Note: This post is a summary of a section of "The threefold division of the law," by Jonathan F. Bayes, which we highly recommend.
Some argue that it is unbiblical to divide the Old Testament law into three parts: 1) moral, 2) ceremonial, and 3) civil/judicial.
However, Scripture is abundantly clear about distinctions within the Old Testament law. In this post, we will examine both the Old and New Testament evidence for the threefold division of the Old Testament law.
1 Samuel 15:22
- “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to listen than the fat of rams.
- For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
- To do righteousness and justice
is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.
In these verses, we learn that there is a distinction between the moral and ceremonial law, and that the moral law is superior to the ceremonial law.
The "burnt offerings" and "sacrifices" are the ceremonial law.
"Obeying the voice of the Lord," "steadfast love," "the knowledge of God," and "righteousness and justice" are the moral law.
11 “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
12 “When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts?
13 Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow's cause.
Here, we learn that God calls the sacrifices and burnt offerings of the Israelites as useless because the Israelites are not obeying His moral law and its application in the civil law.
Instead of giving more sacrifices and burnt offerings, or obeying the ceremonial law, God tells the Israelites to "cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's case," or to obey the moral and civil law.
22 “Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob;
but you have been weary of me, O Israel!
23 You have not brought me your sheep for burnt offerings,
or honored me with your sacrifices.
I have not burdened you with offerings,
or wearied you with frankincense.
24 You have not bought me sweet cane with money,
or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices.
But you have burdened me with your sins;
you have wearied me with your iniquities.
Here, God distinguishes between "sacrifices" and "burnt offerings," or the ceremonial law, and "sins" and "iniquities," or the moral and perhaps civil law in that the Israelites are engaging in sins of a social nature. The "sacrifices" and "burnt offerings" alone are not sufficient to please God—they need to be coupled with moral and civil obedience.
19 Hear, O earth; behold, I am bringing disaster upon this people,
the fruit of their devices,
because they have not paid attention to my words;
and as for my law, they have rejected it.
20 What use to me is frankincense that comes from Sheba,
or sweet cane from a distant land?
Your burnt offerings are not acceptable,
nor your sacrifices pleasing to me.
Here, we see that the Israelites are being punished because they have "rejected" God's law. The "law" here does not refer to the ceremonial law because verse 20 tells us that the Israelites are obeying the ceremonial law in that they are giving "burnt offerings" and "sacrifices" to God.
However, because the Israelites are not obeying God's moral and civil laws, the Israelites's obedience to the ceremonial law is not acceptable to God.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Here, the Israelites's obedience to the ceremonial law, their "burnt offerings and grain offerings" and "peace offerings," are worthless to God because they are lacking "justice" and "righteousness," or obedience to the moral and civil law.
6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8 He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Again, we see here that the moral and civil law—"to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God"—is distinct from and superior to the ceremonial law—"burnt offerings."
6 In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
you have not required.
7 Then I said, “Behold, I have come;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me:
8 I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.”
The Psalmist here says that God cares less about obedience to the ceremonial law—"sacrifice," "burnt offering," "sin offering"—than He does about His people "delight[ing] to do [His] will," and having His law within their hearts.
For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.
Circumcision was an extremely important part of the Old Testament law because it was a sign and seal of God's covenant with the Israelites. However, here, Paul says that circumcision is no longer relevant or necessary, but keeping the commandments of God is still relevant. Essentially, Paul is distinguishing between the moral and ceremonial laws of the Old Testament.
25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.
Here, Paul contrasts circumcision with keeping "the law," again distinguishing between temporary ceremonial aspects of the law and permanent moral aspects of the law. He says that someone who obeys the moral parts of the law is regarded as having fulfilled the ceremonial aspects of the law without actually having obeyed the ceremonial law. In other words, a person who obeys the moral law is regarded as spiritually circumcised even though he has not been physically circumcised.
Christ Came to Fulfill the Law
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 say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
Love Your Enemies
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
- 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
- For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The entire book of Hebrews is filled with explanations of why the ceremonial law of the Old Testament, including circumcision and Levitical and sacrifical laws, have been fulfilled in Christ and no longer need to be obeyed by Christians today.
In Matthew 15:1-9
Jesus ignored the Pharisees challenge and pointed them to the fifth commandment, demonstrating that Jesus cares more about obedience to the moral law than He does about the ceremonial law.
1 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” 3 He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 5 But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” 6 he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 7 You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
8 “‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
9 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”