Why Don’t We Follow All of the Old Testament Laws?
It’s pretty common these days for people to dismiss Christians as inconsistent because “they follow some of the rules in the Bible and ignore others.” The challenge usually sounds something like this: “When the Bible talks about certain sexual behaviors as sin, you quote that; but when it says not to eat shellfish or that you should execute people for breaking the Sabbath, you just ignore it. Aren’t you just picking and choosing what suits you best?”
I’ve found that this objection carries a lot of weight, and not just with non-Christians. Many Christians have a hard time answering it … which is why we just secretly hope it never comes up.
One of the most helpful ways to think about this is to look at the types of laws there are in the Old Testament. The 16th-century Reformer John Calvin saw that the NT seemed to treat the OT laws in three ways. There were Civil Laws, which governed the nation of Israel, encompassing not only behaviors, but also punishments for crimes. There were Ceremonial Laws about “clean” and “unclean” things, about various kinds of sacrifices, and other temple practices. And then there were the Moral Laws, which declared what God deemed right and wrong—the 10 Commandments, for instance.
For OT Israel, all three types of laws blended together. Breaking a civil or a ceremonial law was a moral problem; conversely, breaking a moral law had a civil (and often ceremonial) consequence. But they only went hand-in-hand because Israel was in a unique place historically, as both a nation and a worshiping community. “Separation of church and state” wasn’t one of their core tenets. That’s not the case for the Church today, so the way we view the Law would have to look different.
All of this helps explain what often seems contradictory about the NT view of the Law. On one hand, Jesus said the Law was perfect, that heaven and earth would pass away before the Law would fail (Matt 5:18). On the other hand, the Apostle Paul points out that those who are born again are actually released from the Law (Rom 7:1-6; Gal 3:25). As Jesus himself put it, he came to fulfill the Law (Matt 5:17).
What does it mean that Jesus fulfilled the Law? It means that every law pointed to him, and he completed everything they pointed to. Thinking of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law helps us see why we keep some of the OT commands and “ignore” others.
The Civil Laws, for instance, were set up so the nation of Israel could thrive. Jesus actually emerged from this nation, but he started a new Israel—a spiritual Israel, the Church. We’re no longer bound by the civil codes of Leviticus because God doesn’t have a nation-state on earth anymore. Of course, we may wisely look at some of the principles in Israel’s civil laws as we think of our own societal politics (principles about public health, caring for the poor, etc.), but the specific rules were all fulfilled in Jesus.
The Ceremonial Laws illustrate for us God’s holiness, our unholiness, and what God would do about it. The entire sacrificial system should have ingrained into Israel’s minds just how large the gap was between sinful humanity and a perfect God—and just how costly it would be to bridge that gap. And as the book of Hebrews shows us, the sacrifices were all fulfilled in Jesus’ perfect life and death. If we accept Jesus, the ultimate sacrifice, we don’t need the lesser sacrifices anymore. In fact, it would actually be offensive to go back to them, because that would communicate that Jesus’ sacrifice wasn’t sufficient.
The Moral Laws are fulfilled in Jesus as well, in that he kept all of them perfectly, every day, always, for his entire life. But unlike the civil and ceremonial laws, which were more time-bound, these laws reflected God’s assessment of good and evil, right and wrong. They reflect God’s character, and since his character doesn’t change, his views on morality don’t either. In fact, whenever Jesus mentioned the moral laws, he either reaffirmed them or intensified them! To follow Jesus is to love what he loved, including the moral law.
Now, even though we still defend the moral laws of the Old Testament, we have to keep in mind that Jesus fulfilled it all. The Christian is not under obligation to keep the moral law as a way of earning her way to God. Instead, she is changed by the presence of God’s Spirit to desire to keep God’s laws. Because God isn’t just after obedience; he’s after a whole new kind of obedience, an obedience that comes from love and delight in God. Christians keep the moral commands, not because “it’s the law,” but because they love God and want to be like him.
So the next time someone starts saying that you’re arbitrarily picking and choosing from the Bible, arm yourself with the civil/ceremonial/moral. You aren’t being arbitrary. You’re being faithful. You’re reading the Old Testament how the New Testament teaches you to. So eat your shrimp without guilt, and don’t throw away your 10 Commandments just yet.
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