The book of Leviticus is a book full of laws. And as we read the book of Leviticus it is important to understand how we should understand the book we are reading. Because the book is full of so many laws we have to consider, should we be following these laws? And if not, why don’t we follow them?
When you read the book of Leviticus you cannot automatically assume that every law you read still applies today. But at the same time you cannot automatically ignore every law that is found in the book of Leviticus.
You have to discern, is this a law that was for a particular time and place or was it timeless?
The 3 Types of Laws in Leviticus
Moral laws. These laws apply to all believers, in all cultures, at all times. God’s moral laws never change. Laws from Leviticus in this category are all reiterated in the New Testament. If an Old Testament Law is repeated under the New Testament “law of Christ,” that law is still valid for us today.
Civil laws. Civil laws were given for the governing of the nation of Israel at the time. Similar legal principles may be valid for governing nations today, but they may not be identical in detail, and the same punishments associated with Israel’s civil laws do not apply to us.
Ceremonial laws. These laws governed the proper worship of God by the nation of Israel at that time. These laws are not binding on believers today. These laws are for a specific nation, at a specific time, and for a specific purpose. And so for the sake of separating Israelites from the Gentiles, you will read about laws like dietary regulations (don’t eat shell fish) and other regulations of animal sacrifice and cleanliness. These laws are not meant for all people or all times.
Generally speaking, the “obscure” laws that unbelievers use for their own agendas are in the civil and ceremonial categories. They wrongly imply that all these commands are still binding for modern-day Christians. However, just as many civil and cultural laws in today’s society have changed since our country was founded, so God through Christ’s sacrificial work on the cross fulfilled many of these Old Testament laws. These laws were not arbitrarily dismissed, nor did they become irrelevant, but rather the civil and ceremonial laws were fulfilled or ended with the coming of Christ (Luke 24:44; Romans 10:4)
Let’s explain how the Ceremonial and Civil laws were fulfilled in Christ.
The Old Testament civil and ceremonial laws were designed by God to set the nation of Israel apart from all the pagan nations of that time. Sacrifices were made to atone for sin so the people could approach a holy God. Ceremonial laws included rituals for cleanliness and purity. God wanted His people to stand out! He wanted their lifestyle to be clearly different than the sinful lifestyles of the surrounding cultures.
Things changed dramatically with the coming of Jesus Christ. God’s people are now part of the Church, a worldwide assembly of believers. We live in different countries and cultures. We no longer have the national boundaries or cultural regulations that the people of Israel had. We’re no longer required to make animal sacrifices to atone for our sin. We’re no longer set apart by obeying ceremonial laws about meats, fabrics, and length of hair. Instead, we’re to be set apart from the secular world around us by our godliness and moral purity. In addition, the Church is not a civil government, so sin no longer carries a civil penalty, as it did when God’s people were a nation-state.
So if these passages don’t apply to us, why are they included in the Bible?
When these Scriptures are put into their proper context, they present us with a clear picture of the absolute holiness of God, and they help us to see that we’re completely unworthy to approach God on our own merit. Like the Israelites in Old Testament times, we must be thoroughly cleansed – only now that cleansing comes through Jesus Christ.
When Jesus died on the cross, the heavy curtain of separation in the Temple was torn in half (Matthew 27:50-51). This symbolized that we no longer need ceremonial laws or animal sacrifices to approach God. We are now purified through Jesus, and we can approach God directly.
Why do some unbelievers make such a big deal about these verses, while overlooking the larger scope of the Bible?
The laws in Leviticus are often used in today’s culture as a quick justification for discarding God’s biblical decrees on topics such as “same-sex marriage.” Critics of the Bible claim that if Christians don’t follow all the laws in Leviticus, it’s inconsistent for them to maintain such a firm stance on Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination.”
First of all, this kind of reasoning is obviously unbiblical. It’s never acceptable or even logical to use one (so-called) sinful act to justify another sinful act — or to say that if Christians “disobey” something in the Bible, it must be OK to disregard anything else the Bible says!
Secondly, we know Leviticus 18:22 falls into the Moral Law category, and God’s moral laws never change. The topic of homosexuality is addressed again in the New Testament (see 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, for example). There are also many other moral laws in Leviticus that would be hard for even the most jaded skeptic to dismiss. Ignoring all of Leviticus would mean tossing out God’s moral laws against lying (19:11), theft (19:13), slander (19:16), hatred (19:17), revenge (19:18), cheating (19:36)… and that’s just for starters.
Would it be a better witness for Christians to follow all the Old Testament laws?
Actually, no! That answer may come as a surprise, but if we as Christians truly believe the clear gospel message of the New Testament, we literally cannot continue to follow some of the old laws. Sacrificing animals, for example, is no longer a means of atonement for Christians today. If we insisted on following that Old Testament system, we would be denying the power and efficacy of Christ’s death on the cross.
So if Christians wear clothing of mixed fabrics or eat certain types of meat that were forbidden 3,500 years ago, we’re not breaking the laws God gave to Israel at the time of Moses. Rather, we’re living obediently in current times in light of their fulfillment in Christ. Although we still adhere to the moral teachings of the Old Testament, believers today cannot follow all the old civil and ceremonial laws.
Why do we follow the Moral Laws today?
The moral law is unlike the other 2 types in that the moral law is not to a particular culture or for a particular time period. The moral law can also be described as the natural law. This isn’t because it is natural to obey the law, but because it is the way God created the natural world to function.
The moral law is timeless. It exists before, during, and after the culture in which it was given.
For example, murder. When did murder become a sin? When Cain killed Abel, there was no commandment against murder. But it was still wrong.
Why? How can something be a law without having been given as a law? Murder is a part of the moral law. It existed even before the giving of the Ten Commandments and is still important in our day and age.
This is why we often place such high importance on the Ten Commandments as Christians. It’s not because the list of 10 is more important because it’s from the book of Exodus instead of Leviticus. It’s simply because it is the best summary of the moral law. These are laws that are timeless and that we should hold dearly.
While reading the laws in Leviticus, we must ask ourselves, is this a ceremonial, civil or moral law?
I hope this is helpful,
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