Wednesday, July 17, 2013

In Search Of Truth: Old Testament Law and Modern Christians, Part 1

In the coming chapters that we look at in Exodus, we're going to examine the laws that God gave to the Israelites, which laid a foundation for how they were to live their lives. The first formal laws given to Israel are in chapter 20, and are commonly called "The Ten Commandments". From there, God's laws for Israel become more detailed and exhaustive.

But before we dive into an examination of these laws, I want to spend some time establishing the viewpoint from which I look at the Old Testament Law and the Old Testament as a whole.

As I grew up attending a few different churches, it was common for The Ten Commandments to be regularly referred to in Sunday school classes. The implication seemed to be that these ten commands were the foundational basics for living the Christian life, and they pretty much summed up what was expected of us as Christians.

But study and a widened perspective have brought me to a very different view of The Ten Commandments and the laws of the Old Testament.

On the most basic level was the understanding I gained at some point that the Bible is not a single book, but a collection of books, written by different authors in different times for different purposes.
History indicates that Moses wrote the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. These five volumes were written to teach the newly freed nation of Israel about where they and humanity came from and what their special role would be as God's chosen people group.

On top of this, the books of Genesis and Exodus are largely historical narratives. They describe events that happened, but give little commentary. Compare this type of writing to the letters of Paul in the New Testament, which were written, not to chronicle events, but to specifically give instruction and encouragement to Christians.

This isn't to say we can't learn moral truth from the Old Testament. We can learn a ton in the Old Testament about who God is and who we are meant to be. But the best way to learn from these ancient books is by way of principle. Direct application of the commands in the Old Testament (or "The Law" as the Old Testament is called by New Testament writers) can lead to enslaving ourselves to rules and regulations not intended for us today.

For example, some Christians have taken to heart God's commands to Noah to "be fruitful and multiply". (Genesis 9:1) And families with large numbers of children are a beautiful (if also chaotic) gift. (Psalm 127:4-5) So I commend and congratulate those parents who have opted to build homes filled with children out of a desire to experience the blessings that come with large, loving families. But to do so out of a belief that Christians are commanded to have numerous children is a misunderstanding of how we are to read and apply scripture to our lives. After all, we aren't still building arks as Noah was commanded to do, are we? The context of commands and their intended target audience are both vitally important to understand.

Likewise, there are some Christians who hold themselves to observing the Sabbath in some way (Exodus 20:8-11), even attempting to make the case that the Sabbath has "moved" from the seventh day of the week to the first. But I'm persuaded that God does not currently command his followers, Jew or non-Jew, to observe the Sabbath. (As believers in Christ it has become our TRADITION to worship together on Sundays, but even gathering to worship specifically on the first day of the week is not commanded in scripture.)

So how did I arrive at this position? How is what I'm suggesting any different from the attitude that we can ignore commands from the Bible we don't like or think are "outdated"?

I think there are two chief reasons not to assume we must obey any Old Testament Commands:

1. The context and intended recipient of a given command. Old Testament commands were intended specifically for Israel or specific individuals. Such as God's command to Noah to build an ark and later to be fruitful and multiply, as well as God's establishing the Sabbath as a sign of God's special relationship with Israel. (Ex. 31:13-17)

2. The suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. His sacrifice made the law of the Old Testament obsolete for both Jews and non-Jews, and established a new framework for living.

To provide support for these conclusions, we'll first look at the Old Testament Law and determine how it is defined and what it includes. In part 2 we'll look at when and why it became obsolete. Then we'll look at the intended purpose and application of the law, before and after the ministry of Christ. In part 3 we'll solidify our understanding of our relationship to the Old Testament Law today and then determine where it is we should look for our current standard of living and serving God.


God directed the commands of the Tanakh(Old Testament) to the Israelites and their children. They were not instructed to go and teach everyone else in the world to obey these commandments.

(Deuteronomy 4:1,44,45)  "And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you... This is the law that Moses set before the people of Israel. These are the testimonies, the statutes, and the rules, which Moses spoke to the people of Israel when they came out of Egypt,

(Deuteronomy 5:1)  And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, "Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them.  

(Deuteronomy 4:7-10)  For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? "Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children's children—  how on the day that you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, the Lord said to me, 'Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so. '


Some Christians argue that the "ceremonial law" of the Old Testament is obsolete, but we still need to adhere to the "moral law" of the Old Testament.

But when the writers of the New Testament referred to the Torah (first five books of the Old Testament) or the Tanakh (the entire Old Testament) they simply called it "the law".

Although it's common for many Christians and even Bible commentaries to refer to a "moral law" and "ceremonial law" in the Bible, the Bible itself doesn't distinguish between moral and ceremonial laws. Yahweh never categorizes his commands this way in the Old Testament. This distinction comes out of Christian tradition. (One of those traditions I think we can do without.)

If anything, we see the Apostle Paul wrapping up the so-called "ceremonial law" and "moral law" into a single, undivided category.

(Galatians 5:1-6)  For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.  Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.  You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

The law is part of "the old covenant" (covenant meaning "formal agreement") between God and Israel. Christ instituted a "new covenant", a new framework for living and for relationship between not just God and Israel, but God and all of humanity.

The book of Hebrews is helpful in nailing down what is included in this "old covenant".

(Hebrews 9:18-21) Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, "This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you." And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. 

This refers to Exodus 24:1-8, just after Moses had relayed the Ten Commandments and a number of other laws regarding social behavior and ceremonies. (See Exodus chapters 20-23) So already we see that this "old covenant" did not just include ceremonies, but moral instruction as well.

In fact Hebrews includes the later Exodus chapters about the Tabernacle in the same "old covenant".

(Hebrews 9:1-2) Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness.  For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place.

This old covenant, both moral and ceremonial aspects, has been replaced by a better one, as Hebrews also indicates.

(Hebrews 8:6-7) But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.

(Hebrews 8:13) In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

So it seems clear that the so-called "moral" and "ceremonial" laws were considered one group by the biblical authors, referred to as "the old covenant". And at some point it also seems clear that this old covenant was made obsolete by a new one. But when and how did this change happen and how should we view the old covenant now? We'll attempt to answer those questions next time.

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