I received an email from a reader who mentioned that he was having a discussion with another reader regarding whether the Old Testament Law of Moses applies to Christians today. Two things really stood out to me, and it inspired this column. Those two things are (1) I was referred to as a “trained theologian”, and (2) I left some loose ends in a discourse on how Old Testament Mosaic Law relates to Christians in 2015.
Let’s start with the latter, first.
It can be a bit murky when you start trying to figure out the “rules” of being a Christian. It’s actually a misdirected thought. Followers of Christ aren’t really following a “set of rules”. Out of love for the Lord, we obey Him. When you start looking at your relationship with Jesus as a set of rules that you have to obey, you miss the point. When Jesus died that horrific death, He took upon Himself the punishment for the sin of all who believe on Him. When He rose from the dead, He proved His power over sin and death. When He ascended into heaven, He fulfilled the last of his promises that He made while incarnate on Earth, but not the last of His promises.
We are in the Covenant of Grace, or the New Covenant, bought and paid for in the events that I just described. You should know a little more about covenants, so you understand the series of events that God has proceeded through to bring His people to Him. There were covenants before Jesus’ life and ministry 2000-years ago. The earlier covenants were all promises fulfilled as God’s laws for humankind were revealed. We need to discuss these covenants just a little bit for context, but I don’t want to make the column about covenants. I want Christians to understand how and why the Covenant of Grace informs and instructs our relationship with the Godhead.
There is still a bit of debate among theologians regarding exactly which promises constituted what some call a covenant, but there are other periods that are undisputed. Hebrews 13:20 is sometimes addressed as the source of the “Eternal Covenant”, which is reference to a covenant between God the Father, and God the Son, but there are those who don’t see it. One that is relatively undisputed is the Abrahamic Covenant. Bible.org describes this covenant, found in Genesis 12:1-3:
Abraham’s posterity was to be made a great nation. In him (through Christ) all the families of the earth were to be blessed.*
Later the legal code of the Israelites coming out of captivity in Egypt is known as the Mosaic Covenant, or the Law of Moses. This is contained in the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible) and referred to by Jews as the Torah (literally “the teaching”). There are 613 mitzvoth (laws) in Mosaic Law. Bible.org has a fairly clear, albeit clunky take on the Law of Moses:
The legal covenant, given solely to Israel. It consisted of the commandments (Ex 20:1-26); the judgments (social) – (Ex 21:1; 24:11) and the ordinances (religious); (Ex 24:12-31:18); also called the law. It was a conditional covenant of works, a ministry of ‘condemnation’ and ‘death’ (2 Cor 3:7-9), designed to lead the transgressor (convicted thereby as a sinner) to Christ.*
Herein lies the question: ‘If God’s people must follow the law, then shouldn’t Christians follow the Law of Moses?’ The answer is more of a “yes and no”. All of the law that applies to us? – yes. All of the law in total, under the penalty of damnation? – no. It takes a little bit of explaining. This is best taught in two phases:
Phase 1 – Jesus teaches about this very subject in the Sermon on the Mount:
Matthew 5:17-20 (NLT)
17 “Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose.
18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved.
19 So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.
20 “But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!
Jesus came to accomplish the purpose of the Law, which was to fulfill the required judgement of the law. Those who believe on him in faith have their faith counted by God as righteousness, just like He did for Abram (Gen 15:6). As Christ took on our sin, we were made righteous before God. Recall that God is holy, and cannot be in the presence of sin. On our own we are broken and sinful. Consider the Pharisees, religious leaders of Christ’s time who considered themselves “the pure”. Meticulous as they were toward following the law, they still weren’t righteous enough to come into the presence of God. Faith in Jesus’ taking our sin upon Him, just as a sacrificial lamb did in the Temple sacrifices of Christ’s day, is what give us our salvation. But it does not eliminate our need to obey God.
Phase 2 – As Gentiles (non-Jews) were convicted by the Holy Spirit to join the Body of Christ (the church), the leadership of the church had to understand now non-Jewish people could be accepted without doing all things Jewish. This came to a head in the Jerusalem Council, as documented in Acts 15. There were strong cultural differences that were incompatible on both sides of the church, Jew and Gentile. Convicted by the Holy Spirit, the Council came to a decision that, minus a very few things, Gentiles could not be required to be Jewish to be Christian. In the Jerusalem Council passage in Acts 15, the Apostle Peter addressed the Council, stating:
Acts 15:8-11 (NLT) “God knows people’s hearts, and he confirmed that he accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he cleansed their hearts through faith. So why are you now challenging God by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear? We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus.”
There was considerable debate, but the Council agreed that the burden of Mosaic Law could not be held over Gentiles. They sent a letter out to be shared with the many churches containing a finding that was a great relief to many congregations:
Acts 15:28-29 (NLT)
“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these few requirements: You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well. Farewell.”
In Acts 10, Peter receives a vision that unburdens him from eating the food of the Gentiles, and shortly thereafter becomes an integral witness to the conversion of the Roman army commander Cornelius and his family. From that point, the church becomes aware that the kashrut (dietary) laws of Moses were not a requirement for Christians, though could be useful for Jews who subscribe to them. Salvation is not to be found in the actions from the hands of sinful humans, but rather in the cleansing power of the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus Christ. Paul teaches about this point in Romans:
Romans 7:4-6 (NLT)
4 So, my dear brothers and sisters, this is the point: You died to the power of the law when you died with Christ. And now you are united with the one who was raised from the dead. As a result, we can produce a harvest of good deeds for God. When we were controlled by our old nature, sinful desires were at work within us, and the law aroused these evil desires that produced a harvest of sinful deeds, resulting in death. But now we have been released from the law, for we died to it and are no longer captive to its power. Now we can serve God, not in the old way of obeying the letter of the law, but in the new way of living in the Spirit.
Living in the Spirit, means loving God and obeying Him out of love, not out of obligation to the law. Dietary rules, hand-washing and other rituals are meaningless without returning God’s love for us to Him. As Christians, we don’t have to look backward at the Law, but rather forward at the work of the Greatest Commandment and the Great Commission. You’re invited to find more about these “two greats” on navigation bar of my website, https://appliedfaith.org/purpose/
Finally, I wanted to address a quote from the letter that this column inspired. It reads…
“A person I am in discussion with is using this article as “proof” that we, as Christians, are “still under the Law (of Moses)”. I don’t see that, but he claims that as a “trained theologian”, your view is “more valid” than mine.”
I want to be abundantly clear that my view is no more “valid” than the facts presented. What I learned in my seminary experience is that credentialed pastors should become like an “information desk” for seekers of biblical information. As a preacher, let me assure you that what we say is no more valid than the facts we cite. If I am doing my job right, I am pointing you to God, to the Scripture and other information that helps you in your relationship with the One who truly is authoritative. Please don’t take the word of a preacher, thinking you’ve heard the definitive Word of God. Actually read the Word of God.
Thanks for taking time to read this article. I’d love to hear from you, so please leave your comments below.
*Bible.org. “The Covenants of Scripture.” Bible.org. 2 2, 2009. https://bible.org/illustration/covenants-scripture (accessed 12 4, 2015).