But just as well, we should never say, “Oh, we don’t bother with those things because they are just Old Testament rules.” There are principled reasons why Christians not only need but also should not observe certain Old Testament laws simply as written. And regarding two kinds of law, the New Testament itself provides those reasons.
The sacrificial laws: The New Testament makes it clear that the religious system of temple, altar, animal sacrifices, priesthood, and the Day of Atonement has been fulfilled by Jesus Christ through the Cross and Resurrection. He has accomplished once and for all what that great system pointed toward. The Book of Hebrews stresses that, whether we are Jewish or Gentile believers, we must not go back to that system, because we already have all that it represented through Christ’s sacrificial death and ascended life in the presence of the Father.
The food laws: The distinction between clean and unclean animals and foods was symbolic of the distinction between Israel as God’s holy people and the Gentile nations (Lev. 20:25–26). In the New Testament, that separation is abolished in Christ, as Paul says in Ephesians 2. Through the Cross, God has made the two cultures one new humanity. And as Peter discovered through his vision in Acts 10, before going to the home of the Gentile Cornelius, what God has called clean should no longer be called unclean. Today some Messianic Jewish believers choose freely to observe the kashrutregulations as a mark of their Jewish community and cultural identity. But in their unity, believers are free from food laws.
But just because we no longer keep these laws literally does not mean they can’t teach us anything. We are called to present our bodies as a living sacrifice in the service of God. We are called to offer the sacrifice of praise. We are called to cleanness of life in a corrupt world. In fact, if we are tempted to mock Jewish fastidiousness over kosher food in the kitchen, we might ask if we have any sustained commitment to the moral and spiritual distinctiveness that the New Testament upholds.
We can find principles even in Israel’s civil laws to apply today. The urban Christians in Corinth did not see oxen grinding corn in their city houses. But when Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he took an Old Testament law about allowing working oxen to be fed from the product of their labors (Deut. 25:4) and applied it to Christian workers in Corinth. He sees a principle in the case law—originally meant for the benefit of animals—and applies it to working humans. The principle: Work deserves reward. Later he applies another commandment about how manna was to be collected (totally irrelevant to Corinth, you might think), and applies it to the principle of equality between Christians (1 Cor. 9:8–10; 2 Cor. 8:13–15). These are biblical examples of creative application of biblical laws in nonliteral, but very appropriate, ways.
The best way to derive principles from the Old Testament law is to ask questions. All laws in all human societies are made for a purpose. Laws happen because people want to change society, to achieve some social goal, to foster certain interests, or to prevent some social evil. So when we look at any particular law or group of biblical laws, we can ask, “What could be the purpose behind this law?” To be more specific:
● What kind of situation was this law intended to promote or to prevent?
● What change in society would this law achieve if it were followed?
● What kind of situation made this law necessary or desirable?
● What kind of person would benefit from this law, by assistance or protection?
● What kind of person would be restrained or restricted by this law, and why?
● What values are given priority in this law? Whose needs or rights are upheld?
● In what way does this law reflect what we know from elsewhere in the Bible about the character of God and his plans for human life?
● What principle or principles does this law embody or instantiate?
Now we won’t always be able to answer these questions with much detail or insight. Some laws are just plain puzzling. But asking questions like these leads us to a much broader and deeper grasp of what Old Testament laws were all about: forming the kind of society God wanted to create.
Then, having done that homework as best we can, we step out of the Old Testament world and back into our own. Ask the same kind of questions about the society we live in and the kind of people we need to be, and the kind of personal and societal objectives we need to aim for in order to be in any sense “biblical.”
In this way, biblical law can function sharply as a paradigm or model for our personal and social ethics in all kinds of areas: economic, familial, political, judicial, sexual, and so on. We are not “keeping it” in a literalist way like a list of rules. But more important, we are not ignoring it in defiance of what Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16–17. We are studying and using it as guidance, light for the path, in the joyful way of Psalms 1, 19, and 119.