What Are We Supposed To Do with the Old Testament Laws?
Have you ever read through the Old Testament laws in places like Leviticus and Deuteronomy and thought, “Do I really have to do all this? What happens if I break one of these commands? Or, more likely, what happens when I break nearly all of them?” There are over 600 Old Testament laws, many of which seem outdated, even silly, to modern people. For example, Leviticus 19:19 says plainly, “Do not wear clothing woven of two different kinds of material.” Does this mean that it’s a sin to wear a cotton/poly blend tee? Or, perhaps more disturbing to people like me who love shrimp, Leviticus 11:12 says, “Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be regarded as unclean by you.” What role do these Old Testament laws play in our Christian faith today?
One common way of answering this question is to divide the Old Testament laws into categories. There are moral laws, ritual laws, or civil laws. When we break it up this way, it’s easy to deduce that only the moral laws are still binding. But what would Moses think of this categorization? Is it faithful to the original text to place these commands into distinct categories? I don’t believe that it is.
When God has set a law in place, only God can revise or revoke it.
So, then, what has God said about Old Testament laws? Quite a lot, actually.
The First Church Council
This is not a new question. In fact, dealing with myriad Old Testament laws was one of the first great issues to face the Church. Because Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, and because all of the earliest disciples were Jewish, the movement itself was originally understood as being thoroughly Jewish. But then something incredible happened: God began to welcome Gentiles into his family. So the question was raised: Just how Jewish must these Gentile Christians become?
Why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?
But these Gentiles were uncircumcised. They didn’t keep Sabbath. They didn’t eat kosher food. In fact, they barely kept any of the Old Testament laws at all! What was God thinking by giving these unclean, impure people his Spirit?
This became such a huge question that the church leaders in Jerusalem called a council to better understand the invitation of Gentiles into God’s family. (You can find the full account of this important moment in history in Acts 15.) At the council the conservative Jews declared, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” Peter countered by testifying to God’s acceptance of the Gentiles by giving them the Spirit, and boldly proclaiming, “Why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
It should not be difficult for Gentiles to turn to God.
And with that pronouncement, God had given a revelation that revised the Old Testament laws. The Gentiles need not be circumcised. (Hooray!) They need not follow kosher. They need not keep Sabbath. They need not come to the temple for the various annual festivals. In other words, they need not become Jewish at all. All that was required of them was to keep these four commands. But why these four?
Abstinence from Idolatry & Blood
These four requirements, though a gracious concession, were not chosen at random. In fact, they are incredibly practical. In his commentary on Acts, John Polhill asks an important question: “If Gentiles were not being required to observe the Jewish ritual laws, how would Jewish Christians who maintained strict Torah observance be able to fellowship with them without running the risk of being ritually defiled themselves?” If the Gentiles didn’t have to change anything, then how could Torah-faithful Jewish Christians share a meal with them?
At that time, Gentile converts were entering into mostly Jewish churches. To make fellowship possible, particularly fellowship over a meal, the Gentile converts were asked to abstain from three things: food sacrificed to idols, the meat of strangled animals (which still had blood in it), and blood consumption of any kind. These things were detestable and deeply offensive to Jews, so in order to make table fellowship the joyous occasion it was supposed to be, the Gentiles must abstain. They did not have to keep kosher, they simply weren’t allowed to bring idolatry or blood into the meal. (In fact, they were being asked to rid these practices from their lives completely.)
But that still leaves us with the case of sexual immorality. What are we to make of this command?
Torah-faithful Jews were notorious for their strict sexual morality. “For the Jew sexual misbehavior was both immoral and impure. A Jew would find it difficult indeed to consort with a Gentile who did not live by his own standards of sexual morality.” (Polhill) At its most basic level, this command was to state the obvious: there is no sex at church. (Duh, right!) But some of these Gentiles may have come from pagan worship practices that were orgiastic, where they would have indulged in both food and sex. Not so anymore.
Sexual morality is the one area where the commands get stricter from Old Testament to New Testament. Unlike with the repeal of kosher law, Peter is not give a vision of a sheet let down from heaven full of people breaking all the sexual laws of Torah. Unlike with the Sabbath or circumcision, sexual morality is nowhere diminished in scope or importance. When James, himself a faithful Jew, tells Gentiles to abstain from sexual immorality, he has in mind the whole breadth of sexual commands from the Old Testament. There is no revelation that revises a looser sexual morality for Christians, whether of Jewish or Gentile ethnicity.
Many of the Old Testament laws do not apply to Christians today, and we know this because God has given us a revelation that revises these commands. You can eat shrimp. You can wear clothes made with two kinds of material. You don’t have to be circumcised. God has loosened the burden so as to make it as easy as possible for us to come to him. But that does not mean that there are no commands for us to follow. Since God has been so gracious to us in making it easy to turn to him, let us be grateful to him and strive to live in faithful obedience.