(Whew— sorry for the long title! I’m not sure how to best word or condense that all!)
Have you ever wondered if or how the Old Testament law applies to us today? How should we seek to understand the law?
These are a couple of questions I hope to answer in this post.
There are a few different ways the word “law” is used in terms of the Bible. It can be used to refer to the first five books of the Bible, the entire Old Testament, or the portions of law contained in the Pentateuch from Exodus 20, Leviticus, Numbers to the end of Deuteronomy— the latter or which I’m talking about today. These portions of law are set in the middle of books that are mostly historical narrative.
What was the purpose of the law?
God had set apart a people from Himself to fulfill a special role in His plan of redemption. From this people was to come the Messiah. Therefore God wanted this people to be different— a light to the Gentiles (everyone who was not a Jew). So God gave Israel the law to show them what it looked liked to live as God’s people— both in their relationship with God and with one another. As such, the law can be divided into two aspects: ritual laws— how to worship God, and civil laws— how to treat others.
The law was never designed to enable man to gain salvation and be accepted by God (if that’s a new thought to you, see Hebrews 10, Hebrews 11, Romans 4:1-3 (which quotes Genesis 15:6). Instead its purpose was to show people: how sinful they were— so that they would see their need for God, how they could not keep the law on their own— again revealing their need for God, and how merciful and gracious God was. It was to be a custodian until Christ came. Because it was impossible for the people to keep the law perfectly, God provided a way for them to be forgiven: through the blood sacrifice of an animal. Without the shedding of blood, no forgiveness of sins was possible. When Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice was made, this old covenant approach was made obsolete. Jesus fulfilled the old covenant for all time and ushered in a new covenant.
A little more about covenants:
The Old Testament law is a covenant. A covenant is a binding contact between two parties. There are three types of covenants:
- Parity Covenant: this is a covenant between equals. Two parties negotiate and arrive at the terms of the agreement. It is a partnership, like the marriage covenant.
- Suzerainty Covenant: the whole book of Deuteronomy is structured after this type of covenant. This is a covenant that is imposed by an all-powerful suzerain (overlord) to a weaker, dependent vassal (servant). It is not between equals. It is a commandment that the lesser party has no choice but to accept, and if they break it, they are transgressors. For example in Exodus 24 Moses reads the Covenant to the people, and in 24:7 they take an oath to obey it.
- Promissory Covenant or Covenant of Grace: this is a legally binding promise given from one side only. In the case of the Abrahamic and the New Covenant, it is from God’s side— a gift to his people.
Since Jesus fulfilled the old covenant/law, and in doing so made it obsolete, we are not required to abide by it. (Remember, I am not referring to the whole Old Testament— only the portions of law contained in the Pentateuch from Exodus 20, Leviticus, Numbers to the end of Deuteronomy. I do not mean that we should not heed the instruction of scripture given in the Old Testament. We just no longer have to follow the animal sacrifice rituals and all of the customs that the Israelites were commanded to do in these few passages.) We can assume that the laws are not binding on us unless they are renewed by being restated in the New Testament— as the NT covenant is our covenant. A couple of examples of laws renewed in the New Testament are the ten commandments since they are cited in different ways throughout the New Testament (see Matthew 5:21-37, Romans 13:9-10), and the two greatest commandments— in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18— the two laws upon which the whole law is based). The reality is, we STILL cannot keep these commandments perfectly on our own— but the gospel— the good news, is that Jesus shed his blood so that we are forgiven, and with the new covenant He has sent us His Holy Spirit— who takes up residence in our hearts to enable us to live as new people— God’s people.
Even though the law has been fulfilled in Christ, it is still the inspired Word of God, and as such it remains valuable to us today. “When you read the laws, think in terms of their role in ancient Israelite society— and look also for how they reveal something about God’s character. We cannot know the significance of our story— the story of the new covenant, without knowing the story of the former covenant and how the law functioned.” (How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Fee and Stuart.)
To sum it up, here are a few tips for reading the Law in the Old Testament: (Paraphrased from How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth)
- Do see the OT law as God’s fully inspired word for you, but don’t see it as God’s direct command to you.
- Do see the OT law as the basis for the Old Covenant— and therefore Israel’s history. Don’t see it as binding on Christians in the New Covenant except where specifically renewed.
- Do see God’s justice, love and high standards revealed in the OT law. Don’t forget to see God’s mercy is made equal to the severity of the standards.
- Don’t see the OT law as exhaustive. (It was meant to give examples of what loving God and loving neighbor looked like— but could never cover every possible scenario that might happen.) Do see it as a model providing examples for the full range of expected actions.
- Don’t expect the OT law to be cited frequently by the prophets or the NT. Do remember the essence of the law (particularly the two greatest laws) is repeated in the prophets and renewed in the NT.
- Do see the OT law as a generous gift to Israel, bringing much blessing when obeyed. Don’t see it as a grouping of arbitrary, annoying regulations limiting people’s freedom.
- Remember: The purpose of the OT law was to point towards the need for a Messiah and was never intended as a means to salvation.
Something to try:
The book of Hebrews gives us insight into how Jesus has fulfilled the Law, as a comparison is made throughout between the Law and Jesus. Jesus is always shown to be superior. A useful exercise to understand fully what the writer of Hebrews is saying, and what the implications of the Law are, would be to read: Hebrews— Leviticus— Hebrews.
In the next post I will talk about Hebrew poetry.