What is the distinction between the Moral, Ceremonial and Civil laws of the Old Testament?

I will say up front that I am a Biblical literalist.  That means I believe the entire Bible – all 39 books of the Old Testament and all 27 books of the New Testament are the very Word of God. I believe that God inerrantly spoke through 40 different men in these various books over a 1500-year period and together they form a unified and cohesive view of God’s character, his plan and his design for our lives.

For more on my general views and methods of Biblical interpretation see my article “How to correctly interpret the Bible”.

With all that being said as an introduction here I will explain how I and other Christians like me approach the Old Testament.  I hope at the end of this post you will realize that when I quote laws and regulations from the Old Testament I am not “cherry picking” just the laws I like while leaving behind the laws I don’t like.

While there are definitely more than two covenants that God made with man in the Bible, the New Testament only speaks of two covenants which are referred to as the “First” and “Second” or the “Old” and the “New”.

“7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second…13 In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.”

Hebrews 8:7 & 13 (KJV)

This is actually where we get our “Old Testament” and “New Testament” titles for the two halves of the Bible.

Sometimes these two covenants are referred to as the Covenant of Law and the Covenant of Grace based on this passage from the Gospel of John:

“For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”

John 1:17 (KJV)

The Old Covenant specifically refers to the Mosaic Covenant that God made with Israel when he formed them as a theocracy. The first covenant centered on the people of God as an ethnic and physical nation.  The New Covenant would expand the people of God beyond any ethnic group or national borders to include a whole world of believers and worshipers of God.

The Mosaic Covenant

While God’s moral laws had been passed down orally and were known long before the time of Moses – he was the first man chosen by God to write down his laws.  Moses not only wrote down the moral laws of God that had been known for thousands of years before he was born – but he also wrote down new laws which God gave him for the new theocracy of Israel. In total the Mosaic law contains 613 commands.

Historically Christian theologians have recognized three different types of laws within the Mosaic law which are Moral, Ceremonial and Civil.

“We must attend to the well-known division which distributes the whole law of God, as promulgated by Moses, into the moral, the Ceremonial, and the judicial law.”

The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin (1509-1564)

“We must therefore distinguish three kinds of precept in the Old Law; viz. ‘moral’ precepts, which are dictated by the natural law; ‘Ceremonial’ precepts, which are determinations of the Divine worship; and ‘judicial’ precepts, which are determinations of the justice to be maintained among men.”

Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

What is the difference between the three types of law found in the Mosaic Covenant?

Moral Law – this is law which reflects God’s character and his design of this world. Examples of this law would include but are not limited to commands regarding murder, children honoring and obeying their parents, adultery, covetousness and theft.

Ceremonial Law – this was a brand-new set of laws that God gave to Moses that were specifically for the nation of Israel as a theocracy.  These laws dealt with the qualifications for priests, requirements for how and when to perform sacrifices, cleanliness laws, dietary laws, festival laws and tithing laws.

Civil(Judicial) Law – All nations must have civil laws to help deal with disputes between their citizens as well as to enforce the morals of the people.  While not all of the Mosaic civil laws dealt with moral issues, a great deal of the Civil laws for Israel did in fact deal with how to punish or make restitution for violation of God’s moral laws.  So, when we examine the Old Testament to search for the moral law of God – we must look for moral laws that stand alone as well as civil laws which prescribe punishment and restitution for breaking God’s moral laws.

The New Covenant makes the Old Covenant obsolete

“1 Then verily the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary… 10 Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation.”

Hebrews 9:1 & 10 (KJV)

“For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law.”

Hebrews 7:12 (KJV)

“In that he saith, a new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.”

Hebrews 8:13 (KJV)

“But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God;”

Hebrews 10:12 (KJV)

“Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God.”

I Corinthians 7:19

 “16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days… 20 Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, 21 (Touch not; taste not; handle not; 22 Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men?”

Colossians 2:16 & 20-22 (KJV)

The passages above confirm for New Testament Christians that the Old covenant has been replaced with New Covenant of God. These passages above make it abundantly clear that Ceremonial laws of the Old Covenant have all been done away with in the New Covenant.

So, that means when people say silly things like “do eat shell fish or pork – if you do then you are not following the Bible” these people demonstrate their ignorance of progressive revelation of God and sweeping changes he made in the New Covenant.

What about the Civil laws contained in the Mosaic Law?

Up to this point we have shown from the Scriptures that the New Covenant explicitly rescinds Ceremonial laws of the Old Covenant.  But what about the Civil laws? Are those rescinded as well?

The answer to that questions is Yes and here is why.

The Civil laws of Israel were made for a theocracy and can only be carried out at a governmental level.  The theocracy of Israel ended because Israel broke its Covenant with God.  Right now, Christ sits at the right hand of God in heaven.  But one day Christ will return to sit on the throne of David and once again God will have a theocracy here on earth for 1000 years.

“25 For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. 26 And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob:”

Romans 11:25-26 (KJV)

“And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.”

Revelation 20:4 (KJV)

So Scripturally speaking – in the New Covenant because the theocracy of Israel was disbanded and replaced with the Church which is not a physical nation but a people from “all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues” (Revelation 7:9)  Christians are no longer required to keep the Ceremonial laws or the Civil laws of the Old Covenant.

Do any laws from the Old Covenant still apply to Christians?

If the Old Covenant is replaced with the New, then that means all the laws in the Old Covenant are done away with, right? No. The Bible actually tells us this is not the case.

“17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. 18 For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. 19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 5:17-19 (KJV)

“Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.

Romans 3:31 (KJV)

“7 What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet…12 Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.”

Romans 7:7 &12 (KJV)

So, this is one of those areas where must apply a very important rule of Biblical interpretation.  The Bible never contradicts itself.  So, if the New Covenant has replaced the Old Covenant and the laws of the Old Covenant are obsolete then what law is Christ and his Apostles talking about that we must still obey? The answer is that they are talking about the moral law of God.  The moral law of God existed before Moses wrote it down as part of the Mosaic Covenant law alongside the Ceremonial and Civil laws of Israel.

How can we tell what is moral law in the Old Testament?

Some have said “The moral law of God is found in the ten commandments and that is it”.  Well that is not exactly true. Only nine of the ten commandments are upheld in the New Testament. The law regarding Sabbath keeping is rescinded and thus revealed not to be part of God’s continuing moral law.

Someone else might say “Ok then then the ten commandments, minus the Sabbath keeping commandment are the complete moral law of God”.  Well again not so fast. The Apostle Paul demonstrates that the moral law of God is larger than just the ten (ok nine) commandments given to Moses.

Let me give you some examples to illustrate my point.

Laws forbidding marriage to close relatives are upheld

“It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife.”

I Corinthians 5:11 (KJV)

Laws against homosexuality are upheld

“26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: 27 And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.”

Romans 1:26-27 (KJV)

Laws regarding gender roles and the family are upheld

 “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.”

I Corinthians 14:34 (KJV)

Most commentaries both ancient and modern believe Paul’s reference to women being “commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law” is a direct reference to the book of Genesis:

“16 Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”

Genesis 3:16 (KJV)

“The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.”

1 Corinthians 7:39 (KJV)

 “7 Who goeth a warfare any time at his own charges? who planteth a vineyard, and eateth not of the fruit thereof? or who feedeth a flock, and eateth not of the milk of the flock? 8 Say I these things as a man? or saith not the law the same also?

9 For it is written in the law of Moses, thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen?

10 Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope.”

1 Corinthians 9:7-10 (KJV)

My point is that these passages prove that when the Apostle Paul said we as Christians are to uphold the law he was not speaking exclusively of the ten commandments.

So, that brings us back to the original question of this section – How can we tell what is moral law in the Old Testament?

Well if we remove the Ceremonial laws and the Civil laws of the Old Covenant what are we left with? The Moral law of God. This law existed before Moses wrote it down as part of God’s law for Israel as a theocracy and this law is still in effect for Christians under the New Covenant.

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