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What Does the Bible Say About the Old Testament Law?

Frequently Asked Questions

Introduction

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 Old Testament.

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.

The Law 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 5:17–18)

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

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 8:3-5, 10-11).

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.

Conclusion

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 3:17-19).

Christian Practice

Here are a few examples of Old Testament laws that Christians generally do not observe:

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1William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, Westminster Press, various dates.
2Bruce Barton, ed., Life Application Bible Study Notes, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1991.