Do Christians need to keep the Mosaic Law?
One of the greatest disputes in the Church today is how Christians should relate to the Mosaic Law. Some maintain that none of the Mosaic laws apply to us anymore because we are under the New Covenant. Others say they all apply since the Old Testament is God’s eternal Word which doesn’t change. Should Christians obey the law of Moses? Or are there some that apply to us and others that don’t?
Biblical uses of the word “law”
To start, note that there are different uses of the word “law” in the Bible.
The Mosaic Law was given on Mount Sinai wherein God gave specific commandments to the Israelites through Moses. It was then written down and included into the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. This is frequently referred to by Jesus and the apostles as “the Law” and occasionally by the apostle Paul as the “written code” (Romans 2:27-29) or “the letter” (2 Corinthians 3:6).
But in some passages (Romans 7:22 and 8:7) we find “God’s law,” which in context would be God’s universal moral law.
In Job 38 :33 God refers to the “laws of the heavens”—laws that govern the physical universe.
Paul also refers to “the law of sin and death” and “the law of the Spirit of life” in Romans 7:21 through 8:1. In these passages, “law” means principle or force rather than a command from God.
Paul also uses the term “law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
So, not every biblical reference to “law” refers to the Law of Moses.
Jesus’ teaching on the Mosaic Law
Much of the disagreement among Christians about the Mosaic law can be resolved by how Jesus interpreted it and taught his followers to observe it.
Jesus devoted much attention to the subject of God’s law in the Sermon on the Mount:
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 tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For 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. (Matthew 5:17-20)
In his teaching that follows (Matthew 5:21-47), Jesus explained what he meant by these statements. The Pharisees and teachers of the law were misusing the Mosaic laws relating to murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, revenge, and how to treat enemies. They were debating the precise meaning of words to avoid having to obey God’s moral commands. They also focused on a mechanical observance of the ceremonies instead of the meaning behind them. Jesus exposed those false teachings. So, one way he fulfilled the law was by bringing the people back to the true interpretation and intent of God’s commands. He taught that our obedience must be from the heart, and not just an outward show.
The Heart of the Law
Here he doesn’t address how we can obey God’s law, or the remedy if we fail. But Jesus’ teaching is clear, that the heart of God’s law is to be obeyed. The Pharisees believed they could keep God’s law and be accepted by him through their own righteousness, but they were mistaken.
Jesus taught that we are truly keeping the law if we love God and love others, the two greatest commandments:
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40)
In the article Becoming like children: loving and trusting God, I show how loving God and faith in God are closely connected.
Jesus also taught that the details of the ceremonial laws were not as important as other commands. As he rebuked the Pharisees:
…. you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. (Matthew 23:23)
According to Jesus, justice, mercy, and faithfulness take priority in the law of God. They are part of what some call the “heart” of God’s law, as they’re the building blocks of our relationship with God and with others.
Moral, Ceremonial, and Civil Laws
A major question is: Can the Mosaic Law can be subdivided? Some people strongly maintain that the Law of Moses is one whole and cannot be broken up into categories.
It’s true that the terms moral, ceremonial, and civil law can’t be found in the Bible. But an honest look at the Torah shows that some laws deal with festivals, ceremonies, offerings, sacrifices, and washings. Others deal with moral issues of right and wrong. Others apply these moral laws to the ancient Jewish society, what we would today call civil laws. Still others deal with our heart condition before God.
In this article, we will use these categories in our discussions. Without making these distinctions, we’ll never be able to understand many of the New Testament teachings about the law. As we’ll see, Jesus and the apostles made these distinctions by what they commanded the believers to keep and also by what they deemphasized or didn’t mention in their teaching.
God’s moral law reveals his standard of right and wrong. It is God’s eternal standard of righteousness and reflects his immutable holiness. As applied to human behavior, these commands are his moral boundaries and describe what righteous behavior consists of. All God’s moral laws apply to everyone in all times and cultures.
Even though the moral law is found in the Mosaic Law, it didn’t originate with Moses. God chose Moses to convey it to the people of Israel, and these were codified in the Torah. But the moral law had always existed in the mind and heart of God. It is and always has been the standard by which the lives and actions of humans are judged. The murder of Abel was still condemned long before the Mosaic Law was given.
A concise summary of the moral law was given in the Ten Commandments. These were obviously more important than other laws, as shown by how they were communicated. God met Moses on the mountain in the midst of terrifying fire and thunder and wrote the laws on stone tablets, later to be stored in the ark of the covenant. Similar codes have existed in many other cultures throughout history, and almost all of these commands have found universal acceptance. Some Christians claim that we’re not bound by the command to keep the Sabbath. But Jesus affirmed this command when he stated that the Sabbath was made for man, in other words for our benefit (Mark 2:27). And everyone can recognize the benefits and the necessity of taking at least one day a week to rest, worship, and enjoy.
Conviction of sin
One of the main purposes of the law was to show us our sin and convict us of our need for God’s grace and mercy:
…I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” (Romans 7:7)
In this verse “the law” means God’s commands that tell us the right we should do or the wrong we should not do. A command can tell us right from wrong, but it can’t provide a remedy if we fail to keep it. And it cannot give us the power to do the right or keep us from doing the wrong. God’s laws were never meant to bring us to heaven. They can’t provide forgiveness, justification, life, or eternal salvation. Their demands cannot be kept fully by any human because we are all sinful and fall short of God’s standards.
New Testament teaching
All of Christ’s teachings assume God’s moral laws are still valid. Nowhere does he minimize God’s standards of right and wrong. Major portions of the epistles are dedicated to exhorting Christians to live godly lives. All of the letters to the churches contain commands, admonitions, and teachings that summarize God’s moral law and apply them to the lives of New Testament believers.
As apostle to the Gentiles, Paul expected gentile believers to repent of their past sins and obey God’s moral commands. This included standards on sexual behavior, respecting private property, and the other commandments on greed and injustice. He strongly rebuked believers who committed egregious moral sins. And he affirmed Jesus’ teaching that loving God and neighbor sums up God’s moral commands:
The commandments….. are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:9-10)
Addressing the controversy of whether or not the new gentile believers should be circumcised, Paul wrote:
Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. (1 Corinthians 7:19)
Which commands was he referring to? Obviously, the commands to love God and others, and to live godly lives, as he taught in all his letters.
The ceremonial (ritual) laws of Moses gave precise instructions on how to construct God’s worship center and perform the ceremonial offerings, sacrifices, and washings. The book of Hebrews describes how the sacrifices and offerings prefigured the work of Christ, which was the true sacrifice for sins (Hebrews 9:23-26). After Christ died, we no longer needed the animal sacrifices or grain offerings. A few other New Testament references are to the ceremonial law specifically (see Philippians 3:6).
It’s obvious from New Testament teaching that the codified ceremonial Mosaic laws do not apply to Christians today. Although the ceremonial laws are part of the Mosaic Law, they applied only to the Jewish people when they were given. And most of these laws simply can’t be implemented by anyone today. For example, the animal sacrifices can’t be performed according to the Law because the Jewish temple no longer exists.
Ceremonial law and the Christian
So, it’s impossible for Christians today to faithfully keep all of the ceremonial laws. But we don’t need to, because Christ’s work on the cross superseded them (Hebrews 9:9-14). Jesus fulfilled these laws by dying for our sins. So, the believer in Christ is not bound by the ceremonial laws and not saved by keeping them.
It’s noteworthy that Jesus doesn’t mention any ceremonial law in the Sermon on the Mount. Likewise, Paul never instructed the Gentiles to keep any of the ceremonial laws or to be circumcised. In fact, many of the believing Jews severely criticized him for his stance on this. Although Jesus and the apostles were ceremonially observant Jews for the most part, they never required the believers to follow the ceremonial laws. But these scriptures still instruct us about God’s provision of salvation though Christ.
Some Christian believers today voluntarily celebrate the Jewish festivals in the Mosaic Law. If properly understood, observing these festivals can bring a blessing by a deeper understanding of God and his love, mercy, and provision.
The covenant that God made with the Jewish people established a nation whose purpose was to serve and worship the true God. The priests were to administer God’s laws under a theocracy. Many of the laws were the application of God’s moral law to Jewish civil society of that time, what we would call civil law. The penalties for disobedience to the Law of Moses should all be considered civil laws. The penalty of death by stoning was proscribed for crimes such as murder, idolatry, kidnapping, working on the Sabbath, and adultery.
It’s obvious that these civil laws didn’t apply directly to non-Jews at that time. And they don’t today since the ancient Jewish theocracy no longer exists. Civil laws of one society do not apply to other societies, because societies are different from one another and also change with time. So, we can’t use the Jewish civil laws that allowed slavery to justify slavery today.
But many principles found in these laws can be used today, if applied with wisdom, since they’re based on God’s moral law.
For example, we can easily apply God’s command to construct a parapet at the top of a roof deck (Deuteronomy 22:8) to modern societies. Today, to protect the public, most governments require safety rails around high places, as well as fences around swimming pools or other hazardous areas. The Mosaic laws against lending at high interest (especially to the poor), can form the basis by which we can protect people from predatory lending today. And there are many other examples.
Although we don’t practice stoning today, some societies still implement the death penalty for murder, applying the principle of “life for life” in Exodus 21:23. But Jesus didn’t command his followers to personally carry out penalties of stoning, as shown by the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). He also prohibited his followers from applying the civil law of “eye for an eye” in personal relationships (Matthew 5:38-39). These examples prove that Jewish civil government was to enforce these laws, not individuals.
Also, the Apostle Paul never advocated implementing Jewish civil law in Roman society. He taught that Christians should submit to the secular systems of law to the degree possible (Romans 13:1-7).
When Paul wrote about “the law” in Romans, he mostly referred to the commands of the Mosaic Law.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4)
Here Paul states that although the written code is God’s law, it can’t condemn believers in Christ. Furthermore, it cannot make us righteous before God. We can only become righteous by God’s grace through Jesus Christ. We can’t obey God’s law without God’s power. But by grace, God has given us the “law of the Spirit” to give us victory over sin. The righteous requirement of the Mosaic Law is met in us who are in Christ, since the sinful person we once were has been crucified. And it’s not just a theoretical or “positional” righteousness. It’s an actual righteousness that God gives us by his grace through his Spirit. We are now a new creation with God’s Holy Spirit dwelling in us.
Empowered by the Spirit to please God
How was “the righteous requirement of the law fully met in us?” By being raised with Christ to live in newness of life. This is completely God’s work, and not our own—it’s his gift to us.
When we died with Christ, our sin died along with him. Christ was then raised to bring us new life empowered by the Holy Spirit. He now fulfills the law in us through the Holy Spirit, who gives us both the desire and the ability to obey God from the heart, not just mechanically or legalistically. The greatest commandments—to love God and love our neighbor—are now attainable.
Written on our hearts
This is what is meant in the Bible by the law being written on our hearts. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God foretold of the time when he would write his law on the hearts of all his people:
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33)
God’s purpose was to create true children of God who adore him as their Father. God would impart to them a desire to love and obey him.
But to say that Christians automatically obey the law because they have the Holy Spirit is obviously not true. Believers have the power to live godly lives, but they must use that power (Romans 8:12-13). And although we now have the Spirit, God’s law still serves as a guide to show us when we’re going wrong.
So, was the Mosiac Law cancelled with Christ’s coming? No. Although we no longer observe the ceremonial laws, these laws still teach us about God’s mercy. And the moral law is and always will be God’s standard of righteousness. But it’s not a means of attaining righteousness. And should Christians obey it? Yes, but not from a power or righteousness of our own. By God’s grace and through the Spirit, the heart of the law—to love God—is now written on our hearts. We can now live lives pleasing to God, empowered by his indwelling presence.
All this is available to those who are in Christ, who have come into a relationship with the living God. Is this your experience? If not, put your faith in Christ today for the forgiveness of your sins. You will receive God’s blessings and power to live a righteous life that pleases God.
For those wanting to explore this topic in depth, I recommend: Five Views of Law and Gospel, Stanley N. Gundry series editor, Zondervan, 1999
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