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I said to Cephas before them all, 'If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?'
Galatians 2:14 ESV
Dear ICB family,
If Peter stood condemned for forcing Gentiles to live like Jews (Galatians 2:14)—that is, for forcing them to observe Jewish laws—then it might be easy to come to the conclusion that the Old Testament law has absolutely no place in the life of a Christian and that Christians should reject the law of Moses categorically.
However, consider what Paul himself said about the Law of Moses: "[T]he law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good" (Romans 7:12). And note the use of the present tense there. "The commandment is holy and righteous and good." Not just "was holy and righteous and good for the Israelites in their day." It remains essentially good even now.
What are we to make, then, of Old Testament law and its relevance for Christians today?
In order to answer that question, consider what the law was to Israelites, beginning at Sinai. First off, the law of God is rooted in the character of God. Ultimately, God's commands reflect who God is in one way or another. The essential demand God placed on his people was to be holy as he was holy (Leviticus 11:44), and God's command to follow his laws was essentially a command to be like he was.
The law of God is rooted in the character of God. Ultimately, God's commands reflect who God is in one way or another.
Second, the law was much more than a list of rules that Israel had to obey. The specific commandments in the law served the purpose of maintaining Israel's relationship with God. William Klein puts it this way: "OT law represents the personal demands of Israel’s sovereign Lord, not an abstract system of morality or a technical legal code. In light of this, readers must interpret law relationally—as the guidelines that govern Israel’s ongoing life with her gracious God" (2017, 443).
When God gave Israel the law, he was presenting his people with the terms of his covenant with them. Just like ancient secular covenants (e.g., between a victorious king and a defeated king) dictated the relationship that would now exist between two parties, so, too, God's covenant with his people outlined the type of relationship that God was establishing with Israel. God's insistence that his people be holy indicated that their holiness was the only way their relationship was going to work out.
The specific commandments in the law served the purpose of maintaining Israel's relationship with God.
Third, the law was not a legal code as we might think of one today. Today, legal codes attempt to be exhaustive and cover all bases. By contrast, Klein says, "OT laws present a select sample of illustrative cases or topics whose legal principles were to guide Israelite individuals, the larger community, and lawmakers in making decisions and in living out Israel’s worldview…. Their purpose was to teach the Israelite fundamental values—what it means to live all of life in the presence of God—not to provide them with a handy legal reference tool. In short, their aim was instructional rather than judicial" (2017, 443). In Old Testament law, not every single case was spelled out. Other requirements for what it meant to live a life in step with God could be derived from the laws given. The laws given were examples of what godly living looked like.
In summary, then, we see that Old Testament law must be understood in the context of being a covenant and that a covenant must be understood in the context of being a relationship established between two parties, in this case between God and his people. Specific stipulations in God's covenant were rooted in God's character and were given to maintain God's relationship with his people. Furthermore, commandments were paradigmatic instead of being exhaustive, meaning that they provided God's people with a framework by which to understand how they were to be holy as God was holy.
The laws given were examples of what godly living looked like.
What about us today?
It is of paramount importance to understand that Christians today are not bound by the terms of God's covenant made with ancient Israel. When Jesus inaugurated the new covenant in his blood, he was enacting new terms by which God was going to relate with his people. The terms by which God related with his people previously (before Jesus) were superseded by a new agreement, and at the heart of that new agreement was the person and work of God the Son on behalf of humanity who were incapable of meeting God's demands on their own.
So we toss the old agreement in the fire and only read the terms of the new covenant, right? No. We cherish that previous agreement. And here's why.
First of all, the old covenant gives us insight into what it even means to live in relationship with God under the terms of a covenant. As observed above, the fact that God has made a new covenant with those who believe in Jesus does not mean he has simply given them a list of rules to follow. Yes, there are expectations, but those stipulations are spelled out for the sake of maintaining a relationship. Rule following is not ultimate. Relationship is ultimate. So when we come to explicit commands in the New Testament (some of which are taken word for word from the old covenant and included in the new), we are given fresh motivations for obedience: We obey because we are already in a covenant relationship with God; we don't obey in order to enter a covenant with God. And we obey because our love for God impels us to do whatever necessary to be close to him, and disobedience keeps us distant.
Second, the goals of both covenants remain the same: God desires that his people be holy today as much as he desired that they be holy some 3500 years ago when God gave Moses the law at Sinai. (Compare Exodus 19:5–6 with 1 Peter 2:9.) If we look at the commandments in the Old Testament law as shedding insight into what it means to live a holy life as God is holy, then the law becomes insightfully instructive and relevant for today. Consider one of many examples:
Deuteronomy 22:8 says, "When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet [a low wall] for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it." We as Christians today are not obligated to build our houses in conformity to this Old Testament law. However, it is incredibly instructive that the God we serve wants us show love and concern to our neighbor even through the architectural design we employ when building our houses (or doing remont on them).
If we look at the commandments in the law as shedding insight into what it means to live a holy life as God is holy, then the law becomes insightfully instructive and relevant for today.
Klein says, "Laws that no longer apply literally still teach important timeless truths" (2017, 447). Admittedly, discerning those timeless truths in some instances is more difficult than in others (see Leviticus 15); however, there is so much to learn in the law about God's concern for his people's physical health, his care for the poor and the foreigner, his love of holiness and purity, his interest that his people maintain healthy relationships with each other, his incessant bent to want to live reconciled with his holy people and how he is able to make that possible, and so much more.
May God grant the prayer "Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law" (Psalm 119:18) so that we, right along with the psalmist, might sing, "Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day" (Psalm 119:97).
Longing for clearer sight and more profound love of God's law,
Klein, William W., et al. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation: 3rd Edition, HarperCollins Christian Publishing, 2017.