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 laws, and civil laws. 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 the 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.
Ceremonial laws (e.g., Leviticus 1:1-17) regulate how one worships and relate to God. This includes, but not limited to, cleanliness, sacrifices, diet restrictions, 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 also includes dietary and clothing restrictions 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 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 have never applied to the non-Jew except when they were in Biblical Old Testament Israel.
The sabbath is implemented as ceremonial and civil laws; the implementation therefore may different 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.
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