How Should Christians Apply Old Testament Laws?

What’s the problem?

Old Testament laws are tricky for Christians. On the one hand, some OT commandments sound fairly sensible to us—love God with all your heart (Deuteronomy 6:5), love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18), don’t murder (Exodus 20:13), and so forth. On the other hand, many OT commandments sound pretty weird—what’s so bad about boiling a goat in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19), or about trimming your sideburns (Leviticus 19:27)? And other OT laws sound downright cruel—is it fair for a slaveholder to get away with murdering his slave, just because the slave happens to survive a couple days (Exodus 21:20-21)? Or isn’t it sexist for a woman to become ritually unclean for twice as long when she gives birth to a girl as when she gives birth to a boy (Leviticus 12:2-5)? As appalling as many of these laws may sound to us, we need to confess the truth, beauty and goodness of all of God’s Word. Therefore, we need a way of interpreting OT laws that doesn’t simply reduce to cherry-picking what sounds convenient to us. But how do we do this?

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the New Testament also seems to give a mixed picture of OT laws. On the one hand, Jesus said he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, and that not one “jot or tittle” of the law would pass away until heaven and earth pass away (Matthew 5:17-19). On the other hand, there are several OT laws that seem to have been done away with in the NT, such as the kosher food laws (Mark 7:19), sacrifices (Hebrews 7:26-27), and circumcision (Acts 15). And then there’s the apostle Paul, who says both that Christ is the “end of the law” for believers (Romans 10:4) and also that Christians must fulfill the commandments of the law (Romans 13:8-10). If it is true that all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16), then there has to be a way of reconciling all of these seemingly conflicting statements.

The law’s place in the story of salvation

To understand how Christians should apply the OT laws, we need to read the Bible as an unfolding story. It’s a story of how the world, though created good by God (Genesis 1-2), was corrupted by humanity’s rebellion (Genesis 3; Romans 8:18-23), and is now being redeemed by God’s grace. And this plan of redemption develops in stages—first God gives a promise of redemption (Genesis 3:15), and then he selects one man, Abraham, to be the vehicle of blessing to the rest of the world (Genesis 12:1-3). Abraham’s descendants become the nation of Israel, with whom God makes a covenant at Mount Sinai after delivering them from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 24:7-8). It is important to remember where Israel is at in the story when the law is given to them—they are an infant nation, wandering in the wilderness, surrounded by pagan neighbors and in need of divine instruction. The law is therefore only the beginning of God’s revelation to his people, and is further developed and clarified as the history of redemption unfolds.

When God gave the Israelites the law, it served several purposes. First, it served to show God’s own holy and loving character, which his people are supposed to reflect (Leviticus 19:2). Second, it served to show the people their sin and need for God’s mercy (Deuteronomy 9:4-6). Third, it separated them from their pagan Gentile neighbors, whose practices had become an abomination to the Lord (Leviticus 18:3,27). Fourth, it established an elaborate priestly and sacrificial system (Leviticus 1-10)—the priesthood showed the people their need for an intermediary to approach God, while the sacrifices pointed to their need for a means of atonement to remove their sins. And fifth, the law enabled Israel to fulfill its unique historical role as a theocracy, where church and state were joined together in a priestly kingdom (Exodus 19:6).

The NT also sheds some light on the role that OT laws played. In a discussion on divorce, Jesus told the Pharisees that Moses permitted the Israelites to divorce on more relaxed grounds because of their “hardness of heart,” but that was not a part of God’s intention from creation (Matthew 19:8). God was willing to make certain concessions for Israel in light of their stubbornness, in order to set a minimum level of civility. But these laws were not the ideal, and they anticipated the revelation of a greater righteousness in Jesus. Likewise, Paul says that the law served as a “guardian” (or even a babysitter!), restraining Israel’s sin until Christ would come and deal definitively with sin (Galatians 3:19-26).

With the coming of Christ, the OT reaches the goal toward which it was heading. We now enter into a new act of the unfolding story, which brings both continuity and change with respect to the law. When Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, he quotes from the OT: love God, and then love your neighbor (Matthew 22:35-40). This doesn’t change for Christians. But with Jesus’ death and resurrection, several things do change. First, his atoning death is accepted by God as a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice on our behalf (Hebrews 9:26). The OT sacrifices were necessary for their time, but they were merely an imperfect shadow, pointing to the reality that Christians now possess in Jesus. Second, the boundaries of God’s people have expanded to include all the nations of the earth, so that now there is no longer any distinction between Jew and Gentile (Galatians 3:28). Christians have differing views about what exactly happens to ethnic Israel after Jesus (does the church somehow replace Israel, or do the promises to Israel continue?), but almost all agree that the church does not play the role of a theocracy like OT Israel did.

Asking the right questions

So where does all of that leave us in relation to the OT laws? Many Christians are quick to jump to the personal application question—“How does this or that OT law apply to me?” But to do this is to fail to see the primary purpose of the law, which is to shape our understanding of God’s own holy character and of ourselves as beings created in God’s image, marred by our own rebellion, and restored by God’s grace. Therefore, when we approach any given OT law, we should begin by first asking these questions:

  1. What does this law tell me about God’s holy and righteous character?
  2. What does this law tell me about my own sin and need for redemption?
  3. What does this law tell me about my relationship and responsibility to my neighbors? To other believers? To unbelievers?
  4. What does this law tell me about how the world works?
  5. If this law reflects a different cultural/historical setting, what general principle can I derive from it that can bridge the gap to my own cultural/historical setting?

Asking these questions first will help give us the proper mindset as we then come to wrestle with matters of concrete application. We need to keep in mind that all of the OT is God’s Word, and therefore all OT laws have authority, value, and significance. But the question we as Christians need to ask is, how do these laws apply to us in light of the fact that Jesus has come? This isn’t always easy to answer, but as a general rule, most OT laws give us direct guidance on how we should live, EXCEPT:

  1. Those laws that served to distinguish Jews from Gentiles, such as circumcision, kosher food laws, etc. Now that Christ has come, he has created a new and unified people by tearing down the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile (Eph 2:14-16).1
  2. Those laws that established the priestly/sacrificial system. With Jesus as our great High Priest and perfect sacrifice, we no longer need to rely on the types and shadows of the OT ceremonies.
  3. Those laws that established Israel’s role as a theocracy. It is not the church’s job to bear the sword to punish sin, but rather to proclaim God’s Word faithfully and make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:19). That is why, for example, we don’t stone adulterers.
  4. Those laws that were given to Israel as a concession due to their spiritual immaturity and hardness of heart. Sometimes the NT actually “raises the bar” set by OT laws, such as in the case of divorce (Matthew 19:9) or slavery (Colossians 4:1; Philemon 16).

While these categories will go a long way in helping Christians apply OT laws, they won’t answer every question for us, and it might not always be easy to tell if a certain law falls into any of these categories. Sometimes we are left with ambiguity. For example, what are Christians supposed to do about the Sabbath? On the one hand, it stems from the creation order (Genesis 2:2-3), and it is one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11), which suggests universal validity. On the other hand, Jesus was frequently accused of breaking the Sabbath (John 5:18), while Paul says that it’s okay to esteem all days equally (Romans 14:5) and that we should not pass judgment on each other with respect to Sabbaths (Colossians 2:16). Christians have different ways of dealing with all of these texts, leading to differing conclusions. At the end of the day, we may not get all of our questions resolved, but the important thing is that we as Christians act in wisdom, treating God’s Word with respect and treating our brothers and sisters in Christ with love.

1 Some interpreters may attempt to include OT sexual laws in this category as well (Leviticus 18), suggesting that, for example, homosexuality should no longer be considered a sin. But the NT shows that God’s purposes and parameters for human sexuality have remained the same since creation, and are therefore not restricted to OT Israel (1 Corinthians 6:9-20).

4 responses

  1. Interesting and well said. I liked this comment: “How does this or that OT law apply to me?” But to do this is to fail to see the primary purpose of the law, which is to shape our understanding of God’s own holy character and of ourselves as beings created in God’s image, marred by our own rebellion, and restored by God’s grace.”

    Just a thought, and I haven’t read up on this so it’s just coming straight from my head, but Israel had a very specific law carved in stone (ie the 10 Commandments) plus all the rest of the Levitical law, plus the prophets. Sometimes they’re all put together as ‘the law of the Lord,’ or the ‘law and the prophets,’ but I think that perhaps the 10 Commandments still sometimes have their own special place as THE law. Or perhaps capital ‘L’ law. I wonder if, when Jesus said that not a jot or tittle will be removed from the law, whether he was speaking of the whole law, or specifically the 10 commandments, which still do exist as God’s ultimate moral law…

    1. Traditionally, many Christians have distinguished between the Old Testament moral, civil, and ceremonial laws. Moral laws would include the 10 Commandments (plus a few others, like loving your neighbor as yourself), the civil would include such things as the divorce/inheritance laws of Deuteronomy 24, and the ceremonial laws would include things like sacrifices and dietary restrictions.

      It is common to say that the moral laws still apply while the civil/ceremonial laws do not, but I don’t think that’s quite right. First, the OT itself never makes such distinctions. Second, all laws have a moral, civil, and ceremonial component to them (murder is a moral sin, it makes you ritually unclean, and it carries a civil penalty). And third, such categories tend to downgrade the significance of certain portions of the OT.

      Still, the OT itself does seem to make some distinctions within the law. Take Hosea 6:6: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Technically, both mercy and sacrifice were commanded in the law. But mercy seems to take priority over sacrifice. So maybe a better distinction would be between those laws that are creational (that is, their basis is in God’s ordering of creation in Genesis 1-2) and those that are suited to Israel’s unique historical calling (like kosher food laws). All OT laws are fulfilled in Christ, but fulfillment may look different for each particular law.

  2. Nice work Kyle! Thanks for laying it out so clearly.

  3. […] (This is a follow-up to a previous post of mine: How Should Christians Apply Old Testament Laws?) […]

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