Unbelievers rip its verses out of textual and historical context. Christians use expired laws as bludgeons and others’ promises as life-verses. Just admit it: You don’t understand the Old Testament.
And that’s okay. The OT writings are thousands of years old. They consist of various literary genres like history, poetry, and prophecy. And what about all of those weird laws? Why do Christians like to cite restrictions against homosexuality but ignore the ones against eating shellfish and wear polyester? (You’ve never heard that before, right?)
That is specifically what this article hopes to clear up: the OT rules. Maybe all of them are still kosher (see what I did there?). Maybe it’s all obsolete. Perhaps it’s somewhere in between. But then how do we know which rules are still valid and binding and which ones aren’t? Let’s get a quick primer on OT law (from now on referred to as the Law, with a capital L).
First, let me cut right to the chase: We are no longer bound to the Law. But that doesn’t mean it’s all useless. Read on and I’ll explain.
- What is the Law? The Law was a covenant, or treaty, between God and the Israelites after He freed them from Egypt. It marked them as His special people. He would continue to care for and bless them as long as they kept it and bad things would happen if they broke it. Which they did. A lot.
- Is the Law permanent? No, and it was never intended to be. The OT prophets made it clear that a new, better, eternal covenant was coming to replace the original one (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 16:59-63; Hos. 2:18).
- When did the old covenant end? In Matthew 5:17-19, Jesus claims He did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, that the least part of it would not disappear until “all is accomplished.” All of what is accomplished? His perfect life and sacrificial death. It puts His last words on the cross into greater perspective: “It is finished” (John 19:30). Paul confirms this in Romans 7:4, that we “died to the Law through the body of Christ” and 10:4, that “Christ is the end of the Law.” Christ’s death signaled the end of the old covenant.
- So we’re free from the Law now? Yes and no. We’re free from the Law as a set of rules and regulations but we are bound to Christ. Let me explain.
- Bound to Christ. In his writings, Paul makes the point over and over again that we are no longer under the Law. For example in Romans 6:14-15 he says we are no longer “under Law but under grace.” In 1 Corinthians 9:21 he says he is “under the law of Christ.” So we are no longer under OT Law but we are bound to Christ. Now to the next question:
- What is the law of Christ? When the Pharisees asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was, He responded to love God and your neighbor (Matt. 22:36-39). He followed with a significant statement that “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (v. 40). In Matthew 23:23, Jesus criticized the Pharisees for (among many other things) strict adherence to the letter of the Law while neglecting the “weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” From these two examples it is clear that beyond the specific rules of the Law were deeper, more important principles. So Jesus came to fulfill the particular rules and expose the universal principles within that apply to everyone at all times. This is the law of Christ.
- How do we fulfill the law of Christ? Note the specific word I used there: fulfill. In Galatians 6:2, Paul says “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” He does not use words like do or follow, which are common to the Law, but instead says fulfill. Christ’s law is not a set of rules to follow but principles grounded in love. Hence, the law is fulfilled in Christ.
- Do any of the OT commands still apply? Yes, the universals. And how do we know these universals? The New Testament (NT) writers tell us. Many of them reapply portions of the OT in a new context, like when Paul reminds his readers that the entire law is fulfilled in loving your neighbor (Gal. 5:14). Nine of the Ten Commandments are reaffirmed. (And I know what you’re thinking: Which one isn’t? The command to honor the Sabbath. It was a specific sign of the old covenant that is no longer binding since it has been fulfilled.) Paul loves his lists showing what behaviors are sinful (Rom. 1:29-31; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21, and so on). So the principles for good, Christian living are all there for us to find in the NT.
Hopefully the OT makes more sense now. When reading through all the various laws, look for the universals. Is there a deeper purpose for this law or section of laws? Now, some rules are just plain weird and we may never understand them through modern, Western eyes. But we have plenty of guidance through the NT to determine what the law of Christ is and what is sinful.
So please stop abusing the OT. Christians, I’m looking at you first. If you’re seeking evidence that something is wrong, start with the NT and go from there. And we can’t steal ancient Israel’s promises for ourselves (cough, Jeremiah 29:11). Non-Christians, if you haven’t studied the OT, please stop quoting it against us. There’s a lot going on literally, culturally, and historically. That’s why people go to seminary for years to study it. I’m not claiming to be an expert myself, just someone who has given it some thought and reflection. And I still have a lot to learn.
One thing that’s certain is that we all need to study our Bible more and be more careful when we use it. Because it isn’t just some book; it’s “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). God’s word is powerful and not to be taken lightly. Please handle it with care.