How does Jesus change our relationship to the Old Testament? It’s a question we get all the time. Here are two recent examples.
Micah in Buffalo, New York: “Hello, Pastor John! What role do the Ten Commandments play in the life and ministry of the New Testament church? If these commandments were part of God’s conditional covenant with the nation of Israel, which was broken, is there any abiding use of these commands in evangelism or moral instruction?”
Here’s another version of the question from a listener named Pat: “Pastor John, are there any helpful rules of thumb for interpreting which particular commandments in the Old Testament apply to Christians today, and why? For example, Leviticus 18–19 contain various commandments against sexual immorality and child sacrifice. I think it’s safe to say that most listeners of the show would agree that these commandments apply to the Christian today. However, the same chapters warn against wearing a garment that is made of two kinds of material (Leviticus 19:19), rounding off the hair on your temples (Leviticus 19:27), and forbidding tattoos (Leviticus 19:28). Are there any helpful ways to approach the Old Testament that would help make sense of these various commandments?”
Pastor John, how do you come at these questions like these from Micah and Pat?
Christ Has Come
The question I am trying to answer is basically “How should New Testament Christians, who believe in Jesus Christ the Messiah, appropriate Old Testament laws in our day?”
“Christ, by his death and his indwelling Spirit, has put our relationship with God on a new footing.”
I would start by saying that even the writers of the Old Testament would agree that it would be contrary to the Old Testament to appropriate Old Testament laws after the Messiah has come as though he hadn’t come. Even Old Testament authors would say that.
The Messiah has come. Jesus Christ is the Messiah, and therefore, we dare not simply appropriate the Old Testament laws for our lives as though he had not come.
So let me point to five ways that the New Testament talks about the change in how we use the Old Testament laws since Jesus has come.
Death of Sacrifices
Here’s the first one. The simplest way to see the massive implications of his coming is to realize that when he died, when Christ died for our sins, he put an end to the entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament — because the sacrifice of all those animals and the performance of all those rituals in the temple or tabernacle were pointing toward a great, final sacrifice described in Isaiah 53 when the Messiah comes.
So hundreds of commandments and rules regarding animal sacrifices and priestly activity are brought to an end — “fulfilled,” as Jesus says in Matthew 5:17. By Jesus’s life and death — as our final sacrifice and our final high priest — all of it passes away. This is what the book of Hebrews is written to show.
For example, Hebrews 7:27: “He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.” That’s one of the most important phrases in Hebrews: “Once for all when he offered up himself.” That phrase “once for all” is so important. Track it down in all of its uses in Hebrews.
God’s New People
So here’s the second massive change that came about with the coming of Jesus. It points to a change in how the law is used. Jesus is forming a new people of God. This group is made up not only of Jews, but of all the peoples of the world who believe in him.
“Jesus Christ is the Messiah, and therefore, we dare not simply appropriate the Old Testament laws for our lives as though he had not come.”
So at the end of the book of Matthew, we read, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Jews and all the other thousands of people groups on the planet are supposed to be disciples. So the time is passed for God’s focusing primarily on Israel as his redeemed covenant people, which he did for two thousand years. Luke puts it this way: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). This includes everyone who believes in the Messiah and has a new heart.
So Jesus spoke these ominous words in Matthew 21:43. He said, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you” — addressing the Jewish leaders as representative of Israel — “and given to a people producing its fruits.” That’s the church, which includes any Jews who believe.
All the nations, and all Jews who believe, are the new fruit-producing people, and the shift has happened from the focus on Israel to the focus on this new people of God.
The implication this has for the appropriation of the Old Testament laws is that all the laws which had as their design a ritual distinction between Israel and the nations have come to an end because those nations are now being folded into the very people of God, and the cultural stumbling blocks are being removed — like circumcision, like food and dietary laws, like the weaving together of two different fabrics that you’re not supposed to wear in order to show that there’s a distinction between Israel and the nations. Jesus says explicitly in Mark 7:19 that all foods are now clean for you.
Back to Creation
A third way to see the change that Jesus has brought about is that he now goes behind the Old Testament Mosaic laws to God’s original design in creation. He then argues that the law in some cases was a temporary compromise with sin, but in the beginning it was not so; it was different.
That’s the way he deals with the Old Testament — for example, with the laws of divorce. I think the same thing with polygamy. He says the law permitting divorce was owing to “your hardness of heart” (Mark 10:5). Then he reaches back to Genesis 2:24 to say that God made man one flesh that no one should separate this union (Mark 10:4–6). So there’s this creational dimension which, in the coming of Jesus, takes precedence over the legal compromises in the Old Testament.
New Way to Approach God
Here’s the fourth and last thing I’ll say. The fourth way to see how things have changed with the coming of Christ is to realize that Christ, by his death and his indwelling Spirit, has put our relationship with God on a new footing.
“By Jesus’s life and death — as our final sacrifice and our final high priest — all of the sacrificial system passes away.”
The Mosaic law doesn’t have the same standing for those who have died with Christ and risen to walk in newness of like. The key passage here is Romans 7:4–6: “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another.” So once you belonged to the law; now you belong to another — “to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.”
In other words, there’s a new footing, a new way to pursue righteousness, and it isn’t list keeping or law keeping. It’s bearing fruit, because you belong to Jesus Christ. He goes on: “For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:4–6).
Now, this doesn’t mean that commandments have no place in the Christian life. Consider, for example, 1 Corinthians 7:19: “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.”
This is a puzzling text because circumcision was a commandment, right? So he’s making some kind of a distinction there of what commandments are still binding and which aren’t.
Or 1 John 5:3: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”
The last question, then, is, Within this fourth way of looking at the change, what criteria does the New Testament give us for appropriating God’s abiding commandments? Let me mention just three.
First, I’m thinking of love. I’m thinking of Matthew 22:37–40: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Or Matthew 12:7: “And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” In other words, there are mercy and law commandments, which sum up the entire legal, moral code, and become a guideline for us today.
Second, we have sound doctrine in accord with the gospel. I’m thinking of 1 Timothy 1:8: “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully.” Then it gives a list of commandments and concludes, “and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:10).
That’s what laws are for: What is contrary to sound doctrine? He adds, “In accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Timothy 1:11). What laws accord with this?
Finally, third, what is rooted in nature as God created it?
That’s how Paul argues in 1 Timothy 2:13 as it relates to woman’s authority over man, and that’s how he argues in Romans 1 with regard to homosexuality.
More to Learn
Now, there are more pointers in the New Testament for how to appropriate the Old Testament laws, but these may suffice to point the way.
I want to try to make it real simple now as I close. If I were helping a child read the Bible, I would say something like this: “Honey, some things commanded in the Old Testament are not what we are supposed to do today. They were right, and what God’s people were supposed to do in that day, but now Jesus has come, and important things have changed.”
You might take a month helping your kid understand what that is. But then I would finish like this: “Now, in our day, the safest way to know what’s right and wrong is to make sure that the New Testament commands it or forbids it.”