By Amy Beange
I attended a pub night for secularists once and was confronted with a question about why I, as a Christian, did not follow the laws of the Old Testament.
It’s an important question because we Christians ground our faith in revelation, the words of God given in a book that’s open for anyone to read. We can’t argue that the Christian faith has nothing to do with the Old Testament, so how do we answer this question without being accused of trying to weasel out of doing things that are simply inconvenient or old-fashioned?
First, it must be stated that Christianity and Judaism do not compare to one another like two similar animal breeds living together in the same pasture. Rather, Christianity is more like Judaism fully evolved, and the New Testament is the second half of what in popular fiction is called a duology; it is the completion of a single story left hanging at the end of the first book.
But to fully understand, we need to start with creation—how God originally made the world as a habitat for humanity, a place He devised where we could know Him and enjoy Him forever under the banner of prosperity and righteousness. We also need to remember how that harmonious relationship was ruptured by our first parents’ rejection of God in the Garden.
God would never have remained content with such a state of affairs, however, and (Him being God, and all) He had established a plan to solve the alienation problem “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). Human sin needed human atonement and in time we would discover that God intended to atone for us Himself (1 Peter 1:18-19). But He would not do this by simply parachuting into history and confronting an unprepared humanity.
Instead, God chose one man, Abraham, with whom He made a covenant (Genesis 15:18, 17:2) in which God promised to Abraham that he would become the father of a nation—known today as the Jews. Within the context of this nation God would reveal His intentions and character, and it was in this nation that God would Himself eventually appear to personally deal with sin.
To recap, God chose Abraham and his descendants the Jews. At the right time He revealed His power to them and the rest of the world by rescuing the Jews from slavery in Egypt and leading them to a land in which they could settle and multiply under His care. It was the establishment of this new nation that is the basis for all the Old Testament laws.
Speaking of laws, the Ten Commandments and the moral code found in the opening chapters of Exodus function as a sort of national constitution for ancient Israel. In other words, Exodus was written in part to declare that this particular God (Yahweh, Ex. 3:13-14) chose this particular people group (Abraham’s descendants) to bless them and prosper them in exchange for their obedience and loyalty. Note how the commandments set the stage—God’s laws are not arbitrary but are grounded in the identity of the God who chose them; “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage: You shall have no other gods before Me” (Ex. 20:2-3).
The laws explained what God required and how the people needed to relate to Him in order to deal with the sin that had alienated humans from Him ever since Adam. They also functioned as the means of governing this new civil society: how people were to behave toward one another in matters of property, marital relations, interpersonal conflict, and so on.
On a certain level the Old Testament is not applicable to Christians simply because we are not Jews living in the ancient theocratic nation of Israel, just as Canadians are not required to abide by American laws.
But we need to go further by explaining the nature of the relationship God inaugurated with the Jews. What was His ultimate purpose in doing such a thing? Hints are sprinkled throughout the Old Testament, telling us that building a nation was but a step in a larger plan with two main thrusts: 1) a lasting solution to the problem of sin that 2) would be available to the whole world, not just the Jews. Here’s the plan in synopsis:
God tells Eve that a descendent of hers would conquer the tempting serpent (Genesis 3:15).
God tells Abraham that through him and his descendant, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3)
God tells His people through the prophet Ezekiel that someday “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you…I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes” (36:26)
God speaks through Isaiah of someone to come who would be “wounded for our transgression [and] bruised for our iniquities; the punishment for our peace was upon Him and by His stripes we are healed” (53:5)
God declares through the psalmist David that as a gift to his Son he would “make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession” (Ps. 2:8).
The animal sacrifices instituted by God in the Old Testament laws present a niggling question; If human sin alienates us from God, how can an animal’s death atone for it? God instituted the animal sacrifices, but there are hints throughout the scriptures that animal sacrifices were never intended to be a final solution, the most obvious being their temporary nature; that is, they had to be offered repeatedly, day after day, year after year, by an unending succession of priests.
Yet God had said Eve’s seed would “crush the serpent’s head.” If a slaughtered bull was only a temporary measure, what was the ultimate solution? Hence the hints of a person to come, a human being, who would offer himself as a sacrifice for sin. By virtue of His sinless life, Jesus, a Jew fully obedient to the law of Moses, was able to provide such a sacrifice through His death on the cross, His resurrection testifying to its sufficiency.
Christ thus serves as the archetypical man; the one who kept the law of Moses perfectly, fulfilling all of its stipulations and offering that perfect life as a sacrifice that could be applied to the sins of any man.
Once someone actually kept the whole law and offered himself as the supreme sacrifice, the system under which Jesus lived was fulfilled and set aside. Relationship with God was now available to anyone who believed in Christ and took His sacrifice as his own. If you ever wonder why Christians do not sacrifice either bulls or sheep, it’s because once Christ had offered Himself, such sacrifices were no longer needed. Moreover, those who believe in Christ are spiritually “in” Him and form His body, the church.
It’s important to note that unlike the Jews, this new community was never to be a new political entity, but a spiritual body made up of people from many nations. The Church, as the church, would not concern itself with civil laws. Rather, Christians were enjoined to uphold the law of love that all along had been the foundation of the Ten Commandments (it’s all explained in Romans 13), but beyond that they were to be subject to the laws of whatever nation they happened to belong. The Church would not seek to punish those who broke civil laws. Its discipline was to be maintained only for the sake of the body, and the tools of such discipline would be exhortation and excommunication, not the lash or execution.
In conversing with others about why we don’t follow Old Testament laws, Christians must explain that, rather than showing true and consistent faith, following those laws would show a regression. Those laws governed the ancient theocratic nation of Israel and instructed them in the concept of atoning sacrifice while they awaited the Messiah. His coming fulfilled the laws, once for all, and now we move forward in obedience to Him. Would adhering to medieval standards of justice make one a better citizen of Canada? Of course not, because we have found new ways of dealing with our society. Just so, Christians are no longer required to sacrifice animals and should feel free to get tattoos, eat shellfish and wear mixed fiber clothing—if that’s what they want. Because Christ, who has given us eternal life, has given us that liberty.