Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Q & A: The Law of Moses and the Christian

Question: "Why do we still accept many parts of Mosaic law, yet reject others because of Christ's death?  Who determines this (i.e.- sacrifices, ceremonial rituals, etc.)?"

Most Christians see a relationship between the Law as it was given to Moses and what we believe.  Figuring out that relationship, however, has proven difficult over time.  The books of Galatians and Hebrews establish that the sacrificial system and regulations of the Mosaic Law have been made obsolete by the sacrifice of Jesus.  But do we continue to keep the commandments?  And do God's prescribed societal regulations and criminal punishments apply today?

Many look at the Old Testament law as having 3 distinct components.  There is the moral law, focused primarily in the ten commandments.  Then there is the sacrificial/ceremonial law, which includes the rituals related to offerings, feasts, and Jewish worship.  Finally there is the "civil" law--regulations regarding society that are not "religious" in nature--such as the regulations punishing crimes and establishing restitution.  For those who accept this three-fold distinction, the question becomes how much or which parts of this law applies today (some people don't think that you should separate the civil and ceremonial, but see only two sections to the Law).

Traditionally, most Christians have said that the civil and ceremonial aspects of the Law ended with the end of the nation of Israel's role as God's nation under the Old Covenant.  The beginning of the New Covenant at the cross is usually seen as the point of the end (some argue for Pentecost and the official "birth" of the NT church--God's new people).  The sacrifices and observances of Mosaic Law have been superseded by the work of Jesus, and the as a people of God, the church no longer is a distinct society or nation with its own civil laws.  The moral law, however, continues.  The great challenge of this view is how to apply it--specifically in cases like the fourth commandment--"remember the Sabbath day."  Out of this theology has come a plethora of interpretations, from the idea that all of life is now the Sabbath, to Sunday being a Sabbath we should keep (with sharp disagreements as to how to keep it), to Saturday still being the Sabbath (Seventh Day Adventists, and a smaller group of Seventh Day Baptists).  If the moral law continues, then this commandment should continue as well.

A smaller but vocal group of Christians have sought to argue that only the ceremonial part of the law should be seen as passing away.  These are "theonomists (which means God's law)," who believe we should still follow many Old Testament civil regulations today, as well as the moral law.  They would argue that if adultery or homosexuality are still condemned by the moral law of God, the punishment that society should inflict is the same as God called for in Israel--death.  Theonomy is a form of post-millennialism, and most theonomists believe that in the coming future kingdom, the Church will establish God's civil law over the earth.  They disagree among themselves on the extent to which these laws should or can be applied today.

There are those who argue that there is no "law" anymore, that we are in an age of grace alone, and any talk about commandments, even moral ones, is obsolete.  All three portions of the Law (as divided above) are gone.  These people are usually called "antinomians" (meaning opposing Law) and it is a viewpoint that has never gained approval in orthodox Christianity.

I suppose it isn't surprising, but I don't hold any of these views.  Antinomianism ignores the clear restatements of much of the ten commandment material in the New Testament.  Theonomists are wrong, I believe, in their triumphal post-millennialism that expects to see the Church take over the world before Christ's return, and in their attempts to link punishments Israel inflicted for crimes and sins to God's eternal purpose--even God did not demand these punishments at all times in the Old Testament.  The traditional view has been the majority view among Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, but as the example of the Sabbath points out, there is no agreement as to how moral law should be applied or understood--at least in that case.

I think a greater error is made in trying to divide the law into parts.  You do not see this Moral/Ceremonial/Civil distinction anywhere in the text.  Laws on sexual sin and mixing crops in fields or kinds of material in garments occur together.  Even Exodus 20 includes both the ten commandments and other instructions of seemingly lesser significance but treats them equally.   And of course, if the ten commandments represent moral teaching for all time, then those of us who are not sabbatarians are willfully violating God's standard of holiness.

My own understanding is that the moral law of God stems from the holy character of God, and thus moral action and attitude will be the same before the Mosaic Law, during it, and afterwards.  While the Law of Moses had a specific purpose in highlighting the nature of both holiness and sin, there was morality before Moses wrote down the Law.  God judged people as sinners from the first sin onward--meaning there was morality and immorality.  The Law of Moses was a covenant--the Old Covenant.  It had a beginning and an end.  It was, according to Romans 5-8, weak, unable to save, and brought death.  It has been superseded by the New Covenant established by the blood of Jesus.

God's eternal standards were revealed prior to Moses through God's revelations to people in that era, from Adam to Seth to Enoch to Methuselah to Noah to Shem to Abram and the patriarchs.  His eternal norms were codified in the Mosaic Law as a covenant was established with the nation of Israel at Mt. Sinai.  That covenant was not kept by Israel, and even in its final days God announced he would make a New Covenant.  Jesus came to save sinners through this New Covenant, and through His death and resurrection he established it.

This New Covenant also reveals God's eternal standards.  Jesus summarized them in what we call the Great Commandment.  "And he said to them"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets" (Matt 22:37-40).  He also said that he was giving a "new" commandment to his followers:  "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another" (John 13:34-35).  Romans 8:2 says that "the Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the Law of sin and death (a reference to the effects of the Law of Moses)."  In Galatians 5:1 Paul writes, "For freedom (from Mosaic Law) Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."  But in 6:2 he does not say that all law is bad; instead he writes, "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ."

I believe the case is very strong that you see God's moral will revealed clearly in Jesus' three statements, which would be true in all eras:
  1. Love God supremely.
  2. Love others unselfishly.
  3. Love God's people in the way Jesus loves us.
This would certainly fulfill all core issues of every part of the Mosaic Law.  For example, the Sabbath as instituted in the Mosaic Law was a means by which Israel showed their loving submission to him and trust in his provision.  It is not reiterated in the New Testament because God sovereignly chose not to include this or many other specifics that were to mark out Israel as a nation.

Someone might object that this seems too "positive."  Where is all the negative--the "Thou shalt NOT" stuff?  But anyone who understands the nature of love knows that if we love someone, there will be certain actions that we will not do because of our love.  

We no longer follow the Mosaic code, but the moral "law" behind it animates the New Covenant just as it did the Old.  In fact, this is the Law that is written on our hearts by God himself (the promise of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:33, see also Hebrews 8:10 and 10:16).  The new covenant law is the law of Christ.

ADDENDUM:  This answer to this question is not everything we should know or believe about the Law of Moses, its purposes and its uses.  It is only an attempt to answer the question as to the place of the Mosaic Law as a continuing requirement for the Christian.