Does Old Testament law apply to Christians? A large portion of the first 5 books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) is dedicated to laws governing how Israel was to live, eat, and worship. Should Christians follow those laws?
The Old Testament is Obsolete, Right?
I’ve heard and read something like the following argument countless times:
No sane person thinks that there is any problem wearing clothes made of different fabrics [Leviticus 19:19], nor would any sane person think capital punishment appropriate for a child who curses his parents [Leviticus 20:9]. Since we don’t abide by these or many other Old Testament laws any more, isn’t it clear that modern Christians shouldn’t abide by ANY Old Testament laws?
Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Here’s the problem:
The Old Testament, while containing some laws that no longer apply to Christians, also contains the Ten Commandments and other components of the ethical foundation of the teachings of Jesus. For example, Leviticus, the book everyone loves to ridicule, contains beautiful ethical teachings:
Did you know that “Love your neighbor as yourself” comes from Leviticus? (Leviticus 19:18.)
Rather than being obsolete, the Old Testament contains much that is more relevant than ever for the people of God. But, it also contains elements that no longer apply. Which is which? How do we know which parts of the Old Testament law we should follow, and which are no longer binding on God’s people?
The Epic of Eden
Sandra Richter, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, has an excellent book on the Old Testament called The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in learning more about the Old Testament. In the epilogue to the book she includes some Frequently Asked Questions, one of which is What Role Does the Law of Moses Play in the Christian’s Life? (pp. 225-229) I found her answer so helpful that I publish it below, with permission from her publisher. I’ve added my own remarks throughout.
What Role Does the Law of Moses Play in the Christian’s Life?
Most everyone recognizes that simply abolishing the entire Mosaic law contradicts the New Testament (what do you do with the Ten Commandments?). Most equally recognize that imposing the law in its entirety on the Christian also contradicts the New Testament (what of God’s instructions to Peter in Acts 10 to embrace unclean foods as clean?). So most have concluded that there must a middle-of-the-road position. The most enduring approach to defining this middle-of-the-road position has been the attempt to somehow delineate the law according to “moral” versus “civil” (or “ethical” versus “ritual”) categories. The claim is typically that the moral/ethical features of the law are still in force for the Christian, but the civil/ritual features are obsolete and can be put safely aside. For example, some would claim that the Ten Commandments can be cataloged as “moral” and are therefore still binding, but the law requiring tassels on the four corners of a person’s garment is to be catalogued as “civil/ritual” and is not (Num 15:38-39). The problem with this sort of delineation, however, is that in Israel’s world, there was no distinction between the civil/ritual and moral/ethical aspects of the law. All of these laws were deemed as the imperatives of God’s divine will. Moreover, to “honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12) was both a moral expectation and the civil requirement of a patriarchal society to provide for the elderly of one’s clan. And proper worship in a theocracy was an expression of both a moral/ethical and civil/ritual expectation. So what to do? [Emphasis mine. One of the mistakes we make in reading the Bible is to put our own categories on top of it. As Professor Richter points out, unlike us the ancient Israelites did not divide the world into the sacred and the secular, the religious and the legal: it was all one. –AF] In the end, most assume that the Mosaic law is generally annulled as regards the Christian but hold onto those aspects of the law that are either reiterated by Christ (a good idea) or those that generally just seem “right” (obviously not a satisfactory response to the question). [We see this all the time: people decide what’s right beforehand and bring that decision to the Bible. Here’s the problem, though–Where and how do we decide what’s right? What are the sources we use to decide what’s right? Aren’t we in danger of just blessing whatever feels good to us, or whatever the dominant culture tells us is right? The reason for the Mosaic Law in the first place was to give Israel a way of knowing right and wrong that was distinct from the surrounding pagan Canaanite cultures. –AF] Although I cannot offer a complete solution to the conundrum, let me at least contribute to an answer.
First, it is important to realize that as covenantal administrations change, so do the stipulations of those covenants. So, yes, the rules can and do change. And they change according to the will of the suzerain. [The suzerain is the king making the covenant, as she explains earlier in the book. For the Israelites, their king was the Lord. –AF] Hence, the first question we want to ask is, how does Jesus (our suzerain and mediator) change the rules with the new covenant? We find the answer to that question as we read through the Gospels. Here Jesus regularly calls his audience back to the intent of the Mosaic law. Was the sabbath created for man, or man for the sabbath (Mt 12:10)? Is adultery the problem or unbridled lust (Mt 7:27)? Is it more important that a person keep themselves ritually clean, or serve a neighbor in need (Lk 10:30-37)? So one thing Jesus tells his audience is to look beyond a legalistic adherence to particulars and see the goal of the law. This is clearly articulated in interactions like Matthew 22:36-40:
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depends the whole Law and the Prophets.”
Galatians 5:14 says the same: “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Thus, whereas the detailed message of the Mosaic law embodied the love of neighbor and God in concrete, time- and culture-bound expressions, Jesus finds a way to articulate the transcultural and all-embracing message of that same law to a new audience. [Emphasis mine. I think this is a perceptive analysis of the ethical teaching of Jesus. –AF] Moreover, he makes it clear that this message is still binding upon us new covenant adherents as well.
We also read that Jesus redefines the major institutions of Israel’s theocracy: the temple and the theocratic government. The temple is first re-defined as Jesus’own body, and then as the individual believer and the church (Jn 2:19-21; Eph 2:19-22). Jesus is identified as the final sacrifice (Heb 9:24-26) and as the church’s new high priest (Heb 2:17). Thus, with the new covenant we learn that Israel’s temple cultus is obsolete. [A “cultus” is a system of worship. –AF] And if this theocratic institution is obsolete, I believe it is safe to conclude that the complex processes dictated by the Mosaic law that directed the function of this institution (e.g. the design and décor of the building, the cleanness of priest and worshipper, sacrifice, mediation and the calendar of cultic celebration) are now obsolete as well. This means that in the new covenant the specific Mosaic regulations regarding these issues are annulled: our buildings of worship are no longer required to bring sacrifice, the laws of “clean and unclean” are abrogated, the mediation of human priests is unnecessary, and the holidays of Israel’s cult have become “a mere shadow of what is to come” (Col 2:16-17). [Emphasis mine. Did you get that? Because the Temple is obsolete for Christians (the entire book of Hebrews is essentially about this topic), then it follows that all the Old Testament laws pertaining to Temple worship are also obsolete. –AF]
And what of Israel’s theocratic government? Keep clearly in your mind that Israel was a nation that was directly ruled by God. Yahweh was enthroned in the temple in Jerusalem, “between the cherubim,” and carried out his ordinances by means of his officers, the prophet, the priest and king. Israel was a political entity with national territory. Its citizenry were, exclusively, the people of God. Foreign oppression, drought and famine were God’s communiqués that his people had somehow broken covenant; national prosperity was the sign that they had kept covenant. Thus the nation of Israel could justly go to war in the name of Yahweh, slaying Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites to defend the national boundaries of God’s kingdom. But Jesus makes it clear that his only throne will be in heaven (Mk 16:19; Heb 8:1; etc.). And as we’ve seen, the new citizenry of his kingdom will come from every tongue, tribe and nation. As opposed to the land of Canaan being the Promised Land, now all of the recreated earth is. Thus, in the new covenant there is no longer any single nation that can lay claim to being “the people of God” nor any single piece of real estate that is promised to them. [Emphasis mine. This is HUGE. Whereas before Jesus you had to be a member of Israel to be part of the people of God, now the church–the new Israel–is open to people of all ages, nations, and races. –AF] There are new officers for this new kingdom too. Even a cursory glance at Ephesians 4:11, 1 Corinthians 12:28 or 1 Timothy 3 lets us know that apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, deacons and teachers have replaced the prophet, priest and king of the Mosaic covenant. The only title that survives into the new covenant is that of “prophet,” but even this office is substantially transformed. Thus the very literal political realities of Israel’s theocracy are abrogated by the new covenant, and I believe we can safely say that the complex list of laws and regulations that governed the theocracy are abrogated as well. [Update: This is why capital punishments for crimes such as blasphemy and sorcery, etc., no longer apply: those rules were part of the Old Covenant theocracy. The offenses themselves are still sinful, but now that we live under the New Covenant of grace and no longer under the Israelite theocracy, the way the people of God deal with those offenses has changed. –AF]
Then, of course, there are those aspects of the Mosaic law that the writers of the New Testament specifically address as being changed or terminated. A few examples would be the necessity of circumcision (1 Cor 7:19), the regulations of kashrut (Acts 10:15), the rabbinic restrictions regarding the sabbath (Mt 12:1-9) and even divorce (Mt 19:3-9).
In sum, I think we can identify at least three categories of Mosaic law which, in their specific expectations, no longer apply to the Christian: those involving the regulations of Israel’s government, those involving the regulation of Israel’s temple, and those laws that the New Testament specifically repeals or changes. I would still argue that the values that shaped these regulations express the character of God and therefore must be attended to by the Christian, but the specifics of their application are no longer our responsibility. Thus my contribution to the conundrum named above is that rather than attempting to delineate the law of Moses based on categories foreign to that law itself (“more/ethical” and “civil/ritual”), perhaps we should address the question through a lens that is more native to both Old and New Testaments—Jesus’ redefinition of certain major institutions of the Mosaic covenant. And for all the Mosaic law, be it superseded or not, we need to recognize that we can (and must) still learn a great deal about the character of God through these laws, even if we can no longer directly apply them to ourselves in this new covenant. [Emphasis mine. Rather than being irrelevant to the church today, even those Old Testament laws that have been abrogated by the New Covenant have much to teach us about the Lord. –AF] So rather than thinking in terms of the Mosaic law as being obsolete except for what Jesus maintains (as has been the predominant view), perhaps we should begin to thing in terms of the law being in force except for what Jesus repeals.
Taken from The Epic of Eden by Sandra L. Richter. Copyright (c) 2008 by Sandra L. Richter. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com.