None of the Law Applies Today (and that's why you should read it)

American Christians get a D- in Bible reading. According to the Barna Group, only 61% of practicing Christians have read the whole thing.

It's not completely their fault. Few churches teach every book in the Bible, especially those from the Old Testament. Jeremiah is long, Leviticus is boring, Ezekiel is hard to understand, and Haggai is hard to pronounce (it's hag-GUY, if you're wondering). 

Many churches and even entire denominations treat the Old Testament as just that: old. It's the first draft, the demo, the beta release of Christianity. And now that we have the New Testament, everything that came before is obsolete and unnecessary for faith.

Unless it's useful in condemning the culture. Genesis 1 is used to condemn evolution, Exodus 21 is used to condemn abortion, and Leviticus 18 is used to condemn homosexuality. For people who don't like reading the Old Testament, they're quite adept at quoting it when it suits them.

But they don't quote all of it. Because if they did, they'd have Leviticus 25 promoting slavery, Deuteronomy 21 promoting capital punishment for minors, and a whole host of strange prohibitions from ham and cheese sandwiches to cotton blend t-shirts.

Don't think they haven't thought of that. They have an answer for everything, and their answer here is called the threefold division of the law.

The Threefold Division the Law

For a number of Christians, the law falls into three categories: moral, ceremonial, and civil.

The moral law contains the standards of righteousness like the homosexuality clause. The ceremonial law contains the requirements of the ancient sacrificial system like those sandwiches and t-shirts. And the civil law contains the rules of the ancient society like slavery and capital punishment.

It's a neat little division for digesting all six hundred and thirteen laws, but that's not its only purpose. The threefold division is used to determine which laws still apply to us today.

For example, if none of the law applies anymore, what about the sixth commandment--murder? No Christian believes that murder is permissible, but at the same time, Paul says that we are no longer under the law. Thus, certain portions of the law must be transcendent.

The threefold division makes finding the transcendent parts of the law easy. The entire book of Hebrews talks about how Jesus replaced the sacrificial system, so the ceremonial portion is out. And though the church didn't replace Israel (bite me, supercessionists), it wasn't a nation either, so the civil portion is irrelevant.

In contrast, the sermon on the mount expanded murder to include hatred, so it follows that the moral portion is transcendent. The ceremonial and civil portions were cultural expressions exclusive to their pre-church time and place in history, but the moral portion represents God's universal standards for all of humanity.

This is why evangelicals can hate gay people and have their bacon too. In their minds, there's nothing inconsistent about marginalizing the LGBT community while ignoring the commands to defend the marginalized because the latter no longer applies to them.

If only the Bible supported such an irresponsible hermeneutic.

The Three-term Defense of the Threefold Division of the Law

Proponents of the threefold division will attempt to draw support from passages like Deuteronomy 6 where the law is described with three distinct terms: commands (mitsvot), decrees (choqqim), and laws (mishpatim). A quick word study will confirm your suspicion--those three terms can loosely be associated with the moral, ceremonial, and civil portions of the law.

However, their usage isn't exactly consistent. For example, mitsvot is used to describe the ten commandments in Exodus 20, which corresponds with the expected moral association. But in Deuteronomy 5, both choqqim and mishpatim are used in reference to the ten commandments.

There are numerous other examples that demonstrate the interchangeability of the three terms. In fact, Nehemiah 9 not only speaks of commands, decrees, and laws, it adds a fourth category: regulations (torot). Jesus himself never draws any distinctions within the law but implies that the law is present even in the Psalms.

Maybe instead of trying to divide the law into relevant and irrelevant portions (read: portions we read and portions we ignore), we should read all of it as simultaneously relevant and un-applicable.

The One-word Fulfillment of the Law

Jesus indicated that the law was eternal. We may no longer be under the hundreds of laws that God gave the people of Israel, but that doesn't mean the law just disappeared. Rather, the law has always existed and progressed with humanity in different expressions.

The law was first expressed on the familial level with Noah after the flood when God prohibited murder. It was later expressed to Moses on the national level when God gave the ten commandments. Finally, the law was expressed through Jesus and the apostles on the individual level when God summarized his entire law in one word: love.

In this way, we know murder is a transcendent law because 1) it pre-dated the law of Moses and 2) it satisfies Christ's law of love because, as Paul says, "love does no harm". Ham and cheese sandwiches do not. Cotton blend t-shirts do not. They are expressions of God's law during their particular moment in history. Or simply, they represent how to love people at that time.

Thus, the law is like a case study of how to apply love, albeit in an ancient agrarian society.

Loving God (according to the ten commandments) meant worshiping him alone (#1), not idols (#2), and trusting him (#4), not using him (#3). And to do this in a time full of superstition meant keeping dozens of other "ceremonial" and "moral" laws like those sandwiches, and dare I say, homosexuality.

Similarly, loving people (according to the ten commandments) meant honoring your parents (#5), not murdering (#6), not cheating (#7), not stealing (#8), not perjuring (#9), and not coveting (#10). Hence the dozens of "civil" laws related to justice for the poor and the oppressed.

The Unpopular Conclusion on What to Do with the Law

We don't need to apply some passages of the law and dismiss others because all of it is relevant, or as Paul says, all of it is useful. But that doesn't mean it's applicable any more than instructions on how to hand crank a Model T Ford. It should inform how we love, not dictate how we love.

Unfortunately, many prefer being told how to love because they're lazy. They'll claim that inane "God said it, I believe it, that settles it" nonsense, but it's just a cover for having never read beyond the gospel of John and Romans. It's a lot easier to quote isolated verses that support their worldview than read the entire Bible.

But if we believe that love fulfills the law, not portions of it, then we're forced to ask why the law says what it says, not merely what it says. If six hundred and thirteen laws can be summarized in two, that raises a lot of questions that thoughtless obedience cannot answer. And you'll never find the answers if never take the time to read all 31,102 verses of the Bible.

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  1. Thank you for your thoughtful, insightful, wonderfully skeptical and reasonable work. Much appreciated.


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