Jesus and the Old Covenant Laws

1. Did Jesus ever break God’s law? Hebrews 4:15. Did his parents obey the law regarding circumcision? Luke 2:21. Did they observe the rules about purification after childbirth? Verses 22-27. Did they keep the annual festivals? Verse 42. Did Jesus continue in this pattern of doing the Father’s will? Verse 49.

2. Did Jesus teach people to obey everything God had commanded? Matthew 5:20, 48; 7:21. Did he encourage people to obey the ritual laws? Matthew 5:23-24; 8:4. Did he come to destroy the law? Matthew 5:17.

The purpose of Jesus’ life and work was to fulfill both the Law (the books of Moses) and the Prophets (other Old Testament books). He did not destroy the Old Testament. But that doesn’t mean that Christians have to keep circumcision and all the other old laws. Jesus’ ministry caused many changes in the law — changes so dramatic that laws were “set aside” or declared “obsolete” (Hebrews 7:18; 8:13). Some laws remained the same, some were changed, and others were “abolished” (Ephesians 2:15).

When Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” he did not mean that each specific law would stay exactly the same. He meant that the purpose and message of the Law and the Prophets remain exactly the same. The Law and the Prophets pointed to him and were intended from the beginning to be fulfilled by him.

Some of the specific laws of the old covenant are still valid, but many of them were set aside when Jesus came and fulfilled them by his life, death and resurrection. Matthew 5:17 is not a “proof” of any particular law, because this verse does not tell us which specific laws are still valid or which have been changed or set aside.

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Old covenant laws (such as the laws of sacrifice) have been set aside precisely because Jesus has fulfilled them. He did not come for the purpose of destroying those laws, but for fulfilling their meaning. However, by fulfilling their meaning, he made it unnecessary for Christians to keep those laws. They are unnecessary because they have served their purpose by pointing to Jesus. He is the reality to which they could only point. Now that he has come, they are no longer legally binding.

Yet because they point to Jesus Christ and show how God interacted with a group of people at one time and place, the old covenant laws continue to give us insights into God’s will. Even the laws of sacrifice are “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

Jesus also fulfilled various laws about ritual cleanliness. That did not mean that he never became unclean, because anyone with normal bodily functions would occasionally become unclean (Deuteronomy 23:10). Jesus also touched dead people, lepers and other causes of uncleanness. It was not a sin to be unclean. However, Jesus fulfilled the purpose of the purity laws: He was morally and spiritually pure. He had internal holiness, set apart to do the work of God.

Jesus fulfilled the purpose of God’s laws. He did not destroy the fact that people should obey God, even though his crucifixion brought a change in some of the details of how they obey God.

3. Did Jesus criticize the law of Moses as not being strict enough? Matthew 19:7-9. Did he teach that a stricter standard of righteousness was necessary? Matthew 5:20-22, 27-28.

4. The Pharisees were very strict about the small details of the law. What did Jesus say about their carefulness? Matthew 23:5, 23-28. Are some parts of the law more important than others? Matthew 9:13; 12:7.

5. Did Jesus teach the same things Moses did, or was there also a contrast between these two? Matthew 11:13; John 1:17; 2 Corinthians 3:15-16. When the disciples saw Jesus with Moses and Elijah, who were they told to listen to? Matthew 17:1-5; Acts 3:22.

Jesus did not emphasize the same things Moses did. Moses wrote many chapters about the tabernacle and the “place” in which God put his name. Jesus said that place did not matter (John 4:20-24). Moses wrote many chapters about ritual uncleanness; Jesus was much less concerned about it. Instead, Jesus gave much more emphasis to the way people should treat each other.

The law of Moses required many animal sacrifices, but because of the sacrificial death of Jesus, the sacrifices are no longer required. Moses wrote that sins could be atoned for through the performance of rituals, but this was a temporary and external atonement; Jesus simply forgave people as a permanent gift and a cleansed conscience. Jesus often told people to obey God, but Moses is not the standard by which obedience is now measured.

6. Who is the final authority for Christians? Matthew 7:21-29; 10:32-33, 39; 19:29; 28:18-20; John 3:25-26; 6:29; 14:21-23; 17:2-3.

Jesus, as the Son of God, has more authority than Moses had (Hebrews 3:1-6). Jesus is the standard by which Moses is judged. Jesus could quote the law of Moses when it supported his point, and he could also criticize the law of Moses as not being strict enough. In some cases the law of Moses requires too much, and in other cases it does not require enough.

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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™  Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide.

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This article was written by in 1997 and updated in 2014. Copyright by the author. All rights reserved. If you'd like to learn more about the Bible, check out Grace Communion Seminary. It's accredited, affordable, and all online.

Moses said one thing, but Jesus said another (Matthew 5:21-45). Jesus presented himself as the greater authority, the perfect authority, the basis on which people will be judged. Our lives should conform to the standard Jesus set, not the imperfect standard Moses wrote.

In Christianity, some of the laws of Moses are still valid, and others are not (for an example of each, the law about murder and the law about tassels). How do we know which is valid and which is obsolete? The New Testament is the authority by which the old covenant is to be understood.

Although the Old Testament is inspired Scripture and part of the Word of God, its purpose was to point to the coming and work of Jesus Christ. Therefore, when it comes to understanding what is required for Christian behavior, the Old Testament must be interpreted in light of what the New Testament says — and the New Testament says that the old covenant is obsolete (Hebrews 8:13).

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