One of the more common questions I receive relates to the ceremonial commands in the Mosaic Law. People will ask, “Why did Israel have all those weird rules in the Old Testament?”
The simple answer is so Israel could be a holy people. Now the longer answer…
The Mosaic Law contains 613 commands divided into two categories:
- The moral – or “common sense” – commands. You shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, or lie. These commands are based on God’s holy nature. God doesn’t change, so these commands are unchanging as well and carried into the New Testament. They are part of the Law of Christ and are still binding for Christians today.
- The ceremonial commands are not obvious or common sense:
- Killing a perfectly good animal for a sacrifice. All the sacrifices and offerings are ceremonial commands.
- The feasts and festivals.
- Abstaining from certain foods, such as pork and rabbit.
- Farming a certain way.
- Wearing – or not wearing –clothes a certain way, including not mixing certain fabrics together.
The purpose of the ceremonial commands causes the most confusion. Nobody wonders why God told Israel not to murder, commit adultery, steal, or lie. But people wonder why Israel wasn’t supposed to eat certain foods or combine certain fabrics.
The ceremonial commands deal with holiness, not morality.
We tend to think holy means good, but that’s what righteous means. Holy means set apart. This is the only way it makes sense seeing inanimate or lifeless objects identified as holy. Here are two examples:
- In Exodus 3:5 God told Moses he was, “standing on holy ground.” Was that ground good or moral, and the rest of the ground was immoral or evil? No, but that ground was occupied – or set apart for God’s use – making it holy, while the rest of the ground was not.
- If there were two identical vessels, but one was used in the temple and one was not, the one in the temple would be holy because it was set apart for God’s use. The other vessel wasn’t sinful, immoral, or evil, but it was ordinary or common.
The purpose of the ceremonial commands makes sense considering God’s desire for Israel to be a holy nation (Exo 19:6; Deut 7:6). The moral commands were not enough to set Israel apart or distinguish them from other nations, because even pagans recognize people shouldn’t murder, commit adultery, steal, or lie.
Enter the ceremonial commands, which didn’t address morality, but they allowed Israel to look and act differently than the nations around them.
The ceremonial commands made Israel holy in the Old Testament…
For from the top of the rocks I see [Israel],
And from the hills I behold [Israel];
There! A people dwelling alone,
Not reckoning itself among the nations (Num 23:9).
When Balaam spoke this oracle, he noticed the separateness of the nation.
Haman said to King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from all other people’s, and they do not keep the king’s laws.” (Est 3:8).
The Mosaic Law allowed Israel to look and act differently than those following the Persians’ laws.
This is evident in the New Testament…
They arrested Paul and Silas and “brought them to the magistrates, and said, ‘These men, being Jews, exceedingly trouble our city; and they teach customs which are not lawful for us, being Romans, to receive or observe’” (Acts 16:20-21).
The customs refers to ceremonial commands in the Law. Paul and Silas weren’t teaching these portions of the Law themselves, but because they were Jews it was easy to bring this accusation against them. The Jews followed customs that were different than Rome’s.
The Jews were supposed to be holy, and the ceremonial commands in the Law were wonderful in terms of accomplishing that holiness.
Do you have any questions about the Law, specifically the ceremonial portions? Can you see why the moral commands were important, and the ceremonial commands? Share any thoughts or questions below!