By Melissa McLaughlin
I have wondered about the tension between Christianity and the Old Testament Law for some time. I observe some Christians who live as if we have a license to sin because we are saved by grace and no longer under the Law. While on the other hand, I know some Christians who strive to follow the Old Testament Law in its entirety.
- Do Christians have to follow Old Testament Law?
- Do we pick and choose the parts we like and avoid the ones we don’t like?
- What did Jesus say about the Law?
- What does the New Testament teach about the Law?
These are complex questions that deserve more than a knee-jerk response.
To gain a more complete Bible-based understanding of this topic, we must study the whole counsel of God, including scriptures from both the Old and New Testaments.
What is God’s Law in the Old Testament?
Let’s begin with a brief review about God’s Law in the Old Testament.
The 10 Commandments – An Overview
God provided the 10 Commandments when He met with Moses on Mt. Sinai, after delivering His people, the Israelites, from slavery in Egypt.
The 10 Commandments are considered a condensed overview of God’s Law.
- The first 4 Commandments teach how to love and honor God. (Exodus 20:1-11)
- The remaining 6 Commandments teach how to love and honor others. (Exodus 20:12-17)
Understanding More of God’s Old Testament Law
These 10 basic laws were later clarified and elaborated upon in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. God’s expanded version of the Law covered many areas. This expanded Law is also known as the Mosaic Law, since God provided these commands through Moses.
Two Overarching Categories of Mosaic Law
One way of categorizing Mosaic Law is thinking of it in two overarching categories. This helped me better understand God’s expanded commands in the Old Testament. The two categories include: Laws to be Set Apart and Laws of Morality.
1.Laws to be Set Apart as a Holy Nation
God’s people, the Israelites, were called to be holy, or set apart for a special purpose. To be distinct from other nations. God provided the Israelites with special Laws to be His special people. These included the following.
Ceremonial Laws – The form of worship, feasts and festivals were designed to keep them holy and pure. They were to avoid worshiping idols, sacrificing children, drinking blood and many other practices of the pagan world. Instead their worship was centered on the Holy God who made them and cared for them. In addition, these ceremonial laws foreshadowed Christ.
Sacrificial Laws – These laws helped the people understand God’s holiness, the seriousness of our sin against Him and the need for a sacrifice, offered in our place, to atone for sin. Once again, these laws pointed ahead to our Savior.
Health and Hygiene Laws – God taught His people about physical cleanliness in matters of eating, washing, illness, etc. These laws kept the people healthy and set them apart.
2.Laws of Morality
Civil Laws – God provided instruction about what is just, fair and right as people relate to one another. Do not murder, do not steal, do not lie. God’s Laws protect the poor, vulnerable, orphan, widow and foreigner. Included are laws allowing a person to hire oneself out as a slave (or servant, bondservant) in order to pay back personal debt. However, according to Mosaic Law, those who had sold themselves into slavery were set free after 7 years. This is unlike the modern usage of the word “slavery,” which the Bible actually describes as “man-stealing” or “kidnapping.” Man-stealing/kidnapping is against God’s Law. (Exodus 21:16)
Family Laws – God established laws about how to live in purity and relate to one another within the family. Children are to respect their parents. Sex is reserved for a husband and wife within marriage, according to God’s created order and standards. This protects children from incest, neighbors from adultery, people from having sex when there is no true marriage commitment (fornication) and other types of relationships that were not ordained by God. The family is the foundational structure of God’s people. Further, marriage between a husband and wife represents the relationship between Christ and His church. The Bible begins with a marriage (Adam and Eve) and ends with a marriage (Christ and the Church). Therefore, these relationships are held sacred.
What is the Point of God’s Law?
Unlike human laws, which are ever changing to serve shifting cultural opinions, God’s Laws are issued by God. God’s Laws reflect His divine nature- holy, pure, righteous, just, true, compassionate and merciful.
God’s Laws are based on these two things:
1.God is Creator. God is God. God is holy and perfect. Each person owes his or her existence to God. And so we honor Him.
2.Respect for human life because we are made in His image.
Should Christians Obey the Old Testament Law Today?
When we look back over God’s Old Testament Laws, I wonder which law do we find so offensive?
1 John 5:3 – For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.
What Did Jesus Say About the Law?
The 10 Commandments were taught by Jesus in the New Testament. In this verse the 10 Commandments are encapsulated:
[Covering the first 4 commands.]“Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’
[Covering the remaining 6 commands.] The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31
Jesus Upheld and Taught the Law
Jesus taught and upheld God’s Law. – “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Matthew 5:17-20
In fact, Jesus went beyond the letter of the Law, penetrating into the heart, in order to address the spirit of the Law as seen in Matthew 5:21-48.
Jesus Upheld Family Law
When questioned about marriage and divorce, Jesus directed people back to the beginning of the Bible, to the book of Genesis, where God created His divine order for families. Jesus also commended celibate singleness as another Godly option through His life and His teaching. (Matthew 19:3-12)
Did Jesus Ever Break the Law? What About the Sabbath Law?
Jesus’ handling of Sabbath Law is one area that often raises questions. The Pharisees condemned Jesus’ actions of healing and eating grain on the Sabbath.
It is critical to note that the Pharisees added to God’s Law with their OWN traditions and oral embellishments of God’s Law. Therefore, they reprimanded Jesus based on THEIR oral law, not on God’s written Law, as exposed in Jesus’ rebuke of their man-made ceremonial washing rules. (Matthew 15:1-7, Mark 7:8-13)
Jesus pierced through their arrogance to highlight the truth of God’s Law.
When questioned by the Pharisees about healing on the Sabbath, Jesus pointed out that God’s Law allowed one to help animals on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:11) and to do good, not harm (Luke 6:6-11). Therefore, God’s Law most certainly allowed one to help a human being by healing them.
When the Pharisees accused Jesus and His disciples of breaking the Sabbath by gathering grains of wheat at the edge of the field while they walked, Jesus cited the scripture where David fed His men with bread from the Temple. Obviously Jesus and His disciples were not harvesting an entire field on the Sabbath, which would break the Law. However, Jesus demonstrated His deity and authority in His response. (Luke 6:1-5)
You can be sure of this, if the Pharisees could find a way to prove Jesus broke the Law, they would have done so. In the end, the only charge they could bring against Christ was His claim to be the Son of God. And this, of course, was true. (Mark 14:61-64)
Scripture records that Jesus was sinless. Therefore, no Law of God was ever broken by Jesus. (2 Peter 2:22)
Jesus Fulfilled the Law
To understand Jesus’ teaching of the Law, we must read Jesus’ words carefully. He came NOT to abolish the Law or the Prophets, rather TO fulfill them. (Matthew 5:17-20).
How did He fulfill them?
Prophecy – Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection fulfilled hundreds of Old Testament prophecies with staggering accuracy.
Moral Law – Jesus fulfilled the Laws of moral and civil righteousness. He was sinless.
For the Love of Jesus
Jesus fulfilled the Law. At the same time Jesus also pointed us to the Law, love God and love your neighbor. (Mark 12:28-31) Further, Jesus described the cost of following Him, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24
As Christians, we follow Jesus’ teaching and example not to obtain our salvation but because we love the One who did.
*This discussion is continued in my next post entitled How Should Christians View the Law? New Testament Teaching (Part 2). Join me as we dig a little deeper into God’s Word!