What is the difference between the ceremonial law, the moral law, and the judicial law in the Old Testament?

Some people have classified Jewish Old Testament law as ceremonial, moral, and judicial. The differences are as follows:

Ceremonial law encompassed any rule surrounding celebrations and regular rituals regarding the temple and worship. Much of this can be found in Leviticus, though parts are also in Numbers and Deuteronomy. Leviticus covers ceremonial law for the five major offerings (Leviticus 1:1—6:7), how to handle offerings (Leviticus 6:8—7:38), the start of the priesthood (Leviticus 8:1–36), rules regarding cleanness and uncleanness (Leviticus 11:1—15:33), the Day of Atonement ritual (16:1–34), how to handle blood and why (Leviticus 17:1–16), and special feasts and holidays (Leviticus 23:1–44). Ceremonial law also encompasses all of God's instructions around the building of the tabernacle (Exodus 25:1—31:11) and later the temple (1 Kings 6:1–38). Ceremonial law was meant to show physical representations of God's holiness and the holiness He expected from His people. The ceremonial law governed how the people were to approach God in worship, instituted remembrance of God's prior actions, and pointed ahead to the Messiah.

The moral law addressed behavior and relationships between humans and God, as well as between humans. The first set of moral laws was the Ten Commandments, which God gave to Moses after the Israelites left Egypt (Exodus 20:1–21). Moses spent much of the end of his life reminding the Israelites of these moral laws in Deuteronomy. For example, Deuteronomy 20:1—21:17 is all about the sanctity of life. God wanted His people to have extremely high morals that went above and beyond what other nations did. It had to be a reflection of what was right and wrong in His eyes, not the world's.

Judicial law is mixed throughout Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. These concerned things like property ownership and borders (Exodus 21:1–11; Leviticus 25:23–34; Deuteronomy 23:15—24:22), marriage vows (Deuteronomy 24:1–4; 25:5–10), cities of refuge for suspected murderers (Deuteronomy 4:41–43), business transactions (Deuteronomy 24:10—25:4), and other legal situations. These were to regulate the society and to help those in positions of mediation to settle disputes, determine crimes, and mete out punishment. This is not an extensive list.

The important thing to remember is that though these rules, rituals, and regulations can be categorized, God did not see them as separate from one another. These categorizations are human made to help aid understanding, not biblically prescribed. God's Law was always meant to be a whole and wholly followed by the Israelites as a people set apart for Him (James 2:10). When Scripture refers to His Law, it means all of it together (Joshua 22:5).

Likewise, God knew that humanity would be incapable of following the whole Law. The entire system was set up to reflect His holiness but also to point to the coming Messiah. Jesus said, "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" (Matthew 5:17). The state of holiness and sinlessness could only be fulfilled by Jesus Christ through His perfect life, sacrificial death, and powerful resurrection. It is only by God's grace through trust in Jesus Christ that we can stand before God without guilt, because Jesus' sacrifice paid the debt of our sin (2 Corinthians 5:17–21; Hebrews 10:11–14).

Christians today are divided on what, if any, of these Old Testament laws to follow. In Jesus' fulfillment as the ultimate sacrifice, there is no longer a need for the temple and all of its associated rules and ceremonies (the New Testament book of Hebrews explains this in detail). However, we know that morality and justice are part of God's character, and He calls us to be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:13–25), so we can't altogether dismiss these rules and regulations. We also know that Jesus took these rules a step further in His teachings when He said things like, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:27–28). Too, we know that "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16–17). The Old Testament law has value and meaning for our lives today, even if it is not specifically prescriptive to us in its details.

The new covenant is guided by our relationship with God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. When we have the very Spirit of God, that changes our accountability. Jesus summed it up for the Pharisees in this exchange: "'Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?' And he said to him, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets'" (Matthew 22:36–40).

Galatians 5:13–23 explains, "For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' … But I say, walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. … But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. … But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law." We are not bound to the Old Testament law. Rather, the Old Testament law—whether its ceremonial, moral, or judicial portions—helps us understand the character of God and His redemptive work through history. It also gives us practical ways of living out His call to love.

Those who are in Christ are to "fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2), which is summed up in loving God and loving others (John 15:8–17). If love is our standard and we have the Holy Spirit to guide us, we have been given all we need for a godly life (1 John 2:27).

Related Truth:

Why did God give the Mosaic Law? What is the purpose of the Mosaic Law?

What can Christians learn from the Mosaic law?

Is the law of Christ different from the law of Moses? If so, what is the law of Christ?

What are the differences between the old covenant and the new covenant?

What did Jesus mean that He came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it? What did He mean that "not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished" (Matthew 5:18)?

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