On the relevance of Old Testament laws.
Did you know it’s illegal to throw snowballs in Aspen? It’s also illegal to serve butter substitutes in Wisconsin prisons. In Texas, they won’t let you sell your eye. In North Carolina, it’s forbidden for Bingo games to last more than five hours — after all, we all know how crazy things get in that sixth hour. Those scrooges in Maine don’t let you keep your Christmas lights up past January 14. And in Connecticut, it’s against the law to walk across the street on your hands.
Actually, in every state we find laws like this. They made it into the books somehow and just never made it out. While they seem ridiculous now, they must not always have seemed that way. At one time they made sense.
Sometimes when reading the Old Testament, we come across commands that seem to be in the same category as prohibiting excessively long Bingo games. For example, does it really matter if I wear a garment made of two kinds of materials (Leviticus 19:19)? Does that apply to me? And if not, what does apply to me?
This is not a trivial line of questioning. For one, this issue will come up when interacting with skeptics. It’s very much in vogue to attempt to discredit the Bible by referencing the seemingly absurd and even offensive laws in Leviticus or Deuteronomy. Christians can be quickly backed into a corner when they are forced to admit that those laws aren’t still applicable but can’t really articulate why some parts of the Bible are relevant and others aren’t.
Not only is clarity on these questions important when defending the Bible, it also influences how we relate to God and others. What kind of expectations does God have on me? How important is it to really know the Bible? How should the Bible influence civil law? We understand from Romans 7 that we are dead to the law, and some of those laws we certainly want to be dead to. But we also understand from 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that all Scripture is God-breathed and useful. It also seems reasonable to assume that Old Testament laws prohibiting things like murder and stealing should still apply to us. So just how does the Old Testament Law relate to the New Testament Christian?
One common way to answer that question is to propose that the Old Testament contains three types of laws — ceremonial, civil and moral. In Jesus, the ceremonial and civil laws have been replaced, but the moral laws are still in service. That solution, though, isn’t so tidy. For example, it’s not easy to make clear distinctions between those three categories, and many of the ceremonial and civil laws clearly have moral dimensions. Besides, there really isn’t a lot of biblical evidence to support this kind of division. The New Testament just doesn’t provide clear criteria for dividing the law into the still-applicable and the obsolete.
There is one radical solution: Consider yourself dead to the entire law. Ceremonial, civil and moral. Isn’t that where the New Testament points us?
Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ. (Romans 7:4)
For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory. (2Corinthians 3:11)
So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. (Galatians 3:24-25)
In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. (Hebrews 8:13)
The verses are clear and there’s no indication that the law is subdivided so that these verses only apply to part of it. Instead, a straightforward reading of the New Testament declares that the entirety of the Old Testament Law has been abrogated in Christ.
An analogy might help. Most of us have entered into covenants or contracts that were temporary. I used to rent a house. The lease required me to take care of the lawn, so I had to mow and water regularly. That was years ago, and I no longer go over to the house and mow the lawn each week. Am I rejecting that covenant as improper? No, I’m just recognizing its temporary nature.
Likewise, the Mosaic Law was intended for a specific people in a specific setting during a specific period of time. Many of those laws seem absurd to us because they weren’t intended for us, and we’re living in very different circumstances. Many of the particularly confusing laws probably had their purpose in preventing the Israelites from following some of the pagan worship practices of the neighboring peoples. But now, the New Testament makes it clear that that covenant was replaced by a new one that is applicable to us.
But if the Old Covenant has been replaced, are we now free to murder and steal? No. Some of the commands included in the Old Covenant are in force for us today and are so because they come from a source higher than the Law. The Old Covenant was born out of the character of a perfectly righteous God — as was the New Covenant. The Old Covenant took a particular shape due to the environmental factors in which it was introduced, but both covenants have the same source and are, therefore, going to have some overlap. I’m no longer under my old rental lease, so I’m not obligated to meet its requirements. But I still do mow my own lawn because it’s a good thing to do. I mow, not because I’m obeying my old contract, but because of the higher principle of good stewardship that will apply to me regardless of my contractual situation. Similarly, we see many of the Old Testament commands renewed in the New Testament because those commands come from the righteous character of God and will be applicable under any covenant. Therefore, Jesus and the New Testament writers restated the commands that forbade murder, adultery, idolatry, etc.
Although such commands are a part of the New Covenant, the emphasis of the New Covenant is different. The accent is no longer on legality, but on love. Christians will often say that Christianity is about relationship, not religion. While somewhat simplistic, that does capture an idea that is very true. We keep certain “rules” because by doing so we express love for Jesus Christ and others. Same rule, different motivation.
So, are we obligated to obey what’s presented in the Mosaic Law? I would say no. Do those laws still have relevancy? Absolutely. They reveal the character of God, they expose the sinfulness of man and they point ahead toward their fulfillment in Christ. We can, with complete consistency, say that we are not required to obey those Old Testament laws. We can also say that they were perfect instruction from a perfect God. They were just meant for someone else. We have a new and better deal and we should live in it.
Although maybe we should stop walking across the street on our hands.