How does the Old Testament (Mosaic) law apply today? How should Christians understand and apply it?
This post is in response to a statement that was made by a commenter on a previous discussion on this site. The commenter stated in that discussion, “The Bible also says that those who work on the Sabbath should be put to death.” This command can be found in Exodus 31:13-14. Of course, what was implied is that since Christians do not seek the death penalty for those who break the Sabbath, they also should not seek to enforce / obey other laws that they seem to get so worked up over (i.e. homosexuality, same-sex marriage, etc.). It was also stated that Christians seem to pick and choose whatever they want from the Old Testament law as long as it supports their prejudices.
So, what should a Christian make of the Mosaic law? Should we keep the whole thing? Should we just ignore it and forget the Old Testament even exists? We could shorten our Bibles to the 27 books of the New Testament and make things a whole lot simpler. I know it would make my life easier!
Contrary to what some may believe, there are reasons that Christians hold to some of the Mosaic law while seemingly disregarding other parts of the same law. I will outline some of the reasons below. I hope it is helpful without being too technical.
- There are 613 distinct laws that make up the Mosaic Covenant. This covenant was a suzerainty-vassal treaty that was made by God with a specific geo-political nation: Israel. The Old Testament tells us that the covenant was not kept by the Israelites (Jeremiah 11:10; 22:9; 31:32). As a result of the constant violations of the Israelites, the New Testament tells us that God established a new covenant with a new people: the Church, which is not a geo-political nation, but a group of individuals scattered all over the world (1 Corinthians 11:25; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 8:6–13; 9:15–18). In fact, the reason our Bibles are divided into Old Testament and New Testament are to reflect the old covenant and the new covenant.
- In a legal sense, the terms of the original covenant are not binding on Christians. The terms of the new covenant are binding.
- Even though the Mosaic law is not binding on Christians, it still has much to teach us about the character of God and His desires. So, in an instructional sense, the Mosaic law is still binding, as is all of Scripture. Christians do not approach the law the same way as those who lived under the old covenant did, but instead look at the laws and ask, “What does this teach me about the character of God? What was God teaching Israel by this law? How does this law apply to me and us now?” Since God’s character does not change, the Old Testament law has much to teach us about Him.
- Specifically, we can say that Christians are not required to keep laws related to Israel’s government or Temple regulations. Also, Christians are not bound to the particular punishments outlined in the Old Testament law. However, what we learn from the Old Testament concerning God’s character and expectations in relation to morality do not change. It is always wrong to kill another person, it is always wrong to practice incest, etc.
- Sabbath laws fall under “Temple regulations” and are not binding for Christians unless they are explicitly repeated in the new covenant, which they are not. We do learn that “resting” in the Lord is advantageous to the believer’s spiritual well-being, growth, and relationship with God. This is gleaned from understanding the intent of the Mosaic Sabbath laws.
- Same-sex unions, murder, incest, and others are issues of “morality” and are always contrary to God’s character and law. These issues are also explicitly repeated in the new covenant, so we have no doubts about our attitude towards them as Christians. However, the Old Testament penalties for these matters are not binding to Christians.
Christians do not “pick and choose” what laws to follow and which ones to ignore. This is determined by the nature of the covenants that are described in Scripture. Christians are bound by the new covenant, but also gain invaluable insight into the character of God by examining the old covenant laws. As we understand what is in harmony with God’s character and what is contrary to His character, it guides our lives and tells us what is and is not morally acceptable to God.
So, yes, Christians are still under the Mosaic law in a sense, but not in the same legal manner that Israel was.
The key to reading any work of literature is understanding context. It is impossible to have an accurate understanding of specific passages, verses, and laws in the Bible without first understanding the broader context that they are written in. Those who attack the Bible usually fail to examine the historical-grammatical-contextual settings of the particular passages they attack.