One of the most difficult subjects that I believe Christians can wrestle with is which aspects of the Old Testament Law are still binding upon us. This is nothing new, and was the topic which caused the first ever recorded Church council (Acts 15). Most Christians will be familiar with one way to approach this issue. Often, the Law will be divided into three categories: moral, civil, and ceremonial.
It is then stated, that the ceremonial and civil law are no longer binding, yet the moral law remains. While helpful, this is not a full proof way of dealing with this issue. As many have pointed out, to a degree, all of God’s law, if binding, is inherently within a moral category. Further, and I would say more difficult to deal with, is the fact that it is extremely difficult to read any of the New Testament authors as if they were actually working with this tripartite distinction in mind. Could it still be legitimately present if it was not an active and conscious distinction within their minds as they wrote the texts? Sure, implications of the texts are worthy considerations and simply because a category distinction wasn’t in mind, does not mean that it doesn’t truly exist.
Nonetheless, there is a significant push against a wide sweeping adoption of the tripartite Law distinction to determine which aspects of the Law are binding and which are not, if no New Testament author utilized that method within Scripture. And, I believe that is the case. As Don Carson states when discussing the Sermon on the Mount:
[When considering] the distinctions “moral law,” “ceremonial law,” and “civil law,”… it must be insisted that to read such categories back into Matthew 5:17-20 and to conclude that only moral law is in view would be anachronistic. This does not deny the Jesus himself makes no distinction what so ever in Old Testament law, nor to say that the distinctions are always invalid. Rather, it is to say that the New Testament writers do not in any case appear to establish patterns of continuity or discontinuity on the basis of such distinctions.1
Like I said, this is no easy topic, and it is well beyond my intention for this post to deal with it. The above discussion is designed to teach us one thing, that when dealing with Christianity and the Law, we need to be careful and move slow. We have to pay attention to a multitude of factors, and the one I want to highlight here is the factor of time. That is, when we interpret Scripture we must consider, when the specific statement or teaching is made and how its time and place in the redemptive arc of history should influence how we interpret and apply it. Let’s flesh this out with an easy and noncontroversial example first, and then finish with a more complicated and controversial one.
Starting with the easy one, consider what Jesus tells the cleansed leaper to do in the first chapter of Mark. After healing him, Jesus tells him to, “show yourself to the priest and present the offering Moses prescribed for your cleansing” (Mark 1:44, emphasis mine). Now, pay attention to what Jesus told this man to do. Drawing directly from Leviticus 14, he instructs this man to present an offering, which would include the sacrifice of multiple animals over the course of eight days and would include several types of offerings.
Now, would an individual healed of leprosy ever be given these instructions by a follower of Jesus today? May it never be! Christians do not sacrifice in this way, because Christ’s sacrifice was once and for all (Hebrews 7:27). To continue to sacrifice animals today would be to fail to see the very purpose that they were sacrificed, that is, as a sign post to the blood of the final and only truly spotless sacrifice, Jesus Christ. The vast majority of Christians across traditions would agree to this. Like I said, easy.
But why was it so easy? Primarily, because of the obvious nature of where such a teaching falls within the timeline of the redemption story. That is, the way this teaching relates to the work and person of Christ is very clear. Jesus had yet to offer himself as the final sacrifice, therefore the Law had yet to be fulfilled, which means that at that time, it was exactly what Jesus should have prescribed. Whereas, in just a few short years, it would be borderline blasphemy. To continue to offer the blood of animals today, would detract from the finished nature of Christ’s work.
Now, I said things do get more complicated. Let’s briefly move from animal sacrifice to the Sabbath. There is a long tradition which believes that, similar to the animal sacrifice, Jesus Christ has fulfilled the Sabbath, thereby becoming the focus and object of Christian rest and removing the specific requirements given in the Old Testament related to it. This is stated well by the fourth century bishop Epiphanius of Salamis:
Therefore the sabbath prescribed by law has retained its validity until his arrival; but after it has been abolished, he (God) has given (us) the great Sabbath, which is the Lord himself; he is our rest and our sabbath observance.2
It is this type of interpretation that has led some Christinas to radically oppose the requirements of physical rest on the Sabbath. Consider the bombastic Martin Luther:
If anywhere the day is made holy for the mere day’s sake—if anywhere anyone sets up its observance on a Jewish foundation, then I order you to work on it, to ride on it, to dance on it, to feast on it, to do anything that shall remove this encroachment on Christian liberty.3
None of this is meant to force my own interpretation of the Sabbath on you. Rather, it is to bring to light the importance of the timeline in our interpretation. For, Jesus definitely refers to keeping the Sabbath in some regard during his earthly ministry. Often, this is used as a defeater type argument against those who hold to my interpretation. However, as we demonstrated with the discussion on animal sacrifices and Jesus’s prescriptions, we must consider when those statements were made, and how they ought to be interpreted and applied today. As Don Carson states,
Part of the problem in grappling with Jesus’ view of the law is that although Jesus Himself was under the old covenant, He was the messenger of the new, and actually introduced the eschatological aeon by His death, resurrection, and exaltation… Jesus’ authoritative teaching anticipates the change, which does not actually come until the Resurrection.4
Once more we are reminded of the intricacies of Scriptural interpretation. Some areas are harder than others, but establishing firm principles from the clearest parts will guide us when the way forward becomes less obvious.
- Don Carson, “Jesus and the Sabbath in the Four Gospels,” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation, ed. Don Carson (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999), 78-79
- (Haer. 8:6:8); quoted in: Andrew T. Lincoln, “From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical and Theological Perspective” in Ibid., 396
- Quoted in: Richard J. Bauckham, “Sabbath and Sunday in the Protestant Tradition” in Ibid., 314
- Carson, Ibid. 79