How do we know which Old Testament laws to obey?

Torah inside of the former Glockengasse synago...

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Question: Somewhere in the Pentateuch God gave a certain set of laws for Moses to tell the Israelites. This list covered many subjects from incest to breeding animals. This got me thinking: I know that Christ came to fulfill the Law and that we do not obey it to justify ourselves but rather for the sake of showing love and obedience to God. So in order to do this, we should try to obey the law while keeping our faith in Him. However, there are many laws that we do not today obey such as the one saying we can’t wear clothing made from more than one type of material. That puts 50% cotton, 50% wool out the window. This seems like a social custom so we generally dismiss it. However, it was a direct command from God so how can we simply shrug it off? Where do we draw the line between obeying God and assuming that what God was saying then no longer applies? It may seem to be okay because we judge it to not be a moral issue, but God determines what is moral, not us, even if we don’t understand. Also there seems to be contradiction when the Old Testament Law says men’s hair should be long and the New Testament when Peter or Paul says that men’s hair should be short. How do we find what is necessary and unnecessary?

Answer: Paul very strongly says to the Galatians, “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law” (Galatians 3:25). To the Romans he says, “You are not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14), and “You also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead” (7:4). In 1 Corinthians 9:21 he writes, “To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.” Jesus, on the other hand, says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).

Here is how I reconcile these statements. By fulfilling the Law and Prophets Jesus meant bringing to completion all the promises God had made concerning the restoration of all things under His authority. The way Jesus did this was by paying the price for our sins in His own body on the tree (a requirement of the Law, that all who sin must pay the price themselves or through sacrifice).

Believers since Jesus are no longer required to obey the Law of Moses, which is a particular form of expression to God’s law for a particular people who are living in covenant relationship to Him as a nation. The Church, on the other hand, is made up of believers from all nations, under separate governments that have requirements of them. But all believers are under the Law of Christ. This law includes some of the same laws as the Law of Moses (all ten commandments except the Sabbath are repeated in the New Testament letters). But it excludes some of the laws of Moses and adds others.

This is what we would expect of any lawmaker whose people’s needs change. A parent starts out with one set of rules and modifies them throughout the child’s life. Some remain throughout the child’s life no matter how old he is. The lawmaker has not changed, only the way He administers His laws.

Most of Israel’s regulations were intended to set Israel apart from other nations as belonging to God. Some of the regulations imposed on them by God were not “moral” issues in themselves, but only as they served to show Israel’s obedience to God. Circumcision is an example. There was a law that those males who devoted themselves to God under a Nazirite vow (Numbers 6), a voluntary vow, were never to cut their hair. The Law of Moses does not command that men wear long hair. The New Testament does not require men to have short or long hair, but Paul says, “Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him” (1 Corinthians 11:14). This obviously did not apply to the man taking the Nazirite vow.

So, consequently, we are not to shrug off the commands of God but to obey the ones that He means us to obey, those contained in the New Testament as the Law of Christ. We may voluntarily obey the Law of Moses as long as it does not conflict with the laws of our land. No law obedience will gain us eternal favor with God. Only faith in Christ and His sacrifice will accomplish that.

Randall Johnson

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2 thoughts on “How do we know which Old Testament laws to obey?

  1. I am in debate with a sabbatarian who insists on the Sabbath. I am able to show him from scripture why Christians are not under obligation to keep it. But his response included the following:

    “What other Old Covenant commandments are not required? Do we not have to keep the commandment against necromancy anymore or trafficking with demons? They’re not repeated ANYWHERE by Jesus or Paul..does this mean they’re NOT part of the New Covenant & it’s OK to have pet demons..or use an Ouija board to contact Grandams spirit to see how she likes being in heaven?”

    I must confess that I appreciated you article very much but what about the type of laws he is putting forth in his argument which indeed are not mentioned in the New Testament and yet we know are still vaild? How do I answer him?

    • This is an excellent question that makes me think.

      My first response is that if the only evidence for no longer observing the Sabbath the same way as under the old covenant is absence of its mention in the New Testament, then this argument by your friend might have weight. But we are told rather explicitly by Paul in Romans 14 that sabbath keeping is a matter of conscience. Such a statement in light of the absolute seriousness given to the sabbath command in the Old Testament is all the more remarkable. Given the sheer weight of the 10 commandments it would be unforgivable not to mention one of the commands as binding if it still were. But even more than that Paul contradicts its binding nature.

      Yet, we may argue that the sabbath principle is still applicable and in that sense binding. We are just now given freedom in Christ as to how it is observed.

      As to the other Old Testament commands, in some cases they are repeated as binding in a sense. For example, the laws of consanguinity given us in Leviticus 18 are implicit in Paul’s dealing with the man married to his (probably) step-mother (1 Corinthians 5). Paul rejects trafficking with demons through participating in idol sacrifices (1 Corinthians 10). And the law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9) positively moves us to seek the Lord through His prophets and His Word, so that we learn not to use divination or necromancy. So the principle seems to be to look to the prophets and apostles of the New Testament for confirmation of our new ethic while expecting that the moral commands of the Old Testament will be in force unless explicitly contradicted (as the sabbath law is).

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