The Old Testament Laws could be understood in two main categories - moral laws and ceremonial laws. Since God commanded both, it was required that the Jewish people follow them with fervor and strict obedience. Any who would seek to do away with the laws that God had ordained were going against the very commands of God. It is important to understand this, especially when confronted by someone who is incredibly dismissive of the Old Testament Law as if it was arbitrary and optional. Historically speaking, disobedience to God’s laws, both ceremonial and moral, often resulted in punishment by God.
So what was the difference between ceremonial and moral laws? Although the line between the two was not a perfectly distinct one, there are many clear divisions. The most encompassing way to see the separation is to realize that the moral law is a law that deals with universal justice for all people, while the ceremonial laws were a temporary set of laws meant to create a distinction between God’s chosen people and those around them and most importantly, to point the chosen people of God to their coming Messiah and Savior, Jesus.
The ceremonial laws would include circumcision, special dietary and clothing restrictions, sacrifice of animals, ceremonial feasts, to name a few. These laws helped to paint a picture of the sacrifice that Jesus would eventually make on the behalf of sinful mankind. This is what Paul would argue in Galatians 3:24 was a “schoolmaster” to bring people to Christ. He wrote further in Colossians 2:16-17 that these things were simply a shadow of the real substance, Christ. These ceremonial laws also helped to make the Jews a very distinct people. Their clothing and eating signified a separation and a physical purity to remind them that they were to be spiritually pure.
The moral laws differed from the ceremonial laws in that their application was for all peoples everywhere and described universal justice for all people. These moral laws are most plainly demonstrated in the laws about murder, sexuality, and property, and are most often referenced as they appear in the Ten Commandments (although there are certainly more than ten). The moral law dealt with the continuing relationship that mankind as a whole should have with God and with one another. Jesus summed up the moral law in Matthew 22 by saying, “Love God and love everyone else.”
In Galatians 5:13, Paul argues that while the ceremonial laws are not binding any longer, there still is an obligation to the moral law of God. He says, “You have been freed, but don’t use your freedom to commit sin (an occasion to the flesh). Rather, by love serve one another.” Here Paul closes the door on the dietary, and clothing, and sacrificial laws, but leaves the heart command of the moral law fully intact, namely, “love others.”
Paul was setting a boundary on the abolition of the Old Testament law. Lest someone would come along and accuse Paul of saying “throw out the whole law,” Paul pressed on to say, “Don’t violate the moral law of God.” Paul was not allowing for believers to sin, he was warning them that if they were truly obeying the Spirit of God, then they would strive to not commit sin.
Food For Thought: What is the difference between ceremonial and moral law? Should we still follow the Old Testament law?