Ceremonial Law Fading Away

Ceremonial Law Fading Away

he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease… (Daniel 9:27)

For the children of Israel shall abide many days without a king, and without a prince, and without a sacrifice, and without an image, and without an ephod, and without teraphim. (Hosea 3:4).

In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away. (Hebrews 8:13).

Which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices…  Which stood only in… carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation.  But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands… (Hebrews 9:9-11).

Moses…put a veil over his face, that the children of Israel could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is abolished: But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which vail is done away in Christ. (2 Corinthians 3:13-14).

Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth. (Romans 10:4).

But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. (Galatians 3:23-25).

Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross… Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ. (Colossians 2:14, 16-17).

In light of the New Testament teaching of the abrogation of the Ceremonial Law, how are we to understand the circumcision of Timothy? Paul’s observance of certain Old Covenant ceremonies after it had been abrogated by Christ (Acts 16:3; 18:21; 21:26)? The seeming stance of indifference toward the observance of Old Covenant holy days and dietary practices (Romans 14)?

The following excerpts lay the groundwork for answering these questions. Below unfolds the stages that the abrogation of the Ceremonial Law went through from the beginning of the New Covenant until it had fully decayed, waxed old, vanished away, and became deadly and destructive to return to.

“Immediately upon Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, the ceremonies had completely lost their efficacy, and from that very moment it was sin to use them in the Jewish manner, that is, as being shadows of the future Messiah. Nevertheless, the external performance in a general and religious sense was tolerated for some time in order not to hinder those that were weak in the faith, and thus to allow time for instruction to prepare them for their full abolition.” (Wilhelmus à Brakel, Christian’s Reasonable Service, vol. 3, p. 161).

“Christians are now freed from the yoke of the ceremonial law. The Jewish Church was kept ‘in bondage under the elements of the world‘ (Gal. 4:3); but that burdensome yoke is not imposed on the Christian Church. (Acts 15:10). The ancient ceremonies were abrogated, in point of obligation, by the death of Christ; and though, for a time, the use of them was indifferent, yet, upon the full promulgation of the gospel, and the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem, the observance of them became unlawful; and the Apostle Paul exhorted Christians to ‘stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ had made them free, and not be entangled again with the yoke of bondage.‘ (Gal. 5:1).” (Robert Shaw, Reformed Faith, p. 267).

Herman Witsius gives us a detailed breakdown of the decaying of the Ceremonial Law through Christ’s earthly ministry and the events immediately thereafter.

XXIII. But the abrogation of this rite of circumcision had its several degrees. It was first in a languishing state, then it was dead, and at last became pernicious.

1st, It began to languish at the circumcision of Christ, who by submitting himself to the law for the elect, and solemnly testifying that subjection by taking upon him the symbol of circumcision, made it appear, that he was that singular seed of Abraham, whose future nativity circumcision was originally appointed to prefigure. From the time therefore, that he appeared, circumcision, which signified that he was to come, lost a great part of its signification.

2dly, It was further weakened, after Christ had, in the thirtieth year of his age, manifested himself to Israel, and was pointed out by John, as the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world, and was publicly owned by the Father as his beloved Son, to whom all were to hear and obey. For then the Gospel of liberty and of the kingdom began to be preached, and baptism, a sign opposed to circumcision, was used, as a sacrament of initiation into a better covenant, whereby circumcision came to lose much of its dignity.

3dly, It began to die at the death of Christ. For when he was cut off from among his people, for the salvation of the whole mystical body, and had sealed the New Testament by his blood, every thing relating to the future Messiah, which circumcision prefigured, and to which Christ by his own circumcision bound himself, was fulfilled. And thus the hand-writing, which was against Christ the surety, and against believers, was torn asunder in his cross, Col. 2:14.

4thly, It came to be quite dead, after Christ, by his resurrection from the dead, had received from the Father a discharge, in witness that the fullest payment was made, and exhibited it to the view, as it were, of the whole world. Yet believers had so little knowledge of the liberty purchased for, and offered to them, that Peter himself wanted to be taught it by a heavenly vision, Acts 10:28, 34, 35, 47.

5thly, It was not yet destructive, but so long as the church was not sufficiently instructed in her liberty, it might at times, to avoid giving offence to the weak, be prudently, yet lawfully used, not from a principle of conscience, but from the dictates of charity and prudence, lest the Jews, who were too tenacious of their peculiar and paternal rites, should be alienated from the Christian religion: just as Timothy was circumcised, being the son of a Jewess, Acts 16:1, 3.

6thly, But after the nation of the Jews, on rejecting the Gospel, were cast off by God, and continued obstinately to insist on circumcision, as a necessary part of religion, nay, of righteousness, and the church was sufficiently instructed in her own liberty, circumcision came to be destructive, as being a character of superstition and a badge of Jewish infidelity, and a renunciation of Christian liberty, as we have shown from Gal. 5:2-3.

Herman Witsius, Economy of the Covenants IV.viii.xxiii, vol. 2, pp. 255-256.

Franciscus Junius further adds how there was a period of time when the Ceremonial Law was dead but not yet deadly and needed to be buried with honor:

“Circumcision was in that ancient time lawful and beneficial; at this time, deadly, if anyone employs it; but in a certain middle time it was dead, and not yet deadly. To be sure, in that middle time it was proper for those legal ceremonies to be carried to the grave with honor (to use the words of Cyprian and Augustine). For in Letter 82, Augustine, writing to Jerome, clearly demonstrated that three times must be distinguished in ceremonies:

“First, the time before the suffering of Christ, in which legal ceremonies were neither deadly nor dead, but ordained for the life of the pious; second, the time after the gospel was published publicly, at which time those legal ceremonies must be considered either as dead or even deadly, especially those that pertained to prefiguring the fulfillment and truth in Christ; finally, third, an intermediate time that extended from the passion of Christ to the promulgation of the gospel. In this time there were certain dead legal ceremonies, because they neither had any power, nor held anyone to the observance of them, but yet they were not immediately deadly, because according to the reason of human beings at the time they were disguised by the divine wisdom.

“For any of the Jews who were going over to Christ could lawfully observe those legal ceremonies among their own people, provided that they did not place their hope in them and did not judge them to be necessary for salvation as if faith in Christ could not justify a person without the legal ceremonies. However, any of the Gentiles who were led to Christ were not bound by any reason to observe those ceremonies, but were to use the liberty that Christ secured for his elect by his own blood, and that for edification and not destruction, in the same way that all middle or indifferent things must be employed by pious and prudent men. For by this rationale, Paul circumcised Timothy so that he might edify. But Paul did not circumcise Titus at all (Gal. 2:3), so that he would not demolish more by this deed than he would edify.

“So, in the first period circumcision was a living sacrament. In the second period it was a body dying off, and then, shortly thereafter, a dead body. Finally, in the third period, in which we dwell, it is a rotting and deadly body because that which was simply dead in principle, by the progress of time in which the teaching of the gospel began to grow stronger, became deadly. And, indeed, in that second time it was honorably carried out for burial as a dead body, or, as it was dying, it was comfortably cared for. But now it remains forever embalmed and buried, lest, if it were exhumed, it would breathe out a deadly evil in the church of Christ.

Augustine says:

“‘For now, when the faith had come, which, previously foreshadowed by these ceremonies, was revealed after the death and resurrection of the Lord, they became, so far as their office was concerned, defunct. But just as it is seemly that the bodies of the deceased be carried honourably to the grave by their kindred, so was it fitting that these rites should be removed in a manner worthy of their origin and history, and this not with pretence of respect, but as a religious duty, instead of being forsaken at once, or cast forth to be torn in pieces by the reproaches of their enemies, as by the teeth of dogs. To carry the illustration further, if now any Christian (though he may have been converted from Judaism) were proposing to imitate the apostles in the observance of these ceremonies, like one who disturbs the ashes of those who rest, he would be not piously performing his part in the obsequies, but impiously violating the sepulchre.

“And with the same opinion he had already most fittingly and clearly responded to Faustus the Manichean and others (Contra Faustum, 19.17).

“Since these things are so, we have fully established—since it was well foreseen by the holy apostles, and now it is well established by us—both that whoever establishes mutable or dead laws in the place of absolutely necessary ones steals the liberty of Christians, and whoever establishes deadly ones steals their life. And so, may Christ our Lord and Savior guard this liberty and life in the truth, which he acquired and gave by the eternal communication of his Spirit. Amen.”

Franciscus Junius, The Mosaic Polity, pp. 161-164.

Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? Have ye suffered so many things in vain? if it be yet in vain…But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain…Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth? This persuasion cometh not of him that calleth you. (Gal. 3:3-4 & 4:9-11 & 5:7-8).


7 thoughts on “Ceremonial Law Fading Away

  1. “There was a period of transition from Old to New Covenant worship which was a process of “fading away” (2 Cor. 3:11) or “becoming obsolete” (Heb. 8:13). The apostles did not demand an immediate cessation of all Old Covenant ceremonies among Jewish believers after the death of Christ (Acts 16:3, 18:18-21), especially in Jerusalem (Acts 2:46, 21:17-26). The willingness of the apostles to temporarily permit the use of certain ceremonies is understood by the following considerations: 1) The ceremonies were never viewed as part of justification (Gal. 2:3). 2) They were used at times to conciliate unbelieving Jews for the purpose of spreading the gospel (Acts 16:3; 1 Cor. 9:20). 3) The apostles considered an immediate and forceful removal of all ceremonies too jarring and unsettling for Jewish believers who had been accustomed to them all their lives. They deemed it wiser to allow the ceremonial law to die a natural death under the influence of Christian doctrines. 4) While the book of Acts records this period of transition from Old to New Covenants, the apostles were certain that the ceremonial law would eventually completely “disappear” (Heb. 8:13). 5) The apostles foresaw the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (Matt. 24:1-2) and they were willing to wait until God providentially brought about the final removal of the Old Covenant ceremonies in this way. The period of transition in no way diminishes the fact that the Temple worship in all of its outward ceremonies and rituals was meant to disappear. Neither does it provide any support for the continuance of any Old Covenant ceremonies in the church today, including the use of musical instruments.”

    —John Price, Old Light on New Worship: Musical Instruments and the Worship of God, a Theological, Historical, and Psychological Study, fn. 36, pp. 42-43.


  2. “In things indifferent (of which sort were not the traditions of the Pharisees, but the ceremonies of the Law, until such time as Christian liberty was more fully revealed to the Jews) charity willeth us to conform or apply ourselves willingly so far as we may, to our brethren which do not stubbornly, and maliciously, resist the truth, but are not thoroughly instructed especially if the question be of a whole multitude.” —Geneva Bible note on Acts 21:20


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