How do We Relate to the Old Testament Law as Christians?
As we've been seeing in recent weeks Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians in response to false teachers trying to impose Old Testament (OT) law keeping on gentile converts throughout the region of Galatia. And this morning we're going to take a step back from Galatians and look at the issue a little more closely for us – what is our relationship to the OT law? The reason it seemed worth doing this now is that for us the issue is still very much a live one – but most of the time we come at it from a very different angle. In Paul's day people were insisting that Christians had to submit to the OT law. In our day the reverse is happening: people are insisting that OT morality be stripped out of modern Christian life.
This is particularly the case with sexual ethics – our world is increasingly at odds with a biblical sexual ethic of sex only within marriage, and that only between one man and one woman united for life. Four weeks ago the Arch Bishop of Canterbury said to the press on the topic of priests and bishops practicing homosexual sex the church needs to 'find a way forward that includes everyone without exclusion, without exception', and that such a way will be 'based on a proper 21st Century understanding of being human and being sexual'. This is not very coded language for allowing same sex sexual activity as a normal part of life of the church – even for priests and bishops. This is the arch bishop of Canterbury, the leader of the Church of England saying we should reject a biblical sexual ethic in favour of a 'proper 21st Century understanding of being sexual'. Did God get it wrong? Are we the first people to see the truth?
Now in the face of such a shift anyone who wants to hold to a biblical line will be challenged that we don't keep the OT law on so many other issues – we mix our fabrics, we eat shellfish, we don't release people from their debts every 50 years… and so it goes on.
And we feel the challenge don't we – is there a proper basis for keeping some parts of the law and leaving others behind, or do we need to reject it whole sale in order to be consistent?
So that's our topic this morning.
And I want to argue that it is right and proper for us to understand the OT Law, and to apply it, in a Christ centred way… There is a biblical basis for our holding onto the biblical sexual ethic, and the rest of the morality of the OT. And we see it beginning to be unfolded in our reading from Mark this morning.
When Jesus came he introduced a radically new way of understanding and keeping the law.
So point one Jesus has a radically new way of reading the Law
We see this in our Mark reading.
Look at Mark 7:14 with me:
"Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him'unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him'unclean'." After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. "Are you so dull?" he asked. "Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him'unclean'? For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean".)"
Here we get to the heart of the issue straight away - Leviticus 11 deals with food laws, and it's very clear, some foods are clean and some unclean. After listing unclean foods Leviticus 11:24 says "'You will make yourselves unclean by these." i.e. you can eat the clean foods, but not the unclean food – they make you unclean. But Jesus says: Nothing from outside can make us unclean by going into us… and so he declares all foods clean.
Something has changed.
And in the same discussion Jesus quotes the ten commandments, verse 9 –
"And he said to them: "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said,'Honour your father and your mother,' and,'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father or mother:'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban' (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.""
Jesus quotes from Exodus 20 and Exodus 21 and condemns the Pharisees and teachers of the law for not keeping these laws, which are the very word of God. So Jesus holds them to the 10 commandments, but he won't let them hold him to the cleanliness law. If we didn't know Jesus better we might think he's being a hypocrite wouldn't we?
And there's more: at the end of our passage Jesus says it's not food that makes us unclean, it is our moral failings, our inner immorality, things like murder, theft and lying. He seems to hold to the same moral understanding as the OT law doesn't he?
What's going on here? Jesus distinguishes between things in the law which no longer apply as law and things that do, as if some things pertain to moral categories and others pertain to something less permanent and unchanging.
We can't develop this in detail, but in Leviticus 11 the food laws are explicitly said to relate to ceremonial cleanness (Leviticus 11:4) ' The camel, though it chews the cud, does not have a split hoof; it is ceremonially unclean for you'.
But some laws have to do with inherent morality: these things are either evil or good, as Jesus points out. Underneath this morality is God's own character: God is good and he can do no evil. He commands us to do good and shun evil. This isn't about religion as such, it's more basic, showing what is right and good and moral; and what is wrong and evil and immoral.
We can see Jesus dividing out categories here. Some OT laws are ceremonial, and some are moral.
But there's more… the Pharisees want to put Jesus to death for not keeping the Sabbath according to their view of the OT law… because that was what the law required. This reflects the role of the OT law in governing Jewish society. Being social codes they cannot govern inner morality, but outward, external obedience. And they include civil punishment for people who break them. Punishment is specified for all kinds of crimes – murder, theft etc. So some elements of the law relate to the specific context of the Jewish State, they are civil laws for that time and place.
Now these distinctions aren't obvious when we read the OT. Until Jesus came along there was no reason to see them – God's people lived in God's land under his law and religion, they were all of a piece, one coherent system of law for the nation… but Jesus came to bring in a New Covenant, a relationship with God that was not confined to one nation, but universal, and that was not external and ceremonial, but internal and spiritual. The era of the OT law as a system of religion and law was ended. Jesus introduced the new age of the Spirit. And in the new age of the Spirit God's law would be written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31.31-34).
But this law written on our hearts is not a completely new and different thing – just as God's character doesn't change, so the moral landscape of his world doesn't change. The law of the Spirit, written on our hearts is the fulfilment of the law of God from the OT, properly understood in Jesus. Those things that pertain to morality are enlarged and deepened – still wrong to kill, but now we see that 'do not kill' implies 'do not hate' and 'even love your enemies'! Those things that were ceremonial and external are taken into the heart, no longer mere ceremony, now the thing they represented – so cleanliness laws push us to true holiness, spiritual cleanliness, not just physical; and the civic laws aren't for all nations to institute in every place, but they press home to us just how serious sin is, we see not just that we deserve death for sin, but spiritual death, God's condemnation.
Jesus radical new way fulfils God's intention for the law
While we may not see these categories flagged up for us when we read the law we do see Israel wrestling with the differences as the OT unfolds – see Psalm 40, 49 and 51 for instance … and in the New Testament we have Jesus interpreting the law – not just here in Mark, but especially in the sermon on the mount where he says 'I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it…' and goes on to show how the law is radically deeper and more far reaching than the scribes and the Pharisees could conceive. Jesus comes to fulfil the law – keeping it perfectly, and revealing it's inner logic and unfolding it's widest possible applications, which the New Testament continues to unfold.
The point is we're not just getting rid of the bits we don't like. It's not a free for all, and it's not random. We're following Jesus as he reveals the logic that was always there in the law itself, we're learning to read the OT law in a new covenant way.
This is good news, we don't have to make it up as we go along, instead we need to listen carefully to the bible. It's right that we no longer insist on separating our fabrics and sifting out unclear foods – and it's right that we recognise the ongoing validity of the moral underpinnings of the OT, that's how God intended it.
When Jesus comes he reveals the deeper meaning of the law and fulfils all its demands for us. He is the true sacrifice, priest and temple, he truly cleanses us of sin. Those ceremonies and religious rituals of the OT are no longer needed, the one they point to has come, their work is done.
And now that Jesus has come the people of God are not a nation state, God's people come from every nation. So there is no nation state to enforce God's laws, no nation represents God to the world. Those laws which are moral still need to be enforced by law – we certainly don't want a free for all on murder and theft … but the system of civil law described in the OT is so tightly tied to Israel's identity as God's people that it can't be applied to any other group as it is.
Like the ceremonial laws these laws have a teaching function, pointing us to sin and its consequences; and a predictive function, pointing us to Jesus who releases us from the condemnation of the law.
So we keep the ceremonial and civil laws not by doing the ceremonies, but by trusting in Jesus, the fulfilment of the ceremonies; and not by stoning to death an adulterer, but by crying out to Jesus for mercy for our adulterous thoughts and actions, and by putting to death sin in our members. And the morality that underpinned the OT teaches us what is right and what is wrong. This point deserves a bit more detail:
God's Character doesn't Change, and so nor does morality in his world.
This is where we look back at Mark 7:20..
"Jesus went on: "What comes out of a man is what makes him'unclean'. For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man'unclean'."
Very briefly: notice Jesus is preaching the same moral universe as the OT. The law says 'do not murder', 'do not steal', 'do not commit adultery', 'do not covet', 'do not give false testimony'… and Jesus has already said they must honour their parents – that's the last 6 commandments, all the commandments that talk about how we relate to each other. What the law says about right and wrong continues to be true.
This is because morality flows out of God's character and he doesn't change. The Holy Spirit is not leading us today into a new morality that contradicts the morality of the OT – God is not growing up or getting more insight into the human condition, he knows us inside and out, he knows the end from the beginning, he determines what is right and what is wrong, and he does not change his mind. No matter how many bishops tell us what a proper 21st Century understanding of sexuality is, the proper 21st Century understanding of sexuality will be the very same understanding that God revealed in the beginning, because our sexuality hasn't changed and nor has God.
Now as God's people now we're free from the condemnation of the law – there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). Jesus has taken the condemnation we deserve. But law still speaks to us – not as religion, this is how you get right with God; but as moral truth – this is right and this is wrong.
As New Testament Christians God doesn't say to us 'it's not a good idea to murder, try and cut down'; God says 'you shall not murder'. The standard God calls us to is not less than the OT law, but more. In the sermon on the Mount Jesus expands on the commandments – you shall not murder means don't hate in your heart so that you wish someone else dead; do not commit adultery means don't look at a woman lustfully and so commit adultery with her in your heart, and so on… Jesus says– Matthew 5:20: 'I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven'. And sums it up in Matthew 5:48 'Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect'.
The standard set for us in the Bible is not near enough is good enough, it's perfection. We are not just encouraged to it, but commanded to it. And God's law teaches us what that is, the OT law reveals God's perfect morality, and the New Testament teaches us how to understand it in it's fullest, widest and truest application.
And we strive to keep it all, perfectly.
Now we know that we won't manage perfect obedience, but the Bible doesn't say settle for less then, it says run for the prize, strive for perfection – and know that you will fail, and when fail you can trust Jesus to make good all your failings.
So don't throw out your Old Testament's, read, mark and learn them. Inwardly digest them. From the ceremonial and civil laws learn who you are and what Jesus has done for you. From the moral laws learn what is right and what is wrong. And from it all learn that you need a savior who is perfect, and cling to Jesus.