What Does the Bible Say About the Old Testament Law?
Frequently Asked Questions
Are there foods we should not eat?
- Does the Bible forbid eating pork and shellfish?
- What did Jesus mean by,
"Not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen,
will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished?"
- What has happened to all the commandments and ordinances in
the Old Testament?
- Do we have to obey the rules in the Old Testament?
The Law of Moses regulated almost every aspect of life in Old Testament times.
But with the coming of Christ, God established a new covenant of faith and love
with mankind. Christians are not required to follow the Old Testament rules about
crimes and punishments, warfare, slavery, diet, circumcision, sacrifices, feast days,
Sabbath observance, tithing, ritual cleanness, etc. However, the moral and ethical teachings
of Jesus and His apostles call for even greater self-discipline than those of the
The Law of Moses
In Biblical times, the Law of Moses (also called Old Testament Law, Mosaic
Law, or just The Law) regulated almost every aspect of Jewish life. The
Ten Commandments and many other laws defined matters
of morals, religious practice and government. It regulated the army, criminal justice,
commerce, property rights, slavery, sexual relations, marriage and social interactions.
It required circumcision for males, animal sacrifices, and strict Sabbath observance. It
provided for the welfare of widows, orphans, the poor, foreigners and domestic animals.
Ceremonial rules divided animals into "clean" and "unclean"
categories. Clean animals could be eaten; unclean animals could not.
of Moses was given to the Israelites when they were still a band of ex-slaves
struggling to survive. Many of the laws were specific for the worship system
and agricultural life of ancient Israel (Exodus 12:14-16, Leviticus 1:10-13,
11:1-23, 15:19-20, 19:19, 19:27-28, 27:30-32, Deuteronomy 25:5-6). Like life in
those times, many were harsh and cruel compared to the teachings of Jesus
(Exodus 35:2, Deuteronomy 20:10-14, 21:18-21, 22:23-24). But there are also many
moral teachings that form the basis of Christian morality (Exodus 20:1-17,
23:6-9, Leviticus 19:9-10, 19:18, Deuteronomy 6:5).
The Teachings of Jesus
By the time of Jesus, the great moral principles God had given to Moses in the Ten
Commandments had been turned into hundreds of ceremonial rules. People thought they
were living holy lives if they just obeyed all those rules. But Jesus disagreed.
He said people found
enough "loopholes" to obey all the rules and still live wicked and greedy
lives (Matthew 23:23-28).
Jesus made one statement about the Law that often causes confusion:
“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. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear,
not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means
disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (NIV, Matthew
Christians have struggled to understand exactly what Jesus meant. At first
reading, this seems to say that all the Old Testament rules and rituals must
still be observed. But Jesus and His disciples did not observe many of those rules and
rituals, so it could not mean that.
It is frequently pointed out that the term "the Law" could have many
different meanings at the time of Jesus:1,2
- The ceremonial laws including "clean" and "unclean" lists, sacrifices, dietary restrictions, ritual
- The civil law regulating social behavior and specifying crimes, punishments and other rules
- The moral and ethical laws, such as the Ten Commandments
- The Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible)
- The scribal law - the 613 rules (mitzvot) formulated by the scribes that everyone was expected to
- The Scripture as a whole
Jesus did not abolish the moral and ethical laws that had been in effect from
the time of Moses. He affirmed and expanded
upon those principles, but He said obedience must be from the heart (attitudes
and intentions) rather than just technical observance of the letter of the law
(Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-42, 43-44, etc.).
However, Jesus and His disciples did not observe the strict scribal rules against doing
any work on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-14, Mark 2:23-28, 3:1-6, Luke 6:1-11, 13:10-17,
14:1-6, John 5:1-18). Neither did they perform the ritual hand washings before
eating (Matthew 15:1-2). In contrast to the dietary rules of the Law, Jesus said
no food can defile a person; it is bad attitudes and actions that can make a person
unholy (Matthew 15:1-20, Mark 7:1-23). Jesus frequently criticized the scribal
laws (Matthew 23:23, Mark 7:11-13) and some aspects of the civil law (John
Therefore, Jesus may have been specifically teaching that the moral and
ethical laws in
the Scripture would endure until the end of time. That would be consistent with
His actions and other teachings. Through His teachings and actions, Jesus
revealed the true meaning and intent of the Law.
It is also pointed out that Jesus, Himself, is the fulfillment of the Law
(Matthew 26:28, Mark 10:45, Luke 16:16, John 1:16, Acts 10:28, 13:39, Romans
10:4) The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross ended forever the need for
animal sacrifices and other aspects of the ceremonial law.
The Council of Jerusalem
The first Christians came from among the Jews, and they continued to observe the
Law of Moses as well as their new Christian faith. But as more and more Gentiles
(non-Jews) converted to Christianity, there were disputes about whether or not these
Gentile Christians must observe the Law. Issues of circumcision and diet were especially
troublesome and threatened to split Christianity apart.
In about the year 49 A.D., Peter, Paul, Barnabas, James and other Christian leaders
met in Jerusalem to settle the issue (Acts 15:1-29). It was agreed, with the
guidance of the Holy Spirit, that nothing was required of the Gentile converts except faith in Christ;
they were not bound by the Law of Moses. However, the council
directed the Gentile Christians to abstain from certain things that were particularly
offensive to their Jewish brethren - food sacrificed to idols, blood, meat of strangled
animals and sexual immorality (Acts 15:29).
The New Covenant
With the coming of Christ, God has established a new covenant with mankind (Jeremiah
31:31-34, Luke 22:20, 1 Corinthians 11:25, Hebrews 8:8-13, 9:11-15). Jesus and His
apostles gave us a radically new understanding of the true intent of the Old Testament
Law; they brought a new era of the rule of love for all people and spiritual truth
instead of rule by law (Luke 10:25-28, John 13:34-35, Ephesians 2:14-18).
However, God has not revoked His original covenant with Israel and the Jewish
people (Luke 1:72, Acts 3:25, Romans 9:4-5, 11:26-29, Galatians 3:17). The New Covenant
does not condemn the Jews, nor does it in any way justify persecution of Jews.
The teachings of Jesus, the Council of Jerusalem, and other New Testament teachings
(John 1:16-17, Acts 13:39, Romans 2:25-29, 8:1-4, 1 Corinthians 9:19-21, Galatians
2:15-16, Ephesians 2:15) make it clear that Christians are not required to follow
the Old Testament rules about crimes and punishments, warfare, slavery, diet, circumcision,
animal sacrifices, feast days, Sabbath observance, ritual cleanness, etc.
Christians still look to the Old Testament scripture for moral and spiritual
guidance (2 Timothy 3:16-17). But when there seems to be a conflict between Old
Testament laws and New Testament principles, we must follow the New Testament because
it represents the most recent and most perfect revelation from God (Hebrews 8:13,
2 Corinthians 3:1-18, Galatians 2:15-20).
However, freedom from the Old Testament Law is not a license for Christians to
relax their moral standards. The moral and ethical teachings of Jesus and His apostles
call for even greater self-discipline than those of the Old Testament (Matthew 5:21-22,
27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-42, 43-48, 7:1-5, 15:18-19, 25:37-40, Mark 7:21-23, 12:28-31,
Luke 12:15, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Galatians 5:19-21, James 1:27, 2:15-16, 1 John
Here are a few examples of Old Testament laws that Christians generally do not observe:
- Prohibited foods
- Circumcision required for males on eighth day (Leviticus 12:1-3)
- The death penalty for:
- Attacking or cursing a parent (Exodus 21:15,17)
- Disobedience to parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
- Failure to confine a dangerous animal, resulting in death (Exodus 21:28-29)
- Witchcraft and sorcery (Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 20:27, Deuteronomy 13:5,
1 Samuel 28:9)
- Sex with an animal (Exodus 22:19, Leviticus 20:16)
- Doing work on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14, 35:2, Numbers 15:32-36)
- Incest (Leviticus 18:6-18, 20:11-12,14,17,19-21)
- Adultery (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22)
- Homosexual acts (Leviticus 20:13)
- Blasphemy (Leviticus 24:14,16, 23)
- False prophecy (Deuteronomy 18:20)
- False claim of a woman's virginity at time of marriage (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)
- Sex between a woman pledged to be married and a man other than her betrothed
- Feast day observances required:
- Saturday (seventh day) Sabbath observance (Exodus 20:8-11, Exodus 35:1-3)
- Animal sacrifices
1William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible,
Westminster Press, various dates.
2Bruce Barton, ed., Life Application Bible Study Notes, Tyndale House
Publishers, Inc., 1991.