Current-Day Christians and Old Testament Orders

Galatians 3:19  "Why then was the law given?  It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins.  But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised..." 

Galatians 3:8  "The Scriptures looked forward to this time when God would declare the Gentiles to be righteous because of their faith..."

Read all of Galatians 3

The number one word in the news these days is not even a real word -- it’s… ObamaCare.  National headlines have centered around the new health care law for months.  But while changes in this (and other) “hot-topic” laws are debated and reworked every day in our country, it somehow surprises many people to discover that some Old Testament laws also changed over the course of Biblical history.

The fact that Christians no longer follow many of the obscure laws God gave to Israel at the time of Moses is a regular point of confusion and contention for non-Christians.  Commands not to eat certain types of meat (Leviticus 11:7-12), tattoo your body (Lev 19:28), trim your hair or beard (Lev 19:27), or wear clothing made of mixed fabrics (Lev 19:19) are prime examples.

Misinformed unbelievers often pull these little-known verses out of context in an attempt to smear Christianity.  They present these verses as “evidence” that Christians are hypocrites, picking and choosing what Scriptures they want to follow or ignore.

In reality, we know these faulty arguments are based entirely on bad hermeneutics - that is, Scripture that’s misinterpreted and/or pulled out of context.  The writings of any author can be misconstrued if a few sentences are plucked from their books without reading the rest, but many skeptics ignore this obvious detail.

Unfortunately, Christians are not always prepared to respond to questions about the Old Testament laws – it’s a deep and somewhat confusing subject.  So let’s discuss some straightforward answers, keeping things simple so we can share with unbelievers in a way they can understand.

If Christians say they’re not required to follow all the Old Testament laws, is this an inconsistency in Christianity or the Bible?

No!  The Bible is God’s inerrant Word to us.  However, Scripture is not simply a list of black-and-white commands.  The Bible records and recounts hundreds of years of history.  We don’t just open the Bible to a random page in the Old Testament, point to a verse, and conclude that it’s a directive for life as a Christian today.  Scripture must always be interpreted properly and put into its correct context -- and the Bible clearly teaches that God’s laws for modern-day believers changed, starting in New Testament times.

Can you give some simple background that will help explain these confusing verses in Leviticus?

The laws in Leviticus can be subdivided into three categories:

- Moral laws.  These laws apply to all believers, in all cultures, at all times.  God’s moral laws never change.  Laws from Leviticus in this category are all reiterated in the New Testament.  If an Old Testament Law is repeated under the New Testament "law of Christ," that law is still valid for us today.

- Civil laws.  Civil laws were given for the governing of the nation of Israel at the time.  Similar legal principles may be valid for governing nations today, but they may not be identical in detail, and the same punishments associated with Israel’s civil laws might not apply to us.

- Ceremonial laws.  These laws governed the proper worship of God by the nation of Israel at that time.  These laws are not binding on believers today.

Generally speaking, the “obscure” laws that unbelievers use for their own agendas are in the civil and ceremonial categories.  They wrongly imply that all these commands are still binding for modern-day Christians.  However, just as many civil and cultural laws in today’s society have changed since our country was founded, so God changed some of these Old Testament laws as time moved forward.  These laws were not arbitrarily dismissed, nor did they become irrelevant, but rather the civil and ceremonial laws were fulfilled or ended with the coming of Christ (Luke 24:44; Romans 10:4).

What was the purpose of these “unusual” laws, anyway? 

The Old Testament civil and ceremonial laws were designed by God to set the nation of Israel apart from all the pagan nations of that time.  Sacrifices were made to atone for sin so the people could approach a holy God.  Ceremonial laws included rituals for cleanliness and purity.  God wanted His people to stand out!  He wanted their lifestyle to be clearly different than the sinful lifestyles of the surrounding cultures.

Things changed dramatically with the coming of Jesus Christ.  God’s people are now part of the Church, a worldwide assembly of believers.  We live in different countries and cultures.  We no longer have the national boundaries or cultural regulations that the people of Israel had.  We’re no longer required to make animal sacrifices to atone for our sin.  We’re no longer set apart by obeying ceremonial laws about meats, fabrics, and length of hair.  Instead, we’re to be set apart from the secular world around us by our godliness and moral purity.  In addition, the Church is not a civil government, so sin no longer carries a civil penalty, as it did when God’s people were a nation-state.

So if these passages don’t apply to us, why are they included in the Bible? 

When these Scriptures are put into their proper context, they present us with a clear picture of the absolute holiness of God, and they help us to see that we’re completely unworthy to approach God on our own merit.  Like the Israelites in Old Testament times, we must be thoroughly cleansed - only now that cleansing comes through Jesus Christ.

When Jesus died on the cross, the heavy curtain of separation in the Temple was torn in half (Matthew 27:50-51).  This symbolized that we no longer need ceremonial laws or animal sacrifices to approach God.  We are now purified through Jesus, and we can approach God directly.

Why do some unbelievers make such a big deal about these verses, while overlooking the larger scope of the Bible?

The laws in Leviticus are often used in today’s culture as a quick justification for discarding God’s biblical decrees on topics such as “same-sex marriage.”  Critics of the Bible claim that if Christians don’t follow all the laws in Leviticus, it’s inconsistent for them to maintain such a firm stance on Leviticus 18:22:  “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman.  It is an abomination.”

First of all, this kind of reasoning is obviously unbiblical.  It’s never acceptable or even logical to use one (so-called) sinful act to justify another sinful act -- or to say that if Christians “disobey” something in the Bible, it must be OK to disregard anything else the Bible says!

Secondly, we believe Leviticus 18:22 falls into the Moral Law category, and God’s moral laws never change.  The topic of homosexuality is addressed again in the New Testament (see 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, for example).  There are also many other moral laws in Leviticus that would be hard for even the most jaded skeptic to dismiss.  Ignoring all of Leviticus would mean tossing out God’s moral laws against lying (19:11), theft (19:13), slander (19:16), hatred (19:17), revenge (19:18), cheating (19:36)… and that’s just for starters.

Would it be a better witness for Christians to follow all the Old Testament laws?

Actually, no!   That answer may come as a surprise, but if we as Christians truly believe the clear gospel message of the New Testament, we literally cannot continue to follow some of the old laws.  Sacrificing animals, for example, is no longer a means of atonement for Christians today.  If we insisted on following that Old Testament system, we would be denying the power and efficacy of Christ’s death on the cross.

So if Christians wear clothing of mixed fabrics or eat certain types of meat that were forbidden 3,500 years ago, we’re not breaking the laws God gave to Israel at the time of Moses.  Rather, we’re living obediently in current times in light of their fulfillment in Christ.  Although we still adhere to the moral teachings of the Old Testament, believers today cannot follow all the old civil and ceremonial laws.

Galatians 2:17-18 & 21 says, "But suppose we seek to be made right with God through faith in Christ and then we are found guilty because we have abandoned the law. Would that mean Christ has led us into sin? Absolutely not!  Rather, I am a sinner if I rebuild the old system of law...  I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die."

I’d like to learn more about God’s laws and covenants.  Do you have any in-depth teaching on the subject?

Yes!  The following devotionals from our website will be helpful for further study.

Capital Punishment and Biblical Covenants
Cutting Calves and Chasing Crows
A New Covenant But Not a New Israel
No Strings Attached
A Continuing Covenant

- Ron Reid

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