When we speak of “God’s law”, we need to clarify what we mean because references are made to God’s “law” in a variety of contexts in the Bible. In Psalm 119:160, for instance, King David said, “All your words are true; all your righteous laws are eternal.” If God’s laws are eternal does that mean that all of them are in effect forever?
Or in Matthew 5:17, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law”; in fact, “until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” Here, the teaching of Jesus implies that the Law is not altered in the New Covenant.
How can we reconcile these teachings with the idea that some of God’s laws seem to have applied just to Israel but are no longer applied to the Church or mankind in the New Covenant? The short answer is that we must let God tell us in His word what He means. We must let Scripture interpret Scripture.
Toward that end, this essay looks at the broad outline of God’s law in the Bible. To do so, it will look chronologically at several aspects of the law. First, God’s law revealed in creation. Second, God’s law communicated at Mount Sinai. And third, it looks at certain laws given at Mount Sinai or, in the case of circumcision, to Abraham in Canaan, which Scripture tells us were “temporary laws” intended by God to teach His people but which end with the coming of the New Covenant and advent of Christ.
Chronologically, we should begin with God’s first giving of His law in the creation. For Scripture teaches, first of all, that God has revealed Himself and His character to all men. This fact sets Christianity apart from other religions. God is a sovereign law-giving creator, but He is also personal and knowable. He has revealed Himself. This is recounted in the first chapter of the book of Romans:
18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Ro. 1:18-20)
Note that even though God has revealed Himself to all men they “suppress” the truth about God. They do not want to hear about God. They do not “see” God’s revelation of Himself because they are unwilling to see it.
These verses speak of “what may be known about God” and His power and divinity. Instead of “His divinity” some translations say “His Godhead”. In looking at these verses alone we might ask or wonder, “How much was actually communicated?”. These verses set forth clearly that God revealed Himself and His nature. To what extent does this mean that God revealed His actual laws for man?
God’s law, however, is a clear reflection of His character in terms of the activity of man. To know God’s character, to behold the almighty, holy, living God is, at once, to know what is required of us. This understanding of Romans 1:18-22 is then born out as the remainder of the chapter goes on to expound the fact that even though men know God they are unwilling to worship and obey Him. They choose instead to harden their hearts against Him, worship and serve created things, and disobey Him in every area of life.
“Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (Ro. 1:32)
Hence, implicit in God’s revelation of Himself is not only the command to worship and serve God, but how to worship and serve God; in other words, God’s law. Our vision of God’s revelation of Himself is now marred by our own sinfulness. But we should not allow that to obscure for us what God says about the extent of His revelation of Himself in the creation.
Let’s continue on chronologically to consider the law. Romans 1 describes the rebellion of all men against God. We see this rebellion continuing after the creation in the time of Noah.
“The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” (Genesis 6:5)
God judged mankind in the flood and again at Babel. Against the backdrop of man’s rebellion, God chose a man who would be the “father of all who believe” (Ro. 4:11) and made promises to him. God said that He would do a gracious work through him and his descendants, making of them a great nation. That man was Abraham. (Genesis 12). And that nation was Israel.
In constituting the nation of Israel, God gave His law a second time, this time in writing, at Mt. Sinai. God would call on His special people to obey His laws against which nearly all of mankind had been rebelling.
Here it is important to stop and recognize two things. First, God’s holy law already existed and had been revealed in the creation to all men. At Mt. Sinai, it was given a second time in writing as clear tool which even sinful men could behold and read. God’s law was a tool for God’s people to train their hearts in obedience (Deut. 6:1-9) and it was a visible testimony to the nations of the world of the goodness of God and His law (Deut. 4:5-8).
Second, we should note that at Mt. Sinai, God also commanded certain external rites and laws for Israel which were intended to point them toward the faith of Abraham. They were marks of God’s covenant with Israel, and citizenship in Israel was based on these outward marks and observances. Temple worship, observance of festivals and food laws were all intended to point men to faith in the God of Abraham and ethical separation from the wicked people of Canaan around them. These outward rites also included circumcision, first given to Abraham as an external mark of God’s covenant. But the observances themselves did not convey the faith of Abraham.
Centuries later, after Israel’s protracted disobedience resulted in God declaring that He would make a new covenant with Israel and Judah (Jer. 31:31-37), the death knell sounded for these outward rites and observances of the Old Covenant. These special laws applied to Israel and were marks of citizenship as long as the Old Covenant continued but they ended with the advent of the New Covenant as Paul taught in his letters.
16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Colossians 2:17)
Food laws, festivals and sabbaths were not permanent, Paul says. They pointed men to Christ, but now Christ Himself has come and these external rites are no more.
Likewise in Romans 4:10-11, Paul emphasizes the fact that Abraham believed God and his faith was credited to him as righteousness before he was circumcised, not after. Circumcision did not convey faith. It never has and it never will. Instead, circumcision was an outward sign of true circumcision which is circumcision of the heart:
28 A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit” (Ro. 2:28-29).
Although they ended with the advent of the New Covenant, these temporary commands were a major flashpoint of conflict between 33AD and 70AD because unbelieving Jews would not accept the end of the Old Covenant and its marks of citizenship. In discipling new Christians, Paul fought repeatedly against “Judaizers” who touted the abiding necessity of these temporary laws. The Judaizers would not accept the end of the Old Covenant because they stood to lose rank and wealth.
One book of the Bible which is pivotal in this regard is Galatians. Notice that in Galatians 2 and 3 it is food laws and circumcision that are the contentious issues. It is important to understand that the book of Galatians is about Paul’s fight against the Judaizers and their continued application of temporary laws of the Old Covenant. Not only were they calling for those temporary laws to continue, they were teaching that they were the way to both citizenship in Israel and salvation.
If Galatians has not made sense to you in the past because it was hard to reconcile with Paul’s teaching about the law else in the New Testament (for instance, in Romans 7 and 8, where he teaches that “the law” is holy and good and the path of a holy life), recognize that in Galatians Paul is not condemning God’s holy law. Instead, he is battling against the Judaizers.
First, Paul is shepherding the Galatians away from the false teaching of unbelievers — Jews who didn’t accept Christ. These men were pagans. They didn’t have the faith of Abraham or they would have had faith in Jesus.
Instead, the Judiaizers were teaching a pagan religion based on “the works of the law” (circumcision, food laws, etc). For them, being an Israelite by external rites was their righteousness. They didn’t believe the torah. The torah teaches Christ and the faith of Abraham.
Second, in Galatians, Paul is explaining that salvation is not obtained by doing the “works of the law” as taught by the Judaizers (circumcision, food laws, etc) but is obtained by having the faith of Abraham — it is today and it always has been.
Third, Paul is teaching that the “works of the law” (circumcision, food laws, etc) are no longer marks of citizenship in Israel. Instead, citizenship in Israel in the New Covenant is based on one criteria only – the faith of Abraham.
Paul teaches this lesson throughout his letters, telling the Ephesians, for example, that though they were once “separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel” (2:12), in Christ they are now “fellow citizens” (2:19).
The debate in Galatians was about citizenship in Israel. The Judaizers said that the rites of the Old Covenant were required while Paul said one thing was required, the faith of Abraham.
This debate recurs in several books of the New Testament. The Jews of Paul’s day were actively seeking to retain and win adherents to their pagan faith. The book of Galatians has sometimes been misunderstood to teach that the Old Covenant was a “works religion”. Not so. The torah points to Christ and the faith of Abraham. The Judaizers were pagan Jews who rejected Christ. Their rejection of God and their idea of works religion does not faithfully represent the Old Covenant.
Instead, the Old Covenant and the torah always pointed to man’s need for God’s mercy and forgiveness. Saints in the Old Testament certainly knew the grace of God (Psalm 32, Psalm 51). And they certainly preached the gospel, “all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Joel 2:32). Joel 2:32 is quoted by Paul in Romans 10:10 as evidence that the gospel was continuously held out to Israel in the Old Covenant.
So, we have framed the temporary laws of the Old Covenant and seen how they were used by the pagan Judaizers who would not accept the end of the Old Covenant. But what of the rest of God’s law revealed in the creation (Ro. 1:18-32) and republished at Mt. Sinai?
Here we must be guided by the Scripture. And Scripture tells us quite clearly which laws are temporary. Temple worship, including animal sacrifice and priestly law, food laws, festivals and sabbaths, these are all specifically identified as temporary laws which pointed men to God but which ended with the advent of the New Covenant. The rest of God’s law given at Mt. Sinai is God’s eternal law given first in creation. Those laws stand as binding, perfect and just as ever in the New Covenant.
The English puritans who came to the New Haven colony in the new world in 1640, in setting up their civil polity, described the role of God’s civil law this way:
“…that the judicial law of God given by Moses and expanded in other parts of scripture… so far as it is neither ceremonial or typical nor had any reference to Canaan, hath an everlasting equity in it and shall be the rule of our proceedings.” – New Haven Colony, 1640
Note their summary of what laws no longer applied in the New Covenant. Nothing that was ceremonial (animal sacrifice, temple worship), typical (a type or shadow, Col. 2:17) or which had reference to the land of Canaan (land partition, cities of refuge, etc) continued in the New Covenant.
This is the explicit teaching of Scripture (the end of animal sacrifice, circumcision, food laws, etc.). The only implicit portion is the land laws which have no reference point in the Ten Commandments and logically end with Israel being covenantally ejected from Canaan (Lev. 19, Mt. 21).
Misunderstanding the temporary laws of the Old Covenant has caused much confusion among Christians. Paul’s letter to the Galatians combats misapplication of those temporary laws by pagan Jews who did not have the faith of Abraham. The eternal law of God extolled throughout the Old Testament is still the basis of God’s governance of all men today. As Jesus taught in Matthew 5:17-19:
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
The law is not abolished. Scripture itself teaches us about those laws whose application was temporary and which find special, abiding fulfillment in the coming of the person of Christ. We must not “set aside one of the least” of God’s eternal commands. This is a sober warning from the Lord of the New Covenant about His law. May we honor and extol His perfect, eternal law in the midst of a dark generation which hates both God and His law. Amen.