[This post is one of the sections from our recently published Bible study guide available for free download]
The book of Exodus contains the narrative of Moses and the miraculous liberation of the Hebrew people from Egypt. This narrative takes up a large section of the book. The detailed Old Testament law is found in the later chapters of Exodus onward through the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Much of this study guide will focus on the Old Testament law (also called the Mosaic law) and it is necessary to make a few initial remarks about the contemporary significance of these books.
The role that the Mosaic law is to play in the lives of Christians living under the New Covenant is a controversial subject. Those who hold to what is known as Theonomy believe that the Mosaic law is just as relevant today as it was when God revealed it to the ancient Israelites. Most Christians today, however, largely ignore the Mosaic law and hold that the commandments contained therein were only temporary and are no longer binding.
Before addressing the question directly, it is necessary first to consider what the Bible says about the law. We read in the Psalms,
“The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward.” (Psalm 19:7-11)
Further on in the Psalms we read,
“The law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver.” (Psalm 119:72)
“O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day.” (Psalm 119:97)
Whatever our opinion on the perpetual validity of the Mosaic law happens to be, as Christians we must affirm with the Psalmist that the Mosaic law is “sweeter than honey” and that it is a fit object of love and perpetual meditation.
It is necessary to make this point because contemporary Christians often start from the completely unbiblical position that somehow portions of the Mosaic law are inherently wrong. For example, many Christians hold that it is inherently immoral to execute homosexuals, even though the LORD commands this punishment in the law:
“If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (Leviticus 20:13)
The only valid starting point for discussing the Mosaic law is to affirm that everything in the law was commanded directly by God and that we have no right to denigrate the law or declare it to be unjust or immoral. The law commanding the Israelites to execute sodomites was an expression of God’s perfect moral judgment.
Identifying Misunderstandings of New Testament Doctrine
There are two passages from the New Testament that are often cited by contemporary Christians who wish to ignore or denigrate the Mosaic law. The first is in the Gospel of Matthew:
“They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.” (Matthew 19:7-9)
This passage seems to suggest that the Mosaic law was intended to restrain the evil impulses of the Israelites and that, because of their great wickedness, in some areas the law gave a freedom to act that fell short of perfection. However, the key point here is that Jesus is saying that the Mosaic law is less strict than it could have been, and that those who wish to follow God’s will for mankind more perfectly should go beyond the minimum requirements of this law. It is impossible to use Christ’s words to justify a laxer standard of morality under the New Covenant than under the Old Covenant.
Christ Commands Observance of the Law
Elsewhere in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus makes it clear that the Mosaic law is of divine origin and that it is to be observed:
“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”(Matthew 5:17-19)
Later on in the same book Jesus tells the people that they should obey the Pharisees, insofar as the Pharisees teach the Mosaic law.
“Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not” (Matthew 23:1-3).
These words of our Lord would be completely unintelligible if Jesus had thought that anything positively commanded in the Mosaic law was inherently immoral. Another passage frequently cited by those hostile to the Mosaic law is found in the Gospel of John:
“And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” (John 8:3-12)
This passage is often cited as proof that Jesus is opposed to capital punishment, or specifically that he is opposed to the use of capital punishment in cases of adultery. Let us analyze the passage more closely:
• Jesus is presented with a woman accused of committing adultery, which is a capital offense under the Mosaic law
• The woman ends up receiving no punishment
It seems completely untenable to suppose that Jesus is here providing a new principle of how governments should treat transgressors of the law, because if applied consistently, this new principle would mean that no one should receive any punishment for any crimes, as the woman taken in adultery receives no punishment. There is nothing in the text to support the view favored by modern liberal “Christians” that murderers should be given lengthy prison sentences rather than be executed. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul explains that one of the main purposes of civil government is to use physical violence as retribution against criminals. Speaking of the civil magistrate, Paul says,
“For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” (Romans 13:4)
This verse proves that the liberal interpretation cannot stand. Even under the New Covenant the magistrate is still God’s minister of vengeance against transgressors.
Rather than supposing that John 8 introduce s a new legal principle, we should understand Jesus to be making a specific point, either about his ability to remit sin or about the hypocrisy of the Jews who were trying to use God’s law to entrap the Messiah. In his interpretation of John 8, theonomist Gary North points out that rather than abolishing the Mosaic law, Jesus was upholding it,
“John 8 deals with a woman who was discovered in the very act of adultery (v. 4). Her accusers (witnesses) brought her before Jesus, challenging Him to render judgment. This was clearly an attempted trap on their part, for Jesus was neither a civil nor an ecclesiastical official. The woman’s accusers were also judicially corrupt. They were law-breaking deceivers, for they were being highly selective: her partner was not brought before Jesus…
Jesus challenged them: ‘He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her’ (v. 7b). ‘Then he stooped down and wrote something in the dirt’ (v. 8)…(Might He have written the names of women who were well known—biblically speaking—by the woman’s accusers?)
We do not know what he wrote. We do know that her accusers immediately decided to leave…They did not continue to press charges against her. Thus, without the presence of two or more witnesses, she could not be legally convicted of a capital crime, according to Old Covenant Law (Deut. 17:6). The witnesses had to cast the first stones (Deut. 17:7), but they had all departed.” (Gary North, Victim’s Rights, Institute for Christian Economics: 1990, pages 29-30)
In this passage Jesus followed the Mosaic law to the letter, while his enemies tried to twist it for their own ends. Jesus avoided their trap by following the law more closely than they did.
Which Laws Should Christians Observe?
Having established the proper reverence that Christians ought to have for the Mosaic law, we now come to the question of which parts of the law are still to be enforced. All mainstream historical branches of Christianity agree that all or some of the ritual laws found in the books of Moses are no longer to be observed. These ritual laws include the whole system of animal sacrifice, the Aaronic priesthood, circumcision, and dietary restrictions. The clear teaching of the New Testament is that the purpose of the Mosaic ritual laws (especially those concerning priesthood and sacrifice) was to establish external symbols pointing to or anticipating the truth of the Gospel.
In the epistle to the Hebrews we read:
“For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins…we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:1-4, 10-14)
The Apostle Paul also refers to the entire Old Testament ritual system as a shadow of Christ in his epistle to the Colossians,
“Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.” (Colossians 2:16- 17)
In his epistle to the Galatians the same apostle rebukes those Judaizing Christians who held that circumcision and other ritual observances were still necessary, saying,
“Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.” (Galatians 5:2-6)
The Old Testament laws that do not pertain specifically to ritual can be further divided into the moral laws and the civil laws. The moral laws are binding on all Christians in all circumstances. Examples of moral laws would include the commandments against committing murder and adultery.
Civil laws were binding only on the Israelites living in the Old Testament kingdom and have no force today. Examples of the civil laws would include the commandments concerning the allotment of land to specific Israelite tribes.
Much of the dispute concerning the validity of the Mosaic law centers around which of the three categories of law (ritual, moral or civil) a specific commandment belongs in. A good example of an ambiguous case is found in the book of Exodus:
“If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.” (Exodus 22:25)
Some Christians commentators have held that this commandment is part of the perpetual moral law, while others have held that it is a part of the civil law that only applied to ancient Israel.
Amongst Theonomists, who hold to the perpetual validity of the Mosaic law, there is a further distinction between:
A) The principal moral laws of the Ten Commandments (or Decalogue)
B) What are termed the “judicial” or “case” laws
It is clear from the text of Scripture that the Ten Commandments hold a special place above the other laws, but this does not mean that commandments outside of the Decalogue are arbitrary or unimportant. On the contrary, the importance of the case laws comes from the fact that they are all applications of the principles of justice contained in the Decalogue.
Theonomist Greg Bahnsen writes,
“The Puritans termed these case-law applications of the Decalogue ‘judicial laws,’ and they correctly held that we are not bound today to keep these judicial laws as they are worded (being couched in the language of an ancient culture that has passed away) but only require to heed their underlying principles (or ‘general equity,’ as they called it). The Old Testament required that a railing be placed around one’s roof as a safety precaution, since guests were entertained on the flat roofs of houses in that ancient society; with our sloped roofs today we do not need to have the same literal railing, but the general underlying principle might very well require us to have the fence around our backyard swimming pool—again, to protect human life.” (Greg Bahnsen, By This Standard, American Vision Press: 2008, pages 98-99)
We can see that the application of the Mosaic law to our contemporary circumstances will always require a fair amount of discretion and rational deliberation, even amongst Theonomists.
We must stress that whenever approaching the question of law or ethics, Christians are to avoid adopting the secular view that there is a “neutral” starting point for ethical considerations that can be shared by all men regardless of their religious convictions. It is wrong for Christians to ignore the ethical teaching of the Mosaic law and focus on “natural law” or some other humanistic concept.
Even if many of the specific codes regulating Old Testament Israel are no longer binding, the Mosaic law still remains the most detailed revelation of God’s standards of justice that we possess. It must be studied with diligence and humility, and the specific commandments and broad moral principles contained in the law must inform our behavior and our thinking.