Should Christians Keep the Old Testament Law?
Since Christians consider the Old Testament part of God’s written Word, are they responsible to keep the Old Testament law?
The Mosaic law was not given to the Gentiles (Romans 2:1-16) but to the people of Israel (Exodus 20:1-17). It was intended to reveal the goodness and wisdom of God, bring awareness of sin and guilt, and show the need for divine redemption (Leviticus 17:11; Romans 3:19-20; 7:7-13; 1 Timothy 1:7-11). The law, however, was not given as a performance-based means of salvation. Abraham was saved by faith long before the law was given through Moses (Hebrews 11 ).
Because Christ fulfilled the requirements of the law (Romans 5:5-8; 8:1-4), we are no longer under the external law of Moses. When we are obedient to the Holy Spirit, we manifest God’s love and exhibit righteousness, which fulfills the law (Romans 13:8-10). The New Testament contains numerous passages that clarify the Christian believer’s distinctly altered relationship to the Mosaic law (Galatians 3-5; Philippians 3; Colossians 2).
The Lord’s declaration in Matthew 5:17 that He had come not “to abolish the law but to fulfill it” should be understood in its context. He said this just before explaining the spiritual meaning of the system of laws given to Israel by Moses. By contrast, the Pharisees of His day missed the spirit and intent of the law while overemphasizing conformity to external legal and ritual elements. Jesus emphasized the thoughts, motives, and attitudes behind the deeds. The contrast He set forth in verses Matthew 21-47 is not between the law and His own teaching but between the ideas of the Pharisees and the real meaning of the law. Christ had so much respect for the law that He would not cancel even one small demand until after He had fulfilled it.
However, Jesus Christ did fulfill the law both in His life and in His death. He obeyed it perfectly. He never broke even one of its commands. Of the entire human race, only He never sinned (see 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22). He also laid down His life to pay the penalty for sin demanded by the law (see John 3:16; 10:11-l8; 11:50-52; Romans 5:6-8; 2 Corinthians 5:21). In all of this He became the reality of whom all the Old Testament sacrifices and rituals were only symbols.
When the life of God’s perfect Lamb was given as the ultimate sacrifice for sinners, the Mosaic law, as a national, legally binding system came to an end. Second Corinthians 3:2-18 makes it clear that even the Ten Commandments were part of a “dispensation/ministry” that has passed away. If we read the law with the mindset of the old covenant between God and Israel, a veil covers our hearts (v. 18).
“But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:16-18).
The part of the Bible that contains all these rules and regulations still instructs us. But it is no longer binding on us because Jesus Christ fulfilled it.
While Christians are not bound to follow the ceremonial laws and regulations of the old covenant with Israel, they are obligated to live by the great moral principles it contains. The Old Testament law was itself based on unwritten moral principles that God had revealed to the human race throughout the ages (Romans 2:14-15). The works of the flesh and the works of the Spirit listed by the apostle Paul (Galatians 5:13-26) illustrate the impossibility of living a Spirit-filled life while violating the moral principles contained in the law given at Sinai. Rather than being governed by a law whose letter brought rebellion, awareness of sin, and death, those in Christ are governed by the living Spirit of God who instructs them in how to live in freedom and gratitude.