The Law of Moses
Does it apply to Christians today?
This question has prompted fierce debate and sharp division within the Body of Christ. Churches have divided over it. New denominations have been formed as a result of it.
I receive at least one letter every week from a Seventh Day Adventist radio listener who tries to prove to me that the Law of Moses requires Christians to observe the Sabbath. Others write to encourage me to teach that Christians should observe the dietary rules of the Law, eating only kosher foods.
The attempt to apply the Law of Moses to contemporary professing Christians seems to be particularly popular among cultic groups, probably because it fits in so well with their legalistic approach whereby they try to control all the activities of their members. At the opposite extreme are the liberal theologians who tend to dismiss the Law as nothing more than “the tribal rules of a tribal god.”
My Personal Heritage
When I was growing up, the church I was a member of taught that the Law of Moses was “imperfect” and thus had to be replaced by “the perfect law of Christ.” This assertion made me wonder how a perfect God could give an imperfect law? I became even more confused when I noted that in the New Testament the Apostle Paul refers to the Law as “holy” (Romans 7:12) and “good” (1 Timothy 1:8). And Jesus Himself said He had not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17).
Our preachers were forever emphasizing that the Law had been “nailed to the Cross” and was thus invalidated by the death of Jesus. Unfortunately, they went even further, for they identified the Law with the Old Testament. They therefore argued that all the Hebrew Scriptures — the entire Old Testament — had been abrogated by the Cross.
We declared ourselves to be “a New Testament Church,” and we considered the Old Testament to be inappropriate for serious study. We equated the Bible with the New Testament, and many of us did not even own a complete Bible. We had only a New Testament, with the Psalms added as a sort of devotional appendix. We viewed the Old Testament as a quaint story book to be used solely for the purpose of teaching children stories like Noah and the Ark.
A Reservoir of Ignorance
I have since discovered that this deprecating attitude toward the Old Testament is widespread within Christendom. The result is that most Christians are biblically ignorant regarding the content of the Hebrew Scriptures. Most would be embarrassed if they were asked to find the book of Hezekiah. They would be even more embarrassed to discover that there is no such book! This is a sad situation because the New Testament cannot be understood apart from the Old.
One result of this ignorance of the Old Testament is a grievous lack of knowledge concerning the Jewish roots of Christianity. Most Christians seem to be oblivious to the fact that the early church was composed entirely of Jews and that it was therefore thoroughly Jewish in its worship and customs.
I’m certain that most Christians would be surprised to learn that Paul was speaking of the Old Testament when he wrote the following words to Timothy: “… from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). Paul had to be talking about what we call the Old Testament because the New Testament did not even exist when he wrote those words.
Ignorance of the Hebrew Scriptures is also one of the most important reasons why there is so much confusion within the Christian community today regarding Bible prophecy. Take the book of Revelation for example. How can that book possibly be understood apart from the book of Daniel when the two fit together like a hand in a glove?
Or consider the fact that the book of Revelation contains more than 300 references to the Old Testament scriptures, and not a one of those references is identified. A good example is the theme of the book. It is expressed in Revelation 1:7 where the reader is told that the Messiah is going to return in the clouds and those who pierced Him will see Him and mourn over Him. That verse is constructed from two Old Testament passages that are put end-to-end, one from Daniel 7 and the other from Zechariah 12.
The Meaning of the Law
The first point we all need to keep in mind is that the Law of Moses and the Old Testament are not synonymous. The Law of Moses constitutes only a small part of the Hebrew Scriptures. If the Law of Moses was nailed to the Cross, that nailing certainly did not include the Old Testament histories, the wisdom literature, or the prophetic books.
But was the Law itself, constituting most of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, invalidated by the Cross? Or, were only portions of it annulled — like the civil and ceremonial laws? What about the moral law as expressed in the Ten Commandments? Does it apply to Christians? And, if so, does that mean we should observe the Sabbath?
A Law for Israel Only
The fundamental point that must be kept in mind is that the Law of Moses was given to the nation of Israel and not to Gentiles or the Church (Deuteronomy 4:7-8; Psalm 147: 19-20; and Malachi 4:4).
The Jews recognized this clearly in their oral law that was later catalogued in the Talmud. In their view, Gentiles were subject to the commandments of the Noahic Law, the law given to Noah after the flood. Those commandments are recorded in Genesis 9:1-17.
From those verses the rabbis drew seven laws for the Gentile nations. The first was an authorization of human government, with capital punishment required for the crime of murder. The other six laws consisted of prohibitions against blasphemy, idolatry, sexual impurity, theft, the eating of blood, and the devouring of a limb of an animal without killing it.
After the establishment of the Church, the issue of the application of the Law of Moses arose when Gentiles began to accept the Gospel. Should these new converts be required to obey the Law of Moses, including the rite of circumcision?
The issue was so important that a church conference was called in Jerusalem to debate the matter. After extensive discussion, it was decided that the Gentiles should not be “troubled” with the observance of the Mosaic Law except for four rules (Acts 15:1-29).
The rules selected were abstinence from fornication and abstinence from the eating of blood, things sacrificed to idols, and things strangulated (Acts 15:20,29). All of these prohibitions had been included in the Noahic Law for the Gentiles that preceded the Law of Moses. So, Gentile converts to Christianity were not subjected to any laws that were unique to the Mosaic system.
A Temporary Law
Another foundational point is that the Law of Moses constituted a temporary system. God never intended it to be permanent.
The other covenants that God made with Israel — the Abrahamic, Davidic, and Land covenants — are all declared to be “everlasting” (Genesis 17:7; 2 Samuel 23:5; and Psalm 105:8-11). The Mosaic Law is never classified in Scripture as eternal. In fact, Jeremiah prophesied that it would be replaced by a “new covenant”: “‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers… My covenant which they broke…'” (Jeremiah 31:31-32).
In the very next chapter, Jeremiah proclaims that this “new covenant” will be an “everlasting one” (Jeremiah 32: 40). This New Covenant is the one that was mediated by the blood of Jesus. The writer of the Hebrew letter affirms that it invalidated the Mosaic Covenant (Hebrews 8:1-13 and 9:15-16) and that it is eternal in nature (Hebrews 13: 20).
A Total Abrogation
The annulment of the Mosaic Law was total in nature. The Bible never speaks of portions of the Law being “carried over” into the New Covenant. As the Hebrew writer reminds us, the giving of the New Covenant “has made the first obsolete” (Hebrews 8:13).
This includes even the Ten Commandments, as Paul makes clear in 2 Corinthians 3:6-9. In that passage Paul states that we are “servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” He then refers to the “letters engraved on stones” as a “ministry of death” (verse 7) and a “ministry of condemnation” (verse 9).
The “letters engraved on stones” is a direct reference to the Ten Commandments. Those were the only commandments in the Law of Moses that were written on stone by the finger of God. All the rest of the remaining 603 commands were written down by Moses at the instruction of God.
Does this mean the Ten Commandments are no longer applicable to Christians? Not necessarily. It means that as part of the Law of Moses they no longer apply. But any of them that are incorporated in the Law of Christ do apply — and the fact of the matter is that nine of the ten have been included in the New Covenant and have even been expanded to cover our thought life (see for example, Matthew 5:21-48). The only one that is not mentioned in the New Covenant is the command to keep the Sabbath.
The best explanation I have ever run across of the relationship between the Law of Moses and the New Covenant of Jesus is one I found recently in an article by the Messianic Jewish evangelist and scholar, Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum. Here’s how he illustrated the relationship:
“I received my first driver’s license in the state of California. As long as I drove in California, I was subject to the traffic laws of that state. But two years later I moved to New York.
Once I left California, I ceased to be under California’s traffic laws. The traffic laws of that state were rendered inoperative in my case. Now my driving was subject to a new law — the traffic laws of the state of New York.
There were many laws that were different. In California I was permitted to make a right turn at a red light after stopping and yielding the right-of-way. But in New York this was not permitted.
On the other hand, there were many similar laws between the two states, such as the edict to stop at red lights. However, when I stopped for a red light in New York, I did not do so in obedience to the state of California as I once had, but in obedience to the state of New York. Likewise, if I went through a red light without stopping, I was not guilty of breaking California law but New York law. Many laws were similar, but they were, nevertheless, under two distinctly different systems.”
This illustration should make it clear what I mean when I say that the Law of Moses has been nullified and that we are now under the Law of Christ. The two laws have many different commandments. For example, under the Law of Moses the eating of pork was forbidden. The Law of Christ permits it. But there are also similar commandments. Thus, both prohibit adultery and theft. But if you commit adultery, you stand guilty of violating the Law of Christ, not the Law of Moses.
Freedom in Christ
So, the answer to our original question, “Does the Law of Moses apply to Christians?” is that Christians are free from the necessity of keeping any of the commands of the Mosaic Law. But, it is very important to keep in mind that Christians have the freedom in Christ to observe portions of the Mosaic Law if they so please.
This point is what Romans 14 is all about. That chapter makes it clear that a Christian has the freedom to observe or not observe the Jewish feast days and dietary laws. Paul wrote that chapter, and he practiced it by observing the Sabbath, the feast days, the laws pertaining to vows and the purification laws. Yet, he did not try to enforce these observances upon other Christians.
Like Paul, many Messianic Jews today observe various portions of the Law of Moses. They have the freedom in the Messiah to do so. But they must be cautious that they do not carry their observance too far. Here is how Dr. Fruchtenbaum expresses that caution:
“There are two dangers that must be avoided by the Messianic Jew who chooses to keep portions of the Law of Moses.
One is the belief that one who does so is contributing to his own justification and sanctification. This is false and must be avoided. The second danger is that one may demand or expect others to also keep the Law. This is equally wrong and borders on legalism. The one who exercises his freedom to keep the Law must recognize and respect another’s freedom not to do the same.”
The Words of Jesus
Some of you at this point may be wondering what Jesus meant when He said in His sermon on the mount in Galilee, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). How can these words be reconciled with my conclusion that the Law has been abolished?
The answer is so obvious that it is hard to see. The Law of Moses did not end with the coming of Jesus or with the initiation of His ministry — but with His death. As long as Jesus lived, He — as a Jew — was under the Mosaic Law and was obligated to fulfill it, which He did perfectly. But when He died, He became the testator of a New Covenant that completely replaced the Old.
The Question of Salvation
One final point — many people are under the mistaken impression that a different way of salvation existed under the Law of Moses. The argument usually goes this way: under the Mosaic Law salvation was obtained by obedience to the Law; whereas today, under the New Covenant, salvation is by grace through faith.
This concept is completely erroneous. There has never been any method of salvation except grace through faith. Long before the Law of Moses was given, the Patriarchs (like Job, Enoch, and Abraham) were saved by the grace of God when they related to Him in faith. After the Law was given, the Jewish people continued to be saved by grace through faith.
Obedience to the Law never saved anyone; first, because it was impossible to obey the Law perfectly, and second, because the sacrifice of animals was insufficient to atone for human sin.
The law served as a tutor to prepare people for the coming of the Messiah (Galatians 3:24). It did this first of all by convicting people of their sins. Second, it motivated them in this sin-consciousness to look for a Messiah who would shed His blood to atone for their sins.