In our society, we have people who hate laws and violate them at every turn. And other people are by the book. They can get so legalistic it feels like they’re not even living life. These are two extremes and everyone falls between them.
But when it comes to reading the Bible, especially the Old Testament, Christians ask me many questions about how to apply these laws to their lives. After all, the Old Testament takes up two thirds of our Bible. Without a solid foundation in the Torah, the first five books of the law for Israel, we can misunderstand much of the rest of the Bible.
It may help you to know that there are different kinds of Old Testament laws. And not every law is equal in the sense that we must obey them all carte blanche. In fact, Christ fulfilled the law for us (Matthew 5:17-20). As long as we are obedient to him and the Holy Spirit, we also fulfill the Old Testament law.
The religious leaders in Jesus’ day thought that they could completely fulfill the entire law. The rich young ruler comes to Jesus and when Jesus begins quoting these laws, he says he has kept them from his youth (Luke 18:21).
How did they know they fulfilled all 613 laws in the Old Testament? Many of the Pharisees and rabbis build a “fence” around the law. So that people didn’t even get close to breaking a law of God, they built a number of “traditions,” or laws around that law to keep people from getting close to breaking it. The problem was, as Jesus pointed out on numerous occasions, there fence of laws tended to break other laws unintentionally.
So that still leaves us with the question of how Christians can interpret and apply the Old Testament laws in their Bibles. Let me explain three types of law in Israel and how we can use each type not only as we study Scripture but as we walk with Christ every day.
There are many moral laws throughout the Old Testament. The most familiar are the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). They sum up the entire law. But littered throughout the Old Testament are moral standards from God.
Although they apply first to Israel, they apply to all human beings. They are God’s expectations for how we conduct ourselves in this world he created. Because he created the world he has the right to impose moral laws upon his creation.
Even a New Testament Christian must follow the moral laws found in the Old Testament. God doesn’t just expect these moral high standards from the nation of Israel. He expects them from every person. They transcend the culture of just one nation.
Throughout human history, some of these moral laws have been obeyed in many cultures. Laws like not stealing or murdering are found in all of the other ancient near Eastern law codes the whole way up to the present age.
Even people and nations that come to knowledge the God of the Bible follow these moral standards. They may give a different reason, like to keep society running and efficient, but the fact is that they are following moral laws given by God in the Old Testament.
Of the three types of laws in the Old Testament, these are the easiest for Christians to follow. They are black and white laws that need a little interpretation, but not much. Most of them can be taken at face value with little explanation. And the ones that need explained, most of the explanation comes from looking at the words in the original language.
It’s not that we have a problem with understanding what God’s moral laws entail or mean. We just have trouble following them. Many of them go against human nature, our own desires. We want to do what we want to do instead of what God wants us to do. So while we can take most of the moral laws at face value, the harder thing is to put them into practice in our own lives.
The second type of laws found in the Old Testament are civic laws. These laws do not apply to everyone, only to the nation of Israel. These dictate how the Israelites treated one another. Some of the famous ones include ox goring, handling accidental murders, and protecting widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor from being abused.
There are also laws about purity that make Israel different from the nations around them. There were laws about human behavior, such as clean and unclean laws, leaving the edges of your field for the poor, and how to treat your neighbor.
Some even went so far as to tell you you couldn’t have two types of fabric in your clothing. These laws are specific to Israel. They show the Israelites how to live differently than the nations around them.
But that doesn’t mean Christians can’t get a lot out of these laws. While we don’t have to follow them to the letter, they teach us about purity, God’s expectations for treating other human beings, and principles for situations without steadfast rules from God’s Word.
In such cases, we can rely on the principles we learn from Old Testament civic laws. For instance, having two fabrics in one piece of clothing is about being pure. Mixing God’s standards and principles with the standards of the world is the opposite of purity. God expects us to treat other people’s property as well, if not better, as our own.
Through following these principles as we study Old Testament laws, we can glorify God even when there isn’t a steadfast moral law to follow. These require discernment from Christians. But we can apply these principles in Israel’s civic laws to our lives today.
The third type of law in Israel was the ritual law. Most of these can be found in Leviticus and Numbers. There are a number of them in Deuteronomy. These all have to do with worship in the tabernacle and temple, how to perform sacrifices, and matters of the priesthood and Levites in Israel.
Many Christians who actually get through Leviticus asked me why there is so much repetition with the laws. Many of the sacrifices have the same procedures in place. But when we read through these laws, we begin to realize how perfect the animals had to be just to be considered for sacrifice.
Christians today do not perform animal sacrifices in any of their churches. In fact, we don’t perform animal sacrifices anywhere. So how can these laws about sacrifices, the priesthood, and Levites matter to us at all?
The key to understanding how to apply ritual laws of Israel to Christian life today is to understand the fulfillment of these laws. Jesus came as the perfect, sinless sacrifice (Hebrews 4:15). He was also the ultimate priest who gave his life in place of animal sacrifices.
We don’t need to sacrifice animals today because Jesus gave himself as the once for all sacrifice. No matter how blameless and without blemish is those animals were, the Israelites had to continue offering them. But Jesus offered himself once for all so that we don’t have to offer animal sacrifices today.
The animal sacrifices in the Old Testament didn’t get rid of guilt. The people continued to feel guilt for their sin even after the animal sacrifice was complete. But Jesus was the ultimate guilt/sin offering. Christians today don’t need to feel guilty because Jesus has covered over all of our sins. When we think we feel guilt, we actually fill the separation sin causes from God.
With all of the stringent laws about animal sacrifices, the qualifications of the priesthood and the Levites who served in the temple, and the ways that Israel could worship God correctly, every Christian should be thankful for Jesus. He fulfilled all of these things in his perfect way.
So when you read through Leviticus and next time, notice all of the laws about the purity and blamelessness, having no blemishes and needing to be absolutely perfect, all of the sacrifices had to be. The people brought their best to the Lord, and nothing less.
Jesus fulfills these laws. But the principles of them are still applied to us today. We bring our best to the Lord in our worship. We don’t settle for second best, and neither will he. He knows our hearts and he knows when we are distracted in our worship, bringing in the world’s standards with us, are not being completely upfront and genuine with him.
A Helpful Principle
One of the ways I distinguish what Jesus requires of me as far as Old Testament laws comes in the form of a principle I use when I study the Bible. If I see an Old Testament law repeated or explained in the New Testament, I take it as a law for New Testament Christians today.
The Ten Commandments, the basis for moral law, are repeated in the New Testament. There are explanations and principles based on Old Testament laws. A large part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount internalizes Old Testament laws.
So when you see something repeated in the New Testament from the Old Testament as you read and study God’s Word, these are laws and information we as Christians are required to follow. But do not forget that Jesus fulfilled all of the law and the Old Testament.
We’re under his banner of grace, not the law. But his grace includes obeying the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit will help us to fulfill God’s laws through our walk with Jesus. It’s amazing what Jesus has done for us so that we don’t have to worry about the 613 laws God gave Israel.
How does this understanding of Old Testament laws help you in your walk with Christ? Leave a comment and let me know how you interpret Old Testament laws.