Tri-County church of Christ, Watertown, NY, North Country

November 1, 2001, Vol.1, No.9.
Two new articles every two weeks. Bible Question? E-mail us.
THIS ISSUE: "Understanding the Law" (see below)
and "
The Ten Commandments, Part 1"

Understanding the Law

by Keith Sharp

The Jewish scribes divided the Law of Moses into 613 commandments, 248 positive and 365 negative (Hendriksen. 809). This included the Ten Commandments, the heart of the Law (Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:1-22). All of these laws are contained in the four books, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Thus, although Jews referred to all five books of Moses as "the Law," technically the Law was limited to these books. In fact, the Law proper is confined to Exodus chapters 20-31; 35-39; the book of Leviticus; Numbers chapters 5-6; 8:1 - 9:14; chapters 26 - 30; and Deuteronomy 4:44 - 26:19.

The Law was a covenant between God and Israel (Exodus 19:5-6; 24:3-8; Deuteronomy 5:1-3). "A covenant is a binding contract between two parties, both of whom have obligations specified in the covenant." (Fee and Stuart. 150) Ancient covenants were characteristically made between an all powerful ruler and his servants. The servants were guaranteed protection and benefits from the ruler. In return, the servants owed complete service and loyalty to the ruler. They demonstrated their loyalty by keeping the covenant rules. If a servant violated the rules, he had demonstrated disloyalty, and the ruler was to punish him according to the penalties set out in the contract. This is the way the Law of Moses is constructed.

The covenant format had six parts to it: preamble, prologue, stipulations, witnesses, sanctions, and document clause. The preamble identified the parties to the agreement ..., and the prologue gave a brief history of how the parties became connected to one another.... The stipulations ... are the individual laws themselves. The witnesses are those who will enforce the covenant.... The sanctions are the blessings and curses that function as incentives for keeping the covenant (e.g., Lev. 26 and Deut. 28 - 33). The document clause is the provision for regular review of the covenant so that it will not be forgotten (e.g., Deut. 17:18-19; 31:9-13). Both the first statement of the Law (at Sinai, Exodus 20 - Leviticus 27, with supplementation in Numbers) and the second statement of the Law (... as found in Deuteronomy) reflect this six-part format. (Ibid. 151)

Theologians divide the Law into two parts: moral and ceremonial. Most denominations teach that the moral law is still binding on us but that the ceremonial law is not. By "moral law" they primarily mean the Ten Commandments. The Bible itself makes no such distinction. Why should the Sabbath law, a part of the Ten Commandments, be considered moral rather than ceremonial? In fact, the Ten Commandments, along with the rest of the Law, has been abolished as a binding standard of conduct (Romans 7:1-7). The Sabbath is specifically said to have been taken away as a law (Colossians 2:13-17).

Jesus Himself, in agreement with Jewish thinking, distinguished between those laws regulating our relationship to God and those regulating our relationship to man (Mark 12:28-33). The first four of the Ten Commandments directed Israel to love God; the latter six directed them to love their neighbor.

To understand the laws themselves, we must understand the nature of this covenant. The New Testament (as well as the United States Constitution) provides for the separation of church and state (civil government) (Matthew 22:15-22; John 18:33-36). But Old Testament Israel was a theocracy; church and state were combined. The Law told them how to worship God (e.g., Leviticus chapters 1 - 7), but it also organized their armies for war (e.g., Numbers chapter 2).

Old Testament law was very different from our civil law today. Most modern nations have a huge body of law intended to regulate every conceivable civil issue. Thus, as society changes, new laws are enacted yearly. The Old Testament "do's" and "don'ts" (e.g., Leviticus 19:9-14) were laws by example. They were intended to teach principles that could be applied to parallel situations. Thus, the Law once given from God to Israel did not have to be amended as society changed.

The Law also contained what is called "case law." These were regulations that applied in certain situations (cases) (e.g., Deuteronomy 15:12-17).

It is very difficult for us to see why God gave Israel some of its laws. For example, Moses commanded, "You shall not boil a young goat in its mother's milk." (Deuteronomy 14:21) Why? you might ask. Historians tell us this was a heathen magical practice intended to increase the production of flocks. This was apparently a "for example" law prohibiting Israel from practicing magic as the superstitious pagans around them did (cf. Deuteronomy 18:9-12).

How the Law Applies to Us

The ultimate purpose of the Law for ancient Israel was to teach them how to be holy as God is holy (Leviticus 19:1-2). Since God's essential nature and will are unchanging and unchangeable (Malachi 3:6; James 1:17), there are principles behind these laws which will help us understand God and how to please Him. But, since God's law is adapted to man's needs (see, e.g., Mark 2:27), the specific laws have changed from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Thus, because Israel was not prepared for the return to God's original intent for marriage (Matthew 19:8), Moses permitted polygamy (e.g., Exodus 21:7-11), but the New Testament teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman (Matthew 19:4-5; 1 Corinthians 7:2).

Often, the Law of Christ forbids the attitude that leads to an act forbidden by the law of Moses, but leaves the definition of the outward act unchanged. For example, Moses commanded, "Thou shalt not kill." (Exodus 20:13, KJV) Jesus forbids the unbridled anger and hatred that lead to the outward act (Matthew 5:21-22, 43-48). In such a case, the definition of the outward act (forbidden killing, i.e., murder) remains unchanged.

If we are to understand the application of the Law to ourselves, we must understand its purpose. The law was never intended to be a permanent and full revelation of God's mind to man but was given for the express purpose of preparing the way for Christ (Galatians 3:23-25). Furthermore, the law given through Moses was never intended for any people except the nation of Israel (Deuteronomy 5:1-3; 6:6-7). Thus, with the death of Christ upon the cross, this impermanent law, the Old Testament, was taken away (Colossians 2:13-17). Now, instead, God "has in these last days spoken to us by His Son." (Hebrews 1:2; cf. Matthew 17:1-5) One who goes back to the Old Testament and tries to be justified by it has " become estranged from Christ." (Galatians5:4)

However, the Law has use for us today, and we should study it. As He called Israel to be holy, God also calls us to holiness (1 Peter 1:15-16). The Law helps us see the holy nature of God. The regulations of the Law were immeasurably higher than the laws of ancient pagan nations. In fact, the Ten Commandments are still universally recognized as the highest religious and ethical code of man, other than the Law of Christ.

As is true of all the Old Testament, the Law ultimately points to Christ (John 5:39), and we should use it to increase our faith in Him. He is the Prophet like Moses whom we must obey (Deuteronomy 18:15-19; Acts 3:22-26).

The Law vividly illustrates for us the seriousness of obeying God. Nadab and Abihu acted without divine authority and were consumed with fire from God (Leviticus 10:1-3). Korah and his followers sought an office that did not belong to them and were swallowed by the earth itself (Numbers chapter 16). The whole generation of Israelites who were above twenty when they left Egypt except Joshua and Caleb perished in the wilderness due to their rebellion (Numbers 26:63-65). These examples could be multiplied. Israelites were required to know and obey God's Law (Deuteronomy 6:6-9; 27:9-10), and so are we.

Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away. For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will. (Hebrews 2:1-4)

The Law provides a dim foreshadowing intended to help us understand the spiritual things that come through Christ (Hebrews 8:1-5). For example, when you study the plan for the tabernacle in Exodus, you will be struck by the minute detail God demanded (cf. Exodus 25:8-9,40). Israel followed it precisely (Exodus 39:42-43), and God's holy Presence dwelt among them in the tabernacle as the result (Exodus 40:34-35). God also has given us a pattern to follow (2 Timothy 1:13; Hebrews 8:5), and when we follow it precisely He dwells with us (2 Corinthians 6:14 - 7:1).

It is often and truly said, "The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed; the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed." The Law was "the copy and shadow of the heavenly things." (Hebrews 8:5) One cannot understand the New Testament fully without studying the Law. This is especially true of Matthew, Romans, Galatians and Hebrews. These books assume a knowledge of the Law on the part of their readers, and without such a knowledge many of their truths are incomprehensible.

The Law was given to Israel for their good. If they kept it, God would abundantly bless them (Deuteronomy 28:1-14). It was not, as most people think, an impossible standard to follow (Deuteronomy 30:11-14). The Law of Christ is for our good and possible for us to obey (1 John 5:3).

We can receive much good by a study of the Law. I hope that you will diligently study Exodus through Deuteronomy and that this workbook will assist you as a guide to that study.


Works Cited

Fee, Gordon D. and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All It's Worth (2nd ed.).
Hendriksen, William, The New Testament Commentary (Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew).

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