The ceremonial Law of Moses has been abolished, but the Ten Commandments remain to be kept by all as God’s moral law. This is accomplished using the three-fold division of the law, separating the civil and ceremonial laws from the moral laws.

(This is part 3 of the discussion on the statement above)

…………..I hope it is beginning to become clear that significant challenges arise when we separate the OT law into groups and then keep or ‘nail to the cross’ parts of those groups. Unfortunately, to the detriment of important law theology, many Christians try to solve this problem by appealing to this threefold division of the law: moral, ceremonial, and civil.

“When we turn to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, we see that he tells us to fulfill the law in a different way than what we can read directly in the Old Testament. In Matthew 5:21–48, he quotes several commandments from the law, but then he goes on to give an explanation that makes these commandments much more difficult. For example, he refers to the commandment “you shall not murder” and adds: “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Mt. 5:22). Jesus makes it clear that it is not enough to obey the law with our actions. We must obey the law with our heart. True obedience includes our thoughts and attitudes as well.

When Jesus teaches us to fulfill the law, it is more than a literal fulfillment. This emphasis on a spiritual fulfillment is something we can also find in Paul’s letters. We no longer bring animals as sacrifice to God. Instead, Paul says: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is true worship” (Rom. 12:1). Our whole life is now a sacrifice.

The coming of Jesus therefore brings the law to its ultimate, eschatological fulfillment. This means first of all that the law points forward to Jesus Christ and the perfect salvation that we have in him. But it also means that Jesus’ disciples are transformed from the inside, so that they obey God from their hearts, not only in outward observance. The new covenant that Jeremiah and Ezekiel expected (Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 11:19; 36:26) has now become reality (2 Cor. 3:3). As especially Paul explains, the disciples’ transformation takes place through the power of the Holy Spirit (ch. 11).

When they obey God’s will in this more perfect way, Christians fulfill all parts of the law, in their true, spiritual sense. The New Testament authors therefore give a spiritual interpretation of many of the Old Testament commandments (1 Cor. 9:9; Phil. 3:3; Heb. 13:16; 1 Pet. 2:5). The Old Testament prophets also knew that the law aimed at such a spiritual fulfillment (Deut. 10:16, 30:6; Jer. 4:4). But in the New Testament, it becomes clear that many of the Old Testament commandments are now irrelevant in their literal form. Christians do not have to observe the laws regarding clean and unclean food, circumcision, and festivals (Mk 7:19; Rom. 14:5; Gal. 5:2; Col. 2:16).

In the end, we therefore find that it may be useful to distinguish between the moral, the civil, and the ceremonial aspects of Old Testament law. But we should not think that Christians only fulfill the moral law. The whole law teaches us about God and his will, and Christians have an obligation to fulfill the whole law. They fulfill the whole law in a spiritual way. With respect to the moral aspects of the law, this means that Christians not only obey it outwardly, but also inwardly, from their heart. With respect to the ceremonial and civil aspects of the law, it means that they do not have to fulfill it in a literal sense, but that they do fulfill it in a spiritual sense.

In everything, Christians are called to fulfill the law of Christ and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:14; 6:2). Even though Christians are free with respect to the individual commandments of the Old Testament, they are always bound by this law. Oftentimes, Christians will need to set their own freedom aside in order to show love for their neighbor. Paul was free from the law of Moses, but he observed the law as an expression of his love for his fellow Jews. He explains: “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law” (1 Cor. 9:19–21). For similar reasons, the apostolic council in Jerusalem instructed the Gentile Christians to obey certain dietary restrictions (Acts 15:20). These laws were not binding for Christians, but it would be unreasonably difficult for Jewish Christians to have fellowship with Gentiles who did not observe these basic rules. Even though they were free from these regulations, the Gentile Christians would therefore obey them out of love for their Jewish brothers and sisters.

Christians should not “seek their own good, but the good of others” (1 Cor. 10:24). They have the Holy Spirit. This Spirit causes them no longer to desire what the world desires, but to desire what is pleasing to God (Rom. 8:5–6). What they do, they do out of love for God and for their neighbor. Love is therefore the sum of the law (Rom. 13:8–10). When Christians are driven by this love, they do the kind of works that serve to build one another up. They are characterized by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23). They therefore go beyond the literal demands of the law. When Paul is appealing to the Corinthians to participate in the collection for the poor in Jerusalem, he does not want them to fulfill the law of tithing (Lev. 27:30–33; Deut. 14:22–25). Instead, he wants them to follow the example of Jesus Christ. He did not give only one-tenth of what he owned, but he gave up all his heavenly riches for the sake of his people (2 Cor. 8:9).” [1]

I completely understand the desire to divide the law into these groups, and by so doing, we would avoid having to conclude either the New Testament has abolished the Old Testament law as a whole or that the whole law continues to apply to the New Testament church. By making this division, we can do, as so many do, that the moral law applies and everything else must go.

I believe that we have gotten this concept wrong. As Richard E. Averbeck correctly argues in his book The Old Testament Law for the Life of the Church: Reading the Torah in the Light of Christ,

“It is not a matter of whether the Old Testament law applies but how the New Testament applies it.” [2]

In an exciting turn of events, Paul will make a logical argument about the law, where his logic starts with the Mosaic 10 Commandments, which many will classify as the moral law or God’s eternal moral law, as the ‘weakness of the Old Testament law.’

“It is the weakness of the legal stipulations by themselves, without the heart of faith, that Paul emphasizes in Romans 6–8. This weakness applies to the whole law, including the so-called moral law.” [3]

A significant issue that must be addressed is how Paul uses all three categories of the ‘Christian three-fold division’ to argue the law’s goodness and weakness. Richard Averbeck goes on to say,

“…we know that the “moral” law is weak along with all the other parts of it because Paul begins his argument in Romans 7:7–8:17 with a quote of the tenth commandment: “What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’ ” (Rom 7:7). On that basis he proceeds to argue both for the goodness of the law and its weakness (Rom 7:8–8:3). It is easy to understand the goodness of the tenth commandment, but what about the weakness?” [4]

This threefold division of the Old Testament law has NO PLACE in either of the Testaments, at least not in how most people use the division to apply certain parts of the law to their theological systems. Yes, the Pentateuch does emphasize different parts of the law and places more important significance on certain ones, but none of them put the Old Testament laws into nicely packaged three-fold division. If one carefully looks at the arrangement of the parallel law collections in the Pentateuch, what you will find might astound you. The law collections begin and end with ‘ceremonial’ regulations and have others embedded with them.

Richard Averbeck goes on to say this,

“Moreover, even if we did accept the law’s threefold division, the New Testament still cites all three “divisions” and applies them to the Christian life. The moral law is easy. No one has a problem with the prohibitions against such things as murder. Even with this, however, Jesus took it further than the teachers of the law in his day (Mt 5:20–26). The apostles have no problem with applying the civil law either, as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 9:8–14, citing the regulation against muzzling an ox while it is threshing the grain (Deut 25:4; cf. also 1 Tim 5:18 and the discussion in chap. 5 above). The same is true for what is labeled the ceremonial law, as we will see in the discussion below. The basic rationale from a New Testament perspective is that we are free from the Mosaic covenant law (Gal 5:13); therefore, it cannot be used to condemn us because we are in Christ (Rom 7:24–8:1). Moreover, it is not the principle nor does it provide the power by which we live our lives during our days on this earth. 

Nevertheless, part of the essence of the new covenant in Christ is the writing of the Old Testament law on the heart. This is what the “law of Christ” is all about (Gal 6:2), under which we do indeed live (see chap. 8 above). In other words, the “law of Christ” is the means by which the Old Testament law is mediated to us in Christ (1 Cor 9:21: “I am not free from the law of God but am under the law of Christ”). This is the so-called third use of the law. All parts of the law are included here. Even the pattern of the ceremonial law extends not only from the Old Testament into and through the sacrificial life and death of Christ but also from Christ to the life of the faithful Christian.  Like Christ, we are to become “sacrifices” (Rom 12:1) and “priests” (1 Pet 2:9). We now turn to some of the New Testament details.” [5]

This excursus’s primary focus has been the three-fold division technique used to do away with specific laws but retain the moral laws. As I have repeatedly stated, I do not believe this is a useful interpretive tool. It also misrepresents the text and twists the understanding to fit a modern reading of the text. To better understand, I would like to share an example of where this three-fold division and throwing out the civil and ceremonial laws but retaining the ‘moral’ laws becomes a theological problem. Let’s turn to Ephesians 2:15, but we will start with verse 14.

“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” (Eph 2:14–16 ESV)

Here is the crux of the three-fold division technique. Those who hold this concept will zero in on the English word ‘ordinances’ (Greek δόγμα – dogma) and claim all of the laws that deal with the sacrificial system is what is done away with. This argument is weak and twists the actual ideas of the author. Since I am not a Greek Linguistics Scholar, I will allow others who are experts in this area to speak. If we do a literal translation of the Greek text, it would read,

“ ‘the law [consisting] of commandments in statutes he has abolished.’ Greek grammar and analogous precedents in Ephesians would permit reading, ‘By [his] statutes he has abolished the law of commandments.’[6] In this case the ordinances given by Christ would supersede Old Testament law and commandments. However, in none of the undisputed letters does Paul call Jesus’ teachings a nova lex, or attribute to them the function of annulling the law given to Israel.[7]  Even if Ephesians was written by a disciple of Paul, the context of Eph 2:15 reveals that for the author (as much as for Paul himself) the death of Christ rather than the promulgation of new decrees stood behind the abolition of the divisive statutes.” [8]

The fourth commandment is the core of the issue, especially for an Adventist believer. Adventists have been trained to see the Sabbath as more than just necessary. If we don’t keep the Sabbath, we have the mark of the beast. But what if this isn’t the case? What if we have misunderstood the law and our theology is confused?

If the Ten Commandments remain and are further binding on believers today, then what should we do with the punishment for breaking any of these laws that were also applied in the Old Testament? Do we keep the law as binding but disregard the penalty of anyone who doesn’t keep it?

This often happens when we proof-text the bible to argue a denominational understanding of a theological belief or doctrine.

“Many in their zeal to keep the Sabbath forget that it is not an isolated factor in a religious code, but is an integral part of a legal system. The infringement of this law in any particular meant the penalty of death. In Numbers 15:32–36 we read of the incident where a man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath was stoned to death. This would have been the penalty for one lighting a fire on the Sabbath. Can modern Gentile Sabbath-keepers evade this issue and declare their innocence before the law? They do make a distinction between what is called the “moral law” and the “ceremonial law.” Suffice it to say that Scripture knows of no such distinction. Nor does this relieve them of their difficulty because, granted that the regulations for punishment were ceremonial, how about the sacrifices God commanded (Numbers 28:9, 10) to be brought on the Sabbath? If these are also declared to be ceremonial, then what was there left in the Sabbath observance to be called “moral”? We conclude this phase of our discussion with a quotation from a former Seventh-Day observer. “But after keeping it twenty-eight years; after having persuaded more than a thousand others to keep it; after having read my Bible through verse by verse, more than twenty times; after having scrutinized, to the very best of my ability, every text, line and word in the Bible having the remotest bearing upon the Sabbath question; after having looked up all these, both in the original and in many translations; after having searched in lexicons, concordances, commentaries and dictionaries; after having read armfuls of books on both sides of the question; after having read every line in all the early church fathers upon this point; and having written several works in favor of the Seventh-Day, which were satisfactory to my brethren; after having debated the question for more than a dozen times; after seeing the fruits of keeping it, and weighing all the evidence in the fear of God, I am fully settled in my own mind and conscience  that the evidence is against the keeping of the Seventh-Day.” [9] Little wonder it is that this conclusion was reached, for we have seen that the Sabbath was given to Israel only.” [10]

I rest my case. Scripture doesn’t uphold a three-fold division, and even if it did, the only reason anyone would try to argue this division would be to keep the ‘moral’ law separate from the other divisions. The purpose of this would be to maintain the sanctity of the Ten Commandments as the moral law and thus emphasize the Fourth Commandment. This doesn’t hold up against scrutiny.

 

Side Note: It is interesting to note that in the Genesis account, God created each day. Even though the Genesis account doesn’t explicitly use this language for the Seventh day, we see that Jesus himself thought this:

“And he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’” Mk 2:27.

If God created or made the Sabbath and it was made for man, then there could NOT have been a Sabbath in place before its creation. This means it wasn’t eternally kept in heaven before humans were created. The Adventist theology of the eternality of God’s moral law espouses this. But if it was designed and made for man, then one must deal with this issue.

 

Here is the link to the next discuss on whether the Ten Commandments are the transcript of God’s character. 

 

 

[1] Sigurd Grindheim, Introducing Biblical Theology (London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2013), 174–176.

[2] Richard E. Averbeck, The Old Testament Law for the Life of the Church: Reading the Torah in the Light of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2022), 13.

[3] Richard E. Averbeck, The Old Testament Law for the Life of the Church: Reading the Torah in the Light of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2022), 293.

[4] Richard E. Averbeck, The Old Testament Law for the Life of the Church: Reading the Torah in the Light of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2022), 293.

[5] Richard E. Averbeck, The Old Testament Law for the Life of the Church: Reading the Torah in the Light of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2022), 316–317.

[6] Bengel follows Theodore of Mopsuestia, Chrysostom, and other Greek Fathers when he understands the statutes given by Jesus Christ (e.g. the “But I say unto you …” statements of the Sermon on the Mount [Matt 5:20–49]) as the means by which the former law was abrogated.

[7] Abbott. In his later commentary on Galatians, M. Luther, e.g. WA 40 i 50, 90, 142, 240, 248–49, 256–59, 297 ff., reacts violently against the assumption that Christ is a new legislator or another Moses. Against Luther it might be objected that Matthew’s Gospel is so structured as to proclaim Jesus the anti-type of Moses. In Acts the statement “A prophet like me … the Lord your God will raise up to you” (Deut 18:15, 18) is interpreted as a prophetic description of Jesus Christ (Acts 3:22–23; 7:37; cf. Matt 17:5 par.). Actually neither Moses nor Jesus is in the Bible depicted as legislators. The Sinaitic Law passes through the hands or the mouth of Moses (cf. Gal 3:19) but is not his personal law. Jesus has come to fulfill, not to destroy (or replace) the law (Matt 5:17). He would never have been given the OT title Messiah if he had violated a basic trait of OT and intertestamental Messianic promise and hope: unlike, e.g. Hammurabi or Napoleon, a judge or king of the Jews is never depicted as a legislator—though he may, as Josiah did, rediscover the old law. In order to be different from the wicked kings on the thrones of Samaria and Jerusalem, the true king of the Jews must be subject to the law given by God, see, e.g. 1 Sam 10:23; Deut 17:18–20. Not even the sparse Talmudic references to a “Messianic Tora,” discussed, e.g. by W. D. Davies, “Torah in the Messianic Age,” JBL Monograph Series VII (1952), contradict this rule.

[8] Markus Barth, Ephesians: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on Chapters 1–3, vol. 34, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 264–265.

[9] D. M. Canright. Seventh-Day Adventists Renounced. p. 185.

[10] Charles Lee Feinberg, “The Sabbath and the Lord’s Day,” Bibliotheca Sacra 95 (1938): 183–184.

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