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Biblical Laws

It is useful to note that God established commandments and laws prior to the laws God gave Moses. Indeed, God speaks of Abraham obedience to God’s commandments, statues, and laws (Gen 26:5).

It is useful to divide the biblical laws into three categories as given below.  However, one should note that the Bible does not divide the laws into such categories.  This is similar to the fact that the original manuscripts do not divide the text into chapters and verses.  The chapters and verses were added by humans to facilitate reference.  So it is with dividing the laws into the below mentioned categories.  Note that some laws cross categories.

There are three types of laws in the scriptures: moral laws, ceremonial or religious laws, and civil laws. Herein the word ceremonial is used primarily to refer to the vertical relationships between God and humans whereas civil refers to the horizontal relationships between humans.  Ceremonial and civil laws encode and/or teach  moral laws/principles.

Generally, strictly moral laws focus on individual/personal activites to include activities involving consecration unto the Lord as a peculiar people, a people different than surrounding people. Moral laws include personal diet (Leviticus 11:1-47; Acts 10:9-16), personal dress (Deuteronomy 22:5; 1 Tim 2:9-10) and personal hair and skin grooming including facial hair and cuttings such as tattoos (Leviticus 19:27-28; 21:5; Isaiah 22:12; 1 Peter 2:4-10). It certainly would be difficult for a man with a beard to put on a dress and go around pretending or claiming he is a woman. So maybe the beard and dress provisions go together.

Ceremonial laws generally focus on actions of priests and interactions with priests.

Civil laws generally focus on interactions between people in the community whether private or public.

Criminal laws are included in both ceremonial and civil where the word criminal apply to laws involving more than financial restitution.

Collectively, these laws teach us that we do not measure up to the nature of God for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God and all need a Saviour outside of ourselves.

Moral laws (e.g., Exodus 20:1-17) provide the foundation (e.g., love, holiness,  murder, adultery, justice, judgement, respect) for ceremonial and civil laws as they establish the fundamental doctrines, principles, will, and nature of God.  Moral laws also provide or imply potential of eternal penalties for violation.  Mercy withholds the measure of punishment we deserve; grace grants the measure of blessing we don’t deserve.  The highest measure of grace and mercy came/comes in the form of Jesus Christ.

The Decalogue or Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) is a key foundational expression of the moral laws established by God.  The first four have focus on love for God.  The latter six focus on love for humankind to include oneself.  The fourth says to remember the sabbath and keep it holy.   The sabbath like all of the ten commandments is a moral law. Under Moses, the Sabbath moral law had ceremonial law implementations.

Ceremonial laws (e.g., Leviticus 1:1-17) regulate how one worships and relate to God. This includes, but not limited to, cleanliness, sacrifices, as well as authorities, responsibilities, obligations of priests and non-priests.  It also includes tithing. These are the customs and statutes.  These also include feasts and festivals celebrating God’s work in Israel and/or among or on behalf of his people.  It may also includes dietary and clothing restrictions especially concerning priests as well as other restrictions; many restrictions were intended to distinguish the Israelites from other nations.  The spirit of these feasts/festivals and restrictions carry forward to the New Covenant although the letter does not (John 17:14; 1 Cor 5:6-8; 2 Cor 3:6).

Most if not all Old Covenant ceremonial laws apply to Israelites only.  New Covenant ceremonies/feasts/festivals apply to Christians only.

For example, the Old Testament Passover applies to Israelites primarily since it is a remembrance of their ancestors’ freedom from slavery; this includes the performance of it by Jesus and the apostles before Jesus death on the cross.  Yet, Christians may celebrate it out of remembrance for what God has done for his people; but Christians are not required to celebrate it as Christ is the Christian Passover/Easter (1 Cor 5:6-8; Acts 12:4).  The Lord’s Supper apply only to Christians.

Ceremonial laws remind people of things like thanksgiving, obedience, holiness, sin, atonement,judgement, repentance, forgiveness, and salvation.

Old Testament ceremonial laws ended at the cross for they were insufficient for the permanent atonement for sin in that they were temporary and pointed to Christ (Mark 15:38; John 19:28-30; Hebrews 10:1-4; Colossians 2:14).  Jesus brought an end to the ceremonial laws but not the moral laws (Matthew 5:17-20; 1 John 3:4; 5:17).  New Covenant ceremonial laws include the Lord’s Supper.

Civil laws (e.g., Deuteronomy 24:1-22) regulate behavior (e.g., killing, stealing, adultery) between persons in daily living and temporal penalties (e.g., imprisonment, restitution) for violation.  Governmental laws are civil laws with a moral foundation. Religious/Church/Synagogue laws are ceremonial with a moral foundation.  These also form customs and statutes.

Civil and ceremonial laws apply to a particular culture, nation, location and generation.  Some may be shared by various cultures, nations, locations, and generations. Biblical Old Testament civil and ceremonial laws apply to the Jews under the Old Covenant.  They do not apply under the New Covenant except where they are brought forward in modified or unmodified terms into the New Covenant.

Biblical Old Testament civil and ceremonial laws primarily apply to biological Israel. They have never applied to the non-Israelite except when they were physically a part of or in Biblical Old Testament Israel. In Acts 15 the apostles attest to this truth in their consideration of circumcision concerning Gentiles. This truth applies to Gentiles who are a part of  spiritual Israel.

However since both the Old and New Testament Laws are righteous, non-biological Israelites may choose to comply with OT ceremonial laws and civil laws as long as there is no conflict with the doctrine of Salvation through Christ as specified in the New Testament.


Persons may also choose to comply with Leviticus 11 dietary laws though they have been superseded by Peter’s vision in Acts 10.

Persons may also choose to comply with Leviticus 19 and 21 head and facial hair laws though according to the spirit of Acts 15 such laws are not mandatory for Gentiles though the moral spirit/principles of consecration of such laws are yet applicable. This non-mandatory nature of such laws is especially applicable given the widespread disagreement in both Judaism and Christianity and other circles as to what the letter of Leviticus 11, 19, 21 and Acts 10 says, means, and allows to the point of whether cutting one’s beard off with a non-electric razor blade is prohibited but doing so with an electric shaver is not due to some saying the Hebrew word used specifically refers to a razor blade. (Of course, that is probably all that existed back then.)

Under the New Covenant, God gives  churches and nations the liberty and right to devise and implement their own ceremonial and civil laws as long as such laws are consistent with the spirit but not necessarily the letter of the moral laws/principles established in the Old and New Testaments.

The sabbath is implemented as ceremonial and civil laws; the implementation therefore may differ across cultures, nations, locations, and generations.

Since moral laws are foundational, they cut across civil and ceremonial laws to the extent some of the same terminology is employed or some measure thereof, e.g., murder, theft.  Also, since moral laws are foundational, they transcend all cultures, nations, locations, and generations as they are eternal.

The ceremonial and civil laws taught and implemented moral laws as well as foreshadowed things to come (Galatians 3:18-26; Colossians 2:14-17; Hebrews 10:1-10).

Jesus and Paul discuss the greatest commandment, foundation of the law and prophets, and fulfilment of the law (Matthew 22:34-40; Romans 13:8-10).  They establish that love provides the framework for compliance to all three types of laws: moral, ceremonial, and civil.

For more details on the sabbath click here

For more details on dietary laws click here.

Reference:

Divisions of Old Testament Laws

Distinction Between Moral, Ceremonial, and Civil Laws

Moral Laws in Old Testament

All 613 Commandments in the Old Testament Law

613 Laws in the Old Testament – Another Perspective

613 Laws in the Old Testament – Another Perspective 2

613 Laws in the Old Testament – Another Perspective 3

Ceremonial Laws

1050 New Testament Laws

Interpreting the Bible

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