We’re working our way through the One Year Bible together. We are currently in everyone’s favorite time of the One Year: Leviticus.
This morning we are going to look at one of the most surprisingly well-known themes of the Bible – the prohibition against eating shellfish. This law is found in the book of Leviticus and has become famous because of another law in Leviticus relating to sexual practices.
In a 2015 article in the New Yorker, Gregg Easterbrook commented on the connection between these two laws:
When conservative Christians justify opposition to gay relations by citing ancient scripture, by the most amazing coincidence they don’t mention the other stuff there. The ancient passages that denounce same-sex relations also denounce eating shellfish and trimming one’s beard. The Christian who says God forbids homosexuality – then shaves before going out for dinner at Red Lobster – is speaking from both sides of his mouth.
It’s a common argument. If Christian morals regarding sexuality come from the same place that gives moral value to things like shrimp and beards, either Christians are hypocrites or absurd.
A Huffington Post article set out to unveil this hypocrisy in an article entitled 13 Things the Bible Forbids (That you’re probably guilty of doing.)
The list included eating a ham sandwich, getting a tattoo, rounded haircuts, men with injured private parts entering houses of God, gossiping, working on the sabbath and losing your virginity before you get married.
There is a great deal of confusion surrounding the laws in the Old Testament – for believers and unbelievers. What exactly are we bound to follow if we take the Bible seriously?
Two recent authors tackled that question in similar titles: The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs and Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a liberated woman found herself sitting on her roof, covering her head, and calling her husband master.
What are we to do with this confusion?
This morning we will get some much needed clarity by looking at 3 distinct categories within Old Testament laws, 2 bases of those laws and 1 new law which changes everything.
First we need to understand:
3 distinct categories within the Old Testament laws
Christians have long seen distinct categories within the law code of the Old Testament. Augustine delineated moral and symbolic laws. Tertullian wrote about natural and Levitical laws. By the time of the protestant reformation, church confessions described three categories:
Moral, Ceremonial, Judicial.
Moral laws are laws commanding obedience to general moral principles. An example of the moral law is Exodus 20:17
You shall not covet. . .
Ceremonial laws are laws proscribing proper procedures for priestly duties and religious worship. An example of ceremonial laws is in Leviticus 12:3
On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised.
Judicial laws are laws established to bring peace and flourishing to a nation of people. We see an example of judicial law in Exodus 20:16
Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.
The early protestant confessions provide really helpful explanations of the Old Testament Law. The London Baptist Confession of 1689 is one of those.
Now these categories are interesting for Biblical or political studies, but how do they help us answer our question this morning?
This leads us to:
2 Bases of the Old Testament Law.
A study of the Law reveals two types of basis for God’s law. Those can be defined as Divine Nature and Divine Will. Divine nature is the eternal character of God which never changes and can never be violated. Divine will is the particular purpose of God for particular people in space and time. God’s particular purposes are varied and diverse.
Here’s where those categories are helpful to us:
The moral law is based in divine nature – do not lie, do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not love or worship a false God. These are timeless, universal laws rooted in the divine nature of God. Moral laws are always binding to all people, everywhere.
The ceremonial laws, laws regarding beards and shrimp, these are laws that are often rooted only in the divine purpose of God and are not timeless or universal. They are not binding to all people, everywhere.
The important distinction is that the former, moral laws cannot be changed or abrogated without producing a change or revealing an inconsistency in the character of God. Because God is unchanging and perfectly righteous, he cannot say in one instance, you shall not lie and in another, you shall not tell the truth.
Laws of divine purpose are different. Because they are not directly tied to the character of God, it is no problem to change them. God can say you may not eat shellfish and later say, you may eat shellfish with perfect consistency and righteousness.
Grasping these two bases is very natural for us who are parents – we give our young children commands.
Some commands are based on the natural law of righteousness and justice – “son, you must not lie because God is truth and there is no deceit in Him, it’s not right for his children to speak untrue words.”
Other commands are related to our purposes: “don’t eat the chocolate covered pretzels because those are for church this morning,” while the next day saying, “help yourself to the pretzels, they need to be eaten.”
At times we can confuse the two.
There’s an old Jewish story told to illustrate this confusion. A young bride is making a brisket roast for her husband, as he watches he sees her cut off two inches of the end of the roast before putting it in the oven. He asks her why she does it and she replies, “it’s in my Mom’s recipe book.” Several months later the couple visits her parents for a meal, which happens to be brisket. The young husband asks his mother-in-law why her recipe includes wasting two inches of good roast, she replies, “it’s how my mother did it.” At this point the young man is so perplexed that he calls his grandmother-in-law, which is of course realistic, and pleads with her, Grandmother-in-law, please tell me why we must cut off two inches of roast. She replies, to the surprise of everyone, “why, that’s the only way it will fit into my pan”.
In this story, the mother had confused a specific purpose with a natural law.
Knowing the three categories of Law and two bases of Law will be immensely helpful for you in understanding the Old Testament.
But they leave a couple of questions:
1. What in the world was God’s purpose for the laws in Leviticus?
Sometimes there may be a very practical reason. The laws related to homes contaminated by mold is obviously an important law of sanitation. Many see in the laws regarding shellfish and other unclean animals another wise and helpful set of sanitary rules. Today 7th Day Adventists follow the Levitical dietary law as a point of practical wisdom.
Sometimes God has a much larger purpose.
There are two great purposes for the ceremonial laws that are clear in the Scriptures:
The first purpose is to create a new society with a distinct identity as set apart and consecrated to God.
In Exodus and Leviticus the laws are given at a time of national founding. A brand new society is being created. God was forming a new people with a new identity. There’s a word God uses throughout that time to describe that identity: consecrated. You see it in Exodus 22:31
You shall be consecrated to me.
The Hebrew word is Kadash. It means set apart as sacred.
God was giving a law code to his people for the purpose of setting them apart as sacred. We view people as consecrated in our world today. A father looks on his children as different than the rest of the world. All children have worth, but my children are different. They are mine. I expect them to strive for the same values I strive for. I treat them as set apart with me.
A husband views his wife as consecrated, and vice versa. In marriage we are set apart for one another. There is a sacred dedication we expect from one another. Like a father with his children, a husband with his bride, our God with his people expects consecration.
The laws creating categories of clean and unclean created a sense of set-apartness for the new society of Israel.
A second purpose of God for the OT Laws was to prepare the world for his Son.
The moral law convicts us of our sin and guilt and drives us to God for mercy.
The judicial law establishes the reality of his justice and the prospect of judgment for the violation of that justice.
The ceremonial law sets up the sacrificial work of Christ on the cross.
When you understand these purposes, doesn’t the Old Testament gain a ton of clarity? We see that the ceremonial laws and the judicial laws are not universally binding, we see clear purposes of God in giving them to the people of Israel in the Old Testament. But we still have a big question:
2. How do you know which is which? If I was to attempt to live Biblically for a year, which ones would I have to follow?
In the Old Testament God’s plan was to separate a people.
In the New Testament, following the death and resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, God’s plan is to remove separations and bring together all people in unity.
In the Old Testament God was creating a nation which needed a judicial system of laws to create order and promote peace and flourishing. In the New Testament God’s people hold a citizenship in heaven and are scattered throughout the nations where they are instructed to obey the judicial codes of the countries they live in as foreigners.
God’s divine purpose for these laws has been fulfilled.
The moral law, rooted in the unchanging character of God carries into our time.
If you’re struggling to know the difference, look for the explicit affirmation of a law in the New Testament.
Mark 7 is a great example. Jesus clearly sets aside the dietary laws of Leviticus, but also clearly carries forward laws to be seen as eternal.
So we see 3 categories of law and 2 basis for law that are immensely helpful. It clears up all of the confusion we saw in the beginning. I want to say one more thing related to our cultural confusion before we finish with point 3.
We rightly see that there is no objective moral content in things like shellfish and beards. But should we then say the same thing about things like sex?
Another way to ask that is: does sex have meaning?
As Christians we know the answer to that. The NT is clear on that. But outside the church, in the secular world, what happens when you throw out objective moral meaning of not only shellfish and beards, but also human sexuality? What we are doing is throwing out all meaning.
Without a personal, moral God there can be no true meaning. Without a moral God who gives moral laws, there is no moral meaning to shellfish and beards and there is no meaning to things like sex and slavery.
All you can say is that it is. Violence, abuse, love, justice, shrimp, beards – these are just words. They don’t really mean anything.
We’re left with a quote from Lord Voldemort – there is no good or evil, there is only power.
History has shown us that a society based on this kind of foundation is headed for tragic consequences.
We have 3 categories of law, 2 bases for law and now we look to:
1 New Law that changes everything.
The life, death and resurrection of Christ instituted a new law, laid out in Romans 8:2
For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
This draws from a prophecy in the Old Testament.
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.
God’s purpose from the beginning was to transcend the Old Testament laws with one new, glorious law. He would take away the externally binding relationship of the law of sin and death and plant his moral law in our very nature. A day would come when the law would not threaten and accuse us from the outside, but would enter into a remade nature and motivate us from the inside out.
But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
In Christ we are set free from the old system of law. What does it mean to live Biblically in Christ? If I were to attempt this for a year and write a book – what would I have to do?
To live Biblically in the New Covenant of Christ is to live a life consistent with our new nature and the Spirit of God inside us. It is to live a life of honesty, integrity, compassion, mercy and goodness. It is to live a life saturated with meaning. That’s a book I’d like to see written.
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown