In Defense of Old Testament Law

With all the excitement over the SCOTUS decision over same-sex marriage, there has been a renewed push for an old view of the Old Testament law, one that says we are no longer bound by Old Testament law and it is therefore irrelevant in the context of Christ. Sure, it’s convenient to take this position when you fall on the side in favor of same-sex marriage, since the greatest condemnation of the practice comes from the Old Testament (never mind the NT scriptures that say the same things.) It’s also tempting for genuine Bible believing, God following, Christians to want to adopt this view, because it’s so much easier than challenging the new norm of our culture.

But to do this would be a mistake, and I want to write this blog, not as a dissent against same-sex marriage, but as a defense for the legitimacy of following Old Testament law alongside the cross of Christ. To understand this is somewhat complex and requires a multi-layered view of how scripture is to be interpreted. This isn’t a convoluted way to justify OT law, but is merely good interpretation practice. Scriptures vary by historical context, genre, writing style, audience, author intentions, and it takes understanding all of these to really get at the true meaning of scripture.

First, we must understand that the original audience of the OT law was the post-captivity people of Israel, who had been living as slaves in Egypt for some 400 years or so. Four hundred years of silence on the part of God, where there is no doubt that the Israelites had adopted many Egyptian lifestyles and religious habits. In fact, a deeper study of the ten plagues leading up to their freedom, shows that God systematically proved himself greater than all the Egyptian gods, the last two being attacks on Amon-Ra and the institution of Pharaoh himself.

This was a people who knew nothing about God, how to worship him, what he expected of them morally, socially, and theologically; and they had lost their concept of absolute morality, sin, separation from God, and the consequences. The OT law was necessary to teach them these things. They had to be retrained, reconditioned, to be the people of God. It is no coincidence that at the beginning of the New Testament we see the Israelites have finally figured out the law, albeit taking it to a legalistic extreme. It’s when they’ve learned the lessons the law was meant to teach that Jesus finally arrives for the next phase.

The law represents God’s expectations of us, socially, theologically, morally, religiously, and teaches us the meaning of sin, repentance, justification, and forgiveness. It is all good, it is all beneficial, and the person who suggests throwing it out, saying the “old covenant” is over, Jesus is the “new covenant” doesn’t understand the purpose of the law or the covenants. (The covenants have nothing to do with this. That’s another topic for later.)

This is our context for understand the law. We must ask, “What was God trying to teach the Israelites?” and “How can I apply this teaching to my life now?”

One example I find quite humorous and often infuriating, is found in Leveticus 19:28, ‘You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD.” There are Godly people who use this verse to preach AGAINST tattoos. Yet at the same time these same Godly people shave regularly and the verse just before this, v.27, says, “You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads nor harm the edges of your beard.”

You can’t have one without the other. So what do we do? Context tells us. The majority of that passage speaks of proper ways to express religious worship before God. What is God trying to teach the Israelites? Not to worship him with practices they learned from pagans. How can i apply this? Don’t worship God the way other religions worship their gods.

Every part of the law can be interpreted like this, and should be. When it comes to statements against homosexuality, the context is proper social and moral behavior. It’s pretty clear what God intends, though the consequences are pretty harsh (leading us to believe that Israelites really had a problem with proper social and moral behavior). Which brings us to the next point…

How should we interpret the law in the light of Jesus and grace? So many people want to throw out these very valuable laws about learning what God expects of us, instead saying that grace tells us we don’t need them anymore. This just isn’t true. Let’s review what the New Testament says about the Old Testament law.

Matthew 5:17-19, Jesus himself says, “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. For truly I tell you, 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. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

Romans 8:1-4 says, Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

There are a few other scriptures that talk about Jesus being the fulfillment, or end, of the law, that grace is now the new standard and so forth, but those don’t give the full context of what’s at stake. These two above, together, help us understand what’s going on so that we might better interpret those other scriptures. Approach them holistically…don’t pick and choose. Bring these two, and you’ll understand those others better. What Jesus put an end to, what grace replaces, is the PUNISHMENT.

What Jesus says in Matthew 5 and Paul is trying to say in Romans 8, is that Jesus does not mean the strictures of the OT law are to be replaced by grace, but that he fulfilled the REQUIREMENTS of the law. Grace takes the place of our punishment. The law still teaches us how to live, how to understand God and morality, but the consequences and the expectations that were near impossible to bear or achieve, were all taken care of by Jesus.

And Jesus was pretty adamant that we continue to teach people to obey these laws. Jesus himself says the law still stands. It is still good and profitable. He tells his disciples to “teach them to obey all things (Matt 28:20),” a reference to the law because no part of the New Testament had yet been written.

Sure the law may be complicated to understand, it may take time to fully comprehend the context of what God was trying to teach the Israelites’ post-captivity world-view, but the OT law is still important and should still be taught and followed. We don’t have to worry about being perfect, because grace has covered the consequences. But we don’t throw the law out either.

There are scriptures in the law that have some steep penalties…like stoning. Guess what? The penalties are paid for, but that doesn’t mean we are free to break that law anytime we want…we are expected to still obey it within the context of what God is trying to teach.

Imagine if you received a memo in the mail from your state government, that declared from here on out all traffic tickets would be forgiven and no one would be required to pay any future traffic tickets. Does that give you permission to throw out all the traffic laws? No! Does that prevent the police from pulling you over and holding you accountable for keeping those laws? No!

That’s how it is with the Old Testament law. Jesus has paid the price…there will be no more requirement to pay our sin “tickets.” But that doesn’t mean we throw the law out, it doesn’t mean we should not expect Godly leaders to hold us accountable for keeping the law.

And when it comes to the complicated sacrificial system, ask the same question:  What was God trying to teach the Israelites? He was trying to teach them the consequences for sin, the necessity of repentance and forgiveness, and the impossibility of being perfect. Jesus BECAME that sacrifice, the ultimate sacrifice. Since he was the perfect sacrifice, no others are necessary. Did he negate it? No. Did he remove the requirement? No. He WAS the requirement, and no other is now needed. Once again, the law still stands.

Take the sacrificial system, and replace it with the cross of Christ. Take the penalties for breaking the law, and replace them with grace. In neither case, do you take the laws themselves and say they no longer apply to Christians.

If we begin to pick the Bible apart because of inconveniences to our cultural beliefs, then that’s a slipery slope to rejecting the authority of the Bible as a whole. The New Testament doesn’t override the Old, Jesus doesn’t abolish the law. The New Testament and the sacrifice of Christ gives us a new dynamic with which to understand and follow the law without fear of imperfection.

I hope this helps you to have a little more integrity in following God, a little more courage to stand up for what you believe, and a little more curiosity to stop avoiding those random weird laws and to really dig in to figuring out what God wanted to teach the Israelites and what we can learn from those lesson.

Happy studying!


One comment

  1. Very nice. Many folks seem to ignore the “…I came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it…” and thus come to the wrong conclusions about lots of stuff in the OT.


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