In Christian and Jewish traditions, the five books of Moses — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy — are known collectively as “the Law.” But when we speak of God’s Law in these lessons, we will not be referring primarily to the books of Moses, but to those portions of Scripture that are written in the literary form of a legal code. Those portions are found primarily in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, but those books also contain historical narrative, poetry, lists and other portions that are not part of their legal code. Moreover, some portions of the legal code are found outside the books of Moses.
Now, as we have said, God’s Law is not the only part of Scripture that contains normative ethical instruction. All Scripture is normative. But the Law contains the clearest and most explicit expressions of many of God’s ethical requirements, and has traditionally served well as a starting place for ethical investigation.
Our look into God’s Law will divide into two sections. First, we will explain the importance of the Ten Commandments, which are the foundational commandments in God’s law. And second, we will introduce the three different types of God’s law that theologians have traditionally recognized. Let’s begin by turning our attention to the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments are listed in Exodus 20 and in Deuteronomy 5. Various theological traditions enumerate the commandments differently, but in these lessons we will follow the traditional Protestant numbering. The Ten Commandments may be summarized as follows:
Commandment 1: You shall have no other gods before me.
Commandment 2: You shall not make for yourself an idol.
Commandment 3: You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
Commandment 4: Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
Commandment 5: Honor your father and your mother.
Commandment 6: You shall not murder.
Commandment 7: You shall not commit adultery.
Commandment 8: You shall not steal.
Commandment 9: You shall not give false testimony.
Commandment 10: You shall not covet.
Although some theologians treat the Ten Commandments as if they were just another portion of the Mosaic Law, the Bible indicates that the Ten Commandments have a special primacy over Scripture’s other commandments.
The primacy of the Ten Commandments is both historical and theological. Their historical primacy depends on the fact that, to our knowledge, these laws were the first written legal code that was received by the nation of Israel. Paul called special attention to this fact in Galatians 3:17, where he wrote these words:
The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God (Galatians 3:17).
Paul referred to the giving of the Ten Commandments as the “introduction” of the Law, indicating that this was the first time Israel had possessed God’s Law in this form. Israel received the Ten Commandments through Moses, who himself received the Ten Commandments directly from God on Mount Sinai. By receiving the Ten Commandments, Israel became the first nation to possess an extensive, supernaturally revealed code of God’s holy requirements.
Of course, God’s people still had many commandments prior to Moses’ time. We see very clearly in the Flood of Noah’s day that God had a number of standards that he expected people to follow. And when the people failed to obey God, he destroyed the whole planet with the floodwaters. Moreover, Abraham was not without laws and stipulations to obey. In Genesis 17:1, God had given him the broad and demanding instruction:
Walk before me and be blameless (Genesis 17:1).
Now, the Ten Commandments were not the only laws given to Israel as they camped at the foot of Mount Sinai. But they served as the preliminary and summary statement for a great number of laws that Israel received immediately afterward, while they were still camped at Mount Sinai. These other laws, commonly known as the Book of the Covenant, can be found in Exodus 21–23. Together with the Ten Commandments, the Book of the Covenant formed Israel’s initial written legal code. Later, this code was expanded to include many other laws.
In addition to having a temporal primacy, the Ten Commandments also had theological or ideological primacy. As we read in Exodus 24:12:
The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and commands I have written for their instruction” (Exodus 24:12).
For one thing, unlike the book of the covenant that Moses penned according to the book of instructions, God himself wrote the Ten Commandments on stone tablets.
Deuteronomy 9:10 confirms that God himself carved the Ten Commandments in the stone tablets. There Moses claimed:
The Lord gave me two stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God (Deuteronomy 9:10).
By carving the Ten Commandments himself, God demonstrated that the Ten Commandments were special among his laws, that they deserved special attention and notice, and were, in some sense, the most important of his commandments.
The theological primacy of the Ten Commandments is also indicated by the special occasion on which Israel received them. The giving of the Law was attended by thunder and lightning, smoke, clouds and heavenly trumpets. During this time, God allowed himself to be viewed not only by Moses, but also by Joshua, Aaron, and the seventy elders of Israel.
The Ten Commandments’ theological primacy is also emphasized in Deuteronomy 4:13, where Moses identified the Ten Commandments as God’s very covenant with his people:
[God] declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets (Deuteronomy 4:13).
Beyond this, according to Exodus 40:20, The Ten Commandments were also placed within the Ark of the Covenant, God’s footstool, which was the religious object most closely associated with God’s presence with Israel. The Book of the Covenant and the rest of the laws did not receive this special recognition. For instance, in Matthew 19:17-19, we read the following discussion between Jesus a man who asked him how to inherit eternal life:
Jesus replied … “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” “Which ones?” the man inquired. Jesus replied, “‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself'” (Matthew 19:17-19).
The laws that Jesus listed were from the Ten Commandments, except for the instruction on loving neighbors, which is from Leviticus 19:18 and which summarizes the laws Jesus mentioned from Ten Commandments. In short, Jesus indicated that by obeying the Ten Commandments, a person can earn eternal life. Of course, Jesus also taught that no one is good enough to obey these commandments. But the point for our discussion is that Jesus confirmed the importance of the Ten Commandments in a very remarkable way. Even in the New Testament, the Ten Commandments were still spoken of in terms that reflected their theological primacy.
The historical and theological primacy that the Bible gives to the Ten Commandments has also been recognized and reflected in Christian and Jewish traditions throughout history. For example, synagogues commonly display symbols of the Ten Commandments. And the two stone tablets of the Commandments are extremely common in Christian iconography, as well. Beyond this, the commandments have also been a vital part of Christian liturgy. In short, for many centuries Christian and Jewish traditions have agreed that this portion of God’s Law holds a special primacy over Scripture’s other ethical instructions.
Now that we have seen the importance and priority that the Scriptures place on the Ten Commandments, we should turn our attention to the three traditional categories or types of law that we find in Scripture.
Three Types of Law
In most protestant branches of the church, it has been common to categorize the various laws in the Old Testament Bible into three major groups: moral law, ceremonial law, and civil law. Moral laws are typically thought to convey God’s ethical standards, and are usually identified with the Ten Commandments. Civil laws provide for the governing of society, especially during the period of Israel’s theocracy. Ceremonial laws, in turn, are those which provide instruction for worshipping God. Frequently, these are most closely associated with the Old Testament sacrificial system, and Tabernacle and Temple administration.
These distinctions have played such an important role in the history of the church that we will look at them more carefully, first addressing some important qualifications of the traditional divisions; second, affirming the value of these divisions; and third, discussing the proper application of the traditional categories of law to the study of ethics. Let’s think first about some qualifications of the threefold division of the Old Testament laws.
Although there are many positive things that can be said about the traditional threefold division of the law, categorizing the laws in Scripture is not without its challenges. In the first place, most biblical scholars rightly notice that the three traditional categories are not taught explicitly in the Bible. That is, nowhere in Scripture do we find any definitive statement that there are distinct types of laws known as moral, ceremonial and civil, let alone instructions explaining which laws belong in which categories. Now, these categories have validity in many ways, but we must not think of them as obvious or clear in every respect.
In the second place, Scripture rather plainly presents some laws as belonging to more than one category. For example, in Exodus 20:8-11, the command to observe Sabbath is explicitly set within the Ten Commandments, the moral law. Yet, the Sabbath commandment is also set within a collection of Israel’s worship ceremonies in Exodus 31:14-16.
Scripture also rather explicitly identifies the commandment forbidding murder as both moral and civil. This commandment is also one of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:13, marking it as a moral law. But the Old Testament also made it clear that government was to punish murderers, making murder a civil matter, too.
So, as we look at Old Testament laws, we must be aware that many laws clearly fall into more than one division. In fact, it is safe to say that all the laws in the Old Testament had moral, civil and ceremonial aspects.
Think about it this way. No matter what may appear most prominently in a particular text, every law was a standard of morality; every law had a direct or indirect bearing on social relations that were regulated by civil laws; and in one way or another, observances and violations of all laws affected the manner in which the people of Israel participated in the ceremonies of worship. For this reason, it is often better to speak of different “aspects” of laws rather than placing each law into one of the divisions of the law.
Despite these qualifications, we should also be aware that the traditional threefold division has substantial value when it comes to understanding how God intended his law to apply to his people.
In the first place, the traditional threefold division helps us see more clearly that the Law was God’s comprehensive standard for his people’s lives. The Law did not just regulate a small portion of life; it regulated all of life. This is evident because the traditional threefold division of the Law reflects a genuine distinction that Scripture draws between the three offices that governed Israel’s theocracy, namely those of prophet, priest and king. Moral law corresponds closely to the prophetic office, which sets forth God’s command for righteousness. Ceremonial law fits well with the priestly office, since it pertains directly to functions carried out by priests, such as expiation. And civil law is closely related to the office of king, the governing head of the covenant people of God.
In the second place, this threefold distinction helps us interpret laws the Bible does not fully explain. By grouping similar laws together, theologians are better able to determine the original meaning and application of many laws about which the Bible says very little. After all, when the Bible gives us extensive information about applying one law, but very little about a similar law, it is reasonable to use the insights from the first to inform our understanding of the second.
Now that we have looked at some qualifications of the traditional division of the law, and emphasized its value for understanding Scripture, we should turn our attention to our third concern: the proper application of the traditional threefold division of law to the study of ethics.
Although many theologians agree on the validity of the traditional categories of Old Testament law, they often disagree on how to apply these categories to the study of ethics. Some have said that whole categories of laws don’t apply to modern Christians. In their understanding, the existence of these categories, and the proper identification of laws, provides a mechanism by which they can avoid applying God’s Word to their lives. Other theologians have said that all the individual laws still apply, but only with regard to some of their aspects. Still others have argued that the traditional categories simply help us to see how each aspect of each law should be applied in the life of every Christian.
Consider, for example, the Westminster Confession of Faith’s statement in chapter 19, section 3:
All … ceremonial laws are now abrogated under the new testament.
This statement reflects the fact that since the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Christ, God’s people are no longer to perform many of the specific behaviors that were required under the Mosaic sacrificial and temple system. We are no longer to maintain the temple, or to restrict women and Gentiles from access to God’s holy presence, or to sacrifice animals for our sin.
The Westminster Confession of Faith makes a similar statement with regard to civil law, but allows that the general equity, or basic moral principles, of civil laws continue to apply. It speaks of Israel’s civil laws in chapter 19, section 4, where it states:
To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.
Again, the basic idea here is that the specific requirements of the civil laws no longer apply. They have “expired.”
Now, it is true that believers no longer have to behave in many of the ways specified in the Old Testament, especially with regard to laws that pertain to Old Testament ceremony and civil government. These behaviors have been superseded by the fuller revelation of the New Testament. The civil and ceremonial laws of the Old Testament really have “expired” in the sense that we are not to return to Old Testament patterns of life.
But it is critical to realize that in another sense, the Old Testament civil and ceremonial laws still apply to modern Christians. The civil and ceremonial laws still guide us as God’s standard today, just as the moral laws do.
There are at least four reasons that Christians should still look to the civil and ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, as well as to its moral laws, for ethical guidance today.
First, God’s character requires us to learn from the revelation these laws provide. As we have already seen, God’s character is our ultimate standard for ethics. And the Old Testament Law reflects God’s character; it is a revelation of who God is and what he is like. And God’s character has not changed. This means that everything the Law revealed about God in the Old Testament continues to be true today. In short, the Old Testament’s civil and ceremonial laws still reveal our moral standard.
Second, Scripture itself teaches the continuing modern application of every Old Testament law, down to the last one. For example, in Matthew 5:18-19, Jesus gave this teaching:
Until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:18-19).
According to Jesus, every law will continue to reveal God’s standard until “everything is accomplished.” But everything is not accomplished yet — Christ has not yet returned. Until he does, even the least of the commandments is to be taught and observed. So, in one way or another, even the civil and ceremonial laws continue to teach us God’s norms for our lives.
Third, the stubborn fact is that the Bible consistently teaches that the Law is a unified whole, that it all stands together, without regard to distinctions between ceremonial, civil or moral divisions. For example, in James 2:10-11 we read these words:
Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder” (James 2:10-11).
In the mind of James, the law was indivisible because it all came from the same God.
Fourth, all of Scripture, not just some parts, is for our moral instruction. This means that the ceremonial and civil laws as well as the moral laws have something to teach us about modern ethics. As Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16:
All Scripture is … useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).
Note that Paul did not list any exceptions here. On the contrary, he included “all Scripture.” This means that even the ceremonial and civil laws are useful for training us in the ways of righteousness.
Now, realizing that the civil and ceremonial laws are still part of our ethical standard in Christian ethics is an important first step. But it is also important to know how to include these types of law in our ethical evaluations. After all, we have already established that we are not simply to continue Old Testament behaviors with regard to these laws. So, what are we supposed to do with these laws? What process of application should we follow?
Throughout this series of lessons we have emphasized that ethical decisions always involve the application of God’s word to a situation by a person. As a result, the standard of any law, whether it emphasizes moral, civil or ceremonial aspects, cannot be properly understood or applied without considering both the situation to which it is applied and the person who applies it. And whenever the details of the situation or the person change, we can expect the application of God’s word to be at least somewhat different.
For the sake of illustration, it will help to consider a test case from the Old Testament in which a civil law was applied to a historical situation. So, consider the case of Zelophehad’s daughters, who are mentioned in Numbers 27. According to the law that God had given earlier regarding the distribution of the Promised Land, allotments were to be distributed to families, and they were to be divided among the sons. Now, Zelophehad was a man who had died in the wilderness, leaving five daughters but no sons. According to the law of property distribution that God had commanded, Zelophehad’s daughters could not inherit their father’s land. So, the daughters appealed to Moses. We read their petition in Numbers 27:3-4:
Our father died in the desert… and left no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives (Numbers 27:3-4).
Now, if the Lord had intended the law to be applied woodenly or mechanically, the case would have been clear-cut. As the law stood, Zelophehad’s daughters could not receive an inheritance in the Promised Land. But in the next verse, a very remarkable thing happened. Listen to the words of Numbers 27:5:
So Moses brought their case before the Lord (Numbers 27:5).
Isn’t that amazing? Moses had delivered the law about property distribution, and was the supreme judge in Israel. Above all others in that nation, he had intimate knowledge of the ways of God and of the details of God’s law. If anyone should have known how to judge this case, Moses was the man. So, why didn’t he know what decision to render?
Moses understood that the law God had given him was designed to manage a situation where there were sons. And he knew that the goal of this law was to secure each family’s place within its tribe, and to preserve their allotments of tribal lands. But in the case of Zelophehad’s daughters, Moses faced the issue of how to apply the standard revealed by this law to a new situation. He needed help from God because he knew that the new situation would affect how he was to apply the law. And God’s response is noteworthy. Listen to what God said in Numbers 27:7-8:
What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right… Say to the Israelites, “If a man dies and leaves no son, turn his inheritance over to his daughter” (Numbers 27:7-8).
The passage goes on to list a number of other instances in which a man’s inheritance might fall to people other than his sons.
But the point we are making is this: God indicated that the same aspect of his character was to be applied in different ways in different situations. In many respects, Christians face the same difficulty Moses faced: we have the standard of God’s law, but we need to apply it to a new situation. The entire law must be reinterpreted and applied in the light of Christ and his work.
As priest, Christ fulfills the ceremonial aspects of the law. The ceremonial principles of the law are still binding, and we are to follow them by trusting Christ as our sacrifice, and by worshiping in Spirit and in truth.
As king, Christ fulfills the civil aspects of the law. And the church, which is his nation on the earth, is bound to obey these aspects not only by living rightly under our respective earthly governments, which are under Christ’s greater lordship, but also by directly honoring Christ as king and by keeping his commandments.<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">And finally, as prophet, Christ fulfills the moral aspects of the law. We depend on Christ's morality alone as the basis for our acceptance before God. Yet, we must also conform ourselves to Christ's image and example, seeking to live as morally as he did during his earthly ministry, and as he continues to do in heaven. And finally, as prophet, Christ fulfills the moral aspects of the law. We depend on Christ’s morality alone as the basis for our acceptance before God. Yet, we must also conform ourselves to Christ’s image and example, seeking to live as morally as he did during his earthly ministry, and as he continues to do in heaven.
In summary, the categories of moral, ceremonial and civil law are helpful in many ways, especially when we think of them as aspects of each law rather than as distinct categories. But these categories should never be used as the basis for ignoring any portion or aspect of God’s laws. As we have seen, all of God’s law remains our standard for morality, and we are obligated to apply all of God’s law to our modern situation. Every bit of God’s law still serves as our norm for Christian ethics.
Now that we have established a basic orientation toward the variety of Scripture, and God’s law in Scripture, we should explore the unity of Scripture, considering the ways in which the law relates to the other portions of God’s written revelation.