Law


II. The Moral Law. It is plain from the Decalogue (Exod.20.3-Exod.20.17; Deut.5.7-Deut.5.21) that morality is not to be derived from human standards and the verdict of society but from God and his declarations and one’s relationship of subordination to him. Right and wrong are not determined by the voice of society but by the voice of God.

The Ten Commandments declare the broad principles of God’s moral law. We can find positive teaching as to the will of God for our lives in those commandments that are couched in the negative, and we can find admonition and prohibition in those framed as positive exhortations. The Commandments constitute the regulative core of revelation as to acceptable lines of human conduct.

The first table of the law was considered to express man’s duty toward God (Exod.20.3-Exod.20.11), and the second his duty toward his fellow human beings (Exod.20.12-Exod.20.17). The NT seems to follow this division in summarizing the law, for Jesus said that it demands perfect love for God and love for one’s neighbor comparable to the love that one has for oneself (Matt.22.35-Matt.22.40).


Scripture makes clear the function of the moral law. As the expression of the character and will of God, it sets forth the only standard of righteousness acceptable to him; but humans were without power to conform to that perfect standard. The law made them aware of their sinfulness (Rom.7.7, Rom.7.13), condemned them as unrighteous (Rom.7.9-Rom.7.11; Gal.3.13; Jas.2.9), and, having removed any hope of salvation through their own righteousness, brought them to the place where they would cast themselves on the grace of God and trust only in the righteousness and merit of the atoning Savior, Jesus Christ (Gal.3.24).


III. Social Legislation. In the giving of the law at Sinai, Moses first communicated to the people the body of principles, the Ten Words, and then the applicatory precepts. Careful study of the individual statutes shows the specific commands to be rooted in the basic principles set out in the Decalogue.

OT laws of judicial, civil, or political nature are to be found in the block of legislative material known as the Book of the Covenant (Exod.20.23-Exod.23.33), in the so-called Holiness Code (Lev.17.1-Lev.17.16-Lev.26.1-Lev.26.46), and here and there throughout most of the Book of Deuteronomy, especially Deut.21.1-Deut.21.23-Deut.25.1-Deut.25.19.

Since man is inherently sinful and lawless, social life must come under regulations. So it was that in the OT times both Jews and Gentiles found themselves subject to law. Nor was the civil legislation binding on Israel much different from that of the heathen nations. The Code of Hammurabi has much in common with the laws promulgated under Moses, and other ancient statutes are found among non-Jews as well as in Israel. Basic principles of right and wrong are the same everywhere and for all people, reflecting the work of the Holy Spirit in the realm of common grace. The difference was that in the Israelite theocracy the laws regulating society were recognized as declared through God’s prophets and with divine authority, whereas in other nations the authority behind the codes was the voice of tradition or the voice of the state.






The prescriptions of the law were to the end that there might be peace and order, whether in the operations of the state or the family or in other spheres of human interrelations. The dignity of the individual was to be preserved. A high premium was set on selflessness and consideration of others. God’s wisdom and grace were manifest in the legislation given the Israelites through his servant Moses.

IV. Religious Legislation. Embodied in the OT are many laws governing the worship of God. Some are very general in nature, having to do with purity of worship. Large numbers of the laws concern the sanctuary, its priesthood, and the rites and ceremonies connected with it and the covenant relationship between the Israelites and their God. Some consist of prescriptions pertaining to special occasions of the religious year.




The brazen altar was for sacrifice and therefore implied the necessity of worship and atonement. As one approached the holy God, the laver was mute evidence of the fact that cleansing from defilement must first take place. The altar of incense pointed to the importance of adoration and praise (Ps.141.2; Isa.6.3-Isa.6.4). The table of showbread suggested the need for dedication, and the golden lampstand perhaps indicated that the worshiper should reflect in his life the light that comes from God and which is ever to be linked with him. These conclusions rest on the assumption that the sanctuary furnishings in the outer court and in the Holy Place were for the purpose of instructing the OT worshiper how they should draw near to God in worship.

On the other hand, the symbolism of the Most Holy Place may be thought of as speaking of God in his approach to people. Through the tables of law in the ark, through the ark’s cover, and through the cherubim symbolizing the presence of God, the Lord said to his people, “I, God, am a spiritual Being here in your midst. My law accuses and condemns. Who can keep it? But I have provided a covering, a propitiation, an atonement. Despite sin, it is still possible for you to look forward to dwelling in my immediate presence.” The veil testified that the time had not come, but the typology was unmistakable.

The worshiper might come only as far as the court. The ordinary priest could enter the Holy Place. Only the high priest might enter the Most Holy Place, and that but once a year. The symbolism was plain: it was not a light thing to seek acceptance in the presence of the holy God, but there was indeed a way of approach.




The rite of circumcision symbolized the taking away of defilement that the individual might be rightly related to God and a partaker of the covenant of grace.

The NT spells out the antitypes involved. As God’s dwelling among his people was symbolized in the OT through the Garden of Eden, the tabernacle, and the temple, so the New Covenant tells us that God as the Son “lived for a while among us” (John.1.14), that he indwells the individual believer (1Cor.6.19) and the church (2Cor.6.16), and that the final and everlasting dwelling place of God with man will be heaven itself (Heb.9.24; Rev.21.3).

In the new dispensation, that which was symbolized by the Passover celebration and circumcision came to be represented and defined more clearly in the Lord’s Supper and Christian baptism. The types and shadows of the ceremonial law gave way to antitypes.


A covenant child, our Lord was related to the ceremonial law as shown by his circumcision (Luke.2.21) and his presence at the temple at the Passover feast (Luke.2.42). He instructed lepers to carry out the provisions of the law (Luke.17.14). He drove from the temple those who defiled it (Matt.21.12-Matt.21.13). He and his disciples were accustomed to go to Jerusalem at feast time (John.7.37; John.13.1, John.13.29).

Christ spoke negatively regarding the traditions of the Jews but not of the ceremonial law as set forth in the OT. Yet he indicated that the time was coming when the ritual of the law would give place to spiritual worship (John.4.24).

In the transitional period after the Cross, the Resurrection, and the Ascension, conditions in each case determined whether the stipulations of the law should be observed. Paul might circumcise Timothy (Acts.16.3) but not Titus (Gal.2.3-Gal.2.4). He could assure the Corinthians that circumcision in the flesh was not essential for salvation (1Cor.2.2; 1Cor.7.18-1Cor.7.19); and, in writing to the Galatians, he could argue strongly against the contentions of the Judaizers (Gal.2.4ff.; Gal.5.1ff.) in line with the decisions of the Jerusalem Council (Acts.15.4ff.). The argument of the Book of Hebrews is that the types and shadows of the ceremonial law have passed away with the coming of Christ, the perfect High Priest, who as the Lamb of God offered himself on Golgotha that he might satisfy every demand of the law and purchase salvation for his people.

By means of the ceremonial law, God spoke in picture language of the salvation he was to effect through the life and death of the Incarnate Son. Therefore, it was necessarily imperfect and temporary. The social legislation governing Israel was designed for a particular culture at a given period of history, and so it, too, was only for a time; yet its principles are timeless and applicable to all generations. God’s moral law is in force everywhere and at all times, for it is a reflection of his very being. It has never been abrogated, nor indeed can be.

Bibliography: H. H. Rowley, From Joseph to Joshua, 1950; J. A. Motyer, The Revelation of the Divine Name, 1959; J. Bright, History of Israel, 1960; G. A. F. Knight, Law and Grace, 1962; M. G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King, 1963; D. E. H. Whiteley, The Theology of St. Paul, 1964; G. A. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 1964; K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament, 1966; W. Elert, Law and Gospel, 1967; J. A. Motyer, The Image of God, Law and Liberty in Biblical Ethics, 1976, and Law and Life: A Study of the Meaning of Law in the Old Testament, 1978.——BLG

See also

  • Marriage