This is a very important week. This is the week approximately 80% of people abandon their new year’s resolutions. Of the people who make new year’s resolutions, 80% of them abandon those resolutions by January 12th. This is about the time when those who resolved to eat healthier would have to buy vegetables again at the grocery store. This is about the time when those who resolved to work out more are getting sore. Many Christians have resolved to read through the Bible in a year. If that is you, how is it going? Did you know there is a fateful day for Bible Reading plans? It is usually one day during the last week in January. Why is that the week? One main reason is that it is the time you get to Exodus 21 and read, “If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment” (Ex 21:2). Wait…what? Hebrew slaves? Exodus 21 can be hard for us to understand because it begins a section of Scripture that provides details of the Law of Moses. Rather than abandon your Bible reading or simply skip this section, let us learn more about God in this important section.
The Lord (Yahweh) has brought the Israelites out of Egypt to Mount Sinai to worship Him. In order to properly worship God, He gave them His Law. The Law was based on the Covenant that the Lord has established with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The nation of Israel was a Theocracy with God as the supreme ruler and Moses His mediator. In His covenant with Israel, He provided the Law of Moses (as it came to be called). The Law had two important functions: 1) It provided for the right functioning of the new nation of Israel and 2) It provided the means by which sinful people can properly worship the Holy God. The Law revealed the holiness of God. It is helpful to consider three categories of the Law: 1) Moral, 2) Civil, and 3) Ceremonial. Francis Turretin, a 17th Century theologian, helpfully summarized these categories: “The law given by Moses is usually distinguished into three species: moral (treating of morals or of perpetual duties towards God and our neighbor); ceremonial (of the ceremonies or rites about the sacred things to be observed under the Old Testament); and civil (constituting the civil government of the Israelite people).
The Priests and the Tabernacle
Before we go much further, we need to understand how the Law of Moses was carried out. First, God established a place where His Spirit would dwell: the tabernacle. Second, God established mediators who were called priests. There was a High Priest and the men of the tribe of Levi were priests under him. The priests would offer the necessary sacrifices, teach the Law to the people, and examine those who were sick. Now, let’s look closer at the Law.
The Moral Law
The first category is the Moral. The Moral Law revealed the holiness of God (His perfect righteousness) and mankind’s sinfulness by revealing what is right (good, clean) and wrong (evil, unclean). Examples of the Moral law include many of the Ten Commandments. God commands us to be honest, not idolatrous, to be sexually pure, to love our neighbor, to strive for peace. The Moral Law, while not binding upon the Christian as it was the Israelites, is nonetheless essential to the Christian as it reveals God’s holiness, His goodness, and His character. Remember what we said earlier about the Ten Commandments: “we do not obey the Ten Commandments so that we might be saved, but now that we have been saved (born again) we see them as a revelation of God’s goodness and character.” All the requirements of the Moral Law were fulfilled by Jesus Christ.
The Civil Law
The second category is the Civil. The Civil Law revealed the holiness of God by restraining the evil of man. Though the Law of Moses cannot change man’s heart, it can inhibit lawlessness and iniquity. It does so through appropriate punishment that is carried out by the proper authorities. The principle of “eye for an eye” (the Law of Retaliation) is an important component of a good and fair system of laws. In the Law of Moses (Ex 21:23-25, Lev 24:19-20, Deut 19:21), it served two principal functions: 1) It allowed for appropriate restitution for wrongs by mandating the punishment must fit the crime and 2) It restrained personal vendettas by giving the authority to punish to honest, impartial judges. The Civil Law is a vital part of securing order in society and to protect the innocent from the wicked. While the law cannot make you love your neighbor, it can punish you for killing your neighbor. Examples of the Civil law include property rights, rules of servitude, personal injuries, etc. The Civil Law was designed for the nation of Israel and is not binding upon a Christian. All the requirements of the Civil Law were fulfilled by Jesus Christ.
The Ceremonial Law
The third category is the Ceremonial. The Ceremonial Law revealed the holiness of God by showing the people the horror of their sin and their need for redemption. The Ceremonial function helped the nation to worship God correctly. This includes the sacrifices (e.g., burnt, grain, fellowship) and the feasts (e.g., Passover, Unleavened Bread, First Fruits, Festival of Weeks, Feast of trumpets, Day of Atonement, Feast of Tabernacles/Booths). The Ceremonial Law was designed for the nation of Israel and is not binding upon a Christian. All the requirements of the Ceremonial Law were fulfilled by Jesus Christ.
The Law of Moses
Hebrew slaves? Tests for leprosy? Animal sacrifices? It is easy to understand why we tend to skip over this section because so much of it is foreign to us. But remember what the Scripture says about itself: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16). It is important that we know why God spoke to Israel in this way. There are sections of the Bible that are hard to understand, but it is all from God and meant to instruct us. Let us approach the section regarding the Law of Moses and see revealed in it the foreshadowing of the Gospel. We see the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man. We see God providing a way from His people to approach Him and worship Him. We also see the completion of all the Law in Jesus Christ: our High Priest, our Redeemer, our Savior. Let us worship Him in spirit and in truth. This is an important week.