When we concluded our message last week, the people of God were gathered at the base of Mt. Sinai. God had descended upon the mountain with fire and spoken directly to the entire congregation. When the children of Israel found themselves standing in close proximity to the manifest presence of the LORD they trembled and felt extremely uncomfortable before Him. As such, the people asked Moses to intervene by serving as a mediator between themselves and God. Moses agreed to do so.
Apparently God stopped speaking to the entire assembly and waited for Moses to approach Him. When Moses drew near, God continued His declaration to Moses individually. We consider this to be Moses’ fourth ascent up Mt. Sinai. God listed numerous ordinances for His people to obey, in addition to the Ten Commandments that He’d previously spoken. Moses took these back to camp, wrote them down, and read them to the people waiting there. He also built an altar, sacrificed animals, and confirmed the LORD’s covenant.
Moses then returned to the mountaintop for a fifth time along with Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and 70 elders of Israel who had been invited by God to join him. This large group saw the LORD and a pavement of sapphire beneath His feet that was as clear as the sky. They worshiped Him there on the mountain and again affirmed their covenant with God before returning to the camp below.
God soon summoned Moses to join Him on the mountain for a sixth meeting. This encounter would last for 40 days and nights. During this time, God instructed Moses to build the tabernacle and provided him with specific details for its construction. The LORD also prescribed several rules and procedures for the priests who’d be working in the tabernacle. In addition to these instructions, God also gave Moses two tablets written in His own hand that contained the Ten Commandments.
In the 12 chapters we are discussing this morning, God presented many specific laws, commandments, ordinances, and statutes to Moses. It is not the purpose of this series to explore them all individually. To do so would take a considerable amount of time, as there are some 613 different laws found in the Old Testament. But we will spend some time this morning considering the 3 distinct categories of these laws, and how these categories relate to us a Christians today.
I. CEREMONIAL LAW (Exodus 25-31)
The first category is Ceremonial Law. When the LORD spoke to Moses during their sixth meeting on the mountaintop, God gave him many instructions regarding the tabernacle and the priesthood. Many more of these types of laws are given in the book of Leviticus, which is in effect a handbook for the Levitical priesthood. Ceremonial laws are those that pertain to the manner in which Israel was to worship God. This would include those statutes related to purity and cleanliness, religious festivals and observances, types of and procedures for offering sacrifices, and so on.
Much of the Ceremonial Law pointed symbolically to the coming of Jesus Christ. It was specifically tied to Israel and their religious practices. While God certainly loved and desired repentance from people living in the surrounding Gentile nations, as demonstrated throughout the Old Testament and notably in the book of Jonah, it is obvious that these nations did not follow Ceremonial Law like the Jews did. This category of laws created a religious system, unique to Israel, which was intended to testify of God Almighty and of the coming Messiah.
When Jesus came to this earth and died on the cross for the sin of mankind, the purpose that undergirded the Ceremonial Law was completed. There was no longer a need to foretell the coming of Christ because He’d already come. The Apostle Paul and the writer of Hebrews both explained in the New Testament that the strict practice of the Ceremonial Law was and is no longer necessary. Jesus himself is our sacrificial lamb, our High Priest, our Sabbath rest, our means of purity and cleanliness, and so on. The Ceremonial Law was and is satisfied through a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.
II. JUDICIAL LAW (Exodus 21-23)
The second category is the Judicial or Civil Law. These types of ordinances are in view during Moses’s fourth conversation with God on Mt. Sinai. These deal primarily with Israel’s daily practices and living. Some such examples include those laws relating to personal relationships (servants/masters, husbands/wives, etc); property rights; injuries, damages, and appropriate punishments; and a wide variety other issues.
The Judicial Law sought to define that which was legal versus illegal in everyday living. It provided guidelines for the secular governance of the people, similar to what our legislature does today. These laws applied specifically to the nation of Israel, and many were closely tied to the cultural practices of the time. In fact, several of these Judicial Laws seem somewhat strange and almost nonsensical to us living in modern society today.
The Judicial Law was intended to establish a unique nation that would conduct its affairs and operate distinctly different from the rest of the world. It sought to highlight Israel as the peculiar people chosen by God to be His representative nation on the earth. When the Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah and thereby broke their their covenant with God, the LORD chose the Church to replace Israel. The purpose of exalting Israel before the nations was altered and the Judicial Law was rendered obsolete. It is now up to Christians, who function under the New Covenant, to be the salt and light of the earth.
III. MORAL LAW (Exodus 20)
The third category is the Moral Law. The Ten Commandments are the essence of the Moral Law, though there other specific laws that arguably would also fit into this category. Unlike the other ordinances and statutes which were dictated to Moses and then relayed to the people, many of these laws were spoken directly by God to the whole assembly. In fact Moses received a written copy of the Ten Commandments from God twice while on the mountain. The Moral Law consists of principles that declare the LORD’s holy nature and reflect His divine will.
The Moral Law transcends the issue of legal versus illegal and speaks instead to the basis of right and wrong. As such, its application extends far beyond the nation Israel. The precepts set forth in the Moral Law are both universal and timeless. They also seem to be inherent to our created consciousness. All people (to some degree) seem to have an inborn, natural sense of the difference between right and wrong or good and evil.
The Moral Law pertains to everyone, everywhere. It will exist as long as God exists, because it is an extension of His divine nature and character. This being the case, Christians should seek to obey the Moral Law. While it is true that the LORD is longsuffering and forgiving of our failures, He still desires for His people to live and behave in a godly and righteous manner. We should strive to be like Jesus, who demonstrated the honesty, integrity, and love which is woven into the very fiber of the Moral Law.
Jesus fulfilled the entire Law - the Moral, the Ceremonial, and the Judicial. In other words, He perfectly kept its intent. He lived without sin, having never violated God’s law on a single point. Then He died on the cross as our unblemished and undefiled Lamb, making the eternal atonement of mankind possible. Jesus substituted His righteousness for our wickedness, and bore the punishment that we all deserved. Because of Jesus, grace has forever prevailed over works. Christians understand that salvation is not and cannot be earned through obedience to the Law, but rather only through faith in Jesus Christ.
Jesus also revealed the true meaning of the Law. Its purpose was never to prevent people from sinning, but rather to expose our inability to keep from sinning. It shined a spotlight on our wretchedness. The impossible requirements of the Law declared our need for grace, mercy, forgiveness, and salvation. The Old Covenant was founded upon Israel’s obedience to the Law of Moses. The New Covenant is founded upon the grace of God that comes to all Christians through faith in Jesus Christ.
Jesus taught that all of the Law is summed up in 2 simple commands - to love the LORD with all of your heart, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself. While strict obedience to letter of the Old Testament Law is unnecessary for salvation, practicing the principles set forth by these laws in perhaps the best way to show our love for God and for our neighbor. Jesus did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. That said, Christians would be wise to study and practice the ideals that undergird and led to the creation of the Mosaic Law. Stated another way, we may not necessarily follow the letter of the law, but we should follow the spirit of the law (Romans 7:6).