Old Testament Law: which bits do we ignore and why?

The Bible is neatly separated by an unequal Old an New Testaments.  A friend of mine once argued that since the best books are usually trilogies, it should be split into three: The Old Testament, The New Testament and… The Return of the King(?) (Revelation).  There are also two major “covenants” (agreements, in this case between God and man), which are featured, broadly speaking one in each Testament, though in reality there is some wide blurring at the edges.

The “Problem”

Jesus says “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18, NIV)  So the Law stands then?

Not quite so simple…

Peter is visited by a large sheet which “contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”  14 “Surely not, Lord!”Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”  15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:12-15)  So the Law can be changed then?

And there are yet more obvious things, such as the utter lack of Christians stoning people for adultery (the last one I was aware of was an atheist on a “Year of Living Biblically” spree- yes he even printed a book about his experiences, including somewhat sheepishly throwing small stones at a man who admitted to adultery).

The beginnings of an answer…

These, I think, are three good, clear examples to consider.  The moral Law, to which Jesus referred, can never change.  The parts of the Law which make a moral difference can never be altered because that would change God’s character, and He “does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17).  This is good news, as it will not be bad to steal an innocent person’s goods on Monday and legal on Tuesday.  It means God is not going to change His mind about murder being a bad thing.  Jesus even expounds upon this, saying that “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment….” (Matthew 5:21-22)  If anything, the spirit of the Law is harder to keep than the letter!  (Which is why we can never be self-justified, unless we have never even so much as been angry with a brother… and why we need Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, and His Spirit to keep us from being utterly overcome by sin.)

The ritual/ceremonial law, e.g. the food laws Peter had such interesting visions about, broadly speaking, do not apply.  Their whole purpose was to separate out the Jews (racially) as a Holy People, chosen by God.  They were now into phase two: blessing the Gentiles (i.e. everybody else), and in Christ there was to be “neither Jew nor Gentile” (Galatians 3:28).  Separating out the Jews at this point would be counter-productive to God’s plan to embrace the rest.  So even the Jews were allowed to rest from a yoke that had been too much for them!

There was a bit of a grey-ish area in the middle which needed clarifying in a letter to the Gentile churches… (Acts 15:19-21)

And yes, the  punishments were legally binding under Old Covenant Judaism, so while stoning for adultery was the law of the land, it was the law of the land.  Since you and I do not live in Old Testament Jerusalem (apologies to any time-travellers) , we can all relax and put those stones away.   Notably Jesus was given the opportunity to carry this out while it was not the law of the land (the Romans forbade the Jews from carrying out capital punishments, which is why the Romans had to be involved in the crucifixion), and he refused, but did not refute the moral law, saying:Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11) to the one involved.  He also neatly pointed out the mob’s inadequacy to judge the woman in question, which serves as another reminder that we need the Spirit of Jesus and His atoning sacrifice made once for all.


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