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Leviticus, Law and Love

Jan 30, 2015

It is often said that a new Christian should not start reading the Old Testament, because they will likely get bogged down and frustrated by the time they get to a book like Leviticus. While it is true that the Gospels may be a better starting point for a brand new believer, eventually they must get into the OT as well.

I love it, and in my annual reading plan, I am once again in Leviticus. Contrary to many, I find it an amazing book, and there is plenty of great stuff to be found therein. Here I want to just briefly touch on a few key issues, including the relationship between law and love (or grace), and the interplay of the Testaments.

Anyone conversant with theology and biblical studies knows what massive subjects these are, and the issue of continuity and discontinuity between the Testaments is a real growth area at the moment, with entire libraries written on such topics.

Thus it may be foolhardy of me to wade into this, and I ask those who want to go to war over something I may have said to bear in mind that I am not even beginning to scratch the surface here in my remarks. The issues involved are complex, nuanced and require careful and lengthy consideration.

As to the broad issues of the relationship between the two Testaments, between Israel and the church, and between law and grace, we have various extremes. For example, dispensationalists tend to offer a very strong discontinuity, while others, such as theonomists, tend to go almost entirely for continuity.

The biblical position may be somewhere in between these two camps, but each side has plenty to offer in defence of their position. For more on all this, see John Feinberg, ed., Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments (Crossway, 1988).

In general it can be said that some things certainly seem to carry over from Old to New, while others seem to clearly come to an end. If we more or less accept the three-part breakdown of the law (and not all do, and this is also a huge discussion deserving separate articles), then we can make this case.

Image of From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law
From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law by Philip S. Ross Amazon logo

For example, the moral law (eg, things like the Ten Commandments) certainly carry through into the NT, while the ceremonial law (offerings, sacrifices, etc) do not, since Christ is the final and complete sacrifice, never to be repeated, as the book of Hebrews makes so clear.

Those who may want to further investigate the standard three-part division are encouraged to grab a recent book which examines this in great detail. I refer to From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law by Philip Ross (Mentor, 2010). In it he writes:

The division exists not just to explain a doctrine of biblical law; its practical-theological teaching answers the Christian’s question, ‘Am I still bound to obey the Mosaic Law?’…
The non-binding laws were exclusively ‘ceremonial’….
Laws concerning everyday civil matters in the Israelite community are binding in their underlying principles….
The only laws that are, without exception, ever-binding are the laws of the Decalogue.

Getting back to Leviticus, Gordon Wenham offers a quick assessment of all this in the introduction of his commentary, and throughout it as well. His section “Leviticus and the Christian” is worth quoting from here. He notes some problems with the customary three-part division, and then writes:

Though the three-fold division of the law is in my view arbitrary and artificial, it does provide a convenient framework for our discussion, in which a slightly different approach will be advocated. As far as basic principles of behaviour are concerned the OT and NT are in broad agreement. . . . The NT advocates the same standard of personal morality as the OT. This is to be expected, since the God of the OT is the God of the NT.

He goes on to speak about covenant relationship in the Testaments: “It is true that in the NT it is hard to find covenant terminology and structures, but that does not mean that the principles enshrined in the OT covenant have disappeared.”

He notes that both Testaments speak in similar terms about the law and grace relationship:

First and foremost the OT covenants were arrangements of divine grace….
Second, the covenants involved law….
Finally, the covenant involved blessing and curse….
It seems fair to say that the NT not only accepts the moral law of the OT, but reiterates the basic theology of the covenant of which the law forms a part.

As to OT civil law, he says this: “This type of law is quoted less frequently in the NT than the simple moral imperatives, but when quoted it is treated as equally authoritative (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:9 quoting Deut. 25:4 and Mark 7:10 citing Lev. 20:9).” He continues:

Instead of distinguishing between moral and civil laws, it would be better to say that some injunctions are broad and generally applicable to most societies, while others are more specific and directed at the particular social problems of ancient Israel. In this commentary the following position is assumed: the principles underlying the OT are valid and authoritative for the Christian, but the particular applications found in the OT may not be. The moral principles are the same today, but insofar as our situation often differs from the OT setting, the application of the principles in our society may well be different too.

Now all this may simply raise more questions than it answers. For example, how do we determine when something is relevant only to Israel or not? And if there is a contemporary application, just what specially might that be? You see the issues that can and do arise here. None of this is easy and simple. But these are some general interpretive rules and clues that we can at least start with.

Let me simply conclude with just one passage with which we can tease all this out. I found Lev. 5:1 to be quite important, although its original setting is rather different than the application for it which I have in mind. It says this: “If anyone sins because they do not speak up when they hear a public charge to testify regarding something they have seen or learned about, they will be held responsible.”

This would be a civil law applying to ancient Israel, and one that obviously involves moral principles. It has to do with courtroom situations, involving the withholding of evidence in a court case, and so on. But there are clearly present-day applications that we can glean from this.

Indeed, the basic principle which we can apply today should be quite obvious. When I reread this verse this morning it jumped out at me: we must speak out, or we are sinning and will be held responsible for our silence. Whether it is the war on the unborn, or the attack on marriage and family, or so many other areas, Christians have a solemn obligation to speak out, to be salt and light, and to proclaim biblical truth.

Failure to do so is simply sinful, and we will not be held guiltless for our silence. Whether it is cowardice, a desire to please men, or slavish imprisonment to Political Correctness, those Christians who refuse to speak out when they know they should will have to give an account to their Lord.

As another biblical example of this, we read in Proverbs 31:8, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” Or as the KJV puts it, speak up for those who “are appointed to destruction”. Can there be any better modern day example of this than the unborn being butchered at abortion mills?

We are to speak up for them. We know the truth here. We have evidence and testimony which we must not withhold. We know that human life begins at conception, and this is a growing living human being whose poor life is being cut short. So although Lev. 5:1 has a particular, more narrow focus (the law court), the binding principle is for all Christians today.

Thus we must speak up and we must speak out. Not to do so is a sin. This is just one small example of how the Christian today might look at the various laws found in the Old Testament. As mentioned, this will not always be easy or straight-forward, and the fact that so much disagreement on this exists demonstrates how difficult all this can be.

But we must prayerfully and carefully seek to understand the law of God, and how it works out in New Covenant reality.

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11 Responses to Leviticus, Law and Love

  • Please make this anonymous again, Bill! I was the only child to come forward and give evidence to the Police on a number of occasions about serious sex abuse of children including myself in a group I belonged to by a so called Christian. I was ostracised, threatened, ridiculed and shunned for it. (amongst other things). I am still on the outer today, decades later – but the verse you have quoted here reassures me that I did the right thing.

  • Great article Bill.
    I found Karl Barth’s observation very helpful as in his “Gospel and Law”. He pointed out the symbolism of the Ark of the Covenant with the tablets of the Law placed within it. To quote him: “The Law would not be Law, if it were not contained and locked up in the ark of the Covenant. And the Gospel itself is the Gospel only when the Law which ‘came in beside’ (Rom. 5:20) is contained and locked up in it as in the ark of the covenant.”
    The whole article is very profound and helpful in understanding the relationship between Gospel and Law.

  • I made a comment to a Christian friend that Should and Ought are still powerful guides for us towards moral and civil behaviour. Suffice to say he told me that these are Catholic concepts and that all we need is Grace. All I can say is that I was too stunned to respond sufficiently to this. As far as I can tell should and ought are imperatives if we are to progress anywhere towards sanctification

    With a pastor who talks of Grace 99% of the time and Good Works 1%, maybe it is no wonder this person would have a skewed perspective of the Law.

    Any tips on a reply to this persona?

  • Yes Matt there are hundreds of imperatives in the NT which we must obey. I discuss them here:

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/02/08/the-indicativeimperative-and-the-christian-life/

  • Brilliant! Thanks Bill. I knew you would be able to point me to an already written article.

    While I don’t always post, I do always read your blogs, Bill. I find your articles most helpful in refining and deepening my knowledge and faith.

    Keep up the good work!

  • I am currently in early Exodus in my reading plan, Bill.

    I am again amazed at how much was in place before the giving of the Ten Commandments. Two examples from Exodus 16 & 17:
    – Jethro the priest (priesthood and sacrifice)
    – Moses judging between the people (law and judgement)

  • Thanks Bill.
    Also, an excellent little book on this same topic here, which is fully available for reading on-line is by Revd Dr Geoffrey Bingham. He wrote a number of books on this topic. This one is the most easily read. But it goes deep. Only 60 pages long. Available at: http://www.newcreationlibrary.net/books/pdf/112_OhNoNotLaw.pdf

  • In Mt 5:17-19 Jesus makes it very clear that the Old Testament moral law still stands. That obviously includes Leviticus 18 and that chapter at v.22 reads “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; such a thing is an abomination.” The punishment for that abominable deed is found in Lev 20: 13, “…both of them shall be put to death”. At v.21 the prohibition against sacrificing children to Molech is found. Only the Holy Spirit would have thought to put child sacrifice in with a chapter on sexual sin.

  • I find it interesting that the OT temple was almost exactly the same design as pagan temples. The big difference was that, instead of an image of a god that everyone could see there was a box with the Ten Commandments behind a veil and the image of two angels bowing down to it. That and it actually exuded power. The whole point is to take us from where we are and to develop us.

    Like all prophesies, the law was subject to the prophet which is why Jesus admonished Moses for his slackness in reinforcing the marriage laws and yes the law is full of administrative issues that are largely only relevant to the time. The plan has always been for people to take control not to simply be automatons and to use the law as an example as best we know how with only minimal correction.

    The muzzling of the ox is an interesting one in this vein. I wonder how many organizations consider themselves to be Christian or Jewish but in the running of that business do not allow the employees some of the benefits of what the company produces. My experience is that companies that reflect this principle are the ones that naturally prosper, the ones that don’t may do extremely well in the short term but do not often last.

  • Thank you very much about this article. But I have a question here regarding the ‘moral law’ of Sabbath. We have many laws or regulations for keeping well the law of Sabbath like we are not supposed to set fire or travel a certain distance during Sabbath day. While indeed I accept that Sabbath has to be kept just like not having any other God by us in the New Testament, is it applicable to keep those laws/regulations of the Sabbath? Or are we becoming ‘legalistic’ if we strive to keep them all (which presume is impossible)? What about if we fail to keep them as I always realize that it is impossible? If we determine what regulations to keep which are more convenient to us or determining for ourselves what to not to keep, are we not breaking the law of not adding or reducing the Word of God?
    Thanks

  • Thanks Maboee. This is one area where Christians can and do disagree. One way to approach this is to look at a debate on the various options. A good book on this is found here:

    http://www.amazon.com/Perspectives-Sabbath-Christopher-John-Donato/dp/0805448217

    Here is one article which is helpful, and which I more or less agree with:

    https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2010/10/14/schreiner-qa-is-the-sabbath-still-required-for-christians/

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