The Law of Moses and the Law of Christ

Edward J. Brandt

Brandt, Edward J., “The Law of Moses and the Law of Christ” in Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo and Salt Lake City: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book 2005), 133–153.

Edward J. Brandt is the director of the Evaluation Division of the CorrelationDepartment of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

When many people hear the words “the law of Moses,” they tend to associate that law with something very undesirable—a program or a system that is all outward and temporal and so far removed from what they would hope or expect to be associated with the gospel of Christ that some might wonder if there were any worth in it at all. Such a view of the law of Moses is false.

The law of Moses could not influence a person’s life unless that person had some measure and portion of the Spirit of the Lord in his or her life. The lack of that spiritual influence caused great difficulties in ancient Israel. They lost the spirit of the law, which is why the law turned into such a burden, as is illustrated later in the scriptural record. All of the standard works, not just the Old and the New Testament, teach of this law. A proper perspective on this law provides a meaningful dimension to gospel understanding.

The most important text to help us fully appreciate the spirit and purpose of the law of Moses is the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon people maintained the spirit of the law of Moses, and it served them well. Their faithful observance finally helped prepare a responsive group to receive the Messiah in their day.

In a great revelation on priesthood, Doctrine and Covenants 84, the Lord established an important foundation for understanding the relationship between the law of Moses and the law of Christ. After reviewing the line of authority in conferring the priesthood in ancient times, we read:

And the Lord confirmed a priesthood also upon Aaron and his seed, throughout all their generations, which priesthood also continueth and abideth forever with the priesthood which is after the holiest order of God.

And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God.

Therefore, in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest. [That is to say, in the ordinances of the Melchizedek, or the higher, priesthood is the power of godliness manifest.]

And without the ordinances thereof [or the ordinances of the higher priesthood], and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh;

For without this [that is, the temple ordinances] no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live. (D&C 84:18–22)

This passage is often used and misused by anti-Mormons against the claims of the First Vision. They are fond of quoting verse 22 out of context, contending that if you have to have priesthood to see the face of God and live, then, they ask, how was it possible for Joseph Smith to see the claimed vision because he had not yet received priesthood. Such an interpretation is a wresting of the context of the passage. The proper context of this revelation is that without the ordinances of the higher priesthood [the temple ordinances], no man can see the face of God and live in His presence.[1] These verses provide a true perspective of purpose and power of the priesthood ordinances. Then follows the scriptural explanations of the law of Moses:

Now this Moses plainly taught to the children of Israel in the wilderness, and sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God;

But they hardened their hearts and could not endure his presence; therefore the Lord in his wrath, for his anger was kindled against them, swore that they should not enter into his rest while in the wilderness, which rest is the fulness of his glory. [To enter into the rest of the Lord is to enter into His presence—into His glory.]

Therefore, [as a consequence of this rebellion] he took Moses out of their midst, and the Holy Priesthood also;

And the lesser priesthood continued [now ask yourselves, what did the lesser priesthood minister?], which priesthood holdeth the key of the ministering of angels and the preparatory gospel;

Which gospel is the gospel of repentance and of baptism, and the remission of sins, and the law of carnal commandments, which the Lord in his wrath caused to continue with the house of Aaron among the children of Israel until John, whom God raised up, being filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb. (D&C 84:23–27)

The Doctrine and Covenants says that the law of Moses consists of the preparatory gospel and the law of carnal commandments. The preparatory gospel includes the elements of faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, and baptism. We are counseled to “come unto Christ,” which ultimately means to become Christlike. The Lord has established a path to help us achieve that end. There are many significant steps along the way, all centered in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Some fundamentals open the door and set one on the path. These fundamentals are called the first principles of the gospel: faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism. They are a part of the preparatory gospel, which is part of the law of Moses. Other scriptures include the law of sacrifice or the burnt offering as an integral part of the preparatory gospel.[2] Doctrine and Covenants 84 indicates that the Lord added something to these fundamental things. He described it in verse 27 as the “law of carnal commandments.” The purpose of the law of carnal commandments was to help the children of Israel focus on the basic fundamentals of the gospel. These two elements, then—the preparatory gospel and the law of carnal commandments—are what we commonly call the law of Moses.[3]

Law of Moses

  1. Preparatory Gospel
    a. Burnt offering
    b. Faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, and baptism
    c. The Ten Commandments
    d. The law of the covenant
  2. Law of Carnal Commandments
    a. Ordinances—offerings
    b. Performances—including dietary and purification laws

To accurately describe the law of Moses, we would have to say that it contained the basic part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was never intended to be something apart, separated, or even lower than the gospel of Christ. It was simply to help the people in their focus and understanding.

An instructive perspective about this law is found in Mosiah 13 in the Book of Mormon. This is the great discourse given by the prophet Abinadi as he labored with the wicked priests of King Noah. They had questioned the prophet, asking the meaning of a verse in Isaiah 52: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings” (Mosiah 12:21; see also Isaiah 52:8). The prophet answered and in the process revealed something of the nature of the law of Moses that the people of Noah were practicing:

“And now I say unto you that it was expedient that there should be a law given to the children of Israel, yea, even a very strict law; for they were a stiffnecked people, quick to do iniquity, and slow to remember the Lord their God; Therefore, there was a law given them, yea, a law of performances and of ordinances, a law which they were to observe strictly from day to day, to keep them in remembrance of God and their duty towards him” (Mosiah 13:29–30).

Verse 30 states that this law, which included the law of carnal commandments, consisted of a law of ordinances and performances. The ordinances and performances were teaching instruments of the law of carnal commandments. A synonym for the word carnal is flesh. The law of carnal commandments was, therefore, commandments intended to help the children of Israel to control the flesh—to develop self control and self-discipline in their lives. It was to help them to get a handle on their lives so they could begin to focus on the basic fundamentals that would lead them to Christ. That was its primary purpose and the spirit and the intent of the law of carnal commandments.

Perhaps a brief explanation of the two systems—ordinances and performances—might be helpful. Ordinances had to do with the law of offerings. In ancient Israel a number of offerings were offered by the children of Israel, some of them with special intent: the peace offering, the sin offering, and the trespass offering.[4] The first ten chapters of Leviticus provide the scriptural instruction for these offerings.

The peace offering[5] was intended to help individuals express that they had made peace with God, that they had come to grips with their problems in life. It was offered at one of those moments in life when an individual was at peace, ready to take the next step in personal development and growth. The children of Israel were asked to acknowledge being blessed with that peace in their lives through the peace offering.[6]

The peace offering was also called a vow offering and a thank offering. Done periodically, the vow offering[7] was one of recommitment to the covenants the Israelites had made. It had a similar value for ancient Israel as partaking of the sacrament has in the Church today. The thank offering was to offer thanks[8] to God for the great blessings that had been extended to the Israelites, His grace and His goodness in their lives. In Luke 2:22–23, we discover that Joseph and Mary went to the temple to offer an offering. It was a thank offering because they had received a blessing of peace in the gift of this Son who had come to their family and, more importantly, to Israel, to the whole world.

All these offerings were free-will offerings, not by command or upon demand. These offerings were to help the Israelites to focus on God and their relationship to Him, and for them to acknowledge who it was that gave them great blessings in their lives.

The sin offering and the trespass offering were the most important offerings under the law of carnal commandments. A sin offering[9] was given in recognition that a person had come to grips with the sins in his life that were not generally well known by others. There were sins of omission, or sins in one’s heart and thoughts, not so much outwardly manifest as inwardly manifest. The trespass offering,[10] on the other hand, was a direct result of outward transgressions. An integral part of the trespass offering was the requirement upon the participant to have repented of the sin and made some sort of restitution. The law was very specific about the kinds of restitutions that were to be offered. For example, if one had stolen five of another man’s finest sheep, the law required that he restore to him double, or ten. If people were really sincere in honoring the law, they thought twice about borrowing their neighbor’s sheep. In some instances, the law required a recompense or restitution of only 20 percent, but in other instances, it was as much as 100 percent.[11]

Now, what was the purpose of the sin offering and the trespass offering? To teach the people to repent and to obtain the power of repentance in their personal lives so that they could develop self-control and get their feet on the path that leads to salvation. That was the simple purpose of it. Could a person go through the outward practice of the law and never do it with full intent? Yes. Does that ever happen when an individual partakes of the sacrament thoughtlessly? They also had to struggle with their intent in their religious practice. These offerings were the chief ordinances that were a part of the law of carnal commandments.

There was also the heave offering, or the wave offering,[12] which was a very specialized offering given by the priests only. It was possible, for example, if you chose the right kind of an animal, to offer one offering for all of the offerings. Some have the misconception that the Israelites were running in every day burning up sheep or goats. That was not the purpose of the offering. Usually a family presented an offering once or twice a year on a special occasion, such as at a feast or conference time, the birth of a child, or other special events, or when they had come to grips with their problems and really wanted a renewal and a refreshment. If they had sufficient resources, they provided the sheep or the goat. If not, the law in some instances permitted lesser substitutions.[13] They took the offering to the tabernacle or, later in their history, to the temple, where the priest would receive them at the gate. The family was not allowed to go past the precincts for the congregation into the area for offerings and sacrifices. The priests took the animal and ceremonially slaughtered it. The priest was allowed to receive or keep the hide as part of the payment for his service.[14] Some of the inner parts were burnt, and some were disposed of in other ways.[15] The animals that were slaughtered were prepared in a special way so as to teach the people of the Atonement. Then the family took the animal of the offerings home, roasted it, and had a special religious meal in commemoration of the things they were trying to accomplish, or it was taken to the priest’s family, depending on which type of offering was given.[16]

The priest did not have time to keep flocks as others did, so he was allowed to keep one quarter of an animal as payment for his service. He usually took one of the front quarters of the animal. Again one brought the animal to the priest, and he took it into the precincts. One could watch him as he prepared the animal for the family. He took the hide and probably gave it to one of his sons who attended him there, and then he removed the quarter that was to be payment for his family. He then took that quarter and lifted it up, pointing towards the area where the individual was waiting, and the priest heaved it or waved it above his head, indicating, “This is my payment.” Then the individual acknowledged, “Yes, that is your payment.” That was the heave or the wave offering—payment for his service.[17]

The priest was required to tithe his portion. He took a small amount of the meat to the altar and acknowledged that this was a gift from God for the service that he had rendered as a priesthood bearer in behalf of one of the children of Israel.[18] Then he could take that roast home for his family and they would be cared for. It was a very practical system, and it all had significance to enable people to have focus in their personal lives and to help them develop self-control.

The performances of the law of carnal commandments are enumerated in numerous places in the Old Testament—such as, do not mix crops in the field.[19] The Israelites were not to sow oats and barley together. They could not have three rows of corn and four rows of peas. They were not to mix the fabric of garments—no wool with linen, for example. The fibers had to be separate. What was the purpose of such performances? To remind them of their covenants. When they sowed a field, they were always reminded that Israel was a part of the covenant people, and they were not to intermingle with nations outside the covenant. That simple reminder was intended to remind them of their covenants. These are only a sample of a multitude of examples, all of which had a practical purpose.

The Book of Mormon teaches of the full spirit of all of these laws that were revealed. In 2 Nephi 11:4 we read, “Behold, my soul delighteth in proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ; for, for this end hath the law of Moses been given; and all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of him.”

Notice how Nephi reminds them that everything involved in the practices of the law of Moses, as he identified it, was associated with Christ; and it was done with the intent to bring them to Christ.

In 2 Nephi is recorded:

And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled.

For, for this end was the law given; wherefore the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith; yet we keep the law because of the commandments.

And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.

Wherefore, we speak concerning the law that our children may know the deadness of the law; and they, by knowing the deadness of the law, may look forward unto that life which is in Christ, and know for what end the law was given [that they may look for what end the law was given, all to focus on Christ]. And after the law is fulfilled in Christ, that they need not harden their hearts against him when the law ought to be done away. (2 Nephi 25:24–27)

The Spirit of the Lord was essential to the full significance of this system of performances and ordinances.

Additional examples of performances can be cited from the great Passover feast established in Exodus 11 and 12 in the Old Testament. Many symbols in this feast are associated with the Atonement. Some of them are very obvious; for example, the firstborn animal—the lamb without blemish.[20] Study the book of Leviticus in detail to see how the priests were to slaughter the lamb. They were careful never to break the bones. The throat was to be cut in just a special way so that the blood would be let out totally. What was the significance of all of that? To teach and remind of the Atonement of Christ.[21]

There were other, more subtle types of performances. First, the animal chosen was to be sufficient to feed the group that one was hosting at the home. It was to be, however, just enough to feed all who were present because the law required that it was to be totally consumed.[22] In other words, the sacrifice of the animal had to be complete or total. To use Book of Mormon language, it was to be an infinite sacrifice like unto the “infinite” Atonement.[23] There was to be none left. If some was left, it was to be burned. Why did they put the blood on the doorpost? Because only under the covenant of Christ, or under the blood of the Lamb, could Israel be saved. That is to say, unless we fall under the effects of the blood of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, there is no salvation in Israel.[24]

There are many ramifications in the symbolism and the practices of the feasts in ancient Israel. As Nephi said, “We are made alive in Christ because of our faith” (2 Nephi 25:25). This statement is indeed true, but only if one has the Spirit of the Lord. The Book of Mormon prophets saw this system of laws with that perspective, and it had great power in their lives. In 2 Nephi 5:10, Nephi reports on this observation and practice, “And we did observe to keep the judgments, and the statutes, and the commandments of the Lord in all things according to the law of Moses.”

In Jacob 4:5, the brother of Nephi testified of the effect of the law of Moses through all the ages:

Behold, they believed in Christ and worshipped the Father in his name, and also we worship the Father in his name. And for this intent we keep the law of Moses, it pointing our souls to him [not just by way of remembrance, you see; even the practices were to help them in their personal lives to start down the road and to find edification from it]; and for this cause it is sanctified unto us for righteousness, even as it was accounted unto Abraham in the wilderness to be obedient unto the commands of God in offering up his son Isaac, which is a similitude of God and his Only Begotten Son.

The prophet Alma likewise taught:

Yea, and they did keep the law of Moses; for it was expedient that they should keep the law of Moses as yet, for it was not all fulfilled. But notwithstanding the law of Moses, they did look forward to the coming of Christ, considering that the law of Moses was a type of his coming, and believing that they must keep those outward performances until the time that he should be revealed unto them. Now they did not suppose that salvation came by the law of Moses; but the law of Moses did serve to strengthen their faith in Christ; and thus they did retain a hope through faith, unto eternal salvation, relying upon the spirit of prophecy, which spake of those things to come. (Alma 25:15–16)

Therefore, it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; and then shall there be, or it is expedient there should be, a stop to the shedding of blood; then shall the law of Moses be fulfilled; yea, it shall be all fulfilled, every jot and tittle, and none shall have passed away. And behold, this is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal. (Alma 34:13–14)

What of New Testament times? How understood was the true spirit of the law in the days of the Savior and His Apostles? In Luke 24:44 is a significant statement. Jesus reminded the disciples what had happened when He was with them and then said that “all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses [what is the focus of the law of Moses? Christ is the focus; He is the purpose], and in the prophets [their testimonies were of the Messiah], and in the psalms, concerning me” (emphasis added).

What book of the Old Testament was the most frequently quoted scripture by Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament?[25] The book of Psalms. What was the second most quoted scripture in the New Testament by Jesus and the Apostles? The book of Isaiah, of which about 80 percent is written in poetic form. Why would they choose these two books instead of others? Because the people were best acquainted with these particular books. For the common folk (the Bedouin) in the desert, the Semitic tradition of the Middle East was for the people to sit around the campfires and sing the songs of their religious heritage. The poetic writings (songs) were chiefly the Psalms and Isaiah. They memorized them, or at least parts of them, through the long established tribal system of oral transmission. They learned to sing from the books of Psalms and Isaiah, for these books were the most readily accessible to them. The third most quoted book in the New Testament is the book of Deuteronomy and then other books of the Pentateuch. In comparison to the Psalms and Isaiah, however, they are almost insignificant, because most people had little familiarity with, or at best a limited access to, the rest of the scriptural record. In view of the teachings of the Savior and His reminder of what the scriptural sources taught of Him, His testimony was that if one had the spirit of those scriptures, they all pointed to Him.

At a special time when some were permitted to go to the Apostle Paul in his place of residence in Rome, he taught them about his great ministry and testimony and witness as an Apostle. “And when they had appointed him a day, there came many to him into his lodging; to whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets” (Acts 28:23; emphasis added).

When the spirit of the law of Moses is really understood, can one teach of Christ? Paul did, and he used it in power while teaching.

In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, the Apostle reports of the power of the proper spirit of the law with great power and testimony: “The day following Jesus would go forth into Galilee, and findeth Philip, and saith unto him, Follow me. Now Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:43; emphasis added). They had found the Messiah. It is this Messiah, this Christ, of whom the law of Moses taught, as well as other prophets. Those who had the true spirit of the law in New Testament times or in Book of Mormon times recognized the efficacy and power of the law of Moses in helping them to focus on what would bring them to Christ.

What caused many of God’s people to detour from the purpose of the law? Again, the Book of Mormon provides the answer:

Behold, my brethren, he that prophesieth, let him prophesy to the understanding of men; for the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested unto us plainly, for the salvation of our souls. [If you are able to maintain the spirit of the law of Moses, it gives you focus and foundation to lead you to salvation.] But behold, we are not witnesses alone in these things; for God also spake them unto prophets of old.

But behold, the Jews were a stiffnecked people; and they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark [when they lost the spirit of it, they could not keep the focus; they didn’t know the direction they were heading; and problems developed], they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble. (Jacob 4:13–14)

The New Testament record provides an excellent illustration of this problem. Matthew 9:16 and 17 discusses a metaphor that new cloth is not put on or sewn with old cloth and new wine is not put in old bottles.[26] These verses certainly illustrate a principle that seems to be out of context with the law of Moses. In the Joseph Smith Translation (JST), we find the Prophet Joseph Smith added four verses, which suggests that something was lost from the text. This restored text gives a perspective to the problem that had come to the Israelites because of their looking beyond the mark.

Then said the Pharisees unto him, Why will ye not receive us with our baptism, seeing we keep the whole law?

But Jesus said unto them, Ye keep not the law. If ye had kept the law, ye would have received me [if you had the spirit of the law, you would have known what I was trying to teach you], for I am he who gave the law.

I receive not you with your baptism, because it profiteth you nothing.

For when that which is new is come, the old is ready to be put away. (JST, Matthew 9:18–21)

What had happened? Why did the Jews use the phrase “our baptism,” as opposed to “his baptism”? Baptism was a part of the preparatory gospel of the law of Moses.[27] The Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 10, bears testimony that Israel was baptized in the Red Sea with Moses.[28] Doctrine and Covenants 84 is a confirming testimony that this principle was inherent in the law that the ancients practiced. The Book of Mormon bears testimony that baptism was a part of the law of Moses, which they brought with them, for the practice of it is found in the record from the very beginning to the end.[29] But the Jews had lost the spirit and power of it and had confused and eventually combined it with, or in some cases, substituted it for, something else. Some of the performances given under the law of carnal commandments were a series of washings and cleansings that were to be performed at different times in people’s lives. There were many washings of purification.[30] Some of them had very practical purposes, but everything that was done under the law of carnal commandments was spiritually based. The performances were intended to teach a principle or to give focus and perspective. Therefore, there was no separation, so to speak, of church and state, of the temporal and the spiritual.

But when Judah (the Jews) fell into apostasy and lost the priesthood, they took the principle of baptism and some of these washings and mixed them together, forming a new interpretation and initiating the tradition that is still practiced today. They call it the mikveh, meaning “gathering of water.” It is a ritual bath, an immersion, of cleansing or washing.[31] Jews of varying religious interpretations use it in a variety of different ways. Some do it only once or twice in their lifetime, whereas others do it frequently. In Qumran near the Dead Sea are numerous of these washing pools. They look like baptismal fonts, but they are the mikveh (bath) of the Jews who lived there.[32] The ancient fortress of Masada likewise has these pools.[33] The excavations south of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem also reveal many mikveh.[34]

The reintroduction of gospel principles in Jesus’ day came with John, who was to prepare the way. Was there great concern over John the Baptist’s immersing or cleansing people? No. They never raised a question about that. Why? Because the mikveh bath of purification was a common practice and part of their religious worship. It was not a strange thing. In fact, Jewish law says that the purest form of washing in the mikveh is with a running stream.[35] When John chose to baptize in the Jordan River, he chose the purest pool of washing that their tradition allowed. Why, then, all the contention about John the Baptist? Because of his message! He announced himself as one sent to prepare the way for the Messiah.[36] It was the directness of this theological assertion that threatened the Jewish leaders. He also came with priesthood authority and power to baptize and restored the ordinance of baptism to its proper order. The great lavern basin in the temple of Solomon was a baptismal font for the living.[37] That knowledge was lost from the Old Testament record as we have it. That is why this restored text in the Matthew account of the Savior’s teaching to the Pharisees who had developed another tradition is so important.

The full history of the mikveh bath is very difficult to trace. By the time the recorded oral tradition of the Jews was established, which is called the Mishnah, the tradition and practice of the mikveh was firmly in place. It obviously had Old Testament roots. The Mishnah is usually dated as early as 200 B.C. The mikveh bath is an apostate form of baptism that came down from the Old Testament times with this modified purpose. The full significance of the baptismal ordinance had been lost to them. The Mishnaic tradition specified that the convert to Judaism must fulfill three requirements.[38] First, male converts had to be circumcised. Second, all converts were to wash themselves clean by immersion in a mikveh bath.[39] Third, they were to offer sacrifice in the temple. Many Jews were never able to make such a pilgrimage during the time of the temple. How then did they fulfill the requirement of sacrifice? They commissioned another person to offer a proxy sacrifice for them. After the temple was destroyed, how was the requirement of sacrifice satisfied? The traditional rabbinical substitute for the law of sacrifice and offerings was prayer and the study of the Torah.[40]

In Matthew 23 is a great discourse by Jesus that reveals some additional principles that were stumbling blocks to wayward Israel:

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat:

All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.

For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.

But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments. (Matthew 23:1–5; emphasis added)

Christ openly condemned some of the religious paraphernalia and tradition that had already long been used among the Jews of His day. He mentioned specifically the phylactery boxes that were used for their prayers and their prayer shawls.[41] He condemned these practices as not being in the spirit of the law. He described them as “heavy burdens to be borne.” These and other added practices are often confused with the law of Moses. Also from some of the performances of the law of carnal commandments developed a whole system of traditions that are misinterpretations and distortions of the law of Moses. These traditions deprived the children of Israel of the spirit of the law of Moses and robbed them of the power and direction that that law could give them. The Savior’s condemnation continues:

“But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation” (Matthew 23:13–14).

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than he was before like unto yourselves” (JST, Matthew 23:12; see also Matthew 23:15).

Christ is very condemnatory in this setting. Why? Because they surfeited even the proselyte (the convert) with these false traditions. Later in the same chapter He taught another great principle: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law [you’ve lost the whole spirit and direction of it, and what it means in a person’s life, such as], judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone” (Matthew 23:23).

Another familiar New Testament scriptural passage, Luke 14:34, seems to have little to do with the law of Moses. “Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be seasoned?”

The Joseph Smith Translation provides the proper context for this passage as an example of the Pharisaic traditions: “Then certain of them came to him, saying, Good Master, we have Moses and the prophets, and whosoever shall live by them, shall he not have life? And Jesus answered, saying, Ye know not Moses, neither the prophets; for if ye had known them, ye would have believed on me; for to this intent they were written. For I am sent that ye might have life. Therefore I will liken it unto salt which is good; but if the salt has lost its savor, wherewith shall it be seasoned?” (JST, Luke 14:35–37).

They had corrupted the law—the salt—to the extent that the salt had lost its savor. Their traditions had contaminated the law, and it had lost its purpose and power to bring people to Christ.

The net effect of these traditions on the adherents of the law of Moses in the Apostles’ day is described in modern revelation: “And it came to pass that the children, being brought up in subjection to the law of Moses, gave heed to the traditions of their fathers and believed not the gospel of Christ, wherein they became unholy” (D&C 74:4).

Remember what the Apostle Paul said of the law in Galatians 3:17–25:

And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.

For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise.

Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.

Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one.

Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.

But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.

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.

Why was the law of carnal commandments given? “It was added because of transgressions.” To what was it added? The preparatory gospel. And what was the purpose of the added law of carnal commandments? To teach the children of Israel how to repent, so they could increase the Spirit in their lives to become more focused and come unto Christ. In Galatians 3:24, Paul makes a great statement in which he described the law as a “schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ.” The Joseph Smith Translation adds a very significant change: “The law was our schoolmaster until Christ” (JST, Galatians 3:24). The law was not just to bring us to Christ but a schoolmaster till Christ came, and then it was fulfilled.

The law and its purposes, particularly the law of carnal commandments, were fulfilled at Christ’s first advent, both to the Church established in the holy land[42] and also to the peoples of the Americas. Jesus declared that this law was fulfilled in Him and that it therefore had an end:

And it came to pass that when Jesus had said these words he perceived that there were some among them who marveled, and wondered what he would concerning the law of Moses; for they understood not the saying that old things had passed away, and that all things had become new.

And he said unto them: Marvel not that I said unto you that old things had passed away, and that all things had become new.

Behold, I say unto you that the law is fulfilled that was given unto Moses.

Behold, I am he that gave the law, and I am he who covenanted with my people Israel; therefore, the law in me is fulfilled, for I have come to fulfill the law; therefore it hath an end.

Behold, I do not destroy the prophets, for as many as have not been fulfilled in me, verily I say unto you, shall all be fulfilled.

And because I said unto you that old things have passed away, I do not destroy that which hath been spoken concerning things which are to come.

For behold, the covenant which I have made with my people is not all fulfilled; but the law which was given unto Moses hath an end in me.

Behold, I am the law, and the light. Look unto me, and endure to the end, and ye shall live; for unto him that endureth to the end will I give eternal life. (3 Nephi 15:2–9)

In 2 Corinthians 3 the Apostle Paul wrote to the Saints at Corinth who were, for the most part, converts from Judaism:

Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.

And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward:

Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God;

Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament [or the new covenant]; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. (2 Corinthians 3:3–6)

The key that made the law of Moses operative in their lives was the Israelites’ ability to obtain and keep the spirit of it. If they followed only the letter of the law, it became dead to them. Many, today, tend to interpret the law of Moses with “the letter” alone. That is an error. The law of Moses viewed in the proper perspective had the Spirit and power and made it possible for individuals to obtain the Spirit in their own lives.

The scripture continues: “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 3:14). When Christ is recognized in the Old Testament, then comes understanding and a love of it! But even to this day when Moses (or the Old Testament) is read, “the vail is upon their heart” (2 Corinthians 3:15). Paul gave us the key that removes the veil from one’s mind: “Nevertheless when it shall turn to the Lord, the vail shall be taken away” (2 Corinthians 3:16). The Joseph Smith Translation adds two words that give a clearer focus: their heart. Nevertheless, “when their heart shall turn to the Lord, the vail shall be taken away” (JST, 2 Corinthians 3:16). In other words, there must be humility, teachableness, meekness, and obedience. To have the veil removed makes it possible for the individual to repent and come unto Christ. That was the true spirit of the law of Moses.

Do we ever wander in a “wilderness” as a people? Do we have a “law of Moses” added because of transgressions? Are we really ready to build Zion? What then is the true purpose of the law of tithing and the Welfare Services program? Do we have “schoolmasters” to bring us to consecration, to Zion, to prepare for the Millennium? President Joseph F. Smith prophetically declared:

We expect to see the day, if we live long enough (and if some of us do not live long enough to see it, there are others who will), when every council of the Priesthood in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will understand its duty; will assume its responsibility, will magnify its calling, and fill its place in the Church. . . . When that day shall come, there will not be so much necessity for work that is now being done by the auxiliary organizations, because it will be done by the regular quorums of the Priesthood. The Lord designed and comprehended it from the beginning, and he has made provision in the Church whereby every need may be met and satisfied through the regular organizations of the Priesthood.[43]

Are not the auxiliaries and various programs “schoolmasters” to us? Are we really so different from ancient Israel?

May the Lord bless us and help us that we might capture the spirit of the law of Moses, for I testify that it was an integral part of the gospel of Jesus Christ and its intent was to lead that people to Christ and help them become Christlike. We should hope that abiding by our “laws and performances” might also have a similar effect in leading us to a more Christlike character.


[1] Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1979), 3:115–17; 5:84–86.

[2] See Moses 5:5–8.

[3] Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 4:155–60. See also 1:116–18; 3:154–57.

[4] Edward J. Brandt, “The Priesthood Ordinances of Sacrifice,” Ensign, December 1973, 49–53.

[5] See Leviticus 3; 7:11–38.

[6] See Leviticus 7:16; 22:18, 21, 23; Numbers 15:3; 29:39; Deuteronomy 12:6, 13; 16:10; 23:23.

[7] See Leviticus 7:16; 22:18, 21, 23; Numbers 15:3, 8; 29:39; Deuteronomy 12:6.

[8] See Leviticus 7:12–13, 15; 22:29.

[9] See Leviticus 4; 5:1–13; 6:25–30; JST, Matthew 26:24.

[10] See Leviticus 5:15–19; 6:1–7; 7:1–10.

[11] See Leviticus 5:16; 6:5–17; 27:13, 15, 19, 27, 31; Numbers 5:6–10.

[12] See Exodus 29:26–27; Leviticus 7:14, 32–34; Numbers 18.

[13] See Leviticus 5:7, 11.

[14] See Leviticus 6:25–30; 7:7–8, 16; 14:13.

[15] See Leviticus 3:3–5.

[16] See Leviticus 7:16.

[17] See Leviticus 7:35–36; Deuteronomy 18:1–8.

[18] See Leviticus 2:2, 9, 16; 5:12; 6:15; Numbers 5:26; 18:26–29.

[19] See Leviticus 19:19; Deuteronomy 22:9–11.

[20] See Exodus 12:5; 13:6.

[21] See Leviticus 16.

[22] See Exodus 12:4.

[23] See 2 Nephi 9:7; 25:16; Alma 34:10, 12, 14.

[24] See Exodus 12:7.

[25] See Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Quotations,” 756–59.

[26] See Matthew 9:16–17; Mark 2:21–22; Luke 5:36–37.

[27] See D&C 84:27.

[28] See 1 Corinthians 10:1–4. See also Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1968), 3:88; 6:34.

[29] See 2 Nephi 31:5; Mosiah 18:10; 21:35; Alma 7:14; 3 Nephi 1:27; Moroni 8:25.

[30] See notes to Exodus 30:19–21; 40:31; Leviticus 11, 15.

[31] Philip Birnbaum, A Book of Jewish Concepts (New York: Hebrew, 1964), 239, 391.

[32] Frank Moore Cross Jr., The Ancient Library of Qumran, rev. ed. (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1961), 67–68; see also William Sanford LaSor, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1972), 40, 134, 149–51.

[33] Yigael Yadin, Masada (London: Sphere Books Ltd., 1973), 164–67. See also Hershel Shanks, Judaism in Stone (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), 18–19, 26–30.

[34] Nahman Avigad, Discovering Jerusalem (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983), 139–43. See also Benjamin Mazar, The Mountain of the Lord (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975), 128–29, 145–47.

[35] Herbert Danby, The Mishnah (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 732–33.

[36] See John 1:19–28.

[37] See 1 Kings 7:23–26; 2 Chronicles 4:2–5.

[38] Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 3:88.

[39] Birnbaum, Book of Jewish Concepts, 239.

[40] Birnbaum, Book of Jewish Concepts, 551.

[41] See Deuteronomy 6:8b.

[42] See Hebrews 8:13; see also 2 Corinthians 5:17.

[43] Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1977), 159.