The laws of the Bible were given for our benefit and show us how to become more like God. What should Christians learn from the various types of biblical law?
Many people have heard of the 10 Commandments and recognize the importance of some of them, like the laws against murder and stealing. But other laws in the Bible are less well known or appreciated.
Do the biblical laws apply today? Or did the Creator God establish them, only to wipe them all out on the cross, but then promise their restoration during Christ’s millennial rule?
Or is there a larger meaning to the whole subject of the law of God—one that bears witness to the very plan of God, which is always consistent and points toward the Kingdom of God?
What is a law?
How does man define the law? The New Oxford American Dictionary defines law as:
1. (often the law) the system of rules that a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members and may enforce by the imposition of penalties
2. a statement of fact, deduced from observation, to the effect that a particular natural or scientific phenomenon always occurs if certain conditions are present
3. the body of divine commandments as expressed in the Bible or other religious texts.
What is the law of God?
How does God define the law of God? This question is of great importance, for it deals with our spiritual understanding. God’s laws are the rules of the Kingdom of God and His way of life, and they are divine and perfect in intent, equity and administration.
The apostle Paul said God’s “law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” as well as “spiritual” (Romans 7:12, 14).
King David wrote, “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul,” and he went on to describe the beauty and benefits of God’s testimonies, statutes, commandments and judgments—various aspects of biblical law (Psalm 19:7-11).
Biblical laws include a holy system of commandments, statutes and judgments that are meant to be observed by all countries and all people, for God created all people.
What is the purpose of law in the Bible?
God gave the laws in the Bible for our good. Moses explained what God wants and why He gave His laws: “Keep the commandments of the LORD and His statutes which I command you today for your good” (Deuteronomy 10:13).
The rules in the Bible are like family rules for all the people God wants to be His children—and that includes everyone. These rules show God’s priorities, His fairness and how to show godly love.
God’s laws define righteousness and sin. And here is the key: They are always for our benefit.God’s laws define righteousness and sin. And here is the key: They are always for our benefit (Deuteronomy 6:17-18; 7:12-14). God’s laws are not burdensome (Matthew 11:30; 1 John 5:3), despite what many religious leaders may tell you (2 Peter 3:15-16).
More than the 10 Commandments
The 10 Commandments are the core of the law of God. They provide a foundational and essential statement of God’s moral law, and other laws and the spirit of the law fit within this framework.
When God wrote the 10 Commandments in stone, He was writing this foundational framework for how mankind (not just Israel) should interact with God and with each other. The laws contained in the 10 Commandments were known and obeyed before Moses.
But the 10 Commandments were not the only laws of God, since other laws are mentioned before the giving of the 10 Commandments and the Old Covenant at Mount Sinai. While some laws span across both the Old and New Covenants, others were specific to the Old Covenant, and each one has a spiritual element.
Some examples of Old Testament laws
The next sections of this article will talk about several different types of laws within the Bible outside of the 10 Commandments. The goal is to give you a sampling of what their purpose is and whether they apply currently or were specific to a covenant.
Let’s start with laws given to man early in the Bible, before the Old Covenant was made at Mount Sinai.
The law of marriage in the Bible
The law of marriage was first given in the second chapter of the Bible. Marriage was defined by God as being between one man and one woman long before the Old Covenant or today’s social and political machinations. The plain truth is that God established this law for a purpose, providing the blessing of marriage and family by taking two equal but different people and joining them together.
God emphasized this to Adam by having him name each animal so that Adam understood that it was not good for him to be alone (Genesis 2:18-20). So God created a helper, a companion—a woman. But was she just to be his assistant? By no means! She was given the same tasks, responsibility and rulership over the rest of creation as the man (Genesis 1:28-31).
Husband and wife, Adam and Eve, man and woman, were to work together for a joint purpose in hope and love for a reason—one that is lost today as society has twisted the gender roles and marriage into broken societal trappings in place of a God-given law (Matthew 19:3-6).
Genesis 2:24-25 records, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
The Bible makes clear that God does not require everyone to marry, but those who do should follow this law for the stability of the family and society. This is a law that was before any covenant and that spans across both Old and New Covenants. God is deeply concerned about families, for He is in the process of building one!
Other marriage laws in the Old and New Testaments are based on these foundational principles. Learn more by reading our article “Seventh Commandment: You Shall Not Commit Adultery” and by searching for other articles about marriage on this website.
Some laws even show how God deals with human weakness and less than ideal situations. For example, Jesus answered a test question from the Pharisees about divorce by quoting from Genesis 2 and then saying, “Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6).
The Pharisees followed up with, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?”
Jesus answered, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (verses 7-8).
Clean and unclean foods in the Bible
Many today regard the law of clean and unclean animals as an Old Covenant (ceremonial) law that was done away with when Christ was nailed to the cross. Modern Christianity teaches it as a Jewish tradition, antiquated and no longer necessary. Yet the first mention of this law was almost 1,000 years prior to its codification to the Israelites in Leviticus 11 (also see Deuteronomy 14).
The first mentions of this law are in Genesis 6:19; 7:2, 8; and 8:20. To put it plainly, this law long predates the Old Covenant! Noah was given clear instructions to set apart a different number of clean animals (seven) than unclean animals (two), just as Noah and his family were set apart by God from the wicked generation that He would destroy with the Flood. But why would God do this?
To begin with, God sets apart what is holy—He defines what is acceptable and righteous, not man. God then tells His people that they are to be holy (Deuteronomy 14:2; 1 Peter 1:16). Therefore we must strictly avoid anything that would contaminate us, either physically or spiritually (1 Corinthians 6:15-20). This is a law that, like marriage, is still in effect today. Read more about it in our article “Clean and Unclean Animals: Does God Care What Meats We Eat?”
What about ceremonial laws and civil laws?
In addition to the Old Covenant made at Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:3-8; 34:28), God gave civil and ceremonial laws to the nation of Israel. For example, the sacrificial law was not part of the Old Covenant that was entered into at Sinai. Rather, it was added later (see Jeremiah 7:22; Ezekiel 20:21-25; and Galatians 3:19).
It was God’s purpose to define the civil and sacrificial systems needed to govern a nation. Israel was to be set apart, to be holy (Leviticus 20:26) and blessed (Deuteronomy 28:1-14), but only if they had a heart of obedience.
Ceremonial law was a part of everyday life for the ancient Israelites, a way to teach them the spiritual principles needed to keep the law. Therefore sacrifices and washings, among many other ceremonial acts, often centered on the tabernacle/temple.
Outward rituals were meant to teach inward principles. But Israel lacked the spiritual discernment and heart to learn from these laws (1 Corinthians 2:14). Therefore God altered His approach, not because of flaws in the law, but because of the people (Hebrews 8:7-8).
Civil laws in the Bible
Many laws were given to allow the proper functioning of a physical nation. These national laws and punishments cannot be fully implemented or enforced outside of a nation under God’s control.
Since Christians are “not of the world” and its governments, and Jesus Christ said “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 17:14; 18:36), Christians do not seek to apply the letter of civil laws about tribal inheritances, temple taxes, punishments for crimes, etc. God has delegated civil authority to the governments of this world (Romans 13:1).
However, Christians do seek to understand the purpose and spirit of the civil laws of the Bible.
What Old Testament laws still apply?
Today the ceremonial and civil laws are no longer specifically applicable, because we do not have a nation ruled by God’s law and because the temple and sacrificial system no longer exist.
Also, through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice (Revelation 1:5) the New Covenant was instituted. The book of Hebrews shows that the sacrifices and temple rituals were a type, pointing to the ultimate sacrifice of Christ. As a result, these ceremonial laws are no longer a part of everyday Christian life, though Christians can learn much about God’s thinking by studying these laws.
As the apostle Paul wrote, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Paul himself quoted from and applied many laws from the Old Testament. See the article “Law of Moses” for additional insights on applying the principles of ceremonial and civil laws.
Apart from the ceremonial and civil laws, the other laws of the Old Testament, including the 10 Commandments, still apply.
The apostle John said, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).Jesus said He did not come to “destroy the Law . . . but to fulfill [make full]” (Matthew 5:17). He followed this by stressing the importance of even “the least of these commandments” (verse 19). He said, “If you want to enter into [eternal] life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17).
The apostle John said, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).
God’s moral law will be written in the hearts and minds of true Christians under the New Covenant (Hebrews 8:10).
The festivals of God
Jesus, the apostles and the New Testament Church continued to celebrate the Sabbath (Luke 4:16; Acts 17:2) and festivals of God (John 7:37; Acts 2:1; 1 Corinthians 5:7-8). Though the sacrifices associated with these days are no longer in effect, these festivals and holy days still have great meaning for Christians.
The Sabbath, Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread were revealed to Israel before they reached Mount Sinai. Then at Mount Sinai all seven annual festivals of God were included in the giving of the Old Covenant.
Today most Christian churches mistakenly relegate the seven biblical festivals to Jewish tradition, and in their place most of Christianity has adopted pagan holidays (Colossians 2:8). In so doing, the meanings of God’s feasts are lost to them.
Most think that the festivals were strictly tied to the Old Covenant. However, each feast actually represents or foreshadows part of the plan of God, from the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to His return and beyond!
The reality is that God’s plan never changed, and that plan is still expressed through the festivals, which are still to be observed. In fact, without these days, we can’t fully understand the spiritual plan that God has for all of mankind.
What does all this mean?
There are many laws in the Bible. Some were specific to a covenant, while others predate and extend through both the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Many laws are still essential today, and they all are intended to give us a deeper understanding of what God expects and how He wants us to live.
God gave the law of God out of love so that it might go well with us. In fact, we must ask ourselves a very fundamental question at the end of this: Do we love God the Father and Jesus Christ? If we say yes, then do we keep the law of God?
As Jesus Christ said:
- “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).
- “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15).
For more on this topic, read the articles in this section: “Biblical Laws: More Than the 10 Commandments.”