Why Are Old Testament Commands No Longer Binding?
Peter, a podcast listener from Hong Kong writes in to ask: “Dear Pastor John, thank you for the Ask Pastor John podcast. Your thoughtful answers provide a great help to me. My brother, who is a non-believer, says we Christians change the Old Testament commands to suit our needs. For example, he reiterates that God forbids Israelites to eat pork, while Jesus allows Christians to eat pork. Can you offer some pointers on perhaps how we can explain why it is okay for Christians to now eat pork, while God forbids it from the Israelites? And how do I explain this change with the Old Testament commands more generally to my brother?”
It sounds to me like Peter’s brother, who is not a believer, hasn’t had any serious Christian teaching about the basic flow of redemptive history. In other words, how does the Bible work? What is God up to in creation, fall, prophecy, fulfillment, redemption, more promise, consummation? In other words, there is a history that is flowing from creation to consummation, and there are phases in the history that are designed and built in.
Jesus Christ Fulfills the Law
So it is not arbitrary when we Christians view certain aspects of the Old Testament as not binding anymore, because those aspects themselves gave evidence that they were pointing to something that would one day abrogate themselves. So if the brother of Peter says that we are just making it up as we go along, it might be good for Peter to offer to do a Bible study with him. I don’t know, maybe he has done that already, but have a Bible study or read a book together. If he is a very thoughtful person, you might take up Tom Schreiner’s biblical theology The King in His Beauty, which is a big, weighty sweep of the whole Bible that would help answer some of these questions. And if he doesn’t want to tackle something that heavy, there are simpler books that give the sweep of the whole Bible.
Or less intimidating, perhaps, would be simply taking a cluster of passages of Scripture — I will give some here — and studying them with him so that he might say, “Oh, you Christians, you aren’t bringing this reading to the Bible. It is coming out of the Bible.”
So here is the fundamental thing that needs to be grasped: When Jesus Christ came into the world, he was the fulfillment of the entire Old Testament. The Old Testament had looked forward and pointed to the coming Messiah who would bring his kingdom — his new kingly rule. And when he did, they knew things would change. There was a new-covenant promise where God’s law would be written on the heart. The old covenant would pass away. And that was already there in the prophetic writings of the Old Testament.
And now Jesus the Messiah has come, and everything has changed. And he himself gave the pointers to how they changed. The key statement that he made is in Matthew 5:17: “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” In other words, all the precious history and forms and structures and offices in the Old Testament aren’t merely thrown away; they are consummated. They are filled up in Jesus. And then you start getting examples. So here are some examples:
Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19), and we know that he was referencing his body. John talks about Jesus as the place where we will worship. So Jesus is the new temple. He is the new place where people meet God.
Or consider 1 Corinthians 5:7: “Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed.” Now he is the Passover — that whole celebration and all the sacrifices that go with it.
Hebrews 5:1 says, “For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” We have a great high priest. So Jesus is now the high priest, and he takes the place of the entire priesthood of the Old Testament.
Finally, Galatians 3:24 says, “The law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.”
So it sounds like Peter’s brother is not aware of the built-in progress of redemptive history from promise to fulfillment with Christ himself being the main fulfillment.
Exiles and Strangers
But then there is this point as well, which helps to explain more: the new people that Jesus is gathering as his church, this people is no longer defined by political and ethnic unity, but rather they are a people from all nations, all ethnicities, scattered among all political states, not identified with any one of them, and unified in their connection with Jesus.
Therefore, the laws which dealt with Israel as a state are no longer applied that way since the people of God are no longer a political entity. They aren’t a state but are aliens and sojourners and exiles on the earth (1 Peter 2:11). So, for example, the church excommunicates people at the very point where in the Old Testament they would have been executed, like for adultery. And so you can already see profound changes that happened in the kinds of structures and the kinds of guidelines for behavior.
Now that means, for instance — and this example is the one that Peter asked about, the food laws — that the food laws, which were created to set Israel off from the nations and symbolize her purity for God, are no longer used that way. And we see Jesus undoing that requirement in Mark 7:18–20:
Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him.
So here is what Peter can say to his brother: the reason we eat catfish and pork is because Mark, the inspired spokesman, interpreting Jesus’s words in Mark 7:19 said, “Thus he declared all foods clean” — meaning, those laws which once defined Israel as a people of ethnic, religious, and political distinction from the world don’t function that way anymore.
New Covenant Established
So Jesus brought a new covenant into being which was already promised in Jeremiah 31:31–34. And Hebrews, which is a key book on this topic, says, “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”(Hebrews 8:13).
Paul put it like this in Romans 7:4: “My brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.” So we do bear fruit for God, but we don’t key off of the law. We key off of Jesus. “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 7:6).
So the most basic thing for Peter’s brother to see, I think, is that Christ has come and died and risen, and now we belong to him, not to the law, as the way of salvation. He is our righteousness before God. He dictates in his person, in his example, in his word, what our lives should look like in this world.