The world of the Old Testament seems foreign and strange what with the many fantastic stories, odd occurrences and strange rituals, and Christians often struggle with knowing how to relate to it. Even more they face questions or criticisms concerning the relevance or applicability of biblical commands that offend modern ears, and their own inconsistency in espousing biblical authority while failing themselves to obey them. While these issues warrant a much more lengthy discussion, in this brief article I would like to provide some explanation of how Christians relate to the Old Testament, in particular Old Testament Law.
Are Christians Ignoring Jesus’ Plain Teaching?
On surface it seems like so much of what the Old Testament commands, Christians today don’t do. And yet didn’t Jesus say:
“For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18)
Very quickly, while Jesus did affirm the unalterable nature of the law, was he by this implying that strict adherence to every command found in the law must continue in exactly the same way? The answer to this is a resounding ‘no’. Context shows us that in Matthew 5 what Jesus is emphasizing is not the continuation of what the Law prescribed, but rather what the Law was pointing to. And what was the Law (along with the Prophets) pointing to? Jesus answer this earlier in 5:1: “I have not come to abolish them [the Law and Prophets] but to fulfill them.” In other words, all of the Law and Prophets (down to the last ‘jot’ and ‘tittle’ KJV) were pointing forward to Jesus.
Further, if Jesus had meant that the Law and what it prescribed should continue in exactly the same way, he would then be directly contradicting himself in all that follows in Matthew chapter 5 because here he pushes the meaning of the Law far beyond the direct prescriptions that the Jews had understood and sought to follow:
- Where the Law said, “Do not murder”, Jesus extended its restriction to include the attitude of ‘anger’ itself.
- Where the Law said, “Do not commit adultery”, Jesus extended it to include ‘lust’.
- So too with divorce, oaths, retribution and treatment of enemies, as representative examples. Jesus actually altered the application of the Law, extending it to not only include actions but even and more importantly heart attitude.
The point Jesus was making was that the Law was pointing mankind toward his need for righteousness, but was not itself the means to attain to it. He could not have meant that ‘until heaven and earth disappear man needs to continue following every law as it stands’ because this wasn’t enough. All it would or could produce was the ‘righteousness’ of the “Pharisees and the teachers of the law” , but what man needed was a righteousness that “surpassed” even that. (5:20) This plays itself out over and over again in Jesus earthly ministry, such as instances where he suspends Sabbath law (cf. Matt. 12); food laws (cf. Matt 15:10-20) and the law concerning treatment of women caught in adultery (cf. John 8).
Suffice to say for now, any attempt at making Jesus’ words mean that every Old Testament law needs to still be followed the same way is false. That was not and cannot be what he meant. However, while it’s direct application is no longer binding, what it teaches is and so the Law still serves a purpose for the Christian.
Indeed, Christians hold the entire Bible to be God’s Word and directive for all faith and practice. And that means we do not approach living by it simplistically nor lightly. The fact is, like any transmission of information, the Bible requires careful work to correctly interpret its meaning and applicability. In fact one of the reasons I am glad I’m a Christian is that God expects me to engage my brain in the process of obeying him. Christians are to be devote, but that doesn’t mean “blind obedience”. Rather, God expects us to think upon his Word, which is why he commands us to love him with all our “heart, soul and mind”.
Thinking About Old Testament Law:
In limiting our discussion then, we will look at understanding how Christians approach the Old Testament Law. This covers most of what we may consider the “command” materials of the Old Testament, and is often the part that confuses Christians and questioners alike when it comes to determining its relevance. After all, what are we to do with passages like these:
- Deuteronomy 22:9 Do not plant two kinds of seed in your vineyard; if you do, not only the crops you plant but also the fruit of the vineyard will be defiled.
- Deuteronomy 22:11 Do not wear clothes of wool and linen woven together.
- Deuteronomy 22:28-29 If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.
I don’t have a vineyard, but I planted no less than ten different kinds of seed in my vegetable garden last summer; my closet is full of blended fabrics; and I do not know (nor would I want to know) anyone who would suggest that a solution to rape is to have the victim marry their attacker. And yet these verses appear in the teaching of the Bible. Can I simply dismiss them as irrelevant? Do I have liberty to do so? Am I being inconsistent in affirming the authority of ALL Scripture while selectively neglecting portions I may find distasteful?
Well, obviously more is required than simply reading the words as they appear on the page, and that shouldn’t surprise us since that’s true of all communication. Even while I am writing this an email just arrived into my inbox with the heading; “This is your last chance to save!” Should I take from this warning that I should act now to hoard all my money since I will have no chance to do so in future? Nonsense. Obviously I need to read further in order to determine the context and intent of that heading before I make any conclusions about final meaning and applicability. The same is true for the Bible.
So, in what follows we will quickly look at a few guidelines that should govern our understanding of Old Testament Law. While not the final word on the matter, we hope these will at least give us some parameters, or an interpretive “grid” though which to run Old Testament Laws in order to determine their present force and applicability for us today.
1. The Old Testament is an Old “Covenant” that God made with Israel:
The word ‘testament’ actually means ‘covenant’. So, what we have in the Old Testament is the Old “Covenant”. A covenant is basically a legal contract between two parties. In the case of the Old Testament, it is actually modelled after a suzerain vassal treaty, which is a formal legal document outlining the treaty agreements between an all-powerful suzerain (overlord) and a dependant vassal (servant). Generally the agreement includes certain guarantees of benefit to the vassal in exchange for loyalty to the suzerain. This is certainly the case for the book of Deuteronomy where the formal covenant between God and Israel is laid out. In it God states the conditions by which Israel is to remain faithful, and in exchange God makes promises to Israel concerning His blessing of presence, inheritance of land, prosperity and peace in the land, etc.
Much more could be said, but the point worth noting is that the Old Testament is an old covenant that God made with Israel. As a covenant therefore we are no longer under obligation to adhere to its conditions. Now don’t take that to mean that it is therefore not relevant to us, nor that there are no Old Testament commandments that we need to obey. Rather, where much of Old Testament Law concerned instructions on the form that Israel’s obedience to God needed to take under the covenant, as Christians under the New “Covenant” (Testament), we are no longer bound to fulfilling those formal requirements of obedience. Specifically, some of the major categories that these laws fell into are as follows:
a. Israelite Civil Laws:
- Many Old Testament laws were meant to govern civil society for Israel.
- They were unique to Israel as God’s holy (i.e. set-apart) nation.
- They take into account the weakness of human sin (cf. Jesus statements about allowance for divorce in Matthew 19:8) and therefore should seldom be read as an ultimate ethical ideal.
- While far from ethically ideal, they did demonstrate a significant move forward compared to the surrounding cultures, particularly concerning the rights of women, foreigners and slaves.
b. Israelite Ritual Law:
- Ritual Laws constitute the bulk of Old Testament Law texts, including Leviticus, and much of Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
- These laws governed the religious life of Israel pertaining to Tabernacle/Temple worship.
- They covered matters such as Tabernacle/Temple design, form, sacrifice and offerings, priesthood function and ritual purity of worship participants.
To be sure God still demands our covenant loyalty (our faithfulness), but how that loyalty is maintained has changed. In this sense, the law for Israel is no longer binding in large part because Christians do not function as a “holy nation” in the sense that Israel did, and therefore are not bound by Israelite civil law. Also, we no longer relate to God through Tabernacle/Temple worship, and so are not bound by Israelite ritual law.
2. The New Testament is a “New” Covenant (i.e. Things have changed)
While “new” doesn’t always mean “better”, in the case of God’s covenants with man it absolutely does. We don’t need to feel squeamish in saying so because God himself attests to it. In fact in Jeremiah 31:31 God gives the future promise of this “new covenant” to Israel, and then goes on to spell out how it will be vastly superior to the old one. So, one very simple response to anyone asking why we don’t follow all of the Old Testament laws is that we are New Testament people of God. That said, however, we still obey the Old Testament where its teaching directs Christian faithfulness.
Continued Old Testament Obedience:
As “New Testament” people of God, how do we know what Old Testament teaching to follow and obey? One very simple way is to see where Old Testament teaching is affirmed in the New Testament. If Jesus affirms them, then so should we. And indeed he does. Take again the example above from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus cites numerous ethical commands from the Old Testament and reaffirms their validity in directing our own behaviour. Of course in addition, Jesus augments the scope of these commands, bringing a new and greater level of application.
In addition, Jesus generally affirmed the intent of the whole Old Testament law when he bound the two basic laws of the Old Testament to the New, confirming “Love the Lord your God” and “love your neighbour as yourself” as the two greatest commandments. (cf. Matt 22:34-40)
The Ten Commandments would be another good example of Old Testament Laws with continued authority on our lives since they are all affirmed throughout the New Testament.
So, as a general rule of thumb, to whatever extent Old Testament laws or aspects of them are re-affirmed in the New Testament, we are bound to obey them and teach others to do the same.
3. Old Testament Laws, though not binding can still teach us:
We need to remember that while the Old Testament contains many laws, it’s primary function serves as God’s revelation of himself to man. In it we find how a perfect, holy and loving God seeks to restore sinful, fallen and rebellious humanity into his presence. That is why we must always read every part of the Bible within the context of God’s redemption story that includes Creation; Fall; Redemption and Restoration.
As God’s self revelation the Old Testament teaches us about God and his character. It also teaches us about man and his. Allow me to use one major part of Old Testament Law as an illustration.
Old Testament Sacrifices Teach New Testament Christians:
Here is just one command concerning Old Testament Sacrifice at the Temple. If a man or woman wanted to make a special vow (called a Nazarite vow), setting their lives apart for service to God, they had to perform certain ritual acts, including making sacrifices as follows:
“‘The priest is to present all these before the Lord and make the sin offering and the burnt offering. He is to present the basket of unleavened bread and is to sacrifice the ram as a fellowship offering to the Lord, together with its grain offering and drink offering. (cf. Number 6:16-17)
Notice the order of events in worship through sacrifice:
- Sin offering and burnt offering (both of these were offerings to atone for sin)
- Bread (or grain) offering (this was an offering of thanksgiving)
- Fellowship offering (this was a voluntary act of worship, celebrating a heart in right relationship to God)
While Christians do not offer Temple Sacrifices in any way, learning about God’s prescriptions for Jewish worship are instructive. In coming to God, sin must always be dealt with first. Thanksgiving is an appropriate and necessary response. And in the light of forgiveness for sin and out of thankful hearts, we should freely enjoy celebrating in God’s presence. So, in a very real way, while the form (i.e. Sacrifice) is no longer relevant, the principles (i.e. How sinful people may approach God in worship) still have binding relevance.
Admittedly this has been a very brief discussion on how to deal with Old Testament commands. Much more can and should be said, but our objective was to provide a brief answer on how Christians decide what parts of the Bible to follow and which parts not. Concerning Old Testament Law, by far the biggest category impacting such decisions, we mention three basic responses.
- The Old Testament is an Old “Covenant” that God made with Israel that is no longer binding on the Christian who lives under a “New Covenant (Testament)” founded on Christ. (cf. Jeremiah 31:31)
- Under the New Testament (Covenant) things have changed in how man relates to God. That said, some Old Testament commands are still binding upon the Christian. We determine which ones by seeing which “Old” commands are renewed in the New Testament. (cf. Matthew 5)
- While we are no longer under the Old “Covenant”, Old Testament Laws are still instructive. While their forms may be outdated, the principles they teach regarding how a Holy God relates to sinful people are not. Through careful and thoughtful study we may discover great truth from the Old Testament concerning God and how we as Christians ought to live before him.