Should Christians Keep the Law of Moses? - What About the Ten Commandments?

When Jesus was on earth, he kept the laws of Moses — but he also criticized them. Soon after he went back to heaven, his followers met to decide whether Christians should keep the laws of Moses. The question came to the foreground when people who weren’t Jewish began to follow Christ: “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’” (Acts 15:5).

What were these laws? Were they biblical laws, or the unbiblical traditions of the elders? In every other New Testament mention of the “laws of Moses,” the biblical books of Moses are meant (Luke 2:22; 24:44; John 7:22-23; Acts 28:23; 1 Cor. 9:9; Heb. 10:28). Luke could have said “traditions,” but he did not. Anyone who knew the teachings of Jesus would already know that unbiblical traditions were not required. They did not need to debate about Jewish traditions.

Just as circumcision was biblical, so also were the laws of Moses. The claim was that non-Jewish believers should be circumcised, and then, as part of the covenant people of God, they should then obey the laws of the covenant. The law of Moses said that men were to be circumcised.

Today, we might explain (as Paul did) that Jesus instituted a new covenant, and that the Jewish believers were God’s people not because they were Jewish, but because they were believers. Membership in the new covenant is by faith, not by ancestry. But the Jerusalem council did not approach the question from this perspective. Let’s see how they did it.

The apostles speak

“The apostles and elders met to consider this question” (Acts 15:6). Perhaps dozens of elders were involved. “After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: ‘Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe’” (v. 7).

Peter reminded the people that God had used him to preach the gospel to Cornelius and his family (Acts 10). Cornelius was not circumcised, but Peter did not use that as proof. Rather, he focused on the foundations of how a person is saved—by believing.

“God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith” (vs. 8-9). God gave the Holy Spirit to this uncircumcised family, purifying their hearts, calling them holy, as acceptable to him, because of their faith.

Peter then began to scold the people who wanted the gentiles to obey the laws of Moses: “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (vs. 10-11).

Peter’s point is that the yoke of Moses was a burden that the Jewish people were not able to keep successfully. Those rituals showed that, no matter how hard people worked, they could never be perfect. They showed, for anyone who ever wondered, that works can never lead to salvation. Salvation is attained in a different way—by grace. We can’t earn it, so it has to be given to us.

Since the law of Moses cannot bring us salvation, there is no need to require the gentiles to keep it. God gave them the Holy Spirit and showed that he accepts them without all those rituals. They are saved by grace, and the Jews are, too.

If we follow Peter’s logic, we will see that Jewish believers do not have to keep the laws of Moses, either. They are saved by grace through faith, just as the gentiles are. The old covenant is obsolete, so its laws are no longer required for anyone, and that is why Peter could live like a gentile (Gal. 2:14). But that is getting ahead of the story. In Acts 15, the question is only whether gentiles have to keep the laws of Moses.

The judgment of James

After Barnabas and Paul told “about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:12), James spoke. As leader of the Jerusalem church, he had a lot of influence. Some of the Judaizers even claimed him as their authority (Gal. 2:12), but Luke tells us that James was in complete agreement with Peter and Paul.

“Brothers, listen to me. Simon [Peter] has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself” (Acts 15:13-14). The fact that God has already acted was powerful evidence. James then quoted from the Greek translation of Amos to show that Scripture agreed with what was happening (vs. 15-18). He could have used other Old Testament prophecies, too, about gentiles being included among God’s people.

Experience and Scripture pointed to the same conclusion. “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (v. 19). There is no need to require the yoke of Moses, for that would make things unnecessarily difficult for the gentile believers.

James then suggested four rules: “Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood” (v. 20). Instead of making things difficult for the gentiles, these four rules would be enough.

Believers should not lie, steal and murder. That was as obvious to them as it is to us, so they did not need a special reminder about it. The decree makes it clear that gentiles do not have to be circumcised, nor do they have to obey the laws of Moses. They are circumcised spiritually, not physically. God never gave those commands to the gentiles.

Moses is preached

We should not make it difficult for the gentiles, James said. Instead, it will be enough to give them four rules, which they will find easy to comply with. Why give them these rules? Notice the reason that James gives: “For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath” (v. 21).

James was not encouraging gentile Christians to attend the synagogues. He was not saying they should listen to the laws of Moses. However, because those laws were commonly preached, the apostles should tell the gentiles four rules. Then they would not think that Christianity is more difficult than it is.

To summarize: Some men said that gentiles should be circumcised and obey the laws of Moses or else they could not be saved. Not so, said the apostles. Gentiles are saved by grace and faith. God is pleased to dwell in people who aren’t circumcised and who don’t keep the rituals. But since Moses is widely preached, we need to give a decree that clearly distinguishes the Christian faith from the Law of Moses.

This pleased the entire church, so they wrote it in a letter and sent it to Antioch, where they “were glad for its encouraging message” (v. 31).

But what about the Ten Commandments?

Since the Law of Moses includes all the laws that Moses gave ancient Israel, it includes the Ten Commandments. But shouldn’t Christians keep the Ten Commandments? Several of the Ten are quoted in the New Testament, but the only time that the Ten are mentioned as a group is in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church. Let’s see what he wrote:

“You are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts…. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:3-6).

Paul has mentioned “tablets of stone,” and then the “new covenant.” He then builds a contrast between the old covenant, the tablets of stone that contained the Ten Commandments, and the new covenant, the basis of Christianity. Let’s see how he develops the contrast:

“Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?” (verses 7-8).

Paul is talking about something written on stone, at a time when Moses’ face shone with glory. He is talking about the Ten Commandments. This is what was written on stone. Paul is calling the Ten Commandments a “ministry that brought death.” Paul was not a minister of the letter (the Ten Commandments), but of the Spirit.

Of course, it was God who gave the Law. Nevertheless, Paul saw a fundamental contrast between the Law and the Spirit, between the old and the new. There is continuity, for both old and new are covenants of the same God. But even though God does not change, and his underlying principles do not change, his covenants do. Paul explains some differences in the next verses:

“If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness!” (verse 9). The Ten Commandments were a ministry that condemned people. They had some glory, but not nearly as much as the new covenant. The Ten Commandments cannot bring righteousness, but the new covenant does.

“For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory” (verse 10). The Ten Commandments have no glory now, Paul is saying, in comparison to the new covenant, which brings life and righteousness.

“And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!” What was fading away? Moses’ face was fading, but Paul is not talking about Moses’ face any more—he is talking about “the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone.” That is what “came with glory” (verse 7). That is what was fading away.

The Ten Commandments, Paul is saying, came with glory, but they are fading away, just as surely as the glory of Moses’ face also faded. The new covenant not only has much greater glory, but it also “lasts.” The Ten Commandments, Paul implies, do not last forever. They were designed as a temporary “ministry of condemnation,” designed to lead people to Christ.

Notice the contrasts Paul has made:

The Ten Commandments

The New Covenant

written on tablets of stone (v. 4)

written on the heart

the letter that kills (v. 6)

the Spirit that gives life

a ministry that brought death (v. 7)

a ministry that brings life

engraved in letters on stone (v. 7)

ministry of the Spirit

came with glory (v. 7)

even more glorious

the ministry that condemns (v. 9)

the ministry that brings righteousness

no glory now in comparison (v. 10)

the surpassing glory

it came with glory (v. 11)

much greater glory

it is now fading away (v. 11)

the ministry that lasts

Paul says that the Ten Commandments, although good, are temporary and fading. What has faded away concerning the Ten Commandments? Some people try to say that the Ten Commandments, instead of fading, are actually more binding on people today than ever before. They want to expand the Ten instead of letting them fade.

But Paul is saying that there is a fundamental change in the way people relate to God. The old way is a written law that condemns people to death. The new way is the Holy Spirit, which brings forgiveness and life. The Spirit leads us to obey God, but it is a fundamentally different relationship, a different basis of relating to God.

There is some basic continuity between the old covenant and the new. Most of the Ten Commandments are quoted with approval in the New Testament. Those commands reflect aspects of God’s law that were in effect long before Sinai—from the beginning. One is not—the Sabbath command. It was a ceremonial law, instituted for a temporary time period.

Paul’s boldness in Christ

Once Paul understood the change, he was strengthened and encouraged: “Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away” (verses 12-13).

Paul did not hide. He was bold in preaching the new way—salvation through the crucified Christ. But despite his boldness, and the clarity of the message, many people did not accept the gospel: “But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts” (verses 14-15).

Many people today, Jewish or not, do not seem to understand. They keep reading the Bible with old covenant eyes. The only solution is Christ. Only in him can the “veil” be removed. “Whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (verse 16).

Jesus: the basis of our relationship with God

What does it mean to “turn to the Lord”? It means to see Jesus as the basis of our relationship with God. It means seeing our identity in him, not in the Law of Moses. Christ becomes central. We obey his law, the law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21). When we put him first in our identity, he will help us see the covenantal change more clearly.

“The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (verse 17). We have freedom in Christ—but what kind of freedom? Certainly, we still obey—Paul makes that clear in Romans 6. But in this context of 2 Corinthians, what kind of freedom is he talking about? It is freedom from the ministry that brought death—freedom from the old covenant. There is a lot of continuity, but there is some important change as well.

An unfading glory

Not only do the covenants change from old and temporary to new and permanent, Christians themselves are changing: “We, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (verse 18).

Moses had only a fading glory, and his covenant had only a fading glory. It could give only temporary blessings. But we, with the eternal Spirit living within us, are being changed into a permanent glory—a glory that does not need to hide, a glory that looks to the heart instead of the stone tablets.

Christian use of the Ten Commandments

What then are Christians supposed to do with the Ten Commandments? Can we approach it as Scripture inspired by God, “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16)? Yes – we should approach it exactly as it is written – as a report of what God gave his people in the time of Moses. We read it as a story first, before jumping to conclusions that we are supposed to obey every command within it.

When we read in Genesis 17 that the males among God’s people were to be circumcised, we do not assume that we should do so today. When we read in Exodus 13 that God’s people are to redeem their firstborn children and have a festival of unleavened bread, we do not assume that we should do so today. Those commands were given for a specific people. So also the commands we find in Exodus 20.

The Ten Commandments begin with this preface: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This gives a historical context to the situation: it was a multitude of just-escaped slaves, in a desert, surrounded by polytheistic nations. God gave them laws that would compensate for their lack of civic experience, laws that would help them resist polytheism, laws that would help them become a distinct nation, laws that would help them structure society in a new land. These laws were good for their situation, but some of them are not needed today.

Much of the Old Testament is a story. Nevertheless, 2 Timothy 3 can say that this type of writing, since it is part of Scripture, is “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Stories can help inform our ethics. They can illustrate consequences, misunderstandings, weaknesses and flexibilities. The story of Abraham and circumcision is useful for teaching and for training in righteousness without requiring us to practice circumcision. The commands about sacrifice are to be read as part of a story, not as commands for us today. The details may be useful symbolically, but they are read first in the context of a story, not as currently valid law.

Genesis is a story, and in that story God gave certain commands and implied other commands. Some of them apply to us today and some do not. Exodus continues that story and gives more commands, commands about how people should worship, how to behave with one another and what to do when someone disobeys. Some of these commands apply to us today; others do not. So we must see them first in the context in which the Bible gives them: a covenant or arrangement God made with a specific people at a specific time in history, a covenant God has now revealed to be obsolete (Hebrews 8:13).

The commands that God gave them are instructive but not necessarily imperative for us. They are informative but not normative. They are descriptive for ancient Israel, but not prescriptive for Christians. If we want to find out which laws still apply to Christians today, we must rely on the New Testament, and the New Testament tells us that one commandment — the Sabbath — is no longer in force. We cannot preach the Ten Commandments for Christians today, because there is an important exception right in the middle of the Ten, and it is confusing to say Ten when only Nine are meant.

Moreover, Christians have a better standard of behavior in the New Testament — a bigger body of literature with better balance. We have the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. We should point people to Christ, not to Moses, for instruction on how to live like a Christian.

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