Which laws follow across and which ones don’t?

On Sunday we started exploring Leviticus 18 and the so-called Holiness Code of Israel. This is paired with chapters 11-15, where the system of clean and unclean is spelled out for Israel.

One of the questions a book such as Leviticus raises is: Which laws still apply to us today and why?

There is a risk of arbitrariness—simply picking and choosing the ones that appeal to or make sense to us and leaving behind the ones that don’t. Why, for example, should we choose to ignore the law about sabbath, or unclean animals, or mould in our houses, but insist on the laws prohibiting same-sex sexual relations? To be consistent, shouldn’t we apply all of them, or none of them? Don’t we risk playing to our own prejudices by insisting on some and ignoring others?

Civil, Ceremonial, and Moral?

One solution, proposed in the reformation, is to divide the law into civil, ceremonial, and moral. The civic laws are those laws that apply to Israel as a nation. We are not Israel, and the Christian church is not a theocracy or national body, so we can put those aside.

The ceremonial laws are those laws that have to do with the sacrificial system, the purity system, and worship in the tabernacle or temple. As all this is fulfilled in Christ’s sacrifice, Christ’s cleansing, and the worship that is in Spirit and truth through Jesus, we can also put these aside.

But the moral laws, such as the ten commandments, we continue to keep because it reflects God’s timeless moral law and will.

This is a pretty decent effort so far as it goes. But it has significant limits. First, neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament actually use these categories. We bring them to the text, we don’t find them in the text. The Bible tends to see the law as a whole, not neatly designated parts.

And secondly, the categories are hard to apply in practice. If the ten commandments are binding, then why do we ignore commandment number four (”remember the sabbath day and keep it holy”)? Is that a moral command, or a ceremonial one, or a civic matter?

A way forward

For what it’s worth, I think the best way forward is backward. That is, I think the best way forward in understanding how to apply the OT today is to work backward from what Jesus and the Apostles actually do with the OT. And what happens in the New Testament is that everything gets refracted through Jesus, like light through a prism. And, like a prism, the light gets refracted through in diverse ways.

(1) Fulfilled

First, the Law of the OT is fulfilled in Jesus and by his Spirit. The whole law is a shadow of what was to come. The reality is found in Christ. (Colossians 2:17). Not one stroke or dot of the law is left aside—it is fulfilled in Jesus (Matthew 5:17-18). The law, in other words, is a series of antitypes that point to Jesus. He is our temple, our high priest, our sacrifice and so on.

(2) Israel’s Mission Much of the OT law is specific to Israel’s mission to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19). Their food laws, purity laws and so on were part of how Israel did its mission. Even within the Old Testament, it is clear that these laws were not meant to be extended to the nations (Genesis 9:1-3). These laws made Israel special and different. If Israel exported these laws to the world, they would no long be different.

In the Catholic Church, the priests are forbidden to marry, but marriage is commended as a good. In a similar way, Israel lived out a priestly code that was not an implicit judgement of those outside the chosen nation.

(3) Creation

In the New Testament, Jesus and his apostles lay down ethical instructions for his followers. As a multicultural community, these instructions are not grounded in the specific commands to Israel, but in the created order itself. We gentiles might not share Israel’s specific calling, but we do share in a common humanity, and are called to the common task of image bearing.

So, for example, when Jesus teaches on marriage, he appeals to God’s original purposes for marriage in the creation (Matthew 19:1-9). And in 1 Corinthians 5-7 you can see the Apostle Paul giving sustained teaching on incest, prostitution, marriage, and divorce. 1 Corinthians 5-7 is in one way an exposition of Leviticus 18 for a newly Christian, gentile audience. And it works, not by a direct appeal to Leviticus 18, but by a vision of the created order to which Leviticus 18 points.

(It is interesting to note that, even in Leviticus 18, part of the background is that the nations of Canaan are about to come under the judgement of God because they defiled the land by practicing incest etc. See Leviticus 18:24. While the nations of Canaan were not called to be God’s priestly nation, they were called to discern the created order and live within it.)

(4) New Creation

Finally, the coming of Jesus and the Spirit mean that our moral lives are to also look forward to the age to come. Christian morality looks forward (to the new creation) as well as looks backward (to the goodness of this creation). You see this for example in Matthew 19:11-12 were Jesus pronounces a special blessing on “eunuchs” (those who live single and celibate lives for the kingdom). In the OT the position of a eunuch is never celebrated. It is only ever considered a sad circumstance. But with Jesus the age to come, the new creation, has come crashing into our present. And so now, in an area such as marriage and sex, lives of faithful, monogamous marriage point to the goodness of the original creation, and lives of faithful, celibate singleness point forward to the goodness of the age to come. (See also Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7).

Yours in Jesus,


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