Troublesome Topic: The Law Teaches Three Key Principles

Lesson 7 of 7

The Torah was intended to instruct. But what did it teach? The conditions of the Former Covenant instructed God’s people in three major aspects of life and relationships.




These three categories coincide with the three fundamental characteristics of God (and our responses to them):


God is sovereign, all-powerful and capable (How do we draw close to an all-powerful God?)


God is holy (How can we live in a way that reflects His holy character?)


God is loving and compassionate, full of mercy and full of grace (How should we treat the people and things God has created?)

Go to footnote number

Honestly there are some things in the Law that seem so strange to us that we think them totally incapable of teaching us anything about faith, holiness or compassion. But I have found that the strangest sounding things in the Bible often hold the richest jewels. We will get to many of these shortly.

What about the categories of Moral, Civil and Ceremonial Law?

Many preachers and writers have divided the Torah into the moral law, the ceremonial law, and the civil law. In this way it has been easier to ignore parts of the Torah and say that we only need to follow a certain part of it, namely the part dubbed the moral law. The problem with those popular divisions is that they are not based on the way the Bible views itself. They are strictly human demarcations. And where does one draw the line between them, anyway? Besides that, how well are we doing at obeying the group designated “the moral law?”

When I abandoned the demarcations of moral law, ceremonial law, and civil law, and I began to see the Torah as instruction for life that can teach us about faith, holiness and compassion, the section of the Bible called the Torah began to make sense to me. Not only did it make sense, but it was balanced, relevant and it fit the person of God as He is described in other parts of the Bible. I felt free.

Many people feel uncomfortable with this part of their Bibles because they don’t understand its purpose. It is usually seen in a very negative light, or totally ignored. However, a quick reading of Psalm 119 gives us a totally different perspective.

Go to footnote number

When we get to the New Covenant, we will discuss what we must follow and what we can set aside, since things have changed. The key point here is that these are conditions of a covenant relationship, and they were given for the purpose of instructing or guiding God’s people to a closer relationship with Him. If you want to categorize the Law, I suggest you do so with the same three emphases Jesus identified when He said,

Matthew 23:23


Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! For you pay tithe on mint and dill and cumin, yet you have neglected the weightier matters of the law – justice, compassion and faith.

Go to footnote number

These it behooved you to do, without neglecting those.


Oh religious leaders who pretend to have it all together, you are in danger of severe judgment! For you have made up ways to look more righteous than everyone else, but meanwhile you have neglected to live out the most important aspects of God’s law – holiness, compassion and faith.

It is necessary for you to do these important things without neglecting the small details.

Obviously, the Torah does not disclose for us the clear organization of these three major categories. There were many, many things God wanted His people to learn by following His covenant stipulations. These three major categories are primarily for our clarity of understanding. All the covenant conditions went together to teach God’s people how they were to draw close to him. His goal was reconciliation and closeness. These acts of faithfulness would not bring salvation without the work of Christ. But those who followed faithfully would indeed draw closer to Him, and He would look at the condition of their hearts and “count it as righteousness.”

The next lesson in all three versions of the Covenant study is: The Law Fits the Pattern of Suzerain Vassal Covenants.

The next lesson in Why Is That in the Bible is The Jewish Understanding of How the Universe Functions



These three emphases were observed by Paul D. Hanson, and are explained in his book The People Called; The Growth of Community in the Bible, (Harper & Row, 1986), pp. 24-30.


The following are cases in which the author of Psalm 119 showed his delight in, or love for, the commands and decrees of God:  vv. 14, 15, 16, 18, 20, 23, 24, 27, 30, 35, 40, 47, 48, 52, 54, 70, 77, 92, 97, 103, 112, 113, 114, 129, 131, 140, 143, 159, 163, 167, 171, 174.


Both “faith” and “faithfulness” are possible translations due to the case the Greek noun is found in. However, I strongly prefer to render it here as “faith” because Jesus is laying out those categories which are the “important matters of the law.” Justice and Mercy are distinguishable categories, as is faith, i.e. those things related to our trust in God. But if we translate it “faithfulness” it seems to overlap with the issues of justice as those things we need to be faithful in fulfilling. For the purpose of this study I will continue to cite the three “important matters of the law” as “justice, mercy and faith.”