Interpreting Levitical Laws as a Christian (An Interpretive Grid)

Samuel Bolton writes,

The ceremonial law was an appendix to the first table of the moral law. It was an ordinance containing precepts of worship for the Jews when they were in their infancy…As for the judicial law, which was an appendix to the second table, it was an ordinance containing precepts concerning the government of the people in things civil…’ (The True Bounds of Christian Freedom, p. 56).

Taking this understanding of the ceremonial and civil laws as appendixes to the 10 Commandments, and taking Jesus’ declaration that the summary of the Law is ‘love God and love your neighbor’, we might diagram the Law in this way:

There are a couple of things about this diagram that need to be clarified. First, the fifth commandment is included in the first table of the law as pertaining to the honoring of authority (God’s authority being supreme). This is debatable, but not necessarily important for the current discussion. Second, the cleanliness law (purity laws dealing with the clean/unclean distinction) are set in the middle between ceremonial and civil law because cleanliness laws often pertained to both. Remember that the priests served not only as officials of worship (ceremonial) but also as health officials (civil) in some respects.

This paradigm (summary of the 10 Commandments>the 10 Commandments>the appendixes to the 10 Commandments) is a helpful grid through which we may pass any law as we determine its continuing validity. But before we get to that in detail we need to discuss the fulfillment of the Law in Christ. The teaching of Jesus Christ in the New Testament makes it abundantly clear that the moral essence of the law (the summary of the 10 Commandments and the 10 Commandments themselves) remain intact (cf. Mat. 5:17-18, 19:17-19, 22:37-40). Yet, while the moral essence of the Law remains, it is clear from the New Testament that in other areas there has been a broad change.

These changes all relate to the fulfillment of the appendixes of the law (see diagram above) and the laws relating to cleanness and uncleanness. In other words the moral core of the Law remains while the external, exact forms of keeping the Law are altered under the administration of the New Covenant. Relating this to the ceremonial and civil law this means that the external forms of worship and government have been drastically altered under the New Covenant reign of Christ. Here is a brief example:

  • Leviticus 17:3 If any one of the house of Israel kills an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or kills it outside the camp, 4 and does not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting to offer it as a gift to the LORD in front of the tabernacle of the LORD, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man. He has shed blood, and that man shall be cut off from among his people.
  •  John 4:21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.

This law has obviously changed, for we no longer bring offerings to an earthly tabernacle, Christ being the fulfillment (anti-type) of the tabernacle (cf.Mat. 1:23;  John 1:14, 2:19; 1 Cor. 3:16ff., Eph. 2:21, Rev. 21:22, etc).

As for the laws of cleanness and uncleanness it appears that the New Testament teaching on the subject is that those laws have been entirely fulfilled by the work of Christ, as he takes all uncleanness upon himself, offering his own cleanness to those who are united to him by faith:

  • John 13:10 Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
  • Mark 7:18 And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” ( Thus he declared all foods clean.)
  • Ezekiel 36:25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.
  •  Acts 10:9 ¶ The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. 10 And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.”
  • Acts 11:9 But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ 10 This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. 11 And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. 12 And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.
  • 1 Corinthians 7:14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
  • Romans 14:14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.
  • Hebrews 9:13 For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
  • Titus 1:15 To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.
  • Galatians 3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us- for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”-

In summary of what we’ve said so far, the moral essence of the law is binding (summary of the 10 Commandments and 10 commandments), the appendixes to the moral law (ceremonial and civil) must be evaluated in light of whether or not a particular law has been fulfilled by Christ or altered in its New Covenant application, and the Clean/Unclean Laws have all been fulfilled in Christ. That means that it is very easy to deal with straight-forward moral commands and laws dealing with cleanness and uncleanness. The former are still in force the latter are all fulfilled. The difficulty then is in dealing with those tricky appendixes. This is where we can get into trouble as interpreters, but this is also where our interpretation grid comes in handy.

Since the ceremonial and civil laws are basically appendixes to the 10 Commandments, and the 10 Commandments are summarized further as Love God, Love Neighbor, we should attempt to take those ceremonial and civil laws and locate them in the 10 Commandments and its summary. This will boil the precepts down to their moral essence. From there we can ask whether or not the essence of the command is fulfilled in Christ and determine if the individual laws have any modern application for us as Christians.

Let’s take one example. I’ve had to deal with this passage because some have interpreted it simply to mean that a woman should not wear pants:

  • Deuteronomy 22:5 ¶ The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.

Using our grid, we need to locate this command in our grid. First, we know it’s not a cleanliness law. Second, then we can ask, ‘what part of the 10 Commandments is this law applying?’ The only law that makes sense is the 9th commandment (‘You shall not bear false witness’) because the general issue is deception – pretending to be something that you are not (i.e. a man looking like a woman, a woman looking like a man). This is therefore an issue of loving your neighbor, and the moral force of it is still relevant. How then can we honor this commandment? Some would say it is as simply as ‘a woman shouldn’t wear pants.’ But this is a very strict application of a rather broad rule. The moral force of the commandment is basically that a woman should not appear to be a man, or try to look like a man, and vice versa for men. Drag queens are breaking the 9th Commandment.

If I were to preach Deuteronomy 22:5, this should be the thrust of my application – don’t try to look like someone of the opposite sex for this is deceptive, untrue, and a violation of the 9th Commandment. The good news is that while the moral essence of the law is still in force, Christ has paid the price for our breaking of the 9th Commandment as offers forgiveness through penitent faith.

Another good example of how this grid works pertains to the gleaning laws of the Old Testament. As a part of the appendix to the civil law they relate back to the 8th Commandment (‘You shall not steal’). Those who refused to leave the crops in the corners of their fields for gleaners were taking what God had declared not to belong to them and, thus, in essence, stealing. And at the back of that stealing is the moral issue of coveting – they wanted what was not legally theirs (i.e. coveted) and so they stole it. The result of this is that they were not loving their neighbors. The moral force of such laws are still binding despite external changes – we should honor the poor and use our money to do good.

  • Matthew 5:42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

So, how can you interpret Levitical Law as a Christian?

1. If it is a cleanliness law it is fulfilled in Christ.

2. If it is a strictly moral law, relating to the 10 Commandments or the summary of the 10 Commandments, it is still in force.

3. If it is a ceremonial or civil law it must be examined in the light of New Testament teaching and then, if it is not explicitly fulfilled in the New Testament, it must be related back to the moral law to find its proper contemporary application.

In all these areas the Law is meant to point us to our need of Christ, but for the Christian, having discovered that need, and believed upon him, we will find in the Levitical Law wise and impactful ways of applying the moral law to our current situations. Look at it this way – the individual levitical laws give us angles from which to approach the 10 Commandments, and therefore angles from which we can apply them both to the unbeliever in need of justification and to the believer striving for sanctification.

Update: 8/27/14
I found a great quote (HERE)(about theonomy) that summarizes Bolton’s view well:

This constitutes an approach to the nature of the civil law very different from Calvin and the rest of the Reformed tradition, which sees the civil law as God’s application of his eternal standards to the particular exigencies of his people.

“God’s application of his eternal standards to the particular exigencies of his people” is another way of calling the civil (and ceremonial) law ‘appendixes’ to the moral law. This is precisely how we must view the law today: it is to be applied to the particular exigencies of God’s people under the administration of the New Covenant.


    • Heath says:

      It may take me a few days (you already knew that) but I’ll try to give it my best shot or find someone who I think can do so better than me. You’ll get my opinion either way.

    • Heath says:

      This deserves a post of its own, but I wanted to be able to devote some space to the issue without overly publicizing it. Forgive me if there are typos, I’m not spellchecking this. So here goes.

      First, I want to be mindful of the Apostle’s words to Titus: “But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless” (Titus 3:9). The Greek word for quarrel is related to our word ‘macho.’ We don’t want to get into urinating contests about the Law. And I am afraid this will lead us in that direction. Yet, I want to try to help you to see something that I think is glorious.

      I don’t really see too much of an argument to engage with to be honest with you. I obviously think he’s wrong on a number of points – especially about the division of the law into categories of moral/civil/ceremonial. Does the fact that the Ten Commandments are set in stone (literally) set them apart from the rest of the law? Does the fact that it is the Ten Commandments that are placed in the ark set them apart? (Hebrews 9:4 “having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant”).

      Is there no place now for the Law of God? What does Jeremiah say of that Law in the New Covenant?: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer. 31:33). What law does he write upon our hearts in the New Covenant? Is it the laws relating to sacrifices and putting fences around rooftops? Is it the laws of food and fashion? Or is it his moral law? It is the 10 Commandments that are stamped on our hearts as our great delight? Can the Christian say, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day”? (Ps. 119:97). Or must it be modified to loving biblical principles? What about Psalm 1? Is it relevant? Can I sing it and an mean it? Am I wasting my time having my children memorize it? My old professor Knox Chamblin uses to say, ‘Torah Meditation leads to Messiah Exaltation.’

      This is precisely why I headed the posts of my series on Owen’s view of the sabbath with an image of the Decalogue written on the heart. The point is that God’s people innately love to experience the day of rest in Christ. It is written on their hearts according to his promise – as are all of the 10 Commandments.

      I don’t deny that we read Exodus 20 in light of its narrative context. I don’t deny that the Law served as a covenant. And I affirm that we are free from the Law as a covenant (Samuel Bolton stresses this over and over). It no longer has dominion over us, but it holds sway within us as we delight in it in the inner man. We want to keep it; it breaks our hearts when we fail, not simply because of guilt, but because our flesh is working against us doing the very things in which we delight. Romans 7:22: “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law.” What law does the apostle delight in if there is no Law for the Christian? Does he simply delight in principles to be gleaned? Or, as I would argue, in the very words of the Decalogue? Perhaps the Ten Commandments are not in view here. Wrong. He specifically mentions the Tenth Commandment (Rom. 7:7). He doesn’t appear to be concerned at all with specific laws of diet or clothing or government – but with the Law that penetrates the moral nature of the heart. The Law written in stone in the old covenant and on the heart in the new. He still wants to keep that old law, but he wants to do it in a new way – not approaching it as a slave master – but as a delight of the heart on account of Christ, to be kept by the power of the Spirit.

      “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Rom. 7:6).

      The way you handle Romans 7:6 will determine your entire view of the Christian life. I see Romans 8:2 (law of sin and death/law of the Spirit of life) as another way of stating the same thing the Apostle is saying in 7:6.

      You’ve seen my argument before, but let me do one thing here. I read your post on Old Testament fashion; let me give you my take on one specific text that you dealt with – Numbers 15:

      “38Speak to the sons of Israel, and tell them that they shall make for themselves tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they shall put on the tassel of each corner a cord of blue. 39“It shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD, so as to do them and not follow after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you played the harlot, 40so that you may remember to do all My commandments and be holy to your God. 41“I am the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the LORD your God.”

      First, note that this commandment, like the Decalogue itself, is connected to God’s previous deliverance of Israel out of bondage. (We’re doing justice to the text as a narrative). There is an element of grace in it. That’s something I don’t think Hays’ argument does justice to. The Mosaic covenant is a gracious covenant. There is an element of works-judgment in it. As I argue in my exposition of Romans 8, one’s relationship to the law as gracious or condemning relates solely to one’s relationship to Christ. It can be a law of sin and death or the law of the spirit of life (Rom. 8:2). For the unbeliever is it purely a covenant of works – do this and live; disobey and die. It wreaks of death to the unbelieving idolator. For the one trusting in the promised Messiah, the greater Moses, the true Deliverer, it is gracious. It is meant to help, not hurt. It will help them become more like the One in whom they trust. It will not contribute a whiff to salvation or condemnation other other than driving them to God’s promise of salvation. It will contribute greatly to sanctification.

      Second, if you follow the interpretive method that I’ve set forth in the above post, here is how you would apply this passage in the Numbers. You would begin by asking if this law is directly moral or civil or ceremonial. It seems clear to me that it is ceremonial. Why? Because it relates directly to the first commandment: You shall have no other gods before me (though the entire Decalogue is in view as well). The point of the command is that the Israelites are prone to idolatry and therefore need constant reminders to have no other gods before him. They need to ‘be careful, lest they forget the Lord their God.’ The moral issue at hand is therefore primarily idolatry.

      What is the principle, then, to be gleaned from it? That we are prone to wonder, prone to leave the God we love. We are idolators by nature. We need constant rebuke for our proneness to wander. We need the reminder of Deuteronomy 6:

      6These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

      We need reminders everywhere. What is the answer to this dilemma? It is this:

      “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom. 13:14).

      If you want to fight idolatry, the answer is not ultimately in the clothes you have on – the answer is in the Lord Jesus Christ. Put on Christ. Be clothed in his righteousness. The command against mixed clothing is a call to absolute purity. How will we find such purity? Only by putting on the Lord Jesus Christ – ‘Dressed in his righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne.’

      Zechariah 3 is instructive here. The high priest went through repeated ceremonial washings in order that his blood-stained clothing might be clean as he entered the temple. He was the cleanest of the clean; yet what he truly needed was the clothing provided by the Angel of the Lord, which covered up not just the body, but sin:

      ‘Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. 4The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” Then he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you.”’

      Likewise we read of the worshipers of God in heaven:

      ‘I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb’ (Rev. 7:14).

      So, therefore, what is to govern our clothing choices? First, we must be clothed in the righteousness of Christ through faith in him. Then all that we put on externally must fit that fact. Does it honor and reflect the righteousness that is mine in Christ? We turn our eyes to Christ, not to a blue chord – for Christ is superior. WWJD is simply a new moral imperative. Put on Christ himself. Be trusting in him, be walking with him, be in communion with him. He lived the unidolatrous life for us, in our behalf. And he gives us his Spirit to help us fight idolatry. Clothing will never do that (Israel proved this by its disobedience), but Christ’s righteousness will. The external clothing was only a shadow, but the substance belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ himself.

      Do you see the glorious liberty here? I uphold the 10 Commandments as the rule of Christian living. Yet I say with Augustine, “Love God and do as you please.” I uphold the Law but find myself without rigidity in points like this. If your eyes are upon Christ, your clothing will reflect that. Dress yourself in him and then get dressed. Dress yourself in his righteousness before you pick out your clothes. I give you no commandments concerning clothing – only be convinced that what you wear reflects the righteousness of Christ. But, in my opinion, Hays would have you turn around and actually start making new laws, disguising them by the name ‘principles.’ Do you see my point? I am a lover of Old Testament law, yet I despise moralism. I fear the other road leads directly to moralism. Chesterton said that ‘he who will not be governed by the 10 Commandments will be governed by 10 thousand commandments.’ I think he is right.

      • BC Cook says:

        Ok, so I need to apologize. I just read your response here. I asked that question back in December, when retail was so busy I couldn’t effectively receive the answer. So I foldered your response for later…. which got later, and later, and later.

        So, I’ve read it now, and I believe I see what you are saying. Let us find out.

        If I understand you correctly, you don’t feel like there is much of an argument worthy of engagement between yourself and Hays because if we would rather focus on loving Christ, we don’t need to engage in such quibbling. Real Love sorts these things out on Its own.

        Because Hays puts the emphasis on categorical divisions, he is “putting the cart before the horse” and this makes it hard to get down the road. Instead, our focus needs to be on the liberty of being freed to desire what is Good in Christ. If we seek Him, we will find ourselves following the Law where it is to be applied, and in the ways it is do be applied. If we love Christ, we will dwell on the Law like the Psalmist, but it does not follow that one who dwells on the Law will necessarily love Christ.

        With this said, then you concluded by dismissing the reduction of the Law to a pile of principles because this is an over-simplification, and can ultimately hinder Love. At the same time, you would avoid offering instead a detailed submission of where and how to apply everything because Loving application requires context, and to start making a bunch of conclusions on what exactly to do with the Law is tantamount to making a new law, which contradicts the spirit of Grace.

        So it sounds like you are saying, applying the OT Law isn’t about turning it into principles, or extracting the relevant laws, because these are simply the wrong way to go about approaching the whole issue. Instead, having been redeemed by Christ, be lead by the Love He is working in your heart for Him. If you do this, you will dwell on the Law, but not make new laws. You will see principles, but not make new laws. Your application will come about, and come about correctly, because your focus is on being close to Christ, not on “doing the right thing”.

        Am I tracking with you at all?

        Also, regarding my post on OT Fashion, (I’m assuming you mean this one ) were you saying that you find this post to be off-base, or were you just using it as an entry point to further discuss the topic at hand in your post here about the levitical law? I’m happy for any kind of feedback.

        • Heath says:

          I was using your post as an illustration, not really wanting to correct you per se. Just trying to show a trajectory I see in a particular way of looking at the Law.

          My really big point in the above post, and in my arguments, is that I do believe there is good historical and biblical precedence for a division of ‘types’ of Law (moral/civil/ceremonial) and that that division actually helps us in applying the Law. I do fear that the article you linked to above has some truth in it, but also leads one of a trajectory of making new laws out of laws. I’m more concerned with the ‘big moral issues’ of loving God and loving neighbor, though I preach on Old Testament texts and try to interpret them all the time. My usual concern is to show people (including me) their failure to keep the Law and how Christ fulfills it and bears the curse for them. If they grow to love him more they will want to do as he said, ‘Do unto others…love God, love neighbor.’

          I have been listening to some debates on Theonomy lately and just haven’t felt like writing about them. Quibbles about the Law can just get so tiresome. I’ve also had to debate recently ‘in real life’ about the validity of the Covenant of Works and issues pertaining to it. Such issues are really important, and they affect the way we preach the gospel, but it just gets tiresome (for lack of a better way of putting it). I even had a random call from somebody last night asking me about some Law issues.

          Regardless, I’m glad you are concerned about these issues and trying to think them through. I am glad to try to help in any way I can even when you or others disagree with me. I’m just not really big into internet polemics. I’m rambling badly, I will stop at this point.

          • BC Cook says:

            Thanks Heath. Your writings on the subject have helped me further my own understanding. I wanted to see your response to the article I linked, simply because the author seemed to be so adamant about arguing against some of what you’ve written about, and I thought he brought up his issues in some ways you had not yet fully addressed.

            I agree that the Law arguments can get really tiresome. I have a close and personal friend who gets really tied up in it though, vacillating from “we must be chained to the Law” to “we are free from the Law in such a way that if you were to call me out on murder, I’ll tell you you cannot because I’m free from the Law”. Your posts have helped me as I’ve sought to be a good friend.

      • BC Cook says:

        Regarding Joseph Pieper’s book, I actually didn’t find it disappointing. It was a bit belaboring, but I finished the whole thing and enjoyed it. I believe you said you liked the first part, but not the second. After reading the entire thing, I would summarize his argument as being thus:

        -Culture, can be defined as the fruit of meaning; that is, of the embodied expression and appreciation of value.
        -Culture cannot be fully ascertained by work, though it may be included in work, and work may be included in it.
        -A full expression and appreciation of value (culture) is found in “celebration”.
        -Celebration is an act of passive experiential appreciation, not active seeking/working. It is best exemplified in the “festival”, and practiced weekly on “The Lord’s Day”.
        -Passive experiential appreciation, is how we define “leisure” time.
        ****Thus, without leisure, there can be no “end” to all our work. Work is for work’s sake, and devoid of culture, devoid of the fulfillment for which God purposed it.

        The second part of his book goes on with the argument, as a sort of addendum to the former:

        -“Philosophy” is our questioning of meaning. To “philosophize” is to ask what it means to live in the interactive, meaningful existence we know as the “world”.
        -Without “wonder” we will not ask philosophical questions.
        -Without searching to understand philosophy, we are condemned to have our philosophy given to us by others.
        -Our philosophy informs by how and why we work, as well as “to what end”. Thus it informs both work and leisured end to which we work (celebration).
        ****Thus, as leisure is the basis of culture, so wonder is the basis of the philosophy of leisure.

        WONDER leads to PHILOSOPHY leads to WORK leads to LEISURE leads to WORSHIP (Culture)

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