The Old Testament includes many commands not found in the New Testament, such as the seventh-day sabbath, animal sacrifices, the Levitical priesthood, circumcision, special holy days, burning incense, tithing, instrumental music, and dancing in worship. Many people wonder whether we today must keep these commands.
A few people try to keep all Old Testament laws. Others keep only New Testament laws. Still others try to keep some Old Testament laws but disregard others. To please God and to be united religiously we must determine which Old Testament laws, if any, apply to us today. The purpose of this study is to address these issues.
Consider some introductory questions:
People sometimes talk as if they believe that we today must observe every command God ever gave and must keep "holy" everything God ever told people to keep holy. But consider a few Bible examples:
Noah's ark (Gen. 6:13-7:5) - With Noah God made a covenant (6:18) which involved commands Noah had to obey (6:22; 7:5). After the flood, God promised He would never again destroy all flesh by a flood (9:11-17). Must we today still build arks? (Cf. Gen. 22:1-19.)
Circumcision (Gen. 17:9-14) - Circumcision was both a covenant and a command given by God to Abraham and his descendants (cf. 21:1-4; Lev. 12:3). God now says this command no longer applies (I Cor. 7:18-20; Gal. 5:1-8; 6:12-16; Acts 15:1-29).
Levitical priesthood (Ex. 40:12-16; 29:1-9) - Under the covenant made at Mt. Sinai, only Aaron and his descendants could serve as priests (Num. 3:10; 18:1-7; 16:40). But today Jesus is High Priest, though He was not a descendant of Aaron. This proves there has been a change in the law (Heb. 7:11-18; cf. I Pet. 2:5,9).
Animal sacrifices (Num. 15:1-6) - Throughout the Old Testament God commanded people to offer animal sacrifices (cf. Gen. 4:1-5; Lev. chap. 1-7). But today animal sacrifices have ceased to be offered because Jesus is our perfect sacrifice (Heb. 10:1-18).
Holy days (Ex. 12:1-28; 13:3-10; Lev. chap. 23) - God commanded Israel to keep various holy days, but we today should not keep them (Col. 2:14-17; Gal. 4:10,11). Note that, when God commands a certain day to be a holy day of rest, He can later change and no longer require men to keep it.
Undeniably, God has given different laws to different people at different times. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8), but this refers to God's character and nature, not to His laws for men. The above Scriptures clearly prove that God Himself has made changes in the laws He has commanded people to keep.
There are at least two possible reasons why we may not be required to obey a command given by God:
1. God gave some commands to specific people, never intending them to apply to all people everywhere. Obvious examples are the command to Noah to build the ark and circumcision for all male descendants of Abraham. If God intended certain commands to be limited to certain people, but we teach other people they must also obey those commands, then we are not demonstrating faithfulness to God. Rather, we are perverting His will. (Cf. Rom. 3:19.)
2. God intended some commands to be temporary. When they fulfilled their purpose, they were no longer needed so God removed them. This is true of all the examples listed above.
Please note that people have no right to annul God's laws on their own authority. Only God can decide this. If He intends a law to apply to us, we are unfaithful if we do not obey it. But we are equally unfaithful if we condemn people for not following a law, when God Himself does not require those people to follow that law.
The question before us then is what is God's intent regarding the Old Testament commands in general.
The laws revealed in the Old Testament were unquestionably decreed by God Himself. He alone has the right to determine who must obey those laws and how long they should remain in effect. What was His intent regarding these Old Testament laws?
The Ten Commands were given only to Israel.
Deuteronomy 4:1,44,45 - The Ten Commands were given to the children of Israel after they came out of Egypt.
Deuteronomy 5:1,6 - Moses spoke to Israel and gave them the Ten Commands to observe. God brought them out of the land of Egypt.
Exodus 34:27,28 - The Lord made a covenant with Israel writing on tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.
1 Kings 8:9,21 - The two tablets of stone contain the covenant the Lord made with Israel, when they came out of the land of Egypt.
Deuteronomy 4:7-13 - No other nation had such a great law as the Ten Commandments.
The Sabbath was given only to Israel.
Deuteronomy 5:15 - Israel (v1) was a slave in the land of Egypt, God brought them out and commanded them to keep the Sabbath day.
Exodus 31:13,16,17 - The sabbath was a sign between God and Israel like circumcision was (Gen. 17; Rom. 4:11). How could it have been a sign between God and Israel if He had given the same law to other nations too? Would a ring be a sign of a man's special relationship with his wife, if he gave similar rings to many other women?
Today people need not keep the commands revealed through Moses, including the Ten Commands and the sabbath, for the same reason we do not need to build arks like Noah or sacrifice sons like Abraham. God did not address these commands to us.
These laws were in effect throughout Israel's generations
God repeatedly told Israel that various provisions of the law were to last "throughout their generations." This is said regarding:
Genesis 17:9,10 - Circumcision
Exodus 12:14; Leviticus 23:21,31,41 - Holy feast days
Exodus 29:42; 30:10 - Animal sacrifices
Exodus 30:8 - Incense
Exodus 30:31 - Holy anointing oil
Exodus 31:13-17 - Sabbath observance
Exodus 40:15; Numbers 18:23 - Levitical priests in the tabernacle.
[Cf. Num. 15:38; Ex. 30:21; Lev. 7:36; Num. 10:8; 35:29]
All these practices were to endure for the same length of time - throughout Israel's generations. If any of them has ceased, then they must have all ceased since they were all to endure the same length of time. But we have already proved that many of them have ceased, therefore they must have all ceased.
These all continued as long as Israel's special relationship to God continued, and all would end when that special relation ended. That special relationship ended when the gospel came into effect. There is no more Jew or Gentile in God's plan (Gal. 3:28). [Cf. Eph. 2:11-18; Acts 10:34,35; 15:7-11; Rom. 10:12; Col. 3:11]
Hebrews chapters 7-10
7:11-14,18 - The law allowed priests only of the tribe of Levi, but it predicted a time when Christ would be a priest of the tribe of Judah. This meant the law would be changed (v12), disannulled (v18).
8:6-13 - These verses quote Jeremiah 31:31-34 which predicted God would make a new covenant different from the one He made with Israel when He led them out of Egypt. Christ has now enacted this new covenant, hence the first one is made old and is vanishing away (v13). Again, this fulfills God's word in the Old Testament.
10:1-18 - Animal sacrifices offered under the first covenant could not completely remove sin. Jesus' death is the sacrifice of the new covenant which can completely forgive. So Christ took away the first will (covenant) and established the second. This was done in harmony with God's will, not contrary to it (v9,10).
The law was "weak and unprofitable" in that it told men they were sinners but could not permanently forgive them (7:11,18; 8:6,7). This does not mean God made a mistake in giving the law. It had a purpose, but that purpose was temporary. When the new law came, the old had accomplished its purpose so it was removed.
2 Corinthians 3:6-11
As in Hebrews, the Old Covenant (v14) is contrasted with the New (v6). The old was a ministration of death because it proved men deserved death. Yet it came with glory. The new covenant is a ministration of righteousness and is more glorious (v9).
Note v11 - That which was with glory (the old covenant - v7) was done away so that which has more glory (the new covenant) may remain. It is not just the glory that was done away, but that which was glorious - the Old Testament itself - was done away.
Galatians chapters 3-5
As in Hebrews, the law resulted in man's being under a curse because it showed men were sinners, but it could not completely remove the guilt (3:10; 2:16). This is contrasted with salvation by faith in Christ under the gospel (1:11,12; 3:26-28).
3:24,25 - The law was a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. Now faith has come, so we are no longer under the schoolmaster.
To be "under" a law means to be subject to it or under obligation to obey it - note 4:4,21 (cf. I Cor. 9:20,21; Matt. 8:9; Rom. 3:19.) We are not just freed from condemnation of the law, but we are free from the law itself, which was the schoolmaster. [Cf. 3:16,19]
5:1-6 - Since we are no longer under the law (5:18), circumcision no longer matters. Those who follow the old law are entangled in a yoke of bondage. Christ profits them nothing and is of no effect to them. They are fallen from grace.
Again the gospel is contrasted with the Old Testament ("the law"). The law showed men they were guilty of sin (3:20,23). This brought condemnation of death (5:12; 6:23), but the law could not permanently remove that guilt. (This does not prove the law was bad, but only that the people were bad - 7:7-24; cf. 7:5.) Nevertheless, God did not want all men lost, so He offered the gospel (1:16).
7:2,3 - Illustration: a woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If she marries another man she is an adulteress. She may remarry only if her husband has died.
7:4-6 - Likewise, we are dead to the law and delivered from it, just as the woman was released from the law of the first husband (v2). Note that we are not just free from the condemnation of the law or traditions about it, but we are free from the law itself. [cf. 6:14]
Just as the woman could then be joined to a different man, we are now joined to Christ. We are not to follow both the Old Testament and the law of Christ at the same time. To do so would be spiritual adultery like the woman having two husbands at once! We have a different law, just as the woman has "another man."
Gentiles had formerly been separated from the covenant relationship enjoyed by the Israelites. By His death, Jesus made peace between Jew and Gentile. To achieve this, He had to abolish the law of commandments that was a wall of partition between Jew and Gentile. It had been given only to the Jews and thus signified their favored position. To grant favor to men of every nation, God had to remove that law (cf. Gal. 3:28; Acts 10:34,35; Matt. 28:19; etc.).
If we bind the Old Testament today, we are rebuilding the wall of partition Jesus died to destroy. That would defeat Jesus' death!
This is a parallel to Ephesians 2. Christ blotted out the handwriting of ordinances and took it out of the way, nailing it to His cross. So we should not allow people to condemn us for not keeping the Old Law (v16). (Again the law was "against" men in the sense that it showed they were guilty of sin but could not forgive them.)
Some say this passage proves the old law is still binding since Jesus did not come to destroy it, but it would stand till heaven and earth pass away. If so, then the whole law still stands since not one jot or tittle would pass away. This includes the law and prophets (v17), even the least commandments (v19) (animal sacrifices, circumcision, etc.). Yet we have earlier proved that many things were removed. Hence this passage cannot prove the law is still in effect.
The parallel in Luke 16:17 shows that "till heaven and earth pass away" means "it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away." So it would be easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the law to pass away "till all be fulfilled" (v18). But Jesus came to fulfill it! So the law passed away when Jesus fulfilled it. (Cf. Matt. 24:34).
A contract can be rendered void in one of two ways: illegally by destroying it (as by tearing it up), or legally by fulfilling it. For example, if you hire me to build a house for a price, it would be illegal for you or me to destroy the contract. But if we fulfilled the contract (I build the house and you pay me), it would no longer be binding.
Likewise, Jesus did not come to destroy the law (remove it contrary to its provisions). But He did come to fulfill it and replace it, completely in harmony with the provisions of the law itself. He did fulfill the law (Luke 24:44-47; Acts 13:29). Therefore, it passed away!
All Old Testament laws passed away for the same reason animal sacrifices, circumcision, etc., passed away. God gave them to accomplish a purpose for the nation of Israel. They accomplished that purpose, so God removed them.
Note: The preceding material is just the beginning of a more complete study. After reading the above, some people may have other questions, such as whether the Ten Commands are still in effect or, if not, what law are we subject to? Are we free to commit murder or adultery if the Ten Commands are not in effect? Should we keep the sabbath today? What day is the special day of worship for Christians?
To continue with the study, click here for Part II of Old Testament Laws.
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