Understanding the Law of Moses
Starting with the Greater Bible Context
Before we begin an examination of the specific verses of Leviticus that are interpreted as a teaching against homosexuality, we need to examine the greater context of this passage. The scripture has some specific things to say about how to apply and interpret this context.
Both of the verses in question, and the book in which they reside are a part of the Scripture known as the Law of Moses. While views of what the Law was and is seem to vary often between Bible interpreters; we need to have a firm grasp on what the Scripture says about the Law.
The Scripture treats the entire body of Law as one whole unit…We are never given the option to choose certain laws over others to apply to our lives or to live by.
In an effort to make the Law more palatable, teachers will often divide the law into different sections or types of laws. Then, each Law is categorized and an interpretation of the importance or application of that particular category is promoted. For instance, divisions such as criminal, moral, civil and religious or ceremonial are often suggested. By classifying the individual laws into these divisions, we are then able to determine which laws still apply to us and which ones do not. For instance, we can say that we are not bound by criminal or ceremonial laws but moral laws are universal. This practice seems to make sense. However, when it is examined honestly, we would have to admit that this practice of dividing the laws is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to pick and choose which rules we should live by and which ones we should not. There are obvious groups of laws, some dealing with ceremonies, some dealing with priests, some dealing with dietary laws, some criminal, etc. Still, the Scripture never divides the law by categories that apply and those that do not. The Scripture treats the entire body of Law as one whole unit. It is one unit that either applies or does not apply. We are never given the option to choose certain laws over others to apply to our lives or to live by.
Since the Law is treated as a unit, if we have broken one law, we have broken the entire Law. We do not get to pick lesser and greater evils. We do not get to consider that some are o-kay to break and others are not. If we are to live by the Law, we live by the entire Law.
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. — James 2:8-11
I believe this is why Paul would say in Romans 2:1, “..in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself…” We cannot use the Law to point out another’s failure or sin without condemning ourselves, essentially of the same sin. Have you lied? You’re just as guilty of breaking the law as if you’d murdered someone. Those who would use statements from the Law to condemn another rarely, if ever, take the time to consider that they are condemning themselves in their condemnation of another person.
A Covenant with Israel
The Law of Moses was a covenant between God and the nation of Israel. This is essential in understanding, interpreting and applying the teachings of the Law.
It was not, nor is it, a covenant between God and the United States of America. Therefore, America and its citizens are not bound by the obligations, blessings or curses contained in the Law.
It is a nationalistic covenant. While individual citizens or resident aliens in Israel were bound by the laws, it was first and foremost a covenant with the nation. It was not, nor has it ever been, a covenant with any other nation. Any attempt to bind any other group of people or nation to the obligations, blessings or curses of the covenant is a failure to realize the nature of the Law. It was not, nor is it, a covenant between God and the United States of America. Therefore, America and its citizens are not bound by the obligations, blessings or curses contained in the Law. For sure, there are things to be learned and important spiritual truths to be understood from the Law. It is important from a Biblical, historical and spiritual perspective. It is NOT a guide to live by.
Initially this may seem like an attempt to simply say that a certain section of Scripture does not apply for personal gain or to fit our own personal interpretation. This is not the case at all. This is specifically the determination of the Scripture. In Acts 15, there was a council convened at Jerusalem regarding this very subject. We find the record in Acts 15:1-21. Here are the essential verses:
But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses. (Acts 15:5)
verses 10-11 (Peter speaking)
“Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” (Acts 15:10-11)
verses 19-21 (James speaking)
“Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:19-21)
In verse 5, you will notice that this is the very issue with which we are dealing. Should non-Jewish Christians, i.e. Gentile Christians, be required to keep the Law of Moses? Obviously, there was a group of religious leaders (the Pharisees) who contended that they should have to keep all of the same rules that Jews had to follow.
Peter has some very interesting words as he argues that Gentiles should not be held to the Law of Moses. He wants to know why they would place a “yoke” or a burden on the Gentile Christians when none of them (Jews) had actually been able to “bear” or keep the Law. We will see this even more clearly in another passage. It is a legitimate point that Peter makes. Why would they require something of another group of people when they hadn’t been able to follow it themselves? It is a legitimate question to ask today as well. Why would any Christian place the requirement of the law on others when no Christian is able to keep the law?
James speaks up and expresses his opinion that they should limit the requirements for Gentiles to three things: 1. abstain from anything connected with idol worship, 2. avoid fornication and 3. avoid strangled things and blood.
It is likely that the rules about things connected with idol worship, strangled meat and blood were not so much connected with Gentile spiritual needs or requirements but with their ability to fellowship with Jewish Christians who followed the law. The call to avoid fornication would be to separate themselves from the loose sexual behavior known among Gentiles. Interestingly, these do not seem to be taken as hard and fast laws. Paul would deal with the question of whether it was permissable to consume meat sacrificed to idols or not in his letter to the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 8). There, he does not make any mention of the council’s decision. He also does not give a yes or no answer to the issue.
The final decision of the council at Jerusalem was that Gentiles are not subject and should not be subject to the Law of Moses. This is not my interpretation. That was the clear statement of Scripture on the subject. Based on the nature of the Law and the decision of the council at Jerusalem, it would seem inappropriate to hold any person to the obligations of the Law of Moses. However, we cannot simply claim that it doesn’t apply to us and go on. The Law of Moses has an important place in Scripture and fills an important purpose.
A Better Way
At this point, we will turn our attention to Scriptural commentary regarding the Law in general. The most significant passages in this regard come from the book of Hebrews which discusses the Law of Moses and the system of worship established by that Law in some detail. Chapters 7-10 of Hebrews is the larger passage in question here and I would encourage everyone to read the full text several times and consider what is communicated there. For our purposes, we will examine excerpts from chapter 7 and 8. I will not provide commentary or explanation on these statements. I will simply ask you to note what they say. Bold statements in the passages below are my emphasis.
For, on the one hand, there is a setting aside of a former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness (for the Law made nothing perfect), and on the other hand there is a bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God.
so much the more also Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.
Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.
But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second. For finding fault with them, He says,“Behold, days are coming, says the Lord, When I will effect a new covenant With the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; Not like the covenant which I made with their fathers...”
When He said, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.
While the teachings from these passages and the surrounding context of Hebrews deals with significantly more than the Law of Moses, there are some very clear statements about the Law contained in them.
- No one can be made perfect by keeping the Law.
- The Law, as a covenant and a system of worship, was replaced by a “better hope,” a “more excellent ministry” and a “better covenant.” This occurred because the Law was weak, useless, fallible and obsolete.
- Jesus is the better way because He is able to save forever (completely) as the mediator of a new covenant.
When we grasp these statements, repeatedly emphasized throughout the passages in Hebrews and supported by other Biblical commentary in the New Testament, we understand that there is no reason that we would use the Law as a standard or obligation by which to live. God does not expect anyone to follow the Law of Moses.
Again, we could justifiably stop here and say simply that the Law does not apply to us and so its commands and regulations do not matter as a standard by which to live. This would be short-sighted. Once again, the Law is an important part of Scripture. It reveals something of God to us. The Law still has an important purpose.
The Purpose of the Law
Paul has an extensive discussion of the Law in Romans and Galatians. Much of it connects to our discussion. One verse in particular will help us as we seek to understand the importance of the Law, even the verses which will come before us.
Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. — Galatians 3:24-25
As we seek to understand the Law, we must understand that the purpose of the Law as a whole was to “lead people to Christ.” It was not simply to have an arbitrary system of right and wrong or to dispense judgment, condemnation and punishment. When we begin to look at the Law through the lens of its intended purpose, it will change our understanding of it and increase our respect for it as an important part of God’s Word.
Without having examined the specific text that we are about to discuss, we can safely conclude that it is inappropriate to use the verses to condemn homosexuals (or any other behavior) based on the Law of Moses because..
- …the Law convicts everyone equally. You cannot judge another person by the Law without judging yourself. If you have broken even the smallest, most insignificant law, you are guilty of breaking the WHOLE Law.
- …the Law was a covenant with Isreal and Gentile Christians are not held to the obligations of the Law.
- …the Law cannot make anyone perfect.
- ….the Law failed and was replaced with a better way — Jesus.
- ….the purpose of the Law was to lead us to Christ.