Are Old Testament Laws Still Binding on Christians?
Christians often wonder, Are Old Testament laws still in force?
The New Testament gives two basic answers to this question: Yes, and no. Some verses indicate continuity, and others indicate change. Some verses maintain the validity of the law; others describe it as having been superseded by Christ.
If we look at one group of verses, we might conclude that we have to keep all Old Testament laws. If we look at another group of verses, we might conclude that they are all done away. Both answers have scriptural support and validity, so we need to look at both sides of the question.
Let’s start with an emphasis on continuity. A passage like Matthew 5:17-19 can be used to argue that all Old Testament laws are still in force. Jesus didn’t do away with any of God’s laws. Rather, he emphasized that we ought to obey God not only in our actions, but also in our hearts. We have to keep every Old Testament law in the spirit, in its attitude and purpose. God’s laws are written in our hearts and minds (Hebrews 8:10). They are internalized, so we should want to keep them. Hebrews 8:10 is a quote of Jeremiah 31:31-33, one could argue, and the laws that Jeremiah had in mind were the laws that were valid in his day: the old covenant laws. They were all given by God.
If this line of reasoning is correct, our love for God will motivate us to be circumcised, to keep the Jubilee year and sabbatical years. We will be diligent to avoid all forms of uncleanness, and we will wear phylacteries and only pure fabrics. We will offer sacrifices, not only for sin but also for fellowship offerings and thank offerings. When Jeremiah described the kingdom of God, old covenant customs were included.
These laws are still valid – but, as we know, they are applied in a spiritual way. The application of the law has been transformed by the coming of Jesus Christ. If our hearts are circumcised, it does not matter whether we have been circumcised in the flesh. If we are offering spiritual sacrifices, we do not need to offer animals.
If we are always forgiving debts and liberating people from bondage, we do not have to do anything different on sabbatical years. If we are treating our livestock and farmland properly, we do not have to do anything different on sabbatical years. If we live by the spirit, the letter of these laws is not required.
If we examine our hearts for corruption and are being cleansed by Jesus Christ, then we do not have destroy houses that have mildew. If our thoughts are pure, we don’t have to worry about our fabrics. If we are always thinking of God and his laws, we don’t have to wear phylacteries. The laws are valid, but the way in which we obey them has been transformed by the coming of Jesus Christ.
Some Old Testament laws are, in Christian application, spiritualized. They are removed from the dimensions of space and time and transferred into the spiritual dimension of attitude and interpersonal relationships.
Some people fight against spiritualizations. I’ve heard of one person who says Christians should offer animal sacrifices if the temple were still standing! And yet, as far as I know, he does not wear phylacteries or blue threads in tassels on his garments, nor does he advocate the destruction of a home when mildew is discovered. Moreover, I don’t know why the absence of a temple should stop an obligation (if it really is an obligation) to sacrifice animals. Sacrifices were part of correct worship long before Moses, so the end of the old covenant simply means that sacrificing is no longer the exclusive duty of Levites. We ought to worship God like Abel, Noah and Abraham did – and they sacrificed animals.
According to this logic, ministers ought to make animal sacrifices, preaching all the while that these animals remind us of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We ought to kill Passover lambs in addition to partaking of bread and wine, because Jesus only added to the law; he did not take anything away. The sacrifices may be shadows, but even when the reality has come, the shadow still exists! Animal sacrifices are very educational, full of spiritual meaning, and it would be wrong to ignore any of God’s commands.
I have been arguing facetiously, but elements of the above argument have been used to promote various old covenant customs. My main point is that some Old Testament laws are spiritualized. Almost everyone can agree on that.
However, there are all sorts of opinions concerning which laws may be spiritualized and are not. Some fringe groups want physical circumcision. Some want land sabbaths. Some may even want tree-branch booths. Some want first tithe but not second and third. Some want weekly Sabbaths but not annual. Some want new moons. Many different doctrinal packages exist; each person thinks his own is the biblical one and that the others are inconsistent.
Some people are willing to say that the old covenant is obsolete; others are not comfortable with this statement. Some are willing to say that Gentiles do not need to keep the law of Moses; some are not willing to say that. Some are willing to say that the “law” of Galatians 3:19 is the old covenant; some are not.
With so many opinions floating around, it’s difficult to know where to start in a rational discussion. What biblical criteria can we use when discussing which laws are spiritualized and which must be kept in the letter as well as the spirit?
We need to start by defining the issues – can the person agree that the new covenant has been established (Hebrews 8:6)? Can the person agree that Christians should live by the terms of the new covenant? Can the person agree that some Old Testament laws, such as tassels and phylacteries, are obsolete even if the New Testament says nothing about such laws? Can the person give a rational reason why some old laws are valid in the letter and others are not, or is the position irrational?
The Old Testament clearly commanded the Israelites to wear blue threads in tassels on their garments (Numbers 15:38-39). Was this law inspired by God, or not? Answer: It was. Is this law obsolete? Answer: It is. Who has the authority to declare a God-given law obsolete? Answer: Only God.
Does the New Testament specifically rescind this law? Answer: No. It says nothing about this specific law. Then how can we prove, with divine authority, that it is obsolete? Answer: Because the New Testament declares the entire old covenant obsolete (Hebrews 8:13). As a law code, as a source of laws, it is not valid.
That brings us to our second approach to Old Testament law: None of it is valid. Christians do not have to keep the law of Moses because those laws were a temporary package, designed to be in force only until the Messiah came. Now that he has come and given us a better covenant, the first is obsolete.
The old covenant was something like a contract. In business, people make contracts. A farmer agrees to deliver tomatoes to the store every Tuesday, and the store agrees to pay a certain price per pound. If he comes on Monday, the store is not necessarily obligated to buy. If he brings broccoli, the store is not obligated to buy. Now, what happens if the farmer is simply unable to bring tomatoes on Tuesday because his entire crop is rotten? Perhaps there will be penalties; it depends on how the contract is written.
Suppose now that the store makes a new contract with the farmer: Bring every vegetable that you have, as often as you pick it. This new contract even specifies that the old contract is null and void. The old restrictions (only tomatoes, only on Tuesday) are irrelevant, because the new contract supersedes the old.
A farmer and a store can have several contracts simultaneously, concerning different vegetables, different prices and terms and expiration dates, but God has only one covenant with his people. We do not add the new on top of the old and try to keep both the letter and the spirit of every law. We do not have to wear tassels on the outside and keep the law in our hearts as well. The new has replaced the old (Hebrews 10:9), and we focus on the spirit rather than the letter. In some cases the proper spirit will cause us to keep the letter, but in other cases it will not.
Consider the spirit of adultery, for example. If we avoid lust, then we will also (without any need for a written law) avoid physical acts of adultery. The letter of this law is still valid. If we do not covet, then we will (without any need for a written law) not steal. This law is also valid in the letter. If we are not angry at our brother, we will (without any need for a written law) not murder. Again, the letter is valid. Keeping the spirit of the law has thwarted these sins at their very source.
However, consider how different the Feast of Unleavened Bread is. The spirit of the law is (in moral terms) that we repent of sin and (in Christological terms) that we partake of the sinless Bread of life.
If we are abiding by the spirit of the law, do we automatically (without any need for a written law) look to a calendar based on the agricultural seasons of Judea, and observe a specific seven days of the year, specifically by avoiding bread made with yeast and avoiding work on the first and seventh days? This is not automatic at all. Rather, it is based exclusively on the written old covenant. In this case, there is a dramatic difference between the spirit and the letter of the law.
Or consider whether we must live in booths during the Feast of Tabernacles. Arguing about the details would be missing the point, for the simple reason that the new covenant says that the old contract is obsolete. The new contract does not require booths, nor does it forbid them. It says nothing about tomatoes, Tuesdays, or palm-branch sukkahs.
Instead, the new covenant requires us to remember always that we are strangers and pilgrims on this earth, journeying on our way to God’s promised new earth (1 Peter 2:11; Philippians 3:20). Just as with phylacteries and tassels, if we keep this law in our hearts, we do not need to worry about the letter. The purpose has been fulfilled.
Fulfillment in Jesus Christ
We know that sin offerings were shadows of the real sacrifice for sin, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 10:1-3). Now that the real sacrifice for sin has been made, the physical symbolism does not need to be reenacted. But what about peace offerings and fellowship sacrifices? The New Testament doesn’t specifically say that they are done away, but Jesus Christ fulfilled them, too. We keep these laws in the spirit, not in the letter.
Jesus has made atonement for us once for all, making us at one with the Father. We do not need to commemorate Christ’s atonement with the goat rituals of Leviticus 16. Their purpose has been fulfilled, and the purpose for fasting on the 10th of Tishri (Leviticus 16:29-31) has also been fulfilled. Fasting can be a beneficial spiritual discipline—but it is neither commanded for nor restricted to the Day of Atonement.
Christ, by bringing a new covenant, has transformed the law. The same underlying law still exists—the law of love. Jesus did not change that law at all. Rather, he fulfilled it. The old covenant, including the sacrifices, tassels and Jubilee years, had specific, physical applications of the underlying law of love. But those specifics are, in many cases, now obsolete. The spirit of the law remains, but the letter does not. The old covenant way is not the way to apply the purpose of the law. There are other ways to express our devotion to God and our love for our neighbors.
The Sabbath commandment, as our last example, had several purposes. It was a reminder of creation; it was a reminder of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt; it was a reminder of their special relationship with the Creator. It provided physical rest for animals, servants and families.
Morally, the Sabbath symbolized our duty to cease from evil works. Christologically, it symbolized our need to find spiritual rest in Christ, to trust in him rather than our own works for salvation. It symbolized the completion of our creation at the end of the age.
Now, if we have the spirit of the law written in our hearts, will we automatically, without need for written instructions, refuse to work on a particular day of the week? Will we, from our hearts, know that holy time extends from evening to evening? Will we automatically perceive that this specific time is so important that we should be willing to lose our jobs because of it? The answer is obvious: No. These things are dependent on the written old covenant. They are not automatic even if our hearts are right with God. The spirit of the Sabbath law does not automatically produce the letter – but Christians are to focus on the spirit.
The real purpose is that we enter the rest of God through faith in Christ. Our salvation is in him, not in a specific day of the week. If we are in Christ and he is in us, we will always remember our special relationship with him. We will be in perpetual remembrance of the new creation being done in us. We will cease from evil work every day of the week. We will do good works on every day of the week. We will worship on every day of the week. We will also recognize that new covenant love should motivate us to meet with one another regularly to encourage one another (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Resting on the Sabbath may picture a changed life, but many Sabbath-keepers do not have changed lives. Sabbath-keeping cannot change our hearts. Spiritual Sabbath-keeping, however, does change our hearts – because spiritual Sabbath-keeping means the life of faith in Christ, which changes us from the inside out. Jesus Christ has magnified the Sabbath law far beyond the temporal restrictions of the letter. If we are keeping the spirit of this law, the physical restrictions are not required. It is not wrong to rest on the Sabbath day. The physical benefits are still there. But it is wrong to see the physical as required for all Christians.
But, some say, we should keep both the letter and the spirit of this law. It is easy to make that claim, but there is no proof for it – and there is certainly no reason to condemn people on the basis of a different interpretation of how we should obey God. It is just as easy to make the claim that people truly abiding by the spirit of the tassels will also be wearing tassels. The flaw of such logic is exposed by the realization that the new covenant declares the old contract obsolete. We must focus on the spirit and purpose of the laws.
A Sabbatarian approach to the Sabbath emphasizes Matthew 5:17-19, and that usually leads to a distorted meaning for such verses as Colossians 2:16 and Romans 14:5.
However, after we recognize that the letter of some Old Testament laws is obsolete, then we realize that Matthew 5:17-19 has to be qualified or restricted in some way. So do Romans 3:20, 31; 7:12, 14 and other verses of continuity. These verses do not tell us which specific laws are still in force, and they do not prove the continued validity of any specific law. They are general, not specific.
Once we recognize that some Old Testament laws, although still valid in purpose, are obsolete in the letter, then we are free to accept the implications of what Paul wrote in Colossians 2:16. We should not let anyone judge us regarding Sabbath days, just as we shouldn’t let them judge us regarding new moons. Everyone should be convinced in their own mind, and they should not judge other Christians regarding such matters.