Should Christians Obey The Old Testament Law?
Are Christians required to obey the Old Testament law? For example, should Christians keep the Sabbath and abstain from eating pork? Should Christians tithe or make altars and conduct sacrifices as was practiced in the Old Testament? Should Christians stone people who commit sin or wear certain types of clothing made out of a specific type of cloth?
Why do certain commandments or laws in the Old Testament appear to contradict the teachings in the New Testament?
How do we know which Old Testament laws apply to Christianity and which laws don’t?
What is the Old Testament Law?
The Old Testament laws are found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
In total, the Old Testament law consists of 613 commandments inclusive of the Ten Commandments.
The Old Testament law is also known as “the Torah” or “Law of Moses” or the “Mosaic Laws” because God used Moses as His prophet to communicate these 613 commandments to the people of Israel.
So in the New Testament scriptures, when the phrase “the law” is mentioned, it is mostly referring to the Old Testament law or the Mosaic laws.
The Old Testament law was written specifically to the nation of Israel which was a theocracy.
The Old Testament law was not given to Christians because the Church did not exist until after Jesus Christ came and was crucified.
Instead the Old Testament law was given to the nation of Israel in order to govern the nation in relation to such things as how to worship God, how to atone for their sins, what kind of food they were to eat, how they were to relate with each other, how they were to keep the Sabbath and so forth.
Part of the purpose of the Old Testament law was to completely distinguish the nation of Israel from the other nations and to reflect the theocratic rulership of Israel. The nation of Israel was God’s chosen nation.
Although unattainable due to the sinful state of man, the Old Testament law also revealed God’s perfect standard for righteousness and for man to know the difference between right and wrong (Romans 7:7; 1 Timothy 1:9-10).
However the Israelites could not keep God’s perfect standard, hence the sacrificial system that also existed within the law to help the Israelites to atone for their sins.
The Old Testament sacrificial system for the atonement of sin was only a shadow of the true and everlasting sacrifice in the form of Jesus Christ who would shed His blood on the cross to pay for the sins of mankind once and for all (Hebrews 10:1-18; Colossians 2:16-17).
So the Mosaic Law was given for a limited time and for a specific purpose. Although the Old Testament law was good and holy, the Mosaic Law was meant to reflect the sinful state of man and to eventually point mankind to Jesus Christ and the finished work He did on the cross (Galatians 3:24-26).
Therefore most of the Old Testament law does not apply to the Christian today because of the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross for our sins.
John 1:17 says: For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
The law given by Moses cannot save and neither does it offer mercy and grace. However in contrast, Jesus Christ is the one who saves and it is through God’s grace and mercy that salvation is a free gift which is received not by keeping the law – but by placing our faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Galatians 2:21 says: I do not nullify the grace of God, for if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
Galatians 3:24-26 says: So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. 26 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.
The entire Old Testament law can be divided into 3 primary parts:
1. The Ceremonial Laws
These laws were specific only towards the Israelites. The ceremonial laws included sacrifices of certain animals for sin or as offerings and so forth. These laws also included the rejection of eating certain types of animals or foods. Ceremonial laws also referred to commandments governing the priesthood, the temple, the worship of God, payment of tithes, circumcision, keeping the Sabbath and various feasts, issues of cleanness and so forth.
The ceremonial laws are no longer binding within Christianity today because of the spiritual results and accomplishments regarding the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. For example, we are no longer required to offer animal sacrifices for sin because Christ Himself became our atonement for the sins of the world once and for all (1 John 2:2).
2. The Civil Laws
These laws pertain to the commandments which govern the society and civic issues of Israel. For example, it included laws regarding property, debt payments, restitution, family issues, how the community handled sins such as murder, adultery, theft etc.
Again the specific details regarding the implementation of these laws were specific to Israel as a nation and as a theocracy during that particular time.
The civil laws are not binding to the New Testament Christian because of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on the cross. For example the law of an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:23-25) or the stoning of a sinner is no longer applicable because Christians must be guided by Jesus Christ’s law of grace and love (Matthew 5:38-42).
3. The Moral Laws
The moral laws are commandments which relate to our individual moral attributes or virtuous behavior towards God and towards one another. The Ten Commandments with the exception of keeping the Sabbath are examples of God’s moral laws.
The moral laws are also the type which have been written in the heart or conscience of man whether one is a Christian or not.
For example, you don’t have to be a Christian to know that it is wrong to steal, lie, cheat or murder. Even the existence of God is revealed in the hearts of all people even though some might suppress the truth (Romans 1:19-20).
So the moral laws include such issues as forbidding idolatry, adultery, stealing, coveting, murder, lying and so forth.
The moral laws are still very applicable to the New Testament Christian and therefore the principles and guidelines of the moral law are still relevant to the Christian faith today.
Most of the moral laws are also mentioned by Jesus Christ and in the New Testament epistles. Examples of such scriptures which still speak of God’s moral laws in the New Testament are the following:
In Matthew 5:21-28 Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
1 Corinthians 6:9-10 says: Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
Galatians 5:19-21 says: Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
So God’s moral laws are still relevant to the New Testament Christian because through our obedience to God’s moral laws such as not committing adultery; or not stealing; or not committing idolatry, and many others – it is only then that we express the character and nature of Jesus Christ in our own daily life.
Christ’s Law of Love and the Work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian Life
In Matthew 22:37-39 Jesus gave us two commandments which is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and the second one which is “love your neighbor as yourself.”
So living a life where we love God and love others is extremely important for the New Testament Christian.
If we truly love God, then we wouldn’t worship idols; if we truly loved God, then we would want to please Him; if we truly loved God then we wouldn’t view the grace of God as a license to sin.
Similarly if we truly love our neighbor, then we wouldn’t steal from him; or lie about him; or murder; or abuse him.
Therefore living a life of love is central to our relationship with God and our relationship with others.
The principle thing that Christ teaches us is that the love for God and our love for others must be the primary motive and reason for whatever we do in life.
It is through expressing love that Christianity becomes a relationship with God instead of being viewed as a legalistic or ritualistic religion which consists of “do’s and don’ts”.
We did not become born again through our personal effort to obey the law, but we became born again because of the regeneration of the Holy Spirit through believing in Jesus Christ (John 3:5-8).
So it is only by the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit that the New Testament Christian is able to please God, obey Him and live according to His will. It is not by our own effort but it is by the Spirit of God hence the Bible encourages us to “be led by the Spirit and not according to the flesh” and that if we walk according to the Spirit we are not under the law (Galatians 5:16-18).
Jesus Christ also promised that the Holy Spirit would guide us and equip us for the glory and work of God (John 14:15-30; John 16:4-15).
In John 14:15-17 Jesus says: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. You know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.”
Galatians 5:18-24 says: But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law… But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
The Old Testament law or Mosaic law was given for a specific purpose and for a limited time. The Mosaic law and most of its commandments applied to the nation of Israel with the exception of the moral laws which still apply today and is relevant to every born again Christian and unbeliever.
The purpose of the law was to be our temporary “school master” in order to reveal the sinfulness and depravity of our nature, and then point us to the cross where Jesus Christ our Saviour paid for our sins (Galatians 3:24-26).
The law cannot save us. Only Jesus Christ can save us. We cannot be saved by keeping the law because we cannot keep all the 613 Mosaic laws, and many of them such as the animal sacrifices are no longer relevant because of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for sin.
Galatians 2:16 says: Know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.
We are to love God and love our neighbors. If we obey those two commandments diligently, we will be upholding all that God expects of us (1 Corinthians 13:1-13).
We are to be led by the Holy Spirit and not by our sin nature. It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to obey and express the character and nature of Christ through the fruits we bear (Galatians 5:16-24).
There is only one Person who walked the Earth and fulfilled the entire law – Jesus Christ.
Only Christ alone lived a sinless life and He did not break a single law.
Jesus fulfilled the entire law on our behalf and He was the perfect and sinless sacrifice whom God accepted as our Substitute for the atonement of our sins (Romans 8:3-4).
Therefore our own effort to keep the Old Testament law for our salvation is meaningless. Salvation is only through Jesus Christ who became the perfect sacrifice for our sins on the cross so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.