Here is how you can know which laws in the Old Testament were changed or are no longer necessary, and which we are commanded to observe today! New Christians often ask: "When I read the Old Testament, how can I know the difference between the ceremonial laws no longer binding on the Church, and those laws that have authority today?"
Christian growth depends in no small measure on understanding the answer to this basic question.
Ten Commandments have authority The patriarch Abraham kept the Commandments. "Abraham obeyed My voice," said God, "and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws" (Gen. 26:5).
God's basic spiritual law that regulates human life is authoritative. It is "holy and just and good," said Paul in Romans 7:12- 14. This law is summed up in the Ten Commandments God gave to Israel on Mt. Sinai. The Ten Commandments were not new - only the written, codified form in which God spoke and wrote them was new.
David was inspired to write: "All his commandments are sure. They stand fast for ever and ever, and are done in truth and uprightness" (Ps. 111:7-8, Authorized Version).
Jesus said: "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill" (Matt. 5:17).
God's Church believes David. It believes Jesus. It does what He commands. He is, after all, the Head of the Church of God!
Other laws based on Ten Commandments Abraham kept the Ten Commandments. He also kept God's statutes and laws. What were these statutes and laws?
In addition to the broad principles of the Ten Commandments, God gave to the patriarchs statutes for the general well-being of the people, together with judgments for the protection of everyone's legal rights.
Statutes are lesser expressions of a lawmaker, usually commanding or forbidding that certain things be done. Judgments are binding decisions of judges based on God's previously revealed law. These decisions are used to settle similar future disputes and to render a sentence or verdict.
In general the Ten Commandments apply to individual conduct, the statutes to national or Church affairs and the judgments to decisions rendered according to the principles of the Ten Commandments and the statutes.
The world had strayed so far from the truth by the days of Moses that God had to reveal His laws and statutes anew to the Israelites. Ancient Israel had lost much of the knowledge of God's ways while in Egyptian bondage. Notice, however, that God was revealing laws that were already in force.
In Exodus 16:28 God challenged Israel, "How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My laws?" Israel could not refuse what did not exist!
In Exodus 18:16 we read that Moses explained to his father-in-law what he did when the people had a dispute: "I make known the statutes of God and His laws."
Both these instances occurred before the nation reached Sinai — before the covenant was made.
As these statutes and laws existed before the covenant made at Sinai, they were not thereby abolished in A.D. 31 at the death of Christ. The Old Covenant could not destroy what it did not bring into force.
The Old Covenant, remember, was a marriage agreement in which Israel promised to obey the Eternal (Christ) who was the Husband, and He, in turn, promised to provide for the nation. To obey the Husband meant to keep God's laws that were already in force!
Magnifying the law The statutes and lesser laws of God magnify the Ten Commandments. The First Commandment says, for example, "You shall have no other gods before Me" (Ex. 20:3). The statutes regarding annual festivals magnify this principle — explain how, in a positive way, to ensure that one worships the one true God: "Three times you shall keep a feast to Me in the year" (Ex. 23:14).
Many additional laws — such as Exodus 22:16, 19, for example — specify in greater detail how the principle of the Seventh Commandment, "You shall not commit adultery" (Ex. 20:14), is to be applied in various instances.
Notice also that God made provision for additional judgments to be established over the centuries (see Numbers 27:6-11, for example). The judgments are binding decisions based on God's previously revealed law.
But when did the carnal ceremonies and sacrifices of the Levitical priesthood begin? When did they cease to have force and effect? And how can we distinguish them from the statutes and laws that existed before the covenant made at Sinai?
When did sacrificial laws begin? When God brought Israel to the foot of Mt. Sinai, He gave the Ten Commandments to them. He allowed Moses to declare to Israel the statutes and judgments that the people didn't want to hear directly from God (Ex. 20-24). These statutes and judgments magnify the Ten Commandments.
Now notice carefully. There is only one sacrifice mentioned thus far in the book of the law — the Passover sacrifice (Ex. 23:18). God called it "My sacrifice."
The Passover was instituted in Egypt, weeks before Sinai. It had to be included in the covenant made at Sinai, but it was not instituted by that covenant.
Next, turn to Jeremiah 7:22-23. Listen to what the inspired Jeremiah wrote: " For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak... or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them, 'Obey my voice... and walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you'" (Revised Standard Version).
God did not command these added sacrifices to be offered originally. This explains why none of those temporary sacrifices were perpetuated by different symbols in the New Testament Church.
Only the Passover is continued — with the different New Testament symbols of unleavened bread and wine. Why is the Passover continued today? Because it began before the covenant at Sinai was made! (See its institution in Exodus 12 before the Israelites left Egypt.) The very fact that Jesus substituted unleavened bread and wine for the Passover only, and not for the temporary Levitical offerings, is proof that the ceremonial Old Testament offerings are not binding today, but that the Passover, in its New Testament form, is binding!
Paul explains that the temporary rituals and sacrifices were afterward "added because of transgressions" (Gal. 3:19) — because God's spiritual law was being broken — to last until Christ should come. They foreshadowed the sacrifice of Christ and were a "reminder of sins" to teach the people the need of the Messiah — the true Passover Lamb — who would pay the penalty of human transgression (Heb. 10:3-10).
Notice that these temporary rituals did not define sin. They were reminders of sin. God's spiritual laws define sin. The laws that define sin — that explain what sin is — these laws we are to keep today.
Sacrifices forever? The principle of voluntary offering of sacrifices existed before Moses. Abel made offerings to God, for instance (Gen. 4:3-4). But in the period from Moses to Christ the practice of giving offerings was reduced to a ritualistic plane and regulated in great detail. Why?
Because the children of Israel were without promise of the Holy Spirit. They could not offer themselves in spiritual obedience to God (Deut. 29:4), so they performed ritualistic washings and offered animals and other physical types instead — as a type of the true spiritual worship to come (John 4:24).
They needed to be reminded of Jesus' then future sacrifice, so God gave them physical types in the "law of Moses," "till the Seed should come" (Gal. 3:19).
Today, however, we offer spiritual offerings and sacrifices. We are being "built into... a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (l Pet. 2:5, RSV).
We are to present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy, well pleasing to God, our spiritual service (Rom. 12:1).
It is a spiritual principle to offer one's self in living obedience — to sacrifice the self — to God. God Almighty is worthy to receive such service.
"But," some have asked, "weren't the Levitical sacrifices ordained forever?" Let us look at what the Bible really says. We may find some surprises.
Yes, the Bible does say that the sacrificial rites and other ritualistic functions belong to the Levitical priesthood forever. But nowhere are the people commanded to offer bloody sacrifices forever. Let us understand the real significance of the Hebrew word olam, translated "forever." It means continuous, so long as the factors involved exist.
Take, for example, the three statements found in Exodus 21:6, Leviticus 25:46 and Deuteronomy 15:17. All three speak of men being the slaves of a master forever, which obviously can only mean continuous until the death of one of the parties.
Now what factors may limit the duration of the offering of sacrifices? One, the need of a physical, human priesthood. Two, the need for sacrifices. And three, the existence of a temple or tabernacle.
In other words, as long as sacrifices are offered, the functions of the physical priesthood will never be transferred from the family of Levi. It is theirs forever. "For if He [Christ] were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer the gifts according to the law" (Heb. 8:4).
The physical priesthood is Aaron's, of the tribe of Levi. The spiritual priesthood is Jesus', who is of the order of Melchizedek, not Aaron.
What is the purpose of a priesthood? To offer sacrifices and to act on behalf of men in relation to God (Heb. 5:1, 8:3). But how long do physical offerings as reminders of sin need to be made? Paul tells us, "Now where there is remission of these [sins], there is no longer an offering for sin" (Heb. 10:18).
To offer sacrifices today as reminders of sins already paid for by Jesus, who gave His life in full payment for all sins, is needless after A.D. 31, when Jesus died to pay for the sins of the world. God signaled this fact to the Jews in A.D. 70 by allowing the destruction of the Temple.
Moreover, since the Holy Spirit was made available to mankind beginning Pentecost, June 17, A.D. 31, physical offerings and various washings, which are types of the Holy Spirit, are no longer needed and hence no longer binding. The factors involved ceased to exist.
The ritual laws were subject to change because they were only types of the promised seed, Christ (who was to take upon Himself the sins of the world), and of the Holy Spirit, which would regenerate men spiritually.
When the circumstances were altered in A.D. 31, at the crucifixion and on Pentecost, the obligation to practice the ritualistic laws ceased. These rituals had no further use when the Lamb of God died for our sins and the Holy Spirit became available.
But what about spiritual laws?
Spiritual laws describe the very character of God. They enable us to know what God is like. Since the character of God remains unchanging (Mal. 3:6, Heb. 13:8), God's spiritual laws cannot change.
Ritual laws distinguished from others In Hebrews 9:9-10 we read of the material gifts and sacrifices, which included "only... foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation."
Notice that these temporary laws did not pertain to murder or theft or Sabbath breaking but were only those ordinances regulating meat and drink offerings and different washings or ablutions of the unclean. (These external washings were a type of the Holy Spirit cleaning us up from within.)
Any other laws not included in Hebrews 9:10 were not part of the rituals added because of sin!
Remember this point!
It will help you to know which rites in the Old Testament were added to the statutes and judgments already in existence.
What is the law of Moses? Some people are easily confused by the trick argument of some that the Ten Commandments are the law of Moses. They read in Luke 2:22-24 that the ordinances of the "law of Moses" are also called part of the " law of the Lord."
Why is the "law of Moses" also called the "law of the Lord"? Because all law comes from God! Moses was not the lawmaker! He merely told the people the laws God set in motion (John 1:17).
However, the Bible never calls the law of Moses the Ten Commandments. The law of Moses comprises civil statutes and judgments that God gave him to communicate to the people. The difference between the law of Moses and the Ten Commandments is that God spoke the Ten Commandments, but Moses delivered the statutes and judgments.
When Moses first delivered the statutes and judgments, the law of Moses had no sacrifices connected with it. Jeremiah said so (Jer. 7:22)! The law of Moses was originally the civil law, based on the principles of the Ten Commandments. These civil statutes and judgments are also right and good (Ps. 119:7-8). Some of these civil laws were included in the covenant made at Sinai (Ex. 21- 24) and others were promulgated at later times (Deut. 12:1 and following chapters, for example).
After the ratification of the Sinaitic Covenant (Ex. 24), the Levitical priesthood was established and the laws regulating offerings were added to the law of Moses (Ex. 28:1). (Before this time offerings were voluntary and young men were priests — Ex. 24:5.)
Therefore the law of Moses has more than one part!
Notice God's definition of the original part of that law in Malachi 4:4, RSV: "Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel."
This law we are not to forget. We are to keep it!
But added later to this law were other statutes regulating material rituals, such as sacrifices, lighting of candles, burning incense and various washings for the unclean. This almost unnoticed fact, that the law of Moses was composed of two distinct parts — the civil and the ritualistic — is what causes so much difficulty in understanding.
Part of law of Moses still in force Jesus said the two great commandments were love to God and love to neighbor. Do you know from where He quoted these laws?
Out of the book of the law — the laws that Moses spoke to the people! Read it in Leviticus 19:18 and Deuteronomy 6:5.
In II John 5 and 6, God commands Christians to obey these two basic laws that He communicated to the people by Moses. In II Kings 23:25, Josiah is praised because he did so.
Notice how plain it is. The civil law of Moses expounds the Ten Commandments by revealing how the 10 basic principles are to be applied. We are to keep this part of the law, not in the old strictness of the letter, but according to its full spirit and intent.
Then why do we read in Acts 15 that gentile converts do not have to observe the "law of Moses," except for four points? The answer is made plain in Acts 21:21.
The law of Moses, here called in question, involved "customs." Read it for yourself. The Jews were mistakenly accusing Paul, saying that he taught Jews living abroad "that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs" (Acts 21:21)!
The controversy in the early Church did not involve the spiritual intent of the original civil law of Moses. It involved the ceremonial additions to the original civil law of Moses — customs — added ceremonies or rituals.
Why four points specified in Acts 15 This fact is further proven by noticing the four points, included in the law of Moses, which are binding on all Christians everywhere. We are not to eat blood, animals that have been strangled or meats offered to idols (when another's conscience could be defiled), or to commit fornication (Acts 15:20).
These four points were originally part of the civil law of Moses. But these points were also included later within the added ceremonies because gentiles ate their sacrifices with the blood, often strangled their animals, presented them to idols and commonly committed fornication in their religious ceremonies.
To prevent these pagan customs being practiced by Israel, God included the four civil points of the law along with the rituals (Lev. 17:7, 10, Num. 25:1-3).
Because some newly converted Christians would have thought, therefore, that they were abolished along with the temporary rituals when those ceremonies were declared no longer binding (in Acts 15), these four points had to be specifically declared still in effect. Since these four points were part of the civil law before the addition of the rituals, they remained binding after the need of the physical sacrifices and washings ceased.
The civil law of Moses that defined sin was not called in question in Acts 15 — it was not involved. (Paul, of course, explained elsewhere that the civil law, formerly administered in the letter, was now to be observed in the spirit and full intent of its meaning — II Cor. 3.)
The many civil laws regulating tithing, clean and unclean meats and the annual Sabbaths are still for the New Testament Church because they help explain what sin is. They were not part of the ceremonial law of Moses mentioned in Hebrews 9:10 and in Acts 15.
One other point must be clarified. Certain Jews accused Paul of teaching that Jews should not circumcise their children, a custom instituted long before the law of Moses and therefore not really a part of it. This accusation was false.
And even for gentile Christians circumcision, in its spiritual intent, is not done away — like the Ten Commandments, is still in force. But, like the Passover, the manner of circumcision is now of the heart, not of the male foreskin (Rom. 2:28-29, Col. 2:11, Deut. 10:16, 30:6), though of course Jewish Christians also continued to practice physical circumcision.
A different administration Now let us consider the use of the death penalty in Old Testament times.
In Matthew 5, Jesus gave instructions not for a civil government as in the Old Testament but for a spiritual Church.
Jesus commenced by saying He came to fulfill the law, not to destroy it. He then proceeded to magnify the application of the civil laws as they were given to ancient Israel — not abolishing them, but magnifying them and making them more honorable (Isa. 42:21).
He raised them from narrow, national laws, given to a nation to be administered according to the strict letter, to a spiritual plane regulating the whole of human society. Six times Jesus said: "You have heard that it was said to those of old... But I say to you..." And He then proceeded to expound the spiritual principles underlying the civil laws of Moses.
An eye for an eye? The intent and underlying principle of the law of God is love of God and neighbor (Matt. 22:36-40). For a Spirit-begotten New Testament Church, Christ showed how to love our fellowmen better.
But the instructions given to Moses about "an eye for an eye" were not intended as some people take them. They were laws set up to regulate one human society, with all its faults, in a fair and just manner. And these principles are still in effect today.
Many have read the command in Exodus 21:24-25 with shocked amazement at the assumed cruelty of the God of the Old Testament. They suppose anyone causing a person accidentally to lose an eye would immediately be seized, held and have his eye gouged out in just retribution!
But is this a right understanding of the verse?
The context in which we find this command of "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" is explaining the principle of just recompense for any wrong done.
The very next verse shows that if a person causes his slave to lose his eye or tooth, the slave must be freed as a payment for the injury — workmen's compensation.
Verses 18 and 19 discuss the matter of one person injuring another. What is the punishment? "He shall only pay for the loss of his time, and shall provide for him to be thoroughly healed." It was a matter of payment or recompense — not revenge by inflicting the same injury.
Then verse 22 shows that a person should be punished if he causes a pregnant woman to have a miscarriage. What is the punishment in this case? Again it is that "he shall pay as the judges determine. "
The whole context of the "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" command is concerned with the matter of just recompense or payment for the injury caused — an "eye-value" for an eye, a "tooth-value" for a tooth.
Why did Moses give the spiritual principles only in the letter to ancient Israel?
Why the "letter of the law"? Ancient Israel was a national church — a nation organized into the congregation of Israel. The people did not have the promise of the Holy Spirit; they were a nation of this world. Moses said they did not even have the power of will to keep what little he commanded them (Deut. 5:29).
Paul said, "The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God" (Rom. 8:7). For that reason letter-of-the-law Israel needed punishments for lawbreakers to keep peace and ensure obedience in the land. God ordained that human judges exercise certain of His divine prerogatives and execute punishments on their fellowmen.
The One who became Jesus — the Lord who spoke to Moses — gave the civil law to Moses in the strict letter at Mt. Sinai for a physical church.
Almost 15 centuries later that same Jesus emphasized the spiritual intent of the law. He also made it possible for the members of His spiritual Church — the New Testament Church of God to keep all His spiritual laws by sending God's Holy Spirit!