Christians and the Laws of the Old Testament

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor
of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

Most Christians are troubled by some of the laws found in the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. Thus, when reading the laws in the Torah, Christians take different approaches in dealing with the laws of the Old Testament.

Some Christians take the laws almost literally. There are Christians who observe the Jewish Sabbath as a day of worship and rest. Others observe the laws of clean and unclean food and do not eat pork and only eat fish that have fins and scales.

Some Christians are so troubled by the laws of the Old Testament that they take a semi-Marcionite approach to the Old Testament. They believe that since the Old Testament has been fulfilled by the New Testament, they do not read the Old Testament and do not believe that the laws found in the first section of the Bible have any relevance to Christians today.

People who love the Old Testament and recognize that the Old Testament is still relevant to Christians today, take a different approach when studying books such as Exodus and Leviticus. The Old Testament laws teach important moral principles that are relevant to people of all ages.

This is the emphasis of Christopher J. H. Wright’s article, “Learning to Love Leviticus,” published in the July/August issue of Christianity Today. Writing about the laws of the Old Testament, Wright wrote:

God gave Israel his law in order to shape them into a society that would reflect God’s character and values in the midst of the nations—what we might call a missional motivation (Lev. 18:3–4; Deut. 4:6–8). The Israelites were to be distinctive by living in God’s way, the ways of personal integrity, economic and social justice, and community compassion. The law was not a set of arbitrary rules to keep God happy. It was a way of life, a way of being human, a culture in a particular time and place, to show what a redeemed people under God looks like.

To imagine that “living biblically” means trying to keep as many ancient rules as possible just because they are in the Bible misses the point of the law in the first place. Old Testament law was not just about rules but also about relationship with God, founded on God’s grace and redemption, and motivated by the mission of living as the people of God in the world, so that the world should come to know the living God.

Many Christians believe that the people of Israel had to obey the demands of the law in order to be saved. But this is a misunderstanding of the purpose of the laws found in the Bible. The laws were give to Israel to teach them how to live as the people of God in the Word.

Israel was called to be holy as God is holy: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev 19:2). As a holy people serving a holy God, Israel was called to show the nations what it means to be a people living in relationship with God. The Old Testament laws were not imposed on Israel to guarantee their salvation. Rather, the laws were given to Israel in order to guide Israel to live in relationship with God, a relationship established by the covenant at Sinai.

Christians who do not understand the purpose of the laws of the Old Testament should read Christopher Wright’s article and learn to appreciate what God gave to Israel. As Wright wrote,

There is plenty that we can learn from Old Testament laws that can still usefully guide our ethical and missional thinking and action. The Torah was always intended to do just that. But the heartbeat of Christian life and freedom is not keeping all the rules. Instead, it is living as people whose whole life and character are shaped by God’s Word in all its Christ-centered fullness, becoming more like the Christ we trust and follow, and bearing the fruit of God’s Spirit. That’s living biblically.

Read Christopher Wright’s article, “Learning to Love Leviticus,” by visiting Christianity Today online.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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