We can extend our understanding of positive commands for distinct incidents to all aspects of the Old Testament law which had only temporal application. This category accounts for the vast bulk of Old Testament laws which are no longer in effect. It includes the majority of what are traditionally called “ceremonial” laws, as well as others.
The primary places we hear stark statements of discontinuity are in the books of Galatians and Hebrews. When properly understood, both give us a similar answer: while speaking in stark and absolute terms, a close examination reveals that each is speaking of only a portion of the law as being discontinued—namely, the types and shadows of the Old Testament priesthood, temple, and sacrificial system. Let us look at the instances in these two books.
Galatians and “the weak and beggarly elements”
In the third chapter of Galatians, the word “law” appears 15 times in only 29 verses, and almost every time it appears in a negative light. Here is a representative sample:
Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith (Gal. 3:21–26).
A couple things stand out here: first, there are no categories of law being discussed here, just “the law.” At this point, we don’t know if Paul is speaking of the whole law as a single unit or only part of it. We will have to deduce this point from other passages. Second, Paul is clearly talking about a cessation of “the law” in these passages. “The law” was an imprisonment—a custodianship akin to slavery (see Gal. 4:1–7)—that lasted only until Christ came.
With no further understanding, it would be easy to conclude from this that the entire law—“the law”—was abrogated when Christ came. That which Paul called a “schoolmaster to lead us to Christ” included the entirety of Old Testament law, and it is now null and void.
The problem with this view is that it would create a contradiction with the many passages we have already seen. The law is holy, just, and good. Paul appeals to the lawful use of the law, and the New Testament writers appeal to various parts of Mosaic law in order to support their arguments for Christian ethics. Jesus Himself upheld all the law and the prophets via the law of love, and ordered His disciples to keep His commandments. Further, we have seen that the New Covenant itself involves God writing His laws on our hearts! So how could Paul here be arguing that the entirety of the Law is abrogated?
He is not. He is making a more nuanced point that becomes clear when you study the context of the letter. In Galatians 4:3, Paul refers to the time under “the law” as “when we . . . were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.” In verse nine, he chides the Galatians, saying, “How can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” The KJV memorably translates the phrase “the weak and beggarly elements of the world.” Was Paul speaking of the whole law here—including the Ten Commandments, civil laws, etc.? The very next verse begins to illuminate the issue: Paul’s condemnation is directed against those who “observe days and months and seasons and years!” (4:10).
It appears that Paul is concentrating on what have been traditionally called the “ceremonial” aspects of the law. Several of the Galatians had been deceived into believing they had to follow feast days, Sabbaths, and especially circumcision in order to be faithful Christians. This was seeking salvation through works, not faith. Thus it is clear that by condemning “the law” here, Paul is referring only to two things: 1) any attempt to attain salvation through any works of the law, and 2) those who require submission to certain ceremonial aspects of the law.
This issue becomes clearer in two places. First, in Galatian 5, Paul’s discussion of “the law” turns specifically to circumcision:
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love (Gal. 5:1–6).
This type of behavior is where the term Judaizing comes from. It is actually used explicitly in the Greek by Paul in Galatians 2:14, when he condemns the Jewish faction among the Galatians for trying to force Gentiles to “live like Jews” (Ioudaizein). From the discussion in Galatians 4–5, it appears he had in mind circumcision primarily and perhaps following the feast days and calendar as well.
This view receives further support when we see Paul making a similar argument with the same language in Colossians 2. He argues that even the uncircumcised believers have been spiritually circumcised in Christ, and that Christ has removed the “legal demands” against us by nailing them to His cross (Col. 2:8–15). Then Paul says,
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. . . . If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits [principles] of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh (Col. 2:16–23).
Paul is referring here to the same feasts and Sabbaths. In Galatians he called them “weak and beggarly elements.” Here he just calls them “elements” or “elemental principles” which serve only “self-made religion.”
Given that Paul and other New Testament writers elsewhere uphold much of Old Testament law in very strong terms, it is clear that he is concerned here with only certain aspects of it which include ceremonial rites and outward marks of separation, and which some teachers at the time believed were still necessary in order to be saved.
By dismissing “the law” in Galatians, therefore, Paul is not saying that none of the law retains any validity. If this were the case he would be promoting “faith” at the expense of murder, theft, rape, arson, covetousness, and every other moral and civil transgression, along with the abrogated ceremonial rites like feast days and circumcision. This would be utter nonsense.
It is doubly helpful that Paul, in Colossians, refers to this superseded part of the law as “shadows of things to come.” It is here that we find a strong confirmatory link in the book of Hebrews, and an important doctrine.
Hebrews and the “shadows”
Colossians and Galatians have already given us an important category by which to think in confirming that some parts (but not all) of the law are weak and beggarly “elements.” Colossians helps us further by labeling these elements as mere “shadows” of things to come. This book of Hebrews uses the same language and opens the concepts for us further. The relevant passages are Hebrews 8:5 and 10:1. Let us examine them along with their meaning.
Hebrews 8:5 reads,
They [the Old Covenant priests] serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.”
The letter reiterates this concept in chapter 10:
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near (Heb. 10:1).
These passages make it clear enough that the “shadows” refer only to those aspects of the law that pertain to the Old Testament priesthood, temple (or tabernacle), sacrifices, etc.—with no reference to what are normally called the moral or judicial aspects of the law. The distinction appears clearly again in chapter 9 with more focus on the substance:
Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.
These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption (Heb. 9:1–12; emphasis added).
The argument here is the argument of the letter to the Hebrews in general: the New Covenant is superior to the Old. Specifically, it has a superior priest (Christ), superior sacrifice (Christ Himself, the lamb of God, once-for-all), and superior temple (heavenly, not earthly). This section makes clear that these “symbolic” aspects of the law deal only with these things—things including the “earthly place of holiness,” “priests,” “ritual duties,” “food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body.” These are all things Paul previously called out as the mere “elements” of the law (Col. 2:17).
This being the case, we learn that the priesthood, sacrifices, rituals, and temple of the Old Covenant are therefore only “symbolic” (the Greek word here literally translates as “a parable”). The letter argues specifically that these are temporary, being imposed only until the “time of reformation” (9:10). When was this “time of reformation”? The letter indicates that this time had already been inaugurated with Christ, would be finalized once the old temple was no longer standing (9:8), and that this end was very near already then: “And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13).
But what about the rest of the law? As we have already seen, the same passage that says these old elements were obsolete and about to vanish also says, just three verses earlier, that in the New Covenant, God will write his law on our minds and hearts (Heb. 8:10). So, obviously, the entirety of the law did not vanish along with the priesthood, temple, rituals, and other elements. In other words, the rest of the law was not part of the “weak and beggarly elements,” or the “shadow of good things to come.” The rest continues in capacities such as we have seen God prescribe in Hebrews 8:10 and 1 Timothy 1:8–10, as well as the Gospel and epistles of John.
The great question is, still, how do we know where to draw the lines? How do we know which parts of the law pertain to the temporary “shadows” of the law and which parts continue as everlasting moral and judicial standards? We will further answer these questions in the next couple of chapters.
Next section: Biblical Principles of Continuity and Discontinuity