Sometimes I meet Christians who feel beholden to the Old Testament law, sometimes simply out of a respect or reverence they feel for those prescriptions, sometimes out of a strict duty they believe still exists.  But are they correct?  Are Christians still obligated to obey the Old Testament Laws?

The short answer is that Christians are no longer obligated to the Old Testament Laws, but this depends on what I mean to be “obligated to the Old Testament Law”.  As Douglas Moo points out, there is the Mosaic Law and then “God’s basic moral requirements – God’s ‘law’ in an extended sense.”[1]  Paul reflects this distinction in Romans 2:14 as well as in 1 Corinthians 9:21.  Since the Mosaic Law pointed to God’s basic moral prescriptions, then many of the prescriptions found in the Mosaic Law still hold because they reflect God’s basic moral prescriptions.  So we are “obligated” to conform to God’s prescriptions even when, oftentimes they are found in the Mosaic Law.  For example, the sixth and seventh commandments dealing with murder and adultery (Exodus 20:13-14) have not been dissolved with the establishment of the New Covenant but are commands in keeping with God’s overall attitude towards humanity and, therefore, point to God’s basic moral prescriptions for all.  Christians must follow this “Old Testament Law” if they are to obey their Creator yet they do it not because they are beholden to the Mosaic Law but to Christ’s Law (1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2).  The discovery of which prescription laid out in the Mosaic Law still applies to the Christian today rests entirely on the distinction between what can be considered situational for the Israelites in history and what is universal for all people at all times.  Fortunately, Christ’s teaching in the New Testament does the heavy lifting for us in terms of spelling a lot of these things out.

In the gospels Christ speaks highly of the Old Testament.  For example, He considers it a source of authority and appeals to it on several occasions (Matthew 4:4-10, 22:29; John 5:39).  He says, “Your word is truth,” in John 17:17 and that, “Scripture cannot be broken,” in 10:35.  He even took Adam and Eve, Noah, and Jonah to be real people and not some allegorical or fictional story (or set of stories) in Matthew 19, 24, and 12; thereby attesting to the Old Testament’s authority and reliability.  However, throughout Christ’s discourse on the Old Testament, H.E. Turlington notes, “Jesus speaks as one superior to the Law… his words are uttered with such an evident authority that the impression is of One who is Lord over the Law, not One who is merely sent to observe it.”[2]

Jesus said that He did not, “come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).  This is not to say that Christ does away with all Law because, as was mentioned previously, much of the Mosaic Law points to God’s basic moral prescriptions.  And to do away with the Law could be construed as doing away with God’s basic moral prescriptions.  But Christ is not arguing to do away with God’s basic moral prescriptions but to, “reveal the full depth of meaning that the Law was intended to hold.”[3]  This informs our reading of Christ’s teaching when He said that all of the Law and the Prophets hang on the commands in Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18.  Jesus is not doing away with God’s law but advocating, “a reconnection with its original intentions.”[4]

As was just mentioned, Jesus saw Himself as One who fulfilled the Law (Matthew 5:17).  He also said, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44).  Christ saw Himself as the telos of Old Testament Scripture; the very thing it was looking to going back to the first prophecy in Genesis 3:15.  Thus, as Moo states, “With the coming of Christ, the goal toward which the law was pointing has been reached.”[5]

This is why we read that, while Jesus is observant of the Mosaic Law in most of its requirements, He introduces new inward requirements that bear on previously established commandments; like murder, adultery, and divorce in Matthew 5:21-32.  Christ also made a conscious decision not to follow some of the Mosaic Law based on certain extenuating circumstances.  For example, in Mark 2:23-28, the Pharisees challenged the disciples’ picking and eating grain on the Sabbath.  But Jesus responded by pointing to David and his companions’ decision to eat consecrated bread and then said, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.  So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (2:27-28).  Christ also chose to interact with a leper (in opposition to Leviticus 13:46), to be touched by an unclean woman (in opposition to Leviticus 15:25-31), and to touch the dead (in opposition to Numbers 19:11).  These examples show that God’s basic moral prescriptions were undergirded, so to speak, by compassion for others and, when a particular Mosaic Law (or, rather, the application of that Law) interfered with this compassion then Christ was compelled to disregard the particular way that Law was expected to be applied.  Richard Bending writes, “As in other contexts, what Jesus seemed to be doing was not rejecting the law of Moses as such, but appealing to broader principles within it, in this case God’s interest in all people… and his particular concern for the needy, the marginalised and the alien…”[6]

Once again, we see the distinction between the Mosaic Law as given to the Israelites in history and God’s (or Christ’s) Law that exists for both Jew and Gentile for all time.  The contemporary Christian wishing to discover applications of the Mosaic Law under the New Covenant must remember that, “the law of Moses did not bring relief from the matrix of sin and death; instead, it made it worse.”[7]  However, much of the Mosaic Law reflects God’s basic moral prescriptions and should, therefore, be respected (just as Christ respected it) as the universal commands that they are.  Since the Mosaic Law only brought death (Romans 7:10), we are now subject to the law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21) that gives life (Romans 8:2).  Therefore, the Mosaic system should no longer be viewed as the thing which brings righteousness because it was never adequate to provide such a thing.  Rather, the Mosaic system was, “a subset of the law of God generally…”[8] and therefore any moral prescription found in this subset that has universal application should be applied regardless of whether or not it is found in the Mosaic Law.  The way to know whether certain aspects of the Mosaic Law were situational for the Israelites in history or apply for all time is to discover the prescriptions given by Christ in the New Testament.  Also, simple reflection on the Bible’s basic principles can help to reveal those universal moral prescriptions found in the Mosaic Law.

Note: For related treatments on this same issue, see “Horus Reads the Internet” and “Q&A: Does the Bible Say I Can Own a Canadian?”

[1] Douglas J. Moo, The NIV Application Commentary: Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 86.

[2] H.E. Turlington, “Jesus and the Law,” Review & Expositor, Vol. 53, No. 1 (January 1956): 44.

[3] H.E. Turlington, “Jesus and the Law,” Review & Expositor, Vol. 53, No. 1 (January 1956): 37.

[4] Richard Bending, “Jesus, the Law and Moral Issues Today,” Modern Believing, Vol. 49, No. 1 (January 2008): 19.

[5] Douglas J. Moo, The NIV Application Commentary: Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 330.

[6] Richard Bending, “Jesus, the Law and Moral Issues Today,” Modern Believing, Vol. 49, No. 1 (January 2008): 20.

[7] Douglas J. Moo, The NIV Application Commentary: Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 219.

[8] Douglas J. Moo, The NIV Application Commentary: Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 222.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Well said! I have been trying to read the whole Bible and it takes a loooong time to get through the old Testament. It gives one a lot of time to think about just what makes a person what God wants him/her to be.
    Do you have any thoughts on observing the Sabbath? I have been trying to make a picture of the ideal Sunday for a Christian in 2016 in the USA. And I am stuck. Many of us “have to” work – but even defining “have to” is problematic. We go to church. But I know from experience that those serving/working at church are not resting. I am an empty-nester so I do have the ability to rest on Sundays, but I am not sure watching all the sin in murder mysteries is in any way honoring to God. Should it even be Sunday – maybe Saturday is the ideal Sabbath.
    What are your thoughts? Before a person can rest on the 7th day or honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, one needs to know what he’s striving for.

    • This is a great question, Bobbie! And if you don’t mind being patient, I would like to bring this question onto an upcoming podcast and answer it there, along with Gene and Logan. Look out for it soon!

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