The Old Testament is tricky ground. It always has been.
In it, you will find something that’s often referred to as “The Law” (insert dramatic theme music).
The Law, attributed to Moses, contains 613 rules and regulations that Israel used to keep order in their society during ancient times. You’ll find some nice stuff in there– don’t kill sounds nice to me, and I love the protections afforded to immigrants, but you’ll also find plenty in the law that is morally problematic. Laws such as that which orders the stoning disobedient children, burning daughters alive for prostitution (Lev 21:9), the endorsement of human trafficking for forced labour, genocide, and all sorts of other things that we unequivocally know are totally and completely immoral– immoral in all times, and all cultures.
Since the beginning of Christianity, Christians have been fighting over whether or not to obey it (insert dramatic theme music conveying conflict and tension). Very few today believe we are required to obey all of it- if we did the ladies would be leaving town once a month, and the guys would have really long side burns. However, the idea of letting go of the Law entirely and letting it be a thing of the past is simply too much for many people.
As a result, many Christians will hold onto parts of the law they like (usually rules that are easy for them to keep) and toss away the laws that would be difficult for them to keep. This is precisely why so many will assert sexual laws still apply (happens to be easy for them) while completely discarding dietary laws (hard for them). This, of course, is the height of religious hypocrisy- the very thing that set Jesus off from time to time.
Nonetheless, this brings us to the question of the Law once and for all. Do we obey it? If so, which parts? All of it?
There are two arguments folks will typically bring up. The first argument is that only ceremonial and dietary laws were done away with, but the “moral law” still is in force. This argument presupposes that the Law is divided into categories- mainly dietary, morality, and ceremony. Unfortunately, the Law is not sorted into categories. The Law itself does not identify different categories, neither is it written in a way where the laws are sorted into clean and separate categories. For example, there’s not a book of food laws followed by a book of moral laws- it’s simply not written this way. Can we sort them into categories? Sure– but only for pedagogical purposes, nothing more.
Additionally, nowhere in the New Testament is there support for viewing laws in certain categories where some categories of law are still in effect and some are not. In fact, it teaches the opposite. In Galatians Paul tells a group of believers who believe they must follow the law of circumcision that if they insisted on following one law, they were obligated to follow every single one of the other 612. (Gal 5:3) As far as Paul was concerned, there were no categories of laws where some applied and some didn’t– he taught that if one felt they had to obey any of the law, they would have to obey all of it. In another place in the NT (1 Cor 8:11) Paul actually refers to those who believe OT laws still apply as being our “weaker brothers and sisters.” This seems to indicate Paul viewed those who still wanted to live under parts of the OT law as being spiritually immature, instead of morally superior.
Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul directly states that he himself is not under the Law (1 Cor 9:20), in Col 2:17 he refers to the Law as but a shadow of what was to come in Jesus (Hebrews 10 calls it the same thing), and Hebrews 7 says the Law was “set aside.” Oh, and there’s always Col 2:14 that refers to the Law as “canceled.”
Finally, Paul’s most direct statement regarding the law says that the law was totally done away with:
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” Eph. 2:13-16
Which brings me to everyone’s favorite counter argument: “But didn’t Jesus say ‘I didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it?”
Yes, yes he did. In fact, he says that in Matthew 5. Unfortunately, this is perhaps one of the most misunderstood (or perhaps just misused) verses in the Bible. The problem is a lack of understanding of definitions– and I’m not even talking Greek yet– there’s a basic misunderstanding of the English definitions here.
To abolish means to annul, destroy, and formally do away with. To fulfill means to complete, or finish. Both words lead one to the same place (something in both cases has ended) but differ in how they caused or arrived at finality. Perhaps a better way to look at it is this: abolish means to cancel, but fulfill means to bring to it’s natural end– aka, “complete.” In the former something ended prematurely, but in the latter it ended via arriving at the proper ending point.
Let’s use an analogy. If I were to say that my daughter’s softball game was cancelled (abolished), it would tell us two things: first and foremost, it tells us the game is over and secondly it tells us the game finished prior to the natural end. However, if I said that my daughter’s softball game had been completed (fulfilled) it would also reveal two things: likewise it would reveal the game is in fact over, and would also reveal the game did not finish prior to the natural completion point.
Fulfilled and abolished functionally get one to the same place: the Law is over. Where the words differ is where it speaks to how the law was brought to an end. Jesus said it was completed, and brought to its natural conclusion. In fact, those were the words he spoke on the cross: “It is finished.” (John 19:30)
The Law is over- it was brought to the natural ending point with Christ’s death on the cross. Thus, the Law is no more in the life of a Christian.
Now, does all this mean we’re free to live however we want?
No, not at all. At one point Paul says, “I myself am not under the Law” but then he immediately qualifies his statement and essentially says, “Well, I am under a law– I’m under the Law of Christ.” (see 1 Corinthians 9)
If you’re a Christian, you’re not under the old Law, but a new one: the teachings of Jesus found in the red words of the Bible. All this he said, could be summarized via “love God” and “love everyone else, too.”
May we have the courage to live by this new law.