A Few Examples of Obsolete Laws
1. Were the sacrifices and rituals a "shadow" of better things? Heb. 10:1. Were these symbolic rituals spiritually effective? Verses 1, 4. When Christ came, what did he say about sacrifices? Verses 5-7. In saying this, did he set aside the rules required by the first covenant? Verses 8-9. What sacrifice is spiritually effective for us? Verses 10, 14. Are sacrifices for sin still necessary? Verse 18.
Comment: Animal sacrifices served as reminders of sin, but they could not forgive sin or cleanse hearts. Spiritual cleansing comes only through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. No one needs to offer animals as sacrifices for sin.
However, the old covenant system had not just sin offerings but also many other sacrifices, such as fellowship offerings, grain offerings and thank offerings. Did Christ also fulfill the symbolism of these offerings? These sacrifices are no longer necessary. The food and drink offerings and ceremonial washings were "external regulations applying until the time of the new order" (Heb. 9:10). Jesus Christ brought that "new order" — the new covenant, the new agreement we have with God.
The first Christians continued to participate in temple rituals for several decades, as long as the temple existed, but the point made in Hebrews is that these rituals were not necessary even when the temple stood and the Levitical priests were offering sacrifices. By his death on the cross, Jesus Christ had abolished those ritual commands.
2. What did God command the Israelites to wear on their garments? Num. 15:38. What was the purpose of this law? Verse 39.
Comment: In this law, God required the Israelites to wear distinctive clothing, garments that (at least in this detail) were not like the garments worn by gentiles. Every time the Israelites put on their clothes, they would be reminded of their relationship to God. They were saying, in effect, "We do this because God has commanded us to, and we obey God's commands."
All the people were required to observe this custom showing their devotion to God. This command was not directly related to the priests, Levites, tabernacle or sacrifices. It was a helpful worship custom.
However, this custom is no longer required, even though the New Testament says nothing about this particular command. It does not declare it unnecessary. So why do Christians consider it obsolete today? The only biblical reason we have for ignoring this command is that the New Testament declares the old covenant obsolete.
Of course, the principle is still good: we should remember to obey God. The purpose of the tassels is still valid, but the tassels themselves are not required. Christians obey God not according to the old covenant law, but according to the new covenant. The old package of laws is obsolete. Some of its laws are still valid, but others are not. Therefore, when Christians use the Old Testament for instruction about godly living, they must understand all laws in the light of the New Testament.
Christian conduct should be based on the new covenant. Although the new covenant gives us many commands concerning our behavior, the focus throughout the new covenant is on the spirit of the law, the purpose of the law, and obedience from the heart. It gives us the general rule to love God with all our heart, but it gives fewer rules as to exactly how that love should be expressed.
Some people try to interpret biblical laws with this rule: "Old Testament laws are valid unless the New Testament specifically says they are not." But this rule is not true, as we can see with the example of tassels, and it is proven false by Hebrews 8:13.
The old covenant is obsolete. This does not mean the covenant is mostly valid, except for those laws specifically rescinded. No, it means the covenant itself is obsolete. It is like a law code that the government has declared invalid. It is not a valid source for rules about Christian behavior. Of course, some individual laws, such as the prohibition of adultery, are valid, but their validity is based on something more permanent than the old covenant — the more basic law that existed before the old covenant was given and still exists after the old covenant became obsolete.
3. Did God command the Israelites to kill Passover lambs? Ex. 12:1-8. Was this ritual to be repeated every year? Verses 24-27. Could gentiles participate in this worship festival? Verse 48.
Comment: Jesus told his disciples to break bread and drink wine in commemoration of his death, but he apparently did not tell his disciples that the bread and wine were substitutes for the Passover lambs. The early Christians in Jerusalem, being zealous for the law, would have continued to sacrifice Passover lambs in addition to partaking of the bread and wine. The New Testament does not directly say that lambs are unnecessary.
So how do we know that Passover lambs are not required? Because the old covenant is obsolete. The Passover was instituted two months before the covenant was made at Mt. Sinai, but it was part of the old covenant system. This was one of the laws added 430 years after Abraham.
The law of Moses clearly required gentiles to be circumcised in order to participate in the Passover lamb festival. However, the early church did not require gentiles to be circumcised. This means that they did not require gentiles to participate in the old covenant Passover. Although gentiles could participate in the old covenant Passover if they wished to (if they became circumcised), they were not required to. God did not require that they keep this festival in order to be among the people of God, and he did not require that they be circumcised. Those commands were given to the Israelites, but they were not commanded for the gentiles. The gentiles did not have to celebrate the escape of the Israelites from Egypt. This applies to many other old covenant laws, too — the laws that separated Jews from gentiles, the laws that Christ abolished by his death on the cross (Eph. 2:14-15). The gentiles did not have to keep laws that applied only to Israelites.
4. Did God claim ownership of every firstborn male, both human and animal? Ex. 13:1-2. Were the firstborn animals to be given to the Lord, and every firstborn son redeemed? Verses 11-15.
Comment: Does God require that firstborn animals be given to him today? No. Farmers do not have to donate cows, sheep, chickens or other animals. Nor do firstborn sons have to be redeemed or bought back from the Lord. These old covenant laws are obsolete, because the covenant itself is obsolete.
5. As God was speaking the old covenant from Mt. Sinai, what did he command regarding agricultural years? Ex. 23:10-11. Later, did he also set aside every 50th year? Lev. 25:1-12. Was the entire year holy to the Lord? Verse 12.
Comment: The New Testament does not comment on the validity of these laws. It simply declares the covenant obsolete, and there is nothing in the new covenant that would cause us to conclude that the sabbatical and jubilee years are still required. These laws were given only to Israelites, only for the land of Canaan, only for the time period of the old covenant.
Although we might expect that the law had agricultural benefits, the Bible does not make that claim. Some farmland needs to be left fallow more often, and some less often. The Bible does not give us authority to command these same customs for other people in other lands.
Similarly, the Jubilee year had valuable economic results, but it was a civil law that Christians cannot require today. The economic situation (such as slavery) has changed considerably, and the covenant containing this law has been declared no longer authoritative.
6. Did God command three annual festivals? Ex. 23:14. Did he command all Israelite men to appear before him at a designated site? Deut. 16:16. For the Feast of Tabernacles, to whom was the command given? Lev. 23:33-34, 42. Were offerings a commanded part of the festival? Verse 36. Was this festival designed to coordinate with the harvest season in the land of Canaan? Verse 39. What were the Israelites commanded to gather for this festival? Verse 40. What were they commanded to live in? Verse 42. What did the festival commemorate? Verse 43.
Comment: The old covenant required annual worship festivals. It specified the date and the place, the manner and the people to whom the commands applied. God did not command gentiles to keep this festival. It was one of the ordinances that separated Jews from gentiles, and the early church did not require gentile believers to travel to Jerusalem, to make offerings, to gather palm branches or to live in booths. Those things were part of the old covenant, which God made with ancient Israel. They are not part of the new covenant.
7. Did God command Abraham to circumcise himself? Gen. 17:11. Did this command apply to anyone else? Verses 9, 12. Was this command included in the old covenant? Lev. 12:2-3. To what ethnic group did the command apply? Verse 2.
Comment: God did not command gentiles to be circumcised or to circumcise their children. Nor has he ever authorized his church to make such a command. The early church decided that gentiles did not have to be circumcised (Acts 15). Although they were later concerned about whether Jewish believers were being taught to circumcise their children, they had no such concerns regarding the gentile believers (Acts 21). The command did not apply to gentiles.
Paul explained that physical circumcision was not necessary (Rom. 2:28-29). Uncircumcised people can be declared righteous in God's sight (Rom. 3:30). He warned gentiles that they should not feel compelled to be circumcised (1 Cor. 7:18; Gal. 5:2). However, some people were apparently teaching a false doctrine that gentiles had to come under the old covenant in order to be saved, and in their thinking, circumcision was the key step in submitting to the Torah (Acts 15:5; Gal. 5:3). Paul had to argue against circumcision advocates in several of his letters.
But God never commanded gentiles to be circumcised. It would be a mistake to make this a requirement or even to imply that it is spiritually better. Gentile believers inherit the promises of Abraham, which were given to him before he was circumcised (Rom. 4:9-11). Laws that were added later cannot take away the blessing that God had already sworn to give. In the next section, we will continue to examine some laws that were instituted as part of the old covenant.