Do we still have to follow the Old Testament law? Didn’t Jesus bring a new covenant that negated all the Old Testament laws?
During the course of Jesus’ ministry, a Pharisee asked Him to name the greatest commandment. Many of us today are familiar with Jesus’ response, “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22.34-40) What many people don’t realize, however, is that Jesus was quoting the Old Testament. The first part of His response can be found in Deuteronomy 6.5. It is the core of the Old Testament law and the new covenant Jesus brought to us.
The second part of the Jesus’ response can be found in Leviticus 19.18. Leviticus is the book of laws God handed down to Moses. Much of Leviticus 19 concerns the Ten Commandments and serves to reveal what matters to God: namely that He cares about the poor, helpless and foreigners. Loving one’s neighbors as oneself serves as a summary for all these commandments.
If we wholeheartedly followed the commandments to love God with all our heart, soul and mind and love our neighbors as ourselves, we would naturally have no gods before the Lord, keep the Sabbath, not murder, commit adultery, or covet, etc. This wholehearted love of God and others is the heart of the law found in the Old Testament. If we could do this perfectly, there would be no need for the rest of the Old Testament law.
When we look more closely at the Old Testament law, we see it can be divided into three categories: ceremonial, civil and moral.
The ceremonial law has to do with how Israel was to worship God. This category includes the sacrificial system. The ceremonial law and especially the sacrificial law point to the coming of Jesus and His fulfillment of the law. Because Jesus was sinless His entire life, His death on our behalf became the perfect sacrifice we could never offer. His death completely fulfilled the sacrificial requirements and rendered them void. Jesus’ triumphant resurrection overcame death and allows us to enjoy eternal life.
The civil law is specific to the culture, time and location of the Israelites and had to do with their daily living. Its focus is on how they were to behave, how they were to relate to each other, and ways in which disputes were to be settled. It also included punishments for breaking the moral law. For instance, the Ten Commandments simply state, “do not murder” yet there is a difference between premeditated murder and unintentional manslaughter. Since so much has changed in modern life, these laws no longer strictly apply but the principles behind them act as guidance.
In the moral law, we get a significant glimpse into God’s character. Because God’s character is unchanging, the laws that fall into this category are also unchanging. These laws focus on topics such as justice, sexual conduct, respect and include the Ten Commandments. They help us live in ways that are pleasing to God. Many people see the moral law as a wrathful, vindictive God keeping us from enjoying life’s fun. Instead, these laws actually protect us from potential harm. In addition, they help to ensure we experience deeply meaningful, satisfying and joy-filled lives.
Jesus perfect sacrifice by His death and triumphant resurrection means that Christians no longer live under the law (Romans 10.4). In 2 Timothy 3.16 we are reminded that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness”. There is no longer any need to practice the sacrificial system. Yet the principles of worshipping and loving God highlighted by the ceremonial law are still applicable. The specific penalties outlined for murder in the civil law may no longer be practical. However, recognizing the distinctions is still appropriate when handing down punishments today.
Jesus said, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5.18). The Old Testament law was never God’s answer to the sin and evil in the world. Instead, the inability of Moses and succeeding generations to fully keep the law highlighted the need for one who could. Today we know that One is Jesus. As Christians, we no longer keep much of the Old Testament law. Yet we live out the spirit of that law each time we love God and love our neighbor.