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Part 2d: What Are the Terms?

Glossary 8

The Law. In general, “the law” or Torah,[i] refers to the comprehensive covenant between God and Israel when He “[took] for Himself a nation from the midst of another nation” (Deut 4:34) as elucidated in the Pentateuch (Ex 24:7, 12; Deut 4:33-40; 5:3). The law [Pentateuch] originated from God, was conveyed to Moses via direct revelation (Ex 3:4; 24:3; 31:18; 34:32; Deut 5:5; Jn 7:19; Gal 3:19) and existing historical documents (“toledoth” as in Gen 5:1), then transmitted to Israel both orally and in written form (Ex 34:32; Num 33:2; Deut 31:9; Rom 3:2), and bore upon the origin, mission, and conduct of Israel until the time of Christ (Gen 49:10; Deut 5:1-3; Rom 2:12; 5:12-13; Gal 3:17). That is, the law had a beginning and it had an end (Matt 11:13; Rom 5:20-21; Gal 3:19; Heb 8:13). The first reference to “torah” is the establishment of the Passover with Israel prior to their exodus (Ex 12:48-49). This “one law” from God demanded the circumcision of foreigners should they desire to join with Israel in participation of the Pascal meal. To become circumcised was to be considered as one born in the land. The second use of “torah” is associated with the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Ex 13:9) which is a sign, a memorial, and an ordinance. The third use of “torah” is with the institution of the Sabbath (Ex 16:4), a test of their obedience (Ex 16:28). The fourth use of “torah” is in association with Moses adjudicating matters between the Israelites and teaching them statutes, ordinances, and laws. The fifth use of “torah” is in its association with the writing of the “law and commandments” on tablets of stone (Ex 24:12).

Within the law [Pentateuch] is a record of the origin of the nations (Gen 10) from a single couple (Gen 3:20) so Israel would know that all people are made in the image of God (Gen 1:26) and have the same problem with sin (Ex 20:18-20; Lev 26:40-42; Num 32:13-14; cf. Isa 1:4); yet they alone were chosen to enjoy a special relationship with the creator (Deut 4:39-40; 7:6) and to be a light to the world (Ex 9:16; Deut 10:18; Josh 2:9; 4:23-24). However, their privileged status rested on the promise of God to faithful Abraham to bless him with a multitude of heirs and an exceptional expanse of land (Gen 12:1-3; 13:14-17; Deut 4:37-38). The law [the covenant between Israel and the Lord] is distinct from the promise [the covenant the Lord made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob] (Gen 26:3-4; Deut 4:31; 5:3), yet it is inseparably connected (Ex 6:2-8), if not subservient. For example, Israel’s obedience to the law [the commandments and ordinances of the covenant] was a necessary condition to enter and remain in the land promised to Abraham (Deut 5:33; Num 14:11; 32:10-13, 22-23; cf. Gen 26:5; Heb 8:8-9). And by all rights, the nation should have been utterly destroyed and abandoned by God for her sin (Lev 26:13-39). However, for the sake of His word of a promised seed to Abraham, He ensured that a remnant of faithful Israelites remained, so the nation—and bloodline—could be preserved (Lev 26:42-46; Num 14:26-38; 2 Ki 13:23 cf. Isa 11:16; 29:22; 41:8; Jer 31:35-36; 1 Cor 10:5). Furthermore, the promise to Abraham was confirmed in David (2 Sam 7:8-16; Ps 89:3-4; Isa 11:1-2; cf. Gen 49:20). Again, even in the face of Israel’s division and idolatry after King Solomon, God ensured a remnant would survive for David’s sake (2 Ki 11:32-39; 15:1-6). The content of the law grew to include histories, psalms, and prophetic literature.

So, even though Israel had a special status, they could not assume their covenant was primus inter pares, that is, first among equals, and this became especially obvious when Jeremiah prophesied of a new covenant to be made with the house of Israel (Jer 31:31-34; Heb 8:13). Furthermore, while the “feel” of the law is that it is a demanding, threatening system, the real issue was whether Israel believed the Lord as did their father Abraham (Num 14:11-12; Deut 1:32; 9:23; Ps 78:22; 106:24). As such, despite the fact that Israel received the law, they were no different than Gentiles with respect to personal righteousness (Rom 3:9).

The law is also the covenant between Israel and the Lord. Before the law was summarized by God on tables of stone (Deut 4:13), Moses had already written down a fair amount of legislation, called the “book of the covenant” (Ex 24:7), which understandably would have included his account of God’s recitation of the Ten Words (Ex 20:1; 21:1). With the covenant established by the oath of the people to the words Moses read to them and confirmed by blood (Ex 24:6-8), God informed Moses of his plan to provide a written summary Himself on stony tablets (Ex 24:12). While the law is a covenant, Paul does not refer to it as a covenant (though inferred in Gal 4:21-31); however, it is described as such in Hebrews (Heb 8:7, 9; 9:1, 15, 18). This “Book of the Law” is synonymously called the law of the Lord (2 Ch 31:3; Neh 9:3; Ps 19:7) and the law of Moses (Josh 8:30-35; Dan 9:11-13; Mal 4:4; Lk 2:22-24), and to depart from its instruction and theology is a sinful transgression of the law (2 Ki 10:31; Rom 4:15; 5:13). It is shortsighted to think of the law as merely dictates and legislation, because it also includes poetry, narratives, and prophecy. Yet to add color to the body of legislation, individual instructions are termed laws, statutes, rules, commandments, ordinances, testimonies, judgments, precepts, words, promises, and decrees, each with its own nuance and semantic range. For the Jews, Torah came to mean not only the biblical texts but the oral traditions as well. “The Torah understood as Pentateuch eventually assumed an exclusive, canonical, and privilege status with rabbinic Judaism, but the interpretive traditions (Oral Torah) continued to be considered part of what is understood to be Torah.”[ii] “The Pentateuch’s emphasis upon torah as the law of the covenant between Israel and the Lord God ensure that it controls the understanding of all the remaining books of the OT.”[iii] While the Oral Torah is not cited in the NT as sola scriptura, the interpretive methodologies are evident in the Gospels and letters of Paul.[iv]

The temporary nature of the law (Gen 49:10; Ps 110:4; Jer 31:31; Dan 9:27) does not mean that no moral standards preceded or follow it (Rom 5:12-14; 1 Jn 2:7-8; Rev 15:3-4); nor does it mean that the OT Scriptures are of no value for those covenanted with God through the blood of Jesus Christ; i.e., under the New Covenant (Matt 22:37-40; Rom 7:7; 1 Cor 9:9; 2 Tim 3:16-17; 2 Pet 3:2). In the NT, “the law” is generally and favorably understood as the law given to Moses from God (Rom 10:5; Heb 9:19); however, by its own merits was unable to bring complete and absolute justification to any soul (Act 13:39; Rom 3:19-20, 28; Gal 2:16, 21; 3:10-11, 13, 21; Heb 7:19; 9:9, 13; 10:1-4). Paul’s use of the word “law” (Gk. nomos) displays a wider range of meaning but with regard to the law of Moses, he conveys a tension between respect for the authority of the law [Scriptures] (Rom 3:31; 7:7, 22-25; 13:8-9; 1 Cor 10:6, 11; 2 Tim 2:14-15; 3:14-17) and its limitations in view of Christ’s advent (Rom 6:14; 7:1-6; 8:2-3; 2 Cor 3:6-9; Eph 2:15). More importantly, the law (as well as the other prophetic, historic, and poetic Scriptures) conveys previews and prefigurements of the forthcoming Messiah (e.g., Gen 3:15; 5:29; 14:18-20; 37:1-3; 49:10; Num 21:4-9; Deut 18:15-19; cf. Matt 5:17-18; Lk 24:44-47; Act 28:23; Rom 3:21; Heb 1:1-2;). As a result of this new understanding, Christians generally categorize the commandments of the law as either moral or ceremonial,[v] but maintain differences of opinion about the implications of this, such as whether “the law” remains binding on Christians (Jn 1:17; Acts 15:5-11; Gal 2:19; 4:1-7; Eph 2:14; 7:12). “It is possible to say that in some respects the Christian is free from the law of God… There is another sense, however, in which the Christian is not free from the law.”[vi] “Nevertheless, the law cannot do anything more than remind us of our duty. Only the gospel promises can move us to grateful obedience.”[vii] “The true believer in Christ in this dispensation is not under the law as a paidogogos or taskmaster, but is a son of God under grace.”[viii] “We have already stressed that every commandment in the Old Testament does still apply in some way to Christians.”[ix] “Christians are freed from the law as the covenant to which they are obligated.”[x] “The beginning and ending of the law covenant has nothing to do with the source or endurance of the ethical standards that reveal God’s unchanging character.”[xi] See Mosaic Law. See Continuity/Discontinuity.

Biblical scholars recognize that Paul’s discussion of the law can appear contradictory at times or simply difficult to understand. It is reasonable then to expect that as we try to formulate our own understanding of the topic, we may not be as lucid and perspicacious as we would hope. This theological tension regarding the law (Torah) is the backdrop for the connotation theologians assign to it—whether it is an instrument of grace or opposed to grace, whether it advances the gospel or negates the gospel, whether we are to obey it or not, and whether it is partially or entirely rendered inoperative for the church. The two views do not need to be odds with one another. Christians should endeavor to be specific in their use of the term “law” by clarifying what they mean and/or what they don’t mean. For example, here is a recent statement: “The law reveals to us that sin is not merely an external matter but an inner reality, helping us see that we are far more depraved than we would like to imagine.”[xii] The author makes it plain earlier that he is referring to the “moral law,” so it would be a mistake to interpret his use of the word “law” as referring to the Pentateuch or the law-covenant with Israel; the Ten Commandments or the OT in general. Therefore, it is imperative to understand the range of definitions for a particular word and to choose (or use) the best one depending on the context. Also, the alternate terms mentioned above may have some overlap of meaning, but they are not synonyms. And even synonyms can have subtle differences of meaning. “Often the exact point and pith of a passage will be missed by failing to make the proper discrimination between synonymous expressions.”[xiii] Our mental picture of “the law” is usually Moses holding the Ten Commandments, but this is inadequate when the full range of the term is understood. “The law” is best envisioned as a covenant agreement between God and the Israelites (with their children and Gentile converts). See the following illustrations.

Three Meanings of Law Expanded

With regard to Israel, disobedience to the law (meaning the laws of the covenant) brought her under condemnation and judgment regardless whether the specific law was moral (Ex 23:1-9; Hos 4:1-2) or ceremonial (Lev 26:43; 2 Chr 36:21; Jer 25:12). Thus, failing to observe even one commandment of the law made one a law-breaker (Rom 2:25; Gal 3:10; Jas 2:10). Commenting on Galatians 3:10 and Paul’s quote of Deut 27:26, Silva notes the link between “works” (ergo) and “to do” (poieō), and suggests that Paul is saying that “works of law and faith are opposing principles with regard to the reception of the Abrahamic promise.”[xiv] From the Jewish perspective of the law, “God ‘does’ the Sabbath, and man ‘does’ the sanctuary…Man is not saved by what he believes, but by what he does.”[xv] In this sense, Paul contrasts law and grace (Rom 6:14), the former as a covenant that granted life only on condition of perfect obedience—the implication of which is that the law condemned those who were participants in it—and grace as the benefit of having believed the gospel of Christ—who’s righteousness becomes our own by imputation. “Owen clearly saw that there was grace in ‘the law’ when ‘law’ is understood as the Old Testament Scriptures but there was no grace in ‘the law’ when it is viewed as the terms of the Old Covenant.”[xvi] The author of Hebrews describes the scenario of Israel facing the promised land as a presentation of the gospel because it required faith to enter into it (Heb 4:22). Paul sees Christ as graciously leading and feeding Israel in the wilderness, but rejected for idols (I Cor 10:1-7). And Jesus explained that He was the hope of sinners by His own death just as Israelites found healing when they confessed their sin and gazed upon the bronze serpent in faith (Jn 3:14-15; Num 21:7-9). But all of these examples of personal and eternal redemption are typological interpretations of the OT, previously obscured by the Lord God (Lk 10:21-24; 2 Cor 4:3-6; Eph 3:8-9; Col 1:26).

During Christ’s public ministry, He revealed the true character and intention of the law [Mosaic covenant][xvii] and just prior to His crucifixion, He instituted in its place a new covenant (Matt 26:26-28). None of the OT covenants after Adam’s fall were called “new covenants.” A new covenant would supplant a preceding covenant, unless the “new” were a mere addendum or amendment.[xviii] The author of Hebrews rationally concluded, “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete” (Heb 8:13). Consider this: the temporary nature of the law [i.e., the “first” or “old” covenant in Heb 8:7, 13] and the specificity of the law [i.e., “with them” in Ex 6:4; 19:3-6; Eze 37:26-28; Heb 8:8] disallow any thought that the law (meaning the entire covenant God made with Israel) is of universal and continuing obligation. And if the whole law-covenant was made with Israel, then Israel was obligated to obey it in all its parts (Gal 5:3). This is how the Jews understood it; that is, the [Mosaic] law is/was for the Jews. Of course, the law allowed for the conversion of Gentiles—males were to be circumcised (Ex 12:48-49)—so the law was not limited to the physical descendants of Jacob. But even then, the basis for this inclusion of the Gentiles was in the promise to Abraham prior to the giving of the law [the law-covenant with Israel] (Gal 3:6-9). This is why the early church (Christ-believing Jews) had a difficult time with Gentiles converting to Christianity (Act 21:20-25; Gal 2:12). It would seem that if the new covenant were merely another covenant in the progression of previous ones, then Gentiles should be circumcised and “keep the law” (v. 24). But this was not required of them because the law [Mosaic covenant] was replaced with a new covenant that included both Jew and Gentile as equals, based on faith in Christ (Rom 1:16; 4:11-12; Gal 3:28; Eph 1:10-14; Col 3:11). Circumcision was the outward sign of belief in God’s promise to bless many people through the Seed of Abraham, but it was only required until that Seed should come. Now that Jesus Christ has come, ritual laws are now viewed as useless (Gal 4:9-11; 5:6), and this would include the Sabbath.

From the perspective of the New Covenant, a specific narrative (Gen 18:12; cf. 1 Pet 3:6; Num 16; cf. Jude 11), maxim (Prov 3:34; cf. Jas 4:6), or commandment (Lev 19:11-18; cf. Gal 5:14) within the law may have contemporary ethical application, but this does not make the whole law [the covenant with Israel] a universal legal system. Though there are multiple covenants mentioned in the OT, the emphasis from the perspective of the NT is the distinction between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant. They are not equal, yet care must be taken in clarifying the relationship between them. See chart under Continuity/Discontinuity. See Covenant.

While the Lord God may replace one covenant with another, yet He remains as holy as He was from the beginning. Since humankind is made in His glorious image, each person’s life is measured by and held accountable to God’s immutable standard of holiness, which is revealed in the law [of Moses, both moral and ritual laws; of the Pentateuch; of the OT in general, by expression of His will in commands and actions] and now in the person of Jesus Christ (Ps 98:9; Acts 17:32; 2 Tim 4:1). So there is a consistent standard of holiness that we should expect to exist in both covenants, which we classify as “moral law.” Paul mentions “the righteous requirements of the law” (Rom 2:26; cf. Isa 51:6); it is to this law that Paul commands both Jew and Gentile to live by (Rom 2:12-15; 13:8-10; 1 Cor 7:19; 9:9; Gal 5:13-14), while enlarged upon by the example of Christ or in relation to Christ (1 Cor 6:15-20; Eph 5:25; 6:1-4; Phil 1:27; 2:5; 1 Pet 2:18-21). Kelly illustrates this with the Constitution of the United States. “The United States was no longer subject in any respect to the laws of Britain. They had a completely new law that applied only to them, even though this new law contained elements common to Britain’s law.”[xix] See Moral Law.


[i] Properly translated, torah means “instruction” or “guidance.” Clements, Ronald E. “Law, Command, Commandment, Ordinance, Statute” in The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible, p. 285.
[ii] Najman, Hindy. “Torah and Tradition” in The Eerdman’s Dictionary of Early Judaism, p. 1317.
[iii] Clements, Ronald E. p. 289.
[iv] Daube, David. The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism.
[v] Some also add “civil” laws, referring to commandments respecting the government of Israel.
[vi] Berkhof, L. Systematic Theology, p. 613-614.
[vii] Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith, p. 680.
[viii] DeHaan, M. R. Law or Grace, p. 97.
[ix] Blomberg, Craig. “The Sabbath As Fulfilled in Christ” in Five Views on the Sabbath, p. 348.
[x] Blomberg, Craig. “The Sabbath As Fulfilled in Christ” in Five Views on the Sabbath, p. 329.
[xi] Reisinger, John G. Tablets of Stone, p. 105.
[xii] Ibid.
[xiii] Terry, Milton S., Biblical Hermeneutics, Zondervan (1969), p. 191.
[xiv] Silva, Moisés. “Galatians” in Commentary on the NT Use of the OT, p. 804.
[xv] Bakon, Shimon. “Creation, Tabernacle and Sabbath” in The Jewish Bible Quartlerly (Vol. 25:2), p. 84.
[xvi] Reisinger, John G. Tablets of Stone, p. 45.
[xvii] Briefly, Jesus’s references to the law involve what we call moral [marital faithfulness (Matt 19:4-6), honesty (Matt 5:33-37)], ceremonial [cleanliness (Matt 8:1-4); proper attitude in rendering worship (Matt 5:23), holy day observance (Matt 26:17-20)], and civil laws [Temple tax (Matt 17:24-27)]. He clarified the meaning of laws with respect to traditions that interfered with true obedience (Matt 15:1-20; 19:1-10). He also discussed historical events (Matt 12:3-4) and theological principles (Matt 22:22-33, 34-40). He heightened the moral excellence of the law against our tendency to explain away or make excuses for our substandard approach to obedience (Matt 5:43-48). He identified Himself as the fulfillment of the law (Matt 11:28-30; 12:6), both in His perfect obedience to it even to His death (keeping the Passover and holding no malice in His heart) and in the realization of the prophetic and typological referents to Himself [Jonah (Matt 12:40); Solomon (Matt 12:42); David (Matt 22:41-46). And He predicted the fall of the Temple (Matt 24:1-2) and the end of the law-covenant (Matt 26:26-29).
[xviii] The new covenant is not merely a restatement of the old covenant with the ceremonial laws removed.
[xix] Kelly, Russell Earl. “Who Changed the Sabbath” in Proclamation! Vol. 18, No. 1. (Spring 2017) p. 10. Also Reisinger, Tablets of Stone, p. 123-124.

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3 Comments

  1. Manfred says:

    Sometimes the hardest discussion is the one wherein a party doesn’t recognize the ambiguity of the word “law.” Law and covenant are closely tied together, hence Hebrews tells us that with the new priesthood of the New Covenant a change in law was required.

  2. One of my favorite verses (Heb 7:12). I like to ask the question: “What came first, the law or the priesthood?” Hebrew 7:11 states that under the priesthood of Aaron (the Levites) the law was given to Israel. The change of the priesthood was RADICAL, for Moses spoke nothing of it (though it was typified in the history of the Pentateuch). “For the priesthood being changed, out of necessity a change of Law occurs also” (Heb 7:12, Lavendar). In other words, for the prophecy of Jeremiah to be fulfilled, the Aaronic priesthood must be put away before the new covenant can be enacted. And laying aside the priesthood means laying aside the covenant that was administered under it. This calls into question the idea of a superior “covenant of grace” with two covenantal administrations under it: one managed by the priesthood of Aaron and one by the priesthood of Jesus. It places the two priesthoods on equal footing, but Hebrews is clear: the law, the priesthood, and the covenant made no one perfect.

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