Last week we looked at Genesis 20 and the Ten Commandments. In that study, we looked at the different meanings of the Law and specifically at the fact that the Moral Law of God is for all people for all time and is not put away because of Christ and the New Covenant. In the power of Christ at work in us, may we faithfully aim in all we do to obey the Moral Law of God, and in doing so, honor Him and grow in Christ.
Today, I want to look at the law given in the Old Covenant that is put away because of Christ and the New Covenant, or because it was determined by God to only be for a particular people, a particular purpose, and a particular time. We see examples of this in our reading in Exodus 21 and on. These laws lead us right into our definition of Positive Law.
Positive Law: Law and commands based on the will of God for a particular people, a particular purpose, and a particular time.
Our study today on Positive Law might not seem to be super applicable to your daily life, but I want to plead with you to reconsider, as it will help you rightly study God’s word. Improvements to help us rightly divide the word of God are so needed, as we often are guilty of reading God’s word and misunderstanding or misapplying what it is saying. We cannot afford to do this.
Our study today is also important because if you’ve grown up in the church, you’ve likely been told that we don’t follow all of the commands we see in the Bible because they don’t apply to us in the here and now. And, generally speaking, this is true, but we need to be very careful in this. We need an informed way of making determinations about what applies to us here and now and what does not. There are many ill-informed Christians with wrong understandings about these things, living lives in disobedience to standing law. And on the other hand, there are ill-informed people who are adding non-biblical law to people, doing exactly what the Pharisees did. We must avoid these two serious errors.
As our definition states, Positive Law is law and commands based on the will of God for a particular people, a particular purpose, and a particular time. What this means is there are commands that God has given throughout human history that do not apply to everyone.
So, we have Universal Moral Law standing to all peoples at all times, and then there are these additional, specific commands that God saw fit to give differently in different times.
And this distinction leads us to the very important reality of how law looked in the Old Covenant in comparison to the New Covenant. This is incredibly important. If you’re going to have any chance to understand your Bible correctly when reading it, you need to know this.
In addition to the Universal Moral Law, God sees fit to give other Positive Laws to particular people, for a particular purpose, for a particular time.
Here are a few examples of this:
Adam: God told Adam and Eve to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This was a specific law they were required to obey. It was Positive Law God gave to Adam and Eve that was in addition to the Universal Moral Law that was written on their hearts.
Noah and the ark: God issued a direct command to Noah to build the ark. If Noah were to have disobeyed that command, then it would have been sin, so it was a law unto him. But that command was not for every person at all times, or even for every person living at that time. The law Noah was required to follow was Positive Law. It was for him, at that time, in that place.
Abraham: God told Abraham that Abraham and his offspring after him, every male among them in the Old Covenant, was to be circumcised. It was Positive Law God given through Abraham that was in addition to the Universal Moral Law that was written on their hearts. That Positive Law command was not required before then, and as you hopefully know, it is not a requirement in the New Covenant that we are in.
And where the most confusion in these two kinds of law really exists in is regard to certain commands given primarily in Moses’ time in the Old Covenant. There were laws given in the Mosaic Covenant that were specific to only those who were wanting to be under the Old Covenant that God had with people (this was primarily the Israelites in that time).
These Positive Laws are sometimes called ceremonial laws and civil (or judicial) laws. God gave these laws because these people were to live in a theocratic state. God gave these Positive Laws because by obeying them, they would have honored the requirements of the covenant they were under and experienced the best way of living within that covenant.
Let’s look briefly at a few examples of these Positive Laws that existed under that Old Covenant. But before we do, let me encourage you not to scoff at these things. We’ve adapted too much of a mindset of our modern times that looks back on these things and thinks they are ludicrous. While we can and should look back and acknowledge that they were specific and difficult laws and be thankful that they are now abrogated (or abolished) as given, we, at the same time, need to realize that these were good commands for these people, from our perfect God. At that time, it was wise and good for God to issue these Positive Laws, these ceremonial laws and civil laws.
The Positive Law in the Mosaic Covenant also served to display important things about the nature and character of God. For example, they displayed God’s eternal hatred for sin in a unique and powerful way. The other critical thing they displayed is the need for our perfect Messiah. The Positive Laws foretold of the perfect sacrifice to come, namely Jesus. They foretold of the perfect obedience required by God, accomplished only in Jesus. They functioned as a wise and powerful way for God to display the need for Jesus Christ.
So, let’s see just a few of these Positive Laws:
In the Old Covenant, they were commanded specifically not to eat certain things, like pork and certain kinds of sea life:
Leviticus 11:7-8 And the pig, because it parts the hoof and is cloven-footed but does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. You shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall not touch their carcasses; they are unclean to you.
Leviticus 11:10-11 But anything in the seas or the rivers that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is detestable to you. You shall regard them as detestable; you shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall detest their carcasses.
Another example would be in the Old Covenant, they were restricted from wearing certain types of clothes:
Deuteronomy 22:11 You shall not wear cloth of wool and linen mixed together.
That’s just a few of many, many examples for Old Covenant Positive Law.
What we need to understand is those Positive Laws do not apply any longer because the Old Covenant has been abrogated (or abolished), and Jesus established a New Covenant with its own Positive Laws for us to follow. But as I said, we need to be very careful in determining Universal Moral Law from Positive Law in the Old Testament. Often, these two kinds of laws are mixed together in the same section of Scripture. We don’t make distinctions of what we don’t follow now based on our preferences or feelings. We have to make the distinctions very carefully, using a right understating of Universal Moral Law, using the New Testament, as well as a having a solid understanding of Covenant Theology and proper hermeneutics. We must always remember that the Universal Moral Law applies no matter what. So, laws preventing idolatry, coveting, sexual immorality, etc. still apply to us.
And finally, we have a New Testament example of Positive law. This is baptism. Those living before the New Covenant was formally established were not commanded to be baptized. The baptism command in the New Testament is a New Covenant reality that applies to believers living after the New Covenant was formally established. That means it is Positive Law for us in the here and now. If we claim to be Christians in 2018 for example, then we should obey the command to be baptized.
I hope this helps you see the two main types of law throughout human history: eternal Universal Moral Law and changeable Positive Law.
Let's look at another important point about “law” in the Bible.
Often in the text, we see the moral law of God intermingled with Positive Law or extra information. When this is the case, this added Positive Law or extra information can be called Supplementary Data.
As we're seeing in this lesson today, what we need to understand is that the portions of the passages that contain the Universal Moral Law are communicating eternal moral law. But the portions of these passages that are Supplementary Data can and often do change.
And this is very important as to the Ten Commandments and understanding the Old Covenant.
Here is an example of this in the Old Covenant:
Leviticus 20:13 If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.
In that passage it is taught explicitly that homosexuality is prohibited. It was prohibited then in the Old Covenant when this was given, but it was also prohibited before and after that covenant as well. This is the case because the prohibition of same sex relations is an expression of the prohibition of sexual immorality that exists within the Universal Moral Law.
But there is Supplementary Data in this verse as well; let's look at that. It said, “they shall surely be put to death.”
Now, that command to put them to death was law from God, but it was Positive Law under the Old Covenant. That is not the command on us today in the New Covenant. In the New Covenant, we are commanded to deal with sin in professing Christians not by putting people to death, but by other means of accountability.
Therefore, what we can see in this example is that this verse is still an important and helpful revelation of God's moral law over mankind about sexual relations. It has a layer of the Universal Moral Law (namely, same-sex relations are prohibited) which is still true today, but the Positive Law (requiring putting these law-breakers to death) is not something we should or can obey today.
That’s one relevant example. I also said this Supplementary Data point is important for the Ten Commandments, so let's look at that briefly as well.
The Universal Moral Law that is summarized in the Ten Commandments is accompanied by Supplementary Data. The Supplementary Data can help enforce and inform the Universal Moral Law, but is not a part of the Universal Moral Law itself. This is important. Let me show you.
Look at the 10th commandment in Exodus 20:17.
The unchanging Moral Law is “You shall not covet.” That's it: “You shall not covet.”
Then the Supplementary Data is communicated; it says, “your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey …”
Now, that data helps inform the moral command of, “You shall not covet.”
Stating that coveting an ox is prohibited is true and important, but it’s supplemental. The list of things not to covet is certainly not meant to be all-inclusive. For example, a BMW is not mentioned there, so does that mean we can covet one of those? An angel’s delegated, unique power is not mentioned there; does that mean they could covet that? No, of course not. The Universal Moral Law is, “You shall not covet.” The other information is supplemental and informative in this case.
Let's now look at an example from the Ten Commandments where the Supplementary Data actually is explicitly changed in the New Covenant. This is interesting. Look at the 5th commandment in Exodus 20:12. It says, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”
Notice it says “that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” Hopefully by now you're able to see that the unchanging Moral Law expressed in this command is, “Honor your father and your mother.”
And that the Supplementary Data is “that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”
Let's look at the New Testament now. In Ephesians, Paul commands children to obey their parents, repeating this commandment expressed in the Old Covenant. But with God inspiring him, Paul changes the Supplementary Data. He says in Ephesians 6:3, “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”
This may seem like the same thing said in Exodus, but it’s not.
Let’s look closely at it to see this. First, we can see the portion that says “that the Lord your God is giving you” is not restated.
And second, in Ephesians, the “land” Paul is talking about is different than the “land” that Exodus was talking about.
In other Bible translations like the NASB, NIV, and KJV, they do a better job perhaps with the translation to show this change. They say more explicitly in Ephesians 6:3 “so that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth” (NASB).
This change in Supplementary Data added to this moral command about honoring parents is the case because in the Old Covenant the people under that covenant were promised by God a specific portion of land, and that land is what is spoken of by that mention in Exodus. But in the New Covenant when Christ established His Kingdom, the land the Israelites sought was made common. The borders of this old Promised Land were made insignificant because Christ said His Kingdom is “not of this world.” What that means is Paul is telling us by this revised Supplementary Data that the flourishing promised in this honor your parents command no longer had to do with that specific land location; instead, the flourishing is possible for all who obey this command anywhere throughout the land, namely anywhere throughout the earth.
This is a very helpful example to see the point I’m trying to show you. In the Ten Commandments, the Universal Moral Law is communicated in summary form, and there is changeable Supplementary Data given with it. And as I said before, we cannot carelessly make incorrect or flippant distinctions; rather, we need to be very careful in reading and understanding our Bible.
Our final technical point about “law” is something called General Equity.
General Equity basically means “principle.”
I want to hit on this point because it’s also important as to how we read our Bible and look at Positive Laws that don’t apply to us now the same way.
The idea is that even though certain Positive Laws are not standing today, there is General Equity, or principles, in the laws that still help us today. We see the inspired writers of the Epistles put this on display in their letters, and we can see the godly value of it in our own reading of abrogated Positive Law.
Two quick examples:
The Apostle Paul quotes Deuteronomy 25:4 when he is teaching in 1 Timothy 5 that it is right and good to pay godly pastors and elders for the work they do for the local church. The Positive Law command in Deuteronomy 25:4 is, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.” This original command was requiring people to adequately take care of the livestock. It had nothing to do with taking care of humans when it was given in the Old Testament. But when Paul uses that verse, he uses the principle (or General Equity) in it. He’s saying, “The principle from this old command about livestock for the Old Covenant people has real application and value for us today.”
Specifically, authoritatively, the Apostle applies the General Equity to command us to honor godly pastors and elders, saying we must take care of their needs; they deserve to be paid for their ministry efforts. Therefore, the command is not binding in the same way it was given, but the principle in it is of real use to us today; the principle in it is made binding to us today by Paul in a new way. The Apostles had God-given authority and inspiration to take old Positive Laws and make a new Positive Law or use the principle from the law to show us something we are required to obey in a new way. We see this in several places in the New Testament.
Another example of this General Equity hermeneutic would be found here:
Deuteronomy 22:8 “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet [railing/fence] for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.”
In that time, the roof of a dwelling was made flat, and people would spend time on the roof. God gave this specific command to display the value of human life. The required railing would help prevent a deathly fall and other consequences from that fall.
Now, since the Old Covenant has been abrogated, laws like this that are not part of the Universal Moral Law are not applicable to us the way they were given in the Old Covenant. Meaning, if you have a flat roof or a balcony, you are not technically in sin if you don’t have the exact railing they were required to have. But for Old Covenant people, without that exact railing, they would have been disobeying a direct command of God.
So, is there still General Equity in the command that helps us today in the New Covenant? Yes, definitely. The principle about valuing human life is very important and relevant. We know we have moral obligation to value and protect human life, and we can see that principle in the roof/railing command in Deuteronomy.
Therefore, all that is to say what Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is true: “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.”
All of Scripture, even the Positive Laws that don’t apply to us the same way, have God-given value for our understanding and life. And we have seen two ways this is the case: The Old Covenant Positive Law displays important revelations about God and principles for us to be aware of. We do not follow or require anyone to follow the abrogated Positive Law as it was given. That is not what I am saying. Instead, we benefit by understanding it correctly in light of God and the New Covenant. This has incredible value. All of our Bible has incredible value for us.
May God use it to grow us, sanctify us, and cause us to worship Him all the more. I know this lesson was long, but I pray the Lord uses these tools to help your Bible study and application. May we honor and obey Him in all we do!