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The Old Covenant and the Law of Moses

There are three major foundations for understanding the covenants and the Old Testament law. All three give the same conclusion. They are

  • The old covenant is obsolete, and the new covenant has been established.
  • Christians are not obligated to keep “the law of Moses.”
  • When Paul discussed “the law,” he was often concerned with the entire law of Moses, and he wrote that Christians were not under the authority of that law. Our obligation to obey God is defined by a different law, a spiritual law, which in some cases overlaps Old Testament laws but in other cases supersedes them.

Let’s examine each of these points and show that they all support the same conclusion. The New Testament is consistent. First, the matter of covenants. They are discussed in detail in the book of Hebrews, especially chapter 8. There, the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ is contrasted with the Levitical high priesthood. The ministry Jesus received is far superior to the Levitical ministry, and his covenant is far superior to the old covenant (verse 6).

But there was a problem with the first covenant — the people were not faithful and were not able to obey (verses 7-9). God therefore promised a new covenant, and “by calling this covenant `new,’ he has made the first one obsolete” (verse 13). The old covenant is obsolete — ended. The agreement and its terms of relationship no longer have authority.

The writer of Hebrews says that the old covenant “will soon disappear,” and indeed most of its operations ceased in A.D. 70 when Roman armies destroyed the Temple. Even though elements of the old covenant system continue to be observed in Judaism, the New Testament declares that the old covenant itself is obsolete.

Now, we must ask, just what was the old covenant? What laws are we talking about here? First, the core of the old covenant is the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13). As part of the old covenant, the people at Mt. Sinai also agreed to obey all the laws in Exodus 20, 21, 22 and 23. These additional laws became part of the covenant God made with Israel, and the covenant was then ratified with blood (Exodus 24:6-8).

This is the covenant that has been declared obsolete. It has no legal authority. Further, we cannot assume that any part of the contract is valid when the entire contract has been declared obsolete. We cannot assume that any particular group of laws must remain together.

The old covenant included much more than Exodus 20-23. Hebrews 9:1 tells us that it also included directions for the tabernacle. Instructions for the altar, Levitical priests and animal sacrifices were given in Exodus 25-31. These were part of God’s original plan for Israel. He knew very well that the people would sin and would need a tabernacle and regular burnt offerings. It was all part of the plan, part of his relationship with his people, part of his covenant.

Added because of transgressions?

Some have said that the sacrificial laws were added “because of transgressions,” as if sacrifices were not part of the original law. But this is not true. Moses told Pharaoh that the Israelites wanted to leave Egypt so they could offer sacrifices and burnt offerings in the wilderness (Exodus 10:25). Before the Israelites left Egypt, they sacrificed Passover lambs. Even within the old covenant, altars and burnt offerings were commanded (Exodus 20:24) — all this before the covenant was ratified and before it had a chance to be transgressed.

When Galatians 3:19 says that the law was added because of transgressions, it is talking about the entire law — everything that was added 430 years after Abraham (verse 17). This law had a mediator (verse 19) — this law was the covenant. The entire covenant was added, becoming part of God’s relationship with his people, because of transgressions. The law is made for lawbreakers (1 Timothy 1:9). God gave rules for civil and religious behavior because the people, even before they got to Sinai, were disobedient — just as God knew that they would be. Sacrifices were not an afterthought — they were part of the original covenant.

The idea that sacrifices were not a part of the law as first given at Sinai was based on a misunderstanding of Jeremiah 7:22, which says that God did not at first speak to the Israelites about burnt offerings and sacrifices. If read literally, this flatly contradicts Exodus 10:25 and Exodus 20:24. But the phrase should not be read so literally. Jeremiah 7:22 is a Hebrew figure of speech indicating relative emphasis. When God brought the people out of Egypt, it was not because he wanted sacrifices and offerings. Rather, he wanted obedience, and the sacrifices were only a tool to help the people remember that they ought to obey. Obedience was the primary concern, even though the covenant also prescribed sacrifices for the inevitable transgressions.

(A similar figure of speech can be seen in John 12:47, where Jesus says he did not come to judge the world, but to save it. John 9:39, however, says that Jesus did come to judge the world. The “contradiction” is explained by understanding that John 12:47 gives a contrast in emphasis, not in fact. Although Jesus came to judge, his primary purpose was to save.)

The point of this digression is that the old covenant included not only Exodus 20-23, but other laws as well. When the Sinaitic covenant was renewed with the next generation of Israelites, all the laws of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers were included as part of the covenant. But these laws were still considered the same covenant (Deuteronomy 1:1-5; 5:2-3). The book of Deuteronomy contains many additional laws, all considered part of the same covenant, the same basic agreement or relationship between Israel and God.

The old is obsolete

When the book of Hebrews says that the old covenant is obsolete, it is referring to the whole package of Old Testament law. Some individual laws, of course, are still valid, but the package as a whole is not an authoritative package.

We see this again in 2 Corinthians 3. In verse 3, Paul makes a contrast between the “tablets of stone” — a clear reference to the Ten Commandments — and the writing of God’s Spirit on the hearts of Christians. In verse 6, he contrasts the new covenant with “the letter,” which in context means the letter of the old covenant. Verse 7 talks about the law engraved on stones and the shining of Moses’ face. It is clear that Paul is talking about the Ten Commandments, for those are the engraved stones Moses had when his face shone in glory and he had to put a veil over his face.

The old covenant was glorious, but it was “fading away,” replaced by a covenant much more glorious. Paul was already administering the new covenant. The old was obsolete, and was fading away. Although sacrifices continued to be administered in Jerusalem, they would cease soon after Paul wrote. The old covenant has ended, and we should live by the terms of the new covenant.

Some people object, saying that God’s covenants are compared to marriage agreements, and we are only betrothed to Christ and the marriage has not yet taken place. Some have reasoned from this analogy that the new covenant has not yet been made. However, marriage is only an analogy, and we must not take it so far that it leads us astray from the facts!

Do we have an agreement with God? Has he promised to give us certain things through his Son? Yes, he has. We have an agreement, and an agreement with God is a covenant. We have a covenant with God, and it is the new covenant. Hebrews 8:6 tells us that Christ’s covenant “is founded on better promises.” It “was established,” says the King James Version; the New American Standard says it “has been enacted.” The verb is in the past tense, indicating that the new covenant has been made. An analogy cannot contradict the clear meaning of this verse. Blood has been shed, ratifying the new covenant (Luke 22:20; Hebrews 10:29).

We have not received all the promised blessings of the new covenant, of course, just as the Israelites didn’t receive their physical promises until many years after their covenant had been made. The fact that the promises are still future does not mean that the covenant hasn’t been made. In fact, the very existence of the promises shows that the agreement has been made. We do have a relationship with God. Paul was a minister of the Spirit, not of the letter. He was a minister of the new covenant, not of the old. One aspect of the new covenant is that we are forgiven (Hebrews 10:17-18).

To summarize this section:

  • The old covenant was built around the core of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28).
  • The old covenant is obsolete (Hebrews 8:13).
  • The new covenant has been established (Hebrews 8:6).

The law of Moses

Next, let’s examine the way the New Testament uses the phrase “law of Moses.” This term will also help us understand the difference between the Old Testament era and the New. The Jerusalem council (Acts 15) met to discuss this very question. “Some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, `The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses’” (verse 5).

The council concluded that gentiles did not have to obey the law of Moses. The New American Bible, for example, says this: “The Jerusalem ‘Council’ marks the official rejection of the rigid view that Gentile converts were obligated to observe the Mosaic law…. Paul’s refusal to impose the Mosaic law on the Gentile Christians is supported by Peter on the ground that within his own experience God bestowed the Holy Spirit upon Cornelius and his household without preconditions concerning the adoption of the Mosaic law.”

In verse 28, the apostles told the gentiles that they did not require anything beyond four particular restrictions. This did not mean that they were free to murder and blaspheme. They were to avoid murder and blasphemy because of Christ, not because of the law of Moses.

Just what is the “law of Moses”? What is being discussed? The New Testament tells us what the law of Moses includes. This phrase is used six other times in the New Testament.

Luke 2:22: “When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took [Jesus] to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.” So the law of Moses includes rituals regarding uncleanness after childbirth. It should be obvious already that it doesn’t make sense to claim that Christians ought to observe the law of Moses. Neither Jewish nor gentile Christians have to observe these purification rituals today.

Luke 24:44: Jesus, after his resurrection, said to his disciples: “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” In this verse, the law of Moses includes prophecies about the Messiah. It’s not just ritualistic laws — it’s the five books of Moses, the Torah, the Pentateuch.

John 7:22-23: Jesus was talking to the Pharisees: “Yet, because Moses gave you circumcision (though actually it did not come from Moses, but from the patriarchs), you circumcise a child on the Sabbath. Now if a child can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing the whole man on the Sabbath?” Here, the law of Moses includes the law of circumcision. Moses didn’t originate the practice, but he wrote about it. It is in his law.

Acts 28:23, where Paul is in Rome: “They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. From morning till evening he explained and declared to them the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesus from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.” Here again, the law of Moses includes prophecies about Jesus Christ. It is one section of the Old Testament.

1 Corinthians 9:9 — “It is written in the Law of Moses: ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’” Here, the law of Moses includes civil laws. Paul could adapt the principle for the new covenant, but in the law of Moses it was a civil law.

Hebrews 10:28: “Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” This is also talking about a civil law, the administration of the death penalty in ancient Israel.

The law of Moses included civil laws, religious ceremonies and prophecies. It referred to everything that Moses wrote, the books of Moses, the Torah or the Law. The law of Moses includes everything in those books, and that’s what the Jerusalem council was about. Some people claimed that the gentile Christians had to be circumcised and to keep all the laws found in the five books of Moses. The council concluded that they did not have to keep all those laws. Instead, they gave only four prohibitions.

This is brought out again in chapter 21. Paul had returned to Jerusalem, and rumors swirled that he had been teaching Jews to abandon the law of Moses (verse 21). The rumors were false. Paul had not been teaching any such thing. Although the rituals were not required for Christians, neither were they forbidden. Jewish Christians were free to participate in their traditional customs. To make this point clear, the Jerusalem elders suggested that Paul participate in such a ritual himself (verses 23-24).

In chapter 21, the controversy centered on whether Paul taught Jews to abandon the law. There was no question about the gentiles, since they had already been given the four prohibitions (verse 25). Everyone accepted the fact that they did not have to keep the law of Moses. This is made even more clear in the Greek text used by the King James translators. The elders wanted Paul to demonstrate “that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the law. But concerning the Gentiles who believe, we have written and decided that they should observe no such thing,” except for the four prohibitions they had already been given (verse 25, NKJ). Gentiles do not have to abide by the customs of Moses. They do not need to live like Jews in order to be Christians.

So, to summarize this section, we see that

  • The law of Moses contains all the laws that Moses wrote.
  • Some Pharisees thought that gentile Christians ought to keep the law of Moses.
  • The Jerusalem Council declared that they did not have to. The writings of Moses do not have legal authority over Christians. They are instructive, but obsolete in their legal authority.

Not under the law

Next, let us examine some of Paul’s statements about the law. Portions of his epistles are difficult to understand. One reason is that he uses the word law with different meanings. That should caution us, but it should not prevent us from trying to see what he meant. We do not want to distort his writings to our own destruction by assigning meanings to his words that he didn’t intend. We have to study the epistles to see what he meant.

Consider the phrase “under the law,” for example. Does it mean under the penalty of the law, or does it mean under the authority of the law? Let’s see how it is used:

Romans 2:12: “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.” The contrast here is between Jew and gentile. Jews are under the authority of the law, and gentiles are not.

Romans 3:19: “Whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.” The law speaks to those who are under its authority.

1 Corinthians 9:20-21: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.”

Jews were under the law, so Paul, in an effort to win them, acted in accordance with the law, as we see in Acts 21. However, Paul did not consider himself under the law that Jews were under. He is talking about behavior, not his salvation status. He was free to act like a gentile if he wanted to, and that’s what he did when trying to win gentiles to the faith. He acted like a person who did not have the law of Moses. However, he makes it clear that he was under the law of Christ, God’s real law, the spiritual and eternal law. But Paul was not under the authority of the law that separated Jews from gentiles.

Galatians 4:4-5: “When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” Jesus Christ was born under the law — under its authority. He never broke the law, and did not deserve its penalty. By being born under the Jewish law, he was able to redeem Jews as well as those who do not have the law.

Galatians 4:21: “Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?” Paul is writing to Christians who were tempted to accept old covenant laws as requirements. They wanted to be under the authority of the old covenant – not its penalty. Which law is Paul talking about? The same “law” that says that Abraham had two sons (verse 22). It is the law that contains Genesis — the law of Moses, the books of Moses. Some of the Galatians wanted to be under that law, and Paul was arguing against it.

In the above passages, “under the law” means under the authority of the old covenant law. That is also its meaning in the only other occurrence in the New Testament: “Sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (Romans 6:14-15). We are not under the authority of the law, but under the authority of grace — but grace does not mean that we are free to do our own thing. Rather, grace comes with obligation — we are under the law of Christ. We are to obey him.

Dead to the law

We see another revealing discussion of law in Romans 7:1-4. Paul speaks to the Jews:

Do you not know, brothers — for I am speaking to men who know the law — that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives? For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage…. So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God.

Paul says that we have died to the law — even the Jews have died to the law through identification with Jesus Christ. Therefore, the law no longer has authority over us, since we belong to Christ, not to the law. Christ is the one we obey, so that we can bear spiritual fruit. The law is contrasted with Christ, and it is the old covenant law that Paul is talking about — the Torah, the Law portion of the Scriptures. We can be under the law, or under Christ. Being under both is not an option.

Galatians 3 is also clear about the law. Verses 2 and 5 contrast faith with law. Paul is not talking about the eternal, spiritual law in this passage, nor is he talking about the sacrificial laws, which could not be kept in Galatia. He is talking about the Torah, “the Book of the Law” (verse 10). It is the law added 430 years after Abraham (verse 17), which includes all of Exodus and Leviticus.

Abraham’s covenant was based on faith (verses 6-7), and we are heirs of his promise (verse 29). The law was added to that covenant because of the transgressions of the Israelites (verse 19), but the law cannot alter the Abrahamic promises that we inherit. Rather, the law — the books of Moses — was a temporary measure until Christ, the Seed, came (verse 19). “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law” (verse 25).

Here we see the same conclusion. The Scriptures are consistent. Christians are not required to obey the laws of Moses. They were glorious for a time, but their purpose has been superseded by Jesus Christ.

Paul was not against all law. He talks often of the obligations that Christians have. Even in the book of Galatians, he concludes with exhortations about sins to avoid and righteousness to seek. These things are challenging — humanly impossible, in fact. We need to be led by God’s Spirit and transformed in inner character into the pattern of Jesus Christ. He is the standard; the old covenant law is not.

We see more in the next chapter, with Paul’s allegory of the covenants, Abraham, Hagar and Sarah. Hagar stands for the old covenant (verse 24), and Paul tells us to get rid of her (verse 30). Those who are under her covenant are slaves, whereas those under the authority of the new covenant have the full rights of children (verse 4).

In Galatians 5, Paul makes it clear again. Although the old covenant law enslaves those who are under it, we have been set free from that law (verse 1). But if we submit to the old covenant law of circumcision, then Christ is of no value to us (verse 2). We are either under the new covenant or the old; we cannot be under both. The basis of our relationship with God should be faith in Christ, not the law of Moses. But if we want to be under the old covenant, then we are “obligated to obey the whole law” (verse 3). Christians, however, are not obligated to obey the whole law. Paul is not talking about just sacrificial or ceremonial laws — he is talking about the entire law. The entire law of Moses is obsolete, and Christians are not under its authority.

Christians obey some of the laws of Moses, of course. We should not covet or lie to one another. But we obey these laws not because Moses wrote about them, but because they are part of the Christ-like life. We are under Christ, not Moses. Christ tells us to love our neighbors, and the New Testament explains that this means we do not lie or covet.

Live like a gentile

As one more illustration of Paul’s use of the word law, let’s look at Ephesians 2:11-19. Paul is saying that gentiles were once separated from the covenants, separated from Christ. But in Christ they have now been brought near. How is this possible? Because Christ has destroyed the barrier that kept the gentiles away. He has abolished the law. Which law? The law that had commandments and regulations separating Jews from gentiles.

Because Jesus has destroyed the legal basis for discriminating against gentiles, gentiles have become part of God’s people. Does this mean that gentiles have to become like Jews, and obey laws pertaining to Jews? Certainly not. That was the conclusion of the Jerusalem council, and it is the conclusion of Paul, too, since he says that even Jews have died to the old covenant law and are not bound by it. Paul had the freedom to live like a Jew, or the freedom to live like someone who lived uprightly though that person did not have the Jewish law.

Peter also understood that he was permitted to live like a gentile (Galatians 2:14). Which laws would a righteous gentile be expected to keep? Which laws of Moses separated “living like a gentile” from “living like a Jew”? Apparently rabbis did not require righteous gentiles to be circumcised, to observe Jewish dietary restrictions or to observe the Sabbath. Those three laws, from both Jewish and gentile perspectives, distinguished Jews from gentiles. James Dunn writes this:

In the phrase…works of the law…Paul has in mind particularly circumcision, food laws and sabbath, as the characteristic marks of the faithful Jew, so recognized and affirmed by both Jew and Gentile…. Just these observances were widely regarded as characteristically and distinctively Jewish. Writers like Petronius, Plutarch, Tacitus and Juvenal took it for granted that, in particular, circumcision, abstention from pork, and the sabbath, were observances which marked out the practitioners as Jews, or as people who were very attracted to Jewish ways…. They were the peculiar rites which marked out the Jews as that peculiar people. (Jesus, Paul and the Law, pages 4, 191-192)

To summarize this section:

  • To be under the law is to be under its authority.
  • Christians are not under the law.
  • We are not obligated to keep the Torah. Rather, we may live like righteous gentiles who do not have the law of Moses.

A New Testament authority is needed before any old practices are imposed or required. That’s because the law of Moses, the old covenant, the Torah, is obsolete. We are not under that law; we are not obligated to keep laws that were given to the Israelites only.

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