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The Biblical Laws Interpreting the Literary Types

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The Laws

We'll use the words “law” and “laws” to refer both collectively to the system of law given to the Israelites and to the 613 commandments specifically.  One of the first questions to inevitably surface during a discussion of Biblical law is “Are the OT laws still binding on Christians”?  We'll have a detailed discussion of this in other articles, so we'll limit ourselves to a very concise treatment here.

We must first distinguish between the various types of law based on their content, which are most often divided into three classifications.  The first category is the civil laws, which include such statutes as penalties for various crimes and regulations concerning land inheritance, marriage, and other civil and social issues.  The second category is the ritual or ceremonial laws, which involve priestly qualifications, the sacrificial system, circumcism, clean and unclean foods etc.  These categories appear to overlap at times, particularly the ordinances concerning priest and sacrifices.  The final category is the ethical or moral laws such as the Ten Commandments and other regulations given by God to Moses.  We should mention that separating the moral laws into a separate category does not deny the moral aspect of the civil and ceremonial laws for the OT Jews.  Under the Old Covenant, the Jews considered the keeping of the civil and ceremonial laws to also be a moral issue.

The first two groups are not considered binding on Christians today since they were associated with God’s Old Covenant with Israel.  The civil statutes established and set Israel apart nationally as a theocracy, but Christians are not corporately identified with any earthly nation.  Followers of Christ look forward to a kingdom that is “not of this world” (Jn 18:36).  Christians are however, presently subject to the appropriate government authorities (1Pe 1:13-17, Rom 13:1-7), unless these authorities prohibit us from obeying, or require us to disobey God's explicit commandments (Ac 3:18-20).

During His first advent, Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial laws and instituted the New Covenant, thus negating the need for Christians to observe these laws.  In fact, the Apostle Paul often warned Judaizers against requiring new believers to keep these Old Covenant ceremonies as a condition of salvation.  He likewise cautioned believers not to fall into this legalistic trap.

Some disagreements arise among Christians however, when we begin discussing the subject of whether obedience to the OT ethical and moral laws is still mandatory.  The first school of thought is that, since the laws are based on the very nature and character of God (which never changes), they are still binding on Christians today.  The other interpretation of this issue is, since Christians are under the New Covenant, we are only bound by those laws which are re-affirmed in the NT (the word “testament” means “covenant”).  Space does not allow a detailed comparison between these two positions here, but from a practical standpoint, I believe the end results of each are essentially the same.  For instance, if we take the second position, we see that almost all the OT moral or ethical laws  were re-affirmed either specifically or categorically (patterns of meaning) by the NT writers (see also Mt 22:37-40).  In many cases, Jesus actually strengthened the OT moral laws by stressing obedience to the spirit of the law as well as the letter.  After all, which is easier to keep, the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount?

My personal belief is that true Christians are no longer under the OT moral laws in a judicial sense (no longer under a death sentence) because, by faith in Christ's work at the cross, we are credited with fulfilling the law (Rom 8:4).  However, even though the OT moral and ethical laws were not written to us, they were intended as examples for us in order to instruct us (Rom 15:4, 1Cor 10:6,11); therefore our obedience is necessary for spiritual growth and continued fellowship with God.  In addition, I think we can safely state that, if a person does not have a desire to live consistently in the spirit of the moral laws out of gratitude for what Christ has done for us, that person should seriously question his or her salvation.

We can now turn to the role of law in Scripture.  The law is closely related to the covenants in that the Biblical laws assume a covenantal relationship between God and the believer, based solely on the grace of God.  For example, the Ten Commandments were given to the Jews after they had been redeemed from bondage, not as a means of entering a covenantal relationship, but describing how the relationship may be maintained.

Biblical laws can be also classified as either apodictic or casuisticCasuistic laws, which generally govern civil matters, are case-by-case laws such as, “If one does (or doesn't do) such-and such, then the consequences will be...”.    Apodictic laws, which normally involve more religious matters, consist of commands, instructions and prohibitions (usually beginning with “do” or “do not”).  These laws tend to be very limited in wording but comprehensive in spirit, setting a standard (pattern of meaning) utilizing an example rather than mentioning every possible circumstance.  For example, prohibitions against getting drunk on wine are taken to also forbid losing control due to other types of alcohol or mind altering drugs.  An analogy is sometimes drawn between the laws and the US Constitution, with the latter outlining the characteristics of justice for the country as compared to the more specific federal and state legal codes.

In conclusion, the OT law was the basis of the old covenant with the Jews and for the history of Israel, therefore they were not written directly to us, but they were written as part of the fully inspired Word of God for us.  They reveal the very nature and character of God along with his high standards which show us that we can't please Him on our own, but require the controlling of the Holy Spirit.  They were written to drive us to Jesus.

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