Jesus did not set aside the laws of the Old Testament. He fulfilled them. This is very important, as we seek to understand the law-genre we find in the bible. When we really understand how to interpret those ancient laws, there is tremendous blessing and grace there for us.
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Understanding the Bible #7 .
One of the most misunderstood and misused genres in the bible are the laws, particularly the laws contained in the Old Testament.
Here’s an example. I have heard it said, many times: “In the same section of the bible where it says homosexual sex is wrong, it also says eating shellfish is wrong. It also says it is wrong to wear clothes with more than one kind of fiber. Therefore, unless you want to stop eating shrimp and wearing anything that isn’t 100% cotton, you can’t say that homosexual behavior is a sin.”
Let me say that I do understand the confusion. However, let me also say that if you say some such thing, it reveals that a) You haven’t read the bible in context and b) You don’t understand how to read laws in the bible.
First, let me remind you about context. The verse in question is Leviticus 18:22. The immediate context includes more laws regarding sexual behavior. The verses just before 18:22 prohibit incest, including child sexual abuse. The verses just after it prohibit sex with animals, and also the practice of burning babies alive. So, if you throw out Leviticus 18:22 because of context, congratulations! You’ve now endorsed incest, bestiality and the brutal murder of live infants. You don’t get to the part about two kinds of cloth for another 28 verses, and before you get there, you find laws protecting the poor and prohibiting oppression and hatred. By the reasoning I shared above, you ought to throw those things out also! (By the way, the verse about shellfish isn’t anywhere near Leviticus 18:22 – it’s in chapter 11).
However, there is a legitimate core question here. Let’s move the question over to Leviticus 19:17-19, to make it more clear:
“You must not harbor hatred against your brother. Rebuke your neighbor directly, and you will not incur guilt because of him. Do not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your community, but love your neighbor as yourself; I am Yahweh.
“You are to keep My statutes. You must not crossbreed two different kinds of your livestock, sow your fields with two kinds of seed, or put on a garment made of two kinds of material. (Lev 19:17-19, HCSB)
Here we have a law that says you should not hate or hold grudges. It says we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Immediately after, we have a law against cross-breeding and also the one against wearing clothing made up of mixed fibers. Why do we agree that we shouldn’t hate, but yet we have no problem wearing something that is 75% cotton and 25% polyester? That’s a legitimate question.
There are three types of laws given in the bible: Laws for Ancient Israel; Ceremonial Laws for Worship; and Moral Laws. One of the difficulties is that the bible doesn’t always make it clear which ones are which kind; even worse, sometimes you find all three different types of laws mixed together. Sometimes you might have a moral law (“do not commit adultery”) combined with a law that applies only to ancient Israel (“adulterers must be put to death”) as in Leviticus 20:10. Since we feel free to not execute adulterers any more, does that mean we should also feel free to commit adultery?
The laws for ancient Israel are exactly that: laws that applied literally and directly to the nation of Israel from about 1400 BC until Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 BC. No one lives in ancient Israel any more – that nation has not existed for more than 2,000 years. There is a modern nation of Israel, but they are set up with a constitution and a set of laws that are different from those given by Moses. So when we read a law that applies to citizenship in ancient Israel, we know right away that we should not apply it literally without further investigation.
Some Jewish leaders once tried to trick Jesus with one of these ancient laws. They caught a woman in adultery, and brought her to him, and said “According the Law, we should stone her.” The truth was, they weren’t serious. At the time of Jesus, the Jews lived under Roman law, which forbade such things. It was illegal for them to stone her. If Jesus affirmed the Old Testament law, they could bring him before the Romans for attempted murder. If Jesus rejected the law, they could claim to his followers that he did not follow the teaching of Moses. It’s the same thing I’ve seen countless times on blogs and facebook posts: “You claim to follow the bible, but the bible says this. Are you going to do that, or not?”
Jesus knew it was a trap. He couldn’t explain about ancient laws without being misquoted. So he said
“The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7, HCSB)
Caught in their own trap, they left. When they were gone, he told the woman that he did not condemn her (meaning, condemn her to death) but he also said: “Go, and from now on, do not sin any more.” (John 8:11). The whole story is in John 8:1-11. It shows us Jesus’ attitude toward two kinds of laws. The laws of the ancient nation of Israel no longer apply in the literal sense. Jesus himself changed all that (more on that in the next paragraph). But the moral law – “do not commit adultery” – still applies. Jesus called it a sin, and told the woman to stop it.
There is something else. The law of death for adulterers was fulfilled. There was death for the woman who committed adultery, the one they brought to Jesus. Only, it wasn’t her death. Jesus died in her place. He did not set aside the law – he fulfilled it. Death came as a result of her sin. This is why she did not have to be condemned – he chose to fulfill the law on her behalf. He also chose to fulfill the law on our behalf. Do you see, how (as Jesus said) all the law and the prophets are fulfilled in Jesus? When we understand that, so much more of the bible opens up for us.
I want to pause here and reiterate something I said earlier in the series. Even though the ancient laws of the Israelite nation no longer apply in a direct, literal sense, they do still apply in the sense that they teach us important eternal principles. We no longer directly apply the law “death to adulterers.” But it still means something for us. It means that adultery is a very serious thing in God’s eyes. It is a graphic illustration, even today, that sin leads to death. It shows us again our need for Jesus, and how amazing is his love and grace to us.
By showing us Jesus’ attitude toward Old Testament law, I just did something that demonstrates the final common sense principle of bible reading. I used one part of the bible to help us understand another, more difficult, part. We call this rule Scripture Interprets Scripture. The idea includes several things.
First, we let the clear parts of the bible shed light on the obscure parts. Remember our book on penguins? The author said “Penguins are large, flightless birds.” Later she said she rejoiced as she observed them “soaring and diving through the open blue.” The first statement is very clear – it tells us that penguins are birds that cannot fly. Therefore, when we look at the second statement, we already know that it must not mean flying. We should use the bible in the same way. Much of it is very clear. We should use the clear parts to help us understand the more difficult things.
There’s another thing with the bible, however. The New Testament quotes and explains the Old Testament on numerous occasions. We use the explanations of the New Testament to help us understand the Old. The bible explains itself in many places, if we pay attention.
Scripture Interprets Scripture is a very helpful principle when it comes to understanding the laws of the Old Testament. What I mean is, the New Testament helps us a great deal in understanding those laws. Let’s look at how:
1. Laws of Ancient Israel. We’ve already looked at how Jesus viewed these. He fulfilled them in his life, death and resurrection. What remains are not things for us to do, but principles that we can learn. Paul demonstrated this when he referred to law about not muzzling oxen (1 Corinthians 9). That is no longer a law for anyone to obey literally. But that ancient law does contain an eternal principle that we should try to apply to our own lives as Jesus-followers. The same is true of all of those ancient-Israel laws. Sometimes it takes work to uncover the principle. We have to read in context, and learn the cultural and historical setting of those laws. We are guided by the New Testament. We don’t apply these thing literally. But there is good stuff for us there.
2. Laws regarding worship ceremonies. There are hundreds of laws in the Old Testament about how the people of Israel were to worship God. Among these are laws about what makes a person ceremonially “clean” or “unclean” – including what we call “kosher” laws about food. Thankfully, the New Testament is very clear about all of this. Jesus himself said this:
“Are you also as lacking in understanding? Don’t you realize that nothing going into a man from the outside can defile him? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into the stomach and is eliminated.” (As a result, He made all foods clean.) Then He said, “What comes out of a person — that defiles him. For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, promiscuity, stinginess, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a person.” (Mark 7:18-23, HCSB)
Mark comments “As a result, He made all foods clean.” He is clear that Jesus eliminated the kosher laws, while, at the same time, affirming the moral laws.
Peter had a vision that confirmed the fact that kosher laws are not necessary for those who are in Jesus (Acts 10:9-16). The first apostles wrestled with what the law meant after Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Acts 15:28-29 records their conclusions:
For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from idol-offerings, and from blood, from smothering [abortion], and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
(Acts 15:28-29 My rendering from Greek. The word variously translated “what is strangled” or “smothered” was a colloquial expression referring to the practice of smothering unwanted newborn infants)
In other words, the New Testament permits you to eat all the shellfish you want, and wear what you choose.
In addition, the book of Hebrews deals extensively with the laws regarding worship. The short version is this: All of the Old Testament worship ceremonies and practices were designed to do two things: 1. Show us our need for a Messiah, a savior and 2. Help us to understand what he would do for us.
Therefore, Jesus fulfilled all of these laws. It is not necessary for us to practice them any more.
These serve as a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was warned when he was about to complete the tabernacle. For God said, Be careful that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown to you on the mountain. But Jesus has now obtained a superior ministry, and to that degree He is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been legally enacted on better promises. (Heb 8:5-6, HCSB)
Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come, and not the actual form of those realities, it can never perfect the worshipers by the same sacrifices they continually offer year after year. (Heb 10:1, HCSB)
So we do not need to sacrifice animals in worship, or wear special clothes, or burn incense, or live “kosher” or follow any of those Old Testament regulations for worship or festivals and feasts. However, learning about those things can still greatly enrich our appreciation and understanding of Jesus and what he has done for us. For example, our family has celebrated the Passover Feast for the past 20 years. We don’t believe it is necessary. But it is a helpful tradition that points us toward Jesus and reminds us of all the promises God fulfilled in Him. We can learn similar things by studying these other Old Testament worship laws. But we do not have to literally follow them as written.
3. Moral Laws. The moral laws in the bible are a reflection of God’s Holy nature. They do not change. The ten commandments are moral laws. Laws about not hating and sexual purity and loving others are all moral laws. The New Testament teaches that Jesus fulfilled the entire moral law for us, so we do not have to do the impossible task of keeping the moral law perfectly. However, Jesus, living inside us, wants to continue to keep the moral law. He doesn’t want to hate, or murder, or commit sexual sin or lie or cheat. Therefore the moral law remains a standard for Christians. Jesus himself affirmed the ten commandments. He affirmed that sexual purity is found in abstinence before marriage, and faithfulness in marriage. He affirmed that we should love others, and not hate. He taught that lies and oppression were sinful. The apostles of Jesus also affirmed the moral law in every book of the New Testament.
We can’t keep it perfectly, but when we break the moral law, it is sign that there is something wrong in our relationship with Jesus. We are not meant to engage in a lifestyle in which we regularly break the moral law that is a reflection of the Holy nature of God. When we do as we please, and consistently, deliberately live in a pattern of breaking the moral law, we reveal that either we don’t have real faith in Jesus, or that we are in danger of rejecting Jesus.
Thanks to Jesus, the moral law is no longer a standard we must reach in order to be reconciled to God. Jesus has already done that for us. Even so, it’s a good thing to want to please God by doing the right thing. I’m pleased when I see my kids following the moral law – being kind, being responsible, staying away from drugs and so on. But it doesn’t cause me to love them more nor does it have any bearing upon their identity as my kids.
In addition to showing us how God would like us to live, the moral law remains like a warning sign. The moral law tells us when we are danger of messing up our lives. It tells us when we are in danger of moving away from Jesus, and heading toward rejecting who He is, and what he has done for us. It is a message that shouts “Danger! Wrong Way! Turn Back! Death Ahead!” We ignore the moral law to our own peril and destruction.
I encourage you to take some time with these sermon notes. This is an important subject that too few Christians genuinely understand. As you do, I encourage you to listen to the Holy Spirit. As we Christians, we do not need to be afraid of the law any more. In Jesus, the law is no longer dangerous and condemning – it is a blessing. The ancient laws show us God’s grace and compassion. The ceremonial laws show us God’s holiness, and how much we need Jesus. And the moral laws protect us, by keeping us away from danger, and close to God.
Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today.