We saw previously that we may not add to or subtract from God’s law (Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32). But God (as the Law-Giver) can and has. There are Old Testament laws which the New Testament tells us are no longer binding on us. These are sometimes called the “ceremonial laws.” The Bible recognizes two aspects of God’s law: moral laws (which define universal justice for all people), and ceremonial laws (which are binding only on God’s people as a symbol of separation and of the coming Savior). Moral laws stem from the nature of God. Since God does not change, neither do moral principles (though God may modify specific laws to deal with changing conditions).
Ceremonial laws are different. Ceremonial laws included instructions on animal sacrifice (Exodus 20:24), circumcision (Genesis 17:10), ceremonial feasts (Deuteronomy 16:10), dietary restrictions (Leviticus 11:4–8), and so on. Such laws pointed forward in time to Christ’s atonement for sin on the cross. They gave the Israelites hope of a future Savior, who would pay for their sins. But we no longer look to the future for Christ to pay for our sins. That is now a part of history. Therefore, we do not practice the Old Testament rituals that point forward to Christ’s first coming. Paul explains in Galatians 3:24–25, “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.”
In this context, what does Paul mean by “the law?” Does he mean that all Old Testament laws have been set aside? Are we now free to murder, kidnap, lie, steal, and so on? Clearly not (Romans 6:15). Paul is using synecdoche: “the law” in this context is referring to the ceremonial law. This is clear because it is the ceremonial law which was a “tutor to lead us to Christ.” Does God’s moral law lead us to Christ? No, rather, it shows us that we are sinners. But it does not tell us how to be redeemed. Rather, it is the ceremonial laws which showed the need for blood atonement (Leviticus 17:11). It was these ceremonial laws that foreshadowed the coming of Christ—the Lamb that would take away the sins of the world (John 1:29). Now that the object of our faith has come (Christ), we are no longer under a tutor (the Old Testament ceremonial laws).
Animal sacrifices were only a symbol of the salvation that Christ would provide (Hebrews 9:9, 10:1); they did not actually provide salvation in themselves. Hebrews 10:4 states, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Salvation has always been by God’s grace received through faith (Romans 4:3, Hebrews 11:1–40).
Why then sacrifice animals? It was a reminder of the consequences of sin (Hebrews 10:3) and foreshadowed the coming Savior (Hebrews 10:1). That is why the animal had to be without blemish—a symbol of the sinless Christ (Ezekiel 46:13, Deuteronomy 17:1, Hebrews 9:14). Scripture implies that God Himself initiated animal sacrifice when Adam and Eve fell into sin; the Lord provided (animal) skins of clothing. (Genesis 3:21). This action did not remove the shame from Adam and Eve—it simply “covered” it. It was not the solution to sin. Rather it indicated that the solution to sin would come in the future. Ceremonial laws also showed the separation of God’s redeemed people from the Gentiles in the Old Testament. But in the New Testament, salvation is extended to the Gentiles as well (Romans 11:11, Acts 28:28, 11:18, 13:46–48, Matthew 21:43, 8:11, 12:21).
It was the ceremonial laws that taught the Israelites about salvation in Christ. But we no longer need these shadows, because we now have the substance to which they pointed (Colossians 2:16–17). The New Testament makes it clear that we are no longer bound by Old Testament ceremonial laws (Colossians 2:16–17, Galatians 5:2,6, 4:9–11, 3:24–25, 2:11–13, Hebrews 7:18, Acts 11:1–9). However, there is a sense in which we do “keep” the ceremonial laws, by receiving Christ as Savior—the substance to which all these shadows pointed.
Sincere Christians may sometimes disagree on which laws fall into which category. The Old Testament does not separate moral laws from ceremonial laws in terms of where they are found in Scripture. But that doesn’t mean there is no difference. It just means we will have to do our homework. The Bible does indeed distinguish between those moral laws which are binding “until heaven and earth pass away” (Matthew 5:18) and those ceremonial laws which pointed forward to a better covenant and have been set aside in the New Testament.
There are several questions we can ask to help distinguish between the laws, such as, “Does this law symbolize the separation of Jews and Gentiles in the Old Testament?” or “Does it point forward to Christ’s atonement on the Cross?” If so, then God reveals in the New Testament that it is not binding on us (Galatians 3:24–25, 4:9–11, Colossians 2:16–17). However, if the law is moral in nature and is nowhere rescinded in Scripture, then to disobey it would be sin (1 John 3:4, Deuteronomy 4:2, Matthew 5:18–19).