Leviticus, Law and Love

It is often said that a new Christian should not start reading the Old Testament, because they will likely get bogged down and frustrated by the time they get to a book like Leviticus. While it is true that the Gospels may be a better starting point for a brand new believer, eventually they must get into the OT as well.

I love it, and in my annual reading plan, I am once again in Leviticus. Contrary to many, I find it an amazing book, and there is plenty of great stuff to be found therein. Here I want to just briefly touch on a few key issues, including the relationship between law and love (or grace), and the interplay of the Testaments.

Anyone conversant with theology and biblical studies knows what massive subjects these are, and the issue of continuity and discontinuity between the Testaments is a real growth area at the moment, with entire libraries written on such topics.

Thus it may be foolhardy of me to wade into this, and I ask those who want to go to war over something I may have said to bear in mind that I am not even beginning to scratch the surface here in my remarks. The issues involved are complex, nuanced and require careful and lengthy consideration.

Trending: 5 Reasons to be Extremely Skeptical of Judge Kavanaugh’s Accuser

As to the broad issues of the relationship between the two Testaments, between Israel and the church, and between law and grace, we have various extremes. For example, dispensationalists tend to offer a very strong discontinuity, while others, such as theonomists, tend to go almost entirely for continuity.

The biblical position may be somewhere in between these two camps, but each side has plenty to offer in defense of their position. For more on all this, see John Feinberg, ed., Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments (Crossway, 1988).

In general it can be said that some things certainly seem to carry over from Old to New, while others seem to clearly come to an end. If we more or less accept the three-part breakdown of the law (and not all do, and this is also a huge discussion deserving separate articles), then we can make this case.

Image of From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the LawFor example, the moral law (eg, things like the Ten Commandments) certainly carry through into the NT, while the ceremonial law (offerings, sacrifices, etc.) do not, since Christ is the final and complete sacrifice, never to be repeated, as the book of Hebrews makes so clear.

Those who may want to further investigate the standard three-part division are encouraged to grab a recent book which examines this in great detail. I refer to From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law by Philip Ross (Mentor, 2010). In it he writes:

The division exists not just to explain a doctrine of biblical law; its practical-theological teaching answers the Christian’s question, ‘Am I still bound to obey the Mosaic Law?’…

The non-binding laws were exclusively ‘ceremonial’….

Laws concerning everyday civil matters in the Israelite community are binding in their underlying principles….

The only laws that are, without exception, ever-binding are the laws of the Decalogue.

Getting back to Leviticus, Gordon Wenham offers a quick assessment of all this in the introduction of his commentary, and throughout it as well. His section “Leviticus and the Christian” is worth quoting from here. He notes some problems with the customary three-part division, and then writes:

Though the three-fold division of the law is in my view arbitrary and artificial, it does provide a convenient framework for our discussion, in which a slightly different approach will be advocated. As far as basic principles of behaviour are concerned the OT and NT are in broad agreement. . . . The NT advocates the same standard of personal morality as the OT. This is to be expected, since the God of the OT is the God of the NT.

He goes on to speak about covenant relationship in the Testaments: “It is true that in the NT it is hard to find covenant terminology and structures, but that does not mean that the principles enshrined in the OT covenant have disappeared.”

He notes that both Testaments speak in similar terms about the law and grace relationship:

First and foremost the OT covenants were arrangements of divine grace….

Second, the covenants involved law….

Finally, the covenant involved blessing and curse….

It seems fair to say that the NT not only accepts the moral law of the OT, but reiterates the basic theology of the covenant of which the law forms a part.

As to OT civil law, he says this: “This type of law is quoted less frequently in the NT than the simple moral imperatives, but when quoted it is treated as equally authoritative (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:9 quoting Deut. 25:4 and Mark 7:10 citing Lev. 20:9).” He continues:

Instead of distinguishing between moral and civil laws, it would be better to say that some injunctions are broad and generally applicable to most societies, while others are more specific and directed at the particular social problems of ancient Israel. In this commentary the following position is assumed: the principles underlying the OT are valid and authoritative for the Christian, but the particular applications found in the OT may not be. The moral principles are the same today, but insofar as our situation often differs from the OT setting, the application of the principles in our society may well be different too.

Now all this may simply raise more questions than it answers. For example, how do we determine when something is relevant only to Israel or not? And if there is a contemporary application, just what specially might that be? You see the issues that can and do arise here. None of this is easy and simple. But these are some general interpretive rules and clues that we can at least start with.

Let me simply conclude with just one passage with which we can tease all this out. I found Lev. 5:1 to be quite important, although its original setting is rather different than the application for it which I have in mind. It says this: “If anyone sins because they do not speak up when they hear a public charge to testify regarding something they have seen or learned about, they will be held responsible.”

This would be a civil law applying to ancient Israel, and one that obviously involves moral principles. It has to do with courtroom situations, involving the withholding of evidence in a court case, and so on. But there are clearly present-day applications that we can glean from this.

Indeed, the basic principle which we can apply today should be quite obvious. When I reread this verse this morning it jumped out at me: we must speak out, or we are sinning and will be held responsible for our silence. Whether it is the war on the unborn, or the attack on marriage and family, or so many other areas, Christians have a solemn obligation to speak out, to be salt and light, and to proclaim biblical truth.

Failure to do so is simply sinful, and we will not be held guiltless for our silence. Whether it is cowardice, a desire to please men, or slavish imprisonment to Political Correctness, those Christians who refuse to speak out when they know they should will have to give an account to their Lord.

As another biblical example of this, we read in Proverbs 31:8, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” Or as the KJV puts it, speak up for those who “are appointed to destruction”. Can there be any better modern day example of this than the unborn being butchered at abortion mills?

We are to speak up for them. We know the truth here. We have evidence and testimony which we must not withhold. We know that human life begins at conception, and this is a growing living human being whose poor life is being cut short. So although Lev. 5:1 has a particular, more narrow focus (the law court), the binding principle is for all Christians today.

Thus we must speak up and we must speak out. Not to do so is a sin. This is just one small example of how the Christian today might look at the various laws found in the Old Testament. As mentioned, this will not always be easy or straight-forward, and the fact that so much disagreement on this exists demonstrates how difficult all this can be.

But we must prayerfully and carefully seek to understand the law of God, and how it works out in New Covenant reality.

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

Bill Muehlenberg
Bill Muehlenberg, who was born in America, lives in Melbourne, Australia. He runs a web-based ministry of pro-faith, pro-family activism called CultureWatch: http://www.billmuehlenberg.com. Bill is widely sought out by the media for comments on social issues, faith issues, and family issues, and has appeared on all the major television and radio news shows, current affairs shows, and debate programs. He is the author of In Defence of the Family; Strained Relations: The Challenge of Homosexuality, and several other books.

Join the conversation!

We have no tolerance for comments containing violence, racism, profanity, vulgarity, doxing, or discourteous behavior. Thank you for partnering with us to maintain fruitful conversation.