How should Christians understand the different laws of the Old Testament?
Belgic Confession, Article 25; Day 1: The Threefold Law Given to Israel
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Psalm 147:19: “He sheweth His word unto Jacob, His statutes and His judgments unto Israel”
Belgic Confession Articles 22-24 have dealt with faith, justification, and sanctification and good works. The question naturally arises—what about the law? In Reformed theology the law of God has an important place and role to play in the life of the church and of the Christian. The law, although as we have seen in no way contributes to our justification or righteousness before God, remains binding upon all sinners, and remains the rule by which Christians are called to live. “As many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law” (Rom. 2:12). Paul quotes many of the Ten Commandments as binding upon New Testament believers (Rom. 13:9-10; Eph. 4:25, 28, 6:1-3).
But we need to understand what the law is. First, the law refers to the Torah, the first five books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy). Second, the law refers to all the commandments, statutes and ordinances contained in the Old Testament. Third, the law refers to the threefold division of the Law—the moral law, the civil law and the ceremonial law. All of these laws were received while Israel camped at Mount Sinai. It is especially the ceremonial law which is the focus of Belgic Confession Article 25.
Israel’s sojourn at Mount Sinai was memorable. Who could forget the smoke, the fire, the thundering, the lighting, the terrible quaking of the entire mountain and the awe inspiring voice of the Almighty which sounded like a long trumpet blast? (Ex. 19:18, 20:18). Even Moses confessed, “I exceedingly fear and quake” (Heb. 12:21). At the same time, Israel sinned grievously at Sinai by making and worshipping a golden calf. But the highlight of Sinai was the giving of the law. To no other nation did God give such a righteous law. This law was designed to regulate every aspect of Israel’s life, to teach her how God was to be worshipped and what a life of thankfulness should look like.
Two parts of the law have passed away. The first is the civil law. These are the laws which pertained to Israel as a nation. For example, God legislated through Moses how the Israelites should do farming—do not sow fields with mingled seed; do not crossbreed cattle (Lev. 19:19; Deut. 22:9-10). God legislated concerning property rights and laws of indemnity—if your animal causes damage to another man’s property or destroys his life you must make restoration (Ex. 21:28-36). God gave laws concerning punishment for various crimes—including the death penalty (Lev. 20:8-22). The second is the ceremonial law. These are the laws which pertained to Israel’s worship. There were instructions on constructing the tabernacle (Ex. 25-31); there were detailed instructions on the different kinds of sacrifices, apparel for the priests, laws concerning cleanness and uncleanness, and laws concerning the special feast days. Most of these laws are detailed in the book of Leviticus—a book which impresses upon us the holiness of God.
New Testament believers do not need to—indeed they may not—observe these Old Testament ceremonial laws. They were all fulfilled in the coming of Christ of whom these laws were but a shadow.
We live in full gospel light. We have no need to keep those laws.
Belgic Confession, Article 25; Day 2: The Perpetual, Binding, Moral Law
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Exodus 31:18: “And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.”
Since the nation of Israel no longer exists, the detailed civil laws which governed the Old Testament saints have passed away. God no longer regulates our farming methods or determines death by stoning for certain gross offences. The New Testament church is catholic or universal, gathered from all nations. The church and state are no longer intertwined. Therefore, the Christian must live in the world, and obey the laws of the nation in which he lives. Moreover, since the religion of Israel has been fulfilled in the coming of Christ, the ceremonial law—with the sacrifices, the priesthood, the festivals and stated solemnities, the food laws and many other ordinances—has passed away also. The Christian may eat pork or shellfish, indeed all things are clean unto us (I Tim. 4:4; Tit. 1:15; Col. 3:16, 20-22). This is the freedom of the Christian, which the Old Testament saints did not enjoy.
But this does not mean that God’s moral law has passed away.
The moral law belongs to a different category. It is altogether unique. First, the moral law—as it is summarised in the Ten Commandments, which in turn are summarised in Christ’s command to love God and the neighbor—is the revelation of the unchanging will of God for His creatures. We may eat pork—which was abomination in the Old Testament. We may wear a garment of mixed fabrics—forbidden in the Old Testament. We may approach God without a Levitical priesthood—unthinkable in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, the commandment to love God and the neighbor has not been abrogated. Murder, adultery, theft, lying, idolatry, blasphemy and covetousness are still sins. The Sabbath day—now the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week—is still the day God requires for public worship, although the Sabbath days, the new moons and the seven Levitical feasts (see Lev. 23) are no longer to be observed. Second, the moral law is set apart as unique in the Pentateuch itself. God spoke the words of the Ten Commandments personally to the people. The rest of the law God gave through the mediator Moses (Ex. 20:1). God wrote these Ten Commandments on two tables of stone with His own finger (Ex. 31:18). The number ten signifies their completeness and perfection; the finger of God signifies their binding authority; and the tablets of stone signify their perpetuity. Third, of the law only the Ten Commandments—the two tables—were placed inside the ark of the covenant. Everything in Scripture points to the unique importance of the Ten Commandments—the Decalogue or “ten words,” or the moral law.
How do we show love for God and the neighbour? Not by abstaining from pork; not by offering sacrifices; not by keeping the Feast of Tabernacles. We show love by keeping the commandments of God’s moral law (John 14:15). Which commandments? The Ten Commandments, as Paul summarises them in Romans 13: “… he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal … and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Rom. 13:8b-9).
How will you show your love for the great salvation Christ has given you?
Keep the Ten Commandments!
Belgic Confession, Article 25; Day 3: Not Under the Law
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Romans 6:14 “…for ye are not under the law, but under grace.”
Invariably, when someone raises the question of the law as a rule of gratitude for the Christian life, the objection is heard, “But we are not under the law, but under grace.” Therefore, it is vital that we understand the role of the law in the New Testament.
First, the law reveals our sin. “By the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). It is true that we all have a conscience and we all have some idea of right and wrong because God has written the work of the law—not the law itself—in the hearts of even the heathen. Nevertheless, the law increases our knowledge of sin. Paul experienced this himself when the law began to work upon him. “I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet” (Rom. 7:7). Second, the law increases our sin. This does not mean that the law is sinful or that the law promotes sin. But the sinful flesh of man hates God’s law—and cannot be subject to it (Rom. 8:7). Therefore, when God reveals His law to us, we are incited to sin even more. “Sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence … when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died … sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me” (Rom. 7:8, 11).This is because the law is “weak through the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). Third, the law reveals to us our need for a Saviour, and in that way the law was “our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). The law reveals to us what God’s requirements are, but the law does not give us any strength to obey the commandments of God. The only thing that the law can do is condemn and curse the transgressor of the law. Therefore, we need a Saviour who delivers us from the condemnation and curse of the law. That Saviour is Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:3). Fourth, the law is the guide of our thankfulness. We do not know—without the revelation of God’s law—how we ought to show our gratitude to God for the salvation He has given us. Sometimes we think that we know, but we discover that our “good work of thankfulness” has no warrant from the Word of God because God has not commanded it. Unbelievers might have a “zeal of God” but if it is “not according to knowledge,” what value is it (Rom. 10:2)? Indeed, some men have even committed great sins because they believed that in so doing they were serving God (John 16:2). Paul was an example of this when he was a persecutor of God’s people.
So, in what sense are we not under the law, but under grace? This phrase comes from Romans 6:14. Often it is quoted only in part without considering the context. Paul mentions our not being under the law as a reason for our not serving sin! We are not under the law, first, for condemnation. The law cannot curse or damn the Christian because Christ was cursed in our place. We are not under the law, second, in the sense that sin does not have dominion over us. We have been delivered from the power of sin, and therefore are free to serve God—by keeping His commandments with a new heart and a purified conscience.
The liberty of the Christian is not lawlessness, but freedom from condemnation (Rom. 8:1). Lawlessness is a spiritual bondage. “Ye were servants of sin” (Rom. 6:17); “Ye became the servants of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18).
What a privilege is ours—to serve the Lord Jesus Christ with the perfect law of liberty, the royal law of the King of kings (James 1:25, 2:8)!
Belgic Confession, Article 25; Day 4: The Figures or Shadows of the Law
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Hebrews 10:1: “The law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect.”
The Old Testament saints lived in the days of types and shadows.
A type is an Old Testament person, thing or event which points a higher, spiritual reality in the New Testament. David was a type of Christ. In a certain sense he resembled and pointed to Christ—he was a mighty warrior; he was the man after God’s own heart; he had a zeal for God’s worship—but he was not Christ. When the Old Testament saint studied him and his life, they could see something of Christ in him, but the real Christ was always future. The land of Canaan was a type of heaven. It has some similarities to heaven—it was freely given to Israel as her inheritance; it was the land which God set apart as holy; it was the place where God dwelled with His people—but it was not heaven. The Old Testament saints understood that the real land promised to them was heavenly (Heb. 11:10, 16). The Exodus from Egypt and the passing through the Red Sea were types of redemption—it was deliverance from bondage by a mediator; it separated Israel from the Egyptians; it consecrated them to God and to Moses—but is was not redemption in the blood of Jesus.
We must be careful, however, not to overanalyze the Old Testament and find types where God has not placed types. A type will be indicated by Scripture; there will be clear points of comparison between the type and the reality (the antitype); and there will be a point where the type fails to be the reality. There are too many speculative Christians whose overactive imagination leads them to make the Bible into a collection of fanciful pictures. This dishonors the Word of God and makes the Bible mean whatever we want it to mean.
A shadow is a shape produced by an object when light shines upon it. That shadow, however, is not real. We have all seen shadows. Perhaps as children we have even chased shadows. The object (or body) is real, but the shadow itself is not real. In the Old Testament Christ was casting many shadows, but those shadows were never the reality. Christ, who stood behind the shadows, was the reality. God’s people saw the shadows, but they longed to get behind the shadows to the reality. Hebrews 10:1 says, “The law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect.”
The Belgic Confession addresses this subject in these words: “We believe that the ceremonies and figures of the law ceased at the coming of Christ.” What, then, were the tabernacle, the temple, the ark of the covenant, the incense, the priesthood, the day of atonement and the Passover feast? Shadows, types, pictures, images, but not the reality.
And, if you look very carefully at those shadows, you will see Christ, and you will rejoice that Christ’s coming has dispelled the shadows, and you will walk in His light.
Belgic Confession, Article 25; Day 5: All the Shadows Are Accomplished
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Colossians 2:17: “Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.”
In Galatians 3-4 Paul develops the truth that God has one people—Israel or the church—and that this one people has reached her maturity in the New Testament age. In Galatians 3:23 Paul describes the strict confinement of Old Testament Israel—“before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.” That “shutting up” meant Israel’s entire life was controlled by the boundaries of the law of God.
Parents understand this. When your children are small, you determine everything for them. You set the boundaries—and this is good for children. Parents determine their children’s food, what they wear, where and when they sleep, where, when and with whom they go. Parents hedge in their children for their own good—childproof locks, fences, gates are all necessary when children are small. Israel in the Old Testament was such a child. She needed to be told what to eat, what to wear and she needed regulations for every aspect of her existence. “The heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all, but is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father” (Gal. 4:1-2). But the New Testament church does not need such rules—she has matured; she has inherited the inheritance; she enjoys the full freedom of gospel privileges.
Moreover, a little child cannot be taught in the same way in which a mature adult can be taught. A child needs illustrations and pictures. God gave Israel a beautiful picture book called the Old Testament—Canaan was a picture of heaven; food laws and laws concerning cleanness and uncleanness were pictures of the defilement of sin; the temple was a picture of fellowship with God. This truth ought to give us pause when we are tempted to read Old Testament prophecy too literally. Israel always needed to be taught in terms of pictures with which she was familiar. To attempt to teach her about the full realities of gospel truth would have confused her—as if you would attempt to teach a three year old with an encyclopedia.
What changed? The answer is that Christ came. Galatians 4:2 speaks of “the time appointed of the father.” That time was the coming of Christ, His death, His resurrection and His outpouring of His Holy Spirit (Gal. 4:4-7). The coming of Christ marked the church’s coming of age.
The transition from Old Testament to New Testament was painful. Most Jews remained unbelieving and rejected Christ altogether. They clung to their beautiful picture book but refused to believe that Christ has fulfilled every picture therein. Even believing Jews were reluctant to come out of the shadows—they had never known anything else. Through patient instruction the apostles encouraged them to embrace the promises of Christ.
Our Belgic Confession is clear, “all the shadows are accomplished, so that the use of them must be abolished among Christians.”
Are you still chasing shadows? The substance is Christ!
Belgic Confession, Article 25; Day 6: The Truth And Substance Remain
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Matthew 5:17: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.”
The truth that the Old Testament law—especially with respect to the ceremonial or civil law—was a shadow which has now been fulfilled must not cause us to despise the Old Testament. What we have is better, richer and more glorious than anything the Old Testament saints ever knew, but what they had was good and necessary and still profitable for us. The Belgic Confession reminds us, “Yet the truth and substance of them remain with us in Jesus Christ, in whom they have their completion.”
There are many in the church who despise the Old Testament. “Oh, that’s just the Old Testament!,” they cry. “We live in the New Testament.” Perhaps ministers are reluctant to preach the Old Testament for this reason. Modern Christians are woefully ignorant of the Old Testament Scriptures. But, remember, that for Christ and the Apostles the Old Testament was the only Bible they knew. When Paul urged the inspired, God-breathed Scriptures upon Timothy (II Tim. 3:16) he meant the Old Testament. When Christ quoted, “it is written,” to His enemies, He wielded the Old Testament (Matt. 4:4, 19:4). Indeed, without the Old Testament, our understanding of the Gospel would be greatly impoverished. Much of the New Testament presupposes the Old Testament. Christians must be familiar with creation, the fall, the flood, the exodus, the passage through the Red Sea, the wilderness wanderings, the psalms, the prophets and so much more to understand the New Testament Gospel of Jesus Christ. Think of only one chapter: Hebrews 11!
The truth and substance of the ceremonies remain. Take circumcision. We do not—we must not—circumcise our children. But the truth of original sin, sanctification, the covenant and the forgiveness of sins in the blood of Christ remains. Take the sacrifices of the Old Testament Levitical priesthood. We must not offer animal sacrifices today, but Jesus is the Lamb of God, there is without the shedding of blood no remission, and Christ is our great High Priest. Take the law against eating the meat of pigs or other unclean animals. We are not so restricted today, but the truth and substance of God’s holiness and our spiritual separation from the world remain. The truth and substance remain in every Old Testament ordinance, although the shadow has been dispelled by the appearance of Christ. And when we search the Scriptures diligently we will find Jesus Christ there to the comfort of our souls. Jesus expects us to find Him there.”And beginning at Moses, He expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself; “ “These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets and in the psalms concerning me” (Luke 24:27, 44).
Consider the picture book illustration. As the church in our maturity we no longer need to be taught exclusively by means of pictures, but pictures are even useful for adult believers. It is true that we have the reality, but the pictures of the Old Testament can still teach us much about our Saviour. And we can understand those pictures better than the Old Testament saints ever could.
We have a saying—do not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Do not throw away the Old Testament with the coming of the New Testament. Both are God’s precious word to us.
Belgic Confession, Article 25; Day 7: Using the Testimonies of the Law to Confirm Us in the Doctrine of the Gospel
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Romans 3:1-2: “What advantage then hath the Jew? … Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God.”
One final use of the law is to “confirm us in the doctrine of the Gospel, and to regulate our life in all honesty, to the glory of God, according to His will.”
When we look at many of the laws contained in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy we might wonder, what possible relevance does that have for us? Perhaps it would help to look at a few examples of how specific laws do have relevance to us today.
In Leviticus 16 the great Day of atonement is described. We know from the New Testament that “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). This does not mean that the Day of atonement can be cut out of our Bibles. Without an understanding of the Day of atonement, the different sacrifices, the scapegoat in the wilderness, the sprinkling of the blood on the mercy seat, our appreciation of the real atonement of Christ is greatly impoverished. The same is true of the awesome account of the Passover in Exodus 12. How would we appreciate the Last Supper (and therefore the Lord’s Supper) and the cross itself without understanding the historical and religious significance of the Passover? “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” (I Cor. 5:7).
Take the laws concerning leprosy in Leviticus 13. This rich instruction gives us a very profound understanding of the filthiness and defiling nature of sin. Cleanness and uncleanness were very important concepts to the Old Testament saint. We are not longer to think of cleanness and uncleanness in terms of eating, drinking, wearing different clothes or various diseases, but the concept of sin is still one which must profoundly affect us. Do you need a vivid picture of sin which you and your children can understand? Go to Isaiah 1:6, “From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds and bruises, and putrefying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment.” Then turn to Psalm 51:7, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” The hyssop is a reference to Leviticus 14:4, 51-52!
Would you know how serious sin is? Examine the many offences in the Old Testament punishable by death—even the picking up of sticks on the Sabbath day (Numb. 15). And having seen how serious your sin is, flee to Christ who has borne the sins of His people.
There are many other laws in the Old Testament, which—although they do not apply to our lives today—apply in a general sense. A Presbyterian creed, the Westminster Confession, explains the applicability this way: “To them [the Jews] also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging under any now, further than the general equity thereof may require.” General equity is general justice or honesty, something our Belgic Confession mentions in Article 25 The general principles of merciful provision for the poor, protection of one’s neighbor from injury, restoration of goods when lost or damaged and such like can be derived from the Old Testament. Read the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy in that light!
When the Law of God is properly understood, every Christian can surely sing, “O, how love I thy law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97).