Not so long ago, I was preaching to an evangelical church which had the Ten Commandments prominently displayed on its chapel wall. They were the only Bible verses on show so, after the service, I asked one of the members why they thought they had been chosen. Soon a small but animated group of believers had gathered round to express their views. The discussion ranged widely from the meaning of the Sabbath to capital punishment. Yet nobody was able to give a coherent answer to the question at the top of this article and when I suggested that perhaps we do not have to obey literally any commandment in the Old Testament that was not clearly endorsed in the New, the general feeling was that that was surely going too far.
The Law of Moses tied to the Old Covenant
Let’s see if we can get some clarification. The Law of Moses constituted the terms under which God entered into what Christians call the Old Covenant with his chosen nation, Israel. In this Gospel Age, however, God deals with his people solely under the terms of the New Covenant, which has wholly supplanted the Old. In Hebrews 8, the writer gives us the longest Old Testament quotation to be found in the New. It is from Jeremiah 31:31-34, where the Lord first clearly announces to the people of Israel and Judah details of this glorious replacement covenant. No longer shall they be bound to keep the external law of Moses, inscribed on tablets of stone, because the Lord will put his ‘laws in their minds and write them on their hearts’.
Moreover, this New Covenant will no longer involve a mixed multitude of true and false believers as was the case with the Old, but everyone it embraces, now even including Gentiles, will ‘know the Lord’. No wonder the writer to the Hebrews rejoices in this great prophecy which, he tells us, has now come to pass. The New Covenant, he declares, ‘has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear’ (Heb. 8:13). The Old Covenant became ‘obsolete’ the moment Christ sealed the New Covenant with his blood shed on the cross, and it ‘disappeared’ when the temple, along with its now defunct sacrificial system, was destroyed in AD70.
As already stated, the Old Covenant was established upon the Law given to Moses on Mount Sinai. This Law was enshrined in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible, largely authored by Moses himself) and the rest of the Old Testament was written under its jurisdiction but what place does the Law of Moses occupy under the terms of the New Covenant?
Asking the right question
Historically, Christians in the Reformed tradition have divided the Law of Moses into three parts: moral (summarised in the Ten Commandments), ceremonial (centred on the sacrificial system), and civil (principally governmental and judicial regulations). This division deliberately encourages the belief that, while the ceremonial and civil aspects of the law are clearly no longer applicable, the moral law remains as the abiding biblical standard which Christians must obey if they wish to please God.
Despite the fact that this tripartite division of the Law has an ancient Christian pedigree, and appears at first sight to be both logical and convenient, it simply lacks any biblical warrant. The idea of dividing the Law in this way would never have occurred to God’s Old Testament people, to whom it would have appeared little short of sacrilege. The Law was seen as an indivisible entity to be kept in its entirety. Most significantly of all, however, nothing in all the numerous references to the Law of Moses in the New Testament even hints at any such division. Consequently, the question we should be asking is not, ‘Which bits of Old Covenant Law still apply?’ but, ‘How should we apply Old Covenant Law as a whole in the context of the New Covenant?’
To answer this question, we need to go first to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:17-21, Jesus begins by affirming the abiding relevance of the whole Old Testament in this New Testament age. He has not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. Not even the least of Moses’ commands is to be set aside or considered irrelevant. As Paul would later affirm:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16).
On the other hand, Jesus immediately goes on to say that if anyone wishes to enter the kingdom of heaven, then their righteousness must far surpass that achieved by the Pharisees and scribes, despite their slavish obedience to the minutiae of the Law.
The point is that Christ has come to ‘fulfil’ the Law and the Prophets as far as their original role and purpose is concerned. What the Old Testament attributes to the Law, the New Testament attributes to Christ. From now on, therefore, Jesus’ followers are not required to fulfil the Law of Moses but the ‘Law of Christ’ (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2). They will interpret the Old Testament Scriptures in the light of Jesus’ own teaching and practice, as illuminated by the Holy Spirit, who will indwell, guide, and empower them.
Jesus reinterprets the Law of Moses
Back in Matthew 5, Jesus proceeds to give six examples of his radical reinterpretation of the Law of Moses, starting with two of the Ten Commandments. Read verses 21-47 for yourself, and you will see how far the demands of Jesus outstrip the mere outward rule-keeping of the Pharisees. How shocking it must have sounded to many of his hearers when Jesus repeatedly says, in effect, ‘Moses said this, but I tell you…’! Of course, Jesus is not contradicting Moses, but penetrating an outward code of conduct to expose the issues of the heart that lie beneath.
In so doing, it seems that Jesus is demanding the impossible. The summary verse 48 appears to confirm that conclusion: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ This longing to be like God should mark out every true child of God. Safe in the knowledge that, in Christ, God’s demands of us have already been fulfilled, striving by faith to attain ever greater godliness should be nothing less than the normal Christian life.
Paul follows Jesus’ lead
Moving on, all too briefly, to the way in which Paul deals with the Law of Moses, we find the same themes of fulfilment and reinterpretation in his letters. As believers in Christ under the New Covenant, we are not ‘under the Law’ in any way. We are not imprisoned, guarded or disciplined by it. Paul never says that believers in Christ are to obey or keep the Law of Moses. Just as Jesus told his disciples to ‘obey everything I have commanded you’ (Matt. 28:20), so Paul tells us simply to obey apostolic instruction. ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free’ from the slavery of the Law (Gal. 5:1). ‘By dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code’ (Rom. 7:6).
However, on the positive side, the Law speaks in its every aspect of the Christ who has now come. Its prophetic nature confirms the message of the gospel. Moreover, the Law is full of the wisdom of God. Israel’s story, in particular, is exemplary, replete with warnings for us ‘on whom the culmination of the ages has come’ (1 Cor. 1:11). The Holy Spirit still intends us to learn vital lessons about God and ourselves from the history of his dealings in the past.