Out of all the accusations I’ve ever seen thrown out against the Christian faith, this one has to be the most common by a large margin.
Christians are hypocrites, it is claimed, because they say the Bible is God’s word but they pick and choose what they want to obey, especially when it comes to the Old Testament Law.. It’s the premise of countless memes and I have encountered it in one-on-one conversation more times than I can even count.
The vast majority of people who gleefully use this argument know next to nothing about the Bible (I’ll admit, I used this argument in High School back when I knew next to nothing about the Bible and wanted to justify a sin in my life). The most involved I ever see the argument of inconsistency going is when occasionally some highly argumentative atheists will quote Matthew 5:18 where Jesus says: “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.”
So how should a Christian handle the Old Testament Law? Many Christians evade the issue altogether and just assume that anything in the Old Testament law doesn’t apply to them at all and holds no relevance for them. This has some truth to it, but it’s a gross oversimplification.
The reality is that the New Testament points to a number of Old Testament laws as being universally applicable. Most notable here is that Jesus identified Deuteronomy 6:5 as the greatest commandment, and Leviticus 19:18 as the second greatest commandment (see Matthew 22:37-40). Also, in Romans 13:8-10 Paul points to Leviticus 19:18 as still applying to Christians. He also says that it sums up the rest of the law and specifically cites four of the 10 commandments that it covers (no adultery, murder, stealing, or coveting), which all also apparently still apply.
So there are two primary questions Christians need to sort out are the How and the Why: How can Christians know which laws still apply and which don’t and Why is it the case that some laws still apply while others don’t?
Why do some laws not apply anymore?
-The Law was ultimately meant for Israel
How does the book of Leviticus begin? God calls Moses and says to him: “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them…” (Leviticus 1:2). This phrase and similar phrases are repeated throughout the book, often accompanied by additional statements such as: “when you come into the land of Canaan which I give to you for a possession…” (Leviticus 14:33). Clearly the book of Leviticus as a whole was meant for the people of Israel in the historic context of God leading them into a land and covenanting with them. While there are some commands given that reflect a more general or universal morality and represent God’s will for all of his creation, some laws were intended to be applied exclusively to Israel.
-The Law was fulfilled in Christ
In the second chapter of Colossians, Paul says that many facets of the Old Testament law “are a shadow of things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:17). Similarly, the book of Hebrews indicates that ” the law was but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the form of those realities” (Hebrews 10:1). It then goes on to point out how the blood of bulls and goats in the Old Testament sacrificial system could never take away sin (Hebrews 10:4), but Jesus by a single offering perfected those that he intended to save (Hebrews 10:14). We see then that much of the law was to point to the need to deal with sin and (more significantly), to the one who would ultimately deal with our sin. Large portions of the Old Testament law no longer apply since they deal with the means of atoning for sin, and our sin has already been atoned for in Jesus.
-Not all of the Old Testament Law represents the perfect will of God
In Matthew 19, Jesus lays out his view that marriage should be the lifelong union between a man and a woman. The Pharisees challenge him with the fact that in the Old Testament law, divorce was permitted. Jesus’ response is fascinating: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8). What Jesus is essentially saying is that a portion of the Old Testament law was a concession to the hard-hearted Israelites and didn’t truly represent God’s will for mankind. In this case, he points back to creation as demonstrating God’s true design for marriage.
In addition to the words of Jesus, there is internal evidence within the Old Testament itself that some of it’s laws do not represent the eternal decree of God for governing human behavior, but rather related to a particular people at a particular time. Consider the fact that when the Passover was first instituted, the Israelites were to celebrate it in their houses (Exodus 12:46), but in Deuteronomy 16:2 they are told to celebrate it in a place of God’s choosing. That place ended up becoming Jerusalem and the Jewish people would leave their homes and make the journey to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover there. Clearly the location of celebrating the Passover is not part of the eternal decree of God as it pertains to human behavior, but it is part of the Old Testament law nonetheless.
Why do some laws still apply?
On the flip side of that last point, some of what is contained in the Old Testament does in fact represent the will of God for how all humans everywhere should behave. One area where this can clearly be seen is in the command not to murder.
By the time the command is given as part of the decalogue (10 commandments) in Exodus 20, it’s already a clearly established fact that murder is moral wrongdoing that violates God’s will for human behavior. The wrongness of murder is rooted in the fact that human beings are created in the image of God. This is a fact that comes from creation (Genesis 1:27), not from the giving of the law. Additionally, God brings swift justice on the first murder (Cain murdering Abel in Genesis 4) despite the fact that it occurs well before the command to not murder was ever given. There is also the words of God in Genesis 9:6 saying that capital punishment is an appropriate response to the serious moral evil of murder.
This means that certain parts of the Old Testament law clearly represent God’s universal intentions for human behavior. Because of this fact, we can’t just throw the whole thing out, but rather we need to carefully discern which ones are still relevant.
I think the easiest way to solve the “How” question is by grouping the Old Testament commandments into three separate groups. I’m not talking here about the popular civil, ceremonial, and moral divisions of the law –although that might be useful for some. I’m talking about a much more straightforward approach that groups the OT laws into these three categories:
1) Laws Specifically Upheld by the New Testament
2) Laws Specifically Done Away With By the New Testament
3) Laws Which the New Testament Gives No Clear Guidance On
1) Laws Specifically Upheld by the New Testament
Perhaps the reason that many people find the civil, ceremonial, moral division so helpful is that it turns out that pretty much everything that the New Testament upholds end up falling into the “moral” category. The most notable laws that are specifically upheld in the New Testament are the command to love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself, which are identified by Jesus as the greatest and second greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-39).
Also of great significance is the fact that Jesus not only affirmed commands such as “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13, affirmed by Jesus in Matthew 5:21-22) and “you shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14, affirmed by Jesus in Matthew 5:27-30), but he also expanded our understanding of those commands to include the inner workings of the heart and not just the external workings of our behavior.
These are, of course, not the only laws that were carried over, but represent an important sampling.
Of course, when you’re reading the New Testament, you don’t need to reflect on which laws were carried over from the Old Testament as you are applying it to your life; if you are instructed in the New Testament to live a certain way you should simply obey what it says. However, many of the instructions given to Christians in the New Testament do indeed line up with what was required of Israel under the Old Testament law.
2) Laws explicitly done away with by the New Testament
The New Testament makes it abundantly and overwhelmingly clear that Christians need not concern themselves with following certain aspects of the Old Testament law. Here is a short list of large categories of laws that are explicitly done away with in the New Testament with a reference to a passage that makes it clear that Christians no longer need to follow them:
-Dietary Laws: Romans 14:14
-The Sacrificial System: Hebrews 10
-The Levitical Priesthood: 1 Peter 2:9
-Feasts/Festivals: Colossians 2:16-17
3) Laws which the New Testament gives no Clear Guidance on
There’s really just two big ones here: tithing and keeping the Sabbath. Both of these are mentioned in the New Testament, but with no clear cut ruling given as to whether or not Christians are expected to follow them going forward. My purpose here is not to summarize the arguments for and against the continued binding nature of these Old Testament commands, but rather to simply point out that there will likely be disagreement between Christians on these two issues until Jesus comes to take us home and the important thing is to study them for yourself and do what you feel is right.
Those two examples at least have some New Testament data to look at. There are some laws from the Old Testament that aren’t mentioned at all in the New Testaments. The prohibitions of bestiality and tattoos come to mind here.
When dealing with laws that aren’t mentioned in the New Testament or are not rendered clear by the New Testament, the best we can do is to approach them with a great deal of caution and prayer. It’s helpful to have a consistent set of questions that you ask yourself as you evaluate various Old Testament laws for their applicability.
Here are some questions that I usually ask that might be useful for you:
1) Does it violate the design of God in creation?
The major narrative arc of the Bible is a four step process: 1) Creation, 2) Fall, 3) Redemption, 4) Consummation. The original design of God for his creation was good before the corruption of sin tainted everything in the Fall. When an activity seems to go against God’s created order, that’s usually a good sign that it is wrong.
Bestiality would be a clear-cut example of this for me. Genesis 1 makes it clear that mankind was uniquely created in the image of God and created with a special position above the animals. Chapter 2 strongly reinforces this idea and makes it clear that the appropriate sexual complement for a man is a woman, not an animal. Bestiality unquestionably distorts the design of God in creation and on this basis alone I am extremely confident in saying that it is a sinful and degrading behavior that should never be tolerated among God’s people.
Incidentally, this question isn’t a random one that I came up with for this task. I derived it from Romans 1 where Paul points to creation itself that idolatry and homosexuality are wrong.
2) Did God hold other nations besides the nation of Israel accountable?
If God judged a pagan nation for breaking the command in question then it’s much harder to say that the command was unique to Israel and wasn’t apart of a more universal moral code.
Sticking with the issue of bestiality, we see that it was prohibited for Israel in no uncertain terms in Leviticus 18:23, but here is the very next sentence: Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Leviticus 18:24-25).
In other words, the command against bestiality wasn’t just for Israel: God judged the surrounding nations for it — despite the fact that they had never received a command from God not to engage in such behavior. Apparently the fact that you shouldn’t engage in sexual relations with an animal is so evident from creation itself and so seared on our conscience that we are subject to judgment for engaging in it even if we’ve never heard an explicit command from God to the contrary.
3) Does the New Testament Uphold Similar Rules?
Sometimes behaviors are able to be categorized into groups that makes sense. Some behaviors are more analogous to each other than others. If an Old Testament command isn’t mentioned in the New Testament, you can compare it to commands that are.
Sticking with the bestiality example, I think we would all agree that it falls under the larger category of sexual immorality. The New Testament takes a pretty strong stand against all forms of sexual immorality. Not only is there not the slightest loosening of the demand of sexual purity, but the New Testament seems to actually become less tolerant of deviant sexual practices.
You can see this in Matthew chapter 5 where Jesus says that it is sinful to even look at a woman lustfully. Or in chapter 19 when he closes the Old Testament divorce loophole.
Additionally, sexually deviant practices that aren’t as extreme as bestiality are prohibited in the New Testament including incest (1 Corinthians 5) and homosexuality (Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9). Incidentally, those are two practices that are actually prohibited alongside of bestiality in Leviticus 18.
The issue of the relationship of the Christian to the Old Testament law is a nuanced one. Much of it is rendered unnecessary by the fact that Christ has redeemed us. All of it has been rendered unnecessary for Justification which happens entirely on the basis of Jesus dying in our place for our sins. However, much of it still applies to us as we strive to grow in holiness and become conformed to our Savior.
Simple explanations like “Jesus fulfilled the law for us,” are partly true, but don’t fully hit the mark. I think all Christians should wrestle with this issue and come up with solid convictions for handling the Old Testament law. It can be a tedious chore, but it is much preferable to ignoring the problem and hoping it goes away.
The best approach is to figure out the WHY of why some laws still apply but others don’t and the HOW of how you know which is which.