When Moses brought the Children of Israel out of Egypt, they had been there for 430 years, and were in a state of apostasy. They had forgotten the covenants the Lord had made with their fathers, and had embraced the idols and gods of Egypt. The Lord called Moses to speak to them, but they wouldn’t listen:
And Moses spake so unto the children of Israel: but they hearkened not unto Moses
They witnesses the signs that the Lord showed Pharaoh, they experienced the tender mercies of the Lord first hand in the Passover, but miracles do not produce faith, and we read of their inability to trust the Lord at the edge of the Red Sea:
2. Exodus 14:11
And they said unto Moses,
Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness?
wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt?
Even then, after crossing through the Red Sea on dry ground where moments before there had been only unending water, even after this miraculous deliverance, they did not cast out the idols as they were commanded, and they continued to murmur. Israel had been brought out of Egypt, but much of Egypt remained within the hearts of the Israelites, and they were not converted to the Lord. Rather than destroying them, the Lord in His mercy gave them the Law of Moses to prepare them for the fullness of His gospel. For well over a thousand years from that point, the Law of Moses was the criminal, civil as well as religious code for the Jewish nation. Although the Israelites had continually struggled with apostasy, “the Law” had been there to guide every aspect of life for so long that the Jews at the time of Christ struggled to imagine life without it.
From an Ensign article in Sep. 1983 we learn:
Much of the New Testament deals with the Law of Moses and with the implications of its fulfillment in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The books of Galatians, Romans, and Hebrews, and important parts of several others, including Acts, James, Colossians, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 Corinthians, all wrestle with the issue of the Law, and its continued role after the Atonement. Therefore, it is important to understand what the Law was and how it was fulfilled in order to fully understand these portions of the New Testament.
Strictly speaking, the Law of Moses consists of the first five books of the Old Testament—what the Jews call the Torah. These five books of Moses (Genesis; Exodus; Leviticus; Numbers; and Deuteronomy) are also called the Pentateuch, but in the New Testament they are usually just “the Law.” Sometimes the term “the Law” was used for the whole Old Testament, but usually a distinction was made between the books of Moses (the Law) and those of subsequent prophets (the Prophets); hence, the custom in Jesus’ time of referring to the Hebrew scriptures as “the Law and the Prophets” (for example, Matt. 5:17; Matt. 7:12).
In the past, when I have thought about the Law of Moses, I thought of the animal sacrifice, and the exhaustive lists to be slogged through in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, but the Law is much more. Everything about the Law of Moses was designed to point the mind to Christ. According to the Doctrine and Covenants, it was a preparatory gospel:
3. Doctrine and Covenants 84:27 (first part)
Which gospel is the gospel of repentance
and of baptism, and the remission of sins, and the law of carnal commandments
Which gospel is the gospel of repentance
and of baptism, and the remission of sins, and the law of carnal commandments
Understanding the Law of Moses is vital to the modern reader because it is indispensible in understanding the scriptures, particularly the Old and New Testaments. The Nephites also kept the Law of Moses, and Book of Mormon prophets add important explanations.
Ancient rabbis considered all parts of the Law to be equally important, but recognized a distinction between the ethical portions and the ceremonial portions of the Law. This division is still useful to the modern reader of the scriptures. I want to deal with the ethical portions, which dealt with relationships among people, first. The principles the Lord gives His people to guide their actions and relations are eternal in nature, and the Law of Moses requirements are actually still present in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Again from the Ensign:
For example, the Savior expanded the commandments “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” by now commanding Christians to avoid even hatred or lust. (Matt. 5:28, 44.) Merely abstaining from adultery and murder was no longer sufficient. Christians must now change their very hearts, and this was more than the old Law had required. Also, at the Last Supper Jesus had made it clear that the atonement he was about to accomplish instituted a new covenant which would replace that of Sinai. (See Luke 22:20, 37.) And on at least two occasions in the New Testament (Matt. 5:31–32; Matt. 19:3–9), Jesus made it clear that the teaching of the Law (in this case on the issue of divorce) was not eternal but was only a temporary concession made necessary by the hard-heartedness of Israel. In the Book of Mormon, this was also the teaching of Abinadi to the court of King Noah on the nature of the Law of Moses. (See Mosiah 13:29–31.)And yet it is vital to note that in the teaching of Jesus, the Law was not revoked nor repealed but fulfilled. (Matt. 5:17.) Under the gospel of Christ, murder, adultery, and dishonesty are still prohibited, and the formal requirements of the Law are still essentially in place; but the demand of the Law of Moses has been expanded, has been filled to its fullest extent. Where there is no hatred or greed, there can be no murder; where there is no lust, there can be no adultery. With the coming of Christ, the ethical portion of the Law had not been abolished; it had been caught up by, included in, and expanded to a broader application its intention, its potential as an ethical standard, had been fulfilled.
Then, as now, keeping the ethical portion of the Law prepares the mind and heart to receive further light and knowledge from the Lord. Obedience to the commands to love God and love our neighbor prepares our hearts for the fullness of the Gospel and invites the guidance of the Spirit in our lives. This portion of the Law points the heart toward Christ by increasing faith and righteousness in the heart of the worshiper.
The ceremonial portions of the Law of Moses consisted of performances and ordinances which were deeply symbolic, with all the symbols pointing toward the coming Atonement of Jesus Christ. The intent is that the Law of Moses should become a schoolmaster to bring the people to the Lord. Speaking of animal sacrifice, the Prophet Joseph Smith said,
“Certainly, the shedding of the blood of a beast could be beneficial to no man, except it was done in imitation, or as a type, or explanation of what was to be offered through the gift of God Himself; and this performance done with an eye looking forward in faith on the power of that great sacrifice for a remission of sins.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 58.)
Like the sacrament, animal sacrifice under the Law of Moses pointed the mind toward the great Sacrifice of our Lord. In our day, the Sacrament serves to bring to remembrance the body and the blood of the Savior. In ancient times, animal sacrifices were designed to point the mind forward to the coming Atonement, both ordinances serve to strengthen the participant’s faith in Christ. Elder Ballard explained more about the symbolism of those ancient sacrifices:
Always a firstborn male animal without blemish was sacrificed to represent the firstborn of God spiritually and physically, a perfect or sinless offering. The shedding of the blood of the animal represented the sacrifice and suffering of an innocent life for others. The offering of the whole animal, at times, was an emblem of the complete and infinite sacrifice that Christ would make. The consumption of the animal by fire, a symbol of purification, suggested the possibility of receiving the sanctifying influence of the Holy Ghost through the exercise of repentance and baptism. Similarly, the ordinance of the sacrament consists of the administration of the “emblems of the flesh and blood of Christ”, in remembrance of his atoning sacrifice and suffering: “… this doth witness unto the Father that ye are willing to do that which I have commanded you.”
At a time when life depended very directly on the family’s herd animals and crops grown, the Law of Moses asked for sacrifice of the best of both: the firstlings of the flock, and the first fruits of the field. This was a real test of faith for those who wanted to worship the Lord! While the Law of Moses has been fulfilled, the Law of Sacrifice is still essential to the Gospel of Christ, and essential to our efforts to come unto Christ. Joseph Smith the Prophet explained the relationship between faith and sacrifice:
“Let us here observe, that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; … it is through the medium of the sacrifice of all earthly things that men do actually know that they are doing the things that are well pleasing in the sight of God. When a man has offered in sacrifice all that he has for the truth’s sake, not even withholding his life, and believing before God that he has been called to make this sacrifice because he seeks to do his will, he does know, most assuredly, that God does and will accept his sacrifice and offering, and that he has not, nor will not seek his face in vain. Under these circumstances, then, he can obtain the faith necessary for him to lay hold on eternal life” (Lectures on Faith , 69).
Elder Ballard said:
As we sacrifice our selfish desires, serve our God and others, we become more like Him.Elder Russell M. Nelson has taught: “We are still commanded to sacrifice, but not by shedding blood of animals. Our highest sense of sacrifice is achieved as we make ourselves more sacred or holy.“This we do by our obedience to the commandments of God. Thus, the laws of obedience and sacrifice are indelibly intertwined. … As we comply with these and other commandments, something wonderful happens to us. … We become more sacred and holy—[more] like our Lord!” (“Lessons from Eve,” Ensign, Nov. 1987, 88).In fact, the word sacrifice means literally “to make sacred,” or “to render sacred.”…
As we contemplate the replacing of animal sacrifice with the sacrament, we cannot help but notice a strong relationship between the two. Both sacrifice and sacrament:• Are affected by a person’s attitude and worthiness (see Amos 5:6–7, 9–10, 21–22; 3 Ne. 18:27–29; Moro. 7:6–7).• Were designed to be performed by priests officiating in the Aaronic Priesthood (see D&C 13:1; D&C 20:46).• Focus on Christ (see Luke 22:19–20; Alma 34:13–14).• Use emblems that represent Christ’s flesh and blood (see Luke 22:19–20; Moses 5:6–7).• Provide a means whereby one can make and renew covenants with God (see Lev. 22:21; D&C 20:77, 79).• Are performed regularly on the Sabbath as well as on other special occasions (see Lev. 23:15; D&C 59:9–13).• Are associated with meals that symbolically represent the Atonement (see Matt. 26:26; Lev. 7:16–18).• Are the only saving ordinances in which members participate for themselves more than once.• Provide an important step in the process of repentance (see Lev. 19:22; 3 Ne. 18:11; Moses 5:7–8).
When I was asked to talk about the Law of Moses and the Atonement, my initial reaction was to wonder, “What sort of a topic is that?” As I began studying, it became a very interesting academic exercise. As I continued, I learned that it’s neither off the wall nor strictly an academic exercise. The relationship of the Law of Moses to the Atonement is as compelling as the Sacrament’s, and both are intimately connected with the Law of Sacrifice, the scriptures, and our salvation. I want to close with a final quote from Elder Ballard:
If I have a fear, it is that the principle of sacrifice may be slipping away from us. This principle is a law of God. We are obliged to understand it and practice it. If being a member of this Church becomes too easy, testimonies will become shallow, and the roots of testimony will not go down into the soil of faith as they did with our … forefathers. May God grant each of us an understanding of the law of sacrifice and a conviction that it is necessary today. It is vitally important that we understand this law and live it.
To this I add my testimony of Jesus Christ. That He lives. He loves us.