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The Meaning of Laws

Laws are binding or enforceable rules: a rule of conduct or procedure recognized by a community as binding or enforceable by authority. A piece of legislation: an act passed by a legislature or similar body. Legal system: the body or system of rules recognized by a community that is enforceable by established process. Control or authority: the control or authority resulting from the observance and enforcement of a community’s system of rules. Divine will: the principles set out in the Bible, especially the Pentateuch, said to be the divine will. Hebrew body of law: the code of law of the ancient Hebrews, beginning with the Ten Commandments, believed to have been set down by Moses and contained in the Pentateuch.–Encarta Dictionary, 2010.

The Law of Moses or the Mosaic Law encompasses the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers Deuteronomy), and at times are just referred to as the Law. However, in an extended sense, the whole of the Old Testament is known as the Mosaic Law. The Jews though consider the Law to be divided into three sections: (1) the Law of Moses, (3) the prophets and (3) the Psalms.

Old Testament

Noun: (torah), GK 9368 (S 8451),[1] 223x. Generally rendered “law, regulation, instruction, teaching,” torah was originally used to describe the instructions for daily conduct that God gave his people; eventually other meanings developed for this word. See also teaching.

(1) In Exod. through Deut., torah covers a wide spectrum of regulations: from specific regulations about sacrifices (Lev 6:9), food laws (11:46), skin conditions (14:32), etc., to a summary word for the entire revelation that Moses received on Mount Sinai (the Book of the Law,” Deut. 28:61; cf. Jos 8:31). These laws regulate every aspect of Israelite life, from food to offerings to social interactions to warfare. It is impossible to divide these neatly into categories such as ceremonial, civil, and moral, since the OT does not make such distinctions and various types of laws are all intertwined. All of Israelite life is religiously oriented; the Lord is God of every aspect of life and has something to say about every human activity.

(2) Several psalms extol the beauty of God’s law (e.g., Ps 1; 19; 119). God’s law is something to love, since it comes from a loving God. True Israelites found the law liberating, not confining. Any negative statements relative to the law in the OT are aimed at abuses of it, not the law itself. On torah as a gracious gift from God, see Deut. 4:1–8.

(3) In Ps 78:1, the word torah covers not only the commands, regulations, and instructions of the Lord but also the historical review of Israel’s past, that is, the narrative portions of the Pentateuch. Ezra’s reading of the torah most likely involved the entire Pentateuch (Neh 8:3). From understanding God’s past actions with and for his people, we learn his will for our own lives today.

New Testament

Noun: (nomos), GK 3795 (S 3551), 194x. nomos means “law.” This word has a variety of nuances in the NT.

(1). nomos can refer to the first five books of the OT—that is, the Torah or the Pentateuch. This is its meaning in the phrase “the Law and the Prophets” (Mt 5:17; Jn 1:17; Rom 3:21). But by extension, it sometimes refers to the entire OT revelation (see Jn 10:34, where Jesus quotes Ps 82:6 as part of “the law”; cf. also Rom 3:19; 1 Cor. 14:21).

(2) nomos can also refer specifically to the legal parts of the OT, the composite body of rules, regulations, and commands God gave to his people (Jn 7:19; Acts 15:5). Keeping the laws revealed by God, however, is not a pathway to being saved (Acts 15:1, 5); we are saved by the grace of God, based on our faith, not by works (Eph 2:8–10). Paul especially wrote Romans and Galatians because he knew of people who taught that a person could be justified by keeping the law (Rom 3:28; Gal 2:16).

(3) Even though the law cannot save us, the law itself is still good, because it has come from God (Rom 7:7–12; 1 Tim. 1:8). But in our weakened human condition, rather than enlightening us on how to serve God, the law often ends up only revealing our sin (Rom 3:20). In fact, the law can even increase our sin because of our innate human tendency to rebel against God (Rom 5:20). This is why Paul can call it “the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2).

(4) Jesus himself perfectly kept the law and so was sinless (Heb 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22). His righteousness is imputed to us by faith when we believe (Rom 3:22; 2 Cor. 5:21), so that “the righteous requirements of the law [are] fully met in us” (Rom 8:4; see righteous, righteousness). Through his accursed death on the cross he paid the wages for human sin—death (Rom 6:23; Gal 3:13)—so that we can now live freely in newness of life.

(5) Even though we do not have to keep God’s law in order to be saved, true believers attempt, to the best of their ability with the help of the Holy Spirit, to obey the law. This is the message of James, that faith without works (of the law) is dead (Jas 2:14–26). But this is also the message of Paul, who asks: “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (Rom 6:15).[2]

Source of Law

Isaiah 33:22 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

22 For Jehovah is our judge; Jehovah is our lawgiver;
Jehovah is our king; he will save us.

Those who love God feel safe and secure under his sovereignty. He gladly accepts the responsibility of protecting his servants, and we recognize him as the sovereign of the universe. Unlike imperfect human governments, God possesses a perfect balance of love for what is right and just. The Kingdom of God, in the hands of the Son, is no burden, to those that worship him. Rather, God ‘teaches us to profit even in this imperfect age, and he leads us in the way we should go.’ (Isa. 48:17) We draw great comfort from the words of the Psalmist, who said, “Jehovah loves justice, and does not forsake his holy ones; they are preserved forever: But the seed of the wicked shall be cut off.”–Psalm 37:28

Delegating Authority

Matthew 28:18 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

18 And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.

“To delegate” means somebody who is chosen to represent or given the authority to act on behalf of another person, group, or organization. The Father has given the Son All authority in heaven and on earth. In turn, Jesus has delegated authority to husbands as “the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church.” (Eph. 5:23) Those taking the lead in the Christian congregation, e.g., the pastors or elders (overseers), we are told obey our leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls.” (Heb. 13:17) We could go on, as the wife is given authority over the children (Eph. 6:1), the imperfect governments are given authority over humanity at present, “for there is no authority except from God.”Romans 13:1

The Purpose of the Law

Galatians 3:19-24 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

19 Why, then, the Law? It was added because of transgressions, until the seed should arrive to whom the promise had been made; and it was transmitted through angels by the hand of a mediator. 20 Now a mediator is not a mediator of one; but God is one. 21 Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be!  For if a law had been given that was able to give life, then righteousness would indeed have been from the law. 22 But the scriptures shut up all things under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to them who believe.

23 But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. 24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor[3] to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.

The purpose of the Mosaic Law was to highlight the need of a ransom sacrifice, as the law made their transgressions manifest. It served as a protection (Eph. 2:14), it served as a barrier between Jew and Gentile, until they could get to the real teacher, Jesus Christ.

What Laws Are Christians Obligated to Keep

The Mosaic Law is made up of more than 600+ laws. Are Christians obligated to keep these laws? It might be best to look at whom the Mosaic Law was given to, as we already saw the purpose of the Law.

Deuteronomy 5:1-3 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the regulations and the judicial decisions that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them. Jehovah our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our forefathers that Jehovah made this covenant, but with us, all of us alive here today.

Psalm 147:19-20 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

19 He declares his word to Jacob,
his regulations and judgments to Israel.
20 He has not dealt thus with any other nation;
they do not know his judgments.
Praise Jah!

Hebrews 10:1-4 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

10 For the law has but a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form[4] of the things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

Christ Is the End of the Law

Jesus was the long awaited Savior, as was clearly stated by the angel Gabriel at Jesus birth. (Luke 2:8-14) Therefore, when Jesus came and offered his life as a ransom sacrifice, the Law was removed. “We are no longer under a tutor,” Paul explained. (Gal. 3:25, NASB) This removal was a relief to the Israelite, who became Christians, because the Law had made their transgression manifest, as Paul said, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us.” (Gal. 3:10-14) Paul also said elsewhere, “Christ is the end of the law,” and “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (Rom. 10:4; 6:14) Some say that the Law is divided into two parts: The Ten Commandments, and the rest of the laws.

Was the Mosaic Law Separated into Two Different Parts?

When Jesus referred to the law, did he give the impression that there were two separate parts?

Matt. 5:17, 21, 23, 27, 31, and 38: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Take note of what Jesus said thereafter… “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder’ [Ex. 20:13; the Sixth Commandment]’ … if you are offering your gift at the altar [Deut. 16:16, 17; no part of the Ten Commandments] … You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’ [Ex. 20:14; the Seventh Commandment].’ It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce’ [Deut. 24:1; no part of the Ten Commandments]. You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth [Ex. 21:23-25; no part of the Ten Commandments].’”

As you can see, when Jesus referred to the Law, he did not differentiate between what is known as the Ten Commandments and other parts of the Law. To him, the Laws encompassed all 613 laws, including the Ten Commandments.

Romans 7:6-7 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the spirit and not in oldness of the letter. What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.”

In Romans 7:6-7, Paul informs his readers that the Jewish Christians have been “released from the law.” Immediately after that, he cites an example of what they were released from, which is the 10th commandment, showing that the Ten Commands are included in what they were released from.

2 Corinthians 3:7-11 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, which was being brought to an end, how will the ministry of the Spirit not be even more with glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, by much more will the ministry of righteousness abound in glory. 10 For indeed what had been glorified has not been glorified in this case, on account of the glory that surpasses it. 11 For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, by much more that which remains is in glory.

Notice that Paul makes a reference here to what was “carved in letters on stone,” and it was said that “the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face” at the time it was delivered. Obviously, this is talking about Exodus 34:1, 28-30, which is dealing with the giving of the Ten Commandments. And it says here in that these were “brought to an end.”

The Law for Christians

Jesus introduced a ‘new covenant, making the first one obsolete.’ Jesus himself said, ““This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” ‘What had become obsolete and grew old was ready to vanish away’ after Jesus’ ransom sacrifice. Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Heb. 8:7-13; Lu 22:20; Matt 20:28) Paul says of the new covenant,

Hebrews 8:10-11 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
11 And they shall not teach, each one his fellow citizen
and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.

Many of the laws under the new covenant were carried over from the Mosaic Law. This should not be a surprise, as they are of the moral code of the Creator, and were not in place for a particular purpose, like other aspects of the Mosaic Law, they will be binding for eternity. Thus, while the Mosaic Law covenant was nailed to the cross, Christianity adopted its fundamental laws and principles.

Read the Ten Commandments at Exodus 20:2-17, and then compare them with

  • “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” (Matthew 4:10; 1 Corinthians 10:20-22)
  • “Guard yourselves from” (1 John 5:21; 1 Corinthians 10:14)
  • “Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be your name. [honored, not treated in a worthless way].” (Matthew 6:9)
  • “Children, obey your parents.” (Ephesians 6:1-2)
  • Do not murder, (Rev 21:8; 1 John 3:15)
  • Do not commit adultery, (Heb. 13:4; 1 Thess. 4:3-7)
  • No stealing, (Eph. 4:25, 28)
  • No lying and coveting (1 Cor. 6:9-11; Lu 12:15; Col. 3:5)

Even though Christians are not obligated to keep a weekly Sabbath, we can learn something from the Israelites having kept it. What? We need to give some of our time, specifically for serving God and set aside the pursuits of the world. The difference for Christians is, this spiritual rest takes place all seven days of the week, in our meetings, in our prayers, in our family time, in our Christian functions, in our alone time, and in our evangelism. This is even more efficient than what the Israelites had to follow.

As Christians, we “fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6:2) In the four Gospels, Jesus also gave many commands and instructions, and by obeying them, we are “fulfill the law of Christ.” One thing Jesus stressed more than all else, was the need to love. (Matt. 22:36-40; John 13:34-35) Jesus said,

Mark 12:29-31 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

29 Jesus answered, “The foremost [commandment] is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; 30 and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’[5] 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”[6]

Paul echoed this,

Galatians 5:13-14 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

He also wrote,

Romans 13:8-10 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another, for the one who loves someone else has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,”[7] and if there is any other commandment, are summed up in this statement: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[8] 10 Love does not work evil to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

The Mosaic Laws were, with its 613 laws, a righteous law code. It served its purpose. However, even though we are not bound by that law, it should be studied meticulously, because the principles behind those laws are God’s moral code. Therefore, these are precious to our knowing the mind and heart of God, i.e., how he feels, thinks, and believes about things, and they will serve us well in making our life decisions. Every verse of the Bible has meaning for us today, in some way; there is a lesson to be learned.

1 John 5:3 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.

Review Questions

  • What are laws?
  • Who is the source of all laws?
  • How is it that God delegates his authority?
  • What laws are Christians obligated to keep?
  • What impact did Christ have on the Mosaic Laws and its observance?
  • Was the Mosaic Law separated into two different parts?
  • What is the law for Christians?
  • Even though Christians are not under the Mosaic Law, why should they know it well?

What are the two greatest commandments?

[1] Here is a Strong’s reference, and I might have included an NIV reference (which is different). More people read the NIV today. Also, quoting the number of times the word is used in the Bible may depend on the version we’re dealing with; in NASB, only 220 are listed.

[2] William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 392-93.

[3] Lit pedagogue; Gr paidagogos. The tutor in Bible times was not the teacher but rather a guardian who led the student to the teacher.

[4] Lit image

[5] Quotation from Deuteronomy 6:4–5, which reads, “Hear, O Israel! Jehovah our God is one Jehovah! You shall love Jehovah your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

[6] Quotation from Leviticus 19:18, which reads, You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am Jehovah.

[7] A quotation from Ex. 20:13-15, 17; Deut. 5:17-19, 21

[8] A quotation from Lev. 19:18