Dear Christian Thought Sandbox,
I have been wrestling with my personal beliefs regarding gay marriage for a while now. So I decided I’d start digging into Leviticus since that’s the primary source of Scripture from which “against” arguments are made. While I was hoping for clarity, it only sent me into a tailspin of insecurity, wondering what other OT laws I should be following. Should I not cut my hair and only wear skirts like my Pentecostal friends? Should my husband have pieces of hair dangling from his temples? Should I throw out half of my clothes made of mixed cloth?
I have read quite a bit of commentary on Leviticus and still cannot get a sufficient answer about how which laws are designated as moral, holy, and ceremonial. Many of the articles have talked about these designations, (without describing how each law is determined to be which designation) saying that they are irrelevant in the end because all of God’s Word is applicable. You can probably understand how this makes it all even more confusing.
My main questions are: How are the different laws designated as moral, holiness, or ceremonial laws? And why are we expected to follow some today, and not others?
Thank you so much for your time and help!
The questions that Katie is asking are questions that a lot of Christians struggle with. It wasn’t that long ago that I was trying to determine the “correct” answer as well. Whether Katie was raised in a Christian community or not, I do not know, so I can only speak for myself. I was always taught, by Sunday School teachers and pastors mostly, that now that we have Jesus, we did not have to obey the commandments and laws of the Old Testament. The phrase “we are under the new covenant” was tossed around like a baseball. Rather than having form and being a solid answer, this baseball answer was more like a deflated beach ball. “We are under the new covenant” didn’t seem to hold any air or meaning when we were yelled at to obey and uphold the 10 Commandments, the food laws, and other Levitical rules.
Chances are that you have been subjected to something similar. The specific rules that you were forced to obey may vary a bit, but the idea was always the same—we were under a new covenant, but we were expected to keep the old one at the same time.
Is this how Christianity is supposed to work? Is this what Jesus wanted our lives to look like?
I suspect not, because this inconsistency seems to breed much disunity and creates conflict in the Body of Christ. One church says that you must do this and not that, while another church says you must not do this and should do that. Is one church right and the other wrong? How is the Law supposed to function now for Christians living in the 21st century?
These are important questions, questions worthy of answering. And as is the case with any worthy question, there is a lengthy answer, but a beautiful and releasing truth waiting to be known.
To give Katie a proper answer, we need to go back to the beginning, to when the Law was given and understand its origins. It is only with a better understanding for the existence of the Law that will we know how we should relate to it.
Do not neglect history
The nation of Israel was not a new group of people when we read the opening of the Book of Exodus. Rather they were an old nation, so old that the pharaoh of Egypt at the time did not know the reason as to why Israel was there. He knew that they were a great nation, numerous enough to be a threat should they decide to turn on Egypt, but he did not know of Joseph and the great works that God had done through him.
While I don’t want to reiterate the entire Exodus account, it needs to be established that Israel was a nation under captivity, that they did not live by their own rules. The pharaoh of Egypt felt threatened by this large people group and turned a once free nation into a nation of slaves. Israel could have decided their own fate, followed their own rules and laws once, but no longer. The taskmaster and the sound of the whip dictated what Israel could and could not do now.
That was, until God freed Israel from the tyranny of the pharaoh. Under the leadership of Moses, Israel left Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, and moved towards the land that God had promised to their forefathers. God was moving Israel to the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. After 400 years of slavery, the nation of Israel was free again.
But for 400 years, they had been told what to do. They were instructed on how to live, what to eat, what to do and not do. That’s what the Egyptian taskmasters did. How was Israel supposed to live now? By what rules should they govern themselves? Without instruction and guidance, this newly freed nation would run into chaos and most likely become slaves again. They needed law and order.
So, the Lord gave them the Law. When most people talk about the Law, they are referring to five Old Testament books, all who seem to have been written by Moses. These are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Within these five books, over six hundred rules, laws, commandments, statutes, and observances are given to Israel. To the modern reader, this may seem ridiculous. The very idea that anyone would need that many rules to live by is mind boggling.
But we are often quick to forget this. Israel is a new nation. They have not lived on their own for hundreds of years. Did they know what to do if they encountered mould or mildew in their new homeland? No, they didn’t. Would they have any idea what animals would provide the best, most healthy meat by which to sustain themselves? Probably not. The animals that were native to Egypt may not have been native to this new home they were traveling to.
This may seem arbitrary and small minded to us, but consider this. These rules are a starting point for Israel, just as rules are a starting point for children.
My daughter just turned a year old and there are rules that she needs to follow and obey. She has a tendency to play with her mother’s shoes and try to eat them. We have established a rule that she can’t touch them. She enjoys climbing up the stairs. Once we realized that, we restricted her activity, gave her boundaries to live within; we put up a baby gate. She will climb up on the entertainment unit and grab a DVD, or a picture frame from off of the end tables. We have told her “ta ta” or “let go please” because we don’t want her to break them or hurt herself.
Why all the rules, boundaries, and restrictions? Because she doesn’t know what to do and not do, so her mother and I establish the law. In this same way, God established the Law for Israel.
Our little girl isn’t screaming her head off, or bruised, or coming to us crying about a boo-boo, because she pulled something on her head. She hasn’t fallen down the stairs because we have established rules and restrictions to ensure she is safe. She smashed her face on the side of the bath tub once because she didn’t listen when we told her to sit down in the tub. Our rules and restrictions are there so that she lives, that her life is as pain free as possible. This isn’t something that my wife and I came up with. We are modelling what God did with Israel by giving them the Law. As they obeyed it, as they followed over six hundred rules, their lives were blessed and flourished. They experienced and lived in a community of health and prosperity when they listened to what God had commanded.
This worked for a while. Israel was obedient to God and His Law. They did follow the six hundred plus commandments and did live in the blessing and flourishing that God intended for them. But it couldn’t last. As much as this was God’s Law, it was a flawed system.
Now, be careful to understand what I am saying. I am not saying that God screwed up or made a mistake when He told Moses to write down the first five books of the Bible, or that Moses made a mistake when he was transcribing all those six hundred rules. And I am not saying that establishing rules to govern the people was a misguided idea. This is what I am saying.
Having a set of rules, having a list of commandments does not lead to what God ultimately desired. We will discuss later what God’s end game in all this was, but for now we need to understand that rules and commandments, do’s and don’t’s are a flawed system. Trying to make people live solely by a list of laws will do two things; it will lead to legalism and pride, and it will illuminate the state of the human heart and soul.
One, the Law leads to legalism.
When Jesus started his ministry there were different groups of practicing Jews that wanted to know what He had to say. The most famous of these religious groups were the Pharisees. Traditionally, the church has understood the Pharisees as the bad guys, the evil doers of the story, which in some cases they are. But when you look at what Jesus believed and preached, and what the Pharisees believed and preached, they are remarkably similar. So, in Matthew 23, when Jesus is rebuking them, telling them that they are wrong, it is not because of the way that they are reading or understanding the Law. The issue that Jesus has with them is in their practice of the Law. The Pharisees were not just teaching people to follow what commandments God had said, rather people should follow all the rules and by-laws, if you will, that the Pharisees thought needed to be obeyed. The teachers of the Law even went so far as to elevate their rules and laws above the commandments of God.
Jesus rightly condemns them by saying,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” – Matthew 23.23-24
The Pharisees worried about people doing exactly what they wanted and neglected what God wanted. They fussed over the little things, meanwhile completely rejecting the big things. They focused on the small things, and ignored the big things.
It wasn’t that they did these things themselves, but they also thought people were to live the same way. They instructed others that this was the way to live, that the Pharisee lifestyle was what God asked of His people. But with so many rules and regulations, the Pharisees burdened people to the point that they were not practicing anything like the Law. They were practicing a man-made religion, a list of do’s and don’t’s, not a relationship with God.
To be fair, the Pharisees did start out in a good place. They did not have evil or malicious intentions when they started. They added rules and regulations, stipulations and clauses to the Law so that people would be able to “better” avoid sin, temptation, and disobedience to the Law. For example, my daughter has a love of splashing in water. When she has a bath, the washroom is dripping with water from places that are not the faucet. We bought a small above ground pool for the backyard, something for our little girl to play in and us parents to cool off in. As soon as we put her in the pool, the splashing started and didn’t stop until we pulled her out. She loves playing in water. That being said, she doesn’t know when she shouldn’t play in the water. On more than one occasion, she has made her way into the washroom to play in the toilet. I understand her logic, it’s water—I play in water, so why is this a problem?
Obviously, her mother and I didn’t want her to keep doing this, so a rule was put in place. Our daughter is not allowed to play in the toilet water, so the toilet seat must always go down. That worked for a while, until someone forgot to put the toilet seat down and a little girl was back in the washroom, splashing away. So another rule was added. The toilet seat must always go down, and the door to the washroom should be shut. An unnecessary doubling up on rules you might think, and that may be so. But we are doing it to ensure that our daughter doesn’t do that thing that we don’t want her to do. In the same way, the Pharisees taught the people of Israel. A rule surrounded another rule to keep us from breaking or disobeying one of God’s rules. Again, on the surface this is not a bad thing. It is not a bad idea at all, but the super emphasis on obedience to the man made Pharisee laws became the issue.
Jesus said earlier in Matthew 23 that the Pharisees would travel across the sea to make a single convert, but they would make him suffer and leave him in greater bondage because of their teachings than he was without them.
All of the Pharisees’ rules, their lists of do’s and don’t’s gave way to legalistic living. If you obeyed all the laws and commandments, you were good, you were righteous. But if you didn’t, you were evil, you were unrighteous. For the Pharisees, it was a very black and white issue. Obedience to the law was equal to righteousness. Disobedience was equal to unrighteousness. And the Pharisees did not want to be unrighteous, and they did not think well or highly of those that happened to stumble and fall in regards to the Law of God, and their law.
This legalistic, black and white thinking created a divide within the people of Israel. This distorted Law that the Pharisees taught created a form of caste system that they controlled. This broken list of rules feed the pride and arrogance of the supposed righteous and feed the humiliation and brokenness of the supposed unrighteous.
None of this was what God wanted. None of this was what Jesus came to teach and preach. This is why Jesus condemned the Pharisees. God was not about legalism—the strict, black and white obedience of a list of rules. God was about relationship, and the Pharisees should have known that.
Jesus later opposed the idea of this heavy Pharisee burden. Rather than making another list of rules, rather than adding onto the Law, giving new commandments, He did something else. He said,
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11.28-30
Jesus said that his burden was easy, his yoke was light. Now, a yoke was something that is used to bind two animals together, like two oxen. But a yoke was also what they called a teacher’s belief system. If you were going to follow a rabbi or a teacher in the first century, you would take up their yoke and carry it. You would leave the ways that you were taught to think and act and interpret the Bible behind, and you would take on this new way of thinking and acting and interpreting the Bible. Jesus said, my yoke is not like the yoke of the Pharisees. It is not so complicated, it is not a list of do’s and don’t’s. What I am offering is something different.
I am getting ahead of myself, and we will explore this idea further. But I want to make it clear that the legalism, the strict rules, the do’s and don’t’s were not what God intended. They were not what was wanted. It was something else. Because God is not about legalism. The Law, however, does lead to legalism, and that is not a good thing.
Two, the Law illuminates our brokenness.
The exact number of Laws in the Old Testament is 618. I remember having a difficult time as a child in Sunday School and church trying to learn the 10 Commandments. I do not know how anyone—man, woman or child—could keep all 618 in their memories and be consciously aware of what they could and could not do. All day long, they would have to do this. “Remember, I can’t touch that. Oh, be careful, you can’t eat that and this together. The sun is going down better stop working now, so that I don’t break that one law. I need to have all seven ingredients to make one sacrifice to God this month, better go buy them. I better remember to not do that. I need to do this.”
As much as the Israelites may have earnestly tried to keep all of God’s commandments, they couldn’t. Try all they might, they would never be able to perfectly. At some point, in some way, every Israelite would sin. They would fall short of perfectly obeying God’s Law. It simply was not possible.
The Apostle Paul would say it best,
“For all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God.” – Romans 3.23
But it goes further than that. Paul, in a great humbling blow, tells the Romans that if they break one commandment, they are guilty of breaking them all. There may be some debate of what he meant, whether we were suddenly guilty because we somehow committed every sin, or if by breaking one commandment, we were breaking them all by displaying a gross disrespect for God. By disobeying the Law, Israel, and us as well, were saying that we would rather be our own Lord, make up our own laws, make decisions for ourselves, rather than obey and submit to God and His Law. Either way, we are all guilty of sin. We are a people that cannot keep the law, and continually show our disregard for it, and for God.
If that wasn’t enough, Jesus takes it another step further. In his famous Sermon on the Mount, He says this,
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.” – Matthew 5.21-22
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” – Matthew 5.27-28
It is difficult for me to read those verses and not be humbled. It is hard to hear that and hold my head upright, as if I have any level of righteousness. I am not just guilty of breaking the letter of the Law, I am guilty of breaking the spirit of the Law. I am guilty of breaking the heart at the centre of the Law. And Jesus points out that even the most holy and righteous people of His day were guilty of the same. Though they didn’t kill anyone, they thought about murder and imagined how they would destroy their enemies, even brothers. Though they didn’t sleep with another man’s wife, they most certainly thought about it, dreamt about it. And by doing so, they broke the commandments, they disobeyed God’s Law.
The Law points out that we are a broken and sinful people. We are not righteous in our following the Law. Trying to accomplish the do’s and avoiding the don’t’s does not make us sinless, because we can’t do it. Not that God has set unfair standards, but in our selfishness and our pride, we decide that we want to do things our way. The Law shows us that we are an unholy, unrighteous people.
Leaving it at that, humanity seems to be stuck. We can’t obey the Law without failing and turning it into something that segregates and divides, something that elevates some by their own righteousness and crushes others by their lack of righteousness. Because we can’t obey the Law perfectly, we become fully aware of the fact that we are broken. We do not have it all together. We are in desperate need of help.
But who will help us? Who can obey the Law without making it legalistic?
Enter Jesus and the Love Bugs.
(I realize that this is not the complete answer to your questions Katie. Once I got started, this blog kept getting bigger and bigger. This is simply Part One of Four. There will be more of your questions addressed in Part Two, Three, and Four.)
Thanks for reading this guys and gals.
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Grace and Peace be with you.