, and atonement which are spoken plainly in the life and ministry of Christ.
Because Christ fulfills them, we are not obligated to observe ceremonial laws as New Covenant believers. They are parts of the law which have “passed away” because what they were pointing toward has been accomplished. The New Testament authors spilled considerable ink explaining the temporary nature of these laws, so that both Jewish and Gentile converts could now live at peace with one another as brothers and sisters in the family of God. Circumcision, dietary laws, and the sacrificial system no longer bind us, as Christ has made them obsolete. When He says, “It is finished,” He is indicating an end to all sacrifice because He Himself is the final sacrifice. But even ceremonial laws can challenge modern day believers to examine their lives and ask if anything about their daily habits and practices distinguishes them from unbelievers. Furthermore, we can rejoice at the comparative and complete freedom we have in Christ, whose final sacrifice and perfect priesthood grant us access to God through no efforts of our own.
Moral laws undergird both civil laws and ceremonial laws. Unlike civil and ceremonial laws, they are not bound to the historical context in which they were written. The Ten Commandments are perhaps the best-known example of moral law, establishing boundaries for how people of all times are to relate to God and to each other. They do not “pass away” because they are rooted in the eternal, unchanging character of God. For example:
- The first command to have no other gods before Yahweh is given because there are no other gods. Worship of other gods questions the sufficiency and solitariness of the one true God.
- The tenth command prohibiting covetousness is given because all things were made by God and are His to distribute as He sees fit. Covetousness questions God’s character as a good and perfect giver.
Whereas the ceremonial law receives the benediction “it is finished,” the moral law endures as a guide for our sanctification, summarized in the command to “be holy, because [he is] holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16). To be disobedient to the moral law is to act in opposition to God’s holy character. To be obedient to it is to be conformed to the image of Christ.
So, the next time your reading plan or study time leads you into legal territory, don’t panic. Start by identifying what type of law you are reading. Consider the historical and cultural context of ceremonial and civil laws to help identify the underlying timeless principle they teach. And look to the moral law as the blueprint for growing in Christlikeness.
Jen Wilkin is a wife, mom to four, and an advocate for women who love God with their minds through the faithful study of His Word. She is a speaker, writer, a teacher of the Bible. Jen lives in Flower Mound, Texas, and her family calls The Village Church home. Jen is the author of Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds, None Like Him: 10 Ways God Is Different from Us (and Why That’s a Good Thing), Sermon on the Mount Bible study, 1 Peter: A Living Hope Bible study, and God of Creation: A Study of Genesis 1–11. You can also find her at jenwilkin.net.