Do the Old Testament Laws Still Apply?

One thing that confuses many Christians is the difference between the Old and New Testaments. Is the Old Testament still in effect? How do the books of the Old Testament apply to Christians?

Anabaptists believe that the Old Testament is no longer our rule of life. The New Testament supersedes the Old, and Jesus and the apostles, not the Law of Moses, teach us how to live.

What Was the Purpose of the Old Testament?

The Old Testament is the story of God reaching down to humanity and setting apart a people group for himself. He chose a righteous man named Abraham as the ancestor of his people. Israel was his nation, and he worked with them for centuries to make them a holy nation through which he could offer salvation to the entire world.

When Israel was unfaithful and did evil deeds, God continued to work with them. However, because of their hardness of heart, he gave them a law through his prophet Moses, and commanded them to follow it. They continually disobeyed, and he had to punish them so that they would come back to the life he offered them through obeying this law. He didn’t really need sacrifices offered to him, but commanded them for the good of the Israelites.1A good understanding can be found in this video. Finally, by the time of Jesus, there were actually people following the Law of Moses. Unfortunately, many of them merely obeyed the letter of the law, not the spirit of the law.

To understand more of this story, see this article on how Jesus saves us.

What Is the Purpose of the New Testament?

God’s intention was always to bring salvation to all people. He did this in the New Testament through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through Christ, he set apart a people group that was descended from Abraham spiritually rather than biologically—those who are righteous and faithful to him, those who obey the spirit of the Law of Moses, as Jesus lays it out in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.

The New Testament supersedes the Old in every way. Jesus’ death actually takes away our sins, rather than the Old Testament rituals that just reminded people of their sins and God’s forgiveness. The moral code of the New Testament is higher, nobler, and more transformative. For some examples, see my articles on nonviolence and the two kingdoms. And now God’s people can approach him directly, through Jesus Christ, rather than through human priests.

What Happened to the Old Testament Law?

God gave the Law of Moses to the Israelites, and now that law is done away with.22 Cor 3:7, Gal 3:23-25, Luke 16:16-17 This is because it was only intended as a temporary measure, because of the hardness of people’s hearts, not as a perfect example of God’s will for humanity.3Jer 31:31-34, Gal 3:19, Matt 19:8, 1 Tim 1:9 When the New Testament writers mention the Law of Moses, they call it “their law” or “your law,” depending on who they’re speaking to, but they don’t call it “our law.”4John 10:34, 15:25, 1 Cor 14:34

Jesus, the Son of God, redefined the law, telling us to refrain from things such as violence, divorce, evil speaking, and other things that were not considered wrong by the Law of Moses. He tells us, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”5Matt 5:20 ESV

The church clearly taught that Gentile believers only needed to keep God’s moral principles and the commandment against eating blood that had been given to Noah long before God gave the Law of Moses.6Acts 15:19-21 The Law of Moses was the schoolmaster or guardian of the Jews, but is no longer in place. Peter says that Jewish believers “were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers” through the blood of Christ.71 Pet 1:18 ESV

Objections

Matthew 5

In Matthew 5, just before Jesus delivers his new commandments to Christians, he says something puzzling:

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 say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:17-20 ESV)

Does this contradict the rest of the New Testament and mean that we are actually still under the Old Testament Law?

If we look more closely at Jesus’ first two sentences, we see that he doesn’t actually say that we need to obey the Law. Notice that Jesus doesn’t just say “the Law,” but “the Law or the Prophets.” The phrase “the Law and the Prophets” is used in Scripture to reference the Old Testament writings. So Jesus is not specifically speaking of the Law as commands, but the Law and the Prophets as God’s inspired Scriptures.

Of course Jesus didn’t come to abolish what had been written earlier; he came to fulfill the Scriptures. Not an iota or dot passes away from the Old Testament Scriptures, since they are all fulfilled in Christ. They lead us to Christ and they testify about him.

So how does this affect what Jesus meant when he went on to say the following?

Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Since Jesus isn’t speaking of the Old Testament Law as law but as writings, we see that “these commandments” refer, not to what came before, but to what he was going to say next. Jesus follows this statement with another one that helps to clarify:

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

What does Jesus mean by telling us to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? The scribes and Pharisees were sticklers for the Law of Moses, and had even added extra commands to ensure that people were fully following the commands found in the Law. Jesus is telling us that what comes next is a more righteous way of life than the Law of Moses could possibly be.

These two sentences, far from being a command to obey the Old Testament Law, are a bookend for Jesus’ commands that immediately follow, and the other bookend is at the end of chapter 7. That’s where Jesus compares those who obey these words to a wise man who built his house on a rock.

So instead of contradicting the straightforward reading of the many other passages that I cited, Matthew 5 is actually setting up Jesus’ replacement of the Mosaic commandments with his own, truly righteous, commands.

In Luke, Jesus says something similar that fits well with this interpretation of Matthew 5:

The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void. (Luke 16:16-17)

So as we can see, the meaning of the Law remains true, even though we are no longer under the Old Testament but under the New.

Conclusion

The Old Testament is no longer in effect. We can learn quite a bit about God and his character and what he desires of us from the Old Testament, but we need to go to the New Testament to tell us how we should live. This is what Anabaptists have taught, and it’s also the consistent teaching of the early church.

  • 1
    A good understanding can be found in this video.
  • 2
    2 Cor 3:7, Gal 3:23-25, Luke 16:16-17
  • 3
    Jer 31:31-34, Gal 3:19, Matt 19:8, 1 Tim 1:9
  • 4
    John 10:34, 15:25, 1 Cor 14:34
  • 5
    Matt 5:20 ESV
  • 6
    Acts 15:19-21
  • 7
    1 Pet 1:18 ESV

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