Three-fold classification of the Law? by Jeffery Smith

It has become very fashionable in our day to reject  as artificial and arbitrary the division of the Mosaic laws into three general categories. However, is this truly the case?. Granted in defending the three-fold classification there are some important concessions that need to be made. 

First of all, it is true that in several places in Moses one may find moral, civil, and ceremonial laws mixed together. We shouldn’t deny that. It’s not always a simple task to disentangle them in a given context. Secondly, it is also true that each kind of law was equally binding upon the Old Covenant Israelite and that, therefore, these distinctions were not as clearly evident to the Israelites as they may be to us now under the brighter light of New Covenant revelation, (though I believe they were evident to some and more than is often allowed).  Thirdly, it must be conceded that in the Mosaic law there is always an intimate relationship between all of these laws. For example, the case laws are simply civil applications of the moral law to the particular needs and circumstances of Israel as a nation at that time. Likewise,  ceremonial laws were connected to making provision for the forgiveness of sins committed against the moral law. Because all of these laws were binding upon Israel, for any Israelite to disobey or to neglect any of them was sin. So all of these concessions must be made. 

Nevertheless,  we must not dismiss the traditional three-fold classification in what I would describe as the cavalier manner in which some popular and otherwise very helpful commentators dismiss it.  I believe these distinctions properly qualified are, in fact, demanded by a careful consideration of the biblical text itself. We are not like  Jehovah’s Witnesses, I trust, who refuse to believe in the Trinity because we don’t find the word Trinity in the bible. We believe in a triune God because the scriptures clearly show us these three persons in the Godhead in their work, in their distinct persons, in their unity and in many other ways. Well we may not find some clear cut statement that the law of Moses is threefold; civil law, ceremonial law, and moral law. We may not even find the words civil law, ceremonial law, and moral law in the Bible. However, whether those exact words are there or not, the question is are these distinct types of law really found in Moses, even with the overlaps acknowledged and the concessions made above? And, most importantly, is there a special and peculiar place that is given to one type of law that sets it apart from the others? I believe the answer is yes.

First of all, God Himself clearly and dramatically distinguished between the ten commandments and the rest of the Mosaic laws. He did this in a number of ways. Only the ten commandments were spoken by God with an audible voice. Only the ten commandments were written by the finger of God upon tablets of stone. Only the ten commandments were placed in the ark of the covenant under the mercy seat.

Secondly, it can also be shown that Moses himself gave greater emphasis to the ten commandments and distinguished them from other commandments (see Deut. 4:9-13; 5:1-29).

 Thirdly, there is sometimes the failure to mention, or to recognize, that the actual structure of the book of Exodus, at least in general, supports a three-fold classification of the law of Moses; beginning with the ten commandments in ch.20 followed by ch.21-23 which are applications of the law that apply mainly to the civil order of Israel, followed by the ratification of the covenant in ch.24 and then beginning in ch.25 to the end of the book we have laws and regulations applying to the religious practices of Israel (the construction of the tabernacle, priesthood etc..)

And then a fourth argument is the fact that O.T. believers themselves often distinguished the moral law from the other statues of God. Earlier I made the concession that these distinctions may not have been as clearly recognized by some of the Israelites as they are to us now. But that does not mean that they ought not to have been, or that they were not, recognized by any or at all. Some O.T. believers obviously did recognize distinctions within the law and the greater importance of what is traditionally referred to as the moral law. For example, see passages such as  Ps.51:16-17, “For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart–these, O God, You will not despise” ; Hosea 6:6, “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings”; Micah 6:6-8, “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the Most High God? Shall I come before Him with burn offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil?…He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?; Ps. 40:6-8, “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire; My ears You have opened. Burnt offering and sin offering You did not require. Then I said, Behold I come;  in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do Your will, O my God, and Your law (obviously not speaking here of the provisional ceremonial law) is within my heart

Are these  passages intending to argue that in an absolute sense, God did not require burnt offerings and sacrifices etc..from the Old Covenant people of God? No, of course not. God did require them but the point is that such are no substitute for obedience to the moral, ethical, precepts of God’s law in heart and life. Here again a distinction within the Mosaic law is implied. The Mosaic covenant incorporated within it those timeless moral principles rooted in creation that predated Moses and postdate Moses and were summarized in the Ten Commandments. These are and should be distinguished from those provisional elements of the Mosaic law that are no longer directly relevant after the coming of Christ, the completion of his redemptive work and the establishment of the New Covenant community of God’s people, which is no longer bound to any one civil or national entity.



4 thoughts on “Three-fold classification of the Law? by Jeffery Smith

  1. Pastor Smith,

    I am greatly enjoying your blog. You have a talent for packing a lot of Biblical truth into a short post. Please keep it up. I pray that the Lord will bless your efforts.

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