hat place or purpose did the ceremonial laws have in the Old Testament revelation of God's unchanging moral law?
The term "ceremonial" refers to the outward, formal observance of religious acts. The ceremonial laws of the Old Testament were never arbitrary in nature. God never gives laws just to see if we will jump when He says "jump". God already knows the intention of our hearts (Gen. 6:5).
The ceremonial laws of the Old Testament served the practical purpose of isolating Israel from their idol-worshiping neighbors. This isolation was necessary in order to serve God's ultimate purpose of blessing all nations through the seed of Abraham. Once Jesus had completed His work no such isolation was necessary. In fact, it would have hindered God's purpose. Jesus destroyed the barrier of ceremonial ordinances when He nailed the Law of Moses to His cross (Eph. 2:14). Jesus did away with the ceremonial laws as far as the outward observances was concerned.
The ceremonial laws of the Old Testament were physical pictures of moral and spiritual truths. They often had some practical value to health, but they always had a higher significance as well. Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial laws by making them become "real" in Him (Col. 2:17). The letter to the Hebrews hints at the riches waiting for any student of the ceremonial laws (Heb. 9:5).
It is not possible here to do more then look briefly at a few ceremonial laws. However, perhaps these will serve as examples of how the ceremonial laws were fulfilled in the Person and Work of Jesus.
The Law taught that certain foods, bodily conditions, and acts caused a person to become "unclean". To be "unclean" meant that a person was not free to approach God in His sanctuary, nor in some cases was he/she to associate with other Jews. In some instances it was possible to avoid becoming unclean, for example, by not touching carcasses or eating certain meats. In other instances, the fleshly nature made it impossible to avoid becoming unclean, for example, as in menstruation, emissions, and childbirth (Lev. chpts. 12,15). In fact, all things connected to the procreation of life, and death itself, made an individual "unclean" (Num. 5:2).
Concerning childbirth, we are told that the woman was "ceremonially unclean" for a certain period of time (Lev. 12:1). She was forbidden to touch sacred things or to approach God in His sanctuary. After the prescribed period of time, the priest was to make "a sin offering" (vs 8), "the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean".
Is there something awful about procreation, or the act of giving birth? Obviously not, since God gave us these natural functions. Why then did God command a sin offering before the woman could become "clean"? I conclude that these ceremonial laws were intended to be a picture of the corruption of sin. We are born into a fallen world, and subject to all the weaknesses of our fleshly nature. By the time we reach the age of accountability we are already entrenched in our selfishness. These ceremonial laws concerning procreation, birth, and death were a physical picture of this truth. Not only must we guard against corruption from sin all around us ("unclean" meats), we must also be aware of our own personal sinfulness. Furthermore, we need an atoning sacrifice to take away our sins. Jesus died for us.
The laws concerning the cleansing of mildew from a house are interesting (Lev. 14:33-53). Every effort had to be made before giving up hope and destroying the house utterly. In the same way we must use every possible means to win the sinner or fallen Christian back to Christ.
This same principle was applied to determine if a skin disease (called leprosy, but differing from modern day leprosy) was curable or not. If a skin disease was not curable, then the individual must "wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, "Unclean, Unclean" (Lev. 13:45-46). "He must live alone ... outside the camp", which in Jewish thought meant the individual was cut-off from God and His people. Furthermore, if such a person was ever healed, he had to present himself to the priest for examination. If the priest found that he was indeed healed, the priest must then direct "his ceremonial cleansing" (Lev. 14:1). "Then the priest shall offer the sin offering and make atonement for him who is to be cleansed from his uncleanness" (Lev. 14:19).
Is being sick a sin? Why did God demand a sin offering from a person who had suffered a skin disease? Rabbinism had concluded wrongly that sickness was a punishment for sin, rather than the consequence of living in a fallen world: "No death without sin, and no pain with transgression'' (Shabb 55a); "the sick is not healed, till all his sins are forgiven him" (Nedar 4la). More than that, it was supposed that bodily afflictions could allow the sufferers to obtain forgiveness of sins. Special diseases were traced to particular sins. It was thought that the childless, the leprous, the poor, the blind were unlike other sufferers in that their chastisement was not the outcome of love (Ber 5b). Thus it was that Jesus' disciples, upon seeing a man blind from birth, asked "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:2)
Leprosy was not a punishment for sin, but the Law of Moses commanded an atoning sacrifice for the leper who had been cured (Lev. 14:19). The ceremonial cleansing for the person healed of a skin disease included, among other things, two birds. One bird was killed in a clay pot over running water. The other bird was dipped into the blood of the dead bird. The healed individual was sprinkled seven times with the shed blood and pronounced clean. The live bird was then released (Lev. 14:4-7). Allowing for the imperfection of shadows, I see in this a picture of Christ's death and resurrection. The blood of Christ must be applied, sprinkled on our hearts, before cleansing can take place.
Traditionally it was thought that leprosy attached to a house, clothing, or the person, and were successive and increasingly heavier chastisements upon the unrepentant offender (Bemidb R. 13). There was no apparent cure for leprosy, apart from the intervention of God. Rabbinism so abhorred the moral condition of the leper that his mere entrance into a house was said to defile it and everything in it, to the beams of the roof (Neg. xiii. 11). As Edersheim tells us: "Rabbi Meir would not eat an egg purchased in a street where there was a leper. Another Rabbi boasted that he always threw stones at them to keep them far off, while others hid themselves and ran away" (Vayyik. R. 16).
Without a doubt, no leper would ordinarily dare to approach a Rabbi, but one leper hearing of the miraculous cures of Jesus came to Him and worshiped Him, saying: "Lord, if you are willing, You can make me clean" (Matt. 8:2-3). "Jesus put out His hand and touched him, saying: "I am willing; be cleansed".
We all come to Jesus with the incurable disease of sin. Jesus willingly reaches out His hand to us, without regard for defilement. More than that, He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins. He became unclean for us, so that we might become clean for Him. "The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all" (Is. 52:6).
We remember the ten lepers who had such strong faith in Jesus' power to heal them (Luke 17:11-19). Jesus did not even speak a word of healing, but commanded them to go and present themselves to the priests in order to be declared clean in accordance with Levitical law. As they went, they were healed.
One man "when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell clown on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks". Ten lepers were healed of their physical disease, but only one was healed spiritually as he responded with gratitude to the demonstrated love of God. Jesus said to him, "Arise, go your way, Your faith has made you well".
This is the kind of faith we must have in Christ Jesus. We must respond to the demonstrated love of Christ who laid down His own life for our sins. "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands you will remain in my love" (John 15:9-10).
All the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament had a higher significance. Jesus made these truths that had been taught in shadow form become "real" in Him. We are no longer under any obligation to keep the ceremonial observances of the Law of Moses. However, we are subject to the unchanging moral and spiritual principles taught by the ceremonial laws and now revealed in the Person and Work of Christ Jesus.
In Part 5 we will consider another question: Was it necessary for Jesus to break the letter of the Sabbath-law in order to obey the higher principle of love.