What is the Law in the Bible? — Does it refer to part or all the Bible?
Since the Bible refers to the Law many times, it is important to know that the “Law” actually has different meanings. Sometimes it refers to the Mosaic Law and at times to the entire Old Testament. At other times, it has a variety of other meanings. The following will explain the various meanings of the expression “the law.”
The Law As the Old Testament
The Hebrew word for “law” is torah and the Greek word is nomos. The basic meaning is to provide direction or instruction. The English word “law” occurs over 400 times in the Bible. Sometimes the word “law” simply refers to the entire Old Testament. For example, in John 12:34 the crowd tells Jesus that they heard in the Law that the Christ would remain forever.
The crowd then answered Him, “We have heard out of the Law that the Christ is to remain forever; and how can You say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?” John 12:34 (NASB)
Since no such statement is recorded in the Pentateuch, it must be a reference to another part of the Old Testament. In fact, 2 Samuel 7:15-16 and Micah 5:2 clearly states that the Messiah would reign forever.
In John 15:25 Jesus quotes the Law, but both Psalm 35:19 and Psalm 69:4 reveal that He paraphrases passages from the book of the Psalms.
“But they have done this to fulfill the word that is written in their Law, ‘THEY HATED ME WITHOUT A CAUSE.’” John 15:25 (NASB)
. . . Nor let those who hate me without cause . . . Psalm 35:19 (NASB)
Those who hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of my head . . . Psalm 69:4 (NASB)
Our last example is 1 Corinthians 14:21, where Paul paraphrases Isaiah 28:11-12 and refers to the prophecy as the Law.
This means that the “Law” was used to refer to the entire Old Testament, also called the Scriptures.
The Law As the Mosaic law
The Law can also refer to the Mosaic Law. It was given to Moses when he was on Mount Sinai. That is the message of Exodus 24:12.
Now the LORD said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and remain there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the law and the commandment which I have written for their instruction.” Exodus 24:12 (NASB)
In this passage we are told that Moses was given the Ten Commandments. The commandments are the most well-known part of the Mosaic Law. But notice that God also gave “the law” along with the stone tablets or the Ten Commandments. That is, the Law includes the Ten Commandments and a long list of detailed laws which were recorded in the book of Leviticus. Leviticus includes laws related to: various sacrifices and offerings (Leviticus 1-7), dietary laws (Leviticus 11), motherhood (Leviticus 12) and leprosy (Leviticus 13-14). There are laws about the atonement (Leviticus 16-17), immoral relationships (Leviticus 18) and many other laws (Leviticus 19-27). In summary, the expression “the Law” usually refers to the Mosaic Law. Deuteronomy contains a summary of the Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 30:10) and it was given just before the Israelites entered Canaan or the Promised Land. The expression “the Law of Moses” (e.g. Joshua 8:31-32; 2 Kings 2:3; 14:6; Daniel 9:13; Malachi 4:4; John 7:23; Acts 13:39; Hebrews 10:28) appears throughout the Bible. The shorter version of the phrase is the “Mosaic Law.”
Many references to the Mosaic Law occur in the New Testament. One significant passage is Luke 24:44. Here we see that Jesus is clearly speaking to the Pentateuch of the first five books of the Old Testament. In the Hebrew Bible it is also called the Torah.
Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Luke 24:44 (NASB)
In John 1:17 we are told that the Law was written by Moses.
For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. John 1:17 (NASB)
Some Christians believe that we should obey the Law of Moses. They quote verses such as 1 John 3:4.
Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law. 1 John 3:4 (KVJ)
The law in this verse refers to the Mosaic Law — the Ten Commandments and the many other laws. But, it is important to understand that much of the Mosaic Law no longer applies to us now. Why? First, when Christ sacrificed Himself for our sins, He instituted a new covenant which replaced the old covenant or the Mosaic Law (Matthew 26:28; Luke 22:20). Hebrews 8:7-13 teaches us that the new covenant replaced the old covenant and then Hebrews 9-10 teaches us that the old covenant was the Mosaic Law. Second, Hebrews 9-10 also teaches us that the ceremonial laws in the Mosaic Law no longer exist. The new covenant eliminated them. Third, in Mark 7:19 Jesus declared that the dietary laws of the Mosaic Law no longer existed (also see Colossians 2:21-22). Fourth, all of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament, except for the command to keep the Sabbath. That means, Christians are not required to keep the Sabbath. Sunday has replaced the Sabbath. For more information read, “Should we worship on Sunday or the Sabbath?” and “Do we have to keep the Ten Commandments given in the Old Testament?” This means that 1 John 3:4 refers to all of the remaining laws that Moses gave us. Most of the Mosaic covenant is gone! The message of 1 John 3:4 is that sin occurs when we violate any law, ordinance or commandment that God has given us. The purpose of the Mosaic Law was to teach us that we sin. (Romans 5:20; Galatians 3:19-24). We are sinners.
Other Meanings of Law
We have seen that the “Law” can refer to the entire Old Testament or the just the Mosaic Law. But the “Law” has other meanings in the New Testament. In Romans 3:27 the expression “law of faith” refers to the fact that salvation or the forgiveness of our sins is only by faith. In Romans 7:23-24 we are introduced to “another law” which is the “law of the mind” which is our desire for obedience. This law seeks to controls our behavior but is in conflict with the “law of sin” (Romans 7:25) which wages war against the “law of the mind.” The “law of the Spirit of life” in Romans 8:2 refers to the gospel.
For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. Romans 8:2 (ESV)
The expression “the law” can also refer to the civil law of various nations. Daniel 6:8, 12 refers to the law of the Medes and Persians. In Acts 18:13 we are told that the proconsul of Achaia, Gallio, spoke of their own civil law regarding the worship of God. God has commanded us to obey the laws of our country (Matthew 22:21; Romans 13:1-6; 1 Peter 2:13-17).
Finally, the “law of liberty” in James 1:25 is both the Old and New Testaments.
Sadly, many unbelievers and believers consider “The Law” and the Mosaic Law as a list of rules that must be followed today. They treat them as if they were civil laws to be obeyed. They have failed to understand that the majority of the Mosaic Law no longer applies today. Hebrews 8:10 refers to Jeremiah 31:33 as the new reality for believers. In the Old Testament and the gospels, the Mosaic Law was the standard for conduct. Obedience was a duty and could be tiresome (Malachi 1:13). But after Christ’s death and resurrection the Law of God was written in every believer’s heart by the Holy Spirit.
“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” Jeremiah 31:33 (NASB)
God the Holy Spirit convicts believers of sin. “My law” in Jeremiah 31:33 refers to the laws that remain in Scripture.
The Psalmist reminds us that the law or the instructions of God are sweeter than honey. This is true of the person who loves God and seeks to please God and enjoy life.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth! Psalm 119:103 (NASB)
If this is not true of you, then do what the Psalmist did. He asked God to help see the “wondrous things” in the Law, that is the Bible.
Open my eyes, that I may behold
wondrous things out of your law. Psalm 119:18 (NASB)
Finally, we are reminded that there is blessing in reading and studying the Bible.
Oh how I love your law!
It is my meditation all the day. Psalm 119:97 (NASB)
We urge you to read the Bible from Genesis through Revelation this year. Enjoy the wondrous things that God has waiting for you.
Suggested Links:Do we have to keep the ten commandments given in the Old Testament?
Why do we not keep the Sabbath?
Should we worship on Sunday or the Sabbath?
Which Old Testament laws can we ignore?
Must we keep the Sabbath? — The Fourth Commandment
Should we be keeping the Old Testament feasts?
Which Old Testament laws can we ignore?