The Moral, Civil and Ceremonial Laws

The Moral, Civil and Ceremonial Laws

Books of the Torah like Leviticus and Deuteronomy are filled with laws, which while they have a link to one of the Moral Laws of the Ten Commandments, and practical applications to our lives today, are no longer binding on believers. We are no longer, for instance, forbidden to plant different kinds of seed in our vineyard, to wear garments of mixed materials (which is a relief, because I’m guessing that most of the people in this room are wearing garments that consist of some sort of blend) or to have tassels on the corners of our clothing.

This is not because we have a low view of the law, far from it, but rather because we distinguish within the law, three different kinds of laws from God. We call this the Tripartite Division of the Law. The first and most important kind of law, is the Moral Law, the Ten Commandments. This law is forever binding on all men, both believers and unbelievers. It is an expression of the Holiness and Nature of God himself. There will never be a time when, for instance, lying, stealing, adultery, or blasphemy are acceptable. To disobey or ignore the Moral Law will always constitute sin.

But, we also distinguish two other kinds of law within the Old Testament, the first we call the Ceremonial Laws which regulated things like the worship, diet, and daily practices of the people of God and the second we call the Civil (or judicial) Laws which were applications of the Moral Law to the nation of Israel. The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 19, puts it this way:

“III. Beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, Ceremonial Laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which Ceremonial Laws are now abrogated, under the new testament.”

These laws would include laws regarding sacrifices, the worship of the temple, the Old Testament feasts, the laws regarding clean and unclean food and so on. All of these laws in some way prefigured or pointed forwarded to Christ who was the fulfillment of them. So, for instance, in the sacrifice of the Passover lamb we see a picture of Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Just as the blood of the Passover lamb applied to the doorposts caused the angel of death to “Passover” those houses and spare them from death, so the blood of Christ applied to believers spares them from judgment and eternal death.

The Westminster Confession goes on to describe the Civil Law this way:

IV. To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.

These civil or judicial laws, which applied the Ten Commandments to Israel creating a criminal or legal code are no longer in effect over believers, however just because a law was in the criminal code of ancient Israel that does not mean that it should not be in our own Civil Laws. We should not fall off the horse on the other side by banning laws merely because they were in Israel’s code and as we shall see the Moral Law should still be the guiding instrument in the creation of our own civil legal codes – there should be in every nation, laws that prevent all forms of perjury, theft, murder, adultery, and so on.

We can see however, that to simply flatly apply the judicial law of Israel to the modern world would often create both practical and theological absurdities. For instance, in Deut. 22:8 we read the following civil law, “When you build a new house, then you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring guilt of bloodshed on your household if anyone falls from it.”

Our roofs are peaked so water and snow roll off, roofs in the ancient Near East were flat, they had beams covered by sticks and then hard clay, and they used them for all sorts of things, drying crops, places for entertainment, they were cooler in the summer time so they would sleep up there in the summertime.

Without this required 3 foot high parapet or wall someone, particularly a child, might fall off the roof and die. The person who neglected this law would be guilty of bloodshed as they had not preserved the life of their neighbor and thus violated the 6th commandment.

This is what is sometimes called a paradigm law it has applications to all sorts of necessary safety precautions in building and manufacturing where negligence, greed, or carelessness would lead to unnecessary deaths. And there are a colossal number of them every year. For instance, far more toddlers die each year from falling into buckets full of water negligently left around then are killed in firearms accidents. Matthew Henry comments, “The Jews say that by the equity of this law they were obliged (and so are we too) to fence, or remove, every thing by which life may be endangered, as to cover draw-wells, keep bridges in repair, and the like, lest, if any perish through our omission, their blood be required at our hand.”

John Calvin wrote about the application of the “general equity” of these Civil Laws this way:

“The judicial law, given to them for civil government, imparted certain formulas of equity and justice, by which they might live together blamelessly and peaceably. . . . . The form of their judicial laws, although it had no other intent than how best to preserve that very love which is enjoined by God’s eternal law, had something distinct from that precept of love. Therefore, as Ceremonial Laws could be abrogated while piety remained safe and unharmed, so too, when these judicial laws were taken away, the perpetual duties and precepts of love could still remain.

“But if this is true, surely every nation is left free to make such laws as it foresees to be profitable for itself. Yet these must be in conformity to that perpetual rule of love, so that they indeed vary in form but have the same purpose. . . . .

“What I have said will become plain if in all laws we examine, as we should, these two things: the constitution of the law, and the equity on which its constitution is itself founded and rests. Equity, because it is natural, cannot but be the same for all, and therefore, this same purpose ought to apply to all laws, whatever their object. Constitutions have certain circumstances upon which they in part depend. It therefore does not matter that they are different, provided all equally press toward the same goal of equity.

“It is a fact that the law of God which we call the Moral Law is nothing else than a testimony of natural law and of that conscience which God has engraved upon the minds of men. Consequently, the entire scheme of this equity of which we are now speaking has been prescribed in it. Hence, this equity alone must be the goal and rule and limit of all laws.

“Whatever laws shall be framed to that rule, directed to that goal, bound by that limit, there is no reason why we should disapprove of them, howsoever they may differ from the Jewish law, or among themselves.” – John Calvin (1509-64), Institutes of the Christian Religion

William Perkins (1558-1602) whose theological works heavily influenced and guided the Puritan divines who met at Westminster, used the phrase “general equity” to identify the element in the judicial laws which is of enduring obligation. The standard to which Perkins appeals is conformity to the law of nature, which embodies the moral law: “Again, judicial laws, so far forth as they have in them the general or common equity of the law of nature are moral; and therefore, binding in conscience, as the moral law.”

Perkins says that the moral law is that which forever binds all men: “Moral law . . . is contained in the Decalogue or ten commandments; and it is the very law of nature written in all men’s hearts . . . in the creation of man: and therefore, it binds the consciences of all men at all times . . . . .” The other laws given through Moses do not carry this permanent obligation: “Judicial laws of Moses . . . . . were specially given by God, and directed to the Jews; who for this very cause were bound in conscience to keep them all . . . . . But touching other nations and specially Christian commonwealths in these days, the case is otherwise.”

But what of all the ceremonial restrictions regarding things like the restriction on certain kinds of mixtures, like those found in Deut. 22:9-12:

“You shall not sow your vineyard with different kinds of seed, lest the yield of the seed which you have sown and the fruit of your vineyard be defiled. You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together. You shall not wear a garment of different sorts, such as wool and linen mixed together. You shall make tassels on the four corners of the clothing with which you cover yourself.”

The reasons for these restrictions, like most of the dietary laws was to reinforce the idea of the distinctiveness of God’s people and teach an important lesson about not mixing with unbelievers in marriage or importing their pagan practices. In observing them they had a constant day to day reminder in the household as they dressed, and in the field as they sowed and plowed and reaped. If you ask, “what’s the value of such visible lessons?” you have only to look to the Lord’s Table and its visible reminder of Christ’s sacrifice in the Lord’s Supper. God knows we are forgetful people, and he knows without reminders we are prone to forget and neglect what he teaches us.

The restriction on yoking was even more telling, the ox was a clean animal the donkey was not, they walked differently and don’t plow well together, in this we have a potent reminder not to be “yoked together” with unbelievers in marriage and contracts and one which Paul will use in 2 Cor. 6:14-18.
Fabric too was not to be blended to produce one garment. The nation was not to be woven of believers and unbelievers, pagan practices and the laws of the Lord mixed indiscriminately throughout the land.

Finally in the ceremonial requirements for tassels in clothing two objectives were achieved. First, they were once again set apart from their neighbors, so that if you saw someone walking by with tassels on his clothes you’d say “There goes an Israelite” but more importantly than telling others who the Israelites were, the tassels reminded the Israelites whose people they were as Numbers 15:37-41 tells us:

37 Again the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
38 “Speak to the children of Israel: Tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a blue thread in the tassels of the corners.
39 “And you shall have the tassel, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the LORD and do them, and that you may not follow the harlotry to which your own heart and your own eyes are inclined,
40 “and that you may remember and do all My commandments and be holy for your God.
41 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the LORD your God.”